Watchmen review: See How An Almost Religious God Flies
And now our Watchmen has ended.
In its final three episodes, the first and perhaps only season of the groundbreaking HBO series has brought itself to an apocalyptic close, not merely unafraid to break the precious dinnerware (and also some eggs) but full-on setting the kitchen ablaze.
Following the impossible to follow sixth hour “This Extraordinary Being,” a high point of television storytelling, the final burst of episodes form a trilogy which ups the narrative momentum and leaves viewers with many questions to ponder as the final credits roll.
The enigmatic Lady Trieu is revealed, not surprisingly, as the ultimate antagonist of the piece, despite the white terrorist organization the Seventh Kavalry/Cyclops having been positioned as the main threat. While it may seem the series traded a socially relevant villain for a more artificial construct, Lady Trieu’s motivation is partially a reaction to the US occupying Vietnam as its 51st state, which adds to the season’s overarching criticism of white supremacy. Furthermore, she’s tied to the legacy and heritage of not just her Vietnamese mother, but of Adrian Veidt, her unknowing father, himself a figure of Western imperialism.
Though many of the Viet Cong surrendered to Dr. Manhattan as if he were a god, thus ending the Vietnam War, an underground resistance movement of citizens pushed back against the American occupation of their country and the propagandistic symbol of Manhattan as a liberator-deity. The resultant terrorism recalls similar situations in the Middle East and Ireland, as suicide bombers wage war against the idea of this giant blue superman as anything other than an unfairly advantaged conqueror.
As we learn, the lives of Angela’s parents are claimed in one of these acts of violence, planting the seeds of rage which grow throughout her life. But Lady Trieu is also yoked to this trauma, her mother a survivor of the horrors wreaked upon Vietnamese villagers by American troops.
In keeping with the character’s presentation in the comic, Veidt employs Vietnamese refugees as servants in his Antarctic fortress of Karnak . . . ostensibly as a humanitarian act, though it comes across much more like these are his slaves. (The graphic novel depicts three workers who are particularly devoted to him; in the penultimate chapter, Adrian poisons them as he narrates his life story to their corpses, eliminating any witnesses to his squid scheme).
Trieu’s mother Bian hijacks a vial of Veidt’s hidden sperm stash (no doubt preserved by him as part of some Jeffrey Epstein-esque plan to seed a master race), taking a quick break from her janitorial duties to impregnate herself. This is not, as we see, any form of admiration on her part, but instead a gesture of revenge. After reciting the creed of the mythical Lady Trieu — a figure who in Vietnamese legends protected the country from invaders — she switches from Vietnamese to English as she gazes up at Adrian’s portrait of Alexander the Great. “Fuck you, Ozymandias,” she says, a remark directed at both Alexander and Adrian, each of them white men who deigned to elect themselves emperors.
The conception of Bian’s daughter is a statement against what has happened to her homeland, stealing what Veidt considers his greatest strength (his genes) in an attempt to turn his own power against him. Though Adrian believes his employment of the refugees to be philanthropic, he is ultimately engaging in the same colonialism which has brought Vietnam under the wing of the USA.
Trieu also serves as an answer to a moment from the graphic novel, where sadistic superhero the Comedian shoots a Vietnamese woman carrying his illegitimate child. He was responsible for the burning of many villages, most likely including Bian’s, and Bian seeks to even the score against these Western men who wantonly brutalized people like her without remorse or punishment.
Vietnam becoming a recognized state fails to fix the chaos left in the aftermath of the war. After Angela’s parents are blown up, the police arrest the man who provided the explosives, and summarily execute him in an adjacent alley. Clearly, the rules of law are played fast and loose here, something which Angela herself will continue once she becomes a police officer in Tulsa.
Lady Trieu’s existence offers a counterpoint to all of this, her (arguably rightful) hatred of Dr. Manhattan the inevitable outcome of this American god’s intervention. She’s also the one who kills the high-ranking members of the Seventh Kavalry, reading a message from Will before disintegrating them like an exaggerated version of the end of Inglourious Basterds, the chickens birthed from the eggs of Western white supremacy come home to roost.
Any version of Watchmen will at some point have to deal with the Manhattan Problem; the existence of a man with seemingly limitless supernatural power can’t really go untouched, even if he’s vacationing in the far reaches of the Milky Way.
The series chooses to address this in its eighth hour, styling the episode after the famous issue of the comic which detailed Jon’s origin. Like that chapter, the episode is structured in a nonlinear fashion, hopping around in time to demonstrate how Dr. Manhattan experiences all moments of his life simultaneously.
Contrary to popular belief, Jon is not omniscient, a fact which he points out in the graphic novel. He can only see into his own past, present, and future, and any knowledge regarding the fate of others is due to their lives intersecting with his. Because Angela becomes his partner, on the night they first meet he’s able to tell her many of the details about what will happen during their relationship, but he still reacts to moments as they occur, despite his foreknowledge. (A trait which drives Angela absolutely crazy, just as it did to Laurie decades before).
In a reversal of the reveal that Hooded Justice was a black man, here we find out that Jon is a white man who became a blue man who assumed the visage of a black man, taking the form of the deceased Cal Jelani.
(The episode’s title, “A God Walks Into A Bar,” is a reference to no less than five different things: Jon and Angela holding their first conversation in a bar; the fact that Jon has entered the life of a woman with the last name Abar; his adoption of the identity Cal Abar, essentially stepping into a new existence; the time Jon met the first woman he truly loved, Janey Slater, in the bar at the Gila Flats research facility; and the bar in this episode being the same one in which the Comedian murdered his pregnant girlfriend, an event which Dr. Manhattan witnessed but failed to prevent. The name Cal Abar itself is a play on Excalibur, the name of Laurie’s toy: unbeknownst to her, Cal Abar is her ex).
The episode has the difficult task of presenting many different versions of Jon Osterman, from when he was a young German boy fleeing the Nazis to the Dr. Manhattan of the comic to Jon’s life as Cal to the combined persona that we’ll call Dr. Calhattan. Three of the four of these Jons are portrayed by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who turns in what only be described as a fantastically layered performance.
Dr. Manhattan — previously played by Billy Crudup in the Zack Snyder movie, an equally successful portrayal — is not actually emotionless, but his emotions run so complex that they can be imperceptible, a characteristic exceedingly difficult to convey for any actor. But Abdul-Mateen manages to straddle the line between detached and caring, never losing Jon’s emotional core while still maintaining the alienating aspect of his presence.
The series cleverly never shows Jon’s face before he becomes Cal, possibly in an attempt to avoid the potentially problematic move of having to change Abdul-Mateen’s features to resemble a white man, instead relying on obscured shots, well-times closeups, and Jon donning a Dr. Manhattan mask when he introduces himself to Angela.
The latter fits perfectly with the greater themes of Watchmen; Dr. Manhattan is as much an invented persona as any other superhero costume, and just like those masked vigilantes, the notoriously passive-aggressive Jon has issues he’s avoided, most recently creating life elsewhere and then abandoning his experiment without much consideration to the sentient beings left behind. (He sends Veidt to Europa less as a gift to his children and more to sideline Adrian until the time is right).
But, stripped of his powers by Adrian’s implant, Jon is much more directly compassionate (even if sometimes slipping into Spock mode, like when he tells his children there’s no afterlife). Once he reawakens as Dr. Manhattan, Jon’s time as Cal has seemingly transformed him in subtle ways, the experience of being a regular everyday human, devoted husband, and loving father providing more meaning than life as a god.
He created his own world and grew bored by it, but as Cal Abar, he wouldn’t change a thing. When he’s finally annihilated by Lady Trieu, Jon leaves this plane at peace with his fate, no longer because of some fatalistic passivity about the cold mechanics of the universe, but because he found some sense of meaning in the time he had left.
Dr. Manhattan’s opposite can make no such claim, however. Adrian exits Watchmen at long last facing punishment for his crimes against the human race, a justice he believed himself smart enough to outrun.
But he nevertheless manages to stumble into some level of closure, this time using a hailstorm of frozen squid to save the world from Lady Trieu, a redemptive sequel to his actions 30 plus years before. He also, for the first time, freely admits he’s a narcissist, something which he’s spent virtually his entire life trying to convince himself otherwise. The relief he feels from that confession is palpable. And he finally refers to Trieu as “daughter,” something he swore never to do but becomes humbled enough once he has no choice but to ask for her help.
Still, such acts of redemption can only go so far for a man who murdered millions of people and then attempted to quietly rule the world.
When Trieu visits him at Karnak in 2008, he’s so arrogant that he automatically assumes she’s a fan who traveled all the way to Antarctica for his autograph. A year later when Jon appears at the fortress, Adrian is clearly in the grip of depression, his isolation and guilt — as well as the fact that his plans did not create the society for which he hoped (“Redford didn’t return my calls!”) — gnawing away at his mind. His accepting Jon’s offer of Europa is if anything a move born of desperation: the promise of a world he can control and rule, and beings who will worship him.
The show implied all season that Veidt had been imprisoned by the clones, so traumatized after their abandonment at the hands of their creator that they refuse to let their new father/master leave. “See How They Fly” instead reveals that all of this has been a game created by Adrian, mostly to alleviate boredom and give himself a challenge to overcome. In addition, it’s a rather sick way of Veidt working out his own psychological problems . . . the lingering doubt about his actions in 1985, his complicated feelings towards Jon, Veidt’s self-hatred and anger and slipping grasp on sanity taken out on his new children as he murders them over, and over, and over again.
His second effort at saving the world isn’t an entirely selfless act, either. Adrian’s superiority complex motivates him to compete with his daughter, who has gone to great lengths to usurp her father. In their first meeting, she manipulates Adrian by appealing to his vanity, getting him to reveal all manner of top secret information that years ago he would have killed her for knowing. Trieu has repeatedly bested Veidt, and her final move is to force Adrian to watch her achieve the very thing he never could. When he destroys his daughter, it’s his way of demonstrating that he’s still the smartest person on the planet.
True to his contradictory nature as both savior and sociopath, Veidt’s fate mirrors that paradox.
Which brings us to Angela, the heart and soul of the episode.
The essential purpose of this Watchmen is to function as a journey for her character more than anyone else. Angela begins as someone possessed by anger: over the injustices of the world, especially in America; over the deaths of her parents; over events like the White Night.
When we first meet Angela, she’s projecting her pain by adopting a masked persona and beating the shit out of people, bending and sometimes breaking the law even though she’s sworn to uphold it. By the end, she’s cast aside those tendencies and may be on the precipice of becoming a god.
The trauma of racism and white supremacy, which as a black woman has directly impacted her on numerous occasions and almost claimed her life, left Angela with a justifiable mistrust of society. But through her costumed character Sister Night, Angela flirts with using that damage as an excuse to indulge authoritarian tendencies. The series does not ask us to be sympathetic to fascists, but it does ask us to question the broader picture. If the police are given the power to remain anonymous and disguised, at what point will those methods be directed beyond fighting racists?
As we see, that was the plan all along, with Senator Keene pulling strings to assure that the Seventh Kavalry and law enforcement would egg each other into eventually occupying the same totalitarian space, his ultimate goal to use the police as an instrument of enforcing white supremacy instead of stamping it out.
On a thematic level, what links HBO’s Watchmen most directly with its source material is the question of power. Who deserves to wield authority, and is it ever okay to misuse that power in the name of a greater good?
The comic and the TV series both eschew easy answers, but they also land closer to the realm of ambivalence (at best) in terms of someone wearing a disguise and attacking people, regardless of intention. Even Will Reeves — who arguably had more valid reasons than anyone in creating a costumed persona — tells Angela that masks hurt more than they help, entrenching the person deeper and deeper into the very pain they’re trying to avoid. This sentiment is also echoed in Adrian’s explanation as to why he requested the Game Warden wear a mask: “masks make men crueler.”
All of which renders the show’s final stroke thought-provoking if not somewhat thematically confusing. Angela, realizing that Jon seems to have made good on his suggestion that he could pass his powers to someone else, takes the egg imbued with his essence and swallows the yolk, the episode cutting away just before she in all likelihood walks across the surface of her pool.
It’s a bold narrative move, one hinted throughout the course of the season with the show’s repeated egg symbolism and its many references to the importance of legacy.
But it does seem to fly in the face of the story’s core idea, one which had been reiterated mere moments before during Will’s conversation with Angela.
The graphic novel partly rested on the notion that maybe there shouldn’t be a Dr. Manhattan: his very existence causes a kind of existential terror in the human race, as he renders all of mankind insignificant. This furthers the global tensions lurching towards WWIII. Perhaps no one, no matter how well-meaning, should be invested with that level of absolute power. A force so great would be almost impossible to employ responsibly, and eliminating the existence of such a being would bring humanity back to a more level playing field.
One gets the impression that Jon himself feels that something like him shouldn’t exist. He departed Earth at the end of the comic because he believed his presence on the planet was complicating things beyond a level that even he could comprehend, and at the time of his demise in the series he doesn’t appear particularly worried about what the world will do without Dr. Manhattan. And, as mentioned before, Jon may not have worn a literal mask, but he still used his Dr. Manhattan identity to avoid the personal issues he’d rather not confront.
So why does he leave his powers for Angela to inherit, and why does she accept them? Wouldn’t becoming a god just act as a new version of wearing a disguise? On that note, why does Will drop the hint to Angela that she should eat the egg, when he only just finished explaining why being a masked vigilante is bullshit?
What it comes back to — and the reason this decision is not the break from the graphic novel that it might appear to be — is hope. For all the talk of grittiness and brutality and nihilism, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen is a story about human connection, and the way a better world might be created through love rather than authoritarian posturing. It’s anything but an exercise in pessimism, despite addressing the inherent violence of human nature. Because we also have the inherent capacity for love.
The ending of Watchmen the series is hopeful. Jon gives his powers to Angela because of hope: the hope that she, having confronted her demons and realized that life isn’t to be lived behind the delusions/illusions of a masked character, can do better with his abilities than he did. After all, he didn’t become Dr. Manhattan by choice but by accident; her starting point, meanwhile, is a conscious decision which he trusts her to make.
Unlike Adrian Veidt or Senator Keene or Lady Trieu, Angela isn’t power-hungry, nor is she driven by a sociopathic god complex. She has no innate urge to assume the status of a superhuman. She also spends the episode without her Sister Night costume, finally accepting the emotions she’s struggled against all season, laying herself and her vulnerabilities bare.
Speaking of Trieu, this episode posits her and Angela as polar opposites, since she lacks Angela’s humility and empathy. (And in a subtle parallel, her parka and goggles at the beginning of the episode evoke the Sister Night outfit). Like Veidt, Lady Trieu sees herself as intellectually superior, humanitarianism a public mask she wears to cover her smug elitism.
While it’s easy to poke holes in the episode’s assertion that Trieu can’t be trusted with Jon’s powers — we see neither she nor Angela use them, therefore it’s all conjecture —the scope of the season establishes her as devious. It should make sense not to trust the trillionaire who clones people and collects their personal information and memories without consent while secretly planning to assert herself as a deity. Angela stands in stark contrast to all of that.
Still, the notion that absolute power is hunky dory as long as you find the right person doesn’t quite jibe with the overall theme of either the book or the TV series. But that’s not really what this Watchmen is suggesting. Note how the episode ends . . . not by showing Angela stepping onto the water, glowing blue, and then blasting off into the sky, cue Rage Again The Machine. Instead, it cuts away before we see what happens next.
In other words, it ends as a question.
The comic too ended with a question, with a lowly schlub who works for a right-wing magazine discovering Rorschach’s journal. The diary entries could very well expose Adrian and undo the world peace he created. We’re left wondering if it will be published, and whether publishing it is the right thing to do in the first place.
We have no idea what happens after Angela’s foot makes contact with the water. No, she probably doesn’t fall in. (Though if she did, it would prove that Dr. Manhattan had a sense of humor after all. It would also mirror the end of Laurie’s episode). But assuming she does have her Christ moment, anything beyond that is up for grabs.
(Also worth noting that cutting to black is a very intentional creative choice, and the writers, all of whom went out of their way to respect the spirit of the source material, undoubtedly argued multiple outcomes before settling on this ending).
We don’t know what Angela does with Jon’s powers, or which of his powers she acquires. We don’t even know that she would turn blue . . . Jon was destroyed physically and recreated as pure electromagnetic energy; Angela isn’t necessarily going through that process. And we don’t know how a new Dr. Manhattan would impact the rest of the world, positively or negatively or both. How does this affect Angela’s relationship with her adopted children? Does she stay a police officer? Is this all just a terrible idea? We don’t know, we don’t know, and we don’t know.
We’re simply left with the hope that Angela can help break this cycle of pain and trauma, both racial and otherwise, which keeps giving birth to the literal and metaphorical masks that people use to deaden their souls.
This is not a fool’s hope, either. The episode presents a powerful image of the Tulsa officers and detectives doing their jobs sans disguises, a sign that basic humanity is overriding hatred, fear, and rage.
On the other hand, it’s necessary to keep in mind Dr. Manhattan’s final words from the comic.
Nothing ends. Nothing ever ends.
Further under the hood:
- Damon Lindelof has indeed confirmed that the show’s writers debated three possible endings: one where Angela saves the egg for later, another where she holds the egg over the pool and breaks it into the water, and then the ending used in the episode. All three would have been powerful in their own right.
- Quite surprisingly, Laurie never gets a final goodbye to Jon, instead being rather coldly informed by Adrian that her ex-boyfriend is now dead. That said, an emotional goodbye with him would have taken away from his final moments with Angela, the focal point of the scene. (A cheeky touch here is that Laurie is teleported twice within several minutes and doesn’t vomit. In the comic, a running gag was that every time Jon transported her, Laurie immediately threw up).
- Also surprising is how little the character of Looking Glass was utilized in the finale, though Tim Blake Nelson did his best with what they gave him. His and Jean Smart’s performances both nail the catharsis of calling Adrian out for his crimes, closure for both of them in different ways.
- That’s Dan Dreiberg’s original owlship, Archie, sitting in Veidt’s storage area. It was left there at the end of the comic.
- “You may certainly not use my restroom!” Jeremy Irons is a sheer delight on this series, despite playing a dangerous egomaniac.
- The graphic novel began with the murder of the Comedian/Eddie Blake, a plot that reaches its emotional resolution when Laurie learns that Blake is her father. Jud acted as the Blake analogue in the series, but unlike the comic’s presentation of an evil man who had some redeeming features, the show shies away from any redemption for Jud. It also never details how Angela ultimately processes that her former friend was a racist and a terrorist.
- More shoutouts to the Watchmen movie: the design of Karnak is based on the layout presented in the book, but it also includes elements found only in the film, such as electronic maps of the world. (Veidt uses them as destination points for the baby squid, but in the big screen adaptation the destinations are targets to destroy cities with Dr. Manhattan’s energy signature). There’s also a broken television on Veidt’s wall of TVs, a nod to an event which happens during the movie but not the novel.
- Another parallel to the film, this one unintentional, is the show’s characterization of Lady Trieu, which mirrors Matthew Goode’s slyly arrogant and manipulative rendition of Adrian.
- Taking a cue from the comic’s Black Freighter meta-storyline, the series had two subplots which served a similar function: the diversions with Veidt on Europa, and the cutaways to episodes of American Hero Story. But unlike the comic within the comic, the show within the show is not woven into the main narrative of the series, and trailed out of significance after the sixth episode.
- The Cyclops logo is now adorned with Dr. Manhattan’s famous hydrogen symbol. Rather hubristic in retrospect since Sen. Keene merely transforms into a Slurpee.
- Will resides in Captain Metropolis/Nelson Gardner’s former residence, a sign that their relationship was more complex and nuanced than what we saw in “This Extraordinary Being.”
- The popular belief that Hooded Justice may have been a German strongman named Rolf Mueller was debunked by the series with the revelation about Will, but the show dropped several clues as to how the two men’s lives may have intersected, including introducing a character named Ms. Mueller in the flashback to WWI. One of the writers also mentioned a deleted subplot about Will traveling to Germany as a young man. Alas, the particulars will be left to fan speculation.
- One question that is addressed (in the Peteypedia tie-in website) would be the identity of Lube Man: it all but confirms that Agent Petey is our mysterious canola oil-loving silver slickboi. However, the fact that this wasn’t revealed in the actual show means we’ll never 100% know for sure.
- The Watchmen graphic novel delved into a web of supporting characters, to demonstrate how the actions of the main characters impact others. While the show had its own bundle of supporting players, time restraints left them largely unexplored.
- It’s interesting to imagine how life will continue to develop on Europa, now that the Mr. Phillipses and the Ms. Crookshankses have been left to their own devices.
- The cast can’t receive enough credit for the work they did this season: Regina King, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jean Smart, Jeremy Irons, Louis Gossett Jr., Hong Chau, Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson. Even if this is a one-shot, this was a truly stellar ensemble. Which leads to the big question . . .
- Is a season 2 happening? That depends on many different factors, including if Damon Lindelof has any ideas for another story, and, if not, who would take over as showrunner. There’s also the question of whether the series would continue the plotlines of these particular characters or go the anthology route a la Fargo and American Horror Story, with self-contained seasons all set within the same world. Thus far Lindelof and HBO have confirmed they have no plans for more, but as it stands, Watchmen feels complete. That said, it’s a rich fictional universe with a lot of storytelling potential, and not even someone as powerful as Dr. Manhattan can change what this season accomplished.