Watchmen review: “She Was Killed by Space Junk”

As a writer and critic, I have to admit a bias: Watchmen is one of my favorite stories of all time. Though I’m not especially immersed in the world of superheroes or the comic book medium in general, something about Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s graphic novel completely enthralled me, and to this day it remains a significant creative touchstone in my life.

Therefore, it’s difficult to poke holes in something so personal. Similar to the notion of altering the past, why challenge an experience if the end result is fundamentally positive? A work of art can feel perfect despite its imperfections, and there’s nothing about Watchmen that feels urgently in need of change to me.

However, if I’m going to be honest, one area where I do feel the comic comes up short is in its treatment of women, in particular the portrayal of Laurie. She’s not given the same depth or nuance applied to nearly all of the other (male) main characters. There are a few circumstantial narrative reasons for this which make sense, and others much less so.

But I’m happy to say that the new Watchmen is well aware of the issue, and not only seeks to redress it, but has wildly exceeded any and all expectations.

Laurie Jupiter

So who was Laurie, and who is she now?

In the 40s, Laurie’s mother Sally Juspeczyk took on the costumed persona Silk Spectre, styling herself after the burlesque bombshells of the day. Though a decent crimefighter and one of the more visible members of the Minutemen, Sally’s long-term goal was to use her masked hero character as a way to promote her other alter ego, pinup model Sally Jupiter. From there, she and her manager Larry hoped to spin those careers into acting on the silver screen.

Life didn’t quite work out that way. Sally instead got pregnant and retired Silk Spectre, marrying Larry largely for financial stability. The intended acting career never materialized, Sally’s only notable credit the softcore B-movie Silk Swingers of Suburbia. By 1985, she’s aging in a gaudy Hollywood retirement community, pining for when she was younger, life still ahead of her.

Carla Gugino as Sally in Zack Snyder’s adaptation, tableau staged as a parody of the Last Supper.

Sally forced Laurie to follow in her footsteps — a bit of vicarious living if there ever was one — Laurie adopting the character Silk Spectre II, part of the new (and terribly named) masked vigilante group The Crimebusters. Throughout the 60s and 70s, Laurie continued her mother’s legacy, albeit with a heavy grudge stretching well into adulthood. Essentially an overbearing stage mom, Sally took away Laurie’s chances for a normal life almost from the beginning.

Laurie would go on to form a relationship with fellow Crimebuster Dr. Manhattan, an utterly creepy arrangement given that she was still in her teens and Jon had recently dumped his girlfriend Janey after he grew to find her boring. (Volumes could be written about Dr. Manhattan’s passive aggressive shittiness, disguised as a byproduct of his godlike existence).

Following the Keene Act of 1977 and the subsequent banning of masked vigilantes, Dr. Manhattan began working exclusively for the US government, Laurie allowed by the Nixon administration to remain his companion.

When the comic begins, Laurie and Jon live in an underground apartment on a heavily guarded New York military base. Laurie is tired of isolation from the outside world, and from being shut out by her evermore distant Ubermensch partner.

She reconnects with old friend Dan Dreiberg, a retired costumed hero once known as Nite Owl II. (Similar to Laurie, Dan was a second generation superhero who inherited the mantle of an already established masked character). Each somewhat lost in their own way, Dan and Laurie revive a long-simmering romance after Dr. Manhattan takes a respite to Mars. Later, Jon teleports Laurie to the red planet, where they discuss the end of their relationship, his comments maddeningly nonlinear since he exists outside of conventional space-time.

Jon: This is where we hold our conversation. It commences when you surprise me with the information that you and Dreiberg have been sleeping together.

Lori: You know about me and Dan?

Jon: No, not yet. But in a few moments you’re going to tell me.

A few moments later:

Eventually, Jon apologizes for his cosmic aloofness, and they make peace with each other.

After returning to Earth and rendezvousing with Dan, the three of them become the only people in the world (apart from Adrian) aware of the truth behind the squid attack. Dr. Manhattan opts to venture elsewhere in the multiverse, while Laurie and Dan decide it’s better to keep Veidt’s actions a secret in order to preserve peace. At the end of the book, the two of them go on the lam, disguising themselves under new identities and toying with the notion of resuming vigilantism.

Before disappearing, they pay a visit to Sally, Laurie coming to terms with her ambivalent feelings towards her mother. But how they arrive at that moment is one of the graphic novel’s most controversial aspects.

While the Minutemen were at the height of their popularity, Sally was assaulted and almost raped by Eddie Blake, the costumed adventurer who called himself the Comedian. The attack is vicious, Eddie mercilessly beating his supposed friend and clearly aroused by her pain and fear.

Later in the comic, while Laurie and Jon have their discussion on Mars, he uses his telepathy to help Laurie uncover an unpleasant truth: years after the attempted rape, Sally and Blake had a consensual encounter, and Laurie realizes the Comedian — a man she utterly hates for brutalizing her mom — is in fact her biological father.

Alan Moore often comes under a fair amount of fire for relying on sexual assault as a motivator for female character development, Watchmen included. While the appropriateness of using such a storytelling device has, will, and should be debated, in this instance Laurie’s revelation is meant to be transformative. Whether or not it works depends on the reader.

That Sally could forgive such a horrific act, her feelings for Blake resulting in Laurie, convinces Dr. Manhattan that love is greater than the cold mechanics of the universe. The fact that by all odds such a force shouldn’t exist is, to him, a miracle. For Laurie, she begins to understand her mother genuinely cared for Eddie despite his actions, causing Laurie to see Sally in an entirely different light which cuts through the years of built-up resentment.

Would this plot twist be regarded as problematic today? Absolutely, yes. As our society grapples with the power structures which have allowed men to abuse women for much of modern civilization, the idea of a story where a rapist finds partial redemption by later hooking up with his victim is . . . well, troublesome. As is any possible suggestion that Sally somehow owed the Comedian forgiveness. She was never at fault in the first place.

Though in Blake’s amoral, animalistic mind Sally had her assault coming — because these costumed characters are, at heart, playing with imagery evocative of primal urges towards sex, death, and power — his warped POV is in no way shared by her. It doesn’t matter how fetishistically she’s dressed or that there was mutual attraction; he beat and tried to rape a woman. End of story.

The comic also features an interview excerpt where an older Sally is asked about the assault, and she at first demurs before stumbling over her thoughts and then questioning whether she may have secretly wanted Eddie to violently take control. This would yet again not go over well in the current clime . . . it can too easily be interpreted as a form of victim-shaming by indulging a standpoint which shifts blame away from the man.

But where this plot still works is in its genuine belief in love. The Comedian’s opinion of humanity is that we’re all sacks of meat fucking and killing each other in a world where rules and morals are artificial attempts to hide from our true nature. Indeed, a question hanging over the entire story is whether or not humanity is worth saving, or if we’re simply doomed to annihilate ourselves.

Laurie’s birth negates Blake’s cynical worldview in that it fills even a god with wonder.

It should also be noted that Sally does not lack agency. She never mentions any obligation in terms of forgiving Eddie. She does so because she chooses. It’s a very real dilemma faced by victims of abuse, as they often continue to struggle with feelings for those who hurt them, who in many cases are people they love or loved.

And while Sally’s uncomfortable interview could be chalked up to tone-deaf writing on Moore’s part, it’s not necessarily the story suggesting Sally might have in some way welcomed Blake’s aggressive advances, but her openly warring with her own thoughts regarding the matter.

It’s well documented that many who’ve experienced such an assault typically find themselves plagued by questions of doubt and self-blame for years afterwards. In the photos accompanying the article, Sally looks visibly distressed, a sign that this trauma continues to haunt her, no matter how complicated her feelings for Eddie. (She also spends her life keeping the Comedian away from their daughter, not fully trusting him).

Still, it’s not flawless, and for some it can be off-putting.

The same goes for the depiction of Laurie.

To be fair, Laurie and Dan are designated as the “normal” superheroes, at least compared to their contemporaries. Neither character is driven by disturbing impulses, deep-seated psychological problems, or grandiose notions of superiority, unlike most of the other costumed vigilantes. For many readers, Dan and Laurie simply won’t be as interesting or colorful as a Rorschach or a Veidt or a Dr. Manhattan.

These two are meant to give a glimpse into the lives of grounded, mostly stable people who occasionally get to experience the high of heroism, and how they navigate being surrounded by unstable narcissists. What can Dan and Laurie do with the knowledge that Adrian Veidt murdered millions of innocent people in one sick prank? Nothing, really, other than try to enjoy the time they have.

Dan and Laurie, as played by Patrick Wilson and Malin Akerman in the film.

Laurie also didn’t want to be a masked vigilante in the first place, so she has less backstory as far as how she got from A to B, a regular person thrown into an arena she never asked to join.

All of that considered, she still is not as richly drawn as the other characters. Dan Dreiberg is granted an entire issue devoted to exploring his past and his motivations for taking on the Nite Owl persona. Even Sally, who has comparatively little screentime next to her daughter, is given more complexity and pathos, a woman of a different era now cast aside in her twilight years.

Sally projected her own desires onto her daughter, Laurie missing out on the opportunity to understand who she really is. There’s plenty of dramatic territory to mine there, yet the comic mostly scratches the surface.

Which is not to say Laurie lacks importance or has no bearing on the story. Of all the people in Watchmen, she’s the one rolling her eyes at the antics of the Crimebusters, possessing an innate understanding of the self-serious absurdity of superheroes.

The novel also does address misogyny, with Rorschach calling Sally a “bloated, aging whore” in his journal and openly disliking Laurie for being what he considers a distraction to Dr. Manhattan and Dan. Laurie is weighed down by the expectation that it’s her responsibility to keep Jon happy, and a big thrust of her arc is breaking free of that oppressive sexism.

But it’s clear that Moore and Gibbons didn’t quite know what to do with Laurie compared to the rest of the comic’s cast.

Laurie Blake

When Damon Lindelof assembled the writers’ room for the new Watchmen, he made sure that women were part of the roundtable to bring a perspective to the material other than straight white cis males. And the feedback he received — from various writers, directors, and producers involved with the show — indicated that the book’s depiction of female characters is sorely lacking.

So, the series has attempted a corrective measure in the form of Jean Smart’s version of Laurie. Imbued with a hardness and a caustic wit only sporadically glimpsed in the comic, this new Laurie has jettisoned all former personas (Laurie Juspeczyk/Jupiter, Silk Spectre II, her various renegade disguises post-novel) and now settled as FBI agent Laurie Blake. The adoption of her father’s last name demonstrates not only an acceptance of her connection with him, but also that his bitter, ironic sense of humor about the world lives on inside her.

Jean Smart’s performance rivals anything we’ve seen thus far in the show, right up there with Regina King and Jeremy Irons, playing Laurie with so many dimensions that her energy nearly flies off the screen the moment she steps into frame.

We first meet Laurie Blake during a staged bank robbery meant to catch a ridiculous vigilante named Mr. Shadow (the scene filmed as a tongue in cheek homage to The Dark Knight). Laurie has left behind her life on the run and now works for the Bureau’s Anti-Vigilante Task Force, knowing all too well that people who hide behind masks and take the law into their own hands are often not coming from a place of pure-hearted do-gooderness.

Oh brother.

On the request of Senator Keene, she’s assigned to investigate Judd Crawford’s murder, something in which she has no interest. But right away it becomes obvious there’s no better agent to be working this case; Laurie can get into the mindset of a masked character like few others, having been one herself for decades.

Taking one look at the Tulsa PD, Laurie already knows what’s wrong and how it will continue to get worse. Though she jokingly dismisses the suspect who tells her his rights are being violated, she of course does care that the cops are abusing their power. At nearly every juncture she turns the tables on the police, diffusing the situation with sarcasm and then pushing back on their tactics while also keeping her true perspective guarded enough to be difficult to read.

Though she may have an aversion to the behavior of people in costumes, Laurie lacks reserve when it comes to using violence, demonstrated by her shooting of Mr. Shadow (the bullets only stopped by his rubber costume) and later the 7K terrorist who interrupts Judd’s funeral. This is in step with the comic, which found Laurie unafraid to employ especially ferocious measures when threatened. (She and Dan take out a gang of muggers by nearly tearing them to pieces).

Not. Im. Pressed.

But it would be a disservice to simply reduce Laurie to a badass who takes no prisoners.

One common mistake made by screenwriters (especially men) is to fall into the “she’s not like other women” trap, essentially just another form of sexism. This trope gleans the superficial basics of fictional icons like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor — very broken people whose invulnerability hinders as much as helps, a trait accepted for male protagonists without question — and hijacks those elements into an excuse to bro-job women, implying they’re only worth a major role in the story if reflecting the attributes normally assigned to the macho trappings of the genre.

Watchmen avoids this prepackaged Strong Female Character cliche by doing more with Laurie than having her strut around waving a gun. Instead, Laurie’s hardness masks (because yes, in some ways she’s still wearing one) a disappointment and weariness that the world is still finding new ways to repeat the same mistakes.

Not that Laurie herself always avoids missteps. She’s very good at what she does, but then makes impulsive decisions like sleeping with the inexperienced agent tasked with helping her, a major ethical breach to be sure. And though she doesn’t want to, and despite the anger she still holds for some of his behavior, she misses Dr. Manhattan. (Similar to how her mother longed for the Comedian, just as Laurie’s disillusionment mirrors that of her father).

Her call to Jon in the interplanetary phone booth, and the elaborate joke she tells him, says much of what we need to know about Laurie . . . melancholy, pissed off, sardonic, insightful, and ultimately, lonely and filled with yearning.

The joke she tells is based on Dan/Nite Owl, Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, and Jon/Dr. Manhattan, with God sending all three of them to Hell no matter their heroic deeds. (A grim acknowledgement of the typically unhappy endings which tend to befall superheroes). But the real point of it is Laurie’s rage at having been overshadowed by the damaged men who were allowed to define her life.

Yet beyond that, she can’t fully let go of the mark Jon left on her, and her message is as much “I miss you” as it is “bite me you big blue overhyped manchild.”

And for the first time since abandoning Earth, Dr. Manhattan appears to respond, Angela’s UFO-abducted car dropping from the heavens just like the brick in Laurie’s joke, the aura of Mars winking in the sky. One upped, Laurie breaks out in uncontrollable cackling, nearly falling over.

Whether Jon actually had anything to do with it, or the car’s arrival merely a coincidence, Laurie of all people can appreciate the comedic timing.

Same as her father, she knows that only a fool expects to have the last laugh.

Further under the hood:

  • Laurie riffs on Rorschach’s journal during her phone call, referring to an entry written on the day of her father’s funeral in 1985. “Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, ‘Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.’ Man bursts into tears. Says, ‘But doctor . . . I am Pagliacci.’ Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.”
  • Sen. Keene obliquely mentions Dan with his remark about a caged owl, indicating Dreiberg is in prison or some other form of prolonged detainment. (Exactly what transpired for Laurie and Dan between the 80s and now will be explored in future episodes).
  • Angela’s X-ray goggles were invented by Dan back in his Nite Owl days, another sign his gadgets have been adopted by law enforcement following his incarceration.
  • Laurie and Angela are way too much alike to get along this early in the proceedings. Their efforts to suss each other out will no doubt yield a lot of dramatic tomatoes (for which the Game Warden is thankful).
  • More callbacks to Zack Snyder’s Watchmen: the Andy Warhol painting is a nod to the opening montage of the film, which briefly features Warhol showing off a new piece inspired by Nite Owl; and the title of the Esquire issue in Laurie’s briefcase (“Silk Spectre Takes Manhattan”) serves as a pun on the Leonard Cohen song “First We Take Manhattan,” played during the movie’s end credits.
  • Laurie’s dildo tabernacle is also an homage to the enigmatic briefcase in Pulp Fiction. But here it glows blue instead of gold.
  • That Judd’s funeral transforms into an opportunity for Sen. Keene to promote his candidacy is probably not a coincidence.
  • There’s an inherent insidiousness to the idea of letting people call Dr. Manhattan, more or less a technological version of prayer. Someone wants people to believe that Jon is listening.
  • The Millennium Clock and the Mars-linked Blue Booths were built by Trieu Industries, which now controls Adrian Veidt’s assets. Any company powerful enough to assume Veidt’s empire should be viewed with suspicion.
  • Speaking of Adrian, we learn he’s been imprisoned in some type of bizarre purgatorial realm, implied to possibly be in outer space, considering the frozen state of Mr. Phillips’ corpse and the fact that the diving armor could be a makeshift spacesuit. We also know Veidt is forbidden to venture beyond certain boundaries, or else face the wrath of the mysterious Game Warden.
Look on my works ye mighty, and know that I’m totally doing fine, for real I’ve never been more sane lol
  • This episode officially establishes that Jeremy Irons is portraying Adrian Veidt, a confirmation withheld by the show until now to add further ambiguity and disorientation to his surreal storyline.
  • When we see Adrian meditating, it’s framed in a manner which makes it look like he’s suspended midair, a brief optical illusion. This recreates an iconic image from the graphic novel, where Dr. Manhattan levitates in a similar pose. The only difference is — no doubt to the chagrin of the former Ozymandias — Jon actually has supernatural powers.
  • The pirate flag marking Veidt’s border, and the name of the hotel where Laurie and Agent Petey stay, are both callbacks to Tales of the Black Freighter, the comic book’s story within the story. In the world of Watchmen, pirate and horror comics blew up in popularity once the Minutemen’s antics took the air out of fictional superheros.
  • A ghoulish sea shanty, Freighter tells of a sailor marooned after an attack by demonic pirates, and his efforts to return home before his village suffers the same fate. Along the way, he loses his mind due to isolation and paranoia, destroying everything he loves in the process. The story parallels numerous moments and character arcs in the main narrative, most specifically Veidt, who after the squid incident makes passing mention of seeing a ghostly, menacing pirate ship in his dreams.
  • Laurie’s love of Devo and Adrian’s fondness for reggae are direct carryovers from the source material.
  • Adorable know-it-all Agent Petey is the origin of Peteypedia, HBO’s tie-in website which provides further background information for every episode, the same way the back pages in each issue of Watchmen were devoted to fleshing out the universe of the story for those who wanted to go deeper.
  • A newspaper headline mentions that John Grisham is a Supreme Court justice and has recently announced his retirement, adding to the show’s ongoing theme of celebrities turned politician. (Confusingly, Peteypedia features an editorial from reactionary right-wing rag The New Frontiersman complaining about the recent nomination of a liberal judge famous for writing legal thrillers. As the article is dated September 2019, it doesn’t at all gel with the headline in the episode, unless in Watchmen’s alternate history Grisham was never a novelist and the piece is alluding to someone else. Apart from that, it’s a hilarious read, the editor of the paper declaring that white people should escape the oppressive liberal government of America by fleeing to Mars).
  • Cool casting: The underused David Andrews guest stars as Deputy Director Farragut, Laurie’s supervisor in the Anti-Vigilante Task Force.
  • More cool casting: The Shadow is played by a hard to recognize Lee Tergesen, best known for his role as Tobias Beecher on Oz, HBO’s first original drama. There’s also apparently a costumed hero named Revenger, which shows that in 2019 people haven’t gotten any better at coming up with decent superhero names.
  • Laurie apprehends the Shadow at the same bank made famous by Dollar Bill, a member of the Minutemen. His persona created as a publicity stunt by the bank’s marketing team, glorified security guard Dollar Bill met a tragic end when he attempted to foil an armed robbery, only for his cape to get stuck in the revolving door. The very much unarmed Bill was immediately shot.

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