Watchmen recap: Learning to see through God's eyes
Welcome to EW’s weekly recap of HBO’s Watchmen. Each week, EW’s resident comic book obsessives Chancellor Agard and Christian Holub will be breaking down the loaded drama.
Watchmen‘s premiere made a big splash; does the second episode hold up? Viewers learn more about the details of this world and what Adrian Veidt’s playwriting entails, but are left with more questions about the late Chief Judd Crawford’s loyalties and the nature of the elderly Will Reeves. Let’s get into it.
Christian: Hello again, Chance! Now that we’ve gotten all the typical table-setting of a premiere episode out of the way, it’s time to really start playing around in this new Watchmen world. While most of the first act of this episode (titled “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship”) builds off last week’s cliffhanger, it begins with a flashback. This scene is set even earlier than the premiere’s arresting opening — all the way back to World War I, where a German military officer writes a letter to African-American soldiers imploring them to switch sides rather than fight for a racist country that literally spits on them. The German propaganda effort is unsuccessful, but at least one African-American keeps the leaflet with him. Eventually, he scrawls “Watch Over This Boy” on the back, and gives it to his son Will Reeves, hoping it will translate to safe passage through the Black Wall Street massacre.
Cut back to the present, where a 105-year-old Will is now watching over Chief Judd Crawford’s hanged corpse. He has quite a playful attitude for someone in such a macabre situation. Will’s not just a witness to horror, though; to hear him tell it, he’s literally the one who killed Crawford. When Angela asks him how he did it, he claims to be Dr. Manhattan in disguise.
To start off with, Chance: What do you make of Angela’s reaction to Will’s arrival and Crawford’s murder? And what do you find interesting about the many references to the still-unseen Dr. Manhattan throughout this episode?
Chancellor: Angela’s clearly feeling a mix of emotions. First, there’s the sadness that comes from seeing her friend (possibly her best friend?) dangling from the tree. Before dealing with Will, she allows herself a moment to scream in anguish in her secret hideout. Then, she calms down and dons her Sister Night costume, which is definitely her way of compartmentalizing how she feels. Angela can grieve, but Sister Night cannot.
From there, she tackles the second emotion she’s undoubtedly feeling: Confusion. How in the hell could this old man who uses a wheelchair have killed Crawford? I definitely empathized with her because I, too, was confused and annoyed by the way Will kept talking in riddles. The handling of Will in this episode felt like one of the weakest and most obvious parts of the episode. My concern over this plotline further increased with the revelation that he’s actually her grandfather, which felt like such an old-school twist. Thankfully, the show swerves right after this moment: A flying magnet scoops up Will and Angela’s car and flies away.
Yes, Christian, you are right about how Dr. Manhattan’s unseen presence was felt throughout the episode, from Will’s joke to Topher playing with Floating Manhattan Blocks (clearly the Abar family doesn’t suffer from Manhattanphobia, as outlined in the supplemental Peteypedia documents). What I find most interesting about the handling of Dr. Manhattan, though, is how it relates to the episode’s concern with the past and memory. The past lives uneasily alongside a lot of the action in the episode. In addition to Adrian Veidt’s wild play about Manhattan’s pre-blue god life, there’s also the horrifying flashback to Angela being attacked on the White Night, the Minutemen-focused American Hero Story TV show everyone (including the racist Rorschachs) watch in the episode, and the fact that Will keeps saying that Crawford has skeletons in his closet.
Christian: One of the best things about the Watchmen issues that are told from Dr. Manhattan’s perspective — where past, present, and future are all happening at the same time, right now — is that they teach you how to read Watchmen. The entire comic is constantly referencing itself: Overlapping dialogue from one scene carries over to another panel where it suddenly has a different resonance with that image. There are mysteries and twists that make way more sense once you’ve gone back and seen all the hints laid throughout the book.
What I really liked about this episode was the degree to which they replicated that feeling on screen. A clip from the TV dramatization of the Minutemen’s history shows Hooded Justice, the original superhero, repeatedly punching a criminal in the face, mere minutes after we saw Sister Night do the same to a Seventh Kavalry suspect in the “Nixonville” slum. Hooded Justice then looks directly into the camera and talks about how vigilantism is a way for him to channel his rage at the world and his uncertainty about his own identity. The show then cuts to Angela driving to the Crawford home, full of churning emotions, and finding an incriminating KKK robe in Crawford’s bedroom closet (don’t forget that Hooded Justice’s whole outfit, from the hood to the noose around his neck, calls back to the KKK — and the specific way Crawford died). A painting on the Crawford wall depicting Comanches riding on horseback (the source of the episode’s title) cuts to Veidt riding around his country estate on a horse.
I loved the deranged insanity of Veidt’s play. As I speculated last week, it is indeed about the life of Dr. Manhattan, the watchmaker’s son who grew up to be the most powerful being in existence. Except, during the part of the origin story where Jon Osterman is atomized by an experimental intrinsic field chamber, Veidt simply has the actor playing Osterman burned to death. He then brings in another servant to be “the new Mr. Phillips” and carries on as ever. I know I reference the Watchmen comic a lot here, but this scene actually reminded me of Hugh Jackman’s magic trick in The Prestige that requires a clone of himself to be drowned each time the trick is performed. Art is brutal, whether by fire or water. Veidt stops them from hauling away the old Mr. Phillips’ body just long enough to fish a burned watch out of his pocket. A close-up of the watch then transitions to a shot of a cooking timer Will is using to make eggs in the back of Angela’s bakery. Now that’s what I’m talking about! Dr. Manhattan is still nowhere to be found, but we the viewers are learning to see things through his eyes.
Chancellor: I wonder what Dr. Manhattan would make of everything that’s happening in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at this moment. But before I go down that rabbit hole, I want to zero back in on two things: the police’s rousting at Nixonville and the KKK robe found at the back of Crawford’s closet.
Both in the lead-up to Watchmen and in the wake of the premiere, some people have been justifiably concerned about the show’s depiction of police as heroic masked vigilantes given that it’s about the very real-world problems of racism and the resurgence of white supremacy. Even you and I touched on this in our recap of the premiere. But this episode indicates that there’s more going on with Watchmen’s handling of the police. Look at how unheroic and unjust the police’s rousting of Nixonville is depicted. Just because the Tulsa PD is in a war against a bunch of racists doesn’t mean they’re acting any more justly than other cops. The discovery of the KKK robe in Crawford’s closet further drives home the fact that there’s something very rotten about this police force and their world.
Clearly, Will wasn’t lying about there being a conspiracy afoot. Hopefully, the 105-year-old will be able to elucidate a bit more on this if and when he and Angela’s car are recovered.
Notes from the Black Freighter
- “Martial Law” revealed more about Redford’s America. The descendants of victims of racial violence in Tulsa can visit the Greenwood Center for Cultural Heritage to find out if they’re eligible for reparations (read: Redfordations). All they need to do is provide a DNA sample to a computer bearing Treasury Secretary Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s voice, and the center will call them with the results (This is how Angela learned Will is her grandfather). Meanwhile, just outside of the cultural center, people are protesting the Redfordations.
- The flashback to the White Night also revealed that Angela adopted her partner’s three children after the Rorschachs killed him. Their grandfather, played by Supernatural‘s Jim Beaver, is not happy about that and insists on Angela honoring his visitation rights, or at least paying him off to waive them.
- Even though this show is set in 2019 rather than 1985, there’s still an old-fashioned newsvendor around to dispense salt-of-the-earth wisdom! Seeing headlines from The New Frontiersman and Nova Express may not give Watchmen obsessives the same nerdy thrill as the Owlship last week, but it’s still a nice throwback to the world of the comic.
- It sure seems like Hooded Justice’s true identity is going to be a plot point of this show (or at least the show-within-a-show about the Minutemen). It was never clearly outlined in the Watchmen comic but implied that Hooded Justice was a circus strongman named Rolf Muller who was killed by the Comedian — possibly for Communist ties, possibly just because the Comedian had vowed to do it one day. The Minutemen show starts by outright disputing that theory. If Hooded Justice wasn’t Muller, maybe he wasn’t killed by the Comedian after all. Maybe he’s even still alive. Could he be the same age as Will…?
Watchmen (TV series)