Watchmen recap: Whatever happened to Doctor Manhattan?
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.
The bombshells keep coming on Watchmen. After last week’s mind-bending trip through the secret history of superheroes in America confirmed Will Reeves was Hooded Justice (among other things) and killed Judd Crawford, the HBO drama’s newest episode reveals that Doctor Manhattan has been living among us the entire time, specifically in Angela’s home. It’s a lot to unpack, so let’s dive in.
CHANCELLOR: Christian, I guess we should just jump right to the episode’s big surprise: Doctor Manhattan is none other than Cal, Angela’s husband. Not only that, but Angela has known this the entire time. After Lady Trieu warns her that the Seventh Kavalry wants to destroy Manhattan so that Senator Keene can become him (definitely more on this later), Angela rushes home and knocks Cal over the head with a hammer. Then, she removes a metallic object in the shape of Manhattan’s symbol from his head, at which point a blue light starts glowing with increasing intensity and we can see a rough outline of Manhattan’s body in Angela’s eyes. “Hey baby,” she says. “We’re in f—ing trouble.” Like what?!
While I suspected that Yahya Abdul-Mateen II would eventually have a bigger role to play in the show, I did not see this coming at all. But I kind of love it because it complicates and forces us to reconsider so much of what we’ve seen before, from Angela being so sure Will wasn’t Manhattan to, more importantly, her very tense dynamic with Laurie. If she knew Cal was Manhattan, then she already knew Laurie’s history with him, which is perhaps why she was so concerned and pissed when Laurie interviewed Cal without telling her. I remember finding it particularly odd that Watchmen didn’t actually show Laurie and Cal’s conversation, which seems like the type of thing you’d want the audience to see. Well, now we know why. Not only that, but this gives new meaning to Cal telling his children that there wasn’t life after death a few episodes ago.
Given Watchmen’s themes, Manhattan choosing to hide on Earth as a black man is probably one of the most interesting aspects of this all. The show has gone to great pains to make sure we understand just how dangerous it is for black people in this world. So knowing that, why would a being as all-powerful as him pick such a vulnerable body after giving up his abilities? (This decision reminds me of Martian Manhunter’s similar choice on Supergirl.) The final scene implies that he did it for Angela. “There was no accident. It was a lie,” she tells a confused Cal. “It was a lie so that we could be together — at least for a while. If it was any consolation, it was your idea.” But I imagine there must be more to it than that.
Similarly, the reveal also raises the question of why Angela would willingly enter into a relationship with Manhattan, knowing everything we know about him. The episode doesn’t offer a definitive answer, but I suspect being with someone who couldn’t die seemed pretty nice to Angela after losing everyone she loved when she was younger, which is revealed in flashbacks.
Christian, the graphic novel is really fresh in your mind because you recently re-read it. What do you make of this twist? Does it track with the Jon we met in the comic?
Christian: So not only was the first superhero in the Watchmen world a black man, we’ve now learned that the most powerful superhero in this (or, honestly, any) fictional universe has also been living for years as a black man. At first, I thought that piling these two twists right on top of each other diminished the second one’s impact slightly, but after some reflection, I now think that they’re actually reinforcing each other in a powerful way. One of the main ideas the Watchmen show is exploring, it seems, is the connection between the history of masked vigilante justice in America and the history of racial oppression in this country (specifically against black people) and the ways they feed into each other. It’s fascinating stuff, and given how much meaty material we’re receiving with each new episode, I can’t wait to look at the full statement when the season is complete.
You asked me about the textual grounding for this Doctor Manhattan twist in the original Watchmen, but actually, my favorite thing about it is how much it reminds me of a different Alan Moore comic: The magisterial Superman story titled “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” Any readers who consistently follow your work, Chance, have been reading a lot about “Crisis on Infinite Earths” lately. The upcoming Arrowverse TV crossover is, of course, based on the 1985 comic book maxiseries of the same name, which ended the first several decades of DC continuity and relaunched the publisher’s superheroes in a new streamlined, modernized fashion. This massive reboot allowed a golden opportunity to say goodbye to the original Superman. A young Moore seized this opportunity and wrote what is for my money one of the single greatest Superman stories ever written, illustrated by the classic Superman artist Curt Swan. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” opens with characters asking that very question because Superman hasn’t been seen in a decade. An older Lois Lane is interviewed by a young go-getter journalist about the last time she saw Superman. She proceeds to tell this truly epic story of the Man of Steel’s final battle with Lex Luthor, Brainiac, and all his greatest villains. Over the course of the conflict, Superman is forced to break his cardinal rule and kill someone. He refuses to forgive himself for this, and the last Lois or anyone sees of that iconic hero was him walking into a chamber of Gold Kryptonite. Then the story flashes back to the present, where Lois is saying goodbye to the reporter and reuniting with her handsome mustachioed husband, Jordan Elliot, who reveals with a knowing wink in the final panel that Superman didn’t die, he just grew up. Through a device of his own making, he abandoned his superpowers and lived life as a normal human.
Sound familiar? Recall Doctor Manhattan chose the human name “Cal,” which now sounds a lot like “Kal-El” when you think about it like that (in the same way that Superman’s adult name, “Jordan Elliot,” is meant to recall his Kryptonian father “Jor-El”). Between this and the parallels between Will’s 1921 experience and Kal-El’s origin story, Watchmen isn’t just reading African-Americans into the history and iconography of American superheroes in general; the show is directly weaving black history into the myth of Superman himself. Funny that just this week there have been rumors that Warner Bros and Michael B. Jordan have been discussing a possible “new take” on Superman. Sorry, boys; Damon Lindelof and company are way ahead of you.
The last we hear of Doctor Manhattan in the original Watchmen, he’s talking to Ozymandias about his renewed interest in human life: “I think perhaps I’ll create some.” The idea, sown in the early episodes of this season, that he had just gone back to Mars never made sense to me because it was a clear step back for the character. Now he’s found an entirely new way to experience the thermodynamic miracles of human life (remember Angela having to sit silently in the car while Laurie Blake droned on and on about her ex and how he used to talk about thermodynamic miracles…? Great stuff in retrospect). Though interestingly, he still hasn’t actually created any human life; he and Angela adopted their children.
Unfortunately, happy endings aren’t permanent in this kind of story (“nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends”) so Doctor Manhattan must be pulled out of retirement to stop the Seventh Kavalry (who are actually the Cyclops, who were actually the KKK all along) from taking his powers for their own. The god that became a man must become a god again. Over the last two episodes, we’ve been awestruck by these visions of black superheroes. In comparison, how terrifying is the concept of a white supremacist with omnipotent powers?
Chancellor: The idea that white supremacists want to harness Doctor Manhattan’s powers is beyond scary, especially because it’s couched in phrases that we hear quite a bit in our real world. “We’re not racist,” Senator Keene tells a captured Laurie about Cyclops. “We’re about restoring balance in those times when our country forgets the principles upon which it was founded. Because the scales have tipped way too far, and it is extremely difficult to be a white man in America right now. So I’m thinking I might try being a blue one.” If you spend any time on the internet, you’ve probably seen that very sentiment: it’s hard to be a white man now. It’s a reaction to having their once sacred privilege challenged. This is another great example of how Watchmen takes very real things and heightens them for its superhero story to remind us how insidious and terrible they are.
What’s interesting about Keene’s plan, too, is how this isn’t the first time Manhattan’s powers have been used to subjugate or oppress minorities. As the episode outlines, Manhattan was deployed in the Vietnam War, helped end it and solidify the U.S. imperialistic takeover of Vietnam in this alternate American history. Now in the present, Keene wants to become Manhattan to essentially put black people in their place in America. As Manhattan told Veidt in the comic (and as you quoted earlier), “Nothing ever ends.” (The co-opting of Manhattan’s powers for evil is somewhat comparable to how the vigilantes Will inspired in last week’s episode essentially took over the superhero model he created and cast aside his noble goal of taking down Cyclops).
Speaking of Vietnam: This episode gives us even more insight into Angela’s backstory with flashbacks to her childhood, drawing a connection between America’s imperialistic actions in Vietnam to Will’s traumatic experiences in the Tulsa massacres of 1921. What did you make of that?
Christian: One thing that’s interesting about interweaving Will’s memory of the 1921 Tulsa massacre and Angela’s memory of her parents’ death at an imperial celebration in Vietnam (aside from the fact that one of them happened in real life and the other didn’t) is that there are almost opposite socio-political dynamics underlying them. The Tulsa massacre was carried out by aggrieved members of a ruling racial caste who felt threatened by the social and political accomplishments of a racial minority. From what we see of this attack in Vietnam, it was carried out by imperial subjects legitimately aggrieved at the way the United States had violently subjugated and literally conquered their country. I mean, the scene-setting itself is just disturbing. Mere minutes after we’ve watched fake documentary footage of Doctor Manhattan obliterating one Vietnamese farm after another, we see his image everywhere in a public celebration. People who would have their own independent country and culture but for Doctor Manhattan are forced to wear masks and sell toys based on his likeness. Personally, I find it easier to understand (if not quite sympathize with) the mindset of the people who killed Angela’s family members in Vietnam than the people who killed Will’s family in Tulsa.
And yet despite their differences, Angela and Will remember these incidents very similarly (or at least that’s how I interpret those memories overlapping). No matter the justification for violence, it’s always going to feel similarly destructive to the people who experience it (and to the people who commit it; as we saw last week, the fact that Hooded Justice was killing KKK members didn’t ease his conscience). Like Will, Angela’s early childhood brush with violence pushed her to become a cop. The flashbacks to Angela’s youth in this episode reminded me of how flashbacks work in the original Watchmen, showing how each character became a superhero due to various inherited traumas and deep-seated fixations that built up over time. Like the original Watchmen characters’ relationships to their costumes, Angela’s obsession with becoming a cop is not exactly shown positively here. As Lady Trieu’s daughter (I mean, mother) points out, if Angela is as worried about her children’s safety and peace of mind as she says she is, then she wouldn’t be a cop in the first place. Like Will, Angela fixates on becoming a police officer because it seems to her like a method of achieving justice in an unfair world, but if that method involves gleefully listening to a man get shot on her word alone, how noble is it?
I’m fascinated to know how Angela connected with Doctor Manhattan, but I suppose we’ll have to wait until next week for that. One of my favorite lines in the Watchmen comic comes from Jon’s time in Vietnam. After Laurie’s father the Comedian shoots his Vietnamese mistress, he berates Doctor Manhattan for letting him do it: “You watched me. You coulda changed the gun into steam or the bullets into mercury or the bottle into snowflakes! You could teleported either of us to goddamn Australia…but you didn’t lift a finger.” Especially compared to how Jon used his powers so destructively in the conquest of Vietnam, his refusal to use even a little bit of power to help a victim of that violence was a clear sign of condemnation and a striking example of Jon’s alienation from mankind. But now he’s taken that self-imposed helplessness to the furthest extreme, albeit in service of becoming closer to humanity. We’ll soon see if it was worthwhile. It would be nice to see Jon face some sort of reckoning over what he did in Vietnam, but as this episode’s very bizarre Adrian Veidt interlude suggests, sometimes the only justice we can get is absurd.
Notes from the Black Freighter:
- Scoring the Cal/Jon reveal with that instrumental version of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” is a subtle piece of beauty. The titular question of that song (“is there life on Mars?”) is answered definitively by this episode: No. He was here all along. Hard not to think of another line from that song about the intersection of policing and performance: “Take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy…”
- Gotta love the Get Out echo with Jane Crawford. For some reason, no one ever expects rich white women to be active participants in violent racist conspiracies, and that’s what makes them so dangerous.
- Angela’s grandmother June dying right as she was about to spirit her out of Vietnam seems like a nightmare, but when you remember that it’s probably what led to Angela meeting Doctor Manhattan, maybe it could be considered one of those thermodynamic miracles — a chance event with odds so astronomical it makes miracles possible.
- Does Cal being Manhattan explain how both he and Angela survived the White Night?
- Midway through the episode, Lady Trieu tells Angela that she cloned her mother so that she could be there when she completes her life’s work and that her father will be there, too. Who is Lady Trieu’s father? Have we met him already on the show or in the comic?
- Between Adrian Veidt’s closing statement and The Lighthouse, it’s been a good year for dramatic farts in movies and TV.
- In the same way that the comic almost demands that you re-read it, the show makes rewatching necessary and rewards it, as indicated by both last week’s episode and tonight’s.