Watchmen recap: My dinner with 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.
Christian: Well Chance, I’m not sure where to begin discussing this barn-burner of an episode. But then, if Doctor Manhattan were here he would probably tell us there’s no such thing as beginnings or endings. Like the Doctor Manhattan-focused chapters of the Watchmen comic, “A God Walks Into Abar” is told in a way that replicates Jon’s understanding of time. For him, everything is happening at once (except for the 10 years he spent as amnesiac Cal Abar, which he and Angela refer to as “the tunnel”). So I’ll start with one of the scenes that jumped out most to me: The conversation between Jon and Adrian Veidt in the latter’s Antarctic fortress of Karnak.
There are a lot of “firsts” about this scene. It’s the first time we’ve really seen Jeremy Irons playing the Adrian Veidt of Watchmen. Sure, we’ve known since the beginning that he was technically playing the character, and it was great watching him finally suit up in the old Ozymandias outfit a few episodes back. But he was mostly talking to characters we’ve never seen before or going off on absurd tangents that barely made sense until this episode finally gave us the backstory. I just love hearing Irons finally saying comic book nonsense like “I irradiated it with tachyon particles.”
This scene is also the first time we’ve seen two characters from the original Watchmen interact. Though the show’s debt to the original comic by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins is often clear visually and stylistically, showrunner Damon Lindelof and crew have been very sparing about directly invoking Watchmen’s original characters (the nature of the 34-year time skip also accounts for some of that). We’ve seen Laurie Blake and Veidt, but they never interacted for obvious reasons. Now we get to see Veidt actually talking to Doctor Manhattan. It makes sense that one-time EW writer Jeff Jensen accepted the pressure of writing this episode since at New York Comic Con earlier this year I witnessed both Lindelof and Gibbons acknowledge that Jensen knew even more about Watchmen than either of them.
This conversation directly references and quotes the final act of Watchmen, when Veidt tries to kill Doctor Manhattan by trapping him in an intrinsic field subtractor (the same type of machine, incidentally, that originally gave Jon his godlike powers). But the two of them aren’t enemies anymore; they’re more like old friends, and they decide to make a trade. Veidt single-handedly saved the world from nuclear destruction, but the catch was that no one could ever know — and because it was rooted in deception, people didn’t even learn from their nuclear mistakes. This frustration has manifested in the appearance of Karnak, which has decayed from the iconic supervillain lair to a sad old man’s depression cave. Jon actually has the opposite problem: Everyone thinks he’s their savior, and he wants to be unnoticed. So in exchange for Adrian giving Jon a device to turn him forgetful and mortal (apparently Adrian’s original plan for stopping him way back when, before he built the intrinsic field machine), Jon teleports Adrian to the biosphere he created on Europa where he can live in palatial splendor and be worshipped. But a major theme of this episode is how love is only satisfying if it’s finite and dangerous, so eventually, Adrian tires of this and tries to escape (which is what we’ve been watching with his subplot so far).
Chancellor: It’s funny you kicked things off with the Jon and Veidt scene because I think that’s the least interesting part of the episode — and I mean that as a compliment. That scene is great and so much fun as a comic book fan, but I loved everything else about this episode even more.
The scene I haven’t stopped thinking about since I watched the episode comes toward the end when Doctor Manhattan finally tells Angela that the Seventh Kavalry has been posted outside of their home the entire time. “This is the moment,” says Jon. “I just told you you can’t save me, and you’re gonna try to anyway. In the bar the night we met, you asked about the moment I fell in love with you. This is the moment.” Angela definitely didn’t find that romantic. Me on the other hand? I thought that exchange, and Angela’s ensuing firefight, was so poignant because the entire episode had been dancing around this point up until that moment: Why did this god give up his powers for love? Impressively, the script immediately subverts that moment and prevents it from becoming too sentimental by having Angela completely dismiss it: “Is that supposed to be romantic? All this time we’ve been together, you fall in love with me now?”
In fact, “A God Walked into Abar” handles Angela and Jon’s love story incredibly well. This episode reminded me of some of the best Batman-Catwoman material in Tom King’s Batman run, of all things. On the surface, Angela and Jon have this playful banter, which mostly consists of Angela delightfully throwing this man off his game and showing him that knowing everything isn’t actually everything. But beneath that, there’s this profound sense of longing from both characters that I found very moving. The decision not to show Jon’s blue face in any of the flashbacks (and the music during 7K fight, which moves a half-step before resolving) adds to that sense of yearning because in the same way that Angela wants someone (love, family), we desperately just want to see his face and make that connection, too.
Speaking of connection: The episode flashes back to Jon’s time during WWII when he met a loving couple who would eventually become the basis of Mr. Phillips and Ms. Crookshanks. As far as I know, the show’s depiction of Jon’s youth isn’t from the original comic. What did you make of Jon’s backstory?
Christian: I have to say, I am not crazy about making Doctor Manhattan a Jewish immigrant. I don’t know why this bothers me more than any of the other insanity the show has thrown at us, but it does. Lindelof and Jensen did not create this backstory, but then neither did Moore and Gibbons; it comes from the Before Watchmen prequel comics published by DC a few years ago (if you want to go on your own Doctor Manhattan-like odyssey through time and space, you can read Jensen’s EW reporting on Before Watchmen here). The four-issue series Before Watchmen: Doctor Manhattan was written by J. Michael Straczynski and illustrated by Adam Hughes, and it marked the first appearance of the idea that Jon Osterman was born in Germany and barely escaped the Nazis with his watchmaker father. Interestingly, the Watchmen show has not taken this origin strictly at face value; while Straczynski and Hughes showed how young Jon was saved from Nazi agents by his mother’s noble sacrifice, this episode’s narration just tosses off the idea that Jon’s mother left their family to marry an SS officer. Sheesh!
That’s a nice bit of spice, but I’m still not completely sold on the idea of making Jon a German Jew. So far it’s the only story element that the show has taken from the Before Watchmen prequel books (even though they tweaked it a bit), which creates a weird dissonance. The show has been very imaginative in showing us where various Watchmen characters ended up years later, but this is the first time they’ve gone back and edited where those characters came from. It changes Jon from an icon of the Cold War establishment (All-American Ivy League graduate in a suit, ready and willing to take orders) to an oppressed refugee. Most of all, I just think it’s unnecessary to the task of making the character more sympathetic or understandable. Lindelof and Jensen are able to accomplish that just with their writing. I love Jon’s line to Angela when she confronts him about his actions in Vietnam, which went on to inspire terrorist attacks like the one that killed her parents: “I was trying to be what people wanted me to be: A soldier, a superhero, a savior. I tried to do the right thing, and if it’s any consolation I do regret it.” Shortly after, Jon has another line that beautifully explains how he can live life while always already knowing what’s going to happen next: “Haven’t you ever done anything you knew you were going to regret?” These lines enhance our understanding of the character without fundamentally altering his biography.
In any case, this refugee backstory finally gives us some answers we’ve been waiting for. As a young Jewish refugee, Jon and his father were taken in by a wealthy English couple, who eventually became the basis for Phillips and Crookshanks. Years later, after Jon had become the most powerful being in existence and left Earth in the wake of the original Watchmen, he decided to use them as his Adam and Eve in the new Garden of Eden he was constructing on Europa. He even teleported their country manor there; he tells Angela it’s because the manor is one of the few places he’s ever felt safe, but more likely (and more in keeping with Moore’s style of writing) it’s because of the time he witnessed the lord and lady having sex from inside a closet as a child, forming a powerfully Freudian connection between those people and Jon’s deepest ideas about life and creation.
The creation of the biosphere on Europa is a beautiful sequence, reminiscent of the dinosaur interlude from Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. It’s also part of this episode’s subversion of classic ideas about gods. Jon creates a life-sustaining ecosystem like the God of Genesis did, but it only takes him 90 seconds rather than six days. Jon hides in a mortal form so he can make love to a beautiful woman, just like Zeus did, but it’s her idea rather than his. “Did God create man or did man create God?” is an age-old question akin to “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” Both those questions, as well as a host of classic time-travel paradoxes, get the same answer in this episode: Things simply are. “Nothing ends, Adrian, nothing ever ends” … but in that case, maybe nothing ever really begins, either. Can we even say Jon “created” anything on Europa if he just mimicked Earth’s environment? He created Adam and Eve, but they’ve never reproduced or diversified; the only human life created by the amniotic lake is just endless, identical copies of Phillips and Crookshanks (right down to the Game Warden, who for all his mask and mustache is clearly just another Phillips clone).
The biggest change Jon makes to the material he’s been given is his choice to live as a black man named Calvin Jelani, per Angela’s wishes. Like any revolutionary transformation, this decision has consequences and pushback. Jane Crawford told Laurie last week that Joe Keene’s master plan for the Seventh Kavalry really did begin as a way to make him president; it only changed when they realized what had happened to Doctor Manhattan. Was there something about a god choosing to live as a black man that angered these white supremacists into reclaiming this power for themselves? Their attack on him creates a different way of applying superpowers to the real world in the way that Watchmen has always done. It’s entertaining enough imagining a being who can experience all of time at once, but watching a black man about to be killed by white supremacists tell his love that she can’t save him because it’s already happened is heartbreaking and revelatory on a whole other level.
The only bright spot of this episode’s tragic ending is that we know Will and Lady Trieu have some kind of plan to, in the latter’s words, “save f—ing humanity.” We still don’t know what the Millennium Clock is for, though we do know Lady Trieu wanted to keep Cal away from it for some reason. Chance, when all is said and done, do you think we’ll see Sister Night become the new Doctor Manhattan?
Chancellor: That does seem to be where things are heading. Back in the Vietnam bar, Jon explicitly said that his powers could be theoretically transferred to another person, thereby double confirming that Keene’s plan isn’t as insane as sounds. Then in the present, Jon tells Angela it was important that she see him walking on water but didn’t say why. Odds are that’ll be answered in next week’s finale.
The other reason I suspect you may be right is because of Will and Lady Trieu’s conversation at the end of episode 4. “I betrayed her, and in three days, she’ll know what I have done and she’ll hate me for it,” says Will. Now, it would be easy to assume he’s talking about killing Crawford, but for some reason, I don’t think he views that as a betrayal and we’re waiting for the other car to drop. Now, manipulating events so that Angela becomes a god against her will? That feels like something worth being concerned about.
And then there’s the Veidt of it all! We still don’t know how he figures into the season’s endgame, but I have a feeling he does. In the episode’s post-credits scene, an imprisoned and arrogant-as-ever Adrian explains to the incredulous Game Warden he wants to leave “heaven” because it doesn’t need him, but Earth does. And it looks like he won’t be stuck on Europa for much longer because he discovers a horseshoe inside of his cake, which he’ll presumably use to escape his prison. Given his hubris, Veidt wouldn’t be able to stop himself from getting involved in whatever is going on with Doctor Manhattan, Angela, and Lady Trieu back on Earth.
Notes from the Black Freighter:
- We need to give Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross another shoutout for their tremendous and emotional score in this episode. In addition to capturing that sense of longing between Angela and Jon, the piano-choir piece adds to the suspense and dread of Angela’s shootout with the Seventh Kavalry.
- “A God Walks into Abar” also reveals that Jon met with Will before losing his memory and told him about Cyclops’ resurgence in Tulsa and Crawford’s involvement. Unfortunately, Angela feels responsible for Crawford’s death because she tells Jon to ask Will how he knew about Crawford, which is actually how Will ends up finding out about it. Again, it’s the chicken vs. the egg paradox all over again.
- Another subtle switch from the Before Watchmen version of Jon’s backstory. In that comic, his mother was Jewish, whereas, in the show, it’s his father who had Jewish ancestry.
- An indication of how sad Karnak is now: As Jon approaches Veidt’s fortress, you can still see the ruined vivarium in the background. Veidt opened his greenhouse to the elements near the end of the Watchmen comic, shortly before he completed his master plan and sent his squid to New York. Apparently, he never bothered to repair it, a possible indication of his disappointment with the post-squid world.
- We pointed out last week how much Jon’s human name “Cal” sounds like Superman’s alien name “Kal.” This episode shows us that he “liked the name” from the start. In the same way that in the comic Jon took the hydrogen atom as his superhero icon because it was one of the few symbols he respected as a scientist, did he take the name “Calvin” because it sounds like “Kelvin” the temperature scale?