Watchmen season finale recap: Oh what a beautiful day
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.
Chancellor: Christian, don’t you just love seeing a plan come together? Because that’s exactly what happens in Watchmen’s season (series?) finale. All of the puzzle pieces that Damon Lindelof and company sprinkled throughout the season finally cohere into a clear image and answer almost all (emphasis on almost) of our questions about the season far.
“See How They Fly” starts tying up loose ends from the moment it begins. The opening sequence reveals that Adrian Veidt is indeed Lady Trieu’s father, albeit not intentionally. Apparently, Trieu’s mom worked at Karnak and snuck into Veidt’s office where he kept his semen in a hidden refrigerator, stole some, and injected herself. It’s a crazy opening scene, especially because it’s set to the romantic-sounding “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour” (“Beautiful night, oh night of love”) from the opera Les contes d’Hoffmann, creating a hilarious juxtaposition between the music and the visuals. (As I watched this scene, I remembered another clue about Trieu’s parentage. In the Watchmen comic, there’s a memo from Veidt explaining that he wants to get rid of his Nostalgia perfume line and introduce a new one called Millennium. Well here, Trieu’s big plan to save humanity is built around something called the Millennium Clock).
From there, we flash-forward to 2008 and then to the present and find out what Trieu has planned: She wants to steal Manhattan’s powers in order to fix the world in a way that he never tried to. Basically, her plan is very similar to the Seventh Kavalry’s, except she’s smarter (she knows she shouldn’t absorb radioactive energy without filtering it) and is well-intentioned. But of course, as the cliché goes, the road to evil is paved by good intentions. Honestly, I didn’t see this twist coming. I suspected we were waiting to learn Trieu’s real role in all of the Tulsa plot, but I couldn’t have guessed she was planning something this crazy. But, you know, like father, like daughter.
Christian: I’m a little surprised at the revelation that Lady Trieu is the supervillain puppetmaster behind all this season’s machinations. I’m definitely taken aback by the lack of impact the Seventh Kavalry had on this finale. The way this season had been going, I fully expected the white supremacist Cyclops organization to be the ultimate threat. But really, they were just puppets for Trieu the whole time. That twist is somewhat revelatory of the real world, though; as much as white supremacists like to claim that everything comes down to the black-and-white binary of the Rorschach mask, often their actions seem to redound to the benefit of rich powerful people more than white people as a group. We should’ve known from the moment Trieu declared herself a “trillionaire” that she wasn’t to be trusted; curse Hong Chau for being so charismatic!
The elements of this episode that worked best for me were everything involving Adrian Veidt. After spending the entire season sealed away from the rest of the cast, Veidt makes a spectacular impact in this finale. In an episode full of “wow” moments, the first thing to make me holler with delight was Veidt catching the Game Warden’s bullet in his hand on his way out of Europa. This is, of course, a callback to the final issue of Watchmen, when Veidt catches a bullet fired by Laurie as revenge for him (temporarily) killing Jon. As the Game Warden lies dying in his master’s arms, he asks why Veidt forced him to wear a mask. “Because masks make men cruel,” says a man who committed world-historical atrocities long after he stopped wearing one. All Veidt ever wanted, it seems, was a worthy adversary. The Game Warden asks if his years of pursuing and policing his prisoner met that impossible standard. “No,” Veidt replies, “but you put on a hell of a show.”
That line works for me on multiple levels. I found this episode full of meta meaning; there were several moments like this where I could practically hear Lindelof and the other writers, directors, and actors all but openly asking, “Did we do it? Did we make something worthy of Watchmen?” The honest answer is “probably not,” and this Veidt exchange indicates they are fully aware of that likelihood. Not for lack of trying, but the original Watchmen comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is a singular artistic masterpiece that changed superheroes and comic books forever. Even with the show out, the comic still retains a unique power; you can never reread it enough times without finding amazing new details you hadn’t noticed before. But the makers of the show tried their best, and they definitely gave us a hell of a ride. A Watchmen show could’ve gone a lot of different ways, most of them bad, but this one was entertaining, beautiful, insightful, different, and worthwhile, even if it wasn’t “better” than the original.
Veidt, though, finally does find a worthy adversary in this episode: His unintended daughter, Lady Trieu. She succeeds where he failed in one respect at least: She actually kills Doctor Manhattan. Chance, as someone who loved the romantic stuff last episode between Cal/Jon and Angela, what did you think of big blue’s death scene?
Chancellor: My heart started to break when Manhattan told Angela he didn’t teleport her away because he didn’t want to die alone. That’s the last thing you’d expect from Manhattan. He’s a character defined by his emotional distance, and one of his most quoted lines from the comic is about how he tires of others. Yet, in his final moments, not even this godlike being can escape normal human emotions like fear. This reminded me of Angela asking him about the last time he was afraid in “A God Walks Into Abar.”
Overall, Jon’s death scene really worked for me because it was so intimate. As Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score heightens the suspense and Angela pleads with Jon not to give up, director Frederick E.O. Toye puts you right there in the scene with the characters by zeroing in on (entertainer of the year) Regina King and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s emotive faces. “I’m in every moment we were together, all at once,” Jon says painfully as his life with Angela flashes before his eyes. Last week, Jon’s insistence on repeatedly explaining that he experiences time differently eventually became a joke, but here there’s a weight to it, and Angela can’t help but let out a sigh. Even though the star-crossed couple’s aching musical theme starts playing, a sense of silence falls on the scene and it feels as though Angela and Jon are the only two people in the world. Because of the care that went into crafting their relationship in the last episode and their final scene, the moment Manhattan gets absorbed actually has an emotional impact, which is probably the first time that has been said about a bright blue light shooting down from the sky in a superhero movie or TV show. In the end, the action in the finale was all emotional and better than any superpower fight.
Actually, after watching the finale, I was chatting with a friend and we were both struck by how Watchmen avoided doing what most superhero shows, movies, and comics do with their endings: setting up what’s to come next. At the end of the hour, Angela returns home, eats an egg she suspects may contain Jon’s power and tries to walk on water as we cut to black. Because I’m invested in her character, I’m curious to know what comes next, but it’s clear the show itself isn’t. That last beat is about Angela doing something to be close to the man she loved and not hide from her grief, it was not trying to hook the audience for another story. There’s a sense of finality here that’s similar to the original Watchmen comic and unlike what we typically get from superhero stories, which are designed (in comics, on television, and at the movies) to keep generating stories without an end in sight. It’s kind of funny that this very conclusive ending is airing the same week as The CW’s Arrowverse crossover “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” which is the complete opposite.
Before Angela takes her brave step into the unknown, she has a conversation with Will about dealing with trauma. “You can’t heal under a mask, Angela,” he says. “Wounds need air.” I feel like that must be an important idea to the show given the dramatic piano chord that sounds almost immediately after he says it. To wrap us up, Christian, how do you think that line relates to the show’s overall themes? How do you feel about the way in which the show juggled its initial ideas about racism and white supremacy in America and superhero/vigilante justice with the fact that it turned into this love story midway through its run?
Christian: I think I interpreted the ending slightly differently. The cutaway before we see whether Angela can walk on water is obviously meant to invoke the ending to the Watchmen comic, where an employee of the New Frontiersman newspaper is tasked with picking something out of the “junk pile” to run in print. One of his options is Rorschach’s journal, which contains the truth about Veidt’s squid plot. We don’t see what he picks; only his fingers hovering over the pile as another character says, “I leave it entirely in your hands.” Hard to miss the meta meaning there: Readers of Watchmen are free to imagine for themselves whether Rorschach posthumously exposed Veidt’s lie or whether nuclear peace was successfully maintained by the squid facade. In homage, the Watchmen show ends on a similar ambiguity: Is Angela Abar now a new blue superbeing? It’s entirely in your hands to imagine it.
However, I don’t think this ending works as well as the comic, and that’s without knowing whether HBO will decide to continue the story past this season. You note one thing that differentiates the original Watchmen from most superhero stories, which is that it ends (until now, at least). Another is that the world actually changes over the course of the story. Most other superhero sagas result in the preservation of the status quo. Just look at Black Panther, whose inhabitants of a futuristic African utopia spend the whole movie fighting to prevent their miracle technology from being used to change the larger world. This is what’s different about Watchmen: The character with a crazy plan for change actually succeeds in implementing their change, mostly for the better, even with horrific cost. So I’m a little dissatisfied with the show’s refusal to show us a new Doctor Manhattan, whether in the form of Trieu or Angela, because that would have been something we’ve never seen before. We all probably know how things would go if a white supremacist like Joe Keene got a hold of those omnipotent superpowers, but how might an all-powerful woman of color change the world? Even if Trieu was a narcissist (takes one to know one, says Veidt) she definitely would’ve wiped the world clean of nuclear power. What kind of world would be possible then? Is that too much for any of us to imagine anymore?
Alas, Trieu’s apotheosis is stopped halfway through. She kills God, but as she’s waiting to ascend, she’s attacked by her actual father. I love the shot of the hole that squid missile leaves in her hand: She gets stigmata without the transformational benefits of crucifixion. Christ imagery is heavily intertwined with Doctor Manhattan. In the original comic, when Jon Osterman is fatefully incinerated by the intrinsic field machine, his body is splayed in a cruciform pose — the same pose Cal adopted in mid-air last week immediately after the chip was removed and he regained his divine awareness. But Trieu is more of an Antichrist it seems, and is destroyed rather than deified in this apocalyptic crucible.
Trieu fails to change the world, and her father is finally punished for even trying. The last we see of Adrian Veidt, he’s been clonked on the head by Looking Glass, about to be loaded up into the original Owlship (the one we saw in the first episode was just a police rip-off of Dan Dreiberg’s design, apparently) to be taken back to civilization to face trial for his squid crimes. This pays off Looking Glass’ storyline and explains the reason for the appearance of the original squid monster in his focus episode a couple weeks back: It would be hard to punish Veidt for crimes we didn’t actually see in the show. I am annoyed, though, by Laurie’s arguments with Veidt when he counters that revealing his lie would destroy the world. Although the “so I suppose the FBI’s gonna arrest the president, too?” “Sure, why not?” exchange plays like a grab at the low-hanging fruit of President Trump’s current impeachment proceedings and the years of investigation that preceded it, I’m much more annoyed by Laurie’s retort that “people keep saying that [the world will end], but it never seems to happen.” Even if the planet isn’t destroyed, a state of geopolitical nuclear aggression (in their world) or dystopian climate change (in ours) or uncontrollable inequality (in both) is not a nice world to live in and will take active, radical effort to change for the better. If Laurie, whose deadpan attempt at moral authority is somewhat undermined by the number of times she’s been deceived and manipulated this season, doesn’t understand that, Veidt’s apocalyptic prediction may come true.
I’ll end by answering your question, Chance. “Wounds need air” is a nice sentiment, but it’s also coming from a man who finally just succeeded in killing his lifelong enemies. Although Jane Crawford cutting Lady Trieu off halfway through reading Will’s vengeful speech felt like what a remorseless white supremacist would say in such a situation, it also let the air out of the balloon on one of this season’s most compelling arcs. The ultimate defeat of white supremacy is another thing that remains slightly out of the grasp of our imaginations, it seems. But surely it starts with treating our fellow people (friends, family, or otherwise) with love and solidarity — as Angela does when she finally welcomes Will into her home, or as she and Cal did when they adopted her fallen partner’s children as their own. Like you, I love how this show transformed into a beautiful star-crossed love story over the course of its run. The relationship between Angela and Cal/Jon and the sacrifices they made for each other represent the kind of love we’ll need to pursue and support if we want to build a better world — a stronger, loving world to die in.
Thanks for reading along with us, everyone!