Warning: This article contains spoilers about tonight’s episode of Watchmen.
When writer-producer Damon Lindelof first started working on HBO’s Watchmen, the former Lost showrunner joked in an open letter to fans: “Endings. I’m GREAT at them.” Yet the first season finale (and perhaps the series finale as well) for Watchmen did indeed have a great ending. “See How They Fly” tied together several of the show’s hanging story threads for an emotional and fitting send-off that continued the show’s penchant for faintly echoing ideas, and even story points, in Alan Moore’s original graphic novel all while operating on its own unique frequency.
Below Lindelof answers some of our lingering burning questions (and we also asked Lindelof whether there will be a season 2 of the show, which he answers in a separate story).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did Dr. Manhattan [Yahya Abdul-Mateen II] let himself be killed and/or what did his death accomplish?
DAMON LINDELOF: You’re illuminating the fundamental paradox of Dr. Manhattan — or any being who can see the future — which is: If you can see a future that you would rather avert, why don’t you avert it? In the case of Dr. Manhattan, once he sees the future, it’s already happening. And he’s a fairly passive character — of all the people to be bestowed with god-like abilities it just so happens to be this guy who doesn’t really have ideas on his own very often; he needs to be told what to do. So while it plays like resignation and passivity, he’s not even making a conscious choice because for him it’s already happened. But this leads us to the second part of your question, which is the more interesting part. I think that there’s an argument to be made that everything that Dr. Manhattan does in this iteration of Watchmen is about acknowledging that as long as he exists there will be those who are in pursuit of his power. And anybody who wants to take his power is probably not a good conduit for it. And so he should probably pick someone who will take his power and use it responsibly.
So one could make the argument that is what happened when he picked Angela [Regina King]. In many ways, Will [Louis Gossett Jr.] is the other side of that coin. He’s giving Angela a sense of legacy — “This is where you came from, this is who you are, I was the first masked crime fighter and here’s why I did that and here’s what I’ve learned. As I get closer to the end of my journey than the beginning, and I want you to know these things so that you can process them.” And then the last thing that Will says to Angela is the last line of dialogue in the show, that “Manhattan was a good man, but he could have done more.” And that’s a tossing of the gauntlet in terms of what someone like Angela might do with that power — if she doesn’t sink to the bottom of the pool.
I was about to say, you surprised during part of that answer because it sounded like you were making your open ending less ambiguous by saying he did indeed give his powers to Angela. I’m assuming that’s something you wouldn’t want to be official.
I mean, what’s official? The only thing that’s official is the show itself. If somebody reads an interview that I do with you, 50 years from now that’s not going to mean anything. If we wanted to put a definitive answer to that question on the screen, we would have. We ended the show the way that we wanted to. But I would say that if you look back at the breadth of the season, I think what our intention was is obvious. We’re not trying to be cutesy about it. It just felt the ending that we went with was meant to be more cinematic than ambiguous. It doesn’t feel ambiguous to me, but I’m the least qualified human on the planet to talk about ending ambiguity.
I might have missed this: But was it ever explained what was crashed into the field that Lady Trieu purchased?
I’ll answer that because it was not meant to be ambiguous. It was [Lady Trieu’s ship containing Adrian Veidt returning to Earth]. It was knocked off course. It hit a meteor or something. So it was landing in a different spot than it was supposed to.
The season seemed to turn a bit from being more of a vigilante crime story into a rather moving love story in the final episodes. Was that a deliberate shift?
That was always kind of a part of the design. One of the things that made the original Watchman so unpredictable and exciting is kind of what you just described — it starts as a whodunnit and then it becomes like a deep meditation on loss and power and colonialism. Ultimately it boils down to the fundamental relationships between these characters so that you feel something when Dr. Manhattan looks down at Dan and Laurie cuddled up spooning. As someone who doesn’t really consider himself to be a romantic, I really like romance. I have romantic entanglements with these kinds of stories. So I knew the calculus of the finale would be about Angela losing someone who she really loved and the audience is only going to care about what happens in the finale plot-wise if they have some investment in that relationship.
Tom Mison and Sara Vickers, who played Ozymandias’ clones, were fantastic. Is there any particular anecdote that stands out in terms of what they had to go through to film all those versions of their characters?
Tom and Sara were incredible … I think the courtroom scene in particular, the fact that Sara had to deliver the closing argument and then afterward she had to play about 30 versions of herself reacting to herself giving the closing argument. And Tom had to do the same thing and also play the Game Warden. There’s a tremendous amount of clone hours that goes into rendering those sequences because we’re literally mapping their faces on to [stand-in actors serving as doubles]. Those are not CG faces that we just programmed, they have to do all the performances. So big props to Tom and Sara, they were truly incredible — as was Jeremy. There’s only one Jeremy Irons, but hundreds and hundreds of Phillips and Crookshanks.
Readers will kill me if I don’t ask this: Who is, what is, why is Lube Man?
I’m so excited that you did ask. I would say Lube Man is one of those things that delighted us to no end in the writers’ room even though it was going to be just five minutes in the show. We talked a lot about who he was and where he came from and why he was dressed the way that he was dressed. But we were like: This is just going to be a scene in episode 4 that’s in the midst of other insane things happening. We did not expect him to resonate in the way that he has and we’re thrilled that he did. I will just direct the readers to the final Peteypedia entry. For those not familiar with Peteypedia, it is our ancillary materials written by mostly [Watchmen writer and former EW staff writer] Jeff Jensen and other writers as well. The Peteypedia will have its finale moments after the finale airs. I will not give you a definitive answer to your question, but I will say all the clues are there to reach the obvious conclusion.
Nine episodes are literally an odd number of hours to have in a season, and you have such a great ensemble cast. Is there anything that you wished you could have explored that you didn’t have time to get to?
I think it’s disingenuous to say “Yes” because if we wanted to we could have done it. But there were many plates spending and so many balls in the air. I wish we had done a deeper dive on Lady Trieu [Hong Chau], that we had gone back into her past and showed her childhood because we talked a lot about that. That would have been really interesting and maybe made us care a lot more about that character before she reached her inevitable end. Also, Hong is such a fantastic actor. But as we got into the end game of the show we realized we were doing that with Angela and with Manhattan and the story started to feel like it wasn’t moving forward anymore. But of all the characters, I would have liked to know more about Lady Trieu and Red Scare — Andrew Howard is a phenomenal actor and got reduced to having some good clever one-liners along the way. We had a good backstory cooked up for him as well. And it’s not that we didn’t have time to do it but as the season went on the focal points of the season wanted to be Angela and Will and Cal.
What was the story point that resulted in the most debate while writing this season?
I don’t know if I would necessarily categorize anything that happens in the writers’ room as a “debate.” It was always more about the idea that we wanted the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 to start the pilot and to explore the origin story of Will Reeves. That sounded like it’s the right idea. Now how are we going to do it? So the “debate” was always about how if we do this wrong, it’s going to be exploitative and painful and inauthentic and virtue signaling — none of those things are what we wanted the finished product to reflect.
We wanted it to be authentic. We wanted it to feel real. We knew that it would make people uncomfortable, but at the same time it’s inherently provocative so it can’t be exploitative. So we would have an idea along the lines of saying that it’s important for Dr. Manhattan to be Cal while acknowledging that Cal was a black man and Dr. Manhattan is a white man. And so it wasn’t a debate, but there was a deep, deep discussion on whether there is any way to do that well. There’s no avoiding controversy because it’s a controversial idea.
A lot of that comes through experimentation and talking about other “what-ifs.” Like: What if Angela selected a white body for Dr. Manhattan to inhabit? Well, then you have an issue where you’re moving through the world where a black woman is married to a white man and that has another frequency to it that this show would need to address. So you try all these different permutations and then you end up going with the one that feels most right. And you have to present it with confidence, but at the same time acknowledge that if you get it wrong, it could be harmful. Everybody was okay with the show being bad — although we wanted it to be good. What everybody was solving for was that the show wouldn’t be harmful
Your show was exploring a lot of ideas and was saying a lot. Ultimately what were you trying to say the most?
What we were trying to say was that this was going to be a story thematically about appropriation with a sort of meta fundamental understanding that we were also appropriating Watchman itself against the wishes of its creator [Alan Moore]. We were telling a story about how nasty appropriation can be, and more fundamentally this idea of the American dream from the perspective of oppressed peoples, starting with Native Americans and then moving into slavery. And we wanted to tell a story about the superhero. What if the phenomenon of masked vigilantism and people who dress up to fight crime, what if that was an idea invented by an African-American man for all the right reasons? And he had to hide his race as an issue of survival? He didn’t wear his mask because it was fanciful, but because he would be murdered if people knew who he really was. And then the culture basically took that idea and turned it into superhero-ing.
All that felt like an incredibly terrifying idea, but it also felt like Watchman. That’s where we began the journey and the story that we wanted to tell. And whether you like the show or you don’t like the show, I think that the conversation around the show has been really exciting for those of us who made it. Because all the things that we were talking about in the writers’ room are now happening among the audience. And that’s what we were hoping for.