'Watchmen' Shares a Time-Bending Love Story in the Penultimate Episode (RECAP)
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for Watchmen Season 1 Episode 8, "A God Walks into Abar."]
After a string of mind-boggling episodes, I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Watchmen's penultimate outing. But I can tell you what I didn't expect — a tragic love story that traverses time and space. That's right, roses are red and violence is blue in "A God Walks Into Abar" (written by Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen), an episode which tells the story of how Angela Abar (Regina King) and Dr. Manhattan fell in love over an ice-cold brew one lonely night in Vietnam.
It's VVN Day 2011, 40 years since Dr. Manhattan helped America win the Vietnam War and 22 years since Angela lost both her parents in a terrorist attack. Now, in a dingy bar in Saigon, Angela sits alone, drowning her sorrows and commemorating her parents, while drunks in blue body paint prop up the bar. Her solitude is disturbed when a blue man wearing a suit and a Dr. Manhattan face mask approaches claiming to be the real Dr. Manhattan (a.k.a. Jon Osterman), while also asserting that he knows who Angela is and that he loves her.
This conversation between Angela and Dr. Manhattan is the centerpiece of the episode. It's like an awkward first date, except, instead of getting to know one another, one of the participants already seems to know everything about the other. Angela humors the man in blue, mostly due to boredom, partly because she's lonely. She rolls her eyes and makes quips while Dr. Manhattan details their future, alluding to events that bring them together and those that will eventually tear them apart. "You have a fantastic imagination," Angela tells him at one point.
Because Dr. Manhattan doesn't see time as linear but instead experiences everything at once, it means this conversation acts as a sort of launching pad to various timelines. The narrative bounces all over the place, from Jon's childhood to his time on Europa to becoming Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to the present day in Tulsa. It's definitely a difficult one to keep up with, even for the most hardened of Watchmen fans. And so I'm going to try and break it down piece by piece to figure out what we actually learned this episode.
Firstly, Dr. Manhattan isn't on Mars — the image we've previously seen of him on the red planet is merely a recording carrying out a series of predetermined patterns. "A decoy," as Angela puts it. In those 20 years away from Earth, he's actually been living on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, the same place Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) is currently being held captive. On Europa, Dr. Manhattan built his own Garden of Eden, with nature and wildlife and even his own version of Adam and Eve. He essentially created a Utopia — a place free of guilt, hatred, shame, and greed.
Dr. Manhattan's Adam and Eve are a familiar pair of faces; they are Veidt's clones (or what we assumed were his clones), Mr. Phillips (Tom Mison) and Ms. Crookshanks (Sara Vickers). Dr. Manhattan actually based their likeness on a kindly English couple who looked after him and his father back in the 1930s after they fled Germany. The enormous countryside manor where the couple lived became something of a safe haven for young Jon, and that's why all those years later he teleported the house to his Europa Utopia.
His time growing up in that manor shaped the man he'd become. It was there he witnessed Mr. Phillips and Ms. Crookshanks having sex, which he described as "the first time I knew love." He was never shamed for what he saw — in fact, the young couple told Jon that what he saw was a "good thing." They were trying to create life, having lost a child earlier in their relationship. As parting wisdom, Ms. Crookshanks gave Jon a Bible and made him promise to create something beautiful when he grew up — a promise Jon kept, in quite a literal sense, when he created his Utopia based on this childhood experience.
But, if Jon created heaven, this wonderful place devoid of conflict, where his creations share infinite love, the question remains — why did he leave and return to Earth? Why is he sniffing around back alley bars and awkwardly flirting with women? "Is this a Zeus thing?" Angela asks. "[Zeus] came down from Olympus to get laid and turned himself into a swan or something to blend in." She might have been mocking, but Angela's not far off the mark. Jon wasn't satisfied. I guess the love he created wasn't real enough — not human enough. He craves human touch and affection, despite not having the ability to relate to humans.
And so he returns to Earth, where he meets Angela and falls in love, and somewhere along the way, she falls in love with him too. Now, there is a gap in the story here. One moment Angela is telling Jon how much she hates Dr. Manhattan for his role in the Vietnam War and how it indirectly led to her parents' death, the next she's helping him pick out his human disguise. Using her cop credentials to enter a morgue, Angela selects an unclaimed cadaver for Jon to imitate — Cal. How she went from super skeptical to window shopping for dead bodies, I'm not sure. It seems as if she's living a self-fulfilling prophecy, following what Dr. Manhattan says will happen.
This self-fulfilling fate includes telling Jon to leave six months into the relationship after an argument. At this time, Jon visits Veidt at his lab in Antarctica. Much like how Jon was dissatisfied with Europa, the former Ozymandias is equally unfulfilled with what was supposed to be his Utopia. His alien squid plot, which killed 3 million people, was supposed to pave the way for a better world. But Veidt watches the TV as the news reports of new war weapons and rising conflicts. "I gave them every chance," he says in despair. His misguided act of genocide was for nothing.
Given the state of Earth, Veidt questions why Jon would want to come back, and then it hits him — Dr. Manhattan wants to be mortal. Jon is a sucker for love, and he can't make it work with Angela unless he's human. To do that, Veidt offers him a device that can be inserted into the brain that would short-circuit his memory. He would have no awareness of his abilities and wouldn't be able to use them, except in life-threatening situations (how convenient). Jon could theoretically live a normal life. In exchange, Jon offers Veidt the chance to live in his Utopian paradise on Europa. Veidt accepts the offer ... a decision he later comes to regret.
Jon returns to Angela and tells her about the memory loss device, and together, they agree to use it. She pushes the metal hydrogen symbol thingy into his head, and that's when we flash-forward to the present day, to the last week's cliffhanger, where Angela smashed Cal's head open with a hammer and removed that very same device. What emerges is the glowing, blue edition of Dr. Manhattan, but one which retains the body shape and face of Cal — the look is a little bit Aladdin 2019 Genie.
Dr. Manhattan isn't quite sure where he is or what he's doing, as his mind jumps around in time. He remembers going to see Angela's grandfather Will (Louis Gossett Jr.) about 10 years ago and asking to form an alliance. At that point, Will didn't even know he had a granddaughter. Back in the present, Dr. Manhattan walks across the Abar swimming pool like pool-party Jesus, telling Angela that he's currently speaking to her grandfather. Angela tells him to ask Will how he knew Chief Crawford was a member of Cyclops and had a KKK robe in his closet — this creates a classic time travel loop, as Will didn't know those facts until Angela asked. "Did I start all this?" she wonders.
At the same time, the Seventh Kavalry surrounds the house and prepares to destroy Dr. Manhattan, a fate which Jon seems resigned to. But not Angela — she will try and stop it, no matter what the future says. She loads up her weapons and heads outside for a suburban shootout with the masked rednecks. While she takes out a few, eventually she's cornered, until Dr. Manhattan swoops in to save the day, stopping bullets in mid-air and disintegrating his enemies with a flash of a hand. But it's too late. The machine sitting atop a 7K truck blasts at Dr. Manhattan, tearing him into a thousand molecules. It's the tragic ending to the love story which Jon warned of back in that Vietnam bar.
Did you get all that? There's no judgment from me if you're struggling to keep track of things. My brain is frazzled too. In a series which has thrived on confounding the audience (mostly in an effective way), this was by far the most out-there episode of the lot. Honestly, I'm still not sure if I liked it or not. That could be because I think Dr. Manhattan is a jerk — a fascinating jerk, sure, but a jerk nonetheless. That's also how I felt about him in the comic (which I read for the first time during this series); he's a passive-aggressive, needy boyfriend with a literal god-complex. Dr. Manhattan is not an easy guy to like, and so I never entirely bought into Angela falling for him, even if it was more about her desire for a family.
But even having that background on Dr. Manhattan and a basic grasp of his character, I still found myself struggling to fill in the gaps or understand the motives. I can only imagine how impenetrable this must have been for a casual, non-comic reader. For example, my parents have never read the comic, and they gave up earlier in the season, sometime after Veidt fished those clone fetuses from the river. This episode would probably have had them flat-lining. As with previous episodes, I admire the boldness, but I'm not sure it came together quite as cohesively as the excellent Hooded Justice episode or the Looking Glass origin story.
Perhaps I'll come to appreciate this episode more in the future — maybe at this precise moment, somewhere in time, I'm rewatching and applauding its genius. But for now, I have my reservations. That said, I'm still super excited for the season finale, and after this week's episode, god knows what Lindelof and co have in store for us.
- If you missed it, there was a post-credits sequence of Veidt on Europa, having tomatoes smushed into his face for wanting to leave. "Heaven doesn't need me," he tells the Game Warden, who we learn was Adam, the first clone to emerge from the water. The scene ends with Veidt using a horseshoe to try and dig his way out of his jail cell. As I said last week, I'm kind of over these Veidt interludes at this point, and it's seeming less and less likely that he'll be involved in the main Tulsa narrative.
- Sticking with Veidt for a second, during his chat with Dr. Manhattan, we saw him pouring squid into some sort of teleportation device. This confirms that Veidt is responsible for the "squid-fall," which is all to keep up his alien squid attack ruse.
- In hindsight, Cal being Dr. Manhattan was telegraphed earlier in the season — specifically, during the White Night home invasion. We flashback to that scene again this episode, and we see that Cal instinctively used his powers to save Angela (a "life-threatening situation"). But there were also moments like Laurie telling Angela that Cal is "hot" (Laurie and Dr. Manhattan used to date) and Cal's matter-of-fact talk with his kids about how heaven isn't real.
Watchmen, Sundays, 9/8c, HBO