The following contains spoilers for Watchmen episode 3.
In Watchmen episode 3 “She Was Killed By Space Junk,” the HBO’s series finally introduces a character from the original graphic novel (two if you count the identification of Adrian Vedit). And what an introduction it is! FBI Agent Laurie Blake, who novel readers once knew as Laurie Juspeczyk, or under her crime-fighting name Silk Spectre, enters the story to head to Tulsa and investigate this potentially volatile situation between the Tulsa PD and the Seventh Kavalry.
Before she does that, however, she enters a blue phone booth to make a VERY long distance call to an old friend. The phone booth, created by Trieu Industries (hold on to that name in your memory bank for next week), establishes a connection Mars so citizens can share their thoughts with Doctor Manhattan. Laurie, of course, has a romantic history with the God-like superhero, so she opens with a joke.
That joke is not only a wonderfully structured (actually kind of funny) parable, it’s also absolutely dripping with details from the Watchmen universe. So let’s examine that joke (told in five parts) and analyze just what Laurie is trying to say in them. Here is the first part:
Hey, it’s me again. I’ve got a joke. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. There’s this guy, he’s a bricklayer. He’s really good at it. He’s a real master of his craft. Because he’s precise. Every brick has its place. Anyway this guy has a daughter and he’s gonna teach her to be a bricklayer because after all, all a man has is his legacy. So dad decides to build a barbecue in the backyard. He does the math. He figures out exactly what he needs and he shows the daughter how to do everything. Step by step. And when he finishes, it’s a beauty. It’s a perfect barbecue. Just the way he drew it in blueprints. Only one problem. There’s a brick left over. One single brick. The guy freaks out. He must have done something wrong. He’s gonna have to start all over again. So he picks up his sledgehammer to knock the thing to pieces and his daughter suddenly says ‘daddy wait! I have an idea.’ She picks up the orphan brick and throws it up into the air as high as she can. And then…shit. Messed it up. OK. Forget that joke. Can I tell you another one?
The first part of Laurie’s joke doesn’t seem to contain many original Watchmen details at first. It’s only in hindsight, after the joke is finished, that we understand a little more. The little girl in the story is Laurie, herself. And her father would be Edward Blake a.k.a. The Comedian. Blake was indeed a real master of his craft. With The Comedian and Doctor Manhattan’s help (granted Doc did the vast majority of the heavy lifting), the United States decisively won the Vietnam War, changing the world in extreme, fundamental ways.
Laurie had a complicated relationship with her father to say the least. Blake attempted to rape her mother before years later fathering Laurie during a consensual sexual tryst. Laurie never even knew that The Comedian was her father until he was already dead, murdered at the hands of Adrian Veidt to prevent the details of his vast conspiracy getting out. Laurie’s participation as a “character” in the beginning of this joke, suggests that her perception of her father has evolved throughout her life to the point where she can jokingly imagine a world in which they shared time together.
OK. Forget the brick. New joke. Three heroes die and they all show up at the pearly gates. God’s there and he’s going to decide what their eternal fate shall be: heaven or hell. Our first hero is dressed up like a big owl. God says to him “I gifted you the ability to make fantastic inventions. What did you do with this amazing talent?” Owl guy says “I made this really awesome flying ship and lots of cool outfits and weapons so I could bring peace to the city.” God asks ‘so how many people did you kill?’ Owl guy seems offended. He says “Zero. I didn’t take a single life.” God frowns. “Sorry owl guy, your heart’s in the right place but you’re just too soft.” God snaps his fingers and the hero goes to hell.
Now we’re getting into the meat of the joke. “Owl Guy” is Dan Dreiberg a.k.a. Nite Owl. Dan really does possess those talents. During his career, he had a Bruce Wayne-like ability to make gadgets and gizmos to aid in crime-fighting. Laurie entered into a romantic relationship with Dan after Doctor Manhattan abandoned Earth for good. Senator Joe Keene’s comments to Laurie about “getting an owl out of his cage” suggest that Dan is in prison for violating the ban against vigilante crime-fighting.
Laurie clearly still has some feelings for Dan of some sort but it’s also clear from her joke that she recognizes the limits to Dan’s approach to saving the world. Laurie and Dan both ran in the same circles as powerful men and gods like Adrian Veidt and Doctor Manhattan. Dan’s neighborhood efforts were certainly appreciated by those he saved but not impactful enough on the human race for God to ever care.
Where was I? The pearly gates await our next hero in line for Almighty judgment. Our hero number two is confident he can game this out because that’s his God-given talent: smarts. Some might even say he’s the smartest man in the world. “So what did you do with that big brain I gave you?” asks God. “As a matter of fact, I saved humanity, ”says Smarty Pants. “Well how’d you do that,” asks God.” “Well I dropped a giant alien squid on New York and everybody was so afraid of it they stopped being afraid of each other.” “OK,” says God. “How many people did you kill?” Smarty Pants smiles. “Three million, give or take. But you can’t make an omelet without breaking a couple of eggs. “Christ,” God says. “You’re a fucking monster.” “Am not,” says Smarty Pants. God snaps his fingers and our hero goes to hell.
And here we go. Laurie is referring to Adrian Veidt a.k.a. Ozymandias a.k.a. the smartest man in the world here…who this episode finally confirms is the character being played by Jeremy Irons. Veidt didn’t just kill Laurie’s father, he killed three million more innocent New Yorkers all in the name of peace (via giant, genetically-engineered, psychic squid monster). The details of Laurie’s joke are completely accurate in this regard.
While Laurie and Dan Dreiberg took a more case-by-case approach to vigilantism, Veidt saw the long view. The U.S. and U.S.S.R. were going to extinguish all life on the planet due to their conflict unless he did something…so he did. In this joke, however, he’s finding out that God doesn’t look too kindly on this level of cold brutality, regardless of what kind of larger mission it’s in service of.
OK. We’re down to the nitty gritty now. One hero left. God cracks his knuckles ready to administer the final reckoning. Now Hero #3 is pretty much a god himself. So for the sake of telling them apart, he’s blue and he likes to stroll around with his dick hanging out. He can teleport, he can see into the future, he blows shit up. He’s got actual superpowers. Regular God asks Blue God what have you done with these gifts?” Blue God says “I fell in love with a woman, I walked across the sun, and then I fell in love with another woman. I won the Vietnam War. But mostly I just don’t give a shit about humanity.” God sighs. “Do I even need to ask how many people you’ve killed?” Blue guy shrugs.” A live body and a dead body have the same number of particles so it doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t matter how I answer your question because I know you’re sending me to hell.” “How do you know that?” asks God. Blue God sounds very sad when he softly says “Because I’m already there.” And so, a mere piston in the inevitable of time and space God does what he did and will do. He snaps his fingers and the hero goes to hell.
So Nite Owl was too harsh and Ozymandias was too soft. Will Doctor Manhattan, the man whose powers are basically equal to God, himself, be able to strike the right balance? Obviously not. Doctor Manhattan’s sin is basic disinterest. The line “a live body and a dead body have the same number of particles” is straight from the comic. In the joke, Doctor Manhattan also understands that the die has already been cast. He can see the past, present, and future. He knows that he, and everyone else has already been damned.
With this second-to-last bit of Laurie’s joke, she condenses the “point” of Watchmen into something pithy and simple. The conclusion of Watchmen features a variety of heroes, both super and mundane, reacting to the idea of the end of the world from their own philosophical perspectives. Dan’s reaction is simple and uninspired. Veidt’s is monstrous. Manhattan’s reaction is utter indifference. And ultimately they are all wrong in their choices anyway, as they’re all still playing God’s game whatever they do. But then the final part of the joke comes in.
And so it’s been a long day at the pearly gates. All the heroes have gone to hell. His work done, God’s packing up to go home and then he notices someone waiting. But it’s not a hero, it’s just a woman. “Where did you come from?” asks God. “Oh I was just standing behind those other guys the whole time, you just didn’t see me.” “Did I give you a talent,” God asks. “No, none to speak of,” says the woman. God gives her a good long look. “I’m so sorry. I’m embarrassed. Seriously, this almost never happens but I don’t know who you are.” And the woman looks at God and she quietly says ‘I’m the little girl who threw the brick in the air.” And a sound from above, something falling: the brick. God looks up but it’s too late. He never saw it coming. It hits him so hard, his brains shoot out his nose. Game over. He’s dead. And where does God go when he dies? He goes to hell. Roll on snare drum. Curtains. Good joke.
A twist! The failed original joke Laurie tried to tell was part of the entire joke all along. The girl with the brick’s gambit works to kill God because nobody, not even the almighty, himself, expected it. At that’s fitting given how much of an afterthought Laurie sometimes feels like in the original Watchmen.
For as excellent as the original text is, Laurie doesn’t always get much to do in it. Thrust into the hero life begrudgingly by her mom, Laurie’s biggest impact in Watchmen was often limited to her relationships with other characters. She’s the Superman analogue’s girlfriend, then she’s the Batman analogue’s girlfriend. Then she’s the old antihero’s daughter.
In casting herself as the hero to take down God in this joke, Laurie is acknowledging that she knows what other people used to think of her. And she’s also acknowledging that’s what makes her so dangerous. The Laurie Blake that we get in this Watchmen is quite different from the Laurie Juspezcyk of old. This Lauire is formiddable. And a hell of a joke-teller.