The following contains spoilers for Watchmen episode 8.
Jesus Christ once said he’d return to Earth as a lion, not a lamb. We’re still waiting to see how that turns out. But on HBO’s Watchmen Doctor Manhattan has returned. The blue god was off on Europa, building life, but as on 2009 he was a resident of Earth once again. And as Watchmen episode 8 “A God Walks into Abar” reveals, he’s a lover, not a fighter.
Doctor Manhattan has been referenced onscreen since the show’s first episode, appearing in what we now know is a doctored video of him building and breaking castles on Mars. His presence has been felt whether it be through Laurie calling collect to Mars via one of Lady Trieu‘s Manhattan phonebooth, Adriant Veidt mentioning him on Europa, or countless other characters wondering aloud where he could be.
Now we know the definitive answer to Manhattan’s whereabouts all this time. He’s been playacting as Cal Abar and living life with blissful amnesiatic harmony with Angela…at least until tragedy strikes. To better find out what’s in store for Manhattan in the clutches of the 7th Kavalry, however, let’s examine his history from the original graphic novel.
Adrian Veidt’s play The Watchmaker’s Son was a pretty accurate representation of Jon Osterman’s origins. Born in 1929 to a German-American family, Osterman was indeed the son of a watchmaker. “A God Walks Into Abar” reveals another bit of previously unknown information from his childhood. When Jon and his Jewish father were fleeing persecution from the Nazis, they found refuge in the massive British manor of two generous aristocrats. It’s in those aristocrats’ image that Jon eventually created life.
After he arrived in America, Jon had every intention of following his father’s footsteps into the timekeeping business but after the U.S. dropped two bombs on Hiroshima, the elder Osterman knew that the era of watchmakers was over. Instead, Jon became a nuclear physicist, receiving his PhD from Princeton where he witnessed Einstein discuss his theory that time is relative. Maybe his dad was right after all.
Jon’s life and the world at large changed forever on August 20, 1959 at the Gila Flats Test Base in Arizona. Jon was there working for the government and dating fellow researcher Janey Slater. When Jon realized he left a watch he repaired for Janey in the lab, he returned to retrieve it, only to accidentally get stuck in an experimental intrinsic field generator. The scientists are unable to override the safety mechanisms and Jon is obliterated, much like poor Mr. Philips was incinerated in Veidt’s play in episode 2.
But unlike poor Mr. Philips, Jon Osterman’s atoms were able to rearrange themselves, turning him into a big, blue, nigh omniscient and very, very naked superpowered being. The implications of the sudden existence of the superman in the Watchmen universe were massive. Given that Jon was already an employee of the U.S. government, the feds wasted no time in putting him, now codenamed Doctor Manhattan, to work. Doctor Manhattan helped win the Vietnam War for the U.S. Jon’s treatment of the Vietnamese is something that he now regrets as he tells Angela in the bar in Saigon when they first meet.
“As for Vietnam, I was trying to be what people wanted me to be: a soldier, a savior. If it’s any consolation, I regret it,” he says.
Regardless of his intentions or regrets, Jon’s involvement in Vietnam set off a series of snowballing events that make the world of Watchmen so markedly different from our own. While ultimately it’s the presence of heroes, beginning with Will Reeves a.k.a. Hooded Justice in the ‘30s, that sets the Watchmen timeline apart; it’s the introduction of Doctor Manhattan that accelerates it. The success of the Vietnam War allows Richard Nixon to stay in office in perpetuity, while research and work based on the miraculous existence of Doctor Manhattan led to scientific breakthroughs like the wide adoption of electric cars and research into teleportation technology that Veidt would eventually use for destructive means.
The effects of the presence of the actual ubermensch are still reverberating in this modern 2019 Watchmen world. HBO’s supplemental material for the show, Peteypedia, draws a pretty straight line between the existence of Doctor Manhattan and American society’s technophobia. When Adrian Veidt needed to get Doctor Manhattan off the planet for his own nefarious purposes, he concocted a hoax in which many people who spent time in close contact with Doctor Manhattan got cancer. It seems as though society’s fear of that event extended to the existence of the personal computer.
A Peteypedia memo from FBI director James Doyan called “The Computer and You” urges his colleagues to get over their fear of the computer as they will need it to develop their Anti-Vigilante database. The existence of Doctor Manhattan and Veidt’s psychic squid were so impactful that they basically stopped the internet in its tracks. It’s clear why society would have a continued fascination with Doctor Manhattan despite his absence. We can see this through the presence of Trieu’s bogus Doctor Manhattan booths and all the various Manhattan iconography during Angela’s time in Saigon.
On a more granular level though the presence of Doctor Manhattan also significantly changed the lives of Watchmen‘s “heroes. Despite being “the smartest man in the world” (or perhaps because of that), Veidt can’t help but understand how little that means in the presence of a being like Doctor Manhattan. The smartest man in the world to Doctor Manhattan is not much different than the smartest ant. Therefore Veidt could be every bit the Doctor Manhattan fanboy that the rest of the world is.
In fact, after Veidt enacts his villainous plan in the original Watchmen, he turns to Doctor Manhattan for approval like a son to an absent father. He wants to know if his plan was all worth it in the end. To which Doctor Manhattan famously responds: “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”
And nothing ever does truly end as Manhattan and Veidt’s unusual relationship continues in “A God Walks Into Abar.” Veidt is disheveled and broken, afraid that his one defining achievement will not hold. And even if it does, no one on Earth will know that it was he who saved the world. Veidt wants what Doctor Manhattan has. He wants to feel “an almost religious awe” from the lesser people of Earth. Thankfully, Manhattan knows just where he can find that sense of unconditional love: on Europa. In return Veidt is able to grant Jon’s wish of amnesia so that he can spend 10 years in the tunnel of love with Angela.
Speaking of love, Jon also has a significant relationship with another important figure in Watchmen: Laurie Blake. Much like Adrian did with his expository play, Laurie pretty accurately runs down the details of Jon’s life with her joke in episode 3, saying:
“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.’”
Laurie is wrong here as it turns out. Doctor Manhattan did give a shit about Earth and its people, just in his own weird God-like way. The notion that Doctor Manhattan is an all-powerful, omniscient god is a bit of a misconception. Yes, he seems like a god to us, the mere mortals of the universe, but as he once said he’s still the universe’s puppet. And what the universe wants for Jon is love. Jon Osterman and the Doctor Manhattan he would become have always been the romantic type. It’s for Janey Slater that Jon walks into the particle accelerator for. It’s for Laurie that Jon was convinced to save the world.
Laurie was able to convince Doctor Manhattan to return to help not through any logical argument she makes, but rather by displaying her own humanity upon learning that her real father was the Comedian, a man who had once assaulted her mother. To this, Doctor Manhattan says:
“Until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization it was you, only you that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold. That is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermo-dynamic miracle.
“But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget…I forget. We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantagepoint, as if new, it may still take the breath away.”
Now it’s for Angela that Jon will likely attempt to save the world once again. Doctor Manhattan fell in love with Angela because he experiences all time at once and knew the moment was coming in which she would risk her life to defend him…even though he hadn’t even met her yet. Fate, as it turns out, is more sentimental than we realize.
What fate has in store for Angela, Doctor Manhattan, and the rest of Tulsa remains to be seen. But whatever that fate is, Doctor Manhattan will certainly now be involved in it. And that has enormous consequences for the world of Watchmen.