The following contains spoilers for Watchmen episode 9.
Every iteration of Watchmen needs a defining symbol. HBO’s opted for an egg.
The best known symbol from the original Watchmen is a yellow smiley face splattered with blood. The image recurred throughout the series and became an iconic visual cue of the book’s depiction of the superhero myth splashed with an uncomfortable smidge of reality.
HBO’s Watchmen’s first episode paid homage to that smiley when a drop of blood falls from the hanged Judd Crawford’s body onto his sheriff’s badge. Even before that, however, Angela Abar arranges a smiley face made of egg yolks, with a little smidge of blood visible at the top. It’s the egg homage to the original smiley face that eventually gives way to this Watchmen’s predominant visual motif: the egg itself.
Eggs are all over Watchmen. As Angela makes her egg smiley face in episode 1, she teachers her son Topher’s class how to make bánh pía and discusses the properties of egg whites and egg yolks. In the show’s second episode, Will Reeves frees himself from Angela’s kitchen prison to go buy some eggs to hard boil. Episode four introduces us to the Clark family, farmers on the edge of Tulsa who sell their eggs on the side of the road.
Then in the show’s final two episodes, the egg becomes an important totem to the show’s actual endgame. Jon Osterman a.k.a. Doctor Manhattan conjures an egg out of thin air when Angela asks him to prove his godly powers. Later when Angela asks whether Jon can transfer his power to others he says that it is theoretically possible if he transfers his power to organic material and then it’s consumed by someone else. Organic material like an egg, perhaps?
Eggs are important in Watchmen because they are an important part of the themes it’s trying to communicate. While the original Watchmen dealt with masked vigilantes in a world on the edge of nuclear annihilation, this one deals with America’s racist, past, present, and likely future. In other words, it deals with generations and how they interact with one another. Angela Abar not only meets her long lost grandfather, she gets to experience what he experienced many years ago. Lady Trieu not only meets her own powerful father, she tries to prove that she can save the world more effectively than he can.
Dealing with the mistakes and triumphs of our ancestors is important to Watchmen. But even more important to the show is dealing with their pain. Watchmen raises an interesting (and potentially real) psychological concept in its fifth episode, the Looking Glass centric “Little Fear of Lightning.” As Wade Tillman hosts a support group for those effected by the inter-dimensional squid attack, one young attendee reveals that he still feels the psychic trauma of the event even though he wasn’t there…because his mother was there
“There’s this thing: genetic trauma,” he says. “Basically if something really bad happens to your parents, it gets locked into their DNA. So when my mom got hit by the blast, even though I wasn’t born until 10 years after 11/2, it’s like I inherited her pain.”
Watchmen is ultimately a story of intergenerational trauma. And if you’re telling a story of intergenerational trauma, an egg is a pretty apt emblem to adopt. Eggs are widely recognized symbols of fertility, procreation, and potential. An egg is a building block for life, easily understood by all.
The egg also proves to be a versatile symbol. There are so many idioms about eggs that Watchmen is able to use them to tie its proposition about generational pain into other themes. When Angela realizes that she was the one who unwittingly told her grandfather about the Klan robe in Judd Crawford’ closet, she reacts with horror. Who really killed Judd Crawford: Angela or Will? Jon can only chuckle and muse “what came first: the chicken or the egg.” The egg question is here to help conceptually represent the difficult paradoxes that Jon’s time-hopping consciousness creates.
The show also presents the phrase “you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” In episode three Laurie uses the phrase as part of her joke to describe Veidt’s violent approach to saving the world. The second time it’s brought up is in the finale when Will tells Angela that idiom at Doctor Manhattan’s behest. It’s a phrase that Angela will recognize the importance of at the proper moment. That proper moment comes when Angela realizes Doctor Manhattan may have left a power-imbued egg behind. Angela discovers an unbroken egg in a carton of smashed ones. Remembering Jon’s words she consumes the egg and attempts to walk on water to see if Jon was right. We never get to see if he was.
The thing about symbols is that they don’t have to necessarily be useful tools within the context of the story to be important. For eight episodes, eggs are important to Watchmen as a visual motif. Then it is final episode, Watchmen elevates an egg to an object of potential world-altering import.
And that’s what the best comic books and comic book adaptations do. They take the metaphorical and make it literal. Watchmen didn’t present a Tulsa Massacre-like event as an inspiration for its characters, it used that event itself and then populated the story with black Americans effected by it instead of metaphorical superhero cyphers.
In the end the metaphor of the egg became real. The concept of generational pain represented by eggs gives way to an actual egg with the power to potentially fix it.