This Watchmen review contains spoilers.
Watchmen Episode 3
“But doctor…I am Pagliacci.”
In discussing his involvement with Shudder’s Creepshow reboot, horror writer Joe Hill had some (unsurprisingly) useful insights on the genre. In some ways, Hill said, good short horror has the structure of a good joke: set up, payoff, profit.
He’s right, of course, but that ultra-elemental, simplified storytelling perspective isn’t unique to just horror. Pretty much any and all genres of storytelling can and frequently have made use of joke telling as an inspiration. Now Watchmen has joined the ranks as well. Watchmen episode 3 “She Was Killed By Space Junk” doesn’t just adopt the structure of a joke – with the episode’s falling car conclusion serving as a punchline for last episode’s setup – its very backbone is a joke.
In “Space Junk’s” first scene, Agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) a.k.a. Laurie Juspeczyk a.k.a. Silk Spectre a.k.a. The Comedienne, daughter of The Comedian, walks into a big blue futuristic phone booth. A robotic female voice reveals that this is one of Lady Trieu’s fast orbital arrays. Simply pick up the phone, speak, and transmit your message to Doctor Manhattan on Mars. Laurie opts to tell the big blue lug a joke.
“Hey, it’s me again. I’ve got a joke. Stop me if you’ve heard this one…” she says before proceeding to tell a joke that absolutely no one has heard. Three (very familiar sounding) heroes die and go to hell and one (very familiar sounding) girl kills God with a brick. That’s an oversimplification obviously but the nuts and bolts of Laurie’s joke are among the most fascinating bits of material this show has produced yet (not to mention just a great joke). Laurie’s delivery of the lengthy parable lasts throughout the entirety of the episode, punctuated by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s absolutely marvelous score.
But when Laurie finishes it, she seems far more unfulfilled than someone who just delivered a killer punchline should be. Ultimately she knows that no joke she tells can be funnier than the one already told by the recorded robotic message. ”Doctor Manhattan is listening.”
Doctor Manhattan isn’t listening. He stopped listening a long time ago, if he ever listened at all. Doctor Manhattan doesn’t give a shit. Her father’s daughter that she is, Laurie knows a great joke when she hears one. The closest thing we have to God abandoning the human race…and more importantly, her, is a great joke.
Welcome to the feel good episode of the season! Despite God’s disinterest in our species (something of a recurring Damon Lindelof theme), and a white supremacist terrorist attack at a funeral, “She Was Killed By Space Junk” is a pleasant, exciting, and simply fun episode of television.
Most of the credit for that, of course, begins with one Jean Smart and her portrayal of Watchmen OG Laurie Blake. When Damon Lindelof opted to include characters from the previous Watchmen in this iteration, episodes like this are likely precisely why. Laurie positively glides through this thing as though she has experienced this all before, because in a way she has. As Silk Spectre II turned Anti-Vigilante Task Force FBI agent, dealing with the ins and outs and masked vigilantes and shadowy conspiracies comes so easy to Laurie Blake. And the casual ease in which she inserts herself into the plot makes “Space Junk” a real treat.
Laurie receives the briefing on goings-on in Oklahoma and opts to head there, herself. After all who can possibly help with this masked Tulsa PD situation better than someone who wore the mask herself? Only with the FBI director’s cajoling does she agree to bring along….*FORTY MINUTE AIR SIREN* Peeeeteeeeeey! (yes, that Petey: Watchmen superfan from HBO’s Peteypedia).
Things really seem to ramp up and the plot begins to accelerate in “She Was Killed By Space Junk” and it’s precisely because Laurie is our lead. She’s the one who can quickly dispatch “Shadow” (Revenger was last week she tells Senator Joe Keene) with an ingenious bank robbery honeypot. She’s the one who can notice the wheelchair tracks below Judd’s hanging tree. She’s the one who can immediately work out that Angela a.k.a. Sister Night is an important part of this story and is also likely hiding something.
Laurie is a blast from Watchmen’s past, coming in to this new Watchmen world and pointing out everything that is silly on its surface. Defense of Police Act (DOPA)? Come on, dude. Pirate Jenny and Red Scare? Seriously? This Looking Glass creep wears a mirror for a mask? Like…really? He’s got a racism detector? Oh whatever.
Laurie spends the entirety of the episode batting 1.000 (come to think of it, the only thing she may get wrong is the Seventh Kavalry member’s dead man’s switch being real). What a treasure Smart is here. For as brilliant as the original Watchmen is, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons likely underutilized Laurie/Silk Spectre. All the other heroes (save Nite Owl) represent some larger political or philosophical perspective while Laurie was just “Dan Dreiberg” but hotter.
Smart and episode writers Lindelof and Lila Byock find a beautiful level of playfulness borne out of Laurie’s well-earned confidence. Dan’s in prison, Jon Osterman’s on Mars, Walter Kovacs is dead, Adrian Veidt is…somewhere. Laurie is the real world’s last living connection to an older era of heroes. She might as well be every bit the god that Doctor Manhattan is. Petey certainly seems to think so. And Laurie knows that and acts accordingly.
The sense of fun and pure sleuthing competence that Laurie brings to the proceedings elevates the show to an entirely new level. Through two episodes Watchmen has been heavy, interesting, and necessary. Now it’s all those things but also weirdly playful. Each time Laurie and compatriots complete one portion of the episode, Laurie, accompanied by that thrilling, buzzing score, tells another portion of her joke. The effect is a relentlessly propulsive, fun experience. Raise your hand if you ever anticipated TV’s sweetheart Jean Smart pulling an ENORMOUS space age Doctor Manhattan dildo out of a briefcase. Now put your hand down, perv.
It also helps that for once, the madcap fun of the main storyline matches the lunacy of the Veidt storyline, making it seem like the world is starting to synthesize. And yes, we can finally call the scenes with Jeremy Irons, the “Veidt storyline.” Probably Who You Think He Is turns out to be who you think he is. Surprise!
“I never doubted you, master,” An ill-fated Mr. Phillips tells Adrian as he fits him with some jerry-rigged armor.
“That’s because, Mr. Philips, you are incapable of doubt,” Adrian responds. “Nevertheless I appreciate the sentiments.”
Then Adrian launches Mr. Philips into the sky via a trebuchet. There’s still a mad scientist in a kids movie energy to all the Veidt proceedings here. Mr. Philips returns as an icicle after all. And after Adrian shoots a bison, he receives a bullet and a sternly, yet politely worded letter. But already we’re starting to see the beginning signs of some thematic similarities between Veidt and everyone else. Just by the mere fact that the show is beginning to reveal more about Veidt’s presumed captivity makes it all seem less ridiculous (though no less entertaining). There’s a clear method to this madness and that’s to keep Veidt far away from the world he helped shape.
“She Was Killed By Space Junk” feels like a neck crack of an episode for Watchmen. The show thrust viewers into this world in an excellent, yet disorienting premiere. The second hour served to deepen the mystery and sharpen the stakes. Now by hour three, Laurie has arrived to make sure we’re all in this together, still disoriented, but having a good time.