This Watchmen review contains spoilers.
Watchmen Episode 7
“People who wear masks are driven by trauma,” Agent Laurie Blake is fond of telling anyone who will listen.
So far she appears to be batting 1.000 with that theory. Angela Abar, Wade Tillman, Will Reeves, and even Laurie herself all clearly donned masks to hide from their own pain. Hell, even Red Scare is undoubtedly dealing with some deep-seated issues, given how he eats Cheetos with a fork like an absolute sociopath.
But if people who wear masks are driven by trauma, what the hell are people who wear badges driven by? Midway through Watchmen episode 7 “An Almost Religious Awe” Angela Abar gets a police badge.
It’s not the police badge she will earn one day as detective in the Tulsa Police Department – instead this badge reads “Saigon Police Department. It’s given to a young Angela by a Vietnamese police officer for being a brave little girl as she expresses a desire to hear a bullet enter the skull of the man who helped murder her parents. As Angela reaches out to touch the badge, her memory of the event, now corrupted and spliced with her grandfather’s history, flashes three different badges all at once: the Saigon badge, Will Reeve’s NYPD badge, and Judd Crawford’s blood-stained Tulsa PD badge.
Across time, across space, across everything, the uniform a woman wears (or the badge she holds) changes her. Often for the worse.
Seven episodes in, Watchmen remains remarkably committed to its themes even in otherwise “slow” episodes. And yes: despite the most madcap Adrian Veidt circus yet, a mind-blowing third act twist, and an actual explosion, “An Almost Religious Awe” is somehow Watchmen’s least explosive episode thus far.
Laurie even finds herself exhausted by her own plot at one point. After she uncovers the The Order of the Cyclops and the Seventh Kavalry connection thanks to Angela’s unconscious ramblings, she visits the widow Jane Crawford. Laurie gets a villain monologue from Jane much quicker than she expects and a trap door exit to boot. Then when she finds herself tied to a chair in the Kavalry’s department store headquarters, awaiting another villain monologue from Joe Keene, she just can’t stand it.
“I’m tired Joe. I’m tired of all the silliness,” she says.
To which Joe responds with something exponentially sillier than anything Laurie has experienced thus far.
“You’re wrong about Cyclops,” he says. “We’re not racist. The scales have tipped too far and it’s extremely difficult to be a white man in America right now. So I’m thinking I might try being a blue one.”
This is all actually quite fun. This late in the game, some further elements of Keene/The Seventh Kavalry/Cyclops’ plan must come into clearer focus. And the fact that Laurie lives through a ‘60s era James Bond movie to get those answers is perfectly in keeping with Watchmen’s pulpy roots. Despite Adrain Veidt’s assertion that he’s not a Republic serial villain, both versions of Watchmen have no problem adopting kooky elements of Republic serials…right down to the trap door.
However fun the silliness might be at times, the problem is that “An Almost Religious Awe” (so-named for the likely racist and inaccurate term an academic in the original graphic novel universe used to describe the Vietnamese’s reverence for Doctor Manhattan), finds itself in an awkward part of the season. Watchmen lost a lot of time it could have used for a more gradual endgame setup in the flashback centric “This Extraordinary Being.” Not that the show should have changed a thing about last week’s episode as it remains a highlight of the season and may even end up as a TV all-timer. It’s just that the Will Reeves revelation was an all-night party for Watchmen and now comes the hangover. Still, all hangovers should be this fun.
If Laurie is tired of the silliness at the JC Penny Klan headquarters, imagine how she’d feel if she were with Veidt this week. Veidt’s scenes throughout the season have often taken on a weird Looney Tunes quality but none have been quite as cartoonish or in turn satisfying than his trial.
For starters, let’s just take a moment to reflect upon how perfect Jeremy Irons looks in that Ozymandias outfit. The sight of a the smartest man in the world, old, broken down, despondent, and yet still adorned in brilliant purple and gold is just marvelous imagery. The particulars of his trial, populated entirely of course by a variety of Philips and Crookshanks, are properly ludicrous. When Judge Game Warden brings in the only beings he consider to be Adrian’s peers, a squadron of squealing swine, it’s utterly ridiculous. But theres’ also an air of sadness. A single tear drips down Adrian’s cheek as the assembled cheerfully shout “guilty!” at him.
Adrian Veidt is guilty of many things to be clear, but what he’s charged with here is the least of his crimes. He seems to just want to go home, as anyone on Europa surrounded by simple-brained clones would. Is that what his tears are for – simple frustration? Or is the enormity of his actions finally catching up to him? Perhaps he was just moved to tears by the majesty of his own fart. Like all Veidt scenes thus far, there are no conclusive answers. At least this Veidt sojourn is by far the most entertaining one yet.
Despite fascinating drop ins with Laurie and Adrian, Angela’s post-Nostalgia struggles and flashbacks to Vietnam make up the majority of the episode. You have to appreciate how emphatically the episode makes the case that what Angela did in taking those pills was extremely dangerous. Characters can say “never take someone else’s nostalgia” all they want but until we’re treated with the aftereffects, it’s an empty threat. Obviously Angela Abar was never going to die from a Nostalgia overdose two episodes before the finale, but at least “An Almost Religious Awe” keeps her bedridden for half its runtime.
Lady Trieu even reveals that she’s gone through the Nostalgia detox tutorial five times now, but Angela’s shattered memory just can’t hold on to the interaction. This point is hammered home even more spectacularly when Angela goes snooping and comes across an elephant in the room. No like, really: an actual elephant in an actual room. Angela is not hooked up to her grandfather like she assumed, but rather an enormous, sedated pachyderm. This only makes sense as the damage to Angela’s brain requires a literally big solution. They always say elephants have a great memory.
Of course, the brief physical sidelining of Angela also allows the show a convenient excuse to break into her own brain space without it feeling redundant following the story of Will Reeves. The flashbacks to Angela’s time as a child in Vietnam are just like every other sojourn to the past in this show: superb. For a series that views nostalgia as a dangerous concept to the point that it introduced a dangerous tangible representation of it, Watchmen sure does excel when dealing with the past.
The episode’s opening scenes once again effectively fill out the details of this world. For the first time in the show, we see Vietnam in its early days as an American state and it’s a study in contrasts. The Vietnamese citizenry does indeed seem to enjoy the revelry of VNN (can’t wait to fire up Peteypedia this week and find out what “VVN” stands for. “Vietnam Victory…Nay?”), and the Doctor Manhattan iconography is everywhere for the occasion.
The blue god appears on a VHS movie in a movie shop, as a mask, and as most thrillingly: a puppet (“We’re all puppets, Laurie. I’m just a puppet who can see the strings”). But there’s a darkness underneath it all. Vietnam may technically be a state but soldiers like Angela’s father remain on the streets as a friendly reminder that this is occupied territory. Naturally this leads to domestic terrorism, which in turn orphans Angela.
If masks hide trauma and uniforms change people, Angela Abar has had her mask and uniform picked out from a young age. When her grandmother arrives to take her home. Angela proudly shows off her two possessions: a police badge and a VHS copy of blaxploitation film Sister Night. When Angela’s grandmother dies suddenly right before she can take her back to Tulsa, the badge and the tape are all Angela has left. The story of young Angela’s life cuts off there but it’s not hard to imagine her sitting and stewing with those two items, adopting the mask and being changed by the uniform all up until the present day when she’s sharing a nice chat with Lady Trieu.
Speaking of Lady Trieu, she gets her most screen time of the season yet here and Hong Chau and the writers make the most of it. It’s a little frustrating not to know the full extent of Trieu’s plan yet but her assertion that she is going to “save the world” is a start.
Trieu tells Angela, the same woman who just experienced many decades of her grandfather’s life, that Bian is not really her daughter, but rather a clone of her mother. The IV drip of memories that she’s been receiving at night are her own memories. Trieu is about to pull off something enormous and when she does, she wants her mother there. As Trieu gives a speech to commemorate the final hour before the clock launches (holy shit, this came on fast) she speaks about what she perceives to be her only failure: Nostalgia. And she blames the misapplication of the drug rather than the existence of it.
“They were afraid that once unburdened by the trauma of the past they would have no excuse not to move gloriously into the future,” she says of Nostalgia abusers, and deliberately ignoring the reality that she has a living scion of her past living with her.
Still, if anyone on Watchmen has “the answers,” Lady Trieu is the best candidate. As Angela soon discovers following her elephant encounter, Trieu has had access to all the world’s prayers this whole time. Angela approaches a globe in a dark, empty room and begins pressing locations. As she does, feed from Doctor Manhattan phone booths pop up from around the world. “Necessito ayuda. Yo tengo cáncer el de cerebro” one woman says, heartbreakingly. Then there’s a more familiar woman.“I don’t know why I keep coming to these stupid phone booths and telling you jokes. It’s not like you ever had a sense of humor. I know you’re probably never gonna hear this anyway. Sometimes it’s nice to pretend.” And it has all been pretend. Because Doctor Manhattan isn’t on Mars. He’s in Tulsa, inside the body of another familiar face.
Cal as Doctor Manhattan is undoubtedly Watchmen’s most instense reveal yet…but is also, somewhat counterintuitively, the weakest part of this particular episode. The idea that Jon Osterman a.k.a. Doctor Manhattan has been living in the vessel known as Calvin Abar is truly riveting stuff. The future implications of said reveal are immense and positively buzzing with possibilities. But within the context of “An Almost Religious Awe” that’s all they are: possibilities.
The answers to the questions following the Manhattan reveal may ultimately make Watchmen a better TV series (and they probably will as I trust Watchmen more than the sun rising each morning at this point) but they also make this installment fundamentally worse. Thematically, the introduction of Doctor Manhattan is at odds with the artistically appealing idea that our god would abandon us. Sweet, mild-mannered Cal is also at odds with the destructive power of Manhattan we see in Vietnam at the episode’s beginning. Let’s not forget that this man is a walking thermonuclear war crime.
The presence of Doctor Manhattan in the Reeves/Abar household is also positively Star Wars-ian in its implications. Just as Star Wars constantly threatens to reduce the story of every one in the galaxy to the story of the Skywalker family, Watchmen now seems on a path to do the same. Hooded Justice’s granddaughter fell in love with Doctor Manhattan? I suppose that’s not much different than Silk Spectre’s daughter falling in love with Doctor Manhattan but for that to happen twice and for both women to happen to be in Tulsa at the same time feels like lightning striking twice.
Still, Watchmen will make sense of it all this because that’s what Watchmen does. Through seven episodes, this show has proved itself to be an absolute master of set up and delivery (much like one of Laurie’s jokes). “An Almost Religious Awe” suffers from a little too much setup but in the end, I suspect we’ll all be glad for this hour we spent in the shadow of Lady Trieu’s Millennium Clock.