This Watchmen review contains spoilers.
Watchmen Episode 8
Oh. It’s love again.
That thing they write all the songs about. The thing that’s always patient according to the Bible verse framed above the backsplash in your mom’s kitchen. That thing that sucks. That thing that hurts. That thing that heals.
Jon Osterman a.k.a. Calvin Jelani a.k.a. Cal Abar a.k.a. Doctor Manhattan knew he loved Angela Abar the moment he saw her process the news that they couldn’t win and she reached into her gun safe anyway. This moment occurs more than 10 years after they first met in a Saigon bar but he loved her every moment up until then all the same. He loved her because he knew this moment was coming, temporally-displaced deity that he is.
But even if he didn’t, he still would have loved Angela for all that time they shared…because love is all the time you share.
Watchmen episode 8 “A God Walks Into Abar” (Hey! I see what you did there) is a love story. But it’s more than that. It’s the continuation of a conversation that creator Damon Lindelof has been having with his audience about time, love, and the connection between them for more than a decade. Nearly 12 years ago, Lost aired what is almost certainly the best episode of its stellar run. The episode, positioned unassumingly as the fifth installment of the show’s fourth season, follows Desmond Hume, a Scotsman who has become unstuck in time like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim before him.
Due to a concentrated dose of electromagnetic energy, Desmond’s consciousness became lost (Hey! I see you you did there) throughout time and space, ping ponging through different points of his own life. Since temporal strain of all the time jumping threatens to destroy his brain. Time for Desmond is an equation with nothing but variables. What he needs is a constant: something to tie his past and present together. Desmond knows exactly who or what should be his constant. Cue the tears:
If Lost was Lindelof’s undergrad final on love, The Leftovers was his graduate thesis, and now comes the Ph.D defense with Watchmen. “A God Walks Into Abar,” written by Lindelof and Lost expert turned Lindelof collaborator and friend Jeff Jensen, isn’t about what happens when love encounters a paradox. It’s about how love is the paradox.
Doctor Manhattan doesn’t come down from his Eden on Europa because he needs a constant. He does because fate tells him he must. Doctor Manhattan’s omniscience has been vastly overestimated by the mere mortals here on Earth. Yes he can blow up entire Vietnamese villages with a flick of his wrist, and yes he knows what you’re going to say before you say it. But he’s still fortune’s fool just like the rest of us. He’s the puppet who can see the strings, remember?
Those strings bring the good doctor to Saigon on VVN Day 2009. He bends down to pick up a discarded Manhattan mask off the street and walks into a bar…and Abar.
“A God Walks Into Abar” is yet another remarkable feat of storytelling for Watchmen on the technical level. While previously episodes have revolved around a character’s life in the present, or a character’s life in the past, this one revolves around the past, present, and future all at once. And the ever-present now is framed through just two people in a bar, talking about what’s to come for them. The miracle of Jon Osterman’s life is that he experiences all time simultaneously The miracle of this episode is that it’s able to create a similar sensation for the viewer.
We’re there at Mr. Eddy’s bar in Saigon. And we’re there for the story of little Jonny Osterman’s childhood. We know that Jon was born into a German-American family but what we didn’t know is that his mother left his Jewish father for an SS officer, forcing Jon and his father to seek refuge at a manor much like the one Jon will one day build on Europa.
The beings that will one day be called Philips and Crookshanks were modeled after the kindly lord and lady of that manor. Jon, too young to understand what’s happening, witnesses the lord and lady undress and begin to make love before he’s caught. This marks the second character on Watchmen whose superhero origin story features a sexual element. But unlike Wade Tillman who was sexually traumatized as a teen, Jon is handled quite delicately by the lord and lady. They gently teach him about sex and give him a Bible so that he might better understand God’s will. When Doctor Manhattan becomes a God, it is his will to pay them homage.
“I made Adam and Eve not in my own image but in theirs,” he says.
“Wow. I gotta tell you, man: you’ve got a fantastic imagination.” Angela says.
Jon laughs because right now Adrian Veidt is telling him that he lacks imagination.
The biggest tool and Lindelof and Jensen’s disposal in “A God Walks Into Abar” is the way in which their titular God experiences time. It allows them to present a beautiful, ultimately gutting love story. But it also presents the opportunity to accelerate that plot to where it needs to be in such a logical, yet thrilling way. Whereas the exposition rush last week at times felt cold and clinical (much of it happens via flashback, Lady Trieu merely monologuing, or in one instance a literal plot injection), this week its graceful and logical, like a well-crafted watch.
Case in point: the Adrian of it all. Angela mentioning Manhattan’s lack of an imagination doesn’t just jog Jon’s memory of a conversation he and Veidt had but rather jogs his memory of a conversation they will have. And then we get to see said conversation mere scenes later! After Jon fully adopts his Calvin Abar identity (“ashes over Saigon”) and he and Angela have a fight over his inability to turn the whole “God” thing off, he pays a visit to an old friend in a frozen land.
Jeremy Irons has done a masterful job of depicting Adrian Veidt over seven years of his life. But he unquestionably does his best work here as the Veidt of 10 years ago, lost and alone in the cavernous halls of Karnak, his Antarctic lair.
“It’s not the ‘80s anymore, Jon. This kind of appropriation is considered quite problematic now,” Veidt says, referencing Jon’s new racial identity. Yet to Adrian it may as well still be the November 2, 1985. His hair is feathery and light and he wears a boxy, lush purple smoking jacket and a billowy scarf over his pajamas. He killed 3 million people to save the world and now all he can do is sit back with his brick of a remote control and watch us all fuck it up again.
“Reactor meltdown. IDIOTS,” he says after watching a news report. “Gave ‘em every opportunity. Solar wind. Wireless power transmission. Why oh why do they need to keep making their godforsaken bombs.”
But of course we need to keep making our godforsaken bombs. And even Doctor Manhattan, who hasn’t felt fear since 1959 knows why.
“This may appear paradoxical, but they make them feel safe,” he says.
Sometimes you just have a take a step back and appreciate the sheer gaudy triumph of nerdlore that is Watchmen. It’s an incredible series regardless of genre and is one of the few mainstream enterprises that has told the story of black America in a meaningful way. But even when it’s telling that story, with a black (and white and blue) Doctor Manhattan visiting Adrian Veidt, it’s doing so in the context of Watchmen. Watching Doctor Manhattan and Ozymandias occupy the same room again, for the first time since the latter tried to murder the former is just absolutely electrifying stuff.
Adrian is able to give Jon the one thing he wants: the amnesia device that will finally allow him to be a real boy. And in turn, Jon is able to give Adrian the one thing he wants above all else: love. Veidt saved the lives of 8 billion people and none of them (save for Jon, Laurie Blake, and Daniel Dreiberg) will ever know. They’ll never love him. Thankfully Jon just happens to know a world somewhere else filled with people just aching for someone to love.
And they do love Adrian. They love him so much that he is eventually imprisoned for the crime of trying to leave him. They love him so much that, in Watchmen’s first ever post-credits scene, one of them actually does let Adrian leave. The Game Warden delivers Veidt a cake made by one of his Philips and inside the cake is…finally, a horseshoe! Veidt gets right to work carving away at the floor below him.
“A God Walks Into Abar” is a sprawling episode of television. The plot moves from a bar in Saigon to a utopia in Europa to a lair in Antartica to Will Reeve’s home in New York and all the way back to Tulsa, Oklahoma for a thrilling battle, expertly directed by Nicole Kassell. It covers a lot of time and it covers a lot of space. But within all that time and all that space, there is still only one thing that matters: love.
Love is how you make people care about heady concepts that time, space, and all the sci-fi trappings therein. Let’s talk about Lost again real quick because I always want to. In season 5 of Lost, the show full-on embraces its initial science fiction flirtation and many of the characters go full on time traveling. When John Locke finds himself back in 1954 he gives a compass to the ageless Richard Alpert. It’s a compass that Richard Alpert originally gave to him in 2007. But if John gave Richard the compass and Richard gave John the compass then…where did the compass really come from? It’s a paradox the likes of which that Lost always excelled at. At the end of the day though, that’s all it was: a paradox, a logical flight of fancy to make the viewer wonder about an answer when ultimately there is none.
The final moments of “A God Walks Into Abar” introduces Watchmen’s own paradox. Jon walks along the water on the Abar family pool (something that Jon intriguingly tells Angela she needs to see “for later”). Jon has just teleported the Abar kids off to be with their grandpa at the Dreamland Theater in Tulsa. He’s expecting their arrival since Jon told him about it back in 2009. Of course, acolyte of the perpetual now, Jon is still with Will. So as Jon speaks with Will Reeves in 2009, he speaks with Angela in 2019 as well. Angela asks Jon to ask her grandfather a question: how did he know that Judd Crawford was part of Cyclops and had a Klan robe in his closet?
To which Will replies: “Who is Judd Crawford?”
It’s another paradox. What came first: the chicken or the egg? Who killed Judd Crawford: Will Reeves or Angela Abar? The answer ultimately doesn’t matter. Paradoxes matter only because there are people who matter and who care about the answer. The Judd Crawford paradox is the graduated version of John Locke’s compass because the people involved feel its repercussions. Angela loves Jon and loved Crawford. Perhaps she evens loves her grandpa. And here they all are wrapped up in the absurd tapestry that fate has concocted for them.
There is a relationship between time and love and Lindelof is still working out the particulars of it. For now we can confidently say this: the only real currency any of us have to spend is time. And who we spend that time with matters. Angela and Jon spent 10 years together in the tunnel of love before the Kavalry come calling. And each day of that time was a yesterday, a today, and tomorrow all in one.
“I don’t experience the concept of before,” Doctor Manhattan tells Angela in their first meeting.
They’re the words of a God who feels everything at once. Or merely the words of a man in love.