This Watchmen review contains spoilers.
Watchmen Episode 9
Near the end of “See How They Fly,” the superb Watchmen finale, Angela Abar leaves all the silliness behind.
Frozen baby squids rain down from the sky – the latest destructive gambit from a genius vrigin to save the world. Angela picks up a surprisingly resilient lid container, holds it above her head and makes her way to the Dreamland Theater in Downtown Tulsa. She leaves behind a truly impressive tableau of chaos: two dead would-be gods in the streets – one turned into a slushee of blood and another crushed under the weight of her own egg-like quantum subterfuge. Another dead god, who Angela loved, is out there somewhere in the ether – or wherever gods go when they die.
Slowly but surely the sounds of pandemonium melt away as Angela leaves. When she enters the building it’s silent save for the now harmless patter of squid rain outside. Her grandfather, Will Reeves, sits in the first row of the theater where his life changed forever. Angela’s kids are onstage, safe and asleep in their sleeping bags under a ghost light casting a warm glow over all. After the climactic nonsense – Watchmen has arrived at its real climax: a nice chat with grandpa.
When Damon Lindelof spoke with Den of Geek prior to Watchmen premiering, he described his approach to using a comic book story to present terrible real world events thusly: “If you’re giving an audience vegetables, they’ll push them to the side of the plate. It has to feel as delicious as the rest of the meal.”
Angela’s conversation with Will prove that the vegetables have always been the best part of this meal. Any comic book based property can threaten the world and save it (though the use of frozen squid rain to do so is certainly novel). Only Watchmen can save Angela Abar.
“You take my pills?” Will softly asks his granddaughter after assuring her that everything has gone according to Jon Osterman’s plan.
Will then describes and contextualizes everything that Angela already witnessed through Will’s own skin: the theater where his world ended, Bass Reeves and his trust in the law, the hood and the mask…especially the hood and the mask.
“The hood. When I put it one, you felt what I felt?” he asks.
“Anger,” Angela replies.
“That’s what I thought too. But it wasn’t. It was fear. Hurt.”
You wanted a thermodynamic miracle? Here it is. No show in recent memory has made the past feel more crushingly, heartbreakingly alive than Watchmen. Nostalgia may be the pain from an old wound according to Don Draper, or an FDA-approved therapy to Lady Trieu, but to the Black Americans on Watchmen it’s something even more complicated and fraught than any of that.
When he’s not busy moonlighting as the Secretary of the Treasury in Watchmen’s alternate universe, Henry Louis “Skip” Gates hosts Finding Your Roots in ours. The episodes of Finding Your Roots featuring Black guests are usually the most bittersweet. One of the series most famous and effective installments is episode 4 in which musician Questlove discovers that his ancestors came to the U.S. as slaves aboard the Clotilda…the final ship to ever bring African slaves to the New World.
The past exists on a knife’s edge for Black America. And all the landing spots off of that knife are as equally painful as being impaled upon it. The best thing Watchmen ever did was capturing that sense of historical anxiety, and doing it in a literal context, not a metaphorical one. Angela confronted generational trauma by actively experiencing her ancestors’ pain and trying to understand it. Now, at the end, the sum total of all the pain from the past comes back to crash over Angela like an angry wave.
Angela once picked up a badge and later a mask to hide from all the pain. And yet here she is experiencing it once again as her children sleep soundly on stage in front of her, a theatrical portrait of a brighter future.
“You can’t heal under a mask, Angela. Wounds need air,” Will says.
Watchmen can’t heal the pain that Will and then later Angela experienced. No one can. But Watchmen does know what won’t help. Through sheer plotting and empathy, the show figures out what kind of person puts on a mask. It’s important to know who watches the watchmen but it’s also important to know what made them think they should be watchmen in the first place.
Consider the vegetables eaten and enjoyed.
The emotional catharsis presented at the end of Watchmen’s most important storyline means that this finale can’t possibly fail. The rest of it could have been 22 minutes of Watchmen Babies and still have succeeded because Angela and Will simply shared a quiet conversation. As a professional courtesy, however, writers Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse ensure that these final 67 minutes contain a little more action than that.
“See How They Fly” is a victory in every possible arena. It fulfills the heady concepts of the show’s premiere, in which a little boy watched a movie and then watched a more violent, terrifyingly real one. We were promised a show that would examine the United State’s racial past and present just like the original Watchmen examined the ‘80s paranoia of nuclear annihilation. We got it. And we got it on Watchmen’s own comic book terms.
There is pure comic book joy to be found in “See How They Fly.” Witness Laurie’s bemused “…Mirror Guy?” upon seeing Wade or Laurie’s equally bemused reaction to seeing Veidt and wondering if she’s in hell (turns out a lot of Watchmen’s appeal is simply Laurie running into people). Each character gets to confront the pain of their own past. Angela reconnects with her grandfather and her past. Laurie atones for the sins of hers. Veidt finally answers for crimes. Wade gets to arrest the man who made him live his life in fear.
We even get something resembling a compelling supervillain inasmuch as Watchmen has supervillains rather than just individuals with complex moral ideologies. More impressively, the supervillain isn’t just Joe Keene and his band of dumb Kavalry dickheads.
Keene, Jane Crawford, and the rest of the Order of the Cyclops believe that they can use Doctor Manhattan’s power to establish a new world order under whiteness. To them, the real tyrant has never been the blue god who can turn whole Vietnamese villages to ash with the flick of his wrist but rather the Hollywood president who can make their lives slightly more annoying.
Once they realized that there was power and influence far beyond what the White House could offer living here in Tulsa, their plan for national domination changed. The Crawfords befriended the Abars to get closer to Doctor Manhattan while the 7th Kavalry went about collecting lithium to create the walls of Manhattan’s eventual prison. That their plan ultimately fails is due to their own ignorance and arrogance. You’ve got to filter the atomic energy! Everyone knows that, stupid!
The real supervillain of Watchmen is the shadow of Watchmen’s first. Lady Trieu is every bit her father’s daughter as she is her mother’s. Yes, Veidt unknowingly and unwillingly fathered a child thanks to Bian’s boldness and the weakness of his computer password (Bian joins Dan Dreiberg in the society of individuals who have correctly guessed that the guy who calls himself Ozymandias’s password is simply “Rameses II”).
Trieu grew up believing that she was destined for great things because of her lineage and intelligence. She went toe to toe with her father, built a trillion-dollar empire, found Doctor Manhattan, and put into motion a plan to harvest Doctor Manhattan’s power.
It’s here that Watchmen finally reveals the other theme that’s been running along concurrently with its explorations of race in America all this time. It’s power – the pursuit of it, the fetishization of it, and the application of it. Everybody in “See How They Fly” believes they can use Doctor Manhattan’s power better than he can from the Kavalry to Lady Trieu to even Will Reeves (“Considering what he could do…he could have done more”).
After Doctor Manhattan zaps Veidt, Laurie, and Wade to Antarctica (in a nice touch, Laurie has gotten over her teleportation-induced nausea but Wade isn’t as lucky), the trio ponders the nature of Trieu’s plan and whether they should interfere with it.
“She claims she’s going to fix the world,” Veidt tells Laurie and Wade.
“How do you know she won’t?” Wade asks.
“Because she’s a raging narcissist. Anyone who seeks the power of a god must be stopped at all costs from attaining it.”
Trieu’s worldview proves to be a touch less complex than previous Watchmen heroes like objectivist Rorschach or the nihilist Comedian. Trieu believes in, above all else, herself. And that’s the problem. She believes she can use power to make the world a better place. Doctor Manhattan, for all his supposed omniscience never eliminated nukes, solved world hunger, or even merely multiplied loaves of bread. He did what the government told him to do and once he was sick of that, he took off to outer space to play with his rocks and eventually create some life ineffectual enough that it couldn’t even imprison Adrian Veidt properly. What Trieu and everyone else is missing is that gaining Doctor Manhattan’s power also means gaining Doctor Manhattan’s burdens. He may be a god, yes; but there’s still “The God” out there whether that be an actual intelligent creator, the mysterious forces of the universe, or just boring old luck itself.
To be Doctor Manhattan is to know that nothing ever ends. And its humanity’s inability to comprehend that makes us so ill-equipped for handle Manhattan’s powers. Both Trieu and Keene wanted the power as a means to an end, whether that end be peace and harmony or terror and subjugation. But neither of those concepts are an end. After the nukes are gone, we’ll still be here to make more of them. Adrian Veidt once believed he saved the world and yet here he is again, trying to save it once more with a “rerun” no less. Nothing. Ever. Ends.
Even the end of Doctor Manhattan isn’t the end of Doctor Manhattan. As Trieu’s egg-like device is sucking Manhattan’s atomic essence up into the air (or uh…something like that), he shares his touching final moments with Angela. Except they aren’t his final moments. He already experienced them the first time he and Angela met. How could they really be the end? When Angela asks Jon where he is right now he tells her “I’m in every moment we were together all at once.”
Those moments never go away. They never end like the nuclear shadow of two lovers embracing on a wall. Ultimately, Doctor Manhattan’s powers themselves never even go away. Will tells Angela that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. It’s something Laurie once said in her joke about Adrian Veidt and it’s something that Doctor Manhattan, himself, told Will to tell Angela. She’ll know when the moment is right.
And she does. When she goes to clean up the egg debris from the night that Jon came out of the tunnel, she finds a single unharmed egg still in the carton. Jon said that theoretically he could imbue his powers in an object and whoever consumed that object would gain them. So Angela eats the raw egg and tests to see if she can walk on water. But the screen cuts out there, and “I Am the Walrus” roars.
Angela’s story cannot simply end. The story of power and those it corrupts cannot simply end. The story of America’s racist past and the masks that hide it cannot simply end. Nothing ever does.