Damon Lindelof’s series comes to a conclusion that is as evocative and satisfying as it is rushed.
So here we are, at the end of what is, by many people’s metrics, an astonishing, perfect season of television. Watchmen‘s been one of the biggest TV surprises of the year — look out tomorrow morning for further praise of it on this space as one of the best TV shows of 2019 — and its intricate, narratively dense plotting has led to eight straight episodes of pure-strain genius. But here we are at the Watchmen season finale, Damon Lindelof and co. reaching the apotheosis of its puzzle-box storytelling and intricate commentary on both its source material and America as an idea.
I shamefully skipped a recap of last week’s incredible episode, an hour-long meditation on the flexibility of time and the constancy of love that also served as an incredible re-introduction of Dr. Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to the world of the show; it was a combination of being too busy and too overwhelmed with the enormity of the show’s scope at that point. Recapping this season has been a months-long exercise in feeling wholly inadequate to express the mastery of the ideas on display. Better critics than I, especially critics of color dealing with the show’s themes of historical injustice and the timelessness of love, have written far more eloquently on its ideas than I ever could. But as the season winds to a close, I’ll give it my level best.
Like many a Watchmen prologue, we begin with a cheeky flashback that fills in some much-needed gaps in the whirlwind chronology on display: it’s 11/2/1985, the day that Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons) sends an alien squid to New York to save the planet. A Vietnamese cleaning lady sneaks into his office, finds the semen samples he keeps in a vault behind a portrait of Alexander the Great, and fertilizes herself in vitro with his super-smart seed. (She replaces the liquid with hand lotion, natch.) We can intuit that this is Lady Trieu’s mother, Bian (played as a teen by Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), and by extension this explains Trieu’s own genius: she’s the offspring of the Smartest Man in the World.
Flash forward to 2008, and this is exactly what a young Trieu (Hong Chau) explains to a washed-up Veidt in Karnak. Not only that, she has a plan to express that intellect: she wants to take Dr. Manhattan’s power, and wants a loan to make it happen. While he refuses, his eventual exile to Europa dovetails nicely with her desire to send a satellite past that location in, say, five years.
This is when Veidt’s entire storyline falls into place: turns out everything we’ve been seeing, the endless melodrama concerning his imprisonment and trial by the Phillipses and Cookrshankses, has taken place prior to 2013. The gold statue of Old Ozy we saw in Trieu’s offices just a few episodes ago? That’s the real Ozy, encased in gold like Han Solo in so much carbonite after being shuttled back to Earth. That kind of droll bit is perfectly in line with Lindelof’s darkly comic sensibilities throughout the show’s run thus far: it’s the sort of mystery-box nonsense people lambasted him for in the Lost era, suffused with enough grim mirth to make it the kind of sad joke the Comedian would be so proud of.
But of course, the rest of the episode has to wrap all of the season’s elements up: the Seventh Kavalry, the eventual fate of Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan, Will Reeves, and the ongoing spectre of Lady Trieu’s plan to steal Manhattan’s powers. Over the course of the 67 minutes that comprise “See How They Fly,” a lot of balls are juggled in the air, even more than usual, and for the first time in the show’s history, its narrative ambitions somewhat cave in on themselves. The end product is still satisfying, and its invocations for the second season still intrigue, but there’s just so much to work through that some of the balls get dropped.
The end product is still satisfying, and its invocations for the second season still intrigue, but there’s just so much to work through that some of the balls get dropped.
To its credit, “Fly” focuses on the right things — Angela’s (Regina King) all-encompassing desire to save Cal/Manhattan from being killed, the quest to stop Trieu’s plan, and Ozy’s own desire for relevance and visibility. It all culminates at the 7K base, where Trieu has tricked them into stealing Manhattan away into a cage made of lithium (a material only found in watch batteries, a fitting prison for the son of a watchmaker). Of course, the blustering Senator Keene (James Wolk), stripping down to a pair of pointy black Manhattan undies, gets his chance to go on about white grievance politics (the biggest sin is making white people “say sorry” for the crimes of their ancestors, he claims) before stepping into a Seth Brundle Fly machine and getting melted by Manhattan’s energy in the attempt.
That’s just the first of many quick, sweeping resolutions the episode (and the season) gets, and some work better than others. Angela’s goodbye to Manhattan — a heartfelt encapsulation of the love story we only really knew about one episode ago — is a beautiful moment, encased in paired, pained closeups between Abdul-Mateen and King, eyes swimming with love they both know is at its end. The decision to kill off Manhattan, the one indestructible character in the comics’ mythos, is a ballsy move, but one that fits nicely with the show’s desire to rip down old systems and make room for new ones. “I’m in every moment we were together, all at once,” is a lovely note to end Jon Osterman’s life: rediscovering his humanity, even in his last moments of existence.
Narratively, Angela’s just kind of along for the ride, the rest of the show’s events being driven by a calculating, vengeful Veidt, now newly returned to Earth and dismayed at how little impact he has really made on the planet after saving it. In a fateful meeting with Seymour (Robert Ray Wisdom), the Smartest Man Alive learns that nobody really cares what happened to him after being told he looks like Veidt (“You could do birthday parties and shit”). If there’s one thing Veidt wants more than to save the world, it’s to be seen saving the world. So naturally, after being zapped to his old base of Karnak alongside a captured Laurie (Jean Smart) and a disguised Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), he sets out modifying his baby-squid machine to rain down a barrage of frozen squid onto Trieu’s machine before she can turn herself into a Manhattan-like god.
It’s a rather neat resolution that feels somewhat earned, albeit rushed. After all of the buildup surrounding Laurie and LG, for instance (both had entire episodes surrounding them), they feel like bystanders in the final events of the season, left helpless but to watch and make minor decisions as to the world-ending consequences around them. Even LG’s near-death experience at his house seems to do nothing more than give him an in to disguise himself as a 7K member and be right there with the rest of the action. That said, their presence provides a welcome human contrast to Veidt’s bombast; few moments in the episode land better than Veidt getting knocked out mid-speech (and mid- the millionth reference to “Lachrymosa” in the show’s score) by LG whacking him with a wrench. “That guy talks too much.”
And then, the series effectively ends as it began — in the Dreamland theater (the rain fittingly knocking out the letters till it reads DR M) where we first saw the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, with Will (Louis Gossett Jr.) and Angela’s kids, teleported unconsciously to the Oklahoma! stage. So much of Watchmen has dealt with the trauma of missing family history (especially in the context of racial violence), and it’s strangely nice to see Angela make peace with her missing grandfather, a man who killed her boss and best friend a matter of weeks ago. After all, with Manhattan out of the picture, Angela (like after the Long Night), has to pick up the pieces and start a new life. That might as well start with bringing Hooded Justice into her home.
It’s here, then, that we reach the real reveal of the season — the implication that Dr. Manhattan can transfer his powers to someone else, into something simple and edible, like an egg. Angela clocks this just as we do, and she heads out to the pool, downs the raw egg like a hungry Jawa, and her toes slowly sink toward the water. Whether she sinks or floats, that’s a whole other story.
As Watchmen wraps up its inaugural season, there’s a whole lot to think about, and even writing nearly 2000 words of prose on this barely scratches the surface of what this show — and this season — has been all about. Like The Leftovers, Lindelof’s concerns blend the ordinary with the sublime, the existential terror of ordinary humans brushing up against cosmic events they can’t possibly understand.
ButWatchmen weaves that in with stark reminders of the evils of racial injustice, the whims of the powerful affecting the little people in unexpected ways, and the cycles of time and love and pain and hate that perpetuate our everyday world. Every one of our characters is wounded in some way by the past: Angela by the White Night, Laurie by her time with the Minutemen, LG by 11/2, Will by a lifetime of racism and homophobia. For all of these people, masks serve as both liberators and prisoners, encasing them in their own trauma and channeling it into something they think will fix the world.
While the Watchmen season finale had a lot to live up to, and resolved some of its major plot points a little too tidily, its essential brushstrokes ring true to the fabric that Lindelof has been weaving these past nine episodes. Whether this is the end of Watchmen, or whether we’ll get to see if Angela’s raw egg diet yields superhuman dividends, we’ll have to wait to see. In the meantime, these past nine hours have proven something undeniably invigorating, a season of unforgettable television that will go down as some of the smartest, most thoughtful superhero media ever devised. Who watches the Watchmen? Hopefully everybody, eventually.
- Even in the finale, Lindelof et al. get plenty of chances to wax philosophical about the nature of masks: “Masks make men cruel,” Veidt explains to the Game Warden (Tim Mison) in his dying moments, in a futile desire to craft a “worthy adversary” to entertain him during his imprisonment.
- I didn’t write a recap last week, so I didn’t get the chance to say this, but this episode gives me further opportunity to remark at how… blessed Abdul-Mateen seems to be. And this week, many tasteful almost-blue-dong shots are deployed for maximum thirst. Sue me, but there’s a bright golden haze on that meadow.
- As amazing as this season has been, the Seventh Kavalry has felt like a disappointing red herring in the latter half of the season. While the show has opened up to be much more than a gimmicky cop show set in a comic book universe, characters like Red Scare (Andrew Howard) and Pirate Jenny (Jessica Camacho) feel like afterthoughts, and the quick-and-dirty evaporation of the 7K feels a bit anticlimactic. I did enjoy the widow Crawford’s (Frances Fisher) droll cry of, “Just fucking do it.” One gets the impression that, if white supremacists’ race war didn’t work out, they’d rather die than have to hear about how wrong they are.
- In keeping with the show’s masterful needledrops, that melancholy version of “What a Beautiful Morning” as they walk out of the theater to a Tulsa devastated by Veidt’s attack is devilishly sly.
- But of course, Bian survives the frozen squid rain, after learning that she’s Trieu’s mother; one wonders what will become of her. Does she inherit her daughter’s company? And does she follow in her footsteps?
- And one last thing before we break for the season (one presumes we’ll get a second): What about Lube Man? I mean, we all know he’s Petey, but there was never a confirmation after the fact. #JusticeforLubeMan