Memory and history collide in a startling episode that offers yet more interrogation of the show’s source material.
Okay, so you know how I said that last week’s Watchmen is one of the best episodes of TV all year? Well, this week’s doesn’t exactly knock it out of the park (“This Extraordinary Being” just works so tightly in its own context), but it’s still startling to see the ways Damon Lindelof and co. continue to find new, eye-popping ways to re-contextualize the original comment while touching on very contemporary concerns. Episode 7, “An Almost Religious Awe,” is one of those episodes, an arresting hour that sees our characters’ personal histories colliding with society’s collective memory with jackhammer force.
Still reeling from the fatal dose of Nostalgia she took to better understand her newly-discovered grandfather Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.), aka Hooded Justice, Angela Abar (Regina King) wakes up in the facilities of Trieu Technologies, under the ministrations of Lady Trieu herself (Hong Chau). To save her, she’s hooked up intravenously to a mysterious “natural host”, sealed off in the next room, whom Angela (and the audience) naturally assumes is Will himself. But as she recovers, Trieu cautions her, she’ll be floating between her grandfather’s memories and her own, a device which allows writers Stacy Osei-Kuffour and Claire Kiechel to earmark the ways their lives, traumas, and personalities intersect across generations. “You wouldn’t know where he ends and you begin,” Trieu warns; that’s due to more than just the Nostalgia.
With that, we’re taken on a whirlwind tour through Angela’s childhood growing up in Vietnam, now an American state in the wake of Dr. Manhattan winning the Vietnam War for America. It’s Sister Night’s origin story, of sorts, as young Angela (This Is Us‘ Faithe Herman) endures the kind of immeasurable trauma that, as Laurie herself said a few episodes back, inevitably drives people to put on masks to shield and overcome. For Angela, it’s the terror of losing her parents to a suicide bomber, the desire to see justice done, the influence of a VHS tape of a blaxploitation film called Sister Night her parents never let her watch (which becomes totemic for her, a symbol of the last thing her parents said to her).
But experiencing Will’s memories has lent her childhood traumas a greater, more therapeutic context. Her father’s distrust of superheroes comes from being Hooded Justice’s son and seeing what kind of person dons a mask; she learns more about a grandmother she only met once before dying right before taking her home from Vietnam. At one point, Trieu’s ‘daughter’ Bian (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport) asks her which memory she just experienced — hers or her grandfather’s. What this episode presupposes is, is there really a difference?
But this week isn’t as closed off to the Abar story as last week’s; we get a blissful return to everyone’s shit-talking former superhero, Laurie Blake (Jean Smart). After finding out that Looking Glass has disappeared in the wake of episode 5’s attack from the Kavalry (he slaughtered them all off-screen), Laurie heads to Jane Crawford’s (Frances Fisher) house to question her about the death of her late husband Judd. Of course, it doesn’t take long to find out that Jane was, in fact, in on it too, and one uproariously awkward trap-door gag later, Laurie’s tied up in the secret warehouse headquarters of the 7K, which is revealed to have been the Order of the Cyclops the whole time. As Joe Keene (James Wolk) helpfully explains (much to the chagrin of Laurie, who hates the whole supervillain-exposition thing), “It’s extremely difficult to be a white man in America right now… so I’m thinking, I might try being a blue one.”
It’s here, in the closing minutes of the episode, personal stakes intertwine with the bigger plot picture of the series. We can at least guess the specifics of the Kavalry’s plan: to cause some kind of event to make more Dr. Manhattans, and they’ll need the real Doc to do it. And, as Trieu explains, her “millennium clock,” the towering project she’s been building for years in Tulsa, is the only thing that can save the world from the specter of big, blue racists with godlike powers.
…an arresting hour that sees our characters’ personal histories colliding with society’s collective memory with jackhammer force.
And then, we get to that absolutely wild reveal, one hinted at and theorized on various corners of the Internet but finally confirmed — Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), Angela’s patient, clueless husband, was actually Dr. Manhattan this whole time, hiding out in human form with no memory of who he is. It’s the kind of reveal that feels patently ridiculous, and it can be disappointing to learn that even the most ground-level character in the show ends up having a super-special connection to one of the original characters from the comic. But it’s also a genius swing for the fences, the best kind of mystery-box storytelling: the one that hides in plain sight. Even from a metatextual perspective, it felt weird to waste such a talented, high-profile actor as Mateen on a ‘concerned spouse’ role; there had to be more to him than this. And boy, is there.
First Hooded Justice, now Dr. Manhattan; Watchmen‘s going all in on confronting viewers with a powerful recontextualization of the comic’s most important figures as people of color, and asking them to reckon with however that might make them react.
So what does this episode tell us? Memory is malleable, fallible; it fails us on the regular. Harsh truths can be hidden by emotion, time, trauma… nostalgia. No one is who they are on the outside, and everyone has secrets. And sometimes those secrets can make or break the world. As Watchmen speeds towards its season finale, I can’t wait to see what these new revelations mean for our characters, and the twisted world in which they live. “We’re in fuckin’ trouble,” are Angela’s closing words in the episode: it’ll be thrilling to find out what that means.
- The deliberate ode to Foxy Brown in the cover art of Sister Night (the inspiration for Angela’s future masked persona) is just so choice.
- The needle drops in this show never fail to disappoint, from “Living in America” as young Angela walks around the American state of Vietnam, to
- The “tutorial injection,” American Hero Story, the Dr. Manhattan documentary that opens the episode — Watchmen has such inventive ways to weave necessary reams of exposition into the diegesis of the show. “Wasn’t that informative?”
- The elephant that Angela finds in the other room, the real “natural host” she’s hooked up to, is more than just a cheeky reference to elephants having long memories: it’s a reference to the old American idiom “seeing the elephant,” referencing going off to see something amazing at great personal cost. Hat tip to @crispymemedonut on Twitter for explicating this in wonderful detail.
- Meanwhile, the Adrian Veidt Power Hour continues with another closed-off subplot featuring Ozy’s (Jeremy Irons) trial, absurdly performed by a kangaroo court populated by Phillipses (Tom Mison) and Crookshankses (Sara Vickers), complete with fart jokes and a stampede of piglets that are meant to be a real jury of Ozymandias’ peers. It’s a wonderful bit of absurdity, but I’m still waiting to find out how it’ll tie into the main story. It’s a welcomely silly contrast to the grim, layered drama on Earth, but at this point it’s bordering on a little too much.