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Exploring the Grey Morality of ‘Watchmen’

Like the original, HBO’s Watchmen is as much concerned with the morality of those with power as it is with how they use that power. 

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Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal piece of comic literature, Watchmen, is often looked back on and remembered with the sort of reverence reserved for the works of Shakespeare or Mark Twain. It isn’t hard to see why. From its multifaceted characters to its scathing social commentary, Watchmen is truly a one of a kind work, and one that transcends its nature as a comic book even as it accentuates the things worth appreciating about the medium.

However, there is another aspect of the story that makes it tick, so to speak, and that’s the exploration of morality at the heart of the story. Centered around an alternate history where costumed vigilantes began to join the justice system and affect world events in the 1930s, Watchmen is as much concerned with the morality of those with power as it is with how they use that power.

Dr. Manhattan may be the most powerful being in the universe, but his god-like abilities put him at odds with his own humanity. As his powers grow, he finds it increasingly easy to dispatch any living organism with the simple wave of his hand. Further, as his understanding of the building blocks of life grows omniscient, he finds himself unable to see people as people anymore.


Similarly, Ozymandias possesses the intellect and financial wherewithal to study social issues and even affect a certain degree of change. Unfortunately, as The Comedian points out to him in a flashback, the world is going to hell whether he likes it or not. This, of course, leads him to his master plan: a simulated interdimensional alien attack on Earth. It is a hoax that costs millions of lives in order to be effective in uniting the global powers against an external threat, and yet unite the world it seemingly does.

There is one person who has a problem with this though. While all of the remaining Watchmen are horrified by Ozymandias’ plan, only one refuses to accept it. While the others decide that derailing the plan after its already completed would mean that all those lives were for nothing, Rorschach has a simpler way of looking at things. Unwilling to compromise, he lays out his intentions to let the world know the truth and consequences be damned. Manhattan, taking the responsibility onto himself, dispatches him with as much ease as any other organic creature.

Rorschach then, with his bigoted hatred and PTSD-fuelled mental illness, is the only character with enough conviction to stand up for his beliefs even at the cost of his own life. Strangely, the only other character who comes close to doing the same is the even more morally dubious Comedian. Murdered at the outset of the story by Ozymandias in order to keep his plan a secret, The Comedian is one of two main characters to die in Watchmen. It is interesting to note that both characters die for the same reason, even if they are killed by different members of their team.

Watchmen
On a smaller scale, the more idealistic Silk Spectre and Nite Owl flirt with infidelity throughout the story, even at the expense of their teammate and friend, Dr. Manhattan. Though these characters have their own infractions, their abuses of power are nothing compared to the aforementioned characters.

Still, this leads us to the modern Watchmen series. Typical of his careful, in-depth attention to detail, Damen Lindelof’s HBO adaptation, set 30 years after the events of the original story, seems to have grasped these threads as well. A key example is the way law enforcement are portrayed in the series.

Following the events of the White Night, (an all-out assault on law enforcement by the white supremacist terrorist organization, The Seventh Kavalry) all the police of Tulsa, Oklahoma now where masks to hide their identities. Ironically, this anonymity offers them the ability to abuse their power whenever they deem it necessary. Take a key moment in the premiere where Angela Abar/Sister Night abducts a suspect without an arrest warrant, interrogates him without his lawyer, and subsequently beats him to a pulp in order to extract information.


Now most viewers would be hard-pressed to sympathize with a white supremacist who may be working with a domestic terror cell, but the fact remains that this is a flagrant abuse of power, and one only made possible by the anonymous nature of the vigilantes who now work with little oversight as part of the Tulsa police department.

Watchmen‘s grey morality is similarly invoked with the actions of the mysterious Will. The survivor of a horrific racial attack in 1921, Will has lived to the ripe old age of 105 and yet somehow finds the strength to lynch the police chief, Judd Crawford, single-handedly. While Angela is initially dismayed and outraged by the death of her charismatic mentor, the discovery of Klan robes in his office, and some racially charged artwork, leads her down an endless rabbit hole seeking the larger picture behind Will, and why he has done what he’s done.

All of these events appear to be a commentary on the current strife between Black Lives Matter activists and those on the side of law enforcement. Though they are reflected through a sort of funhouse mirror of our own reality, similar to how Moore explored social issues in the original Watchmen, the correlation between the events portrayed and allegations of abuse of power in our own world couldn’t be clearer. It’s a fascinating way of transposing our issues into this alternate reality, and one that still hasn’t lost its flavor for intrigue, even after three decades.


There is also Ozymandias to consider. Almost certainly the mysterious, nameless character portrayed by Jeremy Irons, Ozymandias is seemingly still using science to chase whatever ends he deems necessary. Is he still trying to effect the manner of change he thinks the world needs through his imperfect cloning experiments and overwritten melodramas, or is he simply passing the time in his self-designed moral purgatory as he awaits the justice that may yet visit his door?

Finally, there is Dr. Manhattan. Like Ozymandias, Manhattan seems to have returned to a self-imposed exile. Also similarly, we don’t yet know what effect his existence will have on the story. Will he be faced with the choice of murdering another friend in order to preserve Ozymandias’ conspiracy for peace, or will he use his god-like powers to affect the outcome of the story in another way?

While questions like these will loom large over the remaining 7 episodes of Watchmen, it’s safe to say that there will undoubtedly be further moral quandaries to consider and debate as Lindelof’s take on the story continues to unfold over the remainder of 2019. Certainly, any fan of Moore’s magnum opus wouldn’t have it any other way.

Mike Worby is a human who spends way too much of his free time playing, writing and podcasting about pop culture. Through some miracle he's still able to function in society as if he were a regular person, and if there's hope for him, there's hope for everyone.

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Watchmen Season One Episode 9 Review: “See How They Fly”

Watchmen says its farewells in a momentous, emotionally charged finale.

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Watchmen See How They Fly

It would be easy to dismiss “See How They Fly,” Watchmen‘s momentous, overstuffed finale, as a rather predictable affair: there’s not much about it all that feels very surprising, a deliberately straightforward march to (mostly) predictable conclusions. But the more I sit with the events surrounding the end of Tulsa’s squid-tastic adventures, the more I appreciate the watch-like construction of the episode: “See How They Fly” is deliberately designed to be predictable, forcing audiences to contend with the thematic and emotional component of the hour, rather than rely on surprise moments to make its Big, Final Proclamations.

Like Trieu examining the legacy of Dr. Manhattan, “See How They Fly” certainly leaves one begging for more.

Instead, “See How They Fly” religiously adheres to its title; every element, from Veidt and his squids, to Dr. Manhattan and even Senator Keene Sr., end up in the same location, and this final hour is more than preoccupied in watching them cross-pollinate, if only for a few moments. Immediately, the earlier pieces of Watchmen‘s narrative construction become clear; from Trieu and the Kavalry’s ironically shared sense of destiny, to Veidt’s escape and Dr. Manhattan’s death, “See How They Fly” doesn’t try to play coy with the path to its final showdown.

Watchmen See How They Fly

Where the joy comes is in the smaller moments: Laurie reacting to seeing Dr. Manhattan, Angela sharing moments with her husband and father, and watching Trieu and Keene both fail miserably in their vein attempts to become gods (Trieu’s sheepish joy at unleashing the Keene-goo pairs beautifully with her “motherfucker” of a final line).

Though it all does feel… a bit too tidy at times, doesn’t it? Considering how often Watchmen shifted tones and perspective through its brief run, it makes sense the finale might be the most direct episode of the series. But there’s still an underwhelming element to how it all plays out in such perfunctory fashion: at its most critical storytelling juncture, Watchmen suddenly backs away from asking questions it doesn’t have explicit answers to. Obliterating the Kavalry’s leadership is a simple answer to a number of questions; but thematically, it feels like it undercuts its own point about how nakedly entrenched white supremacy is, and how little the impact of vaporizing a few dozen supremacists would be on the world.

Another example of this to point to is Lady Trieu, a character who is sketched out, but mostly rests on the fringes until she explodes in exposition during the final 90 minutes of the series: to think we never got a flashback bringing true layers to her unique brand of intelligence, perseverance, and capitalistic drive: instead, she becomes a cipher of science fiction mumbo jumbo, a woman whose ideas work in concept, but don’t feel fully formed in practice.

Watchmen See How They Fly

What we get of Lady Trieu on screen feels like two-thirds of a character; it just so happens that final third, the part watching her unknowingly grow up as the hidden offspring of humanity’s demented savior, is mostly left to the audience’s imagination, and it is the one insistence where Watchmen would’ve benefited from not adopting that approach.

But the strangest of all these is the final moment: Angela’s absorption of her husband’s powers is a decidedly unambiguous final scene, and “See How They Fly” strangely leans into what is a pretty telegraphed conclusion. By focusing on that, however, it ignores some of the more pressing questions about Angela’s arc through the series: if Dr. Manhattan couldn’t put his powers to good use, who says Angela will? Seeing her, Dr. M, and Will contend with that possibility more is a moment I dearly wish “See How They Fly” had; would Will really support the idea of passing down omnipotence to a woman whose lived through so much pain (and in taking Nostalgia, literally inherited his)?

More importantly – would Angela be able to do any more than Dr. Manhattan, once liberated from the mental constraints of her human condition? Or would she just float away to wander in space, selfishly experimenting with the powers of creation, rather than trying to fix the broken world of hate, anger, and love he briefly left behind. Is anyone with power able to create true good in the world, or are the fundamental truths about obtaining power irreversibly corruptible?

Watchmen See How They Fly

It’s not a question of whether Angela deserves the powers or not: it is whether they should exist at all, and what Watchmen is trying to say about Dr. Manhattan, and the transfer of his powers to Angela. Succession and Watchmen both agree that you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs (or Gregs); Watchmen‘s interpretation of that idea by passing Dr. M’s powers to Angela sends a mixed signal about what it wants to say about the ability of endless power, and the near zero-sum game of social progress.

By cutting to black just as those many ideas are crashing together, Watchmen absolves itself of having to provide an answer: but in a series that is so hyper-focused on the relationship between power and morality (and, at the beginning, Angela’s deep-seeded anger), it seems strange Watchmen didn’t even offer a glimpse of how it felt about its final twist.

Oddly enough, “See How They Fly” almost ends up feeling like Veidt’s hour, vanquishing his foes and leaving Mars, finally freed from the prison on Europa by the daughter he’d pledged to never acknowledge. Seeing Veidt come back to a world that had utterly forgotten him finally gave scope to his character’s arc, even if it felt like a bit too little, a bit too late: the second coming of his hubris is a fun journey for him through this episode, but like Lady Trieu’s underdeveloped aura, it felt like this story needed a bit more room.

Watchmen See How They Fly

Despite all these narrative nit pickings, “See How They Fly” is an emotionally powerful series (season?) finale: the heart of its story, the tale of Dr. Manattan and the Abar family, is more than strong enough to conceal some of the blemishes in the hour’s many plot machinations. Dr. Manhattan choosing to exist in every moment he spent with Angela right before his death is the unexpected emotional poignancy, the kind that drove the heart of Watchmen all season.

Even though he was as fucked up a narcissist as Veidt (as Trieu points out, Dr. Manhattan could’ve done so much more for humanity, instead choosing to cower under a psychopath’s murderous conspiracy), watching Dr. M reach the unhappy ending he knew awaited him was powerful. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Regina King are absolutely heartbreaking as “See How They Fly” fades away in the background to focus on them, one trying to peacefully let go, while the other begs to fight against the dying of the light.

Like Trieu examining the legacy of Dr. Manhattan, “See How They Fly” certainly leaves one begging for more: more time spent with Trieu developing her plan to save humanity, more time observing Joe Keene Jr.’s machinations to subvert social progress, more time with Laurie, and Looking Glass, and any other half-dozen characters we could’ve spent more quality time with.

Watchmen See How They Fly

However, I view that as a job well done, rather than a completely missed opportunity: no matter what character Watchmen was shining their light on, it always felt like their respective emotional journeys took precedent over what they were literally doing in any given moment (in the ultimate nod to The Leftovers, I suppose). They were written and performed with such depth, such gusto, that I can’t help but want more – and at the same time, I really hope there isn’t an announcement of a season two waiting around the corner.

Ultimately, what makes Watchmen work as a limited series is how open and shut it is: for a story that spans decades of time and stretches halfway across the galaxy, Watchmen‘s story felt contained in a supremely satisfying way. Outside of Trieu and maybe Laurie, there really isn’t a lot more time we’d need to spend with these characters: Angela stepping out into her pool is the perfect final image, because it is the only image of this world we need to see, in order to understand the broad strokes of what happens next. Quite frankly, that story doesn’t seem anywhere as interesting as what happened in these nine hours; I’d rather spend years postulating about what Angela’s tenure as a god meant for her world, than have to sit through an entire series experiencing it.

It all comes back to the idea of a watch, the career Dr. Manhattan’s father chose for his life’s work: it is not in seeing the various pieces of a watch that make it a wondrous marvel of mechanics and technology. Rather, it is seeing all those pieces work in concert, seeing how each cog is neatly placed in its pre-determined position to serve its intended function, where the watch becomes a fascinating piece of equipment; a deserving legacy for one of the era’s most daring, ambitious adaptations, a truly subversive reinterpretation of Watchmen‘s core ideas about America (and its relationship to its own history), superhero media, and the unattainable dream of a true utopia. What a series.

Other thoughts/observations:

Turns out Red Scare was a big nothing burger of a character, which was a bummer.

Trieu inseminates herself with Veidt’s hidden collection of semen (which… not surprised Veidt would do that, but still weird?), and Angela inherits Dr. M’s powers by drinking the contents of a very special egg. NOTHING TO UNPACK HERE, FOLKS

This episode’s meta-conversation focuses on the idea of “reruns,” embodied by Trieu’s dismissal of Veidt’s auto-programmed attacks as lazy, limited rehashes of his original great idea.

Dr. Manhattan telling Angela he “didn’t want to die alone” was such a touching final moment for him, even if it continues his habit of doing whatever he wants, regardless of the potential human cost (after all, since he couldn’t see after his death, there was no telling his death wouldn’t have led to Angela’s soon after).

Always nice to see a few podcast predictions come true: turns out we were right about Veidt’s letter, and Trieu’s parental lineage, for nobody who is keeping score.

“You can’t heal under a mask,” Will tells Angela. “Wounds need air.”

Keene’s Undies of Supremacy is easily my favorite bit of costuming in the series… well, that and Lube Man (which… if you haven’t read the last Peteypedia entry, you probably should).

Laurie reminds Veidt that people can change… by arresting his ass for the crime she let him get away with 34 years ago. Laurie doesn’t get much to do but react to what’s happening in the finale; seeing her embrace who she’s become is a fun little final moment, though.

Super bummed we did not see Paula Malcomson’s racist radiologist again.

Very interesting to see the finale of a comic book series have little to no action in it. Sure, there are a few explosions and a few dozen people vaporized, but there’s a distinct lack of movement occurring in the episode’s many big scenes.

Those poor orphaned kids Angela was taking care of; boy, are they screwed with their adopted father dead, and their adopted mother now a god indifferent to the everyday plight of humanity.

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Before the Internet

Watchmen Podcast: Breaking Down “A God Walks into Abar”

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Watchmen Podcast A God Walks into Abar

“A God Walks into Abar” is the deeply heartfelt episode we’ve been waiting for!

The wonderfully pun-titled penultimate episode—directed by Nicole Kassell, written by Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen— is a powerful love story that spans many years, and told in a disjointed fashion to explain just how the most powerful man in the world wound up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, married to Angel Abar and with his memory wiped out. It’s an amazing hour of television—able to carefully turn a seemingly indecipherable character, into something beautifully textured, human, and meaningful— and we have plenty to say about it.

Our Watchmen podcast will see Simon Howell and an assortment of guests tackle the entire series (or at least the first season). In this eight episode,  Simon Howell , Randy Dankievitch and guest Sean Collettin take a deep dive into “A God Walks Into Abar” and note some of the more astonishing facts of the episode you might have missed.

And for those of you wondering, in order to keep things simple, we’ve decided to upload each episode to the same feed as our other podcast, Before the Internet.

Listen here on iTunes or listen here on Stitcher. 

You can also catch our show on Pocketcast and on Spotify, or simply listen via the player embedded below.

Before the Internet Watchmen Podcast Special
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Watchmen Season One Episode 8 Review: “A God Walks into Abar”

Dr. Manhattan steps into frame in a breathtaking episode.

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Watchmen A God Walks Into Abar

The elevator pitch for Watchmen‘s eighth episode is relatively simple: what if Dr. Manhattan is to Watchmen, what Desmond was to LOST? A person unstuck in time, whose ability to move back and forth across the key moments of their lives, opening their minds to a wealth of experiences, perspectives – and of course, deep regrets for the moments and things that cannot be changed. LOST‘s 77th episode, “The Constant,” uses time as a thematic anchor for a love story, the absolute apex of science-fiction romance – a man who is only able to hold onto his identity by remembering the woman he loves.

“A God Walks into Abar,” and the love story that plays out within it, is among the most heartfelt entries of Lindelof’s career, able to carefully turn a seemingly indecipherable character, into something beautifully textured, human, and meaningful.

“A God Walks into Abar,” co-written by Damon Lindelof (who wrote “The Constant” with Carlton Cuse) and Jeff Jansen (a writer who once wrote LOST recaps for Entertainment Weekly), is pretty much a direct successor to “The Constant”; but though it is explicitly familiar in its structure, characters, and thematic explorations, is still a wildly successful, abundantly rewarding entry all to itself. Where “The Constant” served as an important fulcrum for the emotional journey of a mysterious character, “A God Walks into Abar” uses Dr. Manhattan’s gravity to pull in every loose thread of the series, while also telling a touching, tragic love story: it is a rather impressive feat, firmly establishing Watchmen‘s first (and only?) season in the pantheon of modern adaptations (and a gentle reminder of why Watchmen is so much fucking better than The Boys, I might add).

Watchmen A God Walks Into A Bar

Perhaps the most impressive thing “A God Walks into Abar” accomplishes is understanding Dr. Manhattan as a character, and how to effectively convey the paradox of his continued existence, in ways even the comic struggled to contend with. He is a man constantly living and reliving his past, present, and future, all at the same time, consistently able to needle the thread of his existence, in a way that allowed it to make sense. Or so he thought: the comic ends with him agreeing to the greatest conspiracy in human history, disconnecting from humanity and looking to the stars to satisfy the existential bounds of his mind (the meme of his disinterest in humanity is now iconic, after all).

Watchmen re-frames that idea ever so slightly, in a fascinating way: Dr. Manhattan did forget about his humanity… that is, until he fell in love with Angela, moments before he was sucked into a Kavalry-manned teleporter, which occurs exactly 10 years after he meets her. ” A God Walks Into Abar” opens with Dr. Manhattan putting on a mask (during the holiday celebrating his rampage to end the Vietnam War) and meeting Angela at a bar (Angela Abar… A-bar… Lindelof strikes again). It then proceeds to bounce around time, to capture life as Dr. Manhattan experiences it; an ever-evolving set of vignettes, an expanding world of knowledge, one he is not able to create and shape himself.

Watchmen A God Walks Into A Bar

The moment ” A God Walks into Abar” builds to is referenced in the first few minutes; after his strange introduction piques Angela’s curiosity, Dr. Manhattan notes that he is in love with her. We see that moment occur 50+ minutes later, as Angela turns into a one-woman assault squad, hell-bent on taking out every last Kavalry member outside their home. Infuriating as it may be to understand, he can see the beginning and the end of their short, beautiful life together at the same time, because he’s living it all at the same: Watchmen captures that idea poignantly in its unorthodox approach, smartly tethering each strange sequence together with a singular image, or color, to bring us from one moment to the next.

As we move through time, “A God Walks into Abar” casually begins to fill in the big holes of narrative created in last week’s slightly frustrating entry; we finally learn how Ozymandias ended up on Europa, and the history of the people and places we’ve seen on that world for eight episodes. We also learn how Will became involved in the process, which is, ironically, the moment it all falls apart for them: the moment Angela asks Dr. Manhattan to inquire about Judd’s identity (while Dr. Manhattan talks to him in 2009), she inevitably kicks the first domino down the path of Judd’s death, and the Kavalry’s impending attempt to turn themselves into racist deities.

Watchmen A God Walks Into A Bar

How “A God Walks into Abar” frames this is its true genius: Dr. Manhattan’s existence is the conundrum of the chicken and the egg. There was a moment in time where Jon existed, and Dr. Manhattan didn’t; but there also isn’t, since Dr. Manhattan’s creation allowed him to experience all of time in a cumulative fashion, rather than linear. Finally, the many, many images of eggs and yolks finally come together: as nature’s great paradox, a man literally capable of creating entire worlds and paths of evolution, finding his way back to the only immeasurable quantity in the universe, love.

“A God Walks into Abar” makes an important distinction between love and worship: love is able to be critical, to understand and accept flaws, to show empathy. Worship, or what Dr. Manhattan experiences when creating his own world (and people) on Europa, is disillusioning: there’s no older religious trope than the unsatisfied god who turned to humanity to find purpose, and that’s “A God Walks into Abar” to an absolute T. And it works: the love story that plays out is among the most heartfelt entries of Lindelof’s career, able to carefully turn a seemingly indecipherable character, into something beautifully textured, human, and meaningful.

Watchmen A God Walks Into A Bar

If there’s any noticeable flaw to “A God Walks into Abar,” it is strangely the episode’s construction as a romantic entry; it kind of sidesteps integrating Dr. Manhattan’s chosen identity to live as a black man in modern America. There are hints of it at various parts – the scenes of his childhood, in particular – but “A God Walks into Abar” strangely doesn’t contend, at least in this episode, with Angela’s decision to show Dr. Manhattan the original Cal’s body. Why did she just show him three white bodies first? What drew Dr. Manhattan to OG Cal’s appearance? For a series so deftly integrating explorations of race and identity into the Watchmen mythos, the lack of reflection in this episode feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

But that is a small complaint in what will be remembered as a signature episode of the series; and for good reason, because it is a phenomenal, breathtaking hour of television. “A God Walks into Abar” is also another bold reinterpretation of Watchmen itself, replacing the cold sensibilities of the comic’s anarchistic roots with a warm beating heart; as cheesy as that sounds, it is everything to making the high wire act of Watchmen the series work on a fundamental level. After all, love is the one universal element ensuring humanity’s continued existence; as Dr. Manhattan finally understands, even if the pursuit is an impossible one for us as a species, it at least makes the inevitable collapse of our world something worth fighting against.

Other thoughts/observations:

“By definition, doesn’t every relationship end in tragedy?” Fuck. Me. Up. Watchmen.

The Philips/Crookshanks origin story ends up being a rather touching detail: they are modeled after two lovers young Jon saw during his brief stay in England (the mansion the event happened in ends up being Ozymandias’ home).

Very interesting note that Ozymandias’ Plan A to defeat Dr. Manhattan was not to kill him, but to condemn him to being a mortal with amnesia.

Dr. Manhattan mentions his theory for being able to transfer his powers; would not be surprised to see that come up in next week’s episode.

Related to the previous note: Dr. Manhattan tells Angela he wanted her to see him outside by the pool. Does that mean we’ll see Will walk on water next week?

Lots of props given to Regina King throughout the series for her stunning performance – if Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is not nominated for a shitload of awards for his work in this episode, however, we riot.

A post-credits sequence finally reveals the use of Phillip’s infamous horseshoe – though it remains to be seen where this story is all heading, as Europa’s small world of clones desperately tries to keep another god from leaving them.

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