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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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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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Watchmen Season One Episode 7 Review: “An Almost Religious Awe”

An underwhelming hour of Watchmen ends on a shocking high note.

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Watchmen An Almost Religious Awe

Though I’d be the first to argue Damon Lindelof’s series are graceful, I certainly wouldn’t be able to describe LOST or even The Leftovers as particularly elegant; there are certainly times where his infatuation with puzzle-box logic and deep existential musings clash, turning a middle chapter of any given season into a near-indecipherable mush of plots, themes, and characters.

“An Almost Religious Awe” is not a bad episode of television, not by a long stretch: it’s just unrefined, an expected byproduct of such an ambitious, wandering series built on such a limited structure.

“An Almost Religious Awe” is the signature Hour of Inelegance for Watchmen; though it contains a number of fascinating themes and developments, the broad focus of the series forces this episode, the holy seventh, into a rather awkward position. Not only is there a massive stretch of plot this episode needs to cover (despite being one of the series’ shortest episodes), but it is also tasked with delivering the single biggest stunner of the season: Dr. Manhattan’s been hiding on Earth as a human, in the form of amnesia-ridden Cal Abar.

An Almost Religious Awe Review

The space between where “An Almost Religious Awe” begins and ends is cavernous: after opening with Angela still trapped inside Will’s memories, the third act is a cascade of twists and reveals leading to Dr. Manhattan’s resurrection, mere moments before the Seventh Kavalry’s plan to capture and kill him is kicked into action (in fact, they’re waiting right outside the door when the episode cuts to black). The episode’s meta dialogue about ending “all the silliness” and not fucking around anymore is certainly true; but its messy construction undercuts some of its biggest moments, an underwhelming turn as Watchmen heads into its final stretch of episodes.

The overstuffed nature of the episode also serves as a prescient reminder of just how much ground there is still to cover; Ozymandias is still on trial (in his defense, it has gone on for an entire year), Looking Glass is still missing (though the men who attacked him are dead; given that one is unmasked, I’m willing to bet Wade’s undercover), and Will Reeves is nowhere to be found. It would take one of the elephants Angela’s hooked up to in order to remember all the running plots and side stories of Watchmen‘s first six episodes, a reminder of the Sisyphean task ahead of Lindelof and his team, as they try and push everything to the center of the table in the final two episodes.

“An Almost Religious Awe” is the first time Watchmen feels awkward and lacking in confidence, over-explaining its most mysterious elements, while clumsily trying to build out its emotional arcs around the families of Trieu and Angela. There’s also a lot of expo dumps, be it Lady Trieu’s many reveals (Bian is a clone of her mom! She’s trying to save humanity with her clock! She has all the Manhattan Booth tapes!) or Senator Keene’s play-by-play of the Kavalry’s ultimate plan to transcend the difficulties of “being a white man in modern society” – which, as true as it may be, is a line of dialogue that hit the nail on the head a bit too firmly, similar to the effect of Angela’s Sister Night VHS tape.

Watchmen An Almost Religious Awe

It also features the single most unsatisfying scene of the series: after Angela’s family is killed in a terrorist attack, she is adopted from her punishing orphanage by her grandmother June (Will’s ex-wife)… who promptly dies after they share a single lunch together. There’s an undercurrent of some interesting themes in the scene – having the context of June’s history, using her grandmother as a grounding device to help fix her memories – but the actual text of their (very) brief shared experience is about the most underwhelming thing Watchmen‘s done to this point, a rare example of the series repeating itself, simply for the sake of dramatic repetition.

The undercurrents of Angela’s life are much more sharply drawn outside that scene; we see the neat parallels between her life and Will’s, turning to careers in law enforcement as a way of enacting control on their lives. Formed by definitive traumas in their lives – Will’s Bass Reeves fandom before the Tulsa riots, Angela hearing the murder of a terrorist conspirator in an alleyway – they turned to becoming police officers to try and make the world right; but a world that didn’t accept them as valid, made those righteous journeys a lot harder to do on the supposed right side of the law. Those moments, while not necessarily adding to the construction of Angela as a character, are effective in how they reinforce the idea of inter-generational connections between family members; how similar genes can lead to similar experiences, or even simply just detailing the inherited trauma enforced on millions of families like the Reeves’ by the systemic racism against any minority in America’s history.

Watchmen An Almost Religious Awe

But most of Angela’s material, especially with June, just falls a bit flat. There really isn’t much that’s able to transcend the cumbersome feeling of “An Almost Religious Awe”; upon rewatch, one can almost feel the show holding its breath excitedly until the final moments, draping the entire episode in shades of blue, and rushing through a bunch of subplots in a sprint to get to the Big Reveal. To Watchmen‘s credit, it is a doozy of a reveal, one that comes with the shocking delivery of Angela beating Cal’s head in with a baseball bat, only to retrieve a very familiar piece of equipment from inside his shattered skull.

The reveal of Cal as Dr. Manhattan is a fascinating moment, one that calcifies some of the deeper explorations of the series more effective than much of the hour surrounding it: to think the world’s most powerful being has spent the last decade-plus, hiding as a black man in America is certainly something to chew on, especially considering the origins of Dr. Manhattan (as Jonathan Osterman, his family escaped Nazi persecution) in the original Watchmen novel. And it works as an “out of left field” moment, a well-crafted reveal grounded in the facts of past episodes – like his wardrobe, view on death, or Laurie’s vocal attraction to him – blossoming character and narrative in one fell swoop.

However, there’s no denying how quickly Watchmen moves from Point A to Doctor M; an episode that is ostensibly about Angela’s identity, is co-opted by the twists and turns of the third act, none of which is particularly enriching. It is a marker for conclusions to follow, a tack in the middle of the storyboard that undeniably serves an important purpose pulling everything together, but doesn’t necessarily find a natural way to fit itself into the overall narrative in a satisfying way.

Watchmen An Almost Religious Awe

Does this spell trouble for the final two episodes of the series? Though this episode is certainly the closest Watchmen‘s gotten to feeling like a late-era episode of LOST, rather than the unofficial fourth season of The Leftovers – it is Lindelof feeling the pressure to give some semblance of coherency, before taking big creative gambles in the impending climax. His self-inflicted atonement for the vitriol directed at the many, many, many LOST mysteries over the years is readily apparent in his work since that show, none more than in between the titles and closing credits of “An Almost Religious Awe.”

An episode like this was bound to happen at some point in Watchmen; it is part of the Lindelof experience to have at least one episode a season feel like an absolute cluster fuck, where the thematic and narrative pacing becomes noticeably dissonant. After all, “An Almost Religious Awe” is not a bad episode of television, not by a long stretch: it’s just unrefined, an expected byproduct of such an ambitious, wandering series built on such a limited structure.

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