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.
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.
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.
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.
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.