The Watchmen Pilot Never Forgets Rorschach
The highly anticipated TV “adaptation” of DC’s iconic Watchmen gets off to an enigmatic start. The first episode titled “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” marks one of the best hours of television you will watch this year. Against considerable odds, Showrunner Damon Lindelof has delivered a series that should satisfy fanboys while engaging adventurous newcomers.
With so much information crammed into this opener, it’s easy for viewers to get lost, especially if you’ve never read the graphic novel. We’re here to pick up the pieces (including the leftovers) and breakdown each episode in a series of articles and podcasts, as best as we can.
The Rorschach Test
After months of build-up, Damon Lindelof’s show has finally arrived, and it’s definitely not what fans expected. Though the events of the original 1985 graphic novel are canon, the show follows a new set of characters and a new set of events. Described as a “remix” on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ comic of the same name, the show takes place 34 years after the comic’s ending and is set in a funhouse mirror version of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The heroes of the comic series are long since dead (or retired), with the exception of Doctor Manhattan who we learn is still alive and living on Mars; meanwhile, Rorschach has become a symbol for the white-supremacist terrorist organization known as the Seventh Kavalry who have adopted Rorschach’s mask and wear it while carrying out random acts of violence.
Rorschach is arguably one of the most controversial “heroes” in comics and with Watchmen being one of the most influential comics ever, it’s safe to say he is one of the most popular antiheroes in the medium. Because of the themes that Watchmen explores, Rorschach is not only the most important character in the series but in some ways, he is also the most dangerous. He might not have superpowers like Doctor Manhattan and he might not have the brains of Ozymandias but Rorschach is a threat to society at large— and while Walter Joseph Kovacs is now dead, Rorschach lives on in the form of the Seventh Kavalry whose vicious attacks have forced police officers to don masks and adopt superhero personas in order to conceal their identities and protect their loved ones.
Whereas the comic was partly about the threat of nuclear Armageddon and Cold War paranoia, the show touches on several hot-button sociopolitical issues that have gained mainstream exposure in recent years, most notably, the resurgence of white supremacy, racism and police brutality. And at the center of all of this is Rorschach, the ruthless crime-fighter, whose beliefs in moral absolutism drove him mad, seeking to punish those who he deemed evil no matter what the costs. His mask displays a constantly morphing inkblot, with the mask’s black and white coloring consistent with his sense and view of morality. In the comic, Rorschach identifies more with his vigilante persona than his everyday self and eventually considers his mask his true “face,” going so far as refusing to answer to his given name. Alan Moore depicted Rorschach as a violent right-wing psychopath with a very nihilistic view of humanity, a viewpoint that alienated him from the rest of society. Rorschach took a single-minded approach to fight crime, and what made him so dangerous is how he was judge, jury, and executioner of his own moral code. And his black and white mask reflected his black and white morality with no room for compromise.
What makes Watchmen great is how it questions the idea of the hero. It’s a complex story about morality, fantasy and the repercussions of having too much power. Watchmen dives deep into the psychology of the masked avenger and while the heroes in Watchmen didn’t have powers, they did influence culture as a whole, and more importantly, changed the course of history. In the case of Rorschach, his journal somehow shaped the movement of the Seventh Kavalry while his
face mask came to represent their ideology, an explicitly racist worldview with a desire for ethnic cleansing. During the pilot, the members of the Seventh Kavalry share a video warning the police of their plans to wreak havoc. Their speech borrows heavily from the pages of Rorschach’s journal as seen in the opening panels of Watchmen’s first issue: “Soon all the whores and race traitors will shout save us. And we’ll whisper: No.” It’s a frightening scene that illustrates how Rorschach has come to represent something different and dangerous in modern society.
In the comic Rorschach wants to reveal the truth of Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias’ crime in order to punish him even if revealing the truth about the alien invasion hoax would compromise world peace. Knowing this, Doctor Manhattan is left with no choice but to kill Rorschach— but not before Rorschach mails his journal to the right-wing conspiracy theorist tabloid the New Frontiersman, which threatens the entire foundation of Adrian Veidt’s masterplan. It’s unknown if his journal was ever published, but obviously someone got their hands on it and decided to use it as a manifesto for the white supremacists who wear masks inspired by the loathsome antihero.
As disturbing as he is, Rorschach is the most important character in the Watchmen story and in the HBO series his shadow looms large. The last line of the Watchmen comic reads, “ I leave it entirely in your hands,” implying that when you close the comic/journal, it’s up to you the reader to decide what it all means. In the end, Watchmen is a Rorschach test and his words hold power. Everyone has a different interpretation of the story and the actions and decisions of each character depending on what characters and ideas resonate with you. In the show, we can only speculate that during the intervening years, the journal was stolen, and an unknown individual took up the mantle of Rorschach, using his words to spread fear and hate. By the time the credits roll, we are left with many questions. Why is the Seventh Kavalry collecting watch batteries? Who is their leader? How did they get Rorschach’s mask? What is their master plan?
In 1986, Alan Moore’s revolutionary graphic novel redefined the superhero genre and pushed the boundaries of what is considered great literature. For many, it is considered the greatest comic book ever written leaving many fans questioning if a Watchmen TV show should even exist. While the jury is still out on the HBO series, one thing’s for sure, Watchmen channels the original spirit of Alan Moore’s words and Dave Gibbons’ illustrations in its own unique way. As it stands, the series shows great promise and more importantly, they found a clever way to include the series most important character, even if he isn’t technically alive.
As with all of Damon Lindelof’s shows, Watchmen is a puzzle-box asking tough questions and in no rush to answer them. And like the comic, the series reminds us that while superheroes can be human, humans can be superheroes and by extension, supervillains can be human and vice versa. Sound off in the comments below. Let me know what you think of the pilot and the series as a whole.
Watchmen Season One Episode 9 Review: “See How They Fly”
Watchmen says its farewells in a momentous, emotionally charged finale.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Watchmen Podcast: Breaking Down “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.
Watchmen Season One Episode 8 Review: “A God Walks into Abar”
Dr. Manhattan steps into frame in a breathtaking episode.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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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