A review of the Watchmen finale, “See How They Fly,” coming up just as soon as I impersonate myself at birthday parties…
Near the end of Watchmen the comic, Ozymandias expresses some concern about his actions with the giant squid. “I did the right thing, didn’t I?” he asks Dr. Manhattan. “It all worked out in the end.”
“‘In the end?'” replies Dr. Manhattan, as amused as he’s capable of getting in his godlike state. “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”
Not to pick a fight with the most powerful man in the universe, but Manhattan’s not entirely correct here. Some things do end. Stories end. Comic books end. TV series end. Our lives as we know them will end. Manhattan doesn’t see it like that because all of time happens to him simultaneously. To Jon Osterman, nothing ever ends, and nothing ever starts. Everything just is.
And if you think of it that way, you might start to wonder if Dr. Manhattan might be the least powerful being in the universe. Almost all of his actions come predetermined: He does things in a particular moment because he knows that he has always done them then. He even lets himself be killed not just because Lady Trieu has outsmarted him, but because he knows this is how the story goes.
Joe Keene Jr. and Trieu spend much of the Watchmen finale, “See How They Fly,” trying to steal Dr. Manhattan’s powers — to become him. But knowing what we know about how the guy experiences time, and how bound he is by that experience, it doesn’t seem like nearly the sweet gig that Keene and Trieu are convinced it is. Keene thinks he’ll use these abilities turn back the clock to a time when his kind had absolute power. Trieu thinks she’ll use them to fix the world in a more permanent way than her father ever could. Even Will argues to Angela that Jon could have done much more with his powers than he did. But who’s to say that Keene, or Trieu, or Angela herself — who, in a Schrödinger’s Cat final moment, ends the series either omnipotent herself or about to get very wet by stepping into her swimming pool — would be able to accomplish much of anything with those powers? Might they not also wind up as puppets inextricably bound by the strings of time? If any of them got Manhattan’s powers, would they really want them?
For that matter, would Damon Lindelof? If you gave television’s most audacious writer the powers of Dr. Manhattan, he would never have to worry about endings. And rightly or wrongly, Lindelof is remembered for his endings, the Lost one especially. Even that has plenty of ardent boosters — yours truly included — but the sheer volume of dissent about it makes The Last Jedi seem like a universally-loved film by comparison. And when people hated the conclusion to Prometheus even more than other parts of Prometheus(*), that pretty much cemented Lindelof’s rep as The Guy Who Won’t End Well. Everyone who saw The Leftovers ending adores it, but there are maybe 10 or 12 of us.
(*) Never mind that movies, like TV, are collaborative, that Lindelof didn’t have final say on the film (director Ridley Scott did), etc. By that point, Lindelof was an easy target.
Watchmen has existed for these two-plus months on a much bigger scale than Leftovers did. It’s not Lost or Game of Thrones, but it’s been a genuine word-of-mouth hit for HBO, the kind where the Internet seems ablaze every Sunday night as people gasp and laugh and cry and, most of all, speculate: Where is Veidt? (Also, why is Veidt?) What’s old man Will up to? Wait… is Dr. Manhattan… Cal Abar? There has been excitement aplenty, and with that comes another “ex” word: expectations. Specifically: Can the guy who once crashed Oceanic Flight 815 bring this crazy bird in for a landing?
And make no mistake: “See How They Fly” is an ending to this iteration of Watchmen. Lindelof told me that he used up every idea he had for the world in these nine episodes. Another writer might come in and continue the stories of Sister Night and Looking Glass, in the same way that Lindelof continued the stories of Jon and Laurie and Adrian. And Lindelof acknowledged that he might one day be struck by unexpected inspiration and want to return. But for the moment, this is the conclusion to the story he and his collaborators have been telling across these wild, magnificent nine episodes. “See How They Fly” resolves almost every story point. It dispatches with both Joe Keene’s band of merry racists (7K’s leadership, anyway) and with Lady Trieu, who turns out to be the trieu villain of the piece. It answers virtually every question we might have had about what’s been going on. (The sequence in Karnak where Wade gets to learn firsthand about the squidfall that’s obsessed him since 1985 played almost like what would happen if a Lost fan got to sit down with Lindelof and Carlton Cuse after the finale for a private Q&A.)
“See How They Fly” does leave two questions to potentially be answered by another showrunner (or by Lindelof if inspiration improbably strikes). The first is what happens when Laurie and Wade bring Adrian Veidt to Washington and attempt to charge him with the 11/2 massacre in New York. Does revealing the truth about 11/2 undo, as Veidt fears, everything he accomplished, and put the world back on the brink of armageddon? Or is Laurie right that while the world often seems on the verge of ending, it never will?
The second, of course, is what happens right after Angela’s foot touches the surface of the water. Is Sister Night now Super-Sister Night? And, if so, would she be able to accomplish anything more with those powers than her late husband did?
These are certainly questions that are fun to think about. And maybe Lindelof or his successor could find exciting ways to answer them. But the finale doesn’t feel like a cliffhanger — it feels like an ellipsis at the end of the sentence, rather than a question mark. The comic ends on a similarly ambiguous note about what will happen if Rorschach’s journal gets published, and whether that would be the thing to unravel Veidt’s scheme, but I never needed that answered. (As it is, this season doesn’t even get into that until the fifth episode, and it’s mostly an afterthought even then.) Dr. Manhattan exists at all moments of time at once, and is both supremely powerful and supremely limited in what he can do with that power. Why wouldn’t the question of what happens to that power be left as ambiguous as so many other parts of his story, and of Watchmen as a whole?
“See How They Fly” is an ending that is very conscious of both its relationship to the original comic’s ending and its own status as a new ending. When Lady Trieu — revealed in the opening flashback to be Veidt’s biological successor as well as his spiritual heir — comes to Veidt’s Antarctic base Karnak in 2008, she marvels at the deceptive stupidity of the alien squid plan. This was one of the few notable criticisms levied at the comic back in the day: This brilliant deconstruction of comic book tropes was now hinging on a mad scientist building a giant rubber monster to scare people into doing his bidding. Lady Trieu’s interpretation — that it is supposed to seem so inherently dumb that no one would ever believe it would have been perpetrated by someone smart enough to do it — is meant to butter up her dad as she asks him for money, in addition to serving as Lindelof and co-writer Nick Cuse’s defense of Alan Moore’s plotting choices. But that comment, followed by her dismissal of the randomized squidfalls as “a rerun,” is also setting us up for this Watchmen to somehow also end with Adrian Vedit saving the world by teleporting fake squid to a crucial location. The same moments occur to Dr. Manhattan again and again and again, so why shouldn’t some of them repeat for everyone else?
Unlike the penultimate episode, “See How They Fly” largely plays out in chronological order. There are just big jumps in the timeline as Lindelof, Cuse, and company start filling in gaps in the narrative. We learn about Lady Trieu’s parentage, and the fact that “Daughter” was the missing word from Veidt’s corpse message on Europa. We get a clearer sense of what’s been happening on Europa — Veidt empowered the game warden to try to imprison him as a way to fight boredom until he knew his daughter would rescue him — and discover that the Veidt “statue” was really Veidt himself encased in the material used to keep him in suspended animation for the long flight home. (In hindsight, it’s much funnier that in the fourth episode, Laurie asks, “Is that Adrian Veidt?” and Trieu responds, “Indeed it is.”) We find out that Jon’s instinctual teleportation of the 7K goon attacking Angela during the White Night alerted Joe Keene Jr. to his presence on earth, and inspired the plan to steal his powers — and, in turn, inspired Lady Trieu to piggyback on Keene’s plan with her better one. Will’s partnership with Trieu is presented as his belated revenge on Cyclops, but even that turns out to be more complicated when he later tells Angela that Jon — who knew the exact timing and circumstances of his own demise — asked him to do it.
Like Angela feared — and like Jon/Cal always understood — it’s all a loop, with events happening because they always happened, repeating again and again. Alien squid save the world a second time (assuming you believe Veidt’s assertion that his daughter would become an all-powerful monster). There’s another massacre in Greenwood — albeit of the white racists this time around — and Will Reeves winds up with his family back in the same theater where this saga began. It’s a beautiful, maddening circle.
It’s also a spectacularly assembled piece of television, particularly once the extended Trieu/Veidt prologue ends, and we catch up to where we left off with Angela and Jon. I can’t remember the last time I was literally as on the edge of my seat as I was throughout the Jon vs. Keene vs. Trieu vs. Veidt sequence as it jumped from the abandoned mall to the Greenwood square to Karnak. (Maybe the end of Whiplash? If not that, then when Uncle Jack and his gang showed up in the desert in Breaking Bad‘s “To’hajiilee.”) Everything works perfectly: the editing from place to place and character to character, the compositions (particularly Lady Trieu framed with the Christ figure as she prepares for ascension to godhood; a fake messiah juxtaposed with the decor of a fake church), and the Reznor/Ross score doing particularly heaving lifting through sections that are just long exposition dumps. (It also helps that characters like Laurie and Jane Crawford get to occasionally interrupt these monologues with wry humor: Laurie making fun of how Joe looks in the classic Dr. Manhattan black panties, Jane inviting Trieu to just kill them already so they don’t have to listen to Will’s prepared remarks anymore.) Angela’s run to safety under the metal cover of one of Trieu’s equipment cases should have zero business working dramatically — it’s basically her surviving an event we were told would obliterate everything within five square blocks(*), just because she has a good umbrella — but because the preceding 20 minutes have done such a good job of whipping our emotions into a frenzy, we want to see Angela make it to the other end of the block, and to the other side of the story. Even when it’s as dumb as a rubber monster saving the world, this Watchmen is thrilling.
(*) It may just be that the VFX budget was devoted elsewhere — the Millennium Clock in action looked incredible — but the aftermath of the frozen squidfall looked far less apocalyptic than Veidt had promised. Red Scare and Pirate Jenny both survive, and all of the surrounding buildings look relatively intact. The neighborhood appeared to suffer worse during the Tulsa Race Massacre a century earlier. But this could just be another example of Veidt overhyping his own accomplishments.
It’s also fascinating to see how a show that was so focused on white supremacy in its early going mostly treats Cyclops as a joke at the end. Joe Keene gets to make his speech about the monstrous Redford administration, whining, “First he took our guns. And then he made us say ‘sorry’ over and over again” — in a way that makes the latter sound like the much bigger offense. (So many of today’s ills stem from how angry people get when they are asked to apologize for anything at all.) He calls Angela a “black bitch,” too arrogant and full of hate to realize that she’s right about Trieu being steps ahead of them the whole time. And, sure enough, Trieu teleports everything and everyone from the mall to the Greenwood square, their guns taken away by magnets, Joe melted into goo(*) — squeezed like a grape, exactly as he threatened to do to Jon — by his scientists’ own ineptitude. The threat of racism is very real in our world, and in this show’s, but Watchmen doesn’t give them the respect to make them the final boss. Instead, Jane and the others are literal cannon fodder, disintegrated by the Vietnamese woman who stole their god out from under them, then had it stolen by the black woman Keene was so eager to dismiss. They’re ultimately a joke, as they should be but unfortunately aren’t over here.
(*) Not great, blob.
Among the many miracles of the episode’s lengthy climax is the way it finally makes Dr. Manhattan’s powers seem a blessing, rather than a curse. Yes, his fundamental paradoxical nature means he essentially orchestrates his own murder. And the lithium cage sends his internal timeline even more out of whack than usual, as he begins repeating lines of dialogue from different moments in the comic. But when Angela screams for him to come back from his reverie, we see the joy that can come from a nonlinear existence, as the cliché about a dying person’s life flashing before their eyes becomes quite real for someone with these powers. “I’m in every moment we were together — all at once,” he says, awestruck, prying open every last one of his wife’s tear ducts. (And more than a few of mine as I watched it, thanks to the absolute rawness of both Regina King and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.)
Which brings us back to Angela, and the egg, and the swimming pool, and what will or won’t happen next. The series has been using eggs as a motif from the beginning. Our first glimpse of Angela Abar is her using them in a cooking demonstration for Topher’s class. Episode Two ends with the Beastie Boys’ “Eggman,” just as this one concludes with Spooky Tooth’s cover of The Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus,” which provides both the phrase “I am the Eggman” and more basic paradoxes like “I am he as you are he as you are me, and we are all together.” Eggs represent life, but also paradox, because how could they have come before the chicken, or vice versa? So it makes sense that the matter of Jon Osterman’s powers — which are either great or small, or possibly both at once — should be contained within the last surviving eggshell from the carton Angela broke last week. She remembers what Jon said about the importance of seeing him walk on water, so she goes out to the pool, swallows the raw yolk, and prepares to find out if she’s still a normal woman, or a new god. The Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment posits that the cat is both alive and dead so long as you never open the box to find out. For Watchmen, the box that was this season is now closed, leaving Angela’s foot just starting to touch the water, with her both all-powerful and all-too-mortal at once. If Lindelof or someone else opens up another season, we know which it is, and then we have to see what happens next for Sister Night, super or otherwise.
As magnificent as this season was — perhaps because of how magnificent this season was — I’m fine with the box never being opened. The story feels complete, from the perspective of character and theme. In their conversation inside the theater — a moment as small and personal as the confrontation down the street is big and cosmic, and that brings racism back to the fore — Angela and Will get one last chance to revisit the idea of why people put on masks, and how unhealthy that is. (He suggests that he became Hooded Justice not out of anger, but out of fear and hurt, and poetically sums up the pitfalls of his chosen life — with a supremely delicate touch from Lou Gossett Jr. — by saying, “You can’t heal under a mask, Angela. Wounds need air.”) The kids find out about Angela’s secret identity when she lets them into her secret lair behind the bakery, and Laurie and Wade are on their way back to America to try to expose history’s biggest secret. Not all of it is wrapped up neatly, but the nature of the series — in print and now on television — defies simple, absolute closure.
Lost was a show that asked so many questions over so many years that it’s easy to understand why so many viewers felt the answers to those questions were the point of it all — and thus, why they were so angry when Lindelof and company failed to satisfactorily provide enough of them by the time we got to an episode called, simply, “The End.” Over its far more compact lifespan, Watchmen asked plenty of questions, but also answered most of them quickly and effectively. Yet leaving one of them open — whether forever or until Lindelof or someone else comes along to continue the story — feels entirely true to the spirit of the thing. I suspect the egg yolk contained godhood, because things are a lot more fun that way, but this show gave me so many thrills, I don’t need to know for sure. Maybe don’t want to know.
Nothing ever ends — particularly in corporate-owned media, so long as there’s a profit to be made. Alan Moore thought he had told a complete, finite story when that 12th issue was published. Then Zack Snyder made his movie, and DC published a group of Before Watchmen prequel comics, and Geoff Johns had Ozymandias meet Lex Luthor in the Doomsday Clock comic. Now here’s Damon Lindelof, making a TV show that is both intensely reverent to the tone and (almost all of) the facts of what Moore and Dave Gibbons did, while taking the themes in a completely different direction. (Yet it’s a direction that feels entirely of a piece with what Moore did with the material in the Eighties.)
And now his Watchmen is ended. But he knows that nothing ever ends. He knows Disney is eventually going to hire someone else to reboot Lost. He wouldn’t be surprised if HBO hired someone else to make a second season — he sounded genuinely delighted, in fact, when I posited as much. He has made an astonishing season of television that ends exactly the way he wanted it to, but also allows for some other fan, if they have the hubris, to continue it in the way he did with Moore’s work.
Nothing ever ends. Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen ended perfectly. For now, anyway.
Some other thoughts:
* My interview with Lindelof covers a lot of ground, from the big picture about why he’s probably done with the material to smaller stuff like confirming that Veidt’s rocket from Jupiter is what landed on the Clark farm at the start of the fourth episode, or explaining why the Crookshanks prosecutor winked at Veidt at the end of his trial.
* The season brought in every surviving Watchmen hero but one: Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl and Laurie’s ex-partner in every sense. Lindelof has said he just couldn’t find a way to include Dan with all the other old and new players he was juggling. But he finally gets mentioned more overtly near the end, as Veidt unveils the original Archie (which crashed en route to Karnak near the end of the comic) and talks about how the Tulsa PD has been using Dan’s blueprints to design their airships. This Peteypedia entry from a few weeks back has more details about how and why Dan is still in federal prison (and why Laurie isn’t). I do like the idea of “Mirror Guy” becoming her new partner, though. In the end, those two hit it off.
* I’ve also been promised an extensive Peteypedia entry on Lube Man, who never did get explained on the show. (Though last week’s Fogdancing memo by Petey suggested that Lube Man’s costume was inspired by the book.) I don’t know what it says about me, but I care more about more Lube Man details than I do finding out whether Angela fell into the pool or walked on water, and what happened to her after. Update: The entry is here, and it very strongly implies that Lube Man was none other than Petey himself. Whoa.
* The theater — whose marquee is damaged in the squidstorm until the only lights still functioning spell out “DR. M” — brings the season full circle in another way, as it’s revealed to be the place where Judd and Jane watched the all-black production of Oklahoma! that Angela and Cal skipped. As the family emerges in the early morning light, Frank Sinatra’s cover of Oklahoma!‘s opening song, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” plays.
* Lady Trieu dies, but Bian’s clone survives by hiding inside the Mars phone booth. (And how great was it that Laurie herself was the one who wound up calling the booth, given how she spent the third episode’s framing sequence lamenting that no one was on the other end of the line?) At least Hong Chau got to deliver some more razor-sharp insults before the end, though, particularly her response to Veidt’s corpse message: “Well, there must be a cool story behind that.”
* Seymour, the news vendor played by Robert Wisdom back in the second episode, pops up again and is amusingly impressed by Lady Trieu, and by what he thinks is Veidt’s resemblance to the real Ozymandias. A very small role (and mostly a hat-tip to the newsstand that was a key location in the comic), but also put a welcome human face on the increasingly-cosmic doings at that point.
* Finally, the episode offered a few more overt nods to the comic, including the introduction of Joe Keene’s wheelchair-bound father, who was responsible for the Seventies federal law that banned masked vigilantes, plus Veidt calling Laurie by her maiden name (which she’d have been using when last he saw her). He even pronounces Juspeczyk correctly, where she got annoyed in the comic when people tried using her mom’s stage name of Jupiter. Best of all, though: When the game warden shoots at Veidt, the former Ozymandias actually catches the bullet, just like he does when Laurie shoots at him in Karnak in the comic’s final issue.