A review of this week’s Watchmen, “She Was Killed By Space Junk,” coming up just as soon as I rule out extremist gophers…
Early in “She Was Killed By Space Junk,” FBI agent Dale Petey(*) gets in trouble with his boss, Farragut, for inserting a page from Rorschach’s infamous journal into a briefing on the Seventh Kavalry. “Is it the 1980s?” Farragut asks dismissively. “Then who gives a shit about Rorschach?”
(*) The man behind Peteypedia, which continues to go into way more of this world’s backstory than the show does.
Watchmen hasn’t exactly shared Farragut’s attitude through its previous two episodes, but it’s come close. The series is built on the foundation of what happened in the Eighties, but has largely focused on original characters and stories and conflicts.
This changes in a big way with “She Was Killed By Space Junk.” Not only does it confirm that Jeremy Irons is playing Adrian Veidt — and even puts him into the Ozymandias costume (where he oddly resembles Christopher Lloyd as Jim from Taxi) — but the hour’s central character is Laurie Blake, née Juspeczyk, formerly the Silk Spectre and one of the key figures of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ comic book. The episode is framed by a phone call Laurie places to her omnipotent ex-boyfriend Dr. Manhattan while he’s vacationing on Mars. The joke she tells during that call involves descriptions of herself, him, Veidt, and Laurie’s other superheroic ex-boyfriend, Dan Dreiberg, a.k.a. the second Nite Owl(*), and ends with her paraphrasing Rorschach’s journal (where he told a joke about Pagliacci): “Roll on snare drum. Curtains. Good joke.” Dr. Manhattan himself doesn’t physically appear in the episode, but he appears to participate. Moments after Laurie tells the punchline — about God being killed by a brick thrown earlier in the joke — a car comes flying out of the sky and crashes in front of her, forcing the bitter ex-superhero, daughter of a sociopath who called himself the Comedian, to finally let out a big, cathartic laugh.
(*) Not much time is spent on poor Dan here, but Joe Keene Jr. says that with presidential pardon power, he could “even get your owl out of that cage,” and he’s clearly not talking about Laurie’s pet owl, the Abbott and Costello-ishly monikered Who. (This Peteypedia page has much more on when and why Dan got locked away.) And after Laurie talks with Angela in the mausoleum, her eyes linger on Angela’s discarded Sister Night goggles, which presumably were taken (just like Archie the owl ship) from Dan when he got arrested.
That the car appears to be Angela’s stolen vehicle — and thus, that its return might have nothing whatsoever to do with Dr. Manhattan having heard Laurie’s message — appears to perhaps be a joke on her. But in the moment, the laugh is something she — and perhaps Watchmen itself — desperately needed.
The hour is Damon Lindelof and Lila Byock shifting into the single-POV mode they used so effectively on The Leftovers — where their Season Three episode, “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World,” built to its own incredible punchline about God suffering an unexpectedly violent fate — and that Lindelof previously deployed often on Lost. He has credited the Watchmen comic for inspiring his use of that technique, and here he gets to apply it brilliantly to a show set in the universe of the comic book, and now prominently featuring several major players from it. The TV series’ version of that universe is so big and weird and disorienting that it’s an enormous help to push in on just one character (give or take our weekly detour to wherever Veidt is). And it’s especially helpful that this character has such an experienced, jaded perspective on both the old comic book story and the one Lindelof, Byock, and company are telling now. Laurie is not impressed by any of this, and is amused by much of it. And as played to dryly world-weary perfection by the great Jean Smart, we could have no better fresh perspective — as a simultaneous insider and outsider — than hers.
Early on, the episode steps away from Tulsa to show us Laurie operating as an FBI agent in Washington, D.C., setting up a sting operation to catch a vigilante who looks very much like Batman — in a staged bank heist that looks very much like the opening of The Dark Knight — though in fact he goes by Mr. Shadow. Cops in Tulsa wear masks and have secret identities, and Joe Keene promises Laurie that other cities like Atlanta want to jump on board DOPA (for Defense of Police Act). But the arrest of Mr. Shadow, and the reference to her previous bust of the Revenger, tells us that costumed vigilantes didn’t entirely vanish because of the law Keene’s father passed, nor because of the events of the comic. At some point after the original story, Laurie took on her father’s last name, and carries herself with something resembling his cynicism, if not his complete, repellent amorality. She has no sympathy for Mr. Shadow, and is contemptuous of the idea of cops dressing like superheroes. This leads to a quicker joke at Judd Crawford’s funeral, where she asks Angela, “You know how you can tell the difference between a masked cop and a vigilante?” When Angela replies that she doesn’t, Laurie zings back, “Me neither.”
She isn’t wrong. We saw in the previous episode that Sister Night sometimes tries to act like a cop, and sometimes takes the law entirely into her own hands. At the funeral, Laurie kills a Seventh Kavalry terrorist wearing a bomb vest with a dead man’s switch, forcing Angela to go full superhero, as she drops the corpse into Judd’s grave, then shoves the coffin on top just in time to muffle the explosion. It’s an impressive feat (especially since her much bigger and stronger colleagues are either running away or standing and watching her save the day), and made necessary by Laurie’s sloppiness regarding the bomber. But Angela’s only been a costumed hero for a few years, while Laurie has been trained to be one practically from birth, even if she never wanted to be. So she arrives in Tulsa acting less like the Silk Spectre than Lt. Columbo. She already knows who everyone is, appears to know most of their secrets, and is unimpressed by all of them.
As she sniffs around Judd’s death and whatever rogue operation Angela is running, she manages to throw almost everyone off-balance — everyone except Sister Night, anyway. At the end of a long, intense conversation inside the mausoleum the bomber had tunneled into, Laurie delivers an intense monologue about people who think of themselves as good guys, closing with the barely-veiled threat, “But here’s the thing about me, Sister Night: I eat good guys for breakfast.” And in the comedic highlight of the series so far(*), Angela stares at her for a moment in what seems like concern, before doing an exaggerated mock whimper. She ain’t scared of no ghost of superheroes past, not even one who used to sleep with a giant blue space god. And seeing these two powerhouses (both the characters and the actors playing them) go toe-to-toe instantly kicks the energy level of the entire series up a notch.
(*) It’s also a nice reminder that Oscar- and Emmy-winning dramatic thespian Regina King spent the first five years of her acting career as a sitcom kid (on 227). You don’t lose those chops, not even if you spend most of your adult career portraying righteous indignation.
The Laurie/Angela showdown takes place right after our regular check-in with Veidt, who this week is… building a primitive space suit? Out of medieval armor and whatever other equipment he has handy at the castle? Like everything else about these scenes so far, it’s unclear what’s happening, why it’s happening, or even where it’s happening, though the suit itself, plus the frozen corpse of another Mr. Phillips clone, who sure looks like he died of exposure to the vacuum of space, offer a hint. At times, it feels like Lindelof and the other writers decided the racially-charged angst in Tulsa required some sort of comedic release valve and hired Irons to star in a series of live-action Looney Tunes shorts. But the fact that this is Adrian Veidt(*) — a man Laurie knows well, even if, as she tells Agent Petey, she’s not a fan — makes clear that this inspired goofiness is tied into the rest of what’s happening.
(*) Did the series need to wait until the third episode to confirm Veidt’s identity? On the one hand, everyone who knows the comic (or the movie) already figured that was who Irons was playing, while the name means nothing to newcomers. So the deception feels a bit unnecessary. On the other hand, there really wasn’t that much deception — the ad for the show’s New York Comic-Con panel, for instance, listed everyone else’s character name, while under Irons’ picture, it said, “Probably who you think he is.” And it feels like even leaving out the slightest possibility that this was not Veidt only added to the very necessary WTF quality that has made these interludes such a joy so far. But if Irons had been wearing the costume and mask the whole time, that also would have been a delight. Either way, this is not a situation like, say, “Of course Cumberbatch isn’t playing Khan! What a ridiculous notion!”
If Laurie Blake could see it, she’d probably laugh. As we see from the expression of relief on her face in the final scene, she really needs to laugh more than this world allows her to. But it’s great to have her here to help us laugh more often at all that is dark and mysterious and weird in the new Watchmen.
Some other thoughts, many of them comic book-related:
* The show already featured a recreation of Dr. Manhattan’s (in)famous blue penis during last week’s performance of The Watchmaker’s Son. Here, we see it in a different form as Laurie — who, as far as we know, last had sex with Manhattan back in 1985 — has a giant blue space dildo in her luggage. It appears she opts to use Agent Petey as her substitute instead, but the editing of the sequence leaves open the possibility that this was not an either/or situation.
* In Laurie’s Washington apartment, she has an Andy Warhol painting depicting Ozymandias, Nite Owl, Dr. Manhattan, and herself back in her early vigilante days. (In a nice touch, director Stephen Williams frames the shot so that first we can see three-quarters of the painting, while the real, 2019 version of Laurie’s head is situated exactly where the panel featuring her younger self should be.) The four of them not only wind up being the four visitors to heaven in the joke she tells Dr. Manhattan, but the other three are also the heroes who all attend the funeral of her father in the comic’s second issue.
* The out-of-sequence nature of Laurie’s joke is a nice match for the Watchmen comic (which bounced around in time in a way that was hugely influential on Lindelof’s writing), and for Dr. Manhattan himself. He exists separate from the concept of linear time, and thus would be more inclined to enjoy a joke in that vein.
* While composing his letter to the “game warden” who is somehow holding him prisoner (and forbidding him from killing buffalo to help complete the space suit), Veidt suggests the warden has compared him to a “Republic serial villain.” In the comic, he uses the exact same phrase while telling Laurie, Dan Dreiberg, and Rorschach about his plan to — as Laurie phrases it in her joke in this episode — save humanity by dropping a giant alien squid on New York.
* While flying in to Tulsa, Laurie and Petey can see “the Millennium Clock,” a giant structure being built by Lady Trieu, who took over Veidt’s companies. In the comic, Veidt is preparing to introduce a new scent called Millennium, and the entire story is obsessed with clocks, from the Doomsday Clock warning of the potential for Armageddon to Dr. Manhattan being the son of a watchmaker.
* Laurie’s arrival in Tulsa also allows the show to provide more exposition, like Wade explaining to her how the bias-detecting sphere works. (Laurie: “So, it’s a racist detector?”) Given how much the show deals with white supremacy, it’s also fascinating to see the Tulsa cops using attack dogs to threaten and control the Seventh Kavalry members, when photos of the civil rights movement are filled with images of racist white cops in the South and Midwest siccing similar dogs on black protestors.
* Finally, on the plane, Petey makes a reference to how “we’re supposed to leave famous people alone.” I wondered if there might be different privacy laws in Redford’s America — especially since his Supreme Court features at least one literary celebrity in the form of John Grisham (a newspaper headline says he’s retiring) — but Lindelof tells me it’s just Petey articulating an increasingly old-fashioned form of common courtesy.