A review of this week’s Watchmen, “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own,” coming up just as soon as I give you some passive-aggressive exposition…
“If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is arguably the most straightforward of Watchmen‘s four installments so far. Considering that the episode includes Adrian Veidt pulling cloned fetuses out of a river so he can age them rapidly to adulthood and get them to help catapult their murdered clones into the sky… well, “straightforward” is a very relative thing on this show, sure. But after the intensity of our introduction to Tulsa, or last week’s Laurie-centric outing, this one functions about as close to a regular hour of television as Watchmen is capable of. It advances various stories, clarifies things we didn’t know about the characters, and sets things up for whatever comes next.
And, yes, it also has cloned fetuses in a stream — after first opening with a montage of the poultry farming Clark family going about their day to the tune of “Islands in the Stream.” The Clarks shuffle out of the picture fairly quickly, but they serve two purposes before they do. The first is to provide yet another parallel to Superman’s origin story. They share a last name with his adoptive mother (which then becomes his first name), and they are a kind farm couple seemingly incapable of having biological children. And just when all hope seems lost, an object crashes onto their farmland and they wind up with a baby to raise — just not in that order. Which brings us to the second purpose they serve: as our introduction to our last major player of the story, the enigmatic, ultrawealthy Adrian Veidt successor Lady Trieu.
As played by the always-winning Hong Chau, Lady Trieu is presented as more than just the owner of all of Veidt’s former business holdings. Like him with Ozymandias, she has adopted the name of a legendary warrior: The real Lady Trieu fought against Chinese occupation of Vietnam in the third century. She has a vivarium in her headquarters (just like Veidt did in his Antarctic base in the comics), and appears to be manipulating much of what’s been happening in the series so far. She does the Clarks a great kindness by giving them the baby they so desperately want (plus $5 million), but first she makes a joke about having to destroy the little guy if they don’t agree. She smiles, but later in the hour we see Veidt tossing aside fetuses that do not please him, until he has found the perfect new Philips and Crookshanks to replace all the ones he has murdered. She seems kinder — and saner — than him, but can she be trusted any more than he can here, or than he could have been in the original story? The Clarks get a baby — and let’s not dwell too long on the question of whether he was also grown via whatever unholy method Veidt uses to make his clones — and Lady Trieu gets whatever landed on what used to be their property. Maybe it’s a superpowerful baby from a distant galaxy. Maybe it’s Veidt, whose story seems to be happening on a different timeline from the rest, and who appears, based on clues later in this episode, not to even be on Earth at the moment. Or maybe it’s something so horrible, we can’t even imagine it yet.
Late in the hour, we learn that Lady Trieu is in cahoots with Angela’s grandfather Will, whose last name is revealed to be Reeves, as in Bass. (Like Lady Trieu and Veidt, he has adopted the moniker of a historical figure who means something important to him.) He is also not the infirm old man suggested by his age, or by the wheelchair he was in when he met Angela. Whatever these two — him the grandfather of our main character, her born in the same place as Angela — have in the works, it is happening in three days. Will Reeves has very little in common with the members of the Seventh Kavalry, but he does conclude the episode by repeating their warning: “Tick-tock, tick-tock…”
Long before we get to that revelation, Angela spends much of the hour continuing to secretly investigate Will even as she’s trapped under the watchful eye of Laurie Blake. As she’s in the midst of dismantling his wheelchair, she gets another call from the Greenwood Cultural Center about Will (which means another Skip Gates cameo), finds out more about her connection to him (and that her paternal great-grandparents were O.B. and Ruth Williams, who died in the Greenwood massacre), then is startled to discover Laurie laughing hysterically at the sight of Angela’s car, which dropped out of the sky at the end of last week’s episode. Laurie’s father was a costumed hero who went by the Comedian — and who, as Petey explains to Angela, once tried to rape Laurie’s mother — but here, it appears the joke is on Angela. She’s out on her own, trying to outsmart her many opponents, but it appears that everyone else is a few steps ahead of Sister Night. She’s aware that she’s only hurting herself — when Cal asks why she broke into the cultural center, she admits, “Because I’m not acting rationally right now” — but she can’t stop any of it.
Laurie’s temporary assumption of Judd Crawford’s job (and desk) practically turns the series into an odd-couple buddy-cop show for a bit. When your buddy cops are played by Regina King and Jean Smart, and they’re navigating a world this strange, that’s just fine, thank you very much. And there are investigations within investigations. Angela is pretending to look for Judd’s killer, even though she knows her grandfather probably did it. Laurie is pretending to do the same, even though she knows Angela knows a lot more than she’s telling. It’s all crackling with both comic and dramatic tension — and allows Laurie to play head shrinker for Angela, as she explains, “People who wear masks are driven by trauma. They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered, usually when they were kids.” It feels like Sister Night and the former Silk Spectre may be confronting each other directly very soon.
But back to the fetuses in the stream. (That is what they are! No one in between! How can they be wrong?) We already knew that Veidt was making clones of his servants, so seeing the process he uses is… nightmare-inducing (both the fetuses being tossed back into the water and the screams from the chamber as Philips and Crookshanks are aged to adulthood), but not conceptually revelatory. Instead, the big development is what Ozymandias is doing with them. He is murdering them by the dozens, then growing new ones to help dispose of the old ones… with a catapult? Which launches the corpses into the sky where they… vanish into thin air? OK, Boomer.
These scenes have already been operating on a different timeline from the rest of the show — each time Veidt gets that honeycomb cake, it’s the anniversary of when he first came to the castle — and this is the first episode to strongly argue that it’s even further away physically from Tulsa than we might have thought. As Veidt watches the corpses vanish, the sky is framed through the lens of his telescope, and a moment later, we pull back from that same image, only instead of a cloudy sky, it’s the full moon, hanging over the Abar house. Last week, Veidt built a space suit out of medieval armor, and one of the Philips clones appeared to freeze to death in the vacuum of space while wearing it. Between that, the vanishing clones here, and that scene transition, Watchmen is all but screaming at this point, “VEIDT IS IN SPAAAAAAAACE!!!!”
If he’s there, why? Can he get home? Did he, in fact, crash onto the Clark farm? Or is he operating independently of whatever Lady Trieu and Will are up to? As we approach the midpoint of this nine-episode season, we know answers have to start coming soon. Tick-tock… Tick-tock…
Some other thoughts, many of them comic book-related:
* Petey’s explanation of the relationship between the Comedian and Laurie’s mother Sally (the first Silk Spectre) mentions the attempted rape, but doesn’t get into the even messier part of it: that eventually, Sally forgave him and began a consensual relationship, which is how Laurie was conceived. The discovery of that unlikely origin story is what convinces Dr. Manhattan that Laurie is a thermodynamic miracle — “My ex used to talk about them when he wasn’t distracted by fucking quarks,” she tells Angela here — and reminds him that humanity is worth saving.
* As Laurie drives Angela around Tulsa, the car stereo plays Billie Holiday’s “You’re My Thrill,” which in the comic is playing on the owl ship’s stereo as Laurie and Nite Owl rescue people from a tenement fire.
* Peteypedia content remains, as I’ve said, a nice bonus but unnecessary to the story being told by the show. That said, if you are a fan of the original story who wants more detail about how Laurie went from vigilante to FBI agent, what happened to Nite Owl, and even (or especially) the origin of the space dildo, there’s a new entry this week explaining all these things. And in the process, it links another character to Oklahoma.
* I haven’t yet noted the clever way that the Watchmen title card appears differently in each episode. Last week, for instance, right before Laurie placed her phone call to Mars, the letters popped up like they were being dialed on an old-fashioned touch-tone phone keypad. Here, they are presented as spilled egg yolks, right before we see Mrs. Clark trip and break most of that day’s supply.
* Any theories on what Veidt will eventually need Chekhov’s Horseshoe for? So far, each time Philips has tried presenting it to him, Veidt has responded that he doesn’t need it yet.
* We get some time away from the precinct with Wade, who agrees to hide Judd’s Klan robes inside the bomb shelter where he otherwise obsesses over the periodic squid falls. (“Thirty seconds of life,” he laments, “and they spend all of it dying.”) In one of the episode’s sharpest lines, he responds to Angela’s question about whether he knew Judd was racist with, “He was a white man in Oklahoma” — a description that, of course, applies just as neatly to Wade himself.
* Cal’s hatred of lying is demonstrated when he responds to the kids’ questions about what happened to Judd by dismissing heaven as “pretend.” The atheist candor is striking, but also plays out differently in a world in which Dr. Manhattan — who is discussed as being indistinguishable from God — exists and is on everyone’s mind at all times.
* Something seems a bit… off about Lady Trieu’s daughter, Bian. Maybe it’s just paranoia in an episode where babies are being created with superscience, but the scene where Bian tells her mother about her nightmare left me wondering if she’s more than just a precocious girl.
* Finally, I cannot decide if I want to know everything there is to know about the costumed figure Angela encountered while disposing of the wheelchair, or if I’d rather “Lube Man” (as the Red Scare dubs him) be a completely unexplained one-shot absurdist visual gag who, like Mr. Shadow last week, reminds us that there are still a lot of weird people in spandex running around this parallel world. (His costume and slippery motif also reminded me of obscure Spider-Man villain Slyde. Like we used to say on the Internet, Slyde roolz.)