A review of this week’s Watchmen, “A God Walks Into Abar,” coming up just as soon as the chicken and the egg come at the very same time…
It is the spring of 1988. I am reading Watchmen for the first time, in a thick trade paperback collection I brought home from Waldenbooks at the Willowbrook Mall. I am particularly stunned (and, admittedly, a bit confused) by how Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons depict Dr. Manhattan experiencing every moment of his existence at the same time.
It is December of 2019. I am writing a recap of “A God Walks Into Abar,” which explains how Dr. Manhattan and Angela Abar met, fell in love, and came up with the crazy plan for him to turn into an ordinary human named Cal (a god walks into) Abar. The episode skips backwards and forwards through Dr. Manhattan’s story, the better to convey the way he is unstuck in time and space. So much of it occurs out of sequence that I’m not even sure where to begin trying to explain it all.
It is the spring of 1993. A college course I’m taking on classic science fiction authors gets to the Robert A. Heinlein short story All You Zombies, a tale filled with time-travel paradoxes, in which the protagonist is revealed to be his own father and mother (and virtually every other character we meet). Reading Watchmen and other sci-fi like Slaughterhouse Five has better prepared me to understand this kind of thing, but I still confess to the professor that the story gives me a headache. She laughs and says it gives her one, too.
It is November of 2019. I am watching the sequence in “A God Walks Into Abar” where, in 2009, Manhattan (just on the verge of erasing his memory so he and Angela can enjoy 10 years together free of his knowledge of the future) goes to visit Will Reeves in New York, while, in 2019, Manhattan (having just recovered his identity after Angela cracked his skull open and removed Adrian Veidt’s amnesia implant) tells Angela about the meeting with Will. In 2019, Angela asks her husband to ask her grandfather in 2009 how he knew that Judd Crawford was affiliated with Cyclops. In 2009, a mystified Will says he’s never heard of Judd, prompting Angela in 2019 to realize that she created this whole mess by putting Will on Judd’s scent. This should give me some of the old Heinlein headache, but it doesn’t. The episode has done such a good job of laying out how Manhattan’s powers work that even this very literal grandfather paradox makes complete, delightful sense.
It is March of 2009. I am at a multiplex watching Zack Snyder’s take on Watchmen. I’m impressed with the Dr. Manhattan origin montage, which is accompanied by part of Philip Glass’ score from Koyaanisqatsi. Still, I can’t help noticing how the movie mostly dances around the concept of Manhattan’s nonlinear existence.
It is December of 2019. I am thinking about just how unapologetically weird the Watchmen TV show has been, and how true to the spirit of the comic book that weirdness is. This episode alone ping-pongs through time and space. It features a blue god who is also sometimes black, and who either knows everything about the universe or just knows about the 10 years that he has been living the life of the man born Calvin Jelani. It is an hour that explains the origins of life on Europa, and how Adrian Veidt ended up there, but not how he plans to return to Earth, nor whether he’s gone through this ordeal before. It features one of the most improbable superhero team-ups of all time, between the omnipotent Dr. Manhattan and the ancient and angry Hooded Justice, but that meeting is just a conversation in a drawing room.
“A God Walks Into Abar” is not a retelling of Dr. Manhattan’s origin story, though it does offer up a previously unseen slice of his biography, in the interlude at the English manor run by the kind and generous couple who will one day be cloned into an infinite number of Mr. Philipses and Miss Crookshankses. But in capturing the nonlinear, predestined nature of Manhattan’s life, it takes a chance to convey what’s unique and cool about the character that Snyder either couldn’t or didn’t want to grab ahold of. As Manhattan does on Mars in the comic and film, he travels to another part of the solar system to create a new home and new interests — this time teleporting the English castle, but creating fetuses in the stream (that is what they are) as a way to pay forward the lord and lady’s request for him to one day create something beautiful on their behalf.
It is February of 2008. I am watching a Lost episode called “The Constant,” in which Desmond Hume is unstuck in time, and needs to reconnect with the love of his life, Penny, in order to stay alive. It is almost instantly my favorite episode of the series for the way it blends an out-there sci-fi concept with a potently sincere romance.
It is May of 2010. I am watching a Lost episode called “Across the Sea,” set thousands of years before the events of the rest of the series, which reveals that most of the island’s supernatural properties flow from a magical glowing pool of water. It is almost instantly one of everyone’s least favorite episodes of the series, answering myriad questions about the island and its mysteries in a way few found satisfying.
It is December of 2019, and I’m thinking about how “A God Walks Into Abar” was co-written by Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen, who once upon a time was the most celebrated Lost recapper of them all. (Here’s his night-of take on “The Constant,” for instance.) Were Jensen still on this side of the divide, he surely would have sniffed out Cal’s true identity many episodes back. Instead, he and Lindelof are now coworkers, and together they have written an episode that evokes both Lost‘s most beloved installment and one of its least liked. Yet in the combination of the two, only the good parts come bubbling up from Watchmen‘s own magical body of water.
Like “The Constant,” this episode’s time-bending hot-messiness is in service to what’s ultimately a very clear, simple, and powerful love story between two characters who have to work a bit harder than you or I to find happiness with the person — or omnipotent being — of our dreams.
Most of the episode is framed as Angela’s first conversation with Manhattan — but not his first with hers, because he experiences all their conversations at once… except for the 10 years when he was in the tunnel and couldn’t access those memories, and… by this point, we really should want Angela Abar to take a hammer to our own skulls, shouldn’t we? But I don’t, because their conversation in a Saigon bar on VVN night (the anniversary of both America’s victory in Vietnam and the murder of Angela’s parents) does more than provide exposition and temporal context for Manhattan’s shenanigans elsewhere in the hour. In the easy chemistry between Regina King and Yahya Abdul-Mateen (even with his face hidden and his voice electronically distorted), it provides a reason to care about this profoundly mismatched couple, and to understand the lengths to which they ultimately go in order to stay together. It all unfolds out of order, but the girl-meets-boy basics are universal enough to apply — even though the boy keeps meeting the girl over and over and over again.
For that matter, the headache-inducing nature of the episode’s structure is a case of form beautifully serving function, and vice versa. We have to experience the story out of order to fully appreciate what it’s like to be Manhattan every minute of every day (all at once). But we also have to feel superhuman levels of annoyance about it to fully understand why Angela and Jon would agree to the radical plan they do with Adrian Veidt’s amnesia device. Cal has certain things in common with the man with whom Angela fell in love, but he’s not quite the same, and not just because he no longer knows how to teleport or fill a stream with clone fetuses. She desperately wants a family with him, but being with someone who knows every moment of their existence together in advance is too much to handle. So she takes this extraordinary step — and he cares for her enough to agree, even if he doesn’t yet know how it was he fell in love with her in the first place(*). All that matters to Dr. Manhattan is that he has always loved Angela, and he has always agreed to spend a decade with her inside the tunnel of love.
(*) Perhaps this is like how, in the comic, Manhattan is utterly blindsided by every move that Veidt makes against him: tachyons (faster-than-light particles, which Joe Keene’s troops use in their teleportation device) cloud his usual omniscience not only in the moment that they’re used, but for a period of time before and after. Regardless of what causes the blockage, the moment where Manhattan watches, struck with both awe and love, as Angela opens up her Sister Night arsenal to wage a hopeless battle against the Seventh Kavalry is as romantic as a scene involving semiautomatic weapons can or should be.
At the same time we’re learning how this great, doomed love came to be, we’re also getting a great many answers to Watchmen‘s other open questions, from what sparked Will’s suspicions about Judd to what’s been happening on Europa, and why.
The Europa scenes this week clarify a lot of what we’ve been seeing in Jeremy Irons’ wacky show-within-the-show — including the way that those interludes are more closely tied to the rest, at least on a thematic level. We learn that Manhattan moved the castle and created the clones not to imprison an old frenemy, but as a tribute to the real lord and lady of the manor. We also learn that he sent Veidt 390 million miles away not as punishment, but as a kindness to a fellow godlike being — Veidt doesn’t share Manhattan’s power level, but he did single-handedly preserve all life on the planet — who had grown tragically disillusioned with his own creation. (For all the grand plans Veidt once shared with Robert Redford, the show’s version of America in 2019 is no more utopian than our own.) But paradise proves just another disappointing hell for the smartest man in the solar system. Surrounded with an endless number of men and women who want to do nothing but worship and please him, he grows bored, and begins to deeply abuse the world Dr. Manhattan handed him.
It plays not only as another tragedy, but as a biting commentary on how creators — particularly those who, say, write comic books — eventually have to hand over their creation to someone else, who may have an entirely different plan for that creation. Damon Lindelof looked at Hooded Justice and pictured a black man under the mask. Adrian Veidt looked at this peaceful and picaresque estate on one of Jupiter’s moons and saw servants to fulfill his every whim — including, eventually, a desire to get out of there.
The appearance of a magical, glowing pool of water of course conjures memories of “Across the Sea.” But where that episode is perhaps the quintessential TV example of being careful what you wish for (with Lost fans, it was explanations), “A God Walks Into Abar” works on almost every level. It emotionally ties all of its answers to characters we know well in Angela and Veidt, and to someone we thought we knew in Cal. (And fans of the comic obviously have a deep and longstanding relationship with Dr. Manhattan.) As Angela realizes while she stands by the pool, having just seen her husband literally walk on water, she and Cal caused all of this to happen. She wanted a family, and he had a destiny to fulfill, and as a result there’s a crazy man on Europa and a handsome racist in Tulsa who’s preparing to steal Manhattan’s powers for himself. For Jon Osterman, for Angela Abar, and for us in the audience, this story’s past, present, and future are all inextricably linked, all happening at once, and all a mess.
It is October of 2019. I’m watching the sixth episode of Watchmen and am thunderstruck to finally learn, in a reveal he refused to spoil months earlier, Damon Lindelof’s core idea for this take on the material: that Hooded Justice — the original superhero of the comic book’s alternate reality — was secretly a black man pretending to be white. Suddenly, the show’s themes about racism and white supremacy are intimately tied to Alan Moore’s original questions about what would motivate anyone to put on a mask and a cape to fight crime.
It is November of 2019. As I am watching “A God Walks Into Abar,” I realize that, as elegantly as it’s somehow conveying this asynchronous jumble of information, it still can’t quite cover all the ground or answer all the necessary questions. Manhattan mentions, for instance, that he could give his powers to other people if he wanted to, yet in the desperate moment when Angela prepares to take on 7K singlehandedly with just her guns, the idea of him loaning her some of his abilities never comes up. (Not even for Angela to decline the offer because she doesn’t want that burden.)
More importantly, though, it’s the first time a show about race and appropriation has shied away from its primary themes. It’s left ambiguous, for instance, why Angela is so reluctant to show Calvin Jelani’s body to Manhattan, instead starting off with the corpses of several white men. And at no point do either of them discuss the idea that Manhattan will not only be giving up his godhood for a decade, but that he’ll be making himself extra-vulnerable by presenting himself in the skin of an oppressed minority. “This Extraordinary Being” made a huge deal out of Will’s choice to impersonate a white man, and the sociological and emotional implications of that choice. When it comes time for Dr. Manhattan to impersonate a black man, it’s left to our imaginations as to what, or even if, he and Angela thought about it before he did it, and about what those 10 years of looking African American in a city (and country) with a dodgy racial history were like for him. It’s an unfortunate omission in an otherwise dazzling episode that has no business working as well as it does.
The Moebius strip narrative briefly sets itself back on a linear path for the thrilling climax, where Manhattan finally learns how he fell in love with this magnificent woman, and Sister Night wages doomed battle against the Seventh Kavalry. She’s so inspiring that her husband chooses to ignore his belief in destiny by coming out to fight alongside her — which, of course, just fulfills that destiny by allowing the one surviving 7K soldier to activate the teleportation device and zap him over to the local JC Penney. This leaves quite a lot to be resolved in the finale (which will, like this episode, be slightly longer than an hour), especially given that Lindelof has suggested this might just be a one-season show.
But among the tremendous achievements of “A God Walks Into Abar” is how it neatly arranges all the players and stakes for the endgame, even as we’re learning about them all in nonchronological fashion. It’s an episode that’s baffling to describe, and at times to experience, yet at the end it’s about a love that has pressed against the outer limits of possibility, and that our heroine will do anything to try to preserve — even though she was told from the start it would end in tragedy. She fell in love with and married a man who believes every moment in the past, present, and future is happening simultaneously, and none of it can be changed — and she is nonetheless ready to do everything she can to prove God wrong.
It is the fall of 1989. The cover of my Watchmen paperback is riddled with creases from how many times I’ve read it in the last year and a half. Pat, the owner of my local comic book shop, Pegasus Comics in Boonton, NJ, tells me that he’s heard of a Watchmen movie script written Sam Hamm, who just wrote the Michael Keaton/Tim Burton Batman film. I’m excited, but I also can’t imagine anyone actually putting this story on film — the out-of-sequence Dr. Manhattan parts of it especially.
It is November of 2019. I finish watching “A God Walks Into Abar” for the first of what I already know will be many, many times. I can’t believe someone actually made this episode, and made it as well as they did. It is everything I never could have imagined being possible, and everything I wish that I had believed in all along.
Some other thoughts:
* As I warned last week, the episode continues past the closing credits, as we catch up with Veidt in the aftermath of his yearlong trial (and flatulent defense). He is stewing in his cell, reading a novel (more on that below), when he discovers that Chekhov’s Horseshoe has been delivered to him exactly when he needs it, and uses it to begin digging into the stone floor of his prison. How did he know in all those prior years that he would eventually need the thing? Has he gone through this loop more than once? Is it — as Prosecutor Crookshanks’ wink last week suggested — all some elaborate play he and the clones put on every few years? That’s one more mystery to be solved (or not) in the finale.
* The White Night flashbacks from the series’ second episode left me wondering what happened to the second gunman in the Abar house, and why Angela and others spoke as if there had only been one. Among the many blanks this episode fills in is that Cal disintegrated the guy — his powers flaring up on instinct, just as Veidt in 2009 promised they would in instances of extreme danger.
* As usual, Peteypedia offers extra background detail on the former Calvin Jelani, in the manner of a medical report from when Angela brought him in following his “accident.” As to why he now goes by Cal Abar, the Watchmen writers tell me that Cal took Angela’s last name when they got married.
* The comic establishes that a young Jon Osterman and his father fled Germany during the rise of the Nazis. But their brief stay at the English castle is an invention of the show. (Many Jews emigrating to America at this precarious time had to make a lot of stops along the way; one of our family’s grandmothers had an extended stay in Liverpool before she could continue to New York.)
* As a way to illustrate the difference between Dr. Manhattan’s view of the universe and Angela’s, the episode leans heavily on famous classical music compositions, including Strauss’ “The Blue Danube,” Gerswhin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann – Belle Nuit,” Verdi’s “Rigoletto Act 1 Caro Nome,” and Mozart’s “Requiem Mass Lacrimosa.”
* Finally, the book that Veidt is reading is Fogdancing, a fake novel written by Max Shea, the former pirate comic writer who helped Veidt make the squid that saved the world. The Watchmen comic’s supplemental materials only mention Fogdancing in passing, but it’s all over this show’s bonus content, from the liner notes to the second soundtrack volume to a long essay that just posted to Peteypedia.