As far as I (Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff) am concerned, “See How They Fly,” Watchmen’s first (and perhaps only?) season finale, was a near-perfect way to end a near-perfect season of television.
Like the season it caps, “See How They Fly” begins with a heady dip into both the past and present, filling viewers in on the backstory of Lady Trieu and Adrian Veidt’s eventual escape from Europa. The two are linked — Trieu is Veidt’s daughter, though he had no idea she existed until she showed up at his doorstep in Antarctica. (Sidebar: The way the show’s directors have used lighting to highlight Hong Chau’s eyes in a way that makes it seem almost as if Lady Trieu is wearing a mask herself, is a nifty visual reference to Ozymandias’s look.)
Then the episode launches into a long sequence that delves into the consequences of American racism. And it ends with graceful imagery and a story about what parents and children owe to each other.
In the middle, it nearly loses its way, but rights itself in time for a rip-roaring climax. I cried, I laughed, I cheered. It was about as good an ending as I dared hope for, especially after episode eight left me fearing the producers had so many balls up in the air that they couldn’t possibly hope to catch all of them.
What’s amazing about this finale is that it answers so many questions, but almost perfunctorily. Some moments had been clearly telegraphed earlier in the season — like the egg Angela eats that may or may not contain Doctor Manhattan’s powers — but the character resolutions were so beautiful that I was happy just to revel in them. By the time Will and Angela were having a conversation about pain and Will was insisting that “wounds need air,” I was a mess.
And for as many questions as the finale answered, it raised a few new ones for me and some of my colleagues — not about the story of Watchmen but about some of the show’s thematic implications. So I’m joined by associate culture editor Allegra Frank, senior culture correspondent Alex Abad-Santos, and culture writer Constance Grady to break those down and discuss Watchmen’s first season as a whole.
1. How well did the finale wrap up this season of television?
Emily: You can probably guess from all of the above that I think “See How They Fly” is terrific. But I want to know what the three of you think. Did you like it? Yes? No?
Allegra: I think that yes, I did. It helped that the two episodes before the finale made me feel more invested in Watchmen than I had been previously, thanks to its increased focus on Angela and a fun detour into her and Doctor Manhattan’s love story. The poignancy of their relationship in particular made the conclusion land for me, as it carried increased emotional heft. And more importantly, it was so fun to see my man Adrian Veidt play off characters we hadn’t yet seen him interact with.
Alex: I liked it. I’ve really enjoyed this entire season, and though I don’t know if I love the finale as much as episode six or eight, I really enjoyed how it unspooled the season’s mysteries. I didn’t see Veidt hiding in (golden) plain sight coming, and how we ended up back at the theater? I yelped out loud.
Constance: I’m on Alex’s side here. I enjoyed this finale a lot, and I think it’s a beautifully constructed episode of television. But I don’t think it’s as thematically interesting as the more allegorical episodes from earlier in the season, and it spends more time on Doctor Manhattan himself as a character than I particularly care for. (The best thing about Doctor Manhattan is that all his girlfriends are way more interesting than he is, imo.)
2. Doctor Manhattan: good man or tool of the status quo?
Alex: At the end of this episode, Will and Angela talk about what a good man Jon was. It’s in the context of how he didn’t really want to be a god, but also that he tried his best to take care of Angela. But is he really a good man?
There’s that famous saying that with great power comes great responsibility, and I don’t think Jon has ever really flexed the “great responsibility” part. By falling for Angela, he put the entire world at risk. Granted, he probably knew Cyclops would muck things up. But he didn’t know if anyone would be able to stop Lady Trieu, since she kills him. If Veidt didn’t stop her, Lady Trieu would have ruled the world.
Was risking that outcome worth being with Angela? Aren’t Doctor Manhattan’s actions just as bad as Veidt’s giant squid attack in terms of putting the fate of humanity at risk? If he was truly good, shouldn’t he have avoided having a relationship with Angela, and for that matter, Laurie Blake, too?
Or, alternately, is it okay if he isn’t all that good?
Constance: There’s not just the problem of falling in love with Angela: There’s also the problem of everything that Doctor Manhattan failed to do. As Will put it, he could have done so much more.
Doctor Manhattan has the ability to create life! He’s essentially omnipotent and omniscient! And he uses his powers to basically fuck around on one of Jupiter’s moons for a while? We’re told he has the ability to do anything, and yet he allows the world to keep on turning more or less as it always has been, filled with untold suffering and injustice. As Lady Trieu pointed out, there was plenty that someone with Doctor Manhattan’s powers could have done to make the world a better place — cure diseases, end war, feed the hungry — and Jon consistently failed to do any of that.
But his apparent inaction raises some pretty compelling questions. Did he decide not to intervene in world matters because, given the way he experiences time, he knew that he wouldn’t intervene? In other words, does being omniscient rob Doctor Manhattan of free will? Or does he choose not to intervene because he is so powerful that anything he does to upset the status quo would lead to potentially apocalyptic consequences, and so the best he can do is nothing at all? Which is to say: In the moral universe of Watchmen, is it impossible to have god-like powers and still be ethically good?
3. Did Lady Trieu deserve better than to be crushed by her Millennium Clock?
Constance: Real talk, I adore Lady Trieu and her fantastic hat with all my heart, and I think she deserves better than to have been killed by one of her dad’s reruns. I mean — tiny frozen squid? Where’s the grandeur in that? Frankly, Ozymandias could stand to learn a thing or two from the scope of Lady Trieu’s ambition, not to mention her aesthetic sense. (She was right, that suit was a better look for him than his clichéd cloak and armor.)
And the thing is, like any good supervillain, Trieu makes some solid points. As we discussed above, Doctor Manhattan truly isn’t doing anything with his enormous powers. Why shouldn’t someone who knows how to think long term and is interested in lessening the world’s pain get to use those powers instead of him? Wouldn’t destroying our nuclear weapons be a way smarter and more efficient way to end the threat of nuclear war than dropping a giant squid from the sky to kill millions of people? Sure, it’s sad that Trieu’s plan killed Jon, but as collateral damage goes, one dead guy is a much smaller price to pay than half of New York City.
All things considered, I had a really hard time rooting against Trieu in this episode, and I think a hard time was exactly what Watchmen wanted me to be having. What’s our take on Trieu, Emily? And do you think she’s really dead for good?
Emily: Like you, I had trouble rooting against Lady Trieu — but I’m not sure I was supposed to. The finale, broadly speaking, presents three possible solutions to the problems of humanity. The first, represented by Joe Keene, involves going back more forcefully to a past where oppressive power structures held sway. The second, represented by Trieu, involves forcefully removing those power structures and putting those who have not traditionally held power in charge.
The third, represented by Angela, involves keeping one eye firmly on the worst abuses of the past while still trying to knit together a better future. Whether you think Angela might walk on water or not effectively suggests whether you think there is a way forward without blowing the whole goddamn place up.
And I think “See How They Fly” ultimately argues that Lady Trieu has a point! She’s not wrong that the old ways are broken and can’t be trusted, and her method of manipulating the existing power structures had me in stitches. Plus, you have to admit Watchmen has a bit of a point when it comes to her narcissism. She never met a piece of the natural order she couldn’t subvert in the name of getting what she wants. That’s why I think she’s probably dead — a big-ass clock fell on her head — but if anybody on this show is going to cheat death, it might be her.
Finally, just speaking as an adopted trans girl with father issues all over the place, the final reveal that Veidt used that long string of dead bodies to spell out “SAVE ME DAUGHTER” was somehow enormously touching to me, even though I would have saved a few corpses to make the necessary comma between “ME” and “DAUGHTER.”
All in all, I think the episode finds a smart path between celebrating Trieu with shallow “yas, queen” feminism and showing how much her methods might make everything worse.
4. Does this finale just repeat the events of the comic? Is that the point?
Allegra: I got a strong sense of déjà vu from this finale, because the story seemed to follow an elliptical trajectory — that is to say, what played out in “See How They Fly” seemed to mirror the events of the comic.
As I’ve been saying all season, I haven’t read the original Watchmen comic. But I have learned a great deal about what happened in it, both from our discussions and from the present-day story of the series. In the comic: Superheroes were on the fringes of society; Adrian Veidt tried to save the world via selfish, monstrous means; an all-powerful being sought and found love in a hopeless place. On the show: Superheroes remain on the fringes of society; Adrian Veidt tried to save the world via selfish, monstrous means; an all-powerful being sought and found love in a hopeless place.
Frankly, the main differences to me are: the reasons for Veidt to help wipe out so many people in Tulsa (Senator Keene and the Seventh Kavalry had grand ideations of abusing Doctor Manhattan’s power), and Doctor Manhattan seemingly dying to help protect the world, not totally unlike the way Veidt aimed to protect the world through his scary crustacean attack. In the comics, Doctor Manhattan instead fled Earth after allowing Veidt to launch a giant squid attack to kill a bunch of people and distract the world’s superpowers as a result, which he said was to help prevent them from starting World War III.
Am I off base by finding this to be an intentional callback to the comics? Is Damon Lindelof trying to say that, try as we might, nothing ever changes? Not really, anyway?
Alex: Everything on this show is intentional, especially Veidt destroying Tulsa with frozen squid to avoid a cataclysmic world event — a mirror of the squid attack in 1985. Even though it’s been over 30 years, Veidt is still the same man with the same extreme, amoral utilitarianism he had years ago. Deep down, he still believes there’s an end to everything, and that if he does enough things right, the result will eventually be that Earth becomes a utopia.
In the graphic novel, Doctor Manhattan points out how wrong he is — saying that “nothing ever ends.” When an omniscient god tells him there is no end, no scenario in which the Earth will ever be a utopia, no outcome that will ever fully be in our control, and Veidt still thinks he could “save” the world?
That’s the very definition of madness. And not even eight years or so on Europa and his terminal boredom with living in a utopia can dissuade him.
But the thing about Veidt and the comic books is that there’s no “good” choice when it comes to heroes. No matter who they are, no matter what they save, not matter how seemingly good they are, powerful people will always screw up the world one way or another if given the opportunity.
One of the incisive things Watchmen’s finale did that echoed Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel was killing off Lady Trieu. Like Constance and Emily, I was on the Lady Trieu bandwagon. She vaporized racists and wanted to make this world a better place. But Veidt, who knows her better than anyone, points out that people who want to be gods and goddesses can’t ever have that power, because it will inevitably be corrupted.
That’s essentially the message of the comic, which criticized American and British politics in the 1980s, politics that gave people like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (both of whom Moore loathed) immense power. No matter how good someone seems, people are fallible.
Hence, Veidt kills Lady Trieu like Doctor Manhattan kills Rorschach, another very flawed character with good intentions, in the comics.
Rorschach wanted to do the “right” thing in the comic books and let the world know Veidt was behind the squid attack. Manhattan kills him because he knows Rorschach’s revelation would plunge the world into chaos and World War III.
Similarly, Veidt kills Trieu despite her good intentions because he knows she’s human, and does so for the good of humanity. Killing her doesn’t make Veidt a perfect hero, but rather someone who saved the world from the very awful scenarios that would spin out of Trieu becoming a god.
As alluring as Lady Trieu’s utopia might sound, it would never last nor would it ever be truly safe for everyone. Watchmen’s credo, in both the comics and the show, is that it’s impossible for humans to wield power and remain uncorrupted, and that includes Angela.
5. Should there be another season of Watchmen?
Emily: Yes. Absolutely.
Allegra: No. Sometimes a story needs to end sooner rather than later, and I think Watchmen did a fine job wrapping itself up here. Doctor Manhattan’s disappearance and rediscovery felt like a huge turning point; so did the reveal of who the Seventh Kavalry was. Now that both are gone, I don’t feel as though there’s much else motivating our current cast of characters. I don’t need to see them rebuild. I don’t need to see Laurie Blake gallivanting around doing more FBI work, as much as I love her. And I don’t need an answer to whether or not Angela has now assumed Doctor Manhattan’s powers. I feel satisfied with this ending, despite it feeling slightly hopeless.
Emily: I will admit that any new season would have to answer whether Angela has Doctor Manhattan’s powers, which the current season avoids doing via an incredibly beautiful shot of her foot hovering above the water in that swimming pool, just about to make contact before — cut to black. And I’d almost prefer leaving that moment ambiguous.
But I am the gal who always wants to see TV shows run longer, rather than shorter. It would be one thing if I felt like there weren’t other corners of Watchmen world to explore, but this season pretty conclusively suggested that not only are there many corners to explore but also, those corners can have limited connection to the original comic and still be plenty worth visiting. (We still haven’t heard about what happened to several characters from that comic!)
A good model for Watchmen to follow might be that of Lindelof’s previous series, The Leftovers, which radically shook up its cast with every season, and also switched locations in each season, going from upstate New York to Texas to Australia(!). But the show always had a few of the same characters and a tight core ensemble. Watchmen now has a really tight core ensemble of Regina King, Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson, Louis Gossett Jr., and Jeremy Irons. Wouldn’t you follow those people anywhere?
Allegra: Yeah, I would — including to something new entirely! I would love to see this cast and crew tell an entirely new story together and try on some new roles in a totally different, similarly unique TV show. The Leftovers example is a good one, and I could get on board with that concept. But I’m also not afraid to admit that I suspected I’d be alone in this “let it die” sentiment.
Emily: Oh, I think a lot of people would rather not see Watchmen continue — including, notably, Lindelof himself, who has said several times that he’s told the Watchmen story he wanted to tell. But he’s also said that if someone else wants to tell a story in this world, they should get that opportunity, and I think he’s right. And given the creative team behind the scenes of his show, I hope HBO finds a way to move forward with a second season, but with one that blows up the world of season one as much as this show blew up the world of the comic.
That’s a tall order — but I, at least, would be there with fevered anticipation.