This post contains frank discussion of the finale of Watchmen, which aired December 15.
Sunday night’s Watchmen finale tied off the nine episodes—allegedly, the only nine episodes—of the TV series’ take on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons comic. The sinuous plot twisted together into the type of irritatingly clever cliffhanger finale that only Damon Lindelof can pull off, with Regina King’s right foot hovering over the surface of her backyard pool, as she and the audience both wonder if she’ll be able to walk on water. Watchmen doesn’t tell us. Her nuclear-powered god status is just one of many questions that the finale leaves on the table, even as it scrambles to juggle new revelations into the mix—such as Lady Trieu (Hong Chau)’s parentage.
That makes Trieu, Angela, and Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) all descendents of superheroes (ah, if only they’d called it Watchmen: The Next Generation, a la Degrassi), which indicates just how tightly, by the end, this season of television attaches itself to the source material. The beginning of the season indicated so much departure from the comic, but after Hooded Justice’s reveal midseason, the show made its way back. Just as in the comic, the crises and romances of Dr. Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) became one of the story’s primary threads. Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons, having a ball) “saves humanity” with squid, again. Laurie was faced with the same choice she made at the end of the comic—but this time, instead of letting Veidt go, she opted to arrest him, with an assist from Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson). Humanity’s left with another disaster on their hands—but this time, Manhattan, America’s superweapon, isn’t around to pick up the pieces.
That sense of a closed loop makes Watchmen a thrill for a certain kind of plot-twist seeking viewer—the ones who want the clues in the poster to match up to the twist in the finale (which they do, believe it or not). There’s something absolutely seductive about being shown how to see something that was invisible in plain sight—and I’ve found the show to be more rewarding on rewatch, so that I can admire the clock-like construction of the story, the clues and inferences that seed the finale.
At the same time, it is hard to ignore how convoluted the storytelling gets—and how exposition-dense the story becomes, as a result—when the show is structured to maximize the audience’s ignorance. Learning that William Reeves (Louis Gossett, Jr. in the wheelchair; Jovan Adepo in his youth) was the legendary, mysterious Hooded Justice is a brilliant extra-canonical tweak to Watchmen, one that adds the full dimension of racial history to one of the original comic’s most secretive characters. It took time for Angela to lead the audience to this truth, because first Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) had to die under mysterious, provocative circumstances, and then she had to learn about connection to the Seventh Cavalry, and then we had to learn about Nostalgia, which required learning something about Trieu, Veidt, and Laurie Blake.
I felt a lot less patient with the revelations of episodes seven and eight, which reveal that Angela’s husband Cal Abar is Dr. Manhattan. The twist rather roughly reframes the entire story of Watchmen up to that point—and forces the weight of the whole story, with its many moving parts, to rest on the romance between Angela and a blue god. A blue god who just happens to be a kind of storytelling boon—an all-powerful creature who can do, or be made to do, almost anything.
I had my reservations about how vaguely Angela’s character was drawn in my original review, and after the Cal revelation, the problem grew even worse: Angela’s interior life had been kept a secret for most of the show, and was only exposed to us at a moment of terrible rupture and change. Their marriage, which was the site of their becoming, their deep attachment, is hidden from our view. I struggled to believe their romance, even as it became the biggest story of the show.
And in the final moments of the finale, hours after Manhattan is horribly killed, Angela devours a raw egg which, she suspects, might hold his godlike powers. I was surprised by her enthusiasm to follow in his footsteps—and found that I could not really identify Angela’s character traits enough to know what she believes about wielding absolute power, or how she would carry the grief of losing her husband, or how she would feel about experiencing time all at once (which might make intimacy difficult with her children, for example).
The show has conflated Angela’s emotions with the racial injustice it investigates—most notably, in the episode where she overdoses on Nostalgia and learns her grandfather’s memories. But the Manhattan revelation backgrounds the show’s retelling of history—in favor of centering the technicalities of Manhattan’s powers in particular and the merits of absolute power, in general. As a result, the finale magnifies the season’s flaws, delivering a clever conclusion that is heavy on bells and whistles (Peteypedia is, by the way, amazing) but struggles to amount to anything.
The finale featured the showdown over Dr. Manhattan’s powers, which technology turned into a coveted and harvestable resource. Senator Keene (James Wolk) wants to use it to re-establish white supremacy, with the help of the Seventh Calvary. Lady Trieu—who we find out, was conceived via a tube of Veidt’s sperm and an inseminator while her mother quoted the original Lady Trieu—says that she wants to create the just world that Manhattan couldn’t or wouldn’t.
There are compelling reasons for neither Keene nor Trieu people to be all-powerful and blue—there is a compelling argument, in fact, for no one to be all-powerful and blue. But what frustrates about this ending is how Watchmen recuses itself from actually making any of the arguments, tweaking the questions without answering them. The show has been about racial justice, but in the finale, it’s unclear if Trieu’s execution of the leadership of the Seventh Cavalry counts as justice. Trieu does the execution at Reeves’ behest, which complicates her act even further; at the end of the episode, Reeves reminds his granddaughter Angela that her recently vaporized husband didn’t do enough for racial justice. The show seems to end with cynicism towards superheroes and despair at ever finding justice. But it also ends with Veidt in the custody of the federal government and Angela on the brink of full godlike power. I appreciate that Watchmen had a great sense of humor about itself, as evidenced by the enthusiasm with which it made jokes about Manhattan’s large blue member. A story with this many twists should be a fun, over-the-top ride. But some of the finale’s decisions suggest a Watchmen that doesn’t quite know what to do with the serious topics it has introduced, and so leaves them unresolved.
Watchmen, the comic, does not have a hero. Each character has their failings and strengths, and each has to face a crisis that remakes or destroys them. But Watchmen, the TV show, has always had a hero in Angela, who is a vaguely sketched character precisely because of how much the show wants the audience to like her energy and spirit, without looking too closely at the state-sanctioned beatings she deals out, or the secrets she keeps for most of the show. My frustration with Watchmen is that I don’t believe she eats the egg because she wants to. She eats the egg because we want her to eat the egg. Because, despite Watchmen’s insistence in every other corner that powerful heroes are bad for society, be they Adrian Veidt or Lady Trieu, the show still yearns, on some level, for King’s Sister Night to save this world. The show’s details don’t always align, which is frustrating, and the comic’s world doesn’t really make space for heroes, which is dispiriting. But even when the vision had flaws, creating a heroine out of Angela Abar is a beautiful dream to have dreamed.
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