It’s the end of the Watchmen season one finale “See How They Fly” and I feel a sinking in my gut. Lady Trieu has pulled the rug out from under The Seventh Kavalry and has then been undone by a re-run — teleported squids have once again saved the day through destruction. Dr. Manhattan is no more. Adrian Veidt has finally been brought to justice. That wasn’t what I expected. I have to recalibrate.
It’s important to remember that this version of Watchmen is meant to be a remix of the original. While many have taken the ending message of that original text to point out moral ambiguity, it is not necessarily the only or best reading. Perhaps more than anything else, the graphic novel is a deconstruction of the idea of “heroism,” showing flawed characters imposing their brand of morality onto the world with an iron fist. Was Veidt right that sacrificing 3 million New Yorkers would save humanity? Maybe, but who was he to choose that outcome? Who was Rorschach to decide that criminals should be extrajudicially murdered?
It’s that message of unilateral moral imposition — not ambiguity — that is all over this season, and most prominently in the choices made in the finale. Lady Trieu’s heel turn is not without its warnings. She was Adrian-remixed to a T: rich, powerful, self-made, genius, narcissistic, egomaniacal, and not entirely wrong.
Will Reeves strikes on a profound truth in his goodnight words to Angela referring to the death of Dr. Manhattan, her husband: “He was a good man, I’m sorry he’s gone. But considering what he could do, he could’ve done more.”
That’s the driving motivation for Lady Trieu, who sees what she could accomplish for the good of humanity with that kind of power. She could disappear the nukes, end starvation, and clean the air.
But Lady Trieu is not infallible. Lest we forget, she created the drug nostalgia, which started an addiction epidemic akin to opioids. Should Dr. Manhattan have intervened and changed the world? Perhaps, but even he, a living God, was not infallible. He massacred the Vietcong and created the circumstances that led to the murder of Angela’s parents. Perhaps the same power that could change the world distanced him so far from it that he couldn’t. In the chapter The Watchmaker, he thinks back to murdering criminals, stating, “the morality of my activities escapes me.”
So seldom are endings about the final notes being played though. Like Adrian before her, Trieu may have always been the big bad hiding in plain sight, but unlike the original work, we are presented with a different villain: Cyclops and The 7th Kavalry.
That they were dispatched so swiftly and easily due to their own hubris is excellent. In a world full of moral ambiguity, it is intensely powerful to point to the perspective of white supremacy and dismiss it immediately, almost unconsciously. Their point of view does not need, nor does it require, investigation. That they are reduced to ash and liquified goo in the blink of an eye is the ending they deserve, and to do so while interrogating so much else sends the message that this is beyond the pale, which it undoubtedly is.
However, to levy such a large paradigm shift on its audience with so late in the game leaves little time to examine the issues I stated above. It requires some mental gymnastics to leave that enemy behind and start thinking critically about a new one, and there’s not much time to wrap one’s head around the new reality.
Likewise, the death of Dr. Manhattan falls ever so slightly flat. Yahya Abdul-Mateen gives a powerful performance selling Jon’s pain in the first time he has felt fear since becoming a god six decades previously, while also experiencing the ultimate joy of every moment he has spent with Angela all at once. But Dr. Manhattan is always slightly out of reach for us as an audience. We can never fully understand him — that’s the point. Instead, the weight of his death falls more squarely on Angela’s shoulders, who never truly has a moment to reckon with his passing even to the degree she does with Judd way back in episode 2.
Cal was her family, the man she chose and knew. She has a new family now with Will and with her children obviously alive, but…but…but. Something feels elusive there, just beyond.
Am I greedy? Or does the work itself and the work it’s remixing deserve that slight extra? Was that inch given to us too early in the spectacular episodes leading up to this point? Is it fair to expect it in the end?
In the end, Jackson? Nothing ever ends. Not even the world.
It’s interesting to think about the tone of this ending compared to the conclusion in the graphic novel. “See How They Fly” is the funniest episode of the season. Looking Glass cracks Veidt on the head with a wrench during a speech, Adrian holds the clone game warden in his arms and tells him he was not a worthy adversary, Lady Trieu stomps Cyclops with ease, and Laurie still can’t remember what Mirror Guy’s name is.
The graphic novel ends in an incredible downer. Millions are killed and their killer goes unpunished, in order to save the greater good. Then that entire, delicate detente is threatened to be in vain by a competing character’s quest for justice.
In some ways, things feel just as dire in 2019. Climate change looms as an unstoppable doomsday device that makes nuclear war feel, in retrospect, somehow simpler. Then, there were two sides and if you could just get them to stop pointing their guns at each other, you’d be golden. Today, the entirety of humanity needs to do a complete 180 on their way of life yesterday in order to avert disaster. And in the meantime, the political systems needed to enact that change are crumbling as countries retreat into nationalist-fueled bubbles.
Why then does Watchmen choose to be more optimistic than Moore? While I can’t speak to the intent of the creators, perhaps Will Reeves is (Lou Gossett Jr. absolutely kills his line readings in this episode). It wasn’t anger that he felt when he put on the hood, it was fear and hurt. “You can’t heal under a mask, Angela. Wounds need air.”
We can’t continue to mask our own pain behind heroism or a mythology that we tell ourselves is history, whether that’s Hooded Justice or papering over the racist past of America. If we ever are to heal and move forward, we must face the truth of our past, present, and future much like Dr. Manhattan himself. We need to take a swig of that yolky clarity and take a bold step onto the water.
- Wow, just wow. It’s been an absolute pleasure recapping these episodes, even if I kinda fudged the middle part because of other responsibilities (stay tuned here for more top 50 of the decade or check out this video on The Boys to see what I was up to). This show lends itself so well to analysis and is something that rewards you the more carefully you watch it. There are dozens of nuggets or connections that I wanted to include but couldn’t find space for and even more that I missed. Damon Lindelof has been pretty adamant that this is a *finale* and has been hesitant to commit to more episodes, but this show has really left its mark on me.
- I cannot say enough about Lou Gossett Jr.’s performance in this episode. He absolutely kills every line in this episode, and probably has the four best:
- Concerning his mask: “It was fear. And hurt.”
- In response to Angela’s confusion about Jon’s death: “Well the time ain’t right.”
- Concerning Dr. Manhattan: “He was a good man, I’m sorry he’s gone. But considering what he could do, he could’ve done more.”
- And my personal favorite, regarding Lady Trieu’s demise: “Not nearly as sorry about that.”
- It is so fitting that the show ends in exactly the same spot as it began. Hooded Justice was born in the Dreamland Theater in 1921 and has can now fully rest in 2019.
- He might have been a raging racist, but Senator Keene Jr is onto something when he says: “I’m about to become the most powerful man alive, Laurie. Waving my dick in people’s faces is just overkill.”
- Lindelof has been reluctant to commit to more seasons so I want to resist the urge to speculate on the future of the series. BUT there are definitely things left worth exploring: What was Jon’s plan? Racism isn’t solved so what’s next? Is Topher doomed to put on a mask to hide his pain just like his mother and grandfather?
- In an incredibly interview on the podcast The Watch, Lindelof specifically points to the absurdity of hands-on-hips-cape-flowing-in-the-wind heroism, which is exactly the pose he puts Veidt in on his return trip to Earth before getting frozen in golden carbonite.
- The season ends with an obscure cover of the famously irreverent song “I Am The Walrus” by The Beatles, noted for being a joke. There are a ton of references to the lyrics of the song in the episode but I’m inclined to think that it’s a subtle nod to The Comedian, the one Watchmen character who was largely absent from this season. He felt that humanity was just a joke and that all we could hope to do was to try and laugh at it.