Watchmen season 1, episode 8 pulls back the curtain on Dr. Manhattan and gives us a love story that is ends up being as sweet as it is tragic.
One of my (many, many) favorite things about Watchmen is that in addition to there being absolutely no weak links in the cast, every episode likewise provides us with a truly delightful acting masterclass from a different member of the cast.
The first two episodes belonged fully to Regina King, episode three was Jean Smart’s showcase and episode four was all about Hong Chau. Episode five, of course, provided us with the full range of talent from Tim Blake Nelson, with episode six being a powerhouse of acting from Jovan Adepo.
Episode seven once again belonged to Regina King, and eight would’ve likewise belonged to her as well had it not been such a Dr. Manhattan-centric episode, which makes this week’s “A God walks into Abar” a delightful showcase of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s prolific and impressive talents.
And my god, what a showcase it is.
This week’s episode of Watchmen does a good job elucidating a lot of different plot points — how it is Adrian came to be on Europa, how Dr. Manhattan masqueraded as a human for the last ten years, and just how Will Reeves came to know about that Klan robe in Judd Crawford’s closet — while also providing backstory on one of the show’s most mysterious figures and telling us a pretty damn good love story.
Those are a lot of story threads to keep track of without getting them all tangled up, and this episode does a much better job than last week’s in weaving them together seamlessly and pushing the narrative forward to its natural — and still completely unexpected (at least to me) — conclusion.
‘Watchmen’ season 1, episode 8 review
Watchmen has told a lot of great stories in the course of its seven episodes — stories of heroism, stories of tragedy, stories of trauma.
In this episode, it pivots somewhere more optimistic and tells us a love story — and a damn good one, at that.
First off, it’s a real triumph of storytelling and characterization that Watchmen made Dr. Manhattan such a believable catch. Truthfully, I’ve always felt like Dr. Manhattan would be more than a little infuriating to be in a relationship with, and the first few scenes between him and Angela did nothing to dissuade me from this belief.
Being around someone who is constantly telling you that they know everything about you and everything about — well — everything is grating, but what I realized over the course of this episode is that what makes it grating in real life is that you know people who think that don’t actually know everything (and, often, don’t actually know that much about anything).
The difference with Dr. Manhattan is that he’s not a man, he’s a god, and being a god means that he does actually know everything about you and everything about everything. What’s more, he doesn’t flaunt this knowledge the way an ordinary man would — and neither is he burdened by it the way an ordinary superhero would be.
He simply is — today, tomorrow and yesterday (which all exist at the same time for him) — and as the scenes between him and Angela went on, I could see that sort of steadiness become appealing, and then desirable. Dr. Manhattan is a man — well, a god — with nothing to hide and no real reason to hide it, and there’s something quite comforting about knowing that. In the same token, being with someone as straightforward as Dr. Manhattan means that you’re with someone who will never lie to you because they just don’t see the point in doing so.
Of course, eventually those two traits lose their luster, as we see six months into the relationship. But again, Jon shows himself to be a truly good partner and this to be a truly good love story, because he works to change himself to be a better fit for Angela. He sacrifices a great part of himself and descends from being a god to a mortal man all out of love for her.
It’s a beautiful love story, which makes the ending of it all the more tragic.
I’m never all that fond of time travel storylines, mostly because I think they end up being less clever than their writers think they are or else so stupid that I have to suspend a fair amount of disbelief to keep myself invested in the story.
Watchmen wisely bypasses both these time travel story pitfalls by not abiding by conventional time travel mechanics at all. Dr. Manhattan doesn’t zap back and forth between past, present and future; rather, as he says over and over again, he doesn’t experience time in the same way as everyone else and instead is living out all time periods at the same time.
This — like the conceit of Nostalgia pills from episode six — allows us to move backwards and forwards in time, as well as in and out of flashbacks and present-day events in a way that’s both clever and smoothly paced.
First, it allows us to get to see the overall shape and arc of Angela and Jon, who then become Angela and Cal, and root for them to be more than the tragic ending that Dr. Manhattan foretold ten years prior to the current events of the show.
Secondly, it brings us back to the present and connects all the lingering disparate threads the show has presented us with so far into one cohesive story. Dr. Manhattan may have prided himself from standing outside of the mess that is human history and human folly, but here, he is the focal point which brings all these major storylines together and is the one responsible for the shape of history and folly going forward.
He is the target of the Seventh Kalvary, it is he who is responsible for bringing Will Reeves into the orbit of Judd Crawford — and then his granddaughter, Angela Abar — and it is his death and capture that Lady Trieu’s Millennium Clock was built for.
And though we — like Angela — hope that we can know more, or know better, than the all-knowing Dr. Manhattan, what the episode’s end tells us is that Dr. Manhattan is and always will be infuriatingly, desperately and tragically correct.
It’s Paradise, but we can’t get out of it. And anything you can’t get out of is Hell. –Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
For the entire run of Watchmen, I’ve wondered — and I’m sure you have too — who could’ve possibly gotten the drop on Adrian enough to imprison him on what we now know is Europa.
The answer that we find in this episode is that the one who got the drop on Adrian is no more and no less than the smartest man in the world — himself.
When we come across Adrian in this episode, he is two decades out from his grand master plan and his great sacrifice and it’s…not going as he hoped. In fact, there’s a real sense of failure and dejection in the slump of Adrian’s shoulders, the feeling that even the smartest man in the world couldn’t outsmart the pettiest parts of the human heart.
Yes, he was able to avert nuclear disaster on that one day, and yes, an unsteady peace has held over the world since then, but the sacrifice of three million people didn’t lead to utopia — it simply lead to a world that continues to tread water.
One of the most famous panels from the Watchmen comics (now so famous it’s become a meme on its own) is of Dr. Manhattan staring off into space, with the lettering above him reading, “I’m tired of Earth. These people. I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.” That is him, in 1985, ready to leave it all behind.
Now, in 2009, he and Adrian have switched places. Adrian in 1985 was ready to sacrifice so much to meddle in the tangle of human lives and Dr. Manhattan was tired of it; in 2009, Adrian has become weary of Earth and its people and the way they never seem to progress, while Jon yearns only to become more entangled with mortality and the world of men.
Ten years later, and Adrian’s utopia has become a prison and Jon’s paradise has descended into hell.
How will Watchmen manage to wrap this one all up?