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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iWatchmen/i composes the greatest love story ever told
Photo: Mark Hill (HBO)
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The Watchmen comic series shed light on the morally corrupt, broken, and deranged beings the comic-book world lifted to superhero status. The popularity of these fictional beings impacted how people wanted to see themselves—physically perfect, wealthy, and willing to break the law to find justice. It was time for a deep exploration from an insider as to how these heroes’ antics would play in the real world. Writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons gave a piece of popular Americana to each of their heroes. The pillars of the story, Doctor Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons), behaved as polar opposites. Manhattan became a god through a technological mishap; Veidt singlehandedly orchestrated world peace.

Two white European men of the Silent Generation found their way to America. Manhattan, a child refugee, fled Nazi Germany in search of a safe space to start a new life. Adrian Veidt got rid of his substantial wealth and became an adventurer hell-bent on building an empire in his likeness. Jon’s always enjoyed sex, while Veidt’s never expressed an interest in anyone sexually. Manhattan’s fallen in and out of love, while Veidt’s never pursued anyone. Adrian enjoys grand costumes. Doctor Manhattan likes to strut in the buff. A lack of barriers allows them to communicate. Frequently, they arrive at the same conclusion. This is how the squid drop went uncovered. It’s how Veidt avoids prosecution, and why so many people, in the world of Watchmen, live in abject terror.

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Despite these endless differences, they understand one another’s perspectives. Jon agrees not to turn Veidt in because if the world knew the truth, America would once again be seen as having made a significant advance in dangerous weaponry. A new arms race would begin, destruction would reign—or they could have peace. If the world believed a third party existed that could destroy the planet, the nations of the world would band together to protect the planet’s peoples. So in “A God Walks Into Abar,” Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen kick off the second act of the conclusion to Manhattan and Veidt’s misdeeds. Last week, we learned Angela’s origin story. Her parents were killed by a radicalized citizen, of a recently conquered territory, on a holiday meant to honor the tyrant that murdered thousands without impunity. This week, Angela shared a drink, a world-shifting conversation, and fell in love with the tyrant.

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Over the course of the conversation, Manhattan reveals the first time he saw the visual representation of love, and how it changed him. Abandoned by his mother, left with an angry father, and surrounded by literal Nazis, the boy knew only fear and anger. What he learned in the château brought love, beauty, and stories into his life. He buried the memory of that temporary heaven when he returned to his father. The comic describes the following years for Jon as adhering to the status quo. He fell in love, got the job his father wanted him to have, and became a moderate success. Most likely, he would have continued on that path if he hadn’t been fried. Instead, he became an empty shell of a man and a war hero, so repressed he never thought to ask for what he wanted, so sure he already knew the future. Recklessly, Manhattan began dating a 16-year-old girl, Laurie (Jean Smart), when she was in crisis. Laurie learned that her real father, The Comedian, attempted to rape her mother, before they got together consensually, and conceived her. She’d been groomed her entire life to replace her mother as a sexualized crime fighter. (I’m really hoping the show will address this with Laurie in the finale, even if Manhattan has died.) That’s predatory, it’s sick, and it’s something someone who no longer identifies as a human could do without feeling remorse.

Regina King (left) Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (right)
Regina King (left) Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (right)
Photo: Mark Hill (HBO)
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This episode tries to humanize that monster. It’s a journey Jon’s been taking since the final issue of the original comic series—he was ready to give up on humanity, until Laurie convinced him to get over himself and help save the world. This was the moment Jon revealed himself to be a romantic. He said he changed his mind because of, “Thermodynamic miracles... Events with odds so astronomical they’re effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold.” He then compared Laurie’s unlikely conception, and the near impossibility that any human comes into being, to air turning into gold. Miracles are everywhere. With that thought in his heart, he skipped off to Europa and created the idealized paradise his love muses inspired, until he found the dream lacking because they didn’t love him, they worshiped him. So he sent his former enemy and colleague to the paradise, either to punish him or to help him find solace. Gods work in mysterious ways.

On that moon, Veidt found he ruled without impunity. He favored Eve and reveled in destroying Adam. Lives were as easy to create as visiting the amniotic lake, and microwaving the infants for thirty-seconds until they reached maturity. Veidt’s experience lined up precisely with Manhattan’s: In the end, being worshiped left him hallow and feeling alone. But now they’re obsessed with him. Their last god left them, they won’t lose another. He could stay, but he isn’t allowed to leave. The message Veidt wrote, “Help me D...,” was for Doctor Manhattan.

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If I close my eyes and think of the greatest love stories—Romeo & Juliet, Titanic, Love & Basketball, Thelma & Louise—tragedy rises as the sole link between the narratives. Often these tragedies arrive in toxic forms. Partners ask that their significant others forsake family and friends in favor of idolization. Creators take dangerous violations like stalking and harassment and turn them into examples of affection and pining. As extraordinary and unique a feeling love can be, it’s also a dangerous endeavor because it requires complete trust and vulnerability. Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen lean into the elements of vulnerability in their moving reveal of Angela (Regina King) and Dr. Manhattan falling in love. The writers take classic romance tropes like the meet-cute, the heated argument, and love at first sight, and twist them on their heads with the advantage of Dr. Manhattan’s powers. What if you knew a relationship would end terribly, but decided to pursue the love tunnel anyway?

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (left) Regina King (center) Adelynn Spoon (right)
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (left) Regina King (center) Adelynn Spoon (right)
Photo: Mark Hill (HBO)
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“Tunnel Of Love” plays on the jukebox and Manhattan spits some of the sickest game in dating. Angela asks him, “Why’d you leave Mars?” He replies, smoothly: “So I could meet you.” To hide in plain sight, Manhattan wears a mask of his own face. Manhattan, like everyone on a first date, wears a plastic version of his face. He’s as forthright about his identity as he knows how to be. Manhattan experiences time not in a linear fashion as we do—there is no before, middle, and after—but all at once. Angela takes comfort in his knowing; to be seduced mentally often means experiencing a profound shift in one’s understanding of the world. Even if Angela doesn’t recognize the shift taking place, it’s occurring.

One of my favorite aspects of the original graphic novel resides in the way in which Gibbons and Moore illustrate time. Knowing that time is relative to each individual, then we must acknowledge that we too experience our lives in a non-linear fashion. My memories of running through an open field under a dome of stars is as close as the memory I’m creating looking at the LA skyline, even though I cannot see the stars here. Though we cannot know our future, everything we do now impacts the people we will become. Little inklings, gut checks, and inspirations give us flashes into what tomorrow will bring. The greatness of humanity is enduring despite knowing immense and unavoidable pain lies around the corner of every perfect moment.

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Manhattan tells Angela, “This is the moment. I’ve just told you, you can’t save me. Yet, you’re going to try anyway.” I wonder if this line is less about this specific moment, and more a definition of love in general—a statement from the writers through their characters. Maybe I’m over romanticizing the moment, but I shed real tears throughout director Nicole Kassell’s incredible action sequence: Black love in the face of white supremacy and certain death surges forward undaunted, as Angela lays waste to a small army like she’s been doing it her entire life. Every department leans into the romantic tragedy of the moment, but Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor really bring it home with the score. When that guitar solo starts and Manhattan begins blowing people to smithereens, it brings the entire moment to crescendo.

In a little over an hour, Jensen and Lindelof take the audience through an intense emotional journey of a decade-long relationship. Once again, time takes center stage as a device. Because the series has established so clearly their love and devotion to one another, hearing of all their ups and downs over the course of their first date makes those 10 years flash by in seconds. The foretold fight hits like a ton of bricks. The fight needed to happen in order for Manhattan to grow. Ozymandias moved to a new planet to become a mortal god and succeeded. Manhattan cloaked himself in a human form and became a human, even maintaining the face of Cal Abar when he returned to his god body. Why did the change occur? There are multiple ways to look at it. The romantic in me wants to believe that the face his love chose became the face he saw in the mirror, the one that made Jon feel like Jon for the first time. Some could call it appropriation. Maybe there’s a scientific reason I’m too ignorant to comprehend, or perhaps if you keep making that face, it really will get stuck like that. Either way, it’s not a mask. For the first time, he isn’t hiding. He revealed the only secret he kept from Angela, about visiting her grandfathers. He laid out a plan to keep her safe. I think he made her a god.

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If he did, there are two, maybe three god level heroes on the playing field in the finale. Lady Trieu, Angela Abar, and Adrian Veidt all have either money, power, or a cult following. We’re one week away from the season finale. There’s a lot to wrap up, but the strings have been pulled closely together. Hopefully Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) pops up to assist Laurie with taking out the Kavalry.

Stray observations:

  • Why would Veidt have a plan A, but not use it? He said, “A little elephant told me...” Was the elephant Lady Trieu? It doesn’t seem there was a lot of time to plan before Veidt was sent away. I have a feeling there will still be some final show down between these titans.
  • Europa was one of Zeus’ mortal lovers. She bore him three sons. They ruled the major Greek islands. She was worshiped as a queen. Look who else has three children who were magically whisked away to their grandfather.
  • Visual representation of eggs in Watchmen reached its peak. Eggs appear when Angela gives her tragic backstory to Topher’s class. They re-emerge when William explains part of his backstory to Angela in the kitchen, right before she learns he is her grandfather. Eggs represent trauma. When does it begin, and when does it end? I wonder if episode nine will offer any definitive answers to the show’s biggest question.
  • That particle cannon will be the new door from Titanic. Move to the left or the right, sir! Did you really have to die?
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A contributor for Playboy and Hollywood Reporter Joelle writes about film, television, and comic books. A speaker, host, and avid podcaster her reviews have been featured on NPR, BBC1, and ET.

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