lingering questions

10 Big Questions From This Week’s Watchmen

Photo: Mark Hill/HBO

One of the great pleasures of reading Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen for the first time comes late in the story. At a certain point, it becomes obvious that the book — for all its digressions and for as much time as it’s spent building out its world — has been subtly ramping up tensions and that the plot is much further along than readers had probably guessed. Nite Owl and Laurie rescue Rorschach, then Doctor Manhattan whisks Laurie off to Mars to explain the principle of the thermodynamic miracle. The action feels connected, but loosely. Then it all comes together, revealing a master plan we’ve only glimpsed before.

Assuming Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen has such a point, we’re not there yet. But it feels like we’re getting there, particularly with a final scene revealing that the solution to a big mystery has been right in front of our eyes the whole time in the form of Cal, a character who, up to this point, has seemed like nothing more than Angela’s loving, supportive, and, as Laurie pointed out, hot husband. But there’s more going on with Cal. A lot more, apparently. Chances are we’ll get some answers about that in the next episode. In the meantime, “An Almost Religious Awe” still presents plenty to puzzle over.

What do our glimpses of ’80s Vietnam reveal about how the Watchmen universe diverged from our own?

This episode offers our first extended glimpse of Saigon, the biggest city in what’s now the 51st state in the Union thanks to the superhuman intervention of Doctor Manhattan. Typical of Watchmen, it looks radically different from our universe while remaining recognizable. It’s not a one-to-one swap, but this Vietnam bears a resemblance to post-invasion Iraq. It’s an uneasy place whose liberation (or “liberation”) has not been universally well received. That leads to the act of terrorism that kills Angela’s parents and to a general atmosphere of lawlessness. Vietnam might now be a part of America, but it’s also a place where the police openly engage in extrajudicial killings and child-labor laws, if they exist, go unenforced.

That young Angela works painting Doctor Manhattan tchotchkes taps into one source of tension. This episode opens in 1986, 11 years after the end of the Vietnam War, in a Saigon celebrating Victory in Vietnam Day. It’s a city filled with images of Doctor Manhattan, but he’s not a hero to all. Late in the episode, we see Angela framed against a mural defaced with the word Murderer and with blood and horns added to Doctor Manhattan’s image. (The shot grows more significant than it might at first seem, given the episode-ending revelation.) On the street, a puppeteer reenacts Doctor Manhattan battling with the Viet Cong, but he is revealed to be part of a terrorist network and gives explosives to a suicide bomber. The few moments we glimpse of the 10-hour documentary Manhattan: An American Life playing in the video store Angela visits suggests that opinion remains divided elsewhere. “Was he the liberating hero who single-handedly ended the war and delivered his country its 51st state?,” the voice-over asks. “Or was he the cold, blue conqueror who decimated an entire way of life?” (Note that the standee advertising the doc seems to have been designed by Gibbons.)

So Sister Night takes her name from a movie?

Apparently so. Although her parents won’t allow her to watch it, Angela is fixated on a blaxploitation film called Sister Night. (Tagline: “The Nun with the Motherf!*@ing Gun!”) It seems to have been popular enough in the 1970s for June to recall it fondly when she visits the granddaughter she didn’t know she had in Saigon. It’s not hard to see why the cover image attracted Angela either. There aren’t a lot of black kids in Saigon, and here’s a powerful black woman who takes matters into her own hands.

There’s another origin as well. As others have pointed out, Hooded Justice was originally supposed to be called Brother Night, deepening the connection between Will Reeves and his family and the Night name. Another hiding-in-plain sight influence: Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier. A masterpiece in its own right, Cooke’s alternate version of DC Comics’ Silver Age recasts John Henry Irons, the superhero known as Steel, as a sledgehammer-wielding avenger who takes on the Klan. His costume: a hood with a noose hanging from it, just like Hooded Justice.

What else is significant about this Vietnam?

The events of Watchmen seem to have had a greater effect on pop culture than just changing the directions of Steven Spielberg’s and Robert Redford’s careers. You can spot a Ghostbusters box in the background of the video store, but it otherwise appears to be stocked with not-from-our-universe titles like The Raunchy Pistol, Silk Swingers, and Fogdancing. (Silk Swingers may be a different title for Silk Swingers of Suburbia, a B movie starring Laurie’s mom, Sally Jupiter. Sort of. Fogdancing appears to be an adaptation of a novel referenced in the Watchmen comic and briefly spotted in episode 4. It’s written by Max Shea, who also wrote the Tales From the Black Freighter comic. Later, Shea worked on Adrian Veidt’s secret project and was killed in the cover-up.) The kids’ videos include the cartoon adventures of Trunky and Tusky, which doesn’t seem like a significant detail until Angela’s later encounter with an elephant. (Roald Dahl’s story “The Enormous Crocodile” contains a character named Trunky but no Tusky.) The Burgers ’N’ Borscht chain is a holdover from the final pages of the Watchmen graphic novel, where it serves as a sign of thawing relations between the U.S. and the USSR. Also, Angela walks the streets of Saigon to the tune of James Brown’s “Living in America,” the theme of Rocky IV — except maybe now it’s not. That’s the one in which Rocky fights the evil Russian, but the end of the Cold War would likely have changed that plot.

What do we learn about Angela’s family?

This episode fills in a few gaps, revealing that Will’s son Marcus enlisted in the military despite his mother’s objections, sending him to Vietnam and driving a wedge between mother and son. We also learn that he grew up hating masks and costumed adventurers. “People who wear masks are dangerous, Angela,” he tells her shortly before his death. “And we should be scared of them.” Despite his early interest in his father’s secret career, he chose a different path. Sort of. The series as a whole, this episode in particular, keeps asking hard questions about the ethics and politics of masked heroes and their relationship to serving in uniform, whether as a police officer or a soldier. Joseph Campbell spoke of putting on a uniform as a kind of death and resurrection that gives those who wear it another identity. It’s possible that Marcus just sublimated the same impulses that drove his dad to put on a mask and fight.

Speaking of men in masks, do we really learn the truth about the Seventh Kavalry this week?

It looks that way. At the very least, both Laurie and Angela uncover more of the mystery than we’ve seen before. Angela’s Nostalgia-induced rantings lead Laurie to make a connection between the Kavalry and Cyclops, the “racist cult hot for mind control” that Angela “remembered” fighting in the previous episode. She confronts Jane Crawford with this discovery and gets, to her later annoyance, sent down a trapdoor after Jane confesses to everything. Well, almost everything: Joe reveals that the plan goes beyond using the masked police to pave the way for a presidential run that will let him implement a white-supremacist agenda using his anonymous army of masked men. (Remember when hot takes suggested that Watchmen was naïvely pro-police?) His answer to the perceived difficulty of being a white man in America in 2019? He’ll “try being a blue one.”

Elsewhere, Angela finds a different route to the same information, along with a few more details thanks to Lady Trieu. The Kavalry’s plan involves kidnapping and killing Doctor Manhattan, then somehow becoming Doctor Manhattan. And she intends to stop that.

So that makes Lady Trieu a good guy, then?

Maybe? It seems obvious now why she looks up to Veidt so much. She has his smarts and a comparable amount of wealth (maybe more), and she likes to concoct grand schemes to save humanity that, put kindly, bend ethics a bit. This week, we also learn that Bian isn’t her daughter but a clone of her mother and that Lady Trieu has been slowly filling Bian’s brain with her mother’s memories. Why? She’s moments away from her greatest triumph and wants her parents to share in the moment. This closing scheme takes care of her mother, but what about her father, Angela wants to know. Is he here too? “He will be,” Lady Trieu replies cryptically.

Peteypedia fleshes this out a bit via a gossipy column for The Talk of Tulsa. Lady Trieu’s mother was herself a bit of an outsize character; she turned her time raising Lady Trieu into a memoir and advice manual called Pachyderm Mom. (Hmm …) The item also raises the issue of Lady Trieu’s father, shooting down speculation that he might the Comedian, who apparently fathered quite a few children while in Vietnam. “[O]ur gut — and our legal department — tells us that this one’s FICTION,” the column declares. But is it? Another detail: Lady Trieu publicly supports an independent Vietnam but denies sponsoring the violent Vietnam Liberation front. (Other recent additions to Peteypedia: Petey wrestling with his Hooded Justice assumptions and Laurie sharing her latest revelations.)

Lady Trieu seems megalomaniacal and has made the iffy decision to raise her mother as her daughter, but she may be the only thing standing between the Kavalry and world domination. “Can you imagine that kind of power in the hands of white supremacists?,” she asks. And that is a scary prospect. She might also be, in Angela’s words, “a fucking crazy person.” Why operate the Manhattan Booths? What is the ultimate purpose of the Millennium Clock? We still don’t know. We also don’t know what fell from the sky. It’s not, apparently, Doctor Manhattan, since his presence is accounted for elsewhere. It might, however, be some kind of play on the Superman origin story, which would sort of bring the tale full circle, given that Will was inspired to don a mask in part by seeing Superman’s comic-book debut.

Why is Angela hooked up to an elephant?

Great question! There’s Lady Trieu’s mom’s memoir, there’s the folkloric connection between elephants and memory, and there’s the legendary Lady Trieu, who was said to ride an elephant into battle. Beyond that, it doesn’t seem to make much sense. One other item: The elephant population of Vietnam, like that of the rest of Asia, is currently under threat.

Did Looking Glass survive the encounter with the Seventh Kavalry?

It would appear so, and that he left no one standing when he was done. But that raises two questions: Where is Looking Glass now? And how long will Petey wait for Laurie before he gives up?

New episode, same question: What’s going on with Veidt?

He’s on trial for trying to leave his stately prison, which is located somewhere on one of Jupiter’s moons. That’s pretty simple. Everything else, however, is pretty wild. For starters, the trial has seemingly lasted a year. Also we learn that the masked Game Warden is another clone of Mr. Phillips, just as the prosecutor is another clone of Crookshanks (if clone is the right word). And after Veidt defends himself by letting loose a long, luxurious fart, he’s convicted by a jury of piglets. It’s … well, this might be the weirdest Veidt episode yet. (At least we now know how far Irons’s acting abilities extend. He really throws himself into that farting moment.)

A few elements worth considering: Why does the prosecutor wink at Veidt? Is this all something he has staged for himself, like his plays and his anniversary celebrations? Also who put him there in the first place? Doctor Manhattan, until now the best answer, seems to have been busy elsewhere when Veidt disappeared. Did Lady Trieu place him there? Did he do it to himself?

So Cal is Doctor Manhattan?

Wild, right? It would probably be worth rewatching all of Angela and Cal’s scenes together to look for foreshadowing, but the series didn’t exactly tip its hand here beyond some early discussion about whether Doctor Manhattan could disguise himself as a human, did it? (Cal does drive a blue car, if that counts.) The book ends not with Doctor Manhattan returning to Mars, which seems to be a widespread impression in the 2019 of the series, but with his leaving for parts unknown with some vague talk of making human life of his own. Now it seems as if he decided to walk among us with no memory of his past life or his powers. When did Angela and Doctor Manhattan meet? And what led to this arrangement? Presumably, we’ll find out soon. For now, all we have as a clue is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s rendition of Bowie’s “Life on Mars” playing over the credits.

10 Big Questions From This Week’s Watchmen