lingering questions

10 Big Questions From This Week’s Watchmen

Photo: Mark Hill/HBO

The only truly superpowered character in the Watchmen world, Doctor Manhattan is also the hardest for mere mortals to comprehend. Since returning from his lab accident in 1959, the entity formerly known as Jon Osterman has existed simultaneously within time and beyond it, experiencing every moment at once while those around him see themselves of proceeding through time in a linear fashion. But even for them, time doesn’t really work that way. Time is a matter of perception, and the past has a way of circling back on us and pushing us toward a future not entirely in our control. The modernist authors tried to convey this feeling. “Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged,” Virginia Woolf wrote. “Life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.”

Prose can convey that sense, but it has to work harder than the media of comics, film, and television. In the former, events can rest side by side on the page no matter how far apart in time. In the latter two, editing works miracles, collapsing time and distance in the blink of an eye. Yet even if we’ve gotten used to a certain amount of displacement thanks to authorial experiments and innovations like those of the French New Wave, that doesn’t make the way some art toys with time any less trippy. Like the Doctor Manhattan–focused chapters of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, the penultimate episode of Watchmen’s first (and possibly only) season asks us to consider what it’s like to see the world from Doctor Manhattan’s perspective, one in which everything he’s experienced is always happening at once. But it also asks us to experience it through Angela’s perspective, a mix of puzzlement and annoyance that comes from falling in love with a being who lives beyond our human notion of time and space — and one who’s also fallen in love with her. Or who will, eventually. It’s all a bit puzzling. Let’s see if we can sort out some of what goes down in “A God Walks Into Abar.”

When are we?

Fittingly, this episode takes place at several different points in the Watchmen timeline. It opens in the midst of the Victory in Vietnam celebration, 22 years since the death of Angela’s parents. That makes this 2009 — while last week’s episode seemed a bit fuzzy and could have taken place in 1986 or 1987, this week clarifies the timeline — and makes Angela 33 years old. Over a few eventful weeks, Doctor Manhattan and Angela will begin their love affair. Before the year’s end, Angela find a human body for Doctor Manhattan to inhabit, allowing him to walk the streets with humans. When their affair hits turbulent waters due to his abilities, Doctor Manhattan will seek a way to become more human still by visiting Adrian Veidt at his Antarctic retreat and receiving a device that will allow him to forget his true nature, except in the case of an emergency (or, as we found out last week, a blow to the head). Doctor Manhattan will then visit Will Reeves in New York, where he’s taken up residence in the mansion he inherited from Nelson Gardner, before committing to his life as Cal and a move to Tulsa.

The episode also takes place sometime in the 1930s, when Jon and his Jewish father, Hans, fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany, live as refugees in an English manor. It’s there young Jon witnesses the lord and lady of the manor making love, an act they then sensitively describe to the young Peeping Tom, elaborating that they’re trying to conceive a child and have lost a previous child to illness. It makes an impression, because later he’ll recreate them as the Adam and Eve of a new paradise he’s created on Europa, a moon of Jupiter. This takes place some time in 1985, after the events of the graphic novel, in which Doctor Manhattan suggested to Veidt he might try making some human life of his own.

On a third timeline, it’s 2019, when Angela has just violently reminded her husband that he’s Doctor Manhattan, a virtually omnipotent superbeing, not a mere handsome, loving husband.

Does this episode explain the big Doctor Manhattan reveal satisfactorily?

If there’s a parallel to this episode, it’s the sixth episode, “This Extraordinary Being,” which wove Will Reeves into preexisting Watchmen history and revealed him as Hooded Justice, the first masked vigilante. “A God Walks Into Abar,” a title that earns a slow clap for its wordplay, doesn’t have to work quite as hard, since Moore and Gibbons never revealed what happened after the events of their book. But it does have to make viewers feel like they haven’t been cheated by having Doctor Manhattan in their midst the whole time.

It works in part because Cal has been present throughout the series but hardly a central figure. It now looks like he was laying in the cut, waiting for his moment, which arrives with this episode. As for the device placed in Doctor Manhattan’s brain, which mimics in appearance the hydrogen atom he wears on his forehead, that makes about as much sense as the rest of Watchmen science, which includes teleportation and psychic squids. It serves the story, even if it doesn’t conform to any solid scientific principles.

It also works because Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Regina King play it so well, creating an unusual relationship that also feels rather, well, usual, with its ups and downs and its necessary acknowledgement that a lifelong commitment will probably mean death and leave one partner grieving the other. High emotion makes leaps of logic easy to accept.

Why does Doctor Manhattan create life on Europa?

For starters, it has a lovely view of Jupiter. The reasons extend a bit beyond this, however. Jupiter’s fourth moon has a thin atmosphere and a subsurface ocean, leading some to speculate it could be home to extraterrestrial life. These have included Arthur C. Clarke, who describes Europan life in the novel 2010: Odyssey Two, a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. That novel ends with Jupiter becoming a small star and a final message from the great extraterrestrial intelligence driving the action: “ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS — EXCEPT EUROPA. ATTEMPT NO LANDINGS THERE.” And, as if to drive the connection home, this episode plays Johann Stauss’s “The Blue Danube,” as featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Doctor Manhattan first describes his creation.

Why does Doctor Manhattan choose to recreate the English manor of his childhood and model the servants after its owners?

Part of what makes Doctor Manhattan so compelling, in this episode and elsewhere, is how much of his humanity remains in place no matter how superhuman he’s become. He associates the manor with peace so he modeled a whole world after it. Then he populated it with two humans based on the aristocrats who took him in and both explained sex to him and gave him a Bible filled with wonderful stories, including stories of creation. Doctor Manhattan’s mother left the family for a Nazi, and his father has seemed cold and demanding in the moments when we’ve seen him. These are the parents he never had.

The Europa experiment is an attempt to make a kinder, gentler sort of human existence, and it works. But it works too well. Doctor Manhattan’s humans live only to please him and shower him with infinite love, which he finds unsatisfying. He seems bored, frankly, so he heads back to Earth to find a messier, more human sort of love. (Note that he doesn’t do anything to prove his identity to Angela until she agrees to have dinner with him, unless you count creating the egg out of thin air, but that could easily be a sleight-of-hand trick. And, yes, we get more eggs for the running tally this episode.) Doctor Manhattan seems to feel incomplete without a lover by his side. He stayed with Janey Slater after his transformation until leaving her for Laurie. Laurie grew frustrated with him, and came to see only the parts of him that transcended humanity, but it’s his interaction with her on Mars in the graphic novel that renews his interest in humanity. After his time on Europa, he found Angela, who made him more human in the most literal sense. He may grow weary of humanity’s self-destructive tendencies, but he craves imperfection.

So, how does Adrian Veidt fit into Doctor Manhattan’s paradise?

Pretty well … at first. But, like Doctor Manhattan, he grows weary of it. Unlike, Doctor Manhattan, he can’t just walk away. So instead he’s embarked on an elaborate scheme to escape it, one involving many dead servants, an antagonistic relationship with a Game Warden, a year-long trial (with farting and pigs and other wild elements), and cake. Lots and lots of cake, some of them containing horseshoes.

Again, the Veidt elements of Watchmen remain the most puzzling. His 2009 flashback scenes with Doctor Manhattan are the first that really connect him to any of the other characters, and the series has only one more episode to reveal what role he plays in the overall story beyond providing strange, otherworldly interludes. Will it make the connection? It’s quite possible that, as with Cal and Will, the connection has been in front of us the whole time and that Veidt’s presence in the 2019 of the series extends beyond orchestrating the occasional fear-inducing squid storm (which have seemingly continued automatically in his absence). One line stands out: When Doctor Manhattan asks how Veidt knew he was on Europa, Veidt replies, “A little elephant told me.” We saw a big, sleepy elephant last week at the headquarters of Lady Trieu, who certainly seems to admire Veidt. (And, as others have suggested, she might have a deeper connection with him as well. The “he will be” line she gave Angela when she asked if Trieu’s father was around certainly sets up a dramatic return of some kind.)

But there’s another aspect to this question. The servants live only to please their master, and Veidt has taken Doctor Manhattan’s place. In the post-credits scene, the Game Warden reveals himself as the first man created on Doctor Manhattan’s Europa, and he seems suitably peeved at Veidt. But he also supplies him with the horseshoe he seems to crave. It’s worth remembering that in an earlier episode Veidt rejected a horseshoe as being given to him prematurely. One possibility: This is all being staged by Veidt for his own amusement — the imprisonment, the trial, the escape, all of it are part of an elaborate production that pleases him in some way, even as he talked about returning to his “children” on Earth. Is this madness or genius? Maybe next week will make matters clearer. (Also of note: He’s reading Fogdancing, the fictional novel that’s appeared several times already.)

Why does Doctor Manhattan like the name Calvin?

Right, let’s get back to Earth and to our central couple. Doctor Manhattan probably likes the name Calvin because it reminds him of John Calvin, the influential 16th-century Protestant theologian who believed all events were preordained. That belief squares with how Doctor Manhattan experiences time, because if everything is happening at once then nothing can ever be changed, from the dinner he proposes he and Angela share to his own death. Or, for that matter, his love for Angela, which he doesn’t really experience until moments before his death, when Angela chooses to fight for him, but also experiences at all times. (It really is hard to get your head around what it’s like to be Doctor Manhattan, isn’t it?)

How does Angela come to pass off Doctor Manhattan as Calvin?

That moment doesn’t really get explained within the episode itself but, as usual, Peteypedia provides some details via a police report that contains a story of Angela finding Calvin in a “confused” state and taking a personal interest in his welfare. (It also notes Calvin was “polite and composed” and “took great interest in my Dr. Manhattan bobblehead.”)

Why does Doctor Manhattan say Angela needs to see him walking on water after sending the kids away?

That’s a really puzzling moment. Angela obviously doesn’t need proof of her husband’s powers but, by Doctor Manhattan’s reckoning, seeing him like this is “important, for later.” It would make more sense if he was doing this for the benefit of the kids, so they’d understand what happened to him and who he really was. He does give them a nice wave before sending them off to be with Will at the Dreamland theater.

So is Doctor Manhattan really dead?

Who can say? Well, Doctor Manhattan apparently can say, and he believes he’s dead. Still, he’s sucked into that big cannon and not blown apart by it, just like he always knew he would be. Doctor Manhattan has also “died” twice before: once in 1959 and again in 1985. He got better.

Still, for now, let’s assume his story has ended in tragedy, to use his word. Could he have prevented it? It certainly looks like he could have just kept disintegrating heads as he fought on the front yard. But, accepting the logic of the series, he couldn’t save himself because he didn’t save himself. Which came first: the chicken or the egg? That’s apparently the wrong question, at least from Doctor Manhattan’s point of view. To choose another example: Will knew that Jack Crawford was a member of Cyclops hiding Klan robes because Angela knew he was a member of Cyclops hiding Klan robes because Will knew … and so on to infinity. Again, it must be frustrating to try to live with Doctor Manhattan and think about these sorts of things all the time. No wonder Angela asked him to forget himself for a while. (And he said yes because he always already said yes.)

Are the song choices significant this episode?

Always. Doris Day’s “Tunnel of Love” gives Angela a new favorite song and provides the episode with its central metaphor. “My life depends on whether you love me or not,” Day sings. “’Cause if you do / then I’ll give you / everything I’ve got.” (The song comes from a Gene Kelly–directed 1958 film in which Day co-stars with Richard Widmark as a couple trying to adopt a baby, so the connections seem to end with the song itself.) The credits roll over Jackie Wilson’s “A Lover, A Woman, A Friend,” a heartfelt expression of love that fits into the episode nicely. Elsewhere we get Walter Murphy’s disco-fied take on Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (his follow-up to “A Fifth of Beethoven”) and the Fleetwoods’ “Mr. Blue.” Sometimes Watchmen makes sublime connections between its songs and its themes. Sometimes it just goes for the joke.

10 Big Questions From This Week’s Watchmen