Damon Lindelof is a showrunner who needs no introduction. He has shepherded Lost, The Leftovers, and, now, Watchmen to glorious life.
Over the course of its brief first season, Watchmen has dazzled and challenged in equal measure. It’s considered the nature of anti-black racism, bringing to life the heart-wrenching 1921 Tulsa massacre. It imagined a complex, trenchant backstory for Hooded Justice. It deftly reimagined characters from the original comic, including Laurie Blake and Doctor Manhattan, imbuing the last 30 years of their lives with drama and wonder that pulsates. And all of its various threads come together in the show’s best invention: Angela Abar, as played by Regina King.
Sunday’s finale, “See How They Fly,” provides many answers to questions raised throughout Watchmen about the nature of white supremacy within the series, the fate of Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), the relationship between Lady Trieu (Hong Chau) and Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), and it even provides a beautiful final moment for Doctor Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). But there are still lingering questions, especially where Angela is concerned: The finale cuts to black just as she attempts to walk on water, having potentially inherited Doctor Manhattan’s godlike powers.
I spoke with Lindelof a few days before the finale aired, and one of the most surprising things about our conversation is that he didn’t find that final image all that ambiguous. “It felt very clear to me, if we had rolled another 10 seconds forward, what would have happened,” he said. We also spoke about the nature of Angela’s origin story, Lady Trieu’s thoughts on American imperialism, and the identity of Lube Man.
Why did you decide to end Angela’s story on such an ambiguous note with that final image?
Well, there are a couple of reasons. The first is that Watchmen, the original 12 issues, ended with a similar ambiguity: An ancillary character was [choosing] whether or not they were going to publish Rorschach’s journal, thus undoing the entire plot of Veidt and the saving of the world. And then, just as the terrain for the question, it didn’t feel that ambiguous to me. It felt very clear to me, if we had rolled another 10 seconds forward, what would have happened.
If someone wants to argue that Angela sinks to the bottom of the pool, I would want to hear their points. I have my index cards ready to make an argument for why she doesn’t sink. But we still chose not to show it. If ending No. 1 is “she walks on water,” and her No. 2 is “she sinks to the bottom of the pool,” and then No. 3 is “we stopped right before her foot hits the surface of the water,” ending No. 3 felt like it was the best ending.
When did you decide on that final image?
The decision relating to the egg and the potential transference of Manhattan’s powers, that came very early. We had many conversations about Manhattan and Will Reeves forming an alliance. In hindsight, many of the things that Will is doing are not in service of Doctor Manhattan, but are done in partnership with Doctor Manhattan.
Ultimately, origin stories are told in multiple phases. Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered and that’s part of his origin story, but he actually doesn’t decide to dress up like a giant bat and fight crime until much later in life. Superman leaving the destroyed planet of Krypton as a baby is part of his origin story, but the more significant part is when he decides that he’s going to leave Smallville and fight for truth, justice, and the American way, whatever those things are. For Angela, phase one of her origin story was the loss of her parents, her upbringing in a Vietnamese orphanage, and then the subsequent loss of her grandmother. But the second phase of her origin story is these nine episodes, all leading up to that moment of what happens when her foot hits the surface of that pool.
In order for Angela to potentially contain the power of a god, if that’s the road that we’re going to go down, Will needed to give her the legacy of knowing who she was and where she came from. There’s a combination of legacy from these two men, Will and Doctor Manhattan, and Will does give her a final gauntlet toss. The final line of the series is “He could’ve done more,” as it relates to Doctor Manhattan, who is a fundamentally very passive character, both in the original text and in our interpretation of him. Angela Abar is not a passive character.
If, in fact, Angela Abar is now empowered by the legacy of Will and the legacy of Doctor Manhattan, she is ready to take on white supremacy in a way that Doctor Manhattan was never interested in taking on. That’s going to be a battle that goes on until the end of time, unfortunately. I’d like to be more pie in the sky, but if I learned anything through the experience of writing the show and reading all the things that I’ve been reading, it’s the insidiousness of white supremacy. I don’t think that I ever would have even put it in the show if I felt like we were going to try to convince the audience that it could be defeated. But we could convince the audience that it was worthy of pushing back and fighting against, which is more than most superhero stories do.
To switch gears a little bit, the finale is also a big episode for Lady Trieu. I’m curious: How much was she driven by what happened to Vietnam? We’re never really told how she feels about American imperialism and colonialism, but I imagine that was on her mind.
We wish that we could have done more with Lady Trieu, but as the show was moving into its endgame, it had to focus down on Angela and Cal. We only know what Lady Trieu tells us about her relationship with her mom, who we see featured very briefly here at the beginning of the finale. But in answering your question, she has much bigger fish to fry. She doesn’t see herself, I think, as exacting any particular vengeance on America, as much as she’s concerned that someone with godlike abilities could improve the world. America is just the beginning of the problem. Because if America wasn’t there — let’s say China was the prevailing world power, or Russia was the prevailing world power — the larger issue of colonialism would exist regardless. I think in her own conscious mind, she’s not avenging the American imperialism as much as she is skipping right over imperialism and going straight to the source.
How did you decide to reveal Adrian as Lady Trieu’s father? Did you and the writers consider introducing their relationship earlier?
It was always going to be in the finale, or potentially the penultimate episode. The formation of that idea started in the 12-week period before we even wrote the pilot, as we were talking about the character of Lady Trieu. At first she was a male, then she was a white male. Then she very quickly became a Vietnamese male, then she became a Vietnamese female. And then we ended up with a version of Lady Trieu.
And all of those iterations, I was vehemently shouting at the top of my lungs, “We’re not doing Watchmen Babies! I don’t want everyone on the show to be related to someone from the original Watchmen. It’s so predictable and so obvious and we’re not doing it.” Lo and behold, it felt like story gravity. It’s the same conversation around Star Wars right now: Is it cooler that Rey is not related to anybody from Star Wars, or does the story demand that she is? Because when you’re talking about myth, that’s the way that myth works.
Ultimately, what’s motivating Lady Trieu on an emotional basis, on a psychological basis, versus a philosophical basis? She wants to fix the world’s problems and make the world a better place. But fundamentally, she also has a lot of disdain for Veidt. And this disdain was something that she was taught as a little girl from her mother, who clearly had a lot of disdain for Veidt for all the obvious reasons. Veidt is an empirical narcissist who took it upon himself to save the world by killing three million people.
Speaking of Adrian, I thought it was really interesting that Laurie arrested him. Is this a de facto endorsement of Rorschach’s argument at the end of the comic, that it’s worth bringing Adrian to justice even if it means risking potential worldwide cataclysm?
That is certainly the math that we’re suggesting, and that’s why Laurie Blake says, “People change, Adrian.” She is agreeing with Rorschach, even though she probably did not hold Rorschach in particularly high esteem. Not to overly simplify it, but the moral of the story is simplicity and transparency. She’s been sitting on this secret all this time, and 30 years later, the world hasn’t significantly evolved. There still have to be these squid falls and there’s really, really nasty people out there who want to do really, really nasty things. She has come to a place where she has indeed aligned her views with Rorschach.
Near the end of the finale, Will has an intriguing speech to Angela in the Dreamland Theater. He says that “wounds need air” and admits that he felt fear when putting on the Hooded Justice mask, not anger. Can you talk about that speech? I would love to hear more about it.
I think the things characters say are a reflection of the conversations that we have in the writers’ room. Sometimes those lines are pitched verbatim, and sometimes someone is talking about an experience or idea and that gets translated into dialogue. Writing that scene, there were a lot of conversations about what anger is. The driver behind real rage and our personal experiences in the writers’ room, particularly the writers of color, was this idea that underlying rage was fear or sadness. The sadness being: “Why the fuck are you treating me this way? Why are you seeing me this way?” And the fear being: “I have to fear for my life in many interactions that white people don’t have.” And so, all of that was swirling around this final conversation between Angela and Will, as we revisited the idea of fear from his perspective, now that he is a much older man.
What he is conveying to her is, “Covering up my face was the worst possible approach to dealing with my anger, my fear, and my sadness.” And this goes back to me feeling very strongly that the best ending was that Angela would no longer need the mask. If a mask is a way as a coping mechanism for trauma, then the way that the show would demonstrate that Angela was no longer willing to hide her trauma was that she was not going to be masked anymore. This conversation that she’s having with Will, and then his subsequent invitation as it relates to Doctor Manhattan and that he could have done more, those were all pieces on our road map.
I also want to talk about Adrian’s line to Mr. Phillips: “Masks make men cruel.” Should this be regarded as a thesis statement for the series?
I think that you can have multiple thesis statements. If Blake’s vantage point is that masks are ways to hide trauma, and then Veidt says, “Masks make men cruel,” and Will Reeves says, “A mask covers up wounds and doesn’t allow those wounds to heal,” all three of those things are theses. What’s more important is to look at who’s saying it and why, and where they are in their respective journeys.
Of those three characters, Veidt is probably the least evolved and has the least sense of self in terms of perspective. We were very aware, as storytellers, that he quickly feels like he should destroy Lady Trieu because Lady Trieu shouldn’t have Doctor Manhattan’s powers. But I’m not entirely sure that was the right move.
I would rather Angela have his powers than Lady Trieu, but I can’t tell you that Lady Trieu wouldn’t have done a very good job. She seemed relatively well-intentioned, other than the fact that she needs to murder Doctor Manhattan in order to get his powers. So, Veidt saying “Masks make men cruel” is actually a reflection of how he felt when he wore his mask.
Are you thinking about any future plans for Watchmen? And if not, I’m really curious: Who would you like to see pick up and run with the show, if it weren’t you?
Oh, wow. The answer to the first part of your question is that every idea that we had, as it related to Watchmen, we either dismissed as being a crappy idea or we put it into the season. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t dangling conceptual ideas out there. Like, where is Dan Dreiberg? Could he be in a future season of Watchmen? That is certainly the case, but if we wanted to use Dan Dreiberg, we would have.
In terms of who I would love to see take the reins of Watchmen moving forward? You know, I think anybody who loves it — and by “loves it,” I mean either loves the original graphic novel and/or the television series, but also thinks that it had some problems. That is another criteria for future iterations. I certainly love and adore the original Watchmen, but I think that it had some problems. I don’t think that this version solved those problems, but at the very least it shined a light.
I will say, I would love to see someone who is not a white dude taking a shot at Watchmen — a woman or a person of color or both. Most of the good ideas that ended up in this season did not come from a white dude. And so, it would be pretty wonderful to have someone at the helm that was not the traditional person at the helm of a comic-book movie or TV show.
One final question, on a sillier note, because people are obsessed with Lube Man.
I love it. He’s captured the hearts of America in a way that we never suspected he would.
Who is he? There’s a theory that he’s Agent Petey.
Well, I will say that we felt those who have taken the time to read the Peteypedia deserved reward beyond the people who were just watching the TV show. The final installment of Peteypedia, which will drop right after the finale airs, does give strong indications as to the identity of Lube Man.
When I read the original Watchmen, the thing that I was completely and totally obsessed with was Hooded Justice. I would talk to other people with familiarity about Watchmen, and I’d go, “I like that they never told us who Hooded Justice was,” and they’d look at me like, “Who?” And I’d be like, “You know, Hooded Justice? He’s one of the original Minutemen,” and their eyes would glaze over. I was like, “Oh, okay, nobody else cares about this thing.” But that obsession became the foundation for this season of Watchmen. And so, maybe somebody will do the same with Lube Man. There’s a clear indication as to who he may be, but we didn’t answer it definitively. For those future storytellers who may take up the mantle and do another season of Watchmen, I say Lube Man is fair game.
This interview has been edited and condensed.