Superheroes are often born of tragedy; dead parents and wives and uncles spur an all-consuming quest for justice that proves never ending. Such a life is intrinsically lonely and bruising. How can you ever heal when you must return again and again to your formational tragedies for fuel, keeping those wounds forever open? How can you fully exist in the present when the past has never left you? How can you ever be whole when your desire for order and justice calls for you to hide fundamental aspects of your very nature? For Angela Abar the answers to those questions are complicated, especially in light of how she’s now mired in the fresh tragedies of her grandfather’s memories.
“An Almost Religious Awe,” directed by David Semel and written by Stacy Osei-Kuffour and Claire Kiechel, is an episode primed to give answers about Angela’s past, the nature of Vietnam as the 51st state, and the most powerful being in the Watchmen universe, who has been hiding in plain sight since the beginning of the series. Not all of the episode’s bold gambits work, but the creative forces behind Watchmen are so willing to take risks that I couldn’t help but be dazzled on some level.
Angela emerges from Will’s memories somewhat broken. Memories of the Tulsa Massacre and Will’s time as Hooded Justice flutter alongside her own of growing up in 1980s Saigon as she takes Lady Trieu’s treatment. The episode opens on Angela’s most foundational memory: her parents’ death. Saigon is aglow with the image of Doctor Manhattan, the superpowered being also known as Jon Osterman, an immigrant and son of a poor watchmaker whose influence shaped the course of history before he left the tribulations of humanity for Mars. His face adorns masks, puppet shows, and posters as the young Angela makes her way through Saigon after first visiting a movie rental shop. Her face lights up when she sees a blaxploitation film amongst the cult classics called Sister Night. Its tagline — “The nun with the motherfucking fun” — mirrors the Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross track that’s accompanied Angela’s activities as Sister Night throughout the series. We don’t get to spend much time with Angela’s parents before a suicide bomber yells “death to the invaders,” setting off the bomb that kills her parents and sends Angela flying backward.
But before then there is a crucial exchange between Angela and her father, Marcus, as he forbids her from watching Sister Night and urges her to return it. “People who wear masks are dangerous. We should be scared of them,” Marcus says with an echo of pain just beneath the surface. When Angela asks why he replies, “They’re hiding something.” So what is Angela hiding in taking on the moniker of Sister Night? She’s expertly hiding her pain with anger. In many ways, through Regina King’s layered performance we see a window into the ways black women live with anger and use it as fuel to survive the hurts we carry.
In the wake of her parents’ deaths, Angela is an orphan in Saigon living at a strict orphanage with little joy in her life. She gets her inspiration to become a cop when she’s visited by the police at the orphanage and asked to identify the other man involved in the bombing, who is unceremoniously shot right afterwards. What is it about this moment that inspires Angela so much? Is it the authority to mete out violence? Is it the ability to find something like justice and order in a world so lacking in those attributes? Is it some sense of power, which she lacks as a young black girl and orphan in Saigon? There’s an intriguing exchange between Bian and Angela in which the two are talking about their memories gained from Nostalgia, although Bian doesn’t seem to know that’s the sources of her vivid dreams. Angela gains a faraway gaze as the camera cranes closer and closer to her face until she’s looking directly at the camera. “It hurt too,” she says to Bian, about the experience with Will’s memories. His memories aren’t just a way to elucidate the experiences Will had, although that’s definitely why he made sure she’d get them. They also force Angela to reckon with the decisions she’s made as a cop and what she considers justice.
For Angela as a child, justice is fleeting. After enduring the coldness of the orphanage she gets a reprieve in the form of June, who upon learning of her son’s death rushes to Vietnam in order to adopt Angela. June reveals the distance that existed between her and her son, who never mentioned her to Angela. There is a tenderness between them I found moving as Angela shows June the VHS of Sister Night, which she carries around like a talisman despite never having seen the film. But before they can return together to Tulsa, June collapses and dies, dashing Angela’s hopes for the return of a sense of family.
The Vietnam sequences in this episode lay out carefully the deep loneliness and isolation Angela feels as a child, but I was left wishing we saw what happened after June’s death, as Angela got older and gained new languages, namely violence, to speak toward her loneliness. I was also left wanting with the portrayal of Vietnam. While there is rich detail to be found in the production design, I don’t think the writers properly thread the needle when it comes to portraying the complicated, angry emotions felt by the Vietnamese in the wake of Doctor Manhattan’s brutal ending to the Vietnam War. The episode broaches the topic of how people who lived through the war would be affected by the lingering American presence and how Doctor Manhattan’s actions permanently reshaped their culture, but doesn’t see it through.
Perhaps that’s because this episode is intent on providing answers of a different sort. Over a meal, Angela and Lady Trieu have a tense and probing conversation, where Lady Trieu keeps commenting on Cal and his accident, the rarity of total amnesia. She’s mostly unflappable until Angela asks whose Nostalgia Bian is taking. Bian, we learn, isn’t her daughter. She’s a clone of Lady Trieu’s mother, and the memories she’s being given are technically her own. I find this horrifying, a twisted way of never letting go or accepting the loss of a parent whom Lady Trieu desires to be there to witness her success. (I wonder when Lady Trieu’s father will pop up?)
Laurie Blake also proves to be a good guy in the wrong place. She goes to question Judd’s wife, Jane. Laurie’s instincts prove to be exceedingly sharp. She lays out how Hooded Justice killed Judd and why. She suspects Senator Joe Keene of being a part of the Seventh Kavalry. She astutely notes why Will would hide being black as Hooded Justice: “White men in masks are heroes, black men in masks … they’re scary.” But she wasn’t smart enough to suspect that Jane would use a trap door to capture her, in one of the most hilarious scenes of the show. When she wakes to Senator Joe Keene, we learn what the Seventh Kavalry are planning, with Keene offering the explanation that “It is extremely difficult to be a white man in America right now. Might try to be a blue one.” (It’s infuriatingly hilarious that Keene doesn’t think of himself or Seventh Kavalry as racists despite their origin and targets and language.) As Lady Trieu says to Angela, can you imagine that power in the hands of white supremacists?
“An Almost Religious Awe” pushes the series in a fascinating direction by leveraging the fear that comes with Seventh Kalvalry gaining the power of Doctor Manhattan. But nothing surprised me more than the reveal that Cal is Doctor Manhattan. Since the beginning, Doctor Manhattan’s presence has been a steady hum in the background of the series. The news images of him on Mars and the continuous mention of him not being able to look like a regular human seemed like breadcrumbs, but I was never sure where they were leading, and I never suspected Cal, the exceedingly kind husband of Angela, to be Doctor Manhattan.
At the end of the episode Angela finds a dark room in Trieu Industries with a glowing globe in the center. As she presses on the globe videos pop up of people speaking in the blue Doctor Manhattan, booths including Laurie. “So many prayers unanswered,” Lady Trieu says. But he isn’t listening, she adds. No, he’s in Tulsa, pretending to be a regular human being. Lady Trieu reveals that Will came to her because he needed her resources to stop the Seventh Kavalry, who are planning to capture, kill, and then in essence become Doctor Manhattan. That’s the motivation Angela needs to bust out of Trieu industries and rush home, ramming her car into Red Scare’s without a moment’s hesitation. The Seventh Kavalry watches as she charges inside.
Angela wakes Cal by rustling through the kitchen, and what follows is in essence a goodbye: “You’re a great husband, an amazing father. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. I love you.” Before she beats his head in with a hammer, she calls him “Jon,” cueing us to the truth. She pulls a metal ring from his forehead that resembles Doctor Manhattan’s symbol, before we see, in another prominent closeup of her eyes, that fateful blue glow. This is the kind of reveal that rewrites my understanding of where the show is going, and it’s a huge gamble that makes me wonder how it plays for people not steeped in the comic’s history. Personally, I’m in love with this reveal, as long as Doctor Manhattan’s presence doesn’t overtake what I still find most fascinating about the show: Angela herself, and her journey as a black woman through a chaotic, richly detailed dystopia.
Under the Hood
• Seems like Wade, a.k.a. Looking Glass, survived the attack by the Seventh Kavalry members who poured into his home at the end of episode five. Agent Petey found the remnants of the Seventh Kavalry members, but no sign of Wade himself.
• This week in the chronicles of Adrian Veidt: He’s put on trial by the clones who find him guilty, unsurprisingly. This segment really didn’t work for me, with Adrian Veidt farting in response to the Game Warden and the surprising appearance of a horde of pigs. I think my theory that these clones are really the life Doctor Manhattan decides to create when leaving Earth is correct, but I’m still unsure how it will fit into the larger concerns of the show.