Late in “A God Walks Into Abar” is a shot that could have been plucked from a fairytale: The shadows of Angela Abar and Cal, newly revealed to be Jon Osterman/Doctor Manhattan, bear against the wall, encased by brilliant amber light. The shadows look toward each other, craning closer, conjuring a sense of romance and awe. Yet even as Watchmen gives me what I want — a window into the heated, complex love story between Angela and Jon Osterman — it ends on a heart-wrenching note.
Directed by Nicole Kassell and written by Jeff Jensen and Damon Lindelof, “A God Walks Into Abar” is essentially a love story. It charts the relationship between Angela and Jon from its barbed, flirtatious beginning in a Saigon bar to its tragic end on the streets of Tulsa. It’s an ingeniously structured penultimate episode, brimming with genuine feeling while also setting up a tense finale.
The episode opens on Jon teleporting to the streets of Saigon, which are strewn with the aftermath of Victory Day celebrations. From the bright ephemera he picks up a Doctor Manhattan mask and enters a bar where he finds Angela sitting alone. Later in the episode, in a conversation with Will, he says “I know the moment I see her I sense a profound emptiness and loss.” He’s only able to blend in because the bar is full of alcohol-sodden folks decked out as Doctor Manhattan, painted blue and all. Jon has a manner that can only be described as blunt, offering Angela beer and a question upon introduction: “Would you have dinner with me tomorrow night?” She rebuffs him, remaining incredulous after he says he’s Doctor Manhattan. But she’s beguiled on some level as the conversation continues, asking questions with a charming edge and leaning in with a wry grin. He has answers to her every question. Doesn’t Doctor Manhattan glow? He doesn’t want to call attention to himself. Shouldn’t he be on Mars? He’s actually been on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, creating new life. That’s just a recording of him on Mars.
As the conversation at the bar continued, I began to notice that we’re never privy to Jon’s face. He’s seen from behind, in a mask, out of focus, the camera paying special attention to how he speaks with his hands. I’m guessing this is partially so we always associate actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II with the role, instead of two distinct actors playing the character. (When he wakes after Angela takes the ring from his forehead, he keeps Calvin’s face in his blue form.) I think this is a great decision, given the lightning-bright charisma between Abdul-Mateen and Regina King.
Going into this episode I worried that in introducing Doctor Manhattan, a character with a weighty and storied history, the show would lose sight of Angela as it came to a close. This episode elaborates on who Jon is by delving into poignant childhood moments and their lasting effects on his psyche, yet never loses sight of Angela. If anything, it’s her internal life around which the episode primarily pivots. Consider the moment she shows Jon bodies in the morgue, going over the options for bodies and identities he can adopt in his new mortal life, before they land on “Calvin Jelani” based on her desires. (Just check out how she looks at him when he transforms into Calvin.) Or witness the fraught argument they have six months into their relationship, predicated upon his ability to know the future and prodding the wound of Angela being an orphan. The latter scene in particular demonstrates how frustrating it would be to love Doctor Manhattan. His perception of time locks your fate into place. How can you love in the face of fate? How can you love in the face of certain tragedy? As Adrian Veidt says to Jon later, “Who in their right mind would be romantically linked to a god?”
The flirtatious framing conversation between Jon and Angela runs the gamut, even discussing the nature of life itself. But one of the most hard-hitting moments comes when Angela explains why she hates Doctor Manhattan: “Forty years ago, Nixon comes to Big Blue, asks him to go to Vietnam. Manhattan goes, 100 feet tall torches the Vietcong with lasers from his hands. A little boy watches his village burn. Boy grows up, becomes a puppeteer because he wants to hold the strings. He makes a bomb. That bomb kills my parents 22 years ago tonight.” King’s gaze is steady, unflinching. Her voice doesn’t crack. Her calm manner contradicts the deep well of sorrow and loneliness her parents’ death represents for her. This episode is another great showcase for King’s prowess as an actor, particularly as she explores the weight, texture, and complications of anger.
Nestled within their conversation is a consideration of Jon’s young life. It’s 1936 and Jon’s father, a watchmaker, has escaped Germany with his son after Jon’s mother fell in love with a Nazi officer and left the family. They stay in the English country manor of a gracious couple who sometimes take people in. Wandering around the manor one day, Jon spies the couple having sex. “This is the first time I know love,” he says to Angela in voiceover. Later the couple gifts him a bible, telling Jon to promise to “make it your purpose to make something beautiful.” He holds true to that promise, and models the life he creates on this couple, in the form of Ms. Crookshanks and Mr. Philips. The manor on Europa is the actual manor whose halls he once walked as a child.
So where does Adrian Veidt come in? After his fight with Angela, Jon visits a melancholy Veidt, his old colleague, in Antarctica. Jon is still committed to walking around in the nude. God bless. He’s also looking for an answer. How can he live as a human? It’s his ability to know what happens next that’s causing frisson in his relationship. Thankfully, Veidt had more than one plan back in the 1980s when he tried to kill Jon in the closing moments of the comic. Plan A was a metal device, resembling Doctor Manhattan’s symbol, inserted in his prefrontal cortex in order to block his memory. If he doesn’t know he’s Doctor Manhattan, he can’t use his abilities unless under duress. (See: the White Night, when he zapped the second Seventh Kavalry intruder.) Veidt wants something in exchange. He’s been ravaged by time and the world hasn’t turned into the utopia he dreamed of when he killed 3 million by dropping an alien squid on New York City. Will he ever see the utopia he dreamed of? Not here on Earth, but Jon offers him his Europa paradise, full of life in need of a master, life designed to care for others instead of themselves.
Now years into his stay, Veidt doesn’t want this heaven because heaven doesn’t need him, as he says in the post-credits sequence to the Game Warden, who reveals himself to be the first Mr. Philips created. Now that we have answers, do the Veidt sequences feel worth it? I honestly find them frustrating and exasperating, with only occasional bits of humor. But I appreciate the big swings this show takes, even when they don’t always hit, and the Veidt sequences are big swings indeed.
Overshadowing most of this episode is what Jon tells Angela when she asks how their relationship ends. “Tragically,” he answers. In present-day Tulsa, Jon is confused as he wakes from his slumber, of sorts, when Angela takes the device from his head. She’s imploring him that they need to fight back and make sure he’s safe, but Jon is more content to walk on the pool and make waffles. Angela is still trying to save his life, something Jon sees as futile. She stalks through her lawn, killing Seventh Kavalry members assembled there, until she’s pinned in an impossible situation. It’s Jon who rescues her. All aglow, he calmly stops the bullets of the Seventh Kavalry and explodes their heads. But his tragic pronouncement proves true when he’s sucked into a teleportation device. Angela screams his name into the calm night, to no avail.
There are a series of breadcrumbs throughout the episode that seem to signal something momentous, although I’m not sure what exactly: Jon mentioning he could transfer his powers to someone else, Jon saying, “You need to see me on the pool. It’s important for later.” I’ll be honest, I have no idea how Watchmen is going to wrap everything up in a single episode. I’m also honestly afraid of what direction the finale will take, knowing what Senator Joe Keene wants to do now that they finally have Jon. I think it’s clear someone is going to get Jon’s powers, the only question is who.
Under the Hood:
• I love the way Regina King says “motherfucker.”
• I’m not sure how to feel about the snake-eating-its-own-tail revelation that Will learned about Judd Crawford because of Angela’s time-bending question via Jon. It’s an intriguing idea, considering how the show is prodding at the idea of destiny and legacies, but I’m not sure it’s wholly satisfying.