Watchmen becomes an aching, beautiful love story in its next-to-last episode

Doctor Manhattan returns to Earth in 2009. | HBO

“A God Walks Into Abar” is the kind of deeply romantic, mind-bending TV episode Damon Lindelof lives to make.

“A God Walks Into Abar” (get it??) is essentially TV critic catnip.

A complicated love story that spans many years, told in a disjointed fashion that requires viewers to pay close attention, with several moments that ask whether we can ever really know someone we love? Yes please! Can we possibly have seconds?

Much of Watchmen has been marked by how far it strays from creator Damon Lindelof’s typical comfort zone while offering just enough weirdness to remind you that it is, indeed, a Lindelof series. But “God Walks Into Abar” is Lindelof (and co-writer Jeff Jensen) going full Lindelof. The episode in TV history it most resembles is “The Constant,” the time-bending episode of Lost that earned Lindelof an Emmy nomination and is regularly held up by many as one of the best TV episodes ever made.

That “God Walks Into Abar” stands alongside “The Constant” (at least according to me, Vox critic-at-large Emily VanDerWerff) is high praise indeed. That it somehow manages to do so while radically reconfiguring everything we think we know about both this TV adaptation of Watchmen and the original Watchmen comic more generally is an even more amazing trick.

The Angela/Cal marriage was one element of the show that always felt a bit rote, like the show wanted to give Angela a home life but didn’t have space to really build it out. “God Walks Into Abar” reveals just how much the previous treatment of their marriage was slight of hand. Angela, who seemed to be drawn slowly but surely into the world of Watchmen over the course of several episodes, was always way ahead of us. She knew where Doctor Manhattan was the whole time. (Her bitten-off declaration of “That dude lives on Mars” in the first episode takes on new resonances now.)

But, of course, I liked this episode. Of course I loved it. It was grown in a lush lake on Europa to appeal to me and others like me, who love when a TV show mixes a highbrow love story with lowbrow nonsense.

But what of my colleagues? This week, I’m joined by senior culture correspondent Alex Abad-Santos and associate culture editor Allegra Frank to talk about Doctor Manhattan, disjointed love stories, and how any of this makes sense.

Time keeps on slippin’ into the future

Emily: The thing about “God Walks Into Abar” that some viewers might have the hardest time wrapping their heads around is how everything in the episode takes place more or less at once, at least from Doctor Manhattan’s point of view. This is a lot harder to convey in a TV context than in a comic — where the reader can flip back and forth between pages as much as they want — but I think “God Walks Into Abar” gets dang close to capturing the feeling of being able to see all of space and time, simultaneously.

Alex, you’re much more familiar with the comic than I am. How do we make sense of this new chapter in Doctor Manhattan’s life?

Alex: Doctor Manhattan is basically a god, and when we think about gods or God, it’s often an immortal being that’s omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient — an all-powerful figure who’s present everywhere and knows everything.

Doctor Manhattan is bit different, in that he’s all-powerful, but his omniscience and omnipresence are limited. He can see everything that’s happening in the future and the past simultaneously, but only through the lens of his own life and experiences.

In the comic book, there’s a scene where Doctor Manhattan and his girlfriend Janey are having a little tiff in 1959. During that argument, he sees himself in the future, arguing with her in 1963; he also sees her lonely and sobbing in 1966:

A panel from the Watchmen comic where Doctor Manhattan experiences multiple time periods at once.Gibbons/DC
Doctor Manhattan can more or less see all of space and time simultaneously, at least through the lens of his own life.

During another moment with Janey, he sees himself many years in the future, with Laurie Blake:

A panel from the Watchmen comic where Doctor Manhattan simultaneously sees experiences he had in 1985 and 1966.Gibbons/DC
Doctor Manhattan experiences multiple time periods at once.

The show does a pretty good job of establishing this with Doctor Manhattan narrating everything he’s seeing by explaining it to Angela and calmly answering her many questions. It’s purposely confusing, to make Doctor Manhattan feel distant and not-of-this-world. As hard as it is for Angela (and the audience) to keep up, imagine how hard it must be for Doctor Manhattan himself, constantly juggling all of those timelines at once.

Time isn’t linear for Doctor Manhattan.

If you add in the complex emotions of all these simultaneous encounters and consider Doctor Manhattan’s immortality, you can begin to understand why, in the comic, he grew tired of human life and interactions and exiled himself to a different planet. We see his exhaustion in this episode. But we also see him grow bored of being a God on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, and decide to return to Earth.

I suppose the biggest question coming out of “God Walks Into Abar” is why, if he could see everything happening and is all-powerful, he would let himself be captured by the Seventh Kavalry? After all, he wiped out everyone attacking him pretty quick.

I think there’s a combination of factors at play. It’s possible that time was altered when he decided to become Cal and got attacked during the White Night ambush. As he tells Angela in the episode, that period of time is blank for him and he can’t see it. The device Adrian Veidt gives him takes his omniscience out of the equation, allows the White Night ambush to occur, and sets into motion the nefarious plan to capture him.

Another thing to keep in mind is something he says at the end of the comic. He and Veidt discuss Veidt’s decision to use the fake squid attack to bring the world together, and whether or not he made the right choice:

 Gibbons/DC
Doctor Manhattan and Adrian Veidt in Watchmen.

Doctor Manhattan tells Veidt that there is no end and that “nothing ever ends.” It’s his way of saying that the choices we make are never fixed or isolated, that no matter what we do there’s always an inevitable force that will eventually undo our best-laid plans — in Veidt’s case, that force is humanity’s tendency to not trust each other. When it comes to Cyclops and its contemporary iteration, the Seventh Kavalry, Doctor Manhattan knows they’ll never stop until they capture him. If he fought them off this time, what would happen if next time they came after Angela? And the time after that? It would be relentless.

Which brings us to Angela. His return to Earth is because of Angela.

In the comic, Doctor Manhattan believes it’s a miracle that people can fall in love — and that capacity for love is actually what convinces him that humanity, as distant as he becomes from it, is actually worth saving. Doctor Manhattan and Angela decide to have 10 good years together, and wow, my heart swells and hurts at that idea of a big blue god risking everything to be with the love of his life for 10 years.

Allegra, what did you think of the love story? Did this story of a girl and a god melt your cold heart (that only beats for Baby Yoda)? Would you swipe right on Doctor Manhattan?

Is Watchmen just a giant love story?

Angela and Doctor Manhattan meet for the first time.HBO
Angela is vaguely skeptical that she’s talking to the real Doctor Manhattan.

Allegra: I am easily wooed by a good love story. And while, as Emily said, the Angela/Cal dynamic hadn’t necessarily been the deepest before the ending revelations of episode seven, “God Walks Into Abar” proved to me that I was right all along for pining so deeply for more time with the couple.

I’m a little more of a romantic than my Grinch-like reactions to the show thus far may suggest to you all! For as creepy as I’d find it to be approached by a masked blue man while trying to have some alone time, Angela is so clearly smitten with the audacious Doctor Manhattan. We know the future reveals that she has to be, both because we’ve already seen it as viewers and because Doctor Manhattan says so. But watching him explain everything to her, and watching her slowly come around to the idea, was a tender kind of thrill.

The scenes where Doctor Manhattan essentially pitched his love to Angela had the charm of a classic romance where a sassy, independent woman is slowly endeared to a handsome, if more desperate man. The way the show re-contextualized Doctor Manhattan in this storyline helped me invest in the character, whose significance previously felt very much tied to the Watchmen comic.

As I incessantly reiterate, I don’t have a connection to the comic, so the reveals of earlier episodes about Doctor Manhattan’s involvement in various past drama haven’t been all that interesting to me. But to watch this shape-shifting, all-knowing man with a tenuous connection to humanity fall in love? And to witness how his relationship with Angela draws her explicitly into the Watchmen canon while preserving her own unique storyline? Yeah, I’m here for that.

Emily: Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson pointed out earlier this week that Lindelof’s series often set up incredibly complicated puzzle box mysteries and then reveal that at their core, they’re deeply wounded love stories about people who find their other half, only to have to fight against all of time and space to stay together. Lindelof understands that what creates great romance is proximity, but what creates a great love story is separation, whether by vast gulfs of time or by a tachyon cannon.

Lindelof at the beginning of every new show: This is a twisty genre puzzle box.
Lindelof by the end: Surprise, bitches, pic.twitter.com/JaqrvxSyvf

— J❄️anna Robinson (@jowrotethis) December 4, 2019

Really, I should be tired of this by now, shouldn’t I? But every time a Lindelof show hauls out a new pairing to adore — Desmond and Penny on Lost; Kevin and Nora on The Leftovers; Angela and Cal on Watchmen — I can’t help but swoon all over again. There’s something so inherently fragile about love, and if you stop to think about it for a second, the things that bind us to the people we’re closest to (be they friends, lovers, or family) are so random and haphazard that the connections we form are, as Watchmen calls them, the true miracles of existence.

What I think is interesting is how the show depicts the way an all-powerful being, who knows everything that happens within his lifetime, might actually fall in love with someone. Because Doctor Manhattan sees Angela at her moment of maximum love for him, he’s able to realize something that the rest of us, imprisoned by chronology as we are, can only guess. I would let the Seventh Kavalry disassemble me with a tachyon cannon if it meant protecting my wife, but I didn’t know that was true when I first met her. Doctor Manhattan does know he’s going to do that when he meets Angela, and he walks into that bar anyway.

Isn’t it romantic??

(Also: Doctor Manhattan is totally going to transfer his powers into Angela, isn’t he? And that’s the real reason he was drawn to her in the first place. I’m calling it now!)

I’m also amazed by how many questions about Watchmen “God Walks Into Abar” just casually answers, like the exact location of Veidt, and the origins of the baby swamp. (I honestly thought the baby swamp would never be explained.) The episode makes the rest of the series snap together, while leaving almost all of the major plot threads still dangling — including Looking Glass remaining completely off the table (unless he’s behind one of those Rorschach masks).

It’s an impressive achievement as a love story, but I’m almost more impressed by it as a piece of craft. How many drafts did it take to get this thing to fit into every single little puzzle piece, to answer questions I didn’t even realize were questions (like why Angela survived the White Night)? As a fan of love stories, I’m enraptured; as a fan of clearing very high bars for complicated structure in writing, I’m in awe.

Allegra, you were a little arm’s length with Doctor Manhattan until we found out he was also Cal. Is he your best friend now? And what did you think of this episode’s post-credits scene featuring your number one boy Adrian Veidt?

Doctor Manhattan is all of our best friend

Angela and Cal hang out on Christmas, right before they’re almost killed.HBO
Angela and Cal, back when only one of them knew he was Doctor Manhattan (and it wasn’t him).

Allegra: I have to be superficial and admit that, yes, I’m cool with Doctor Manhattan now — when he looks like Cal. Uber-buff and all-powerful (and blue) is not totally my type, but Cal is a beautiful human who can make me dig the Doctor when he’s in that packaging.

And again, the specificity of Doctor Manhattan being Cal, the love of Angela’s life, helps me appreciate the character’s role in the show. I’m much more inclined to invest myself in that storyline if there is a direct tie to the Watchmen’s version of 2019 America. Thanks to Angela’s connection to this character, Doctor Manhattan earns much more of my empathy than he otherwise would have, had he just been the big blue guy from the comic (which he’s often been positioned as in the past). He’s not quite my BFF yet, but I can appreciate how his all-knowing powers and shape-shifting abilities enhance and bring intrigue to this tragic love story.

As for my real BFF, Adrian Veidt? That post-credits scene was pure “I have no idea what’s going on” vibes for me. But I understand that “God Walks Into Abar” is the season’s penultimate episode, so the show had to do something dramatic. I’m still mostly enamored by my boy being all wacky, and so the credits scene marked quite a tonal shift to seeing him utterly vulnerable and in lockdown. The breakout of this development as a credits scene suggests something … big? But I still can’t quite reconcile the kinds of evil that Veidt performs with intention, as opposed to the sociopathic clone killing he does for fun.

Alex: Can I just say that I respect the silliness and the show’s playfulness of naming Laurie’s episode three sex toy (not Petey) “Excalibur.” The joke being that Cal Abar is Laurie’s ex, who just so happens to be Doctor Manhattan. Hence, Laurie’s Doctor Manhattan sex toy is a phonetic match: Ex-Cal-Abar. Sneaky!

I do love the story that Doctor Manhattan is just a hopeless romantic at heart who is willing to risk humanity’s livelihood — and inevitably be captured by Cyclops — to be with Angela. That’s so selfish but also, so human?

I suppose the post-credits scene ties into both Doctor Manhattan and Adrian Veidt’s stories in that even a huge megalomaniac like Veidt grows tired of endless adulation, essentially bored with the life of a god. There’s an undercurrent of masochism in the scene when the many Mr. Phillipses and Ms. Crookshankses are smashing tomatoes on him — Veidt is seeking out and searching for something other than the same admiration over and over.

The Game Warden, who’s revealed as the first being Doctor Manhattan created, visits Veidt in his jail cell with one of those terrible yellow and purple cakes in hand. He asks Veidt why he’s so unhappy living in the utopia that is Europa.

“Heaven doesn’t need me,” Veidt says, underscoring his yearning to feel human again.

But as the scene ends, he realizes that his weird clones have baked a horseshoe into his cake, which he picks up and begins scraping maniacally on the floor. Is he happy at the subversion he’s instilled into his clones? Is there some kind of device down there? What’s he digging for?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But Veidt’s madness helps explain why Doctor Manhattan becomes weary on Europa. Heaven is boring, even for an omnipotent being like Doctor Manhattan, who has transcended humanity. That kind of existence can make someone yearn for the miracles and tragedies of being human, or in this case, 10 good years with Angela.

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