Watchmen: Season 1, Episode 7 – An Almost Religious Awe

“It is extremely difficult to be a white man in America right now. So I’m thinking, why not be a blue one?”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Watchmen, the show, set its thematic stall out from the very beginning. Opening with that racially motivated massacre in 1921 Tulsa, it was clear that skin colour was the biggest driving force in this plot. Yet it’s been hard to forget that alongside white, black, and varying shades of brown, there’s another skin colour in this narrative. And it’s blue.

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Yes, also from the outset, the shadow of Dr Manhattan has hung heavy over the story. We’ve barely seen him; that brief, blurry glimpse of him on the surface of Mars has been the only contemporary depiction of him, and in the flashbacks to the past, he’s been represented by deliberately partial glimpses of blue hands, or feet, or… other body parts. We’ve even seen him represented by other people portraying him, like Mr Phillips in Adrian Veidt’s Watchmaker play.

The big blue deity might barely have been seen, but he’s been referred to throughout. Whatever has been going on, he’s clearly central to it. And why not? This is a being with, to all intents and purposes, the power of a god. Even in the original comic, characters repeatedly spoke of him in terms of a power that was almost impossible to become accustomed to. It looks like, even in his absence, that hasn’t got any easier for the rest of the, normal, human race.

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More than any other so far, this ep put Dr M front and centre in the narrative. Oh, we still didn’t see much of him, but the prologue, flashing back to Angela’s childhood in Saigon, assaulted the senses with a slew of Manhattan-based imagery that demonstrated how he was seen in 1987 – and by extension, now.

It was no particular surprise to find that the awe of this mighty being was matched by a similar level of fear. Nor was it a surprise to find that the now-occupied “51st state” of Vietnam was not universally in favour of its new status as an appendage to the United States, as we saw a Vietnamese objector taking to suicide bombing against the obviously-resented American occupiers. The parallel to America’s more recent Middle East adventurism was so obvious the point didn’t need hammering home.

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That flashback was just one in an interspersed series of memories depicting the origin story of Sister Night herself, in the form of the child Angela Abar once was (top marks to actor Faithe Herman for a consistently excellent performance). Having utilised the device of memory drug Nostalgia last week to show us the history of her grandfather, it was perfectly sensible, even symmetrical, for the treatment of that drug overdose to do the same thing for Angela herself.

Nothing in the flashbacks was particularly surprising, but they neatly fleshed out the character of Angela and how she became the woman she is today. In particular, we saw the origin of her Sister Night’ persona – derived from what appeared to be one of this world’s examples of a 70s blaxploitation movie, cashing in on the popularity of real-life masked avengers.

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We also saw how she came to admire the Saigon police department, despite (or perhaps because of) their process-free execution of the chief suspect behind the suicide bombing. That led to some interesting questions about Angela’s (and by extension, the whole Tulsa PD’s) idea of due process. In the apparently ultra-liberal America led by President Robert Redford, it looks like a common reaction is to become more… reactionary. Which might explain why everyone on the Tulsa police force seems to have similar methodology to Dirty Harry.

The flashbacks were peppered through a framing story depicting Angela’s recovery under the tender ministrations of the increasingly suspicious-seeming Lady Trieu; and for a wonder, the lady herself started actually giving some straight answers to Angela’s questions. Not all of them, of course, but way more than we’ve had at any time so far. This show has been masterful at concealing what’s actually going on, but it seems like, seven episodes in, showrunner Damon Lindelof has decided it’s time to reward viewers with at least some background information.

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So Angela now knows what we had already suspected – Lady Trieu has a plan to “save humanity”, it’s starting right there in Tulsa, and it’s got something to do with that elaborate ‘Millennium Clock’ that was so prominently featured in the background of many shots this week. What does the gizmo do? Despite Bian’s assurances, I can’t see any way it could be used to tell time. It does, however, stylistically resemble that watch-innards styled edifice Dr Manhattan constructed on Mars in the original comic.

Dr M is also very important in whatever Lady Trieu’s plan is. It seems she’s been recording all those sad pleas from the public in her ‘Manhattan Booths’ across the world, and in some way they’re going to help her bring him back from… wherever he is. The scene in that big room dominated by a blue globe was the most prominent of many visual repetitions of Dr Manhattan’s signature blue colour throughout the ep, a nice touch by director David Semel. That blue colour suffused the episode constantly, from Angela’s dresses both as a child and in the present, through the Manhattan-themed trinkets in Vietnam, all the way to little details like the paint colours on cars and motorbikes.

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Not only is Dr Manhattan central to Lady Trieu’s plans, it seems like he’s vital to those of the white supremacist 7th Kavalry too. Lady Trieu appears to know all about these plans, but her explanations to Angela were complemented by some from the horse’s mouth itself; the horse in this case being, as we already knew, Senator Joe Keene Jr.

For unlike last week’s focus on just one character, this wasn’t just about Angela. Laurie Blake, and her dogged investigation into… whatever is going on, got a good amount of screentime this week, as her inquiries led her to the widow of Jud Crawford, and, via a convenient trapdoor, into the hands of the Kavalry themselves.

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That trapdoor was a rare bit of humour in a show that, good though it is, is usually rather dour and serious. The most obvious resemblance, particularly in the way that it didn’t quite work properly at first, was to the frequently depicted feature in the office of Monty Burns in The Simpsons; I half expected Mrs Crawford to follow this up by releasing the hounds.

In a nice bit of meta lampshade-hanging, Laurie took the piss out of this development herself in her incredulous remarks to Senator Joe. Along with a genre-savvy exasperation when it became clear that he was, like all Republic serial villains, going to take the time to explain his entire plan. Just like Adrian Veidt’s derision of that convention at the end of the comic, it was an amusing deconstruction of the genre’s tropes.

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However, it was a genuine surprise to find out just what Joe’s plan is. So, all that experimenting with Manhattan-based tech is aimed towards actually turning him into a big blue god himself? It’s a grandiose plan that makes little sense, just like all the best Bond villains’ plans. Just like, in fact, Veidt’s original plan in the comic. Both he and Lady Trieu showed a fourth-wall breaking acknowledgement of its absurdity; but that doesn’t mean it won’t work. However both their plans are to be achieved, it looks like the stakes are high, and there’s never been a greater need for the original Dr Manhattan to make a return appearance among humanity.

That he wouldn’t have too far to come to rejoin us was the ep’s final twist, and a clever peeling back of another layer in the plot and the characters. So, just as Will had hinted (and it now seems, actually knew), the godlike blue entity was never on Mars to begin with – he’d been hiding in plain sight by making himself (at least appear) human.

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That wasn’t too much of a surprise. What was, was his actual identity – and the fact that Angela had known it all along. I’ve said on several occasions that there was something a little… off about her husband Cal; he was just too nice, too perfect. A little unconvincing, somehow. Now we know why. He was never a real person at all, but a construct created by Dr Manhattan to conceal his true identity from everyone. Even himself.

Almost everyone, anyway. For the final revelation was that Angela at least had known all along. That reveal is one of the cleverest the show’s done yet; despite being explicitly confronted by this possibility several times in previous eps, Angela has never show any evidence of having believed it, let alone knowing it was true. I don’t know if Regina King knew this when making the earlier eps, but if so, congratulations on her poker face…

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In light of Joe Keene’s plan, and the show’s overriding theme of racial conflict, it was particularly satisfying that the real identity of the blue-skinned one wasn’t a white man at all, but a prominent black character. Of course Dr Manhattan is unlikely to care about skin colour at all (he doesn’t even see a significant difference between a living body and a dead one), which is surely part of the point. However, I do wonder whether the next episode will see Yahya Abdul-Mateen II actually “blue-ing up” to play the pre-transformation Dr M – an interesting idea given that the original Jon Osterman was white.

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And it was no particular surprise by now to discover that Cal isn’t the only one who’s not at all what he seems. The likeable Bian was revealed, to nobody’s particular surprise, to not be Lady Trieu’s daughter after all, but a clone of her mother, being drip fed the original’s memories night by night, which explained all those dreams she kept referring to. It’s in keeping with the previously established cloning tech we saw at ‘Splice of Life’ a couple of weeks ago, and the also established capabilities of memory-transferring drug Nostalgia. How else could Bian truly become a recreation of Trieu’s mother except by having her memories and experiences as well as her physical form?

However, it also led to a new question, and one which is likely to be very significant. Hearing this explanation led Angela to enquire whether Lady Trieu had similar ambitions to bring back her father; leading to the enigmatic statement that while her father might not be there yet, he soon would be. The obvious implication here is that her father doesn’t need cloning – because he’s still alive. He’s just not here.

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So the question is, who is Lady Trieu’s father? She was born in Vietnam, we know that much. Who else was around at that time? Well, we know that the Comedian, Laurie’s father Edward Blake, was not only there, but got a local girl pregnant – so he’s a likely suspect. There again, he did shoot the woman in question dead while still pregnant, so maybe not… But the other high profile character in Saigon at the time was Dr Manhattan himself. That might explain Lady Trieu’s ‘Manhattan Booths’, and general interest in the big feller.

But for my money, there’s one other, very obvious suspect. The one she has a golden statue of, at his current age, despite nobody having seen him for years. The one whose Antarctic vivarium she seems to have replicated outside Tulsa. The one whose repeated musical theme – Mozart’s Requiem – was playing as she explained part of her plan to Angela. The one whose nom-de-plume comes from a Shelley poem she (mis)quoted in that press conference (“gaze on our mighty work”). Yes, for my money, I think we’re going to find out that Lady Trieu’s father is none other than Ozymandias himself, the still-absent Adrian Veidt.

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Meanwhile, in Veidt-ville…

Which brings us neatly to this week’s vignette in the mysterious captivity of the former masked avenger, now positively located… somewhere in space. This week, he was on trial for his heinous crime of having tried to escape; and in fact, it turned out he had been on trial for 365 days now.

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This led to an interesting realisation. I’d previously assumed that these vignettes were occurring concurrently with the events in the contemporary story on Earth. But if Veidt has been on trial for a year, they can’t have been. Which leads to the possibility that his story may be, even at this point, in the past as far as the rest of the narrative is concerned.

That would explain why Lady Trieu knows what he looks like now – what if, in the present, he’s already escaped from captivity and is back on Earth? Perhaps even somewhere near Lady Trieu herself? What if, whatever mysterious purpose the Millennium Clock is meant to serve, it is and always has been part of his far-reaching plan to save humanity from itself?

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Speculation, of course. As is, still, the identity of the person or being actually holding him captive. This week, the court prosecutor version of Miss Cruickshanks referred, yet again, to their “creator”. We’d previously speculated that might be Dr Manhattan, or perhaps even Lady Trieu herself. But there’s another possibility. We knew from the end of the original comic that, however justified he felt his actions, Veidt was haunted by guilt at what he’d done.

Here, as the accusing fingers of his underlings jabbed at him following the ‘guilty’ verdict, we saw a single tear start to roll down his cheek. It looks like, despite his arrogance, that guilt has never left him. When our consciences prick us, sometimes we condemn ourselves; so what if the mystery entity holding Veidt captive is, in fact, none other than Veidt himself?

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Unlikely? If that’s the case, why would he be so desperate to escape a captivity in which he’d placed himself; and why would he have told the underlings that their god had deserted them? Well, yes. But we know that memories can be interfered with, by a drug engineered by Lady Trieu and sharing a name with a previous Veidt product. What if Adrian set all this up as an act of self-punishment, and removed his memory of any escape route in case he should ever change his mind?

I admit, I’m less sure of this one than I am about his identity as Lady Trieu’s father. But this show has been masterly in its narrative misdirection, so I do still think it’s a possibility.

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Episode title significance

This week’s ep is entitled An Almost Religious Awe.

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Like last week, it’s an in-universe quote; in this case from the narrative showing Viet Cong soldiers surrendering to Dr Manhattan. Unlike last week, it’s not a quote from an in-universe publication, but part of the stream of consciousness narration of Dr Manhattan himself.

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It also neatly sums up how this radically altered former human being is seen not just by the Vietnamese, but by humanity all over the globe. A god walks among us – such a reaction merely indicates that you are still sane.

Callbacks and references

Unsurprisingly in an ep so dominated by the figure of Dr Manhattan, there were quite a few and many of them were directly related to the good doctor himself.

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The prologue kicked off with a documentary about the man, and later god, showing us his beginnings as the humble son of a watchmaker, and how his transformation had affected everyone on Earth. As in both the comic and the movie, we saw footage depicting his victory over the Viet Cong; though unlike the movie, this footage was true to the comic by actually having him wear pants.

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We also saw explicit references, in the form of ads, to how his synthesis of lithium revolutionised the world’s reliance on electric power, by providing such plentiful supplies of the element that production of lithium batteries became easy. We’d already seen how all this world’s cars are electric as a consequence; here we saw an ad for a 1960s Ford using the tech, with the futuristic-sounding model name of ‘Andromeda’ (it’s actually a second generation Ford Galaxie, so nice pun). We also, significantly, saw how it also now powers the world’s timepieces – appropriate for a show where ticking clocks are a repeated motif, and for a being who started out as the son of a watchmaker.

Magazine covers depicted his helping hand with America’s first Moon landing (as also depicted in the credits montage of the movie), and how Veidt’s 1985 plot brought him to be seen as a purveyor of deadly cancer. This latter was presumably concurrent with the disastrous TV interview in the comic, where New Frontiersman editor Doug Roth’s aggressive questions on the topic drove Dr M to such anger he felt the need to leave Earth altogether.

In non-Manhattan related references, one of the most significant was presented on an easel at Veidt’s ‘trial’ – a depiction of the alien creature he engineered as part of his con-trick on mankind. This was particularly notable for being a faithful recreation of the original design sketches seen in the comic, based on the pencil work of avant garde artist Hira Manesh.

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Also responsible for the creature’s design in the original story was writer Max Shea, who graduated from comic writing on Tales from the Black Freighter to become a successful novelist. One of the supplemental documents in the comic was a retrospective on Shea’s work, which referred to his “twice-filmed” novel, Fogdancing. Here, we saw a video cassette of one of those filmed versions, sitting neatly on the rack in the Saigon video store that the young Angela was perusing in 1987.

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Just opposite Fogdancing on the rack was another, rather less artistic movie which has its origins in the comic. Silk Swingers (of Suburbia) was a titillating exploitation pic very loosely based on the exploits of the original Silk Spectre, Laurie’s mother Sally Jupiter. Judging by the review presented in the comic, it was the sort of kitsch, softcore B movie that often finds its way onto Mystery Science Theater 3000.

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Shown in two of the Saigon flashbacks was a fast food outlet called Burgers ‘N’ Borscht, where Angela had her first (and last) meal with her grandmother. This too has its origins in the comic, where a branch is shown in the newly rebuilt streets of New York City, the two national food staples representing the new détente between former enemies the USA and the Soviet Union.

It was revelations all round in this unexpectedly forthcoming ep, but it maintained the high quality and depth of screenwriting I’ve come to expect from this show by now. Again, some superb performances were on display from the excellent cast, particularly Regina King and Faithe Herman as the current and younger versions of Angela Abar. The answers given were satisfying and logical, and crucially still not the whole story. With two more eps to go, there’s still plenty of room for the story to twist into new shapes and answer at least some of those outstanding mysteries; I find myself in the surprising position  of actually trusting Damon Lindelof to accomplish that…