Watchmen: Season 1, Episode 8 – A God Walks into Abar

“Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The answer appears to be both – at the same time.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

The Doctor will see you now. Yes, after hanging heavy over the narrative since the very first ep, Dr Manhattan finally put in a proper appearance this week. And what an appearance it was, capturing perfectly Alan Moore’s complex character and suddenly providing us with a barrage of explanation for the show’s mysteries, all of which make perfect sense in retrospect.

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Moore’s original comic has two issues that focus specifically on Dr Manhattan. The first details the events of his origin, while the second shows his philosophical argument with Laurie as to why he should or shouldn’t deign to save the human race from itself. Both are told in an elegant, non-linear fashion as befits a character whose perception of time is entirely non-linear too – as he puts it, time is a multi-faceted jewel that humans insist on viewing only one edge at a time.

The complex script for this ep, by Damon Lindelof himself, faithfully captured the style of those issues, framed with the story of how Angela and Jon first met even while, finally, involving him in the present day story itself. Kudos in particular for capturing Dr Manhattan’s distinctive dialogue style; in keeping with a being who perceives all of time at once, his tenses are all over the place. He describes events in the future using the past simple tense, while referring to events in the past in various present tenses. As an English teacher, I think I’ll steer clear of showing this one in class – my students find the tenses confusing enough as it is…

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As has been the show’s precedent up till now, the first half of the ep at least artfully steered clear of showing us the godlike being’s face; instead, we saw the back of his head, close ups of his feet, and, most notably, his hands. I’d speculated last week about whether Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who’d played him as Cal, would play him before his transformation. The answer, as usual with this show, was a little more complex. The original Dr Manhattan we see (parts of) in the first half of the ep appears to be another actor entirely; but the voice is unmistakably Mateen’s. However, he modulates it to produce that calm, dispassionate tone in the bar scenes and the narration, either naturally or with electronic help.

Of course, here we’re into politically murky waters, especially given the show’s overriding theme of racial tension. Dr Jon Osterman, as shown in the comic, is clearly white; the show here adds a dimension to that by giving him Jewish ancestry, explaining his father’s flight from Nazi Germany. So having him turn into a black man is either a clever move reflecting similarity of races, or something a little dubious.

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The script did sneakily reference that with Adrian Veidt’s knowing reference to “cultural appropriation”, along with that near the knuckle question about, “why would a blue man want to be a… hu-man?” But in truth, the show largely presented his colour change as a non-issue. It was notable that, when Angela was showing him his choice of corpses to emulate, she didn’t bother showing him the black one until he insisted. I guess the point is, he’s already changed colour once – why would doing it again bother him?

It does at least bring a new concept to the idea of racial impersonation – this must be the first time a black actor has been called on to “blue up”. Of course (white) Billy Crudup did it in the movie, but here it could have been a much more charged scenario. Mateen handled the role just perfectly though, and both actors are lucky there aren’t any actual blue races to take offence at the appropriation. Except for Dr Manhattan himself of course.

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The script was a clever, intricate Russian doll of answers to many of the questions we’ve been pondering since the show started. To take one of the last items first (as the script often does), we now know why Will Reeves murdered Jud Crawford – because Angela told him Jud was a member of Cyclops. Thing is, she’s only just told him now, and in 2009, by having a conversation with a husband who exists in all times simultaneously. No wonder, even for someone who’s lived with this being for ten years, she looked so shocked at the revelation.

The conversation at their first meeting in the bar in Saigon, which punctuated the action throughout, was full of this kind of philosophical pondering – just as the original comic was. By the end of the ep, all the cryptic things that Dr M had said to the puzzled Angela made perfect sense – like the brick joke in ep 3, everything paid off perfectly.

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Of course, the question is, do Dr Manhattan’s hints at the future to his intended give her the ideas, or does she come up with them independently? Does she choose to move to Tulsa, despite, or because of him? Does Will become involved despite, or because of Angela’s reported questions from ten years in the future?

The only possible answer, really, is both. Like the chicken and the egg question. And it’s important to remember that knowing his own future doesn’t give Dr Manhattan the power to change it – as we saw at the end of this ep. As he put it in the comic, “we’re all puppets… I’m just a puppet who can see the strings”, which makes the marionette version of him last week doubly redolent.

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Writing for a being like that must be a real headscratcher – really the only way to do it is to present things in a temporally non-linear way, while grouping the relevant events near each other – something the comic does superbly, and Lindelof has a game attempt at pulling off here. Most of the narrative here takes place in 2009 and 2019, but there are other time periods shown – most notably 1936, which feeds into us (finally) being given an explanation for Adrian Veidt’s pastoral prison.

The comic picks up Jon Osterman’s story no earlier than as a teenager in New York City, but here we saw him as a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, being taken in with his father by well-meaning (and apparently unusually liberal) members of the English aristocracy.

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Just as his father’s trade in watchmaking shaped events in the comic, so this interlude influenced later events here. Those perma-smiling humanoid creatures known as Mr Philips and Miss Cruickshanks are actually replicas of those self-same aristocrats; created as a new Adam and Eve in a new Garden of Eden, as shown in that Bible the child Jon was given at the time.

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And it is indeed, as I previously speculated, on the Jovian moon Europa, which featured so heavily in Arthur C Clarke’s 2010. But in a ‘jar’, like the one full of (blue) butterflies that so fascinated him as a child – he hasn’t terraformed the whole moon. Nonetheless, I did wonder whether any passing space probes might have noticed it (or anyone on Earth noticed the sudden disappearance of an English manor house). I suspect, however, that the passing space probe we actually saw may indeed have noticed, and may be under the control of a certain Lady Trieu…

For only the second time so far, Adrian Veidt himself showed up as part of the main narrative too, creating the memory suppression device that allowed Dr Manhattan to live unsuspectingly as Cal for ten years. This depiction of Veidt was significant – not as off the wall as the current, imprisoned version, he was nonetheless a far cry from the confident figure we saw in that video message to then-new President Robert Redford. However influential that made him seem, it looks like humanity has moved on its own direction regardless, and the Veidt we saw here was a bitter, disillusioned figure. Still a massive ham, though, Jeremy Irons can’t really help himself there.

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Where Yahya Abdul-Mateen II really came into his own though was in the present day, as ‘Cal’ properly changed back to Dr Manhattan. It was a fairly small proportion of the ep as a whole, but it made the biggest impact. Now able to use his face in portraying the blue deity, Mateen made an excellent job of it – it can’t be easy conveying the motivation of a being who sees everything at a quantum level.

The heavy significance continued unabated – has he sent the children to be with Will in the present day, or some earlier epoch? That theatre he mentioned, wasn’t it the one the boy Will was watching Bass Reeves at in 1921?

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And the repeated messianic references to walking on water paid off in the present day as he plodded across the surface of the Abar swimming pool, glowing blue as ever. “You need to see me on the pool. It’s important, for later,” he averred. I don’t know what that could mean, but I can be fairly sure it’s going to pay off next week.

As will, I’m sure, the idea of an alternative to Dr Manhattan actually dying. We know he’s capable of twisting language to his own ends – I don’t think it will be a literal death. It was an interesting concept that, to become him, Joe Keene actually has to eat him – that could lead to a few innuendos, not least after that very impressive full frontal nude scene in Antarctica…

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That final confrontation with the 7th Kavalry was an action highlight in an otherwise cerebral (if rewarding) episode though. Good to have Nicole Kassell, director of the first two eps, back behind the camera, and particular kudos to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for a powerful music score here. In a show that often eschews its comic book origins in favour of exploiting the story’s new medium, this was a great bit of pure superhero action – from both Dr Manhattan and Sister Night.

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Meanwhile, in Veidt-ville…

I actually hadn’t expected a vignette with Veidt this week, what with him having featured so prominently in the main narrative and all. But the show sprang a surprise one actually after the credits, the first time it’s done anything like this.

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From what we saw in the 2009 narrative of the episode proper, we now know that I was at least partially right last week, when I guessed the person holding Adrian captive was in fact… Adrian. Of course, it’s a little more complex than that – isn’t everything in this show? But we do know he chose to be there originally, and that the humanoid creatures he pulls from the lake exist only to serve; first Dr Manhattan, now Adrian himself.

I’d guess something’s gone a little skew-whiff with Dr Manhattan’s paradise since Adrian retired there – that servile nature now manifests as near-mania for their ‘Master’ to remain with them, presumably so they can serve him.

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The masked Game Warden was revealed to be the very first of the ‘Adams’ that Dr M created, and presumably the only one to remember their original creator. Perhaps that’s why he’s even more fanatical than the others. I haven’t really commented on Tom Mison’s performance so far, but I have to say he did well this week, playing, in effect, three subtly different versions of the same character.

However annoyed with the ‘Master’ he might be, though, he did bring that apparently vital horseshoe to the cell where he sits incarcerated and hamming it up. Jeremy Irons too was great this week, presenting us with a version of Veidt in 2009 who was clearly disaffected with a world that had moved on without the need for his masterplan, and the one we saw here, who’s completely lost the plot.

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As evidence, witness his mad cackling as he found the horseshoe and started scraping at the floor with it. Is he completely nuts, or does it actually do something? My money’s on both (typical where this show’s concerned), but I’d guess we’re not going to find out until next week. And I still think all this happened in the past, and that Veidt’s already back on Earth somehow. After I wrote that last week, it occurred to me to wonder – was it him in that mysterious object plunging to Earth outside the Clarks’ farm, which Lady Trieu was so eager to get her hands on?

Episode title significance

This week’s episode is entitled A God Walks Into Abar.

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For the first time, it’s not a quote or a reference of any kind – except to the show itself. At first glance, it seems like nothing more than a fairly groan-worthy pun; it even made me wonder if that was the reason Angela had been given that family name in the first place.

And yet, it also underlines two interesting points. Dr Manhattan not only walked into Angela, but he figuratively walked into her husband too. Obviously her husband didn’t share her name, but it’s notable that this is the first time we’ve heard his (Calvin Giulani) – and she didn’t take it when they got married. In hindsight, it’s just one more clue that everything wasn’t what it seemed in their marriage…

Callbacks and references

As you might expect in a Dr M-centred episode, quite a few.

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Once again, the opening title reflected the content – presented as a neon bar sign, at first in the show’s signature yellow, it changed colour to Dr Manhattan style blue. Notably with the ’M’ glitching on and off.

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Early on, we saw that wall mural in Saigon that we previously saw last week – only this time, perhaps in a sneaky reference to the movie, someone’s drawn a big cock over Dr M’s discreet black pants.

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Down in Antarctica, the show faithfully recreated Adrian Veidt’s sanctum, Karnak, complete with the damaged and snow-filled vivarium that Lady Trieu herself has recreated in Tulsa.

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As Dr M / Cal strode through the big halls, it was clear that the place had seen better days. Quite apart from the detritus scattered on the floor, it looks like Adrian’s Bond villain-style wall of monitors isn’t working so well any more; half of them showed nothing but static. It was a clever visual representation of the way the world had moved on from its would-be saviour.

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After present day (?) Veidt was done having tomatoes squashed in his face, we saw him in contemplative mood, reading a well-thumbed paperback. It was hard to see in the gloom of his cell, but it was unmistakably a copy of Fogdancing, the novel by Max Shea who was used and discarded in Veidt’s original plan.

There were a fair few dialogue references, and interestingly, the show’s done a couple of them before. Once again, we recalled Dr Manhattan’s final line (in the comic) to Adrian, this time quoted by Ozymandias himself: “Nothing ever ends”.

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As Angela prepared to give ‘Cal’ the memory suppression device, he reassured her that, “I leave it entirely in your hands”; the very last line of the original comic, and already quoted in ep 5 of the show.

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Veidt’s smug line about the memory suppressor –  “I made it 30 years ago” – deliberately recalled his similarly smug assertion about his masterplan to Rorschach and Nite Owl in the comic.

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And perhaps most notably, the ‘tachyon cannon’ used by the 7th Kavalry to kidnap Dr M produced an effect very similar to the original Intrinsic Field Separator that created him.

Outside of comic references, eggs again featured heavily – not just in the “chicken and the egg” question that recurred several times, but also literally, when Angela asked Dr M to “create some life” in the bar.

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And there were some nice musical references. It seems Will Reeves is still listening to the Ink Spots (‘My Prayer’ this week), while Angela’s new favourite song is ‘Tunnel of Love’ by the redoubtable Doris Day. My favourite, though, just had to be the Fleetwoods’ ‘Mr Blue’ – what else could Dr Manhattan have as a theme?

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This show just goes from strength to strength. In quick succession, we’ve had eps that focused, just like the comic issues, on individual characters – and all three have been superb. On balance, I think I may have enjoyed this one even more than the one centred on Hooded Justice; Dr Manhattan is always a fascinating character, and Lindelof’s script here more than did him justice.

Only one more week to go, and I’m waiting with bated breath to see if Damon Lindelof can actually pull off an ending this time. I’d been wary when I heard that there was likely to be further seasons, but I’ve also heard that Lindelof won’t do any unless he has more story ideas – that rather indicates he’s conceived this season at least a self-contained story. If so, fingers crossed he can pull all the pieces of this intricate puzzle together into something that makes sense. Based on this week’s ep, I think he probably can.

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