Watchmen: Season 1, Episode 9 – See How They Fly

“Great. You stopped the clock. What happens if it starts up again?”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Tricky things, endings. As Game of Thrones recently proved, it can be very, very difficult to get them right in a way that satisfies the fans’ anticipation. Watchmen may not have had to cap off eight years of storytelling, but it’s packed so much intricacy and so many puzzles into its short runtime that a satisfying ending was something about which I was sceptical. Especially given that the showrunner was Damon Lindelof, who had so singularly failed to deliver endings that satisfied the promises in Lost and Prometheus.

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Friends reassured me that Lindelof had improved, citing his work on the well-regarded The Leftovers as evidence. I haven’t seen The Leftovers (though I should probably check it out), but based on the finale to Watchmen, it really does seem that lessons have been learnt from those earlier failures. This final episode really does neatly solve the puzzles it’s meticulously set up over the previous eight episodes (mostly anyway, and more on that later). Along with that, it’s kept faith with its equally well-established characters, and delivered on the emotional promise of its storylines.

So, at the end of last week, a lot of answers had been given, but a lot of questions remained. What exactly was Lady Trieu planning? What really was the purpose of her ‘Millennium Clock’? Who was her father – Adrian Veidt? Where was Adrian Veidt now? What happened to Detective Wade Tillman, aka Looking Glass, after the failed 7th Kavalry raid on his house? Perhaps most importantly, what would happen to the sympathetic characters we’d come to (at least slightly) like over the course of these eight episodes – Angela Abar, Laurie Blake, Will Reeves? And of course, one who never really existed in the first place – Angela’s too-ideal husband Cal, now back to his real form as the godlike Dr Manhattan?

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That’s a lot of loose ends to tie up, even in an extended length ep like this one. But tie them up it (mostly) did. And (again mostly) in a satisfactory way that justified what had come before. It wasn’t always as dramatically satisfying as earlier instalments, but you can’t deny it finished its story properly – albeit with a satisfying slice of the ambiguity that ended the original comic.

Right at the start we learned that yes, Adrian Veidt was indeed Lady Trieu’s father, just as many of us had theorised. As ever though, it wasn’t by any means we might have expected. Or even in the setting we expected.

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Not Vietnam, but Karnak; not during the war, but in 1985, concurrently with the events of the original story. And not by the traditional means of sexual congress – indeed, one of the more interesting developments was Veidt’s confession that he’s still a virgin – but by the nefarious acquisition of Veidt’s fastidiously stored semen. Not for him a Kleenex flushed down the toilet it seems – typically, the man can’t even masturbate without making it an element in an elaborate plan for the future.

That was fun, being right but not in the way I expected. It’s one of the things this show has consistently done well, giving enough clues to work out what’s going on, but still managing to wrongfoot you. In the same way, I turned out to be right that the events in Veidt’s surreal prison on Europa had taken place in the past of the story; he knew when that space probe would be there to see his message, because Lady Trieu had told him when that would be. Extrapolating from the 2008 setting of that flashback, the message was finally completed some time in 2013.

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Given that he then spent a year on trial, plus an undetermined amount of time incarcerated in that cell, and the good Lady’s rescue mission probably wasn’t too far behind the main events of the story. Far enough though that I think we can be justified as to assuming the mysterious object that fell from space to the Kents’ – sorry, the Clarks’ – farm really was Veidt returning to Earth in the apparently unmanned spacecraft she had sent.

His current whereabouts, though, I definitely didn’t guess. Yes, I’d figured that he was already somewhere on Earth, and that was how Lady Trieu had that accurate statue of how he looked now. I hadn’t guessed that that accuracy was because the statue actually was him – while former colleague JJ Abrams may now actually be working on Star Wars, Lindelof had taken one useful element from it for the story here. Adrian Veidt was, in essence, frozen in carbonite.

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All the above also finally gave us the answer to what the message on Europa actually said. Previously, we’d only seen “SAVE ME D-“, leading many to conclude that the full message ended with “DR MANHATTAN”. I never gave that one much credence – if Dr M wanted, he could have found out about Adrian’s situation, and no amount of makeshift messaging would help if it wasn’t something he was interested in knowing.

But I guessed as soon as their initial meeting was shown that the full version would actually be “SAVE ME DAUGHTER”. It was a significant climbdown for Adrian, to finally acknowledge the daughter he had so sneeringly rejected; which also explained, believably, why said daughter would still have some reverence for this man who, on the surface, she despised.

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That’s the kind of searching characterisation that was so good in Moore’s original comic, and it was a mark of Lindelof’s commitment that his own original characters had all the depths of Moore’s. But was his treatment of the returning characters up to that standard? Certainly I can see how the Laurie Juspeczyk we knew in the comic could have matured into the hard-bitten, cynical FBI agent shown here. Veidt, though – Moore’s comic may portray his morality very much in shades of grey, but his moniker of “smartest man in the world” is very much deserved. He’s right in everything he predicts, and his elaborately constructed plan works exactly as it’s supposed to.

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This Adrian Veidt, though, was far more fallible. We saw him being wrong frequently throughout the story, most notably in his frustration that humanity hadn’t followed the pre-ordained path he’d laid out for it. Inconsistent characterisation? I didn’t think so. Rather, I thought what we saw with the sequel’s Adrian Veidt was an intentional illustration of hubris and overconfidence. That celebrated intellect having one fatal flaw – the inability to accept the possibility of error, and plan accordingly.

Plus, of course, that enforced captivity on Europa had clearly driven his sanity to its limits. The capering, cackling figure we saw in so many of the earlier vignettes seemed to regain some composure on returning to Earth, but make no mistake – the Veidt we’ve been seeing up till now was a loon. Any possibility of subtlety over that last point was lost with the casting of Large Ham Jeremy Irons; but fair play, Irons’ characterisation was exactly what was required here.

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As was Jean Smart, as the outwardly cynical but inwardly still vulnerable Laurie Blake, nee Juspeczyk. Once again, she got many of the best lines – her mocking of Senator Keene’s ‘panties’ was a gem – but she was also instrumental in resolving the plot. It was also a redemption of sorts for Adrian Veidt as he, Laurie and, of all people, Wade, delivered the death blow to Lady Trieu’s plans. Using the automated ‘squidfall machine’ as a weapon was a payoff I hadn’t expected, but it made perfect sense.

And Veidt’s ultimate arrest at her hands was an unexpected comic highlight. I loved that, just as the solemn tones of Mozart’s Lacrimosa began yet again to swell on the soundtrack, they were cut off along with Veidt as he was clonked on the head with a handy wrench. Even better that the wrench was wielded by plain-speaking Wade Tillman, a man who as much as any has an axe to grind there. Wade Tillman, an ordinary man whose actions punctured the seemingly limitless pomposity and portentousness of the “smartest man in the world”. It was a laugh out loud moment.

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Other resolutions were (for me at least) satisfactory without being actually satisfying in the same way. Case in point was the final revelation of longstanding conspiracy Cyclops / the 7th Kavalry, which turned out to be a disappointingly standard-issue insidious organisation whose tentacles had infiltrated everywhere. We’ve seen the like many times before, not least in The X Files’ increasingly amorphous Syndicate, itself based on the nebulous conspiracy depicted in Oliver Stone’s JFK.

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As with the Syndicate, the final gathering of Cyclops’ bigwigs seemed strangely small and insignificant for a country- and century-spanning conspiracy. But maybe that was the point – that such things are usually the work of very ordinary people who’d have you believe that they were extraordinary. Certainly the racism and reactionary beliefs that underpinned them are, depressingly, ordinary enough – but those beliefs were vital to underscoring the show’s justifiably angry polemic on racial politics.

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And it did make their ultimate fate, at the hands of Lady Trieu, extremely satisfying. As far as she was concerned, they were no more than another loose end, to be casually exterminated with a wave of her hand. It nicely punctured the self-importance of bigots who have an inflated belief in the holy righteousness of their cause. However, the fact that such an ultra-liberal and progressive regime as Robert Redford’s America could foster such an organisation as a reaction to it was, and is, a deeply troubling idea. One that remains all too relevant, as Brexit looms and Donald Trump looks set to gain a second Presidential term. What are they the reactions to?

Lady Trieu’s plan, similarly, seemed a little anticlimactic once properly revealed. So she was hoping to gain Dr Manhattan’s powers too, for what she saw as the common good? In one sense it was satisfying, as a counterpoint to not only Cyclops’ plans but Adrian Veidt’s original one. However, I’d been hoping for (and half expecting) something less obvious. Fair’s fair though, it worked as a conclusion; and the look of incomprehension on her face as she stared at the hole in her hand and realised her ambitions had been thwarted, really was deeply satisfying.

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Which is a testament to how well-drawn the characters have been throughout. We took satisfaction in the defeat of Lady Trieu and the unfortunate Senator Keene because they’d been written as believable but dislikeable characters from the get-go. The show’s heart was in the sympathy we had for Angela Abar and her family, and the resolutions didn’t disappoint there.

It wasn’t Angela (or her friends in the Tulsa PD) that drove events to their conclusion. But our hearts were with them throughout, and their struggle simply to survive the events occurring was riveting. In a large ensemble cast, Regina King really has been this show’s heart since the beginning. Flawed, sure, and not always likeable; but believable and real, and sympathetic because, even when wrong, she was always trying to do the right thing. Of course, so were Lady Trieu, Cyclops and Adrian Veidt, at least as they saw it. Where Angela was right was in her realisation that, along with the big picture, there’s a small one – the real people involved, for her, her family.

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So it was dramatically satisfying that they (again, mostly) got a ‘happy ending’. Yes, Cal/Jon may be gone, but Angela is finally reconciled with her grandfather, another man who always tried to do the right thing and realised that he sometimes got that wrong. In the process, Angela’s relationship ended as tragically as her husband had once accurately predicted; but with the flipside of that being real hope for the future.

Angela it was too who gave us that final, ambiguous payoff. Just as the original comic ends with the uncertainty over whether nebbish assistant Seymour will release Rorschach’s incendiary Journal into the public domain, the show ended with the far more optimistic possibility that the godlike powers of Dr Manhattan might have ended up in the hands of one ordinary mortal in whom we might be justified in having faith – Angela Abar, a woman who always tries to do the right thing, and generally seems to have a better handle on what that is. Cutting to black just before we saw whether her tentatively outstretched foot would stand on the surface of the water was the perfect ending.

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Episode title significance

This week’s episode is entitled See How They Fly.

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This is of course a quote from the Beatles song ‘I Am the Walrus’, which so effectively closes the episode and the story (though the version heard was the excellent 1970 cover by prog band Spooky Tooth). Aside from its utter surrealism, this song is fitting due to its repeated refrain of, “I am the eggman”.

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Given the show’s repeated emphasis on egg imagery, which turned out to be well-justified foreshadowing of the ending, that seems perfectly apposite.

Callbacks and references

Even with the demands of resolving an extremely complex story formed of multiple interconnected narratives, showrunner Damon Lindelof still managed to squeeze in plenty of the fan-pleasing references the show’s been notable for. As ever, they weren’t gratuitous, many were justified, and importantly none were vital to understanding the story here.

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Original Bian got access to Veidt’s Karnak computer in 1985 by using the same password Dan Dreiberg successfully guessed in issue 10 of the comic – Rameses II.

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Given that Dan guessed this password based on Veidt’s most obvious fixation (Alexander the Great), and he used the same password for unconnected computers thousands of miles apart, his claim to be ‘the smartest man in the world’ clearly doesn’t encompass basic computer security.

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Veidt’s fight with the less than worthy opponent that was the Game Warden culminated in something any fan of the comic could have seen coming. When the Warden inevitably fired that antique musket, Veidt responded exactly as he did in issue 12 of the comic – by catching the bullet. Improbable, yes, but perfectly in keeping with what we knew he could do from the earlier work.

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The early reference to Robert Redford as “some cowboy actor” is exactly the phrase used to describe him when his Presidential run was hinted at in the comic. The irony of course being that the US in 1985 already had a former cowboy actor as President.

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That newsstand made another appearance – it may not have been as ubiquitous as the one in the comic, but as an obvious homage to it, I was glad to see it playing a prominent role in the finale.

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Veidt’s ego-destroying chat with the news vendor was a hoot, but contained two significant references in itself. The first was his quoting of the Merneptah stele, a tablet from ancient Egypt that represents the earliest reference to Israel in the ancient world: “Palestine has become a widow for Egypt”. Quite what relevance this script, by Pharaoh Merneptah from 1260 BC, had to the situation at hand is speculative, though it’s notable that Merneptah was the son of Rameses II, also known as, that’s right, Ozymandias.

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More obvious as a reference was Veidt’s plaintive assertion that, “the end is nigh”. This oft-repeated assertion by doomsayers and prophets of Armageddon is particularly relevant, as it was daubed on the signature placard carried by Walter Kovacs, aka Rorschach, in his ‘secret identity’ as a wandering street preacher.

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Senator Keene’s oddly shaped man panties were amusingly mocked by the ever-acerbic Laurie (though I have to say James Wolk has a pretty nice body); but they were clearly a reference to the ones Dr Manhattan wore in the comic’s version of the 60s, primarily as a sop to US social conventions about nudity.

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While being confused by the lithium-infused cage holding him captive, Dr M babbled what seemed to be nonsense but were in actual fact quotes from the original comic. Notable was his response to a question about the 1985 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: “as far as I am aware, there is no situation in Afghanistan requiring my attention”. This was particularly resonant given what more than ten years of American adventurism in that country has yielded in recent years.

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He also muttered something about “old photographs”. This is a quote from issue 5 of the original comic, referring, in typically multi-layered Moore style, both literally to Jon’s old photo of himself at Gila Flats and the fact that light from stars takes so long to reach Earth.

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Just as the comic frequently plays with recurring imagery and plot circles, here it was deeply satisfying that Will Reeves’ story ended where it began – in the Dreamland Theatre in Tulsa. It was here, in 1921, that the story began. Perfectly apposite that it also ended there, with the neon sign outside aptly glitching to show only the illuminated letters “DR M”.

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And just as the series began with a production of Oklahoma, so it ends – with an optimistic ending soundtracked, appropriately enough, with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic number, ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’.

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As Adrian revealed to the gobsmacked Laurie and Wade where exactly they’d just been teleported to, a little Ozymandias action figure was shown out of focus in the foreground. In the comics, it was established that the corporate-minded Adrian had chosen to monetise his former career with just this line of toys.

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He also demonstrates yet again his staggering pretension and faith in his own intellect, but this time with a sly, knowing humour – by describing Lady Trieu as “a raging narcissist”, then following it up with the self-aware phrase “opus esse uno, unum cognoscendi”. “It takes one to know one”. If only our current, Latin-spouting idiot Prime Minister had that level of self-awareness.

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The actual owlship designed and built by Nite Owl II aka Dan Dreiberg put in an appearance as the mode of transport for Laurie, Veidt and Wade to return to civilisation. We got a throwaway line from Adrian explaining the earlier copy seen in the hands of the Tulsa PD, and indeed the last time we saw the original it was crashing in Antarctica. So yes, it could just as easily have been retrieved by Veidt and stuck under a sheet in Karnak. Fine with that.

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However, I’d always assumed that, in the comic, it was how Dan and Laurie returned from Antarctica. Dr Manhattan couldn’t have teleported them, he’d already left. Still, there’s nothing to say that they did return in the owlship, they could just as easily have been sent back in some other way by Veidt himself. Gotta say though, I thought this one was a bit tenuous…

Loose ends?

Which brings me neatly to the plot threads that, it seemed to me, weren’t addressed. To give Lindelof credit, there weren’t many, but one of the most significant was the status of the aforementioned Dan Dreiberg. We still don’t know exactly what happened to him in the intervening years between the end of the comic and now; the comic ends with him happily in a relationship with Laurie, but evidently that didn’t last. Also, when Keene was persuading Laurie to go to Tulsa, he made an offhand remark that suggested Dreiberg was imprisoned, and Laurie’s cooperation might free him. As of the end of the story, we’re no wiser about where he is than we were then.

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Less important certainly, but something that was given a deal of significance at the time, is the still unresolved mystery of the identity of ‘Lube Man’ – the skinny, reflective spandex clad figure chased into a storm drain by Angela many episodes ago. At the time, I theorised that this had to be a character we already knew, and given the figure’s slight build, together with his own previously professed fascination with masked vigilantes, it was likely to be FBI Agent Petey.

That theory was confirmed by HBO’s supplementary material site, named in his honour as ‘Peteypedia’. I’ve not referred to this site at all – partly because it appears to be inaccessible from Spain, but mostly because I think the storytelling for a TV show should all be onscreen, not dependent on seeking out external material. Yes, Alan Moore’s original comic also contained supplemental material that shed new light on its plot, but that was contained within the comic itself. Having a completely separate source in the same way as the TV show would have meant a separate publication readers had to buy to make sense of the main one, and thankfully Alan Moore was sensible enough not to do that. His work was self-contained.

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It’s not an especially major plot point, I know. But I’d rather have not had it included at all than to be dependent for resolution on an outside source rather than the story itself. For a story as meticulously constructed as this one, any loose ends stood out like sore thumbs.

To be fair to Lindelof though, he’s said that he won’t do any more Watchmen TV stories – this was his only plan, and it’s completed now. However, neither he nor HBO has precluded the idea of someone else continuing the story, and if so, those ‘loose ends’ could be plot points on which a new story could be built. Lindelof’s story may be over; but the universe he’s painstakingly built remains as a foundation for other writers to tell new stories within it.

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I have to say though, I actually hope they don’t. Watchmen, the show, has been a great success for me. It’s certainly been a worthier sequel than DC’s own, still quite good, Doomsday Clock comic series. While that one largely sticks to the template set by Moore and Gibbons in the original work (still quite an achievement), the TV show has been braver. It’s taken that clever, intricate style of storytelling and transposed it to a different medium – TV. And unlike the overly reverential 2009 film adaptation, it’s understood that this is not the same medium as the original, but chosen to exploit it in similar ways.

The success of the TV show Watchmen, for me, was down to many things, but primary among them was the way it explored what was possible in its new medium. It took the template set by the comics, and asked, how can we experiment with storytelling in this medium?

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For me, it’s succeeded brilliantly. Like the comic, it’s been intricately, meticulously constructed as a puzzle, which both pays tribute to and deconstructs its inspirations – classic superhero stories. There was as much stylistic reference here to other TV shows based on comics as there were to the original Watchmen  itself – a fact slyly acknowledged with the show-within-a-show, American Hero Story. Yet even this was paying tributes to the original, with its comic-within-a-comic, Tales from the Black Freighter.

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Alan Moore, famously, has hated every adaptation of his comic work so far. In some cases, he’s even come to hate his own work where those comics are concerned, rejecting, for example, his Joker origin story The Killing Joke as simplistic and obvious, even while the comics world (mostly) embraces it as a classic.

But I’d be interested to know what Moore thought of this show. Its sheer ambition was staggering, but in its recognition of all his previous criticisms of adaptations, it might just be the first to nearly equal for TV what he was trying to do with comics.

That’s a hell of an achievement, and the reason why I hope that, at least for the foreseeable future, HBO will leave this story to stand on its own. Against my (admittedly low) expectations, Damon Lindelof has produced an exceptional piece of TV work, and I’d be surprised if it’s a trick that could be pulled off as well again.