Watchmen: An Almost Religious Awe

"The future thanks you for your service."

Things are about to explode.

This season has really just flown by. It's rhythm is not unlike a good movie. While some shows have a lot of episodes that feel extraneous and unnecessary, everything here feels like an essential part of the story. Sadly, this more focused narrative means that we've only got two episodes left. That's a bummer, because I'm really into it. Hopefully this gets picked up for another season.

Recollective Infestation

I'm glad that we're finally getting some time to know Angela Abar. She's our main character, but up until now she's been a bit of a mystery. Though the revelation at the end reveals why, it still feels weird that we're only just now getting a sense of how significant she is. I guess I shouldn't complain, though, since it was over halfway through the graphic novel before we found out Laurie was more than just Dr. Manhattan's girlfriend; one of many ways in which Laurie and Angela's relationship is now super-ironic.

Anyway, having awoken from her Nostalgia induced coma, Angela is in the Millennium Clock tower and receiving "pneumodialysis" treatment from Lady Trieu. As her grandfather's traumatic memories are purged from her system, she begins vividly reliving her own traumatic memories full-swing. The treatment is somewhat difficult, though, as Angela's memories turn out to be very similar to Will's.

We learn her origin story. As a child growing up in a newly Americanized Saigon, she witnessed her parents die in a suicide bombing perpetrated by Vietnamese insurgents. As sad as this is, I'm glad they're acknowledging that many of the Vietnamese and South-East Asian peoples who fought against the U.S. wouldn't just accept defeat. It's no different than what's happened as a result of our wars in the Middle East.

Young Angela's desire to become a cop and a masked vigilante is born when she identifies one of the terrorists who killed her family, witnessing two local police officers exact vigilante justice on the man. The female cop gives her a badge and an opportunity to join the force when she's older, and Angela places the badge next to her VHS copy of Sister Night: the Nun with the Motherf***ing Gun, the blaxploitation crimefighter movie she bought prior to her parents' death.

And she also learns where her family comes from when her grandmother June arrives. Still lovely and wise, June offers to take Angela away from the harsh Vietnamese orphanage she's stuck in and back to her roots in Tulsa. Then, in what might be the saddest moment in the show so far, June dies of a heart attack right as she's about to take Angela to the airport, leaving the young girl stranded in Vietnam with no one and nothing but a dream of being a cop.

Ladies and Legacies

We get to know the show's other mysterious woman, Lady Trieu, a bit better as well. She bought MIT at age 19, four years after she graduated. Her life has been one of constant innovation, whether it's developing micro-fusion engines, creating actual human memories in pill form, or advancing the entire field of genetics. She's a woman of seemingly endless and unstoppable ambition, in case her idolization of Adrian Veidt wasn't already a hint.

However, anything Trieu has done so far is apparently going to pale in comparison to what she plans to use her Millennium Clock for. I have a theory on what that might be. But first, let's examine some other key details.

We also get some clarity in regards to her eerie daughter, Bian. I'd suspected Trieu was implanting her own memories into Bian to make her into some kind of perfect successor, but it turns out Bian isn't even Trieu's daughter. She's a genetic clone of her mother, and the memories Trieu's been feeding Bian are her own elderly memories of the Vietnam War. Angela thinks this is insane, but we have to ask ourselves: If we possessed the power to literally recreate our dead loved ones, would we do it, would we be able to resist?

On a sidenote, Trieu claims she wants her parents by her side to bear witness to her great legacy, and that her father will be there too. Assuming it isn't a Vietnamese man we haven't met before, I'm gonna guess Trieu's father is someone important. There's only one significant character I know went around impregnating the locals during the Vietnam War, and that's The Comedian. This would not only mean that Lady Trieu and Laurie Blake are half-sisters, it would mean The Comedian, the mercurial, nihilistic vigilante whose death marked the beginning of the original Watchmen, is coming back from the dead. That'd be all kinds of fucked up.

Okay, that's enough useless speculation.

Through all of this, we realize Lady Trieu and Angela Abar have a lot in common. Both were born and raised in Vietnam after it was made America's 51st state. Both lost their families as a result of the war. Both overcame adversity in their youths, became strong, independent women and moved to Tulsa to plant new roots. And both have lived their lives in the shadow of Dr. Manhattan.

Again, more on this in a moment.


That Colossal Wreck

Let's segue into what Trieu's predecessor is going through. Earth's smartest man finds himself in an especially bizarre scenario this time (which is saying something in light of what he's been doing the previous weeks), righteously judged by a kangaroo court of interchangeable clones.

I had assumed everything going on with Veidt was taking place roughly around the same time as what we were seeing happen in Tulsa, but this episode debunked that. We witness the 375th day of Veidt's trial, meaning he's been captured and grilled by the clones for about a year. A couple of chapters ago, Veidt claimed he'd been in this pocket dimension for four years. Perhaps the scenes we saw in the first couple of episodes were taking place during the first year of his confinement, since he's been growing more and more unstable as the season goes on.

Anyway, the Game Warden and Chief Prosecutor clones have no sympathy for Veidt, listing his various crimes from this series and the graphic novel, all of which he still insists were for the greater good. We see how far the once great Ozymandias has fallen when he's given one final chance to speak in his own defense. Instead of the eloquent speech we might have once expected from this character, Ozzy simply lets out a huge fart, expressing his feelings for this mockery of justice.

Feelings that, in any other case, might have been proven valid, since the Game Warden deigns that Veidt be judged by a jury of pigs, declaring him guilty with a shrill whine. But this is when we get the most cathartic, nightmarish moment Ozymandias could possibly experience. As the sentence is declared, all of the Phillips and Crookshanks clones start pointing at him and angrily shouting "Guilty!" over and over again. And this seems to get to Veidt, who actually sheds a tear. Because, as absurd as this "trial" is, they aren't wrong. Veidt has done unforgivable things to these poor, witless creatures, but what's even more true are the crimes he committed against his own species to create a more perfect world. This cacophony of men and women might as well be the ghosts of the over three million people he killed to pull off his great hoax. It's the thing he can't admit to himself, but knows in his heart to be true.

I was skeptical of this goofy trial at first; it felt like the sort of try-hard thing a show like Preacher would do to be weird and different. Thankfully, though, it's not just weird for weirdness's sake. It has great significance to this story and the character of Ozymandias.


Beware the Cyclops

We also get some answers to the questions we were left with at the end of 'Little Fear of Lightning.'

The squad of Seventh Kavalry goons that went after Looking Glass are all found dead when Agent Petey goes to question him. Looking Glass is missing, but Petey notices one of the dead Kavalry men is missing his Rorschach mask. So it looks like the 7K's insistence on constantly wearing those masks is gonna bite them in the ass, as Wade has likely traded a mirror for an inkblot.

Meanwhile, Laurie is too busy following up on the revealing details Angela (as Will Reeves) let slip during her Nostalgia coma. She interrogates Jane Crawford, basically revealing that she's figured out the Crawfords and Senator Joe Keene, Jr. and the Seventh Kavalry are all part of the Cyclops organization Hooded Justice was fighting back in the day. Only for Jane to calmly own up to it before dropping Laurie through a trap door. Upon awakening, she is faced with Keene, who finally reveals the true goal of the 7K and Cyclops.

They aren't trying to install Keene as a white supremacist president. They are trying to make him and every member of the Seventh Kavalry into superhumans. As Lady Trieu says, their goal is to capture Dr. Manhattan and then "become him."

Gotta say, I was not expecting anything quite as diabolical as that.

Keene claims that Cyclops isn't racist, despite this being indisputably false around eighty years ago, but his low opinion of the bigoted Seventh Kavalry goons in Tulsa and the ambiguity of Judd Crawford's hidden KKK robe seems to indicate that he may be telling the truth. Or, at least, that he he believes what he's saying. Given the organization's grand motive, it might be reasonable to assume that Cyclops has grown past their racist origins.

Honestly, though, I think this is meant to comment on the new wave of "anti-racist" racist people you see nowadays. People who consider themselves to be above those who are blatantly, disgustingly prejudiced such as avowed Klansmen or Neo-Nazis, but who also believe that other races are naturally inferior to whites. This seems to be the root of the conspiracy. Of course, Keene doesn't see Cyclops as racist. Because their new goal is to transcend race, to surpass and dominate mankind itself and all the races therein.

This is why Will Reeves is in league with Lady Trieu. We've already seen how far he was willing to go to stop them before, back when their big plot was genocide via mind control. There's no telling what his crazy ass would do to prevent these racist bastards from becoming literal gods among men.

The God Complex

And this is where we get the season's second big twist, bigger than finding out Will Reeves was Hooded Justice or that the 7K are planning to form the new Blue Man Group, though I'm guessing not as big as whatever happens when the Millennium Clock is activated. Which is that Dr. Manhattan has been hiding in plain sight all along. The quantum superhero was disguised as Cal Abar this entire time.

That's right. After we just discovered that the original masked vigilante was an African-American man pretending to be a white guy from Germany, we now learn that the world's first superhuman, a (formerly) white guy from Germany, is pretending to be an African-American man.

It's a disguise so effective that Cal wasn't even aware of it. When Angela rushes home to head off the Seventh Kavalry's ambush, she is forced to bash her loving husband's skull in and dig out a device in the shape of Dr. Manhattan's symbol. Whereupon the godlike being awakens from his self-induced amnesia; to paraphrase Judd Crawford, we thought he was gone, but he was just hibernating.

It's pretty damn good twist. Next to Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder, this might be the most ingenious use of black-face I've ever seen.

Dr. Manhattan's significance has been felt throughout the entire show, but this is where we finally start addressing it. Which should be even more interesting now that he's back. As I said, his actions inadvertently shaped the lives of Angela and Lady Trieu. Angela might never have been born if Manhattan hadn't hammered Vietnam into submission, but it's because of this that her parents ended up murdered. Lady Trieu might never have had the opportunities for success as an American had Manhattan and his compatriots not destroyed her family along with her country's way of life. But while Angela somehow fell in love with this unknowable superman, Trieu clearly has some feelings of resentment.

I believe this resentment toward a literal higher power exists at the heart of her Millenium Clock. In keeping with her Ozymandias influence, I think Trieu's plan to save humanity is even more diabolical than what the Seventh Kavalry has in mind. The only way to one-up a terrorist group becoming superhuman that I can see would be for everyone to become superhuman. I think that's the epic catastrophe this new story's been building towards. Because who watches the watchmen when the watchmen are no longer human? And what will the world look like when humanity becomes the past and superhumanity the future?

As usual, every answer only leads to more questions; Lost was right. How did Will Reeves discover who Dr. Manhattan was, and for that matter, how did Keene and the 7K find out? What prompted Dr. Manhattan to become Cal? How did he and Angela become lovers?

Guess we'll find out next time.


Capes and Masks:

* As with Hooded Justice, the Dr. Manhattan reveal had a lot of foreshadowing throughout the season. Unlike Hooded Justice was a bit more subtle. Angela is constantly wearing blue clothes, especially in this episode. Cal's last name is Abar, even though Abar is Angela's family name. Dr. Manhattan is this world's version of Superman, whose birth name is Kal-El. Earlier in the season, Cal is the only one who agrees with Angela that Dr. Manhattan can't look like ordinary people. When speaking of Dr. Manhattan, Laurie said that "he's no Cal" before later talking about how "fucking hot" she thinks Cal is.

* Lady Trieu takes her name from the legendary Vietnamese warrior woman of the same name. This is another way in which Trieu mirrors Adrian Veidt, who likewise named himself Ozymandias, the title of Ramses II who saw himself as “king of kings.”

* Speaking of the historical Lady Trieu, she was apparently known for riding elephants into battle. This is the only reason I can think of for the new Lady Trieu’s affinity for elephants.

* Nostalgia was one of Lady Trieu's first inventions. She states that she made it in the hopes that it would inspire people to learn from their mistakes, only to discover that they only became consumed with reliving their pasts, abusing the drug and developing psychosis. This concept of literally ODing on Nostalgia is a nice little meta commentary on a human phenomenon that is now constantly remarked on in our own world, which is that people do have a natural tendency to romanticize the past, sometimes to an unhealthy degree. This could be as mundane as a period in modern entertainment that capitalizes on the aesthetic of 1980s pop culture (which even this show does a little bit) or as toxic and dangerous as a nation once proudly opposed to fascism that slowly begins to resemble a fascist state, all for the sake of recapturing some allegedly missing sense of "perfection" or "greatness."

* Trieu can remove Will's Nostalgia, but that doesn't change the fact that Angela now knows what it's like to have sex with her own grandmother. Yikes.

* We first saw the Cyclops symbol in 'Little Fear of Lightning', when Wade is led into the 7K's secret hideout. Given the context of that episode, I had assumed it was just art inspired by the fake alien squid. The revelation about Cyclops in the previous episode puts it in a whole new light now. And after taking a closer look, I also realized the image is like an evil version of Dr. Manhattan's clocklike hydrogen symbol. Perfectly fitting the group's new motive.

* I’m honestly enjoying Joe Keene, Jr. a lot more now that he’s made the transition from morally ambiguous centrist presidential hopeful to full-on smirking villain who plans to become a god of gods. Dude is wicked as hell, even by this universe’s standards.

* Something I haven't really addressed in my reviews is the way this show's universe is repeatedly mirroring itself, whether it's moments from previous episodes or the graphic novel published in the '80s. It is everywhere. As I pointed out above, we've got the whitewashed historical black vigilante and the contemporary white superhero in black face. There is, of course, Judd Crawford's murder acting as a direct parallel to the murder of Edward "The Comedian" Blake. Sister Night and Looking Glass's journeys are like two different versions of Rorschach's. Lady Trieu is modeling herself after Adrian Veidt. The plot of Trust in the Law, the old Bass Reeves movie Will loved as a kid, is later mirrored in Will's execution of Judd. Hooded Justice burning down a building and the evil he found inside is pretty obviously meant to remind us of Rorschach doing the same thing in the comic, marking the moment both characters pass a point of no return. Will Reeves painted across his eye line as part of his Hooded Justice costume the same way Angela does for her Sister Night costume. And now it's discovered that Angela's history is turning out almost exactly the same as her grandfather's. The list keeps going.

* Most Obvious Symbolism: Either the Dr. Manhattan puppet show, the Dr. Manhattan nesting dolls that young Angela was painting during her Saigon flashbacks, or the blue beta fish swimming in a fishbowl during Angela's conversation with Lady Trieu.

Quotes:

Documentary narrator: For the next ten hours, we'll explore the legacy of this literally self-made man in the hopes of understanding why he's here and why he left.

Nostalgia orientation voiceover: Thank you for trusting Trieu Pharmaceuticals with the most precious of possessions, your mind. Goodbye and have a pleasant return to consciousness.

Laurie Blake: I mean, this is a guy who inspired two generations of heroes, myself and my folks included, but he had to hide who he was. Because white men in masks are heroes, but black men in masks… are scary.

Jane Crawford: Oh, I'm sorry. Was I not supposed to confess yet?
Speaking of actresses finally getting some time to shine, I'm glad Frances Fisher's character turned out to be more than just the grieving widow.

Lady Trieu: I have a secret plan to save humanity, and it starts in Oklahoma.

Laurie: I’m tired, Joe. I'm tired of all the silliness.

Joe Keene, Jr.: You’re wrong about Cyclops. We’re not racists. We’re about restoring balance in those times when our country forgets the principles on which it was founded. Because the scales have tipped way too far, and it is extremely difficult to be a white man in America right now. So I’m thinking… I might try being a blue one.
Of all the lines in this show that have taken me by surprise, this might be the biggest.

Lady Trieu: I gave people the means to visit the past so they could learn from it. So they could evolve and transform and better themselves. Instead, they became fixated on their most painful memories. Choosing to experience the worst moments of their lives over and over again. And why? Because they were afraid. Afraid that once unburdened by the trauma of the past, they would have no excuse but to move gloriously into the future.

June Reeves: Oh, I remember this one. You do not wanna fuck with Sister Night!

Lady Trieu: I'm sorry, Angela, I know you asked me not to say it, but I am saving fucking humanity.

Cal Abar: Honey, I don't know what... they did to you. But I think the drug you took is messing you up. You're not yourself.
Angela Abar: No, Jon. You're not yourself.

Angela: (to Dr. Manhattan) Hey, baby. We're in fuckin' trouble.

Yet more wild, fantastical goodness, and yet another stepping stone to the much anticipated grand finale. Four out of five elephant spinal taps.

2 comments:

Henrik Bennetter said...

As always, an episode isn't complete without the analysis here - which is always superb. Thankyou, and thankyou for also wording everything that annoyed me so much with Preacher: a "try-hard thing a show like Preacher would do to be weird and different."

Exactly why I was so, so, disappointed in that entire series - and made the last episode into the best episode (only mostly because then it was over).

Here, instead, as you've pointed out we have a series that really loves it's source material. Builds on it, mirrors it. It's such a rare thing when you can watch something that consists wholly of essential scenes. Every shot and every word of dialogue moves the story forward.

I'm very happy I gave this a chance.

Logan Cox said...

I was willing to give Preacher the benefit of the doubt for a long time due to my deep love for the source material, but the longer it went on the less it resembled that story and its characters (minus the Saint of Killers; as wrongheaded as the rest of the show is, they did a fine job with him for the most part). By that point, the confusing and bizarre wackiness they dished out every week just became incredibly hollow.

I'm usually torn about writing too much in my reviews, but honestly, this is one of those shows where I feel as though I'd be doing it a disservice by not going deep into every episode. Because there's so much packed into each one. I'm glad I gave it a chance too, and that you are enjoying the reviews. Thank you!