Watchmen: A God Walks Into a Bar

“By definition, don’t all relationships end in tragedy?”

This might be the best chapter in this series thus far.

In general, my favorite episodes have been the ones that are focused on one or two characters, such as Laurie Blake in 'She Was Killed by Space Junk', Looking Glass in 'Little Fear of Lightning', and especially the Hooded Justice origin story in 'This Extraordinary Being.' I shouldn't be surprised, since this series is helmed by Damon Lindelof, who has already proven his skill at point of view storytelling with Lost; I've heard The Leftovers is also quite brilliant, though I've yet to see that show.

This one might top them all, though. Because as the title would suggest, 'A God Walks Into a Bar' is pretty much all about Jon Osterman aka Dr. Manhattan (aka Cal Abar). Sister Night and Ozymandias get their time to shine as well, but the episode is almost exclusively from the perspective of our one and only superhuman.

The Miraculous Meet-Cute

It's this perspective that beautifully highlights one of this season's most admirable and overlooked qualities: The editing. This is something I failed to point out in the previous two episodes, first with the absorbing and at times nightmarish illustration of Will Reeves's memories via Angela's Nostalgia overdose, and then with the previous episode's intense parallel juxtaposition of Will's haunting memories with Angela's own tragic backstory. Again, this may top both of those, as this whole episode is framed to resemble Dr. Manhattan's very relative perception of time. This is a character whose powers allow him to experience his past and future as vividly as he does his present. And he can't turn it off. As with his comic counterpart, he still maintains his passive mindset, believing that there is no changing what will be.

His deterministic philosophy colors the episode as much as much as the nonlinear time flow. Even so, I love the fact that the episode is more explicitly centered around his relationship with Angela Abar, particularly the night in 2009 when he first introduced himself to her... in a bar -- very punny, I know. And the way he just proceeds to matter-of-factly reveal what he was doing after the events of the graphic novel, provide a little insight into his backstory and, most importantly, elaborate on how their relationship will develop, all while an intrigued yet obviously skeptical Angela humors him.

Her dubious reaction during their first meeting is made all the more unique in a meta sense. Because we, like Jon, already know that she is going to agree to have dinner with him, because they did spend ten years together and their relationship is doomed to end in tragedy.

Once again, I find myself appreciating the respect (and restraint) when it comes to the atmosphere of Watchmen and the portrayal of these characters. Dr. Manhattan, for example, is a character one might be tempted to write very cynically. This could have easily been nothing but an extended showcase of his many abilities as he waxes philosophically for an hour. Yes, Dr. Manhattan is a very big deal even in this universe, what with his godlike powers, his wistfully profound musings, and his blue swinging dick. But Alan Moore didn't create him or the other characters to simply act as abstract concepts. Indeed, shining a light on the flawed humanity that might realistically lie within superheroes was always a crucial aspect of Watchmen.

Instead, it is more concerned with the perspective of this rather complex character. As with Laurie Blake and Adrian Veidt, the way Dr. Manhattan has changed and remained the same is very significant.

Seeing the Strings

Dr. Manhattan first left earth for "somewhere less complicated" and created life of his own, casually weaving a pocket dimension on the moon of Europa, a hidden oasis of vast lands and waters, one of which is an "amniotic lake" where he fashions a variety of earthly lifeforms.

This was a lovely reveal for the origin of "Phillips" and "Crookshanks" and the English country manor we've been so familiar with over the course of this season; though the revelation only makes Adrian Veidt's occupation of the moon all the more sad and horrific. The manor was a place Manhattan holds dear to him: In the late 1930s, Young Jon Osterman and his father came to the manor as refugees from Germany, and the boy witnessed the lord and lady of the house as they were having sex. I thought it was sweet that, given his childhood self's ignorance of healthy male and female relationships (what with his father being a cold disciplinarian and his mother abandoning the family for an SS officer), Manhattan looks back on this as the first time he knew love. And it was even sweeter that, when Jon was caught watching, the lord and lady were kind enough to seek him out later and make sure he understood what they were doing wasn't bad. This leads to them teaching him about conception as well as Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis. You don't often see adults handle "the talk" nearly as well as that, in fact or fiction.

This experience served as his inspiration when he created life on Europa, not only modeling his own Adam and Eve off of the lord and lady who once sheltered him, but the home and lands they once lived on as well.

However, the way he treats his creations leaves something to be desired. Manhattan made them to be gentle, servile creatures, yet ended up abandoning them because they wanted nothing more than to worship and please their creator. In typical Dr. Manhattan fashion, he leaves them all behind instead of giving them any greater purpose or motivation when it was in his power to do so. But we'll get back to Europa in a minute.

The Manhattan Behind the Mask

While his otherworldly excursions is likely something most comic readers have been dying to see for decades -- which some have already, given DC Comics' handling of the Watchmen universe in recent years -- that's not really the heart of Dr. Manhattan's character. Neither is his supposed indifference to humanity. This episode illustrates what the comic did so beautifully: Dr. Manhattan totally recognizes how far removed he is from humanity. He wants to embrace it, but he can't due to the nature of his powers. It's the tragedy of his character.

Distinctly linked to this is another aspect of his character Lindelof was smart to recognize. Despite his robotic behavior, cerebral speech, and decidedly unsexy perspective of everything, Dr. Manhattan is a romantic at heart. Originally, he ruins his relationship with Janey Slater, his first love, by carrying on an affair with the teenaged Silk Spectre (now Agent Laurie Blake), then found himself losing interest in her as she became older and he became estranged from mankind. Only for the revelation regarding Laurie's parents to restore Manhattan's love for her and fascination with humanity; through Laurie, he came to see the existence of every single person as a thermodynamic miracle.

And I think this is what guides his actions in 'A God Walks Into a Bar'. Because the circumstances of Angela Abar's existence might be even more miraculous than Laurie's. Despite her lifelong dislike of Dr. Manhattan -- the terrorist attack that killed Angela's parents was motivated by resentment of Manhattan's takeover of Vietnam on behalf of the USA -- and her dubious reaction to his pick-up routine, Angela does fall in love with him and even comes up with the "Cal" disguise so they can be together. On the surface they couldn't be more different, but Angela's unconventional backstory, lack of family and a firm sense of identity, as well as her willingness to unscrupulously bend the rules make her and Dr. Manhattan a surprisingly effective couple.

Plan A

But then history starts to repeat. Although she is initially really into Dr. Manhattan and all of his big blue assets, like Janey and Laurie, Angela is eventually frustrated with his insensitivity and oracular view of their relationship. Prompting Manhattan to seek a solution to this issue, travelling to Antarctica and dropping in on his old friend Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias in his secluded fortress of Karnak; which, I gotta say, they did a fantastic job with the look of Karnak.

Here we get a lovely insight into this character back when he still bore some resemblance to his comic counterpart. Not only that, it highlighted something about him that had escaped me until now. Though I can safely say I've gotten the "what happens when a guy who calls himself Ozymandias starts to actually live up to the name" vibe that's permeated his season arc, I hadn't really considered how a character as obsessed with legacy and being this legendary figure would be affected when the grand ambition he bets all he has on is something he can never allow the world to find out about. The fact that most of the world seems to view him as little more than a fancier, sci-fi version of Howard Hughes is fitting, since Adrian Veidt could never claim the savior image he envisioned for himself and instead became kind of a sad, creepy hermit that most people have forgotten about.

Turns out, Ozymandias was already a total wreck even before his extended off-world vacation. He is completely alone in Karnak, bitterly lamenting the world's failure to live up to his standards after he sold his soul (and over 300 million others) to save it from oblivion, and clearly enjoying the company of one of the few left alive who knows of his... deeds. Adrian was practically giddy when explaining that he already had the very thing that could give Jon the normal life he wanted: the secret amnesia device he intended to use against him back in the good old days.

While I think it was somewhat unlikely that Ozymandias would just explain everything about his one means of defeating the most powerful being in existence before handing it over, considering the first thing Manhattan does once he has it is send Adrian 390 million miles across the galaxy, but I guess we can chalk it up to arrogance.

This brings us to one of the episode's more ambiguous moments. What exactly was the motive behind Dr. Manhattan sending Ozymandias to Europa?

He clearly frames it as what another fictional character might call a simple calculus: the Europans live in a virtual utopia yet need a master to revere, Veidt dreams of presiding over a utopia but craves the reverence of a grateful people. Seems like a perfect fit, right? But we must remember, this is Dr. Manhattan. He's not stupid. Though we mostly see a softer side of him thanks to Angela, he's still the walking nightmare who singlehandedly crushed the Viet Cong, whose very presence prevented nuclear war from boiling over, and who pretty much reacted to the prospect of such a thing happening with a cold, ornate "so what?" And there was definitely a devilish air to his proposal to Adrian.

Perhaps he had some idea of what would happen when Adrian finally got what he wanted. Maybe it was vengeance. While Dr. Manhattan was willing to murder Rorschach in order to protect Veidt's world-saving lie, we have to remember, immediately before that, Veidt tried to blow Manhattan up after he realized Veidt had been manipulating him throughout the entire graphic novel and came to make him answer for it. I think this was a passive aggressive move on the part of our god. Poetic justice that was long overdue. Plus, he might have just felt it was pragmatic to remove one of the only people in the world who can outsmart him.

Then again, maybe he did it for no other reason than because he always saw himself doing it. Just as he's always the little boy wandering around that English country manor in 1938. Just as he's always being torn apart by the intrinsic field generator in 1959. Just as he's always killing Rorschach to protect humanity in 1985. Just as he's always in the bar putting the moves on Angela in 2009. Just as he's always taken by the Seventh Kavalry in 2019.

The Moment

There is a lovely transition between the moment when Dr. Manhattan truly becomes Cal, which is treated like a wedding ceremony between him and Angela, and the moment ten years later when Angela pulls him out of "the tunnel." It makes you feel the character's disorientation, going from total happiness in one second to impending doom in the next. Jon's apparently become so attached to his Cal Abar alter ego that Cal's face and voice have replaced his own. Also, the way he unwittingly causes the plot of the show was just hilarious and one of the show's more clever twists; more on this below.

Of course, I was more sympathetic with Angela's plight. She'd put up with and sacrificed a lot all in the name of her love for this glowing weirdo, and I felt for her as she, true to her character, continued to reject his belief in the inevitable and resolved to take on the Seventh Kavalry all by herself. In another of the show's beloved ironies, Dr. Manhattan explains that this is the moment he fell in love with Angela. But as we quickly learn, him falling in love with Angela and her losing him are intrinsically linked. Angela's willingness to give her life to save him against the odds of fate itself is the reason he always loved her, and his love for Angela compels him to finally act in defense of her and give the 7K the chance to trap him.

I was skeptical of the Indestructible Reality Altering Superman versus Pretentious White Supremacist Cult matchup proposed in the last episode, but this helped it go down more smoothly for me. Obviously, Dr. Manhattan could easily destroy the entire Seventh Kavalry if he wanted to. But he is a passive character. The only reason he saved Angela was because he never saw himself not doing that. So the only reason the 7K stands any chance against him is because that's just the way it goes and he knows it. However, he's not a character incapable of change, as his entire relationship with Angela proves. And his choices are still his own, whether they are predetermined or not. So I'm guessing he's got something else hidden up his sleeve -- there's a scene where he pointedly does a simple magic trick to give Angela proof of his powers -- since he's the only one who has some idea of how this puppet show will end.


Capes and Masks:

* "Rhapsody in Blue" by Walter Murphy, "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is" by Irma Thomas, and "Tunnel of Love" by Doris Day. Also, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's track "Lincoln Tunnel" gave me goosebumps during Dr. Manhattan and Angela's battle with the Seventh Kavalry.

* 'A God Walks Into a Bar' was co-written by Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen. I remember being an avid reader of Jensen's Entertainment Weekly reviews for Lost during its last couple of seasons. He did deep dives into nearly every episode. His nuanced writing and clear passion for the show certainly served as some inspiration for the way I write my reviews. So I was pleasantly surprised to see his name next to Lindelof's for this epic episode. They did an admirable job.

* While Jeremy Irons is as usual a master of drama ranging from subtly poignant to unpredictably outlandish, the real standouts in this episode for me were Regina King and Yahya Abdul Mateen II as Angela and Cal/Dr. Manhattan. All season it felt off that these two lead characters were almost peripheral to the increasingly wacky plot and supporting characters like Will Reeves, Lady Trieu, Veidt, Laurie and Looking Glass. Now it all makes sense. We thought we knew who they were from the start, but we had no idea. Mateen did an excellent job at capturing Dr. Manhattan's essence, whether as the original big blue superman himself, Calhattan or Cal Abar/amnesiac Jon Osterman. Meanwhile Regina King delivers her finest work this season. Her role as the woman who somehow falls in love with Dr. Manhattan in spite of everything had a lot of drama she and the writers could work with. It kind of sucks that the episode did such a great job at establishing this unique dynamic only for it to be taken away in the end. Maybe that's the point, though. While those moments are literally always with Manhattan, Angela is like the rest of us and can only realize how special things are once they're gone forever.

* I thought it was kind of cute that Angela was hesitant to tell Dr. Manhattan that she’d prefer it if he would take the form of the one good looking black man in the morgue, like she was afraid he would see her as racist or something.

* Speaking of which, it was clever how they worked around showing Dr. Manhattan's true face. It seems in line with this universe viewing him as a god. I believe there's a line in the Bible about how none can look upon the face of God.

* It’s revealed that Will Reeves is in such good standing in the present due to the fact that Nelson Gardner aka Captain Metropolis, Will’s ex-lover, left his home and fortune to Will after he died in a car accident. That's rather sweet, and somewhat redeems Gardner's flippant disregard for Will's serious concerns back in the '40s. Will probably used this money to develop his mind-controlling flashlight.

* Getting back to that clever twist I mentioned, I found it interesting that the story of the Watchmen show is the story of a time paradox. Angela thought she could use Calhattan's power to question Will Reeves back when he first met Dr. Manhattan in 2009, only for her to give him the idea to kill Judd Crawford by asking him why he killed Judd Crawford. Calhattan aligns this with his deterministic worldview. The chicken begets the egg as the egg begets the chicken and vice versa. Maybe something like that lies at the root of all existence. A mysterious contradiction, an unsolvable riddle, a bad joke. It seems to be the case when it comes to the plot of the show as well as the plot of this very episode. As I wrote above, Dr. Manhattan sought a relationship with Angela because he knows he will fall in love with her, but only falls in love with her when their relationship is about to come to an end and Angela is prepared to die fighting for him, which she was only willing to do because he sought a relationship with her. Where do these things actually begin? What sets them in motion?

* The scene of Angela and Calhattan teaming up against the Seventh Kavalry may have been the show's most breathtaking moment yet. The exploding heads, that beautiful reference to The Matrix, and the soaring music. So damn powerful. Also, I spent this whole season bummed that Rorschach's only legacy was forever tainted by a bunch of racist asshats who wear his face, so I'd say Dr. Manhattan laying waste to said asshats redeems him somewhat for killing Rorschach.

* We get a brilliant after credits scene featuring Veidt locked in a dungeon. It’s here we discover the significance of the horseshoe. And this is where his season arc comes full circle for me, even if it isn’t quite finished yet. Seeing this incomparably gifted and tragic figure -- who concocted a new world order only to lament his inability to truly fix the world -- be reduced to an unhinged, self-aggrandizing scumbag, laughing maniacally as he digs his way out of his medieval prison cell with a horseshoe, is a pretty gnarly continuation of this character. Speaking of which, I knew there was more to that horseshoe from the start. It’s purpose implies that Veidt expected he’d be locked up at some point. Which suggests that the repetitive anniversary cake routine he had the various iterations of Mr. Phillips and Ms. Crookshanks perform every day was a sort of Pavlovian trick he pulled on the clones in anticipation of his capture. I love that, for as much as this show loves dragging Ozymandias through the dirt, his unmatched brilliance still shines through even as madness consumes him.

* The book that Adrian -- among other characters -- is seen reading at the end is Fogdancing, an in-universe novel by Max Shea, who wrote Tales of the Black Freighter, the comic within the original Watchmen comic.

Quotes: 'A God Walks Into a Bar', in particular, displays what a dialogue goldmine the source material was for the show writers.

Angela Abar: And how does one create life?
Dr. Manhattan: I do it with a wave of my hand. It’s 1985. A gossamer sheet of vapory atmosphere thickens into an azure blanket. Harsh tundra becomes fertile savanna. Vast swarths of green spreading across the moon’s arid skin like a verdant rash. A primordial ocean transmutes into a liquid creation engine. I step out onto the amniotic lake, a hatchery stocked with miracles, finned, winged and hoofed.
They did an excellent job on the dialogue for Dr. Manhattan, in my opinion. I also like how it’s somewhat implied that he did this only minutes after the ending of the graphic novel.

Dr. Manhattan: The entire process is complete in approximately 90 seconds.
Angela: Typical.
Dr. Manhattan: I’m sorry?
Angela: A man creating life in under two minutes.
Dr. Manhattan: Ah, a sex joke. That’s funny.
Angela: Thanks.

Young Jon Osterman: I will create something beautiful.

Angela: We are not gonna fight. Because I am not gonna tell you to leave.
Dr. Manhattan: We are and you will. I’m sorry, but it’s already occurring.
Angela: Do you wanna fight?
Dr. Manhattan: No, but the fight will still happen regardless of my intent.

Dr. Manhattan: How did you know it was me?
Ozymandias: Because only Dr. Manhattan would have the balls to show up here wearing nothing but his birthday suit.

Dr. Manhattan: Now you’re telling me that you just killed three million people. Morally you’re in checkmate, you tell me.
Ozymandias: I was gambling.
Dr. Manhattan: Gambling?
Ozymandias: That you had morals.

Dr. Manhattan: Still fabricating alien incursions, I see.
Ozymandias: (defensively) And maintaining world peace. One cephalopod at a time.

Ozymandias: It’s not the ’80s anymore, Jon. This kind of appropriation is considered very problematic now.

Dr. Manhattan: How long would it take for you to make this device?
Ozymandias: Oh, my dear sweet Jon. I made it thirty years ago.
Classic Ozzy.

Dr. Manhattan: I’m confused.
Angela: You’re confused?
Dr. Manhattan: Isn’t it a good thing that Judd Crawford is dead?
Indeed, that has been the question for some time now. Also, I'm tickled that I was technically correct in my review of the first episode when I guessed that Dr. Manhattan was the one responsible for Judd's death.

Dr. Manhattan: The paradox. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The answer appears to be both. At exactly the same time… I’m hungry.

Angela: What?
Dr. Manhattan: This is the moment.
Angela: What moment?
Dr. Manhattan: I just told you that you can’t save me, and you’re going to try to anyway. In the bar, the night we met, you asked me about the moment I fell in love with you. This is the moment.
Angela: Is that supposed to be romantic?

The Game Warden: If I didn’t know better, I’d say you want to suffer.
Veidt: Do you know better?
The Game Warden: … Would you like me to get you another book?
Veidt: No. I like this one.
The Game Warden: Why?
Veidt: You wouldn’t understand… It’s about loneliness.
The Game Warden: I understand loneliness.
Veidt: Because your big blue daddy left to get a pack of cigarettes and never came back?
Most of Veidt's dialogue has me Laughing Out Loud, but this takes the cake. No pun intended.

Veidt: Heaven is not enough because Heaven doesn’t need me.

This was just beautiful. I'll say it once again, masterful from beginning to end. Five out of five vaporized white supremacist heads.

5 comments:

TheShadowKnows said...

"...the first thing Manhattan does once he has it is send Adrian 390 million lightyears across the galaxy..."

I think you added quite a few decimal places there. :) Europa is a moon of Jupiter and is about 390 million MILES from Earth.

Logan Cox said...

Right you are. Just so used to writing lightyears when it comes to long distances in space.

Lisianpeia said...

Amazing review, Logan! Thank you for all the insights for this incredible episode!

Miksterious said...

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying reading your reviews while watching the show. Any idea whether you are going to be posting a review for the finale?

Logan Cox said...

I'm hoping to finally have the finale review posted tomorrow. I apologize for getting off track. Thank you guys so much for your comments and your patience. It means a lot.