Ahead of the debut of HBO’s Watchmen, it wasn’t clear what a story set after the events of the iconic 1980s comic book series would look like on TV in 2019. Showrunner Damon Lindelof adamantly referred to the show as a “remix” rather than a direct adaptation or sequel. When Episode 1 opened with a horrific retelling of the real-life Tulsa Massacre of 1921 and closed with a shot of a black man sitting at the feet of a lynched white police chief, the elusive nature of the show—one that on the surface appears to be about superheroes—only intensified.
The subsequent eight episodes were a blend of impeccable writing, acting, and directing that lived up to the tall order of sharing the name of what’s considered to be one of the all-time great graphic novels. The season finale, “See How They Fly,” left a few loose ends (the mysterious Lube Man is still out there sliding through the streets of Tulsa) and rushed a bit to tie everything together (providing more concrete answers than Lindelof typically does), but it otherwise rounded out one of the most thrilling television series of the year.
To wrap up Watchmen’s first (and potentially only) season, we’re going to break down the two plans to steal Doctor Manhattan’s powers—one designed by Lady Trieu and the other by the Seventh Kavalry—and how they panned out before revisiting the graphic novel one last time.
Lady Trieu’s Plan
The finale begins by revealing Lady Trieu’s parentage with a flashback to the day before 11/2 in 1985 at Adrian Veidt’s Karnak facility in Antarctica. While the World’s Smartest Man relishes in the genius of his master plan while recording his address to future president Robert Redford, the original Bian—Lady Trieu’s mother and the elder version of the clone we’ve seen for the greater part of the season—sneaks into Adrian’s office. She’s a member of Adrian’s cleaning staff, one of the many Vietnamese refugees whom Veidt has employed. Bian enters Adrian’s password into his computer to open a refrigerated vault hidden away behind a massive painting of Alexander the Great that contains a catalogued collection of his sperm samples (Adrian later declares that he’s “never given himself to a woman,” but I guess that didn’t stop him from finding a twisted way to pass on his legacy). Bian takes a vial to impregnate herself, revealing in the process that Adrian is Trieu’s father.
Thirty-three years later, in 2008, the World’s Smartest Woman arrives at Karnak to introduce herself to her father. Without revealing their relationship, Lady Trieu earns herself a trip inside the facility by mentioning the little-known truth behind 11/2 and feeding Veidt’s ego by praising his unappreciated brilliance. Trieu briefly acts impressed by Adrian’s squidfall technology before calling it nothing more than a “rerun” and sharing a world-saving plan of her own: to destroy Doctor Manhattan and absorb his abilities. “If I can take his power, I can fix the world,” she tells Adrian. “Disappear the nukes, end starvation, clean the air. All the things he should’ve done.”
Even as Adrian patronizingly jeers and questions her, Trieu backs up her bold claims by explaining her process, from how she tracked down the blue god’s location on Europa by sending out space probes that scanned the galaxy for his unique radioactive frequency, to her designs for a quantum centrifuge that could harness Doctor Manhattan’s abilities and transfer them to her. All she asks of Adrian is a cool $42 billion; in this moment she finally reveals to Adrian that she is his daughter. Outraged by the news of Bian’s thievery, Trieu’s existence, and her nerve to ask for money, Adrian adamantly denies her request.
“When my parents died, I inherited wealth beyond imagining, and I gave it away, because I wanted to demonstrate that I could achieve anything starting from nothing,” Adrian says to Trieu. “And that is what I offer you, Sample 2346: nothing. And I will never call you daughter.”
Back on Europa, we return to our favorite interplanetary castaway, now eight years into his life in “paradise.” And at long last, help has finally arrived. A spacecraft lands on the castle grounds, and Adrian exits his cell through an underground tunnel he’s dug. He kills the Game Warden, who was trying to prevent his master from deserting their moon one last time, before walking past all his servants to enter his shuttle back to Earth. As he steps into the spacecraft and the ship enters space, the sign Adrian carved out of his servants’ bodies in Episode 5 is revealed in full: “SAVE ME DAUGHTER.” In full Star Wars fashion, Adrian is essentially frozen in carbonite for the duration of his space flight, solidified as the gold statue that’s been standing in Trieu’s vivarium all along.
Back in present-day Tulsa, the Millennium Clock is about to be activated. Lady Trieu has completed her life’s work, and just as she told Angela, she has found a way to bring back both of her parents to witness the momentous occasion. With Bian’s clone and an awakened Adrian Veidt at her side, Lady Trieu starts up the clock—the flying quantum centrifuge Trieu built without the help of her estranged father—and heads to downtown Tulsa to set up for the final piece of her plan.
The Seventh Kavalry’s Plan
Meanwhile, the Seventh Kavalry is also preparing to steal Doctor Manhattan’s powers, though they’re completely unaware that they’re playing right into Lady Trieu’s plans. Senator Joseph Keene Jr. has gathered the senior leadership of their white supremacist organization, including his father and Jane Crawford. Agent Laurie Blake is there as well, still held captive as they all await her ex-boyfriend’s grand entrance, and Wade Tillman—who had been missing ever since a group of Kavalry members failed to kill him in his home—has managed to sneak into the warehouse wearing one of the Kavalry’s trademark Rorschach masks. Doctor Manhattan is teleported into a synthetic lithium cage they’ve constructed using old watch batteries (a painstaking task that we witnessed a glimpse of all the way back in the series premiere), catching us up to the moment he disappeared outside of the Abars’ home at the end of the previous episode. The cage functions similarly to the tachyon particles that limit Doctor Manhattan’s abilities, confusing his sense of time; inside the cage, he starts repeating lines of dialogue he said decades earlier, in the pages of the graphic novel. With the dazed blue god imprisoned, Keene addresses his audience, outlining the Kavalry’s plan.
“Thirty-four years ago, Adrian Veidt unleashed his monster on the world. No, not his giant one-eyed octopus, but his puppet president,” Keene says as he begins to strip off his clothing in anticipation of his transformation into the new Doctor Manhattan. “First, he took our guns. And then he made us say sorry. … Sorry for the color of our skin. All we wanted was to get cops in masks, take some power back, start ourselves a little culture war.” Keene concedes that their original plan—to get him into the White House—was “a little half-baked.” But then the White Night happened, and changed everything.
When the Kavalry carried out their coordinated attack on the Tulsa police force, all went as planned, except for the raid of the home of Angela and Cal Abar. Cal, accessing his subdued abilities in an act of self-preservation, zapped one of the two Kavalry hitmen to Gila Flats, the site where Jon Osterman died and was reborn as Doctor Manhattan. The Kavalry was able to piece together Cal’s true identity, and from that point on their mission to make Keene president was punted for the bolder goal of making him into a god.
Just before Keene enters the chamber—from which he will supposedly reemerge from as the blue prophet who will restore (“restore”) white power in America, Angela warns the Kavalry that they’re about to fall right into Lady Trieu’s hands. They proceed anyway, initiating the transference of Doctor Manhattan’s power. Right on cue, the Kavalry finds themselves suddenly in downtown Tulsa, now serving as an audience to Lady Trieu.
As the two plans converge, the Kavalry proves to be no more than a cog in Lady Trieu’s elaborate scheme (it turns out both of the Kavalry’s plans were a little half-baked). Trieu begins to address the dazed group of white supremacists before opening a chamber that releases the pool of human slush that used to be Senator Keene; he’d been reduced during his failed attempt to transfer Doctor Manhattan’s atomic energy (crucially, Keene’s blood seeps underneath the bars of blue Cal’s cage). Trieu resumes her speech, reading the message that Will Reeves has asked her to deliver to the group he’s been hunting down since his days as Hooded Justice in the 1930s: “You represent the senior leadership of Cyclops, an organization that has terrorized and victimized men, women, and children of color for a century, including this very place, the site of the Greenwood Massacre of 1921.”
Before Trieu finishes reading, Jane Crawford cuts her off to tell her to just kill her and the Kavalry already, and Trieu complies. She retrieves a remote from one of her crewmembers and flicks a switch, obliterating them all with a flash of purple light.
Following the casual massacre, Doctor Manhattan—touching the pool of Keene’s blood—teleports Adrian, Wade, and Laurie to Karnak, leaving Angela behind as his death approaches. Enraged that Doctor Manhattan shipped off her father before she could properly gloat about her success, Trieu fires up the centrifuge to extract his energy.
In Karnak, Adrian seizes the opportunity to “save the world” yet again, as he reminds his new companions of his murderous heroism. (Wade, who has lived nearly his entire life traumatized by the events of 11/2, is not too happy about this.) Adrian quickly devises a plan to rain one final squidfall over Tulsa, only this time he wants to significantly lower the temperature to unleash a hailstorm of frozen cephalopods.
Trieu succeeds in destroying Doctor Manhattan, but just then, the frozen squidfall begins, cartoonishly busting a hole through Trieu’s hand before sending the centrifuge crashing down upon her.
As the frozen squids fall, Bian takes shelter in the Manhattan prayer booth; the Tulsa police—who had arrived just as the squidfall began—scramble for cover; and Angela runs to the Dreamland Theatre to find her children and Will Reeves. Here, in the same theater that young Will watched Trust in the Law moments before the Greenwood Massacre of 1921, Will tells his granddaughter about how he and Jon Osterman made a deal to help each other, as well as what it means to put on the mask. “The hood, when I put it on—you felt what I felt?” Will asks her, referring to the Nostalgia pills she took that allowed her to experience the moment he became Hooded Justice.
“Anger,” Angela replies.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought too,” Will says. “But it wasn’t—it was fear, hurt. You can’t heal under a mask, Angela. Wounds need air.” Will tells Angela that it was Jon’s idea to make a deal with Trieu all along, and that Jon knew he was going to die but said, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a couple eggs,” a phrase that would supposedly make sense to Angela when the time was right.
Will and Angela wake up the kids and return to Angela’s house, passing by all the destruction left in the wake of Trieu’s failed plans. Just before the credits begin to roll, Angela cleans up the broken eggs scattered across her kitchen floor from her fight with the waffle-making Doctor Manhattan. She finds one egg remaining in the carton, still intact, and remembers the time that Jon told her that he could theoretically pass his abilities to another person through the consumption of organic material that’s been exposed to him. Angela walks out to the pool, swallows the raw egg, rolls up her pants, and sets her foot over the water to test out the theory just as the season comes to an end.
Despite an incredible final performance by actress Hong Chau, Lady Trieu went out with little more than a whimper, capable of mustering no more of a reaction to her father’s attack than the utterance of “motherfucker” in Vietnamese with her final breaths. Will’s mesmerism device that he stole from the Cyclops group decades earlier was never used again after seeing its power in manipulating Crawford into hanging himself, and the Kavalry’s fate was decided in one quick purple flash. For all the meticulous effort the show put into weaving an intricate web of mystery, the “vast and insidious conspiracy” ultimately proved to be more hollow as the show rushed toward the finish line. The conclusion’s saving grace, however, was found in the chaos’s calm aftermath in the Dreamland Theatre.
As Victor Luckerson recently wrote in The New Yorker: “What Watchmen nails, more than details of Greenwood’s history, is the way that history itself is so susceptible to manipulation, distortion, and erasure. … A brutal invasion became a victimless crime, then a repressed memory, then a hazy urban legend that few people had even heard about.” While bending elements of real historical events like the Greenwood Massacre and the Vietnam War, as well as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s original story, HBO’s Watchmen remix turned out to be a story about a black family reshaping history. Will Reeves revealed that the first superhero was black, as he fought to eliminate white supremacy in the 1930s as Hooded Justice, and his granddaughter unknowingly carried the mission forward decades later as Sister Night. The two share similar traumatic experiences a century apart, while literally sharing some together through the aid of the psychoactive drug, Nostalgia.
As Will and Angela sit together in the Dreamland Theatre, just as Will did with his mother on the day of the Greenwood Massacre, we see how similar their paths have been, how they both masked their pain caused by racism and senseless violence at the hands of terrorists. And together, after delivering justice to white supremacist descendents of the massacre, the two are finally on the path to healing.
Easter Eggs and Callbacks
Throughout this entire season of Watchmen, each episode was laden with Easter eggs and callbacks to the original source material. You could compile an exhaustive list for each episode, but for the finale, I’ll just point out the three that I appreciated the most.
Adrian’s Bullet Catch
When watching the Game Warden confront Adrian before his master left for Europa, you might’ve thought, “Did this guy really just catch a damn bullet with his bare hands?!” And yes—yes, he did… but it also wasn’t his first time. Here’s Laurie trying kill Adrian on 11/2, only to find out that he’s got quicker hands than Michael Thomas:
The Original Archie Ship
After Adrian saves the world from his daughter’s attempt to become an all-powerful god, he leads Laurie and Wade to the vessel that would bring them back to civilization. The ship is called Archie, as Laurie recalls fondly, and it’s the original ship that her ex-boyfriend Dan Dreiberg designed and used back in his days masquerading as the second Nite Owl. In the comics, Dan and Rorschach flew to Karnak in Archie on 11/2 to try to stop Adrian’s attack of New York. The ship has been collecting dust ever since, and now Laurie and Wade will use it to bring Adrian in to finally answer for his crimes.
Rorschach’s Omelette Line
Doctor Manhattan’s hugely important omelette idiom was actually used in the graphic novel as well, only then it was said by Rorschach. After Rorschach interrogates the retired supervillain, Moloch, he swallows a raw egg and says the line on his way out the door:
Though the ending aligned with Lindelof’s sensibilities, the ambiguous closing moments also mirrored the final page of Moore and Gibbons’s graphic novel. The original Watchmen story ends at the office of the New Frontiersman, just as an editorial assistant, Seymour, discovers Rorschach’s journal that contains the truth about 11/2. Rorschach had sent it to the newspaper’s office just before leaving for Karnak, where he’d eventually be killed by Doctor Manhattan. And as the story comes to a close, the reader is left wondering what will happen if the journal is published, and whether or not the truth will undo the supposed utopia that 3 million New Yorkers died for.
HBO’s Watchmen supplied answers to these very questions. Rorschach’s journal was published, but the greater public didn’t believe the words of a violent sociopath, especially while there were squids still periodically raining down from the sky. Only a select few actually knew that the journal was full of the truth, and others unconcerned with the truth—like the Seventh Kavalry—used it to fuel their mistrust in the government.
As Angela reaches her foot over the pool in the final frames of the season, viewers are left with the same uncertainty that the journal elicited. Was Doctor Manhattan right about his theory? Has Angela attained all of his powers? If so, what will she do as the new Doctor Manhattan?
The fact that Doctor Manhattan told Angela that it was important for her to see him walk back and forth on the pool in the previous episode suggest he was right, but for now, there’s no telling what happened the moment her foot hit the water. If Watchmen moves forward with a second season, we may find that not only does the American Superman exist again, but that she is black and living in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.