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Squaring the Two Prevailing Ideas Left by the Finale of ‘Watchmen’

Damon Lindelof’s series compels criticism of the way superhero stories are told—and that now includes his own

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Spoiler warning

“You can’t heal under a mask, Angela. Wounds need air.”

“Considering what he could do, he could’ve done more.”

Two contradictory ideas weave through “See How They Fly,” the ninth and final episode of Watchmen’s first season—possibly, if creator Damon Lindelof is to be believed, Watchmen’s final episode ever. Confusingly, they’re both articulated by the same person: William Reeves, the centenarian revealed in a stunning midseason hour to be the man behind Hooded Justice, the masked figure who began the practice of “costumed adventuring” more than 80 years before. William presents these ideas to his granddaughter Angela Abar, a woman who’s both assumed an identity to enforce her principles and spent a decade married to the world’s most famous alter ego of all: Doctor Manhattan, née Jon Osterman, the scientist turned blue, nude god by way of a “thermodynamic miracle.”

On the one hand, William reiterates one of Watchmen’s central ideas. Vigilantism is, at its core, an act of hubris—one driven by trauma, anger, ego, and other psychological forces that lead a person to think they can and should influence the arc of history by creating a new self. To this thesis, inherited from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s original comic from 1986, Lindelof added a brilliant twist, one that simultaneously focuses Watchmen on a more specific idea and opens it up to a broader set of themes than the hypothetical practice of masked heroism. After all, comic book characters replacing law enforcement is not a real-life issue; racism very much is. Unveiling Will as the once-anonymous Hooded Justice gives Watchmen an instant dose of urgency. Recasting the original costumed adventurer as a black man driven to violence by a legitimate and hard-won sense of persecution turns the entire iconography of modern culture into something much more charged, and more interesting, than its sanitized standard-bearers.

On the other, William charges Osterman not with arrogance, but negligence. “See How They Fly” technically concludes a season of television. In practice, the episode feels more like a capstone to Watchmen’s final third, the stretch between Hooded Justice origin story “This Extraordinary Being” and a characteristically ambiguous endnote. “This Extraordinary Being” serves as Watchmen’s substantive climax, clarifying a mysterious raison d’etre and delivering a powerful emotional catharsis for heroine and viewer alike. From there, Watchmen didn’t elaborate much on the link between racist oppression, failed institutions, and barely suppressed rage, nor did it need to. Instead, the season’s last hours were devoted to matters emotional and logistical. And at the intersection of both was Doctor Manhattan.

Watchmen already included appearances from several Moore creations, updating fans on their whereabouts after 30-plus years and gradually reeling them into Angela’s fight against armed white supremacists in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Laurie Blake, once Silk Spectre, is now an FBI agent; Adrian Veidt, better known as Ozymandias, is trapped on a distant moon, his nuclear-war-averting hoax still unknown to the general public; Hooded Justice is Will Reeves. Doctor Manhattan remained offscreen, supposedly on Mars, until Watchmen dropped the second of its grand reveals: Jon Osterman has been living as Angela’s amnesiac husband Cal, relinquishing his powers in order to be with the woman he loves.

Jon and Angela’s romance is laid out in “A God Walks Into Abar,” a nonlinear narrative that flips back and forth through the years to mimic Jon’s dislocation in time. Cowritten by Jeff Jensen, a former Lost recapper known for dense, elaborate, deeply informed theorizing, the episode is a structural feat. As a script, the episode combines head-spinning awe with satisfying clarity, answering questions from how the couple in question met (it’s in the title) to how Will knew Angela’s boss was a secret racist (Angela accidentally told him, via Jon). As a love story, though, it’s more confusing. Jon’s attraction to Angela makes sense, but what does a woman fiercely attached to her own sense of agency see in a man who insists she has none? Puzzling as Jon and Angela’s connection is, their makeshift solution to the god-human disparity baffles further. Is a person without the memories or abilities you met them with even the same person you fell for in the first place?

Where Watchmen’s preoccupation with race and policing, both legally sanctioned and not, works itself out over the better part of a season, Jon and Angela as a couple get just more than an hour. Before we’ve had much time to dwell on the aforementioned questions, we’re plunged straight into “See How They Fly,” a chapter packed to the gills with twists, crescendos, and hasty conclusions. Trillionaire Lady Trieu isn’t just Veidt’s spiritual successor—she’s his daughter. The ultimate master plan to kill Jon and steal his powers doesn’t belong to the organized racists who kidnapped him at the end of “A God Walks Into Abar”—it traces back to Lady Trieu. And in the end, it isn’t Lady Trieu who assumes Jon’s abilities—it’s Angela, or at least that’s what is heavily implied.

The overall effect of these drastic pivots is a Watchmen that feels a little less like a thoughtful intervention and a little more like a straightforward sequel, a meaningful shift with Doctor Manhattan as its catalyst. The Seventh Kavalry and Cyclops, the interlinked hate groups who had served as Watchmen’s primary antagonists and tangible avatars of white supremacy, are suddenly pushed aside, dismissed as dick-swinging goons and unwitting puppets of Lady Trieu. And cathartic as it may be to laugh at ignorant, overconfident racists, doing so counters Watchmen’s previously sober portrayal of the existential threat they pose to democracy. Downplaying the group’s significance has the unfortunate side effect of downplaying the subplot they anchor—by far Watchmen’s most compelling.

Nor does Lady Trieu, with her quest for Jon’s omnipotence, make for an equally compelling villain. There’s a cute reversal to how this threat resolves itself: In the first Watchmen, Adrian Veidt used a teleported squid to kill millions; in the second, he uses teleported squid to save them from his successor, both literal and spiritual. But where the Cyclops’ prejudice is an institutional, historical kind of evil, Trieu’s master plan is a simple one, with much less symbolism to mine. In 2019, America’s original sin continues to poison its ideals. Even in Watchmen’s alternate universe, a well-intentioned attempt to root it out in the form of reparations only entrenches it further by provoking a militant backlash. In comparison, a single rogue plutocrat is an easy scapegoat, swiftly dispatched and easily moved past.

As a result, its impact on the story is exactly the opposite of Angela’s embattled legacy. One complicates an already nuanced, ambivalent narrative. The other counteracts one of Watchmen’s most intriguing, and uncomfortable, ideas: that a seeming supervillain had it right all along. Sociopathic as Veidt’s actions were, they really did save the world from nuclear apocalypse, an outcome apparent enough that Jon assisted Veidt’s plan by killing Rorschach to keep the hoax secret. Like genocide by squid, Trieu killing Jon to assume command of his powers and fix (her view of) the world’s ills is superficially terrifying. But why wouldn’t these means also be justified by their ends? Watchmen offers little rationale, vindicating our natural sympathies—with Angela, against Trieu—where the comic’s ending once challenged them.

Which brings us back to the core contradiction of “See How They Fly.” It would be one thing if Watchmen argued that nobody should become what Jon did, especially on purpose. Doctor Manhattan enabled America’s imperialist conquest of Vietnam, hastening a self-imposed isolation that may have been for the best; neither Senator Keene nor Lady Trieu gives any indication they’d be as conscientious. But instead, Watchmen’s stance seems to be that a Doctor Manhattan can exist, so long as they’re the right person. The idea that Jon should’ve continued to intervene in earthly affairs is reiterated several times throughout the finale, and not just by William. When Angela consumes the egg that may or may not allow her to walk on water, it’s thus framed as her answering a call of duty. The implication is that actual superpowers override the underlying mentality that makes vigilantism so fraught in the first place. Still, the fact that Doctor Manhattan doesn’t wear a mask isn’t proof that his (or her) wounds are healed.

Watchmen’s wobbly ending doesn’t negate its prior accomplishments. It simply means a forceful statement trailed off into something more diffuse, though still filled with spectacular action and engaging performances. As Trojan horses into the same themes, Doctor-Manhattan-as-hot-potato didn’t equal Hooded-Justice-as-open-question; the implications of Jon assuming the appearance of a black man, for example, were far less explored than Will assuming that of a white one. Yet Watchmen’s revisions are forceful enough to last beyond their imperfect payoff. Lindelof taught his audience to take a more critical, searching eye to superhero fiction—and now, that includes his own.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.