“In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” Those are the final words that Doctor Manhattan says to Adrian Veidt, the erstwhile Ozymandias, in November 1985 before leaving for a “less complicated” galaxy. Adrian had just asked Doctor Manhattan whether what he had done was right (referring to the catastrophic event he’d created that killed, uh, several million people in a twisted effort to create world peace), a rare moment of vulnerability for the “world’s smartest man.”
Over 30 years later, Adrian—unsurprisingly—has not forgotten those last words, let alone the blue Jesus himself.
“Nothing ever ends” now also serves as the tagline for HBO’s new Watchmen series, an appropriate choice for a TV show that’s trying its best to seamlessly pick up where Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons left off decades ago. Moore, the legendary comic scribe and perpetual curmudgeon, would’ve preferred for the plot to end in the final page of his graphic novel, and yet, there’s a fitting irony in the way showrunner Damon Lindelof has managed to turn Moore’s own words against him. Repurposing everything from Moore’s political themes to metatextuality in and outside of the story, HBO’s Watchmen is clearly taking a winding path toward a larger conspiracy, just like Moore’s original story.
Every week, we’ll break down what exactly is happening in Damon Lindelof’s (latest) confounding series and revisit Moore’s source material—the show’s so-called Old Testament—to see how it can help illuminate the strange happenings in this version of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“There’s a vast and insidious conspiracy at play here in Tulsa. If I told you about it, your head would explode, so I have to give it to you in pieces.” —Will Reeves
Like The Leftovers and Lost before it, Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen begins by explaining absolutely nothing. In Episode 2, “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship,” detective Angela Abar (Regina King) starts investigating the death of police chief Judd Crawford, whom she found hanging from a tree with a 105-year-old man in a wheelchair waiting beside his feet at the end of the premiere. The man, Will Reeves, nearly a century older than he was when introduced during his escape from the 1921 Tulsa Massacre in the series’ cold open, is brought back to Angela’s bakery hideout for questioning, but he cryptically reveals only minor clues for her to follow.
The episode opens by revealing the contents of the piece of paper Will’s father had used to write “Watch over this boy” before sending his son out of the city on the day of the massacre. It’s a letter of German wartime propaganda aimed at breaking black soldiers’ trust in the American democracy by convincing them that they’re second-class citizens in the eyes of American white people. “Come over to the German line, and you will find friends who will help you along,” reads the final line of the German officer’s letter, as the setting returns to modern-day Tulsa, while Will awaits Angela’s arrival. While we still don’t know who killed Judd, or what Will’s role in the chief’s death may be, the nature of the letter—as well as our knowledge of Will’s traumatic escape from racial violence in the premiere—strongly suggests that Will wouldn’t work with the white supremacist group, the Seventh Kavalry, who might not be responsible for the murder after all.
But back at the bakery, it’s clear that Angela doesn’t completely trust the other members of the police force. She never told anyone about Will after she’d found him at the crime scene, and she feigns surprise at the news of the chief’s death once the police finally locate his body. Angela leaves Will handcuffed in the bakery to return to the crime scene, and as she holds Judd while he’s being cut down from the tree, a flashback of the “White Night” begins, the Seventh Kavalry attack that targeted Tulsa’s police force and the catalyst for cops like Angela to start wearing masks to protect their identities.
Years earlier, just as the clock struck midnight on Christmas morning, Angela’s home—as well as every other Tulsa officer’s—was broken into by armed Seventh Kavalry members wearing Rorschach masks. Angela and then-captain Judd Crawford survive, but many others—including Angela’s partner Doyle—are killed in their sleep. The surviving officers resolve to resign, given that their homes and identities are known by the terrorist organization, and Angela takes in her partner’s three kids as her own.
After blowing off some steam alongside the Tulsa police force in a brawl with the residents of Nixonville, Angela takes a trip to the Greenwood Center for Cultural Heritage carrying the mug she let Reeves use in order to collect his DNA from his saliva. There’s a group of protestors outside of the building condemning “Redfordations,” the derisive nickname for President Robert Redford’s payouts to victims of racial violence like the Tulsa Massacre. Using a monitor with the digitally guided assistance of United States Treasury Secretary Henry Louis Gates Jr. (the real-life director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University), Angela gets a quick history lesson on the 1921 massacre and a formal apology from the government before submitting Will’s DNA sample.
One of the key clues that Will gives Angela is that Judd was killed because of “skeletons in his closet.” As it turns out, Will was speaking pretty literally. While visiting Judd’s widow, Jane, Angela discovers a costume in his closet that reveals his ties to the Seventh Kavalry.
When Angela finally returns to the bakery to question Will, she’s surprised to find him freed of his handcuffs, just hanging out and boiling an egg he’d gone out to purchase some time earlier. “We hadn’t done talking yet,” Will tells her, purposefully guiding her deeper into the mystery. While she questions him about how he could have known about Judd’s closet and his association with the Kavalry, Angela receives a call back from the Greenwood Center for Cultural Heritage with the DNA results. The automated message reveals that Will is eligible to receive benefits as a survivor of the massacre, as well as the records of his direct decescents, which include Angela. “I wanted to meet you, and show you where you came from,” he tells her once he sees that she’s figured out that he’s her grandfather.
In the episode’s final moments, Angela decides to finally bring Will into the police station. After helping her estranged grandfather into her car, but before she enters the driver’s seat, a beam of light shines down from above, as an aircraft drops a magnet so impressive it’d probably bring tears of joy to Jesse Pinkman’s eyes. As it latches onto the car, Will manages to sneak in a final smirk and leaves one last potential clue for Angela—the note he’s kept since 1921—before being flown off into the dark of the night. It looks like Will has friends in high places after all.
American Hero Story: Hooded Justice
“I’m not ready to tell you who I really am. If I did, you wouldn’t watch until the end.”—Hooded Justice
The show within-a-show, a biopic series titled American Hero Story, appeared in ads around the city in Watchmen’s first episode, but this week, we get the opportunity to actually watch some of the program. In the shown segment of the episode, we learn about the Watchmen universe’s first-ever masked vigilante, Hooded Justice, one of the crimefighters of the Minutemen group of the 1930s and ’40s. But rather than start at the beginning of his story, we pick up at its supposed end, with the discovery of his secret identity’s corpse floating down a Boston shoreline. With Hooded Justice narrating the scene, he explains that the corpse the police are finding isn’t really his, and he teases the revelation of his true identity for another time.
Hooded Justice is a notable character for Lindelof to choose, since he was one of the only masked vigilantes whose fate was never revealed by the end of the comic’s 12-issue run. The scene at the Boston shoreline is borrowed from a chapter of Hollis Mason’s autobiography, Under the Hood, which is an account of his life as the Minutemen hero named Nite Owl. (Just as Lindelof’s handling of American Hero Story, the autobiography is split into clips throughout the main story, embedded between the chapters of Moore’s comics.) Given that Hooded Justice was fighting crime in the 1930s, there’s little chance he’s still alive nearly a century later when the HBO series picks up the story, but the show-within-the-show seems to be on track to finally conclude the character’s arc. Like Tales of the Black Freighter, the comic within the Watchmen comic (I’m guessing that you’re starting to sense a pattern here), American Hero Story will probably serve as a segmented inner-story throughout the series that mirrors the lives of the main characters and the events surrounding them.
Episode 2’s American Hero Story scene ends with Hooded Justice explaining himself to a horrified store clerk after he brutally kills three armed robbers in front of a crowd of panicked shoppers. He describes the duality of his existence, and how the mask hides his rage as much as it does his identity, creating a new “skin” where he and his rage can merge into a body served for justice. As he growls his dramatic monologue, the scene transitions into a voiceover where we find Angela deep in thought while driving to the Crawford household. That masked solace applies to her as well—we’ve already seen her therapeutically beat Kavalry members into submission—and her evolving relationship to her own alternate identity will be something to watch for as the series progresses. As Angela pulls into the driveway, Justice finishes with some revealing parting words: “Who am I? If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be wearing a fucking mask.”
The Watchmaker’s Son
“Nothing ends, Janey. Nothing ever ends.” —Doctor Manhattan
Let’s talk about that really weird play that Adrian sets up for himself in the loneliest home theater in the world (well, maybe the second loneliest). Naturally, written and directed by Veidt himself and starring his hapless servants, Adrian’s play tells the story of how Jon Osterman died and Doctor Manhattan was born. Though Veidt tweaks the original dialogue here and there, notably appropriating Manhattan’s “nothing ever ends” line, the origin story is a close adaptation to how the event played out in Moore and Gibbons’s original comic (blue genitalia and all).
In 1959, Jon Osterman, the son of a watchmaker, is a nuclear physicist studying the “intrinsic fields” of physical objects at a research facility at Gila Flats. When he returns to the Block 15 test chamber to retrieve his girlfriend Janey’s watch from his lab coat, he gets stuck in the chamber when it automatically locks during a routine safety procedure before an experiment. Believed to be dead after getting blown up into a million pieces, Jon reemerges several months later in the facility’s cafeteria, floating in a newly reconstructed, blue (and very naked) body.
As I mentioned earlier, Veidt’s fascination—or borderline obsession—with Doctor Manhattan remains vibrantly intact all these decades after his (earthly) departure. Veidt, the famed narcissist, has always been the smartest man in the room, and has regarded himself accordingly, but even Adrian knows that his own excellence is meaningless when stacked up against that of a god.
Back when Doctor Manhattan left Adrian with those final words, “nothing ever ends,” Veidt couldn’t understand what he meant, and he was left wondering whether he’d made the right choice to kill millions of people since his plan “worked out in the end.” But over the ensuing decades in a new world he helped create, Adrian has clearly held onto every single word, and has had plenty of time to reflect on their meaning.
But beyond the question of Adrian’s choice of nightly entertainment, perhaps the most pressing issue is: Were the servants human clones?!
In a shocking devotion to accuracy, Adrian incinerates the actor portraying Jon Osterman after he steps into the recreated test chamber. Yet moments later, he appears to still be alive, reborn into a new role as Doctor Manhattan.
And in an even more shocking turn of events, the cast and crew take off their masks after the curtain call to reveal that the two servant-actors—Ms. Crookshanks and Mr. Phillips—were two of what appears to be a supply of identical male and female human copies. “Should we put him in the cell with the others?” one of the servants asks of Mr. Phillips’s burned body, before being promoted to being the new Mr. Phillips. Adrian agrees, before telling him: “We’ll have a use for him before too long.”
Genetic engineering isn’t a totally new thing for Adrian; back in ’80s he was already on a path toward creating human clones. In the comics, Adrian would walk around his Antarctic retreat with Bubastis, a red-and-black-striped lynx and the product of one of his experiments, by his side. Since then, he’s clearly built upon his work and seems to have moved toward working on humans.
Adrian Veidt has remained a mysterious figure through the first two episodes of the series, but his role in the story grows increasingly foreboding in every appearance. While Adrian is picking up his pocket watch from the previous Mr. Phillips’s burnt fingers after the conclusion of the play, Ms. Crookshanks asks whether it stopped. Adrian’s mischievous response seems to hint at a brand-new sinister plan, and perhaps finally a greater understanding of Doctor Manhattan’s commentary on time’s infinite nature: “It has only just begun.”
Disclaimer: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.