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How Closely Is Doctor Manhattan Listening?

Breaking Down Episode 3 of ‘Watchmen,’ “She Was Killed by Space Junk”

HBO/Ringer illustration

This week on Watchmen, Laurie Blake dunked on everyone within arm’s reach, with no regard for human life whatsoever. It’s been 30 years since we last checked in on Laurie—once a costumed vigilante by the name of Silk Spectre—and while she’s a little rougher around the edges than when we last saw her, one thing has stayed the same: She’s tired of superheroes.

For fans of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel (and fans of the movie, wherever you may be), Laurie’s role in Damon Lindelof’s extension of the Watchmen story was highly anticipated; she was one of only four living members of the short-lived, cheesily titled “Crimebusters” vigilante group that remained at the conclusion of the comic series. And for those new to the Watchmen universe, well, you’ve just been introduced to a badass FBI agent carrying a lot of baggage (which literally includes a big blue—eh, never mind).

After two weeks of following former detective Angela Abar and her alter ego Sister Night into the heart of Tulsa’s Seventh Kavalry conflict, Watchmen zooms out in Episode 3, “She Was Killed by Space Junk,” injecting more of the original Watchmen’s influence. While it still remains a mystery as to what Adrian Veidt is doing with all his time and money, the bigger picture is beginning to come into focus.

What’s Happening?

“You know how you can tell the difference between a masked cop and a vigilante? ...Me neither.” Laurie Blake

All screenshots via HBO

Through its first three episodes, much of Watchmen’s screen time has been devoted to establishing the rules of its similar, yet distinctly alternate reality. Anchored by real historical events, the premiere opened with a harrowing recreation of the burning of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street in 1921, while last week’s follow-up began with an African American soldier during World War I reckoning with the futility of fighting for a country that viewed citizens like him second-class. Episode 3, though, dives right into the history of Watchmen.

The entire episode is framed within an elongated joke about a bricklayer and three dead heroes facing God’s judgment, delivered by Laurie Blake to Doctor Manhattan—a fitting introduction to a woman whose father once patrolled the streets as a vigilante named The Comedian (more on that later). Laurie is sitting in a run-down phone booth in Tulsa that’s hooked up to an interplanetary service that enables the caller to reach out to Doctor Manhattan, the blue god on the red planet whom Laurie was romantically involved with for 20 years.

As she begins her joke, we return to the previous day, in Washington D.C., to understand how Laurie ended up in Oklahoma. Laurie is an FBI agent who specializes in taking down masked vigilantes as part of the national Anti-Vigilante Task Force. She and a room full of undercover agents stage a bank robbery, luring a knockoff Batman named Mr. Shadow into a trap that successfully ends with him in handcuffs.

Soon after, Laurie returns to her apartment and receives a surprise visit from Senator Joseph Keene Jr., who made a brief appearance in Episode 2 as a family friend of Tulsa police chief Judd Crawford. The Keene name is a prominent one in the Watchmen universe, as Joseph’s father, also a senator, was the one who authored the 1970s law that made vigilantism illegal, forcing Laurie and her kind into early retirement. Following the “White Night” in Tulsa, when Seventh Kavalry members targeted and killed almost the entire Tulsa police force, Senator Keene amended his father’s bill to allow and regulate the use of masks in law enforcement in order to protect officers’ identities. The Defense of Police Act, or DOPA, is why “former” detective Angela Abar now dresses up as Sister Night, and Keene explains that crime has been down 80 percent in Tulsa since the amendment was passed. Now, other cities around the country are considering adopting the policy as well. “Masks save lives,” Keene tells Laurie. “My reputation—my name—is built on that idea.” With the news of Crawford’s death, as well as the growing suspicion that the Seventh Kavalry was not responsible for it, Keene personally recruited Laurie to take on the case.

Laurie agrees to go, albeit begrudgingly, and the next day we follow her to FBI headquarters for her briefing of the case. We meet agent Dale Petey, an eager young man deemed fit enough to only operate the slide projector at meetings, but whom Laurie still selects to be her partner for the case. Petey’s a big-time nerd, with a vast knowledge of the history of vigilantes and a PhD in history to show for it.

Laurie and Petey travel to Tulsa together, where Laurie immediately shows off her abilities as a detective. She discovers wheelchair tracks left behind by Will Reeves at the police chief’s crime scene. Then she finds the secret compartment in Crawford’s closet that Angela discovered in last week’s episode, before she learns of the chief’s funeral while questioning detective Wade Tillman. (Petey, meanwhile, might as well be Laurie’s pet dog during the investigation, providing little more than company and occasional entertainment.)

While attending Judd’s funeral a few hours later, Laurie crosses paths with Angela for the first time and wastes no time letting Angela know she’s aware of her masked alter ego. As Angela sings during the service, she’s interrupted by a Seventh Kavalry member who snuck into the cemetery with a bomb strapped to his chest and rigged to his heart. He’s there to take the “race traitor”—Senator Keene—claiming that Keene has declared war against the Kavalry and that he needs to surrender himself. Laurie, who smuggled her firearm past security, assumes the Kavalry member is bluffing about the bomb being connected to his heart, and she swiftly shoots him in the head.

The bomb starts beeping, and Angela quickly drags the now-armed explosive body into Judd’s open grave and tosses his casket to muffle the explosion. As Angela surveys the scene while Senator Keene addresses the press hours later, Laurie stops by to clarify that she knows that Angela is hiding information surrounding Crawford’s death, and that there’s a good chance that the Kavalry wasn’t responsible for the killing.

As Laurie concludes her near hourlong joke (with a callback to a joke Rorschach makes in Moore’s comic), our timeline finally catches up to the phone booth Laurie’s been sitting in since the start of the episode. With less than a minute remaining on her call to Mars, Laurie opens up to her former lover. “I don’t know why I keep coming to these stupid phone booths and telling you jokes—it’s not like you ever had a sense of humor, you’re never going to hear this anyway probably,” she says hopelessly to Doctor Manhattan. “The assholes down here still think you give a shit, even though you’ve been living on another fucking planet for 30 years. But we’re not really worth giving a shit about anyway, are we?” Moments after leaving the booth, Jon Osterman seemingly sends his reply: A car falls from above—which appears to be the same car that Angela’s grandfather was departed in at last episode’s end—and an orange blip appears in the night’s sky.

Comic Corner

Laurie Blake and the Heroes of the Past

Let’s take a step back to look at the character whom Moore and Gibbons created and how Laurie became the hardened, wise-cracking FBI agent who travels to Tulsa to investigate the murder of a police chief.

Born Laurel Jane Juspeczyk, Laurie was largely raised by her mother, Sally, the original Silk Spectre and one of the first masked vigilantes to arrive on the scene in the late 1930s. (Quick aside: Sally is also the name of the character who gets killed by space debris in Devo’s “Space Junk,” the song that inspired this episode’s title.) Sally Jupiter was also the first vigilante to realize the commercial benefits of dressing up in costumes to fight crime, using it as a platform to boost her modeling career with the hopes of one day entering the film industry.

After retiring from crime fighting, Sally married her agent, Laurence Schexnayder, but they got divorced only a few years after Laurie’s birth in 1949. The main source of their conflict was the fact that Laurence wasn’t Laurie’s biological father—that was Eddie Blake, a.k.a. the Comedian, unbeknownst to Laurie for well over 30 years. Sally had a complicated relationship with Blake; he once sexually assaulted her after a Minutemen group meeting. It’s a brutally violent scene that was only stopped by Hooded Justice’s intervention (and it’s unfortunately one of several instances of sexual violence against women in Alan Moore’s catelogue of work). But some time later, in spite of everything, Sally developed feelings for Blake, and decades after that—much to Laurie’s dismay—Sally even looked back at Blake and the assault differently. “Laurie, you’re young, you don’t know. Things change,” Sally tells Laurie, explaining how she could still feel sorry for Eddie upon hearing the news of his death. “What happened, happened 40 years ago … it’s history.”

Eddie Blake is unsurprisingly a despicable human being; Doctor Manhattan at one point claims that he had “never met anyone so deliberately amoral.” As a member of both the original vigilante group the Minutemen and its successor, the Crimebusters, Blake was one of the longest active vigilantes, though he was never much of a hero. Along with Doctor Manhattan, Blake transitioned from patrolling the streets as a costumed adventurer to working closely with the American government, playing a crucial role in winning the Vietnam War, where Blake also shot and killed a local woman who was pregnant with his child. (Notably, it’s also heavily implied that the Comedian was the one who assassinated President Kennedy). Similar to Judd Crawford’s death in the HBO series’ premiere, Blake’s death is the incident in the opening pages of graphic novel that triggers Rorschach’s investigation.

Beyond her mother and estranged monster of a father, Laurie had some complicated relationships of her own, which brings us back to the joke that Laurie tells throughout the course of the episode. The three dead heroes at the pearly gates are the “owl guy,” “smartypants,” and “blue god,” or rather, Nite Owl, Ozymandias, and Doctor Manhattan.

Nite Owl—whom Laurie characterizes as technologically savvy but ultimately softer than the Pillsbury Doughboy—was Dan Dreiberg, who, like Laurie, retired from vigilantism when the Keene Act was passed, and was one of the only living former masks to survive the end of Moore’s story. Dan was the quintessential rebound guy for Laurie after her breakup with Jon Osterman. (I’ll break my personal rule of never discussing Zack Snyder’s 2009 film to remind those who’ve forgotten that awkward and accidentially hilarious sex scene that has still ruined Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for me to this day.) After Adrian Veidt successfully carried out his attack on New York, Dan and Laurie both bleach their hair and assume new identities to escape the government. His current whereabouts have yet to be revealed, but some of his inventions—including the goggles that Angela uses and the ship Judd flies in the series premiere—are notably used by the Tulsa police. Senator Keene also convinces Laurie to take on the case by reminding her that—should his presidential run prove successful—he could pardon anyone he wants, and could “even get [her] owl out of that cage” (not referring to Laurie’s literal pet owl, which is sitting a few away from them).

The second hero in Laurie’s joke is Ozymandias, and while Laurie doesn’t have much of a direct connection with Adrian Veidt, she openly acknowledges to Petey that she dislikes the guy. Laurie is, crucially, one of the only people on the planet who knows the truth behind his orchestration of the alien squid destruction of New York. As we know from the past three episodes, Adrian is off somewhere hanging out with his human clone servants (rest in peace to Mr. Phillips II, as well as every other Mr. Phillips whom Adrian’s cycled through in the past), caught up in some sort of hostage scenario he seems to have created for himself for cheap thrills under the watch of a man he exclusively refers to as the “game warden.” We’ll have to check back in on him next week, because it seems like he’s really going off the rails:

The third and final hero is Doctor Manhattan, whom, even decades after Laurie left him due to his increasing ambivalence toward human life and his former life as Jon Osterman, she still loves and holds some suppressed hope that he’ll one day return to Earth. If and when that day ever comes, Laurie remains Earth’s most important connection to the all-powerful blue being.

All these years after retiring her yellow and black Silk Spectre costume, Laurie is back to fighting crime, only this time the criminals are dressed in costumes and taking the law into their own hands just like she used to. Pushed into the vigilante lifestyle by her mother as a teenager, Laurie never had much love for being a hero in the first place, and by the time she had an opportunity to leave she was already in her late 20s and faced with the sad reality that the superhero life was all she’d ever be able to have. Now strapped with a gun and badge, and assuming the name of her late, nihilistic father, Laurie is hunting down the ghosts of her past in the life she never wanted.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.