I’m writing a whole lot more about HBO’s Watchmen than I had anticipated when the series started. More thoughts on the latest developments on the show after the spoiler space…
HBO’s Watchmen is getting a great deal of praise and many parties are already campaigning for award nominations, with IndieWire calling for Watchmen to be nominated for “all the awards” and The Guardian calling it a “masterpiece” that is “almost too much to bear.” These parties need to slow their roll just a bit. First, this is a superhero story and superheroes don’t get much respect when it comes to “serious” awards. Even if they did, after ten-plus years of the MCU plus a boatload of TV shows, we might be coming up on some superhero burnout anyway. Plus we should take into account that Lindelof’s Watchmen, while not an adaptation, is still more of an extrapolation of sorts and not wholly original. It’s derivative, in other words, and that will probably cost it some points come awards season. (And kudos to Cracked for reminding us all that the series probably has no business existing in the first place.)
But really… is the show truly as great as people are making it out to be? I mean, I hate to keep doing this, but I guess it’s left to me to be Captain Buzzkill yet again.
What’s Up Doc?
Take the latest offering—#8, the penultimate episode of the season, “A God Walks Into Abar.” This is the first we see of Lindelof’s version of Dr. Manhattan, and it is a technical marvel with all the time jumps representing Manhattan’s point of view, and even has some beautiful ideas behind it… but it is also deeply flawed, as they don’t seem to get how Dr. Manhattan’s perception of time truly functions. (Or worse: they misuse his perception of time as a lazy writing tool.)
The whole reason Doc shows up in this particular bar on this particular night is because his knowledge of the future tells him he’s supposed to be there. He’s meant to meet Angela Abar and fall in love with her—a sweet and romantic notion, but not in keeping with Alan Moore’s version of the character. Moore’s Doc is aware of everything happening at once, yes, but his choices, reactions, and (few) emotions are felt in conventional, linear time just like you and me. It raises some fiercely interesting questions about free will and predestination in the original comic that are never neatly answered, likely because Moore didn’t see any neat answers to such questions.
There should have been a more logical reason for Doc to return to Earth and then meet Angela incidentally, somehow. Instead he meets her because he perceives it’s “supposed” to happen. It seems to me that they needed to have Manhattan’s perceptions work this way because it was necessary to get them where they wanted to go in terms of plot. Now I’ve been blogging for a number of years at this point, and anyone that’s been following closely knows that I’ve established some rules for criticism of writing over this span. One of them is that if something has to happen because PLOT, that’s weak writing; possibly bad writing. (Oftentimes VERY BAD writing.) And this series has fallen into the PLOT trap several times, with this most recent Dr. Manhattan episode possibly being the worst example.
Let me point out that the Lindelof interpretation would also eliminate the free will debate, as this interpretation tells us there is no free will, everything is predestined, and we’re all slaves to fate. So all you philosophy majors out there can drop that existentialism course; don’t even waste your time.
I’m sure there are people out there who will bombard me with evidence from the comics that I’m wrong, but you likely misread the source material in the same manner that Lindelof appears to have done. And I know exactly where you’re going: to the sequence where Doc returns to Earth and takes Laurie to Mars with him, because he tells her, “I believe we have a conversation scheduled.” He says this because he perceives it happening in the future as he’s speaking, not because he’s acting out some predestined script. He’s there because he still cares about Laurie (somewhere inside of what little true humanity he has left), and he wants to talk to her. I believe my view is backed up later when the two are on Mars and he is legitimately upset to hear she’s sleeping with Dreiberg even though he already knew about the affair before she told him.
Everything Doc does in the comic, all his choices, they all make linear-time sense. He met Janey Slater incidentally, he met Silk Spectre/Laurie incidentally, and he should have met Angela the same way in the TV show. They should have met in a more natural way, not in the contrived way they gave us, which feels like bad, lazy writing to me. It’s easier to just say it was “supposed” to happen than to do the difficult, exhausting, dirty work that’s necessary for good writing.
Of course, this wasn’t the only thing they got wrong.
Doc only has one simultaneous conversation across time in the comic, and this is solely due to the presence of the tachyon particles—I speak of the scene in Antarctica where he talks to both Laurie and Rorshach at the same time from his perspective, but seconds apart from their subjective perspectives. As I said before, outside of this abnormal circumstance (with the tachyon particles present), Doc still makes choices and reacts in linear time, which means the scene from the most recent television episode where he’s talking to both Angela and her grandfather across time, in both 2009 and 2019 at once, should not have happened. But of course, this scene is necessary to make the whole story work. In other words, it had to happen because PLOT, so it happened.
…So this was the worst part of the episode. Now some nit picking.
At the end of the comic, Doc plans to go to another galaxy, one “less complicated,” and possibly “create some” human life. Europa is not in another galaxy, it’s our galaxy, and there’s no way the human life he planned to create was the same two humans over and over again.
Also, the way it all works on Europa feels wrong to me as well. Fishing these fetus-things out of a pond and sticking them in some kind of giant microwave to make people; the seeming steampunk-level of science and technology… it’s an interesting flavor of weird, but it feels a lot closer to, say, David Lynch, than to Alan Moore. (Back on Earth, Angela getting memory treatments from an elephant has the same sorta feel.) If Moore’s work is the base from which you’re operating, I think it behooves you to try and maintain his flavor, at least to some extent.
Generally speaking, the science in the show is really weak, particularly when compared to the original comic, where the science was pretty strong. The idea of the Seventh Kavalry hijacking Doc’s powers feels fairly ridiculous to me. The key to Doc’s omnipotence is the ability to restructure himself after the subtraction of his intrinsic field—the first “trick” he learned. How does such a “trick” get passed along or stolen?
And that thing that gets put into Doc’s head to make him forget feels like a really lazy pseudo-MacGuffin to me. I have no idea how it’s supposed to work, nor how Veidt ever planned to get it into his head in the first place. This is supposedly the smartest man in the world, wouldn’t you expect him to concoct more feasible plans? Also: if it were possible to hijack Doc’s powers, wouldn’t Adrian have thought of this first (and likely done it)?
And then Angela has to smash his head in with a hammer to get the device out? This is both really weird and kinda stupid.
As long as we brought up Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, I don’t think Lindelof ever had a handle on him. Maybe this is partially Jeremy Irons’s fault, but it’s probably more the writing. Passing wind as a response during that faux court scene a couple episodes back is one example, as I don’t see the dignified Veidt taking such juvenile action, but the worst was the fifth episode, “Little Fear of Lightning,” where it’s revealed that he made a confession tape about the squid incident of 11-2. Now let’s think about this for a second… think about all the people Veidt killed to keep a lid on this; people with just the vaguest knowledge of even the smallest part of his plan. You’re telling me that after all that, the guy would make a confession tape? Worst of all, the way Lindelof sets it up, he records this confession before the plan is even enacted! Are you kidding me? This one crosses the line into absolute mindlessness.
Overall, Veidt’s Wile E. Coyote-like adventures on Europa feel silly, self indulgent, and ultimately pointless. The character would have been better served if you just left him on Earth and gave him Lady Trieu’s role.
Laurie/Silk Spectre is only slightly better; I’m not sure Lindelof has much of a feel for her either. Putting aside her working for the FBI now and completely turning on her fellow masks, the most glaring error made with her is the torch she still appears to carry for Dr. Manhattan. In the comic she goes running to Dreiberg after Manhattan’s ill-conceived ménage a trois (or whatever you want to call it) and it’s clear it’s not this one incident that has her so distraught—it’s the last straw after many years of wrestling with his disconnect from humanity. Over the course of the rest of the series, it’s clear she’s much happier with the human relationship she enjoys with Dreiberg and has zero regrets over leaving Dr. Manhattan.
They even manage to mischaracterize Captain Metropolis/Nelson Gardner in the little we see of him. In the television series he’s portrayed as not being truly interested in accomplishing anything good in the world, appearing more concerned with self-promotion and profiting off playing superhero. In the comics however, when he tries to form a new superhero team in 1966 (the Crime-Busters), nearly two decades after the dissolution of the Minutemen, there’s nothing to suggest his motives are anything but pure. When the meeting breaks down, he pleads with his fellow masks, “Somebody has to save the world…” There was also nothing in the comics to suggest he profited a single penny his superhero career. By everything we were shown, he was a good-hearted person.
Basically, the best things about this television iteration of Watchmen are the new characters and other new things Lindelof and company have introduced. All of the original characters feel wrong here, to some extent or other. I feel this demonstrates yet again that they should have created their own original show without trying to piggyback on the work of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. But then it probably wouldn’t be getting nearly so much attention if it were titled anything but Watchmen.
So the season (and perhaps series) finale is two days away. If Lindelof is being honest on the official show podcast, then everything will be wrapped up and fully explained with no dangling threads. He’s said this one season could stand on its own, but with the critical praise and overall buzz, it’s hard to imagine it not coming back for more seasons. In any event, I’m guessing the Seventh Kavalry is thwarted and the heroes stand tall at the end.
The one thing I remain curious about is Hooded Justice.
In the penultimate issue of the original comic series (#11, Aug. 1987), Veidt revealed that he “investigated the mid-fifties disappearance of Hooded Justice” and came up empty. In the world of the television series, Hooded Justice wouldn’t be all that hard to find, considering he’s the guy Captain Metropolis left most of his wealth to in his will. He’d be even easier to find for the world’s smartest man, no? So I’m wondering, what if Veidt actually found Hooded Justice and agreed to keep his identity secret? What if he shared some of what he learned during his travels in the far east to keep himself youthful and strong? I mean, the guy is over a hundred years old and he sure does get around well, right? There has to be an explanation for this.
So whatever else happens, I’m sure we’re going to get a little more backstory on HJ/Will Reeves and I’m looking forward to discovering more about him.
A Closing Word (or Two) on the CW Crisis
While I gave up on the CW superhero shows a couple years ago, I must admit this Crisis crossover does have me intrigued. Not that I’m expecting it to be any good—quite the opposite, in fact: I’m expecting it to be a disaster.
I have DVR’d it and have yet to watch it, so I can’t offer any commentary at the moment. I’m normally not the type to watch something I’m expecting to be terrible, but what the hell, I’m going to give it a go. Even if it fails to reach the so-bad-it’s-good level of entertainment, there are supposed to be a ton of cameos from former superhero actors, which should be fun. Keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll see Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman one last time—this alone would make the three hours of viewing worth it.