Pretty much anything was going to be a letdown after last week’s Watchmen, “This Extraordinary Being,” which does so much work to tie together threads from the last five episodes of Watchmen. But episode 7, “An Almost Religious Awe,” still feels like a noticeable stumble for the season, showing a mess of threads coming together in a way that feels less likely than ever to cohere, with some solid acting and bizarre twists that seem to pivot away almost entirely from our new understanding of Will’s history.
Angela’s childhood in Vietnam is the first extensive flashback in the show that simply underlines our understanding of a character, rather than adding to it. We learn that Angela’s parents are killed in a bombing on the holiday commemorating America’s victory in Vietnam. She spends much of her childhood in a Vietnamese orphanage, painting dolls of Doctor Manhattan. She then connects with some Vietnamese police officers, deciding to join the force one day in the spirit of her hero, the black hero Sister Night. (The titular “Nun With The Motherfucking Gun.”) Finally, her grandmother June arrives, prepares to take Angela home to Tulsa, then promptly drops dead of a heart attack.
These scenes are fun enough (particularly in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score), but they do too much to flesh out why, exactly, Angela is the way she is. Regina King is more than talented enough to communicate those layers, and gives us some hints about what got her there. The exact connection of the dots — stuff like the Nun With The Motherf***ing Gun movie — feels unnecessary, and of a piece with some of the lazier tropes in superhero movies that Watchmen has commented on in all its forms. In particular, June’s death is the first plot beat in the series that has fallen utterly flat.
On some level, “This Extraordinary Being” made these scenes superfluous. The wounds of Angela’s ancestors became remarkably clear over the course of that episode, and are repeatedly intercut into her experiences in this episode. The audience should be trusted enough to piece together how those choices still live with her in the present. What does this information mean for Angela? How does it tie into Will and Lady Trieu’s broader plan? We only get feints at answers to both of those questions in this episode, and it feels somewhat frustrating.
It’s possible I’m just annoyed because Regina King doesn’t get a ton to do this episode, mostly wandering around Lady Trieu’s wacky clocktower to figure out what’s going on. Hong Chau is still excellent, especially when she gets to be a bit snittier about the eventual success of her plans — saving the world from the Seventh Kavalry aka Cyclops. We still don’t know what the clocktower is going to do, but we do know that Lady Trieu’s daughter Bian is actually a clone of her mother, who receives memories in the form of a Nostalgia drip.
Lady Trieu says her father will soon be there to witness the culmination of her plans, though he is not there at the moment. This feels like a blatant signpost that the identity of Lady Trieu’s father will be important later—and, to me, it seems like there are only two guesses: Doctor Manhattan or Ozymandias. Chau’s best acting moment, however, comes when she notes that she has told Angela that Doctor Manhattan is pretending to be a human, yet Angela has not asked who he is. She knows.
Everything in this episode is both too neat and unresolved. When Laurie confronts Jane Crawford, she spells out the lesson of “This Extraordinary Being” in terms that make the rich, textured episode of television feel like a didactic after-school special: “White men in masks are heroes. But black men in masks? Are scary.”
Laurie gets dropped through a trap door into the basement of the Crawford house, which turns out to be another Cyclops base of operations. (I can imagine thinking Laurie would be one step ahead of Jane here, but I do like that she has yet again underestimated someone.) She thinks Cyclops is using the police as a false flag to get a white supremacist elected president, just your sort of basic, run-of-the-mill diabolical plan. But the real Cyclops scheme is even bigger: They’re going to turn Joe Keene into another Doctor Manhattan. As a plan, this feels sufficiently large to be a master plot, but it also feels a bit mundane. The political and racial machinations of Cyclops feel far more compelling and deeply motivated than it sounds listening to James Wolk just say that it’s hard to be a white man in America.
Still, this is an episode of Watchmen, so there’s a lot of fun, batshit stuff happening. The appearance of the elephant — an animal that never forgets — is pure Leftovers, calling back to the show’s seemingly bizarre insertions with lions and tigers. The Cerebro-like lair in which Lady Trieu is able to see what everyone says in their prayers-slash-phone calls to Doctor Manhattan is potentially quite menacing. And, of course, there’s the revelation at the end of the episode: Angela’s husband Calvin is Doctor Manhattan.
I’d seen a few people suggesting this might be the case over the course of the season — his calm demeanor, his perspective on death, his consistent costuming in the color blue, and, above all, Laurie’s frequent remarks about his appearance — but this is still a pretty wild thing to learn. Dropping this information so late in the game is certainly audacious, but it also feels like Angela’s relationship with her husband is going to largely supplant her relationship with her grandfather as the season (and, potentially, series) concludes.
One of the great things about the series is the way it has made Doctor Manhattan feel almost incidental to the broader world of Watchmen. Everyone treats him like a force of nature, a myth that hangs over the costumed history of the world. Everyone has different thoughts and feelings about him, and we learn more about them by watching their reactions. Actually focusing on Doctor Manhattan is, in some ways, the least interesting part. But in next week’s episode, that’s exactly what Damon Lindelof looks to do.