Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen is famous for a lot of things, but it wouldn’t have nearly the impact if not for the genre-defying shock of its ending. Nothing is as it seems at the end of Watchmen, and yet the reader can look back through the story and find all the ways in which its conclusion was telegraphed and inevitable.
Adrian Veidt’s squid plot, and his iconic line “I did it thirty-five minutes ago,” is a twist that really only works the one time. But thankfully HBO’s Watchmen found clever ways to echo the ending of the original Watchmen in its own finale.
[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for episode 9 of HBO’s Watchmen.]
HBO’s series makes references both big and thematic, as well as small and character-specific, in its season 1 finale, “See How They Fly.”
Early on in the episode, Adrian Veidt catches a bullet, in a transposition of the same event in Watchmen #12. Doctor Manhattan is involuntarily discorporated, but this time for keeps.
As he observes the final steps of Lady Trieu’s plan, Veidt mutters “Canaan is devastated, Ashkelon is fallen, Gezer is ruined, Venoam is reduced to nothing. Israel is desolate and her seed is no more, and Palestine has become a widow for Egypt,” a bit of ancient hieroglyphic speech about the victories of Egyptian rulers over invasion — the same that he recited in the joy of his victory at the end of Watchmen.
Then he caps the phrase off by saying “The end is nigh,” the phrase emblazoned on the sign of a homeless man who appears several times in Watchmen before being revealed to be Rorschach’s civilian disguise.
In a cheeky twist, Veidt saves the world again by teleporting a squid from his Antarctic base of Karnak. But this time, he uses a metric ton of them to foil a plan rather than complete it, and he gets arrested for his trouble, in contrast to Watchmen’s chilling finish. Laurie Blake/Silk Spectre and Wade Tillman/Looking Glass decide the world is ready to know of his crimes, even if it means arresting president Robert Redford himself.
The Watchmen Easter eggs aren’t just little things
“See How They Fly” has more than mere references to compare with Watchmen #12: it also has symmetry.
Heroes who show up expecting to unpack one conspiracy only find another larger one nested inside. In this case, Lady Trieu’s big plan to incapacitate Doctor Manhattan and using great power in a ego-motivated attempt to save the world, which needed Cyclops’ supremacist plot to work.
Ironically, it’s a television series that has a much more comic-booky ending than its comic book inspiration. Lady Trieu’s plans are undone, specifically by her father, Adrian Veidt, but more broadly by her own need for recognition. The heroes emerge victorious, though not without a noble sacrifice from one of their own. They even do away with all the figureheads of the secret society bent on instilling their own warped viewpoint on the world, without doing much to address the root causes of that viewpoint. There’s nothing more superheroic than that!
But at the same time, “See How They Fly” places a deliberate cap on costumed crime fighting and all it has wrought in the series’ timeline. Ozymandias is destined for jail, Doctor Manhattan has been destroyed — permanently, we are led to believe — and Tulsa will probably do away with the whole “masked cop” idea once it comes out that it was all a white supremacist plot. As William Reeves tells Angela, you can’t heal with a mask on. The world, now, gets a chance to heal.
But the show can’t resist ending on a question, rather than an answer. Nor should it, with “Nothing ever ends” as one of the bywords of the Watchmen comic. Our final shot is of Angela, ready to test if she’s become the inheritor of Doctor Manhattan’s powers. It’s a decidedly un-Watchmen-like note of possibility and hope, contrasted with the comic’s final shot: Rorschach’s journal, poised to reveal Veidt’s plan to the world.
But whether Angela has become a god, and what she’ll do with her powers, is left up to the imagination.