clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Watchmen episode 9 ended the series too soon

Damon Lindelof’s series loses meaning in the end

sister night stands in a leather jacket in the middle of a warehouse Photo: Mark Hill/HBO

“See How They Fly,” the Watchmen season (and potentially series) finale, starts in 1985, in the middle of the events of the Watchmen book—a break from the rest of the show, which has studiously avoided depicting most parts of the source material. Rather than focusing on The Comedian’s murder, or Rorschach, or any of the other iconic parts of Watchmen, the series follows a cleaning woman at Adrian Veidt’s Antarctic headquarters as she impregnates herself with a sample of Veidt’s semen. This is Lady Trieu’s origin story.

It’s a compelling choice, a reinterpretation of the comic of the sort that has worked exceptionally well earlier in Watchmen. But for the most part, “See How They Fly” is, literally, spectacular. It feels big, and like a genuine superhero story in a way the series often hasn’t, and in a way the Watchmen book rarely did.

There’s the straight-out-of-Star Wars sight of Veidt being encased in some kind of golden stasis goop, transformed into the statue we saw in Lady Trieu’s garden so he can be sent back to Earth from Europa. There’s the summary execution of the Cyclops leadership, starting with Senator Keene melting himself into ooze and culminating with Lady Trieu evaporating everyone else with lasers. There’s Doctor Manhattan’s death, complete with a slo-mo shot of Angela being knocked backward, like she’s The Comedian getting thrown out of the window. And there’s Adrian Veidt raining frozen squids down on Tulsa — exploding the clocktower and sending Lady Trieu to her doom.

All of this is a lot of fun to watch, and it looks cool as hell. But, instead of an exciting conclusion to the Watchmen TV show, “See How They Fly” feels like a different series entirely, one that exists primarily to deliver comic book imagery in the name of sensory overload, rather than one that effectively utilizes comic book imagery to tell its own story, and to make compelling arguments about heroism, history, and policing.

lady triu stands in front of a doctor manhattan phone booth in a white dress and hat Photo: Mark Hill/HBO

In the end, Watchmen turns out to be a touch simpler than it appeared, and Angela is, simultaneously, the show’s greatest achievement and biggest flaw. Regina King’s performance has been stunning, grounding a story that has frequently threatened to fly off the rails. Whether it’s concern about her colleagues, hard-headed brutality, or maternal concern, King has breathed believable life into every relationship she’s asked to have. She makes sense as a wife, a mother, granddaughter, and as The Nun With The Motherfucking Gun. But that’s just the problem: King is being asked to play emotions in order to make Angela fit into this narrative, a bizarrely shaped piece that completes a big blue puzzle that only reveals its shape in the last few minutes of the season.

At the beginning of the series, Angela was compelling on her own — good at her job, protective of her family, a raw nerve. By the end, she became a more passive figure, largely defined by her largely accidental relationships with characters from the original Watchmen book: Her grandfather happened to be Hooded Justice, which only sort of has a bearing on the eventual death of her husband, Doctor Manhattan. These are two bold, big swings, threads that seriously change the way the show deals with its source material. There isn’t enough room to do both of them justice.

In a way, Watchmen is a victim of its own success. The first two-thirds of the season were sensational, building to the revelation of Will’s backstory. But, rather than addressing how Angela would react to that information, and how her family history might inform her actions when confronted with modern-day white supremacists, the series moved on entirely, deciding to focus on the sexier, bluer figure of her husband.

All of the individual parts around Doctor Manhattan end up fitting together in a mostly cohesive way — but it’s still unsatisfying. James Wolk is very funny in delivering Keene’s big villain speech, but Cyclops is dismissed with the wave of a hand. (I get that it’s tough to balance the attitudes of “white supremacists are needy babies” and “white supremacists are worth taking seriously as a threat,” but still.) And though Lady Trieu claims she will use Doctor Manhattan’s unused power to save the world, everyone just sort of decides that it would be bad for her to become a god for some reason.

Veidt’s speech about how it takes a narcissistic monster to know one, so of course Lady Trieu shouldn’t be successful, is just one of a few moments in “See How They Fly” that veers from clever into writerly, and a bit out of character. In another such moment, earlier in the episode, Veidt tells Lady Trieu he will never call her daughter — just so that a couple of minutes later we can see him spell out “SAVE ME, DAUGHTER” in bodies. Will says that Jon was a good man, but that he could have done more for the world. Was he a good man? Part of the point of the original Watchmen is that he is, in fact, not a good man, and isn’t even really a man at all. Several of these pieces of “See How They Fly” feel like just that: pieces. They’re clockwork components, making the whole come together.

Laurie (Jean Smart) sits handcuffed to a chair in front of the Cyclops logo Photo: Mark Hill/Polygon

The presence of these forced pieces calls attention to what’s missing. There’s no scene in which Laurie actually gets to have a conversation with Jon instead of just looking surprised to see him. (Jean Smart sells this as well as she can, but it feels bizarre that they don’t ever get to interact.) Apparently it doesn’t fit to really dig into Lady Trieu’s motivations, or what she would actually do with Doctor Manhattan’s power. It doesn’t fit to spend some time with the traumatized children — Angela’s kids, as well as the somewhat-awakened, terrified Bian. And it’s all part of Jon’s master plan, which is also Damon Lindelof’s master plan: ending the series on the image of Angela’s blue foot about to hit the water.

For a brief moment, I thought Angela was going to break the egg containing Doctor Manhattan’s “atomic components” into the pool, which would have fit with the overall thematic thrust of the series — that, to quote another brilliant narcissist, no one man should have all that power. It would fit with Will’s assessment that masks hide fear and hurt. And it would repudiate the idea that Jon had somehow orchestrated or planned for all of the events of the series, including the squid missiles and more mass death. But no; Watchmen ends with Angela eating the egg, so she can walk on water.

In some ways, ending the series with Angela becoming a god is, itself, a bit of a copout. Watchmen as a comic — and much of Watchmen as a TV show — has focused on the consequences of power, and how people choose to use it. We might say we know Angela well enough to know what she will do with Doctor Manhattan-level power. But do we? In theory, it seems like she’ll repudiate her family history, and heed her grandfather’s words about masks.

I don’t buy it. Angela is hard-headed, and simply experiencing her grandfather’s memories hasn’t done much to change that. The back end of this season has made her fundamentally passive, without giving her time to grapple with Will’s history and how she wants to respond to it.

angela/sister night takes a step into her swimming pool after drinking Doctor Manhattan’s DNA in Watchmen Image: HBO

More than that, it raises questions that “A God Walks Into Abar” effectively elided about how Jon experiences the world. Will Angela also fall prey to nihilism? Will she even be able to improve the world if she wants to? What will happen next? These are probably the sort of thought-provoking topics I’m supposed to be digging into now, in a vein similar to the question of whether Nora actually used the machine in The Leftovers, or whether and how Don Draper created the famous Coke ad.

But those are ambiguous questions about characters that become debatable after the show ends, ones that depend on your perspective of what the show was about. They’re not based on the arbitrary way a hypothetical superhero experiences time, something that could change based on your optimism or pessimism about the world. I don’t want to see this rushed origin story version of Watchmen. I want to see what comes after.

And really, I just want to see more. Watchmen season 1 was high-calibre television. The score is fantastic. The performances are great. On an episodic basis, there’s been some really incredible stuff. The whole thing is just overstuffed, and worked better in its smaller moments, creating characters I wanted to spend more time with, rather than ditching them at the end. I wanted more of Laurie, more of Lady Trieu, more of Angela, and, especially, more Looking Glass. (Poor Looking Glass; whacking Veidt with a wrench is funny but also not exactly a great character beat to end on.) Nine episodes doesn’t feel like nearly enough to tell the story that this season was trying to tell.

Still, for all that “See How they Fly” frustrates me, I can’t help but feel a sort of religious awe. I’m being hard on this episode because the series has been so good until now, and because even the stuff that doesn’t work in the finale is still well done and enjoyable, albeit frustrating. (The endless samples of Veidt semen are hilarious, and though the squid missiles are ridiculous they also look extremely good. It’s wild that this all somehow feels predictable, even though it’s nuts.) Watchmen may not have been more than the sum of its parts, but the parts are pretty damn good. Like Doctor Manhattan or the original Watchmen, it’s bizarre that this even exists at all. Maybe that’s enough.

Read our full episodic review coverage of Watchmen season 1:

Episode 1, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice”
Episode 2, “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship”
Episode 3, “She Was Killed by Space Junk”
Episode 4, “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own”
Episode 5, “Little Fear of Lightning”
Episode 6, “This Extraordinary Being”
Episode 7, “An Almost Religious Awe”
Episode 8, “A God Walks into Abar”

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon