[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Watchmen” Episode 3, “She Was Killed by Space Junk.”]
Damon Lindelof likes his jokes. Since a joke is just a story with a punchline, it should come as no surprise that Lindelof tells his jokes just like he tells the rest of his stories: There’s an intriguing premise, a lengthy middle (with a few curious twists and turns tossed in), and the punchline is often a thinker. He told a great joke, perhaps the greatest I’ve ever heard in a TV drama, during “The Leftovers” Season 2, stretching a knock knock joke from the premiere to the penultimate episode before revealing the sum total of its payoff.
So, like just about everything else in “Watchmen,” when Laurie Blake (Jean Smart, at the top of her extraordinary game) picks up the telephone to speak with Dr. Manhattan (casting TBA) at the start of Episode 3, “She Was Killed by Space Junk,” it wasn’t simply for her or his amusement. In both the literal and figurative sense, Laurie was delivering a message — and that message didn’t reach its audience until the eponymous space junk (aka Angela Abar’s abducted automobile) nearly killed her. As the joke unfolded, viewers learned so much about the former Silk Spectre, a bit more about the death of Chief Crawford (Don Johnson), and even got one more joke tossed in the middle.
The third episode of “Watchmen,” co-written by Lindelof and fellow “Leftovers” talent Lila Byock, captured the best elements of the series’ complex roots and aspirations, delivering a compelling character study and a vehement condemnation of self-indulgent idol worship, all while very much earning its last laugh.
Masks Off: What We Know
Aligned with Laurie’s distaste for masks of any sort, her joke is a brazenly obvious reference to her former crew’s most notorious members. The first dead hero visiting heaven is Nite Owl, aka Daniel Dreiberg, a vigilant and inventive crimefighter who Laurie ended up marrying at the end of the comic book. The second hero is Ozymandias, or Adrian Veidt, who was confirmed to be Jeremy Irons’ character in this episode, but that’s neither here nor there. In the joke, Ozymandias tries to justify dropping a squid on Manhattan and killing 3 million people, but God isn’t having that either. Nite Owl is too soft, Ozymandias too monstrous — off to hell with them both.
But what about Dr. Manhattan, the third hero, who’s practically a God himself? Nope, he’s not good enough for heaven either, and down to depths he goes. But here’s where Lindelof’s framing comes into play. Laurie’s joke started earlier, with a meticulous bricklayer who was frustrated by his failure to build the perfect BBQ for his daughter. Before he can break up the whole thing and start over, his daughter asks him to stop — she has an idea for the outlying brick. And while God was staring at the heroes, He forgot all about the little girl with the brick, just like the audience may have over the course of the flashy, action-packed episode. So as He looks at the normal, powerless little girl, the brick comes smashing down on God’s head, killing him, and sending him to hell. Because those who get so obsessed with hero worship that they forget about humanity, well, they’re just as bad as the heroes who forgot their own.
What a punchline, right? After spending an hour watching Laurie shoot masked vigilantes in the back without worrying for their survival and going after cops and cop-killers with equal disregard for their safety, it’s clear Laurie doesn’t like, trust, or support anyone in Tulsa. And she has every right to feel that way. Not only did she live through life as a hero and now works as an unmasked law enforcer — facing her fame even when it means confronting curious fanboys like Agent Petey (Dustin Ingram) — but her episode-long joke to Dr. Manhattan tells us even more about her mindset.
Laurie, in the joke, is the bricklayer’s daughter. She’s not taking any shit from anyone, not even God. (The fact that she’s a platinum user of the Blue Booth network should tell you how comfortable she is speaking truth to power — if the booths are like a confessional, and her calls stand-ins for prayers, then Laurie doesn’t ask Dr. Manhattan for anything. She tells him.) Dr. Manhattan is just one tangible step down from God, and she’s spending her time telling him off for abandoning humanity (hence his fiery fate in the joke, punishment for a reality he’s given himself.) Who amongst the heroes is the most despicable? Adrian Veidt, of whom she tells Petey she’s “also not a fan.” He’s labeled a monster in her joke for killing all those people, and Laurie sees his irresponsible act as assuming the role of God, after being drunk with power for too long.
That all of this information substantiates the actions Laurie takes only goes to show how well “Watchmen” is blending character development with narrative momentum. Laurie’s formation is clear, but to better show off how much happened this week, look at the episode from Angela’s (Regina King) perspective: What’s changed? The FBI came to Tulsa. The Tulsa P.D. are still interrogating residents of Nixonville. One of the Seventh Kavalry members tried to kill Senator Keene (James Wolk) and take a few cops with him. The FBI knows her identity. The FBI is suspicious of her dead captain (and probably her, too). The power dynamic has shifted, and suddenly the clock is ticking even faster.
Even if Episode 3 had taken a break from the core plot, who cares? When the story is this good, you just have to sit back and enjoy it. Jean Smart sure did. From her brash, “who gives a shit” attitude toward everyone, to the vulnerability she showed at the end of that phone call, to her epic intimidation showdown with Angela (which, I’d have to call a draw), Smart relished every second of this meticulously crafted ode to her character. Plus, it let her cut loose, shoot a gun, and have a damn good time showing off. Damon Lindelof crafted a joke. Jean Smart delivered it perfectly. It’s absolutely fine for an episode of television to be only about that (even though “Watchmen” will never settle for being about less than six things).
Masks On: What We Want to Know
Where — or what — is Nite Owl?
Going back to the joke — since apparently I love them as much as Lindelof — there was one more part that told us a bit about Laurie: the first hero, Nite Owl. In the joke, he’s punished for being “too soft,” which is far from a damnable crime. He didn’t kill anyone, like Adrian, and he didn’t give up on people, like Dr. Manhattan. But he still faced the same consequence, so there’s something Laurie has not forgiven him for: Did he turn himself in? Did he sell his gadgets to the government and give up on a life of crimefighting? Did he get killed in the line of duty?
Her conversation with Senator Keene seems to eliminate the last possibility. When trying to convince Laurie to investigate what’s going on in Tulsa, Keene says if he becomes president, “He can even get your owl out of that cage.” The quid pro quo seems to be if Laurie goes to Tulsa, Keene will let Nite Owl out… of prison? The only prisoner we’ve seen is Adrian, who we found out this week was kept in “captivity” by “The Game Warden.” Who the latter is and what the former means we don’t yet know, but there’s also the possibility that Keene was speaking literally — maybe “Who” is actually Nite Owl/Daniel. Maybe he’s trapped in the body of an owl. Maybe that’s insane, but there are cars and squids falling from the sky. Anything is possible.
What the hell is going on with Adrian Veidt? (Part III)
Yes! As long rumored and all but confirmed by the show, Jeremy Irons is playing Adrian Veidt — that much we know after this week. We also know that his luxurious accommodations are nothing more than the world’s most regal prison, and that his plan to escape involves chucking his cloned servants into the sky via a medieval-era catapult. The Game Warden stands in his way, guarding the edge of Adrian’s territory as clearly marked by an old-timey pirate flag. Basically, everything makes sense now, and we have no further questions for Adrian. What a fun couple weeks. Glad that’s over.
So who dropped the car out of the sky?
By all appearances — including the 40 seconds that passed after Laurie’s call ended and the car dropped, which is just enough time for her message to reach Mars — it was Dr. Manhattan, proving that he hasn’t forgotten about the little girl throwing bricks. But appearances can be deceiving, and for as much as Lindelof loves jokes, he loves subverting assumptions even more…
Who directed this episode, and will they return in Season 1?
OK, we can answer this one: Stephen Williams, and yes, in Episode 6 — which you cannot miss. Every brick has its place. Tick tock.
“Watchmen” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.