[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Watchmen” Episode 8, “A God Walks Into Abar.”]
So much of what’s made “Watchmen” one of 2019’s best series is how effectively it brings superheroes down to size. From keeping Sister Night (Regina King) grounded in Angela Abar’s perspective to watching a caped crusader (Jeremy Irons) rip one in the middle of his own trial, Damon Lindelof’s adaptation is intent on demystifying the mythical attachment we have to men and women wearing masks. They’re just people, people are flawed, so you have to look behind the mask to see what’s really going on. And yet no one person is just anything. As exemplified by riveting and revealing episodic storytelling, where new characters emerge and earn their hourlong spotlights, “Watchmen” intensifies the majesty of our human experience, even as it keeps its cast on equal footing to the rest of us.
Episode 8 invites a unique, compelling twist on that challenge: How do you humanize a god? The answer boils down to one word: love. Yes, Episode 8 is a love story (which should come as no surprise to Lindelof fans). In the “Watchmen” comic, Dr. Manhattan was a man who became a god, and here he’s a god who becomes a man. There’s a beautiful symmetry to these two stories; one about losing your tether to humanity and the other about rediscovering it. Written by Lindelof and Jeff Jensen, directed by Nicole Kassell, Episode 8 is devoutly told from Dr. Manhattan’s perspective — for some, such faith may prove frustrating, but for those unhurried viewers, “A God Walks Into Abar” delivers a magnificent, heart-wrenching story that’s far more magical than any superpower. It’s what some may call a thermodynamic miracle.
Masks Off: What We Know
Finally unveiled to be hiding within Cal Abar (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) last week, the blue doctor has always represented Zeus-like power in the hands of a mere mortal. In addition to a naked allegory for nuclear energy, he’s the ultimate superhero stand-in: a regular guy transformed into an all-knowing, all-powerful super-being. Alan Moore’s comic went a long way to portray the former Jon Osterman as an imperfect deity. Struggling with expectations thrust upon him and bogged down by a new vision of the world, Dr. Manhattan grew distant from humanity.
Lindelof and Jensen take the idea even further, showing Manhattan build a utopia on one of Jupiter’s moons (Europa) — creating a perfect world so idyllic it doesn’t feel real — before abandoning his disciples to chase an elusive but logical next step: getting in touch with Jon again. After spending years as a glowing god, he misses the easily overlooked virtues of humanity, and HBO’s “Watchmen” sees him take the drastic step to forget his abilities and live as a human once more. Fittingly, the episode starts with Dr. Manhattan putting on a mask. Just as fittingly, it never lets us see what’s on the other side — not until he’s merged with Cal in such a way that the two are inseparable. God cannot be seen, but man can.
Still, dwelling on the past may prove frustrating to some viewers. If you want to see what happens next in the present — when Angela smashes Cal’s face to help her defend against the Seventh Kavalry — Lindelof & Co. take a while to get there. The first 41 minutes of Episode 8 are largely spent filling in the details about events that have already been glossed over, mentioned, or assumed. Just like Dr. Manhattan, we know what Angela is going to do when she’s standing over three dead bodies in the morgue and none of them look like Cal. When Dr. Manhattan gives her the ring that will make him forget his powers, we know Angela is going to suggest they move to Tulsa and come up with a fake accident to explain Cal’s condition — because that’s already happened in previous episodes.
Colin Hutton / HBO
But this is Dr. Manhattan’s episode, and to Dr. Manhattan, time happens continuously. He’s constantly reliving events that have already happened, are about to happen, and are happening now. In “A God Walks Into Abar,” we’re given a taste of that experience, and playing God for an hour turns out to be just as extraordinary and frustrating as Dr. Manhattan makes it out to be. We’re once again grounded in a new perspective, and once again a would-be superhero is brought back down to size.
What elevates the episode throughout is exactly what burdens it: the details. Dr. Manhattan’s story resonates because of its distinct humanity. Much of what Angela and Dr. Manhattan discuss in the bar is familiar, like any other TV couple’s flashback to how they first met, but their meet-cute is magnetic. King and Abdul-Mateen build quick chemistry and a casual rapport, and Lindelof and Jensen craft elegant exchanges that still feel natural. When Angela repeatedly dismisses Dr. Manhattan, thinking it’s just some guy in blue makeup, it’s funny and exciting not only because we know it’s actually Dr. Manhattan, but also because we know they end up together (again, just like Dr. Manhattan does). Their dialogue is so crisp and flirty, you understand why she agrees to go to dinner with him, even when she remains skeptical of his repeated assertion.
All of this builds up to what happens in the present day, and another possible hang-up for certain viewers: the 10-year promise. Early in their barroom conversation, Dr. Manhattan tells Angela their relationship will last 10 years and end “tragically.” Angela, still thinking this is just some guy in blue makeup, accepts the time limit as a practical expectation. “That seems manageable,” she says. “I’ll still be young. I can fall in love again.” But the audience knows better — and it hurts. We’ve just been told that our favorite “Watchmen” couple is about to break up, tragically; worse yet, the heartbreaking news was delivered with less than a shrug.
That’s the way of Dr. Manhattan, and that’s the way of the episode. To Lindelof and Jensen’s credit, the tragic moment isn’t treated as a twist. Rather, it’s treated as an inevitability. So often are we reminded of the 10-year time limit, that when Angela grabs her guns and runs outside to save her husband, the biggest shootout since the premiere isn’t depicted with the same pulse-pounding score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, or the quick cutting excitement Kassell built for the cattle ranch. Somber music and wailing voices accompany Angela’s mission, and they only intensify when Dr. Manhattan shows up to save her. There’s no twist here. Dr. Manhattan is not wrong. He is taken away from Angela, and this is probably the end of their romance.
Therein lies Episode 8’s devastating power. What made Dr. Manhattan fall in love with Angela, what brought him back to humanity, was an act so noble, so illogical, and so selfless, only a person driven by love would do it. “This is the moment,” Dr. Manhattan says, as Angela dons her vest and picks out her guns. “What moment?” she asks. “I just told you that you can’t save me, and you’re going to try to anyway,” he says. “In the bar the night we met, you asked me about the moment I fell in love with you. This is the moment.”
Not only the moment he fell in love, but the climactic moment of his life thus far, Dr. Manhattan’s humanity is set with that action. An all-knowing, all-powerful being tells his wife she can’t save him. She knows he’s right. And she sets out to prove him wrong anyway. That’s the power of love — more powerful and inexplicable than a god. To see someone that so many other dream of becoming strive for the very thing so many of us take for granted is an immensely moving moment, captured with delicacy and conviction. What a love story, and what a miraculous way to humanize a god.
Colin Hutton / HBO
Masks On: What We Don’t Know
Is Dr. Manhattan dead?
Given the emphasis on their relationship’s tragic end, as well as Dr. Manhattan’s painful wail when the Seventh Kavalry’s teleportation gun wrenches him away from Angela, it would be easy to presume Dr. Manhattan is dead. But that’s probably not the case. After all, he told Angela the Seventh Kavalry’s plan was to teleport him first and then destroy him. So the red beam didn’t eradicate him, it only moved him.
Does that mean he’s going to survive the finale? Perhaps. People have tried to kill Dr. Manhattan with manmade devices before, and they failed. Plus, Manhattan only promised the relationship would end, not that someone would die.
All that being said, the tragedy either already happened or it’s on the way. There’s nothing we can do about it. (Probably.)
Did Angela cause Captain Crawford’s death?
One of the more revelatory moments of an episode that purposefully choreographed its plot developments comes when Angela asks Dr. Manhattan to ask her grandfather (Louis Gossett Jr.) how he knew Judd Crawford was part of Cyclops. Because time is relative to Dr. Manhattan, he’s able to ask and answer immediately, but per linear time, he actually poses Will the question years earlier, thus tipping him off to the vast and insidious conspiracy Will didn’t know about until that moment.
So… was all this Angela’s fault? As Dr. Manhattan points out, it’s a paradox — two actions that inspire the other actually happened at the same time. But it’s also a metaphor for culpability and connection. Episode 6 let Angela live through Will’s memories, tying the blood relatives to a shared emotional experience; to trauma; to anger; to what’s passed down from generation to generation, even when you don’t realize it. Here, the recognition is immediate: Had she known about Judd’s racist ties on her own, what would she have done? Would she have acted like her grandfather and sought justice? Would she have buried it and acted like it wasn’t there?
As Dr. Manhattan asked, isn’t it better that the captain is dead, no matter how it happened? That’s a question Angela will wrestle with: What’s a worthy cost of exposing hate? A man’s life? Your relationships? Your family? Definitive answers are hard to come by, but the lingering questions are telling enough.
Why did Angela have to see Dr. Manhattan standing on the pool?
Really. I want to know. As he was standing on the pool, shortly after teleporting their children to familiar Tulsa theater, Dr. Manhattan said, “it’s important for later” that Angela see him on the pool. But… why? I guess we’ll find out next week.
Wait, does the elephant really matter?
When Dr. Manhattan goes to visit Adrian Veidt (Irons) in 2009, the blue doctor asks how his holed-up friend knew he was on Europa. “A little elephant told me,” Adrian says, which doesn’t tell us much, except there was an elephant onscreen recently — it was hooked up to Angela when she was recovering from her nostalgia overdose in 2019. That elephant, which also went unexplained, felt like a joke at the time. “Elephants never forget,” as the saying goes, so of course one would be used to help someone recover memories. (Or, if you prefer an alternative reading, not acknowledging the literal elephant in the room is pretty funny, too.)
But now the elephant could connect Adrian and Lady Trieu (Hong Chau). We know that a satellite is orbiting Jupiter because it passed over Adrian’s S.O.S. message a few episodes prior (a crime that got him put on trial and then thrown in jail). So if that satellite saw Adrian on Europa, it could have also seen Dr. Manhattan when he was there. Now the question becomes: Who owns that satellite? Many suspect it’s Lady Trieu. She owns a big, mysterious business. She seemed to know that Dr. Manhattan wasn’t actually on Mars, and she already has ties to Adrian — she took over his business and has a golden shrine of him in her atrium. If she’s the “little elephant” who told him about Dr. Manhattan, maybe that’s one more clue that the two are inextricably linked — perhaps he’s even the father who will be home before Lady Trieu’s millennium clock strikes midnight…
And you watched past the end credits, right?
Adrian wasn’t only shown in flashbacks. After the credits ran, there was an extended scene of him being punished for trying to escape. All of the Mr. Phillips (Tim Mison) and Ms. Crookshanks (Sara Vickers) squished tomatoes in his face and then The Game Warden visited him in his jail cell. It’s there we learned that Adrian suffered the same fate as Dr. Manhattan: After dreaming of utopia, he discovered being worshipped blindly was boring — he wants to be needed, and thus, he’s trying to get back to Earth, in all its imperfect glory.
But we have one final question before the finale: When The Game Warden gave him yet another anniversary cake, and Adrian elatedly pulled a horseshoe from its base, did Mr. Phillips and Ms. Vickers mean to give him a horseshoe? Or did they screw up, just like they did in the premiere, and they meant to give him a knife? Answers are coming. One more week. Tick tock.
“Watchmen” airs its series finale Sunday, December 15 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Previous episodes are now available to stream.