There is a moment roughly two-thirds of the way through the finale of Damon Lindelof and company’s “Watchmen” that I finally understood love. That is, perhaps, an overstatement, but not much of one. Put more accurately, I finally understood love stories as they exist within Lindelof’s worlds, where they often serve as a foundational element. From “Lost” to “The Leftovers” and now “Watchmen,” Lindelof has established himself as a television auteur who, if nothing else, spins the best romances in town. And I know why.
During the scene in question, Dr. Manhattan aka Jon Osterman aka Cal Abar (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is dying. He’s having his very essence extracted from him, bleeding him of everything that made him a demi-god, but also everything that made him human, while his wife Angela (Regina King) watches helplessly. Because of his powers, Jon experiences time in a very different fashion than the rest of humanity and as he weakens, his eyes glaze over.
“Jon, Jon, come back,” Angela pleads. “Where are you?”
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“I’m in every moment we were together, all at once,” and then he tells his wife he loves her and he dies. It’s the best kind of scene: excruciating, romantic, and completely unobtainable, but in a way that allows us to see the tendrils of epic love stories in our own lives, entangled amidst our own hearts.
More than that, it serves as a Rosetta Stone for a particular type of love story that Lindelof began crafting with his hit television show “Lost” and continued years later on “The Leftovers.”
To illustrate, let’s look at the three most significant romances in Lindelof’s work: Desmond and Penny (“Lost”), Kevin and Nora (“The Leftovers”), and Angela and Jon/Cal/Dr. Manhattan (“Watchmen”).
Television doesn’t get more romantic than “The Constant,” the fifth episode of the fourth season of “Lost.” In it, Desmond Hume (Henry Ian Cusick) becomes “unstuck in time,” and his consciousness bounces back and forth between his life in 1996 and 2004 in a fashion wholly beyond his control. In order to stop his mind from slipping time, a process that would inevitably lead to his death if left unchecked, Desmond needs to find a constant — someone who exists in both timelines who can anchor his reality.
For him, this is Penny (Sonya Walger). A woman he painfully broke up with in 1996 before he went missing on a mysterious island — to learn more about this plot, check out ABC’s “Lost” — and now needs to retroactively convince to stay in his life long enough to save it eight years in the future. The conversation between the two is strained, with Desmond trying not to explain too much, lest he appear completely deranged, but desperate to convince Penny of the importance of his request: That on Christmas Eve 2004, she answers his call.
Meanwhile, on “The Leftovers,” Kevin (Justin Theroux) and Nora (Carrie Coon) have a much more straightforward love story — except for all the ways they don’t. The roots of the relationship grew out of a shared grief born out of tragedy, two broken people trying to be less broken together. Yes, the tragedy was the disappearance of 2% of the world’s population, including Nora’s entire family, and that’s a lot, but fundamentally it’s a familiar story we see mirrored often in our own lives. The insurmountable weight of grieving can be lightened when someone you love is sharing the load.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Because as the series draws to a close, Nora decides that she wants to try and go to where she believes her family is — a parallel plane of existence — as promised by scientists who believe they’ve created a machine capable of transporting people there. And so she leaves Kevin behind forever.
But Kevin doesn’t believe that. He believes that Nora is still on his plane of existence. He believes that he can find her in Australia. He believes their love can survive.
As for “Watchmen,” I’ve written a little about the relationship between Angela and Jon but the crux of it is the most fantastic of all. Jon, of course, is better known as Dr. Manhattan, a demi-god made more than man after a laboratory accident, and he seeks Angela out in a bar in Vietnam, asking her to have dinner with him.
It’s a hard sell, considering he’s an enormous blue man and Angela is not an idiot. She assumes that Jon is only play-acting at being Dr. Manhattan, as he refuses to go out of his way to showcase his powers in any fashion other than what the skeptical could wave away as simple parlor tricks. The catch, of course, is that he is Dr. Manhattan and he knows that Angela will eventually be convinced, because as a demi-god he exists in every moment at once. Time, as we know it, has no meaning to Dr. Manhattan.
Colin Hutton / HBO
That perception, or lack there of, is a curious thing, particularly given that during their conversation at the bar, Jon tells Angela that their relationship will last 10 years and end in tragedy. Forever glib, Angela says that such an engagement sounds manageable.
A friend told me that their partner found the idea of Jon and Angela only having 10 years together sounded impossibly sad, to the point where they were distracted for the rest of the episode. Maybe I’m older or just a little more jaded but a good solid decade of love and support sounded pretty good to me. After all, every relationship ends, in tragedy or otherwise. It’s the love that lives on.
Or, like Jon, everything that matters, good and bad, happens all at once.
It’s this realization, coupled with Jon’s final moments on this astral plane, that unlocked the central tenet of Lindelof’s love stories for me. Love is not bound by space or time, distance or death. It does not begin or end. Relationships might crumble, but love persists.
Though she’s not seen him for eight years, Penny still has the same phone number, and is ready to answer Desmond’s call. Though he broke her heart and disappeared from the face of the Earth, come 2004, she’s been searching the ends of the Earth for him. She will not give up, despite silence and distance. Their relationship was over but their love remained.
Kevin spends two weeks a year for 15 some years in Australia, searching for Nora. He sought her with the hope that they could start anew, a fresh start for their relationship. He eventually finds her and while their past, shared and otherwise, still looms over them, their love remained unabated.
But it all comes back to “Watchmen.” It’s no secret that Lindelof is a huge fan of Alan Moore’s “Watchmen,” which made taking his own spin around the universe simultaneously invigorating and enervating. And in Moore’s graphic novel, Dr. Manhattan delivers a monologue reflecting on the creation of any single human being. The wildly unlikely congress of a single sperm with an egg, repeated exponentially throughout history, all to create any given individual.
“To distill so specific a from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold,” Manhattan remarks, “that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle.”
Understanding romantic relationships within Lindelof’s universes is to accept that love is a thermodynamic miracle. Two people, out of billions, born at the exact right time in the whole of human history, microscopic particles smashing into each other against all odds and finding something extraordinary.
Love is energy. It cannot be created nor destroyed. And we are all, in our own way, experiencing it as Dr. Manhattan. Relationships begin in medias res because against all odds, the past has unfolded in such a way as to lead us to each other. We were already in love, are in love, will be in love, all at once because love never leaves us. Relationships do. “I’m in every moment we were together, all at once.”
It’s telling that it was only after seeing the “Watchmen” finale that this grand unified theory of Lindelof love stories fell into my head. Specifically, because Angela and Jon were the first of the holy triad of romantic couples to not have a happy ending. But they did. And they do. Because tragedy doesn’t destroy love. It just transforms it.