[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Watchmen” Episode 4, “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own.”]
Coded language, deceptive truths, and a general aura of mystery dominate the fourth episode of HBO’s “Watchmen,” an altogether perfect thematic drive for a story framed around a false-fronting billionaire. Lady Trieu (played with nuanced tenacity and well-deployed charm by Hong Chau) is introduced in a rush and leaves without answering any real questions. What do you expect? She’s an obscenely wealthy 0.00001-percenter who literally lives in the clouds. If she wasn’t able to lie to your face at the same time she’s offering the deal of a lifetime, what kind of corporate titan would she be?. And yet you learn so much about her this hour; so many suspicions about her mysterious company are given credence, and her central role to the ongoing “insidious conspiracy” is legitimized by her partnership with William (Louis Gossett Jr.).
Episode 4, overall, serves the same purpose for “Watchmen.” Much has been made about the confounding nature of Damon Lindelof’s latest, with some claiming the story is only discernible if you’ve read the comics and still others contending that it’s baffling even then. But there’s a difference between muddling a message and refraining from stating it directly. “Watchmen” is a mystery, and mysteries are best told by carefully selecting what pieces of information come through, while signaling who you can trust and hinting at what shouldn’t be trusted.
Lindelof has done all of this, consistently, and “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own,” the episode title, can’t help but read as a meta message to anyone who’s not on board with this unique adaptation. This story is being told exactly, and in the exact right fashion — carefully, with clear signals, and enticing hints. Here’s how the creator, along with co-writer Christal Henry and director Andrij Parekh mapped out their message this week.
Angela (Regina King) remains your trustworthy guide. When she says “what the fuck?” — as she often does, including this week when she spots a random silver-suited superhero — we’re all saying “what the fuck?” with her. (That phrase is very much a signal that it’s OK to not understand what just happened.) If you focus on her story, it’s relatively easy to track: Her boss was killed, her grandfather appears to have done it, and she’s investigating who else might be to blame and why.
To that end, Lady Trieu emerges this week as a villain of sorts; no one is simply a hero or a villain in “Watchmen,” but she’s aligned with the complicated big bad of the original comic, Adrien Veidt (Jeremy Irons), as the woman who bought (or stole?) his company. Even if you don’t know the comic’s history, she’s easily identifiable as the antithesis to Sister Night: One wears all white, the other all black. One lives in a private bubble above the city, the other is grounded in a suburban home with her all-too-accessible family. One wears the markers of a hero — the cape, the badge, the mask — while the other is an alt-universe Lex Luther, using her obscene wealth for mysterious purposes. Clearly, she’s not telling Angela everything she wants to know (just like she’s not telling us, the audience), and that alone makes her an adversary.
These are all signals as to how to interpret what’s happening onscreen, from the overt to near subliminal and back again — I also loved how they established that Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) hates lying by telling his kids about death rather than go along with comforting lies — but there are also hints toward what’s not to be trusted: Again, look at Lady Trieu. Her name alone plays like a blunt-force joke, since the truth is the last thing she’s ready to tell. (Though it’s also a reference to a third century warrior often called the Vietnamese Joan of Arc.) Do we know why she charged into that Tulsa house with a full-grown baby ready to be dropped as a bargaining chip? No, we don’t. But we know she wanted the land — most likely because of what was about to crash out of the sky onto said land — and we know she put herself in the best position to get it.
Showing up earlier that day would’ve been a kinder gesture. She could’ve answered the couple’s many questions and made them feel more comfortable accepting her terms. But she didn’t want that. She didn’t want to explain herself; she wanted to put the pressure on the couple to accept her offer before they could even ask the questions we all want her to answer. Is Lady Trieu nice? No. Is she a ruthless negotiator? Yes. She (probably) wasn’t going to kill the baby, but she was willing to wrench him away from his biological parents. Yikes.
Her intro informs the character, which later informs the audience about her plans. For instance, I’m stuck on the phrase, “So much of my success grew from the seed of his inspiration.” Lady Trieu said that about Adrian Veidt, and given the babies he’s growing in a lake somewhere — don’t worry, we’ll come back to that later — his disappearance is probably linked to her advantageous acquisition of his company. Her deceptive ways also make you wonder what the towering clock she’s built is for — “tick tock” is a clue that’s been dropped in every episode — and her concern over Will backing out of their deal means it must be morally suspicious, on one level or another.
OK, great! It all makes sense! Yippie! Here’s the fun part: Almost all of these assumptions and associations are bound to be subverted. You can trust in Angela as your guiding force, but that doesn’t mean she’ll always make the pure and right choice — she’ll make human choices, and ones the audience can understand. (Should she beat up random Tulsa citizens for information? Morally, no — but that was one cool scene in the premiere, huh?) Unlike Superman stories, “Watchmen” is very clear about its attitude toward idol worship. An entire car ride is devoted to Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) reiterating her distrust of masked crusaders, on both sides of the law. “People who wear masks are driven by trauma,” Laurie says in the car. “They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered, usually when they were kids. Ergo, the mask. It hides the pain.”
“Watchmen” is hiding things, too. As a mystery, it has to, but that doesn’t mean you’re missing anything. The following questions aren’t ones you have to know the answers to right now — they will be answered soon enough, but they’re incredibly exciting to consider as parts of a larger whole. The point of a journey isn’t always the destination, even if the ending makes its message clear.
What the hell is going on with Adrien Veidt? (Part IV)
Reader, I cannot describe to you the delight I experienced in watching Jeremy Irons — a classically trained actor known for his Shakespearean stage turns and Oscar-winning theatrical roles — chucking fetuses into a lake. One by one, he picked those babies out of their lobster cages, examining them for whatever positive developments Adrien Veidt can see in a swamp child, and then tossing the bad babies back into the murky waters from which they came. It’s… simply an unimaginable scene, and yet Lindelof and Henry imagined it, together.
These are the delights of Adrien Veidt’s often inexplicable episode breaks. His situation is becoming clearer and clearer, as he’s clearly breeding human-ish clones to use for his escape. “Four years,” Veidt says, loading the catapult that sends the Mr. Phillips and Ms. Crookshanks flying through the sky. “Four years since I was sent here. In the beginning I thought it was a paradise. But it’s not. It’s a prison.” We suspected as much last week, after The Game Warden sent a warning shot toward Adrien for venturing outside his territory, but now it’s been affirmed. He’s escaping. But from where? And why? And who imprisoned him? Lady Triue seems the obvious suspect, but nothing is ever obvious in this wonderfully batshit series.
Did William kill Captain Crawford?
He may be over 100 years old, but he can walk! That’s the latest revelation regarding William, and given the lack of other suspects — not to mention the implication that goes along with his deceit — perhaps he really did kill the captain (Don Johnson). Is that the “betrayal” he tells Lady Trieu about at the end of the episode? Or is there more? In three days, we’ll find out.
Who is the man in the silver suit?
Who knows? Not us — not yet. But give it time. Tick tock.
“Watchmen” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.