The Comedian is dead. Long live The Comedienne.
"She Was Killed by Space Junk"—written by Damon Lindelof and Lila Byock, and directed by Stephen Williams—is the least politically resonant episode of Watchmen so far, but it is also the most purely entertaining chapter to date, and the one that most closely approximates the structure of the graphic novel. The great Jean Smart descends on the world of Watchmen like a brick to the head, playing FBI Special Agent Laurie Blake, neé Laurel Jane Juspeczyk, later Laurie Jupiter, a.k.a. the (second) Silk Spectre, a.k.a. The Comedienne.
I mean no disrespect to great actors like Regina King, Louis Gossett, Jr., or Jeremy Irons—all of whom are doing fabulous work here—but, until Jean Smart showed up, we couldn't have realized how badly Watchmen needed her.
"Stop me if you've heard this one." — Laurie Blake
Let's start with this episode's framing device, since it casts light on everything else. "She Was Killed by Space Junk" is structured around a recording Laurie makes for her ex-boyfriend Dr. Manhattan. Laurie has not seen or heard from him in 30 years, since he left her in the arms of her new lover Dan Drieberg and went to go live on Mars. As breakups go, that's pretty definitive, but Laurie clearly hasn't forgotten her big blue beau. So, naturally, she makes it a point to call him occasionally, and tell him jokes.
Even before we get to the content of Laurie's recording, this is a marvelous conceit. Apparently, the mysterious Lady Trieu—whom we now learn purchased the Veidt Corporation after Adrian Veidt's disappearance—has set these phone booths up so normal humans can send a message to the all-powerful being who long ago abandoned Earth to its fate. Essentially, they are prayer booths, transmitting the hopes and dreams and questions of a suffering humanity to an absent and indifferent god. It is easy to imagine that most of the messages humanity sends are reverent and desperate pleas: pleas for good fortune, pleas for intercession and enlightenment, pleas for the return of the deity who can protect and save the Earth.
But Laurie knows this particular god—Biblically, if you'll pardon the pun—and she knows he's no more likely to answer those prayers than any other alleged deity. "The assholes down here still think you give a shit, even though you've been living on another fucking planet for 30 years," she says. "But we're not really worth giving a shit about anyway, are we?" So Laurie doesn't ask for anything: Instead, she tells him jokes, which she knows he won't appreciate. ("It's not like you ever had sense of humor," she says.) But that, one suspects, is just the point. Laurie was the only connection to humanity the thing once known as Jon Osterman had. It was when she left him that he turned (or teleported) away from the Earth, precipitating a global crisis that resulted in millions of deaths. Veidt bears the largest portion of responsibility for that—it was all part of his grand conspiracy—but it's easy to imagine that Laurie might carry a fair amount of guilt over it herself. Is this why she still talks to him? Nothing, after all, is more human than laughter: Does Laurie still feel it's her responsibility to help Dr. Manhattan get the joke?
Comedy is the art of misdirection, and the joke Laurie tells him—which only appears to be two jokes—is a masterpiece of the art form. The first half is about a little girl who learns bricklaying from her perfectionist father: When a barbecue they build together has one brick left over, the father wants to tear it down, but the little girl has another idea and throws the leftover brick up in the air. But then this joke apparently gets abandoned. "Shit, I messed it up," Laurie says. "Forget that joke. Can I tell you another one?" And she launches into what seems to be a second joke, about three superheroes arriving at the Pearly Gates. God asks each of them what they did with the gifts they were given, and how many people they killed. And the result is the same for all three: God sends them to Hell. Then a fourth person is at the Pearly Gates, someone God didn't even see behind the others. It's a woman, and God—to His embarrassment—has no idea who she is. "I'm the little girl who threw the brick in the air," the woman says, and God gets His head smashed in: He never saw it coming.
No, it's not the funniest joke ever told. ("Roll on snare drum. Curtains. Good joke," Laurie deadpans, quoting Rorschach's journal.) But let's dwell for a moment on a couple of interesting things about it. First, the superheroes, obviously, are Nite Owl, Ozymandias, and Dr. Manhattan: They appear in Laurie's joke in the same order as they appear in the painting—a Warhol?—that hangs in Laurie's apartment. The fourth character, equally obviously, can be seen as Laurie herself, and she was hidden in the joke just as she is hidden from our view of the picture when first we see it. (This is not important, necessarily, but it's a lovely touch, an example of how Watchmen evokes the visual echoes and in-jokes of Moore and Gibbons' graphic novel.)
More important, I think, is that we get a sense of how Laurie's views have evolved in the 30 years since the end of the novel. She was never particularly enthusiastic about being a costumed adventurer—it was something her mother Sally, the first Silk Spectre, pressured her into doing—and the events of the novel, understandably, only made her more cynical about superheroes. We don't know how long she and Dan Drieberg continued as vigilantes after that story ended, or when she took her biological father's last name and adopted a variation of his professional name. We don't know how Laurie herself became a federal agent tasked with hunting down vigilantes, but we do know that Dan's reward for his efforts was apparently to be locked up in federal prison. (Senator Keene offers to get him out when he's president, if Laurie cooperates.)
But we get an understanding of her perspective from the joke. Nite Owl tried to help people, and he never killed anyone—but he goes to Hell. Ozymandias tried to save the human race by killing millions of people—and so he goes to Hell. Dr. Manhattan never really gave a shit about the human race, and he neither knows nor cares how many people he killed—and he goes to Hell. All of which is to say that, in Laurie's experience, all superheroes—regardless of their intentions, regardless of their accomplishments, regardless of how much or how little harm they cause—eventually end up in Hell. This is the lesson she's absorbed from her long acquaintance with the superhero lifestyle.
But the most important thing about the joke Laurie tells is what it reveals about how her mind works, and where she sees herself in this narrative. As I said, comedy—like magic, like conspiracy, like crime—is the art of misdirection, and misdirection is Laurie's stock in trade. We see this in the opening scene of "She Was Killed by Space Junk," when Laurie pretends to rob a bank, only to reveal that it was an elaborate FBI sting operation to capture the masked vigilante known as Mr. Shadow. ("Revenger," we learn, was last month.) Laurie doesn't wear a costume anymore, and she isn't a cop in a mask. ("You're a federal agent, not the Lone-Fucking-Ranger," she tells Agent Petey [Dustin Ingram], when he suggests disguising himself as local law-enforcement officers do.) But that kind of disguise is bush-league, a childish game for children. Laurie—as Mr. Shadow discovers, when she shoots him in the back—is playing a longer game for higher stakes.
My guess is that the full meaning of Laurie's joke won't be understood until Watchmen is complete, just like Adrien Veidt's plan—in the original comic—didn't become clear until 35 minutes after he had fulfilled it. But, at the very least, she's announcing here, loud and clear, who she is in this story. She's the little girl who threw the brick: just an ordinary person, hiding in plain site, easily overlooked (and underestimated) behind all the gaudier heroes.
But, if you give her half a chance, she will hit God so hard that His brains shoot out of His nose. She'll send Him straight to Hell, with all the other heroes, and He'll never see it coming.
The best part is, she's announcing this to God Himself. Angela's car falling from the sky when Laurie leaves the phone booth is perfect: an absolutely brilliant punchline, in which Lindelof and Byock pick up on last week's ending, completing the circle between the two episodes exactly as Laurie completed the circle between the two jokes. Laurie looks to the heavens, towards Mars, and laughs: Is it just a cosmic coincidence? Or is it a sign that somewhere, up there, Dr. Manhattan—or God, if you like—has finally developed a sense of humor?
"I eat good guys for breakfast." — Laurie
As much as I am loving Watchmen—and I am—there is no doubt that comedy has been in short supply so far, limited to the occasional dark aside and the patent absurdity of whatever is going on with Jeremy Irons and his faithful staff. The paucity of humor in the first couple of episodes was understandable: Watchmen is a delicate confection of real-life concerns and absurdist conceits, and it was important that we took this world seriously before anyone came along to take the wind out of it.
But comedy is important, and the more serious things get, the more necessary it becomes. Nobody much liked Laurie's late father Edward Blake, The Comedian—Laurie herself spent most of her life hating him—but he was a great teller of uncomfortable and necessary truths. In the novel, Adrian Veidt describes how The Comedian once opened his eyes to the realities of the world. "Only the best comedians accomplish that," Veidt says.
It is not, in retrospect, a surprise that Laurie has taken her biological father's surname, or that her last superhero alias was a variation of his professional name. "Once you figure out what a joke everything is, being The Comedian's the only thing makes sense," her father once said. And Laurie Blake knows what a joke everything about the world of Watchmen is. She knows the superhero life, of course: She's been there, and done that, and seen what it gets you. (Sent straight to Hell, as we've already covered.) More importantly, she is one of only four people alive who know the full truth about the events that redefined life on Earth 30 years ago. (Coincidentally, they're the same four people who are in that painting.) She knows what kind of person—if he can even be called a person anymore—Dr. Manhattan really is. She knows what kind of a man Adrian Veidt is, too, and she knows what he did. She, and Drieberg, and Dr. Manhattan swallowed that terrible secret, for the good of all humanity, and Laurie knows what it cost them all—in different ways—to do so. Veidt pulled the greatest prank in the history of the world, and Laurie has had to live for the past 30 years being one of the only people on the planet who actually gets the joke.
Is it any wonder she's cynical? Is it any wonder she's suspicious? Is it any wonder that she doesn't believe in heroes anymore, let alone superheroes?
All of which makes Agent Blake a breath of fresh air as she blows through the world of Watchmen. She may have relinquished her vigilante name, but she makes it clear throughout "She Was Killed by Space Junk" that she will be one of the very best comedians, a born bullshit-detector cutting through the pomposity and self-aggrandizing delusions of this distorted world. She shuts down Agent Petey's fanboy fascination—"You want my autograph?"—and must inwardly scoff at his self-important protestation that he's actually a historian. (Even leaving out all the ways Laurie knows the official record is wrong about her and her friends, Watchmen has already made a central theme of the fact that the history books are just so much fiction.) "Wow, cool," she says superciliously, when introduced to "Pirate Jenny" and "Red Scare." "Oh, it's a racist detector," she says gleefully, of Looking Glass's high-tech "pod"—and then she uses his mirrored face to check her teeth for food. We can see all these characters realize, just for a moment, how ridiculous all of this is, how preposterous and more than a little pathetic.
Episode One of Watchmen was largely about how all the official narratives are lies. Episode Two was about how all those bullshit narratives rely on our willingness to play along with them, to not look beneath the thinly constructed illusions. Now, in "She Was Killed by Space Junk," here comes this character who knows about all the lies, and who stubbornly refuses to play along with the charade. She's the guy who stands up in the middle of a play and points out that the sets are just badly painted canvas. She's the kid who points out that the emperor has no clothes. She's the one-eyed woman in the kingdom of the blind. "We're all puppets, Laurie," Dr. Manhattan said to her once. "I'm just a puppet who can see the strings." Laurie, now, can see all the strings, all too clearly.
And this is the difference between Laurie and Angela Abar, and thus makes adversaries (at least temporarily) of two women who should naturally be allies. Angela is a smart, strong, decent woman, but Angela—as we've discussed—still believes the lies, and still believes she can be the hero of the story.
Both, we suspect, will be necessary to unravel what Will called the "vast and insidious conspiracy" at play in Tulsa. Crawford's funeral makes that much clear. When the Seventh Kavalry terrorist claims his bomb is wired to his heart, Laurie assumes he is lying, and just shoots him in the head. After all, that's exactly the sort of comic-book plot-point—like the "mask killer" Rorschach was hunting in the novel—that Laurie's entire life has taught her to treat as bullshit. But the 7K—who, after all, take Rorschach's comic-book view of the world as gospel—actually did rig this bomb to the terrorist's heart. It's up to Angela to act like a superhero, rolling him into Crawford's grave and throwing Crawford's body in to absorb the blow.
The confrontation between these two women in the crypt is a thrilling moment, beautifully played by two great actresses. Laurie, for the first half of the interview, is keeping up her game of misdirection, offering coffee and continuing her Columbo-esque style of pretending to be confused while actually laying traps for her suspect. And Angela is keeping up her pretense of knowing nothing. But two things become very clear, very quickly: that Laurie already has most of the answers—she knows about the wheelchair, she knows about Crawford's closet, and she knows Angela is Sister Night—and that she isn't fooling Angela one iota.
So both women drop the bullshit, and square off as adversaries. Laurie lays out her view of the situation in no uncertain terms. "Men who end up hanging from trees with secret compartments in their closet tend to think of themselves as good guys, and those who protect them think they're good guys too," she says. "But here's the thing about me, Sister Night: I eat good guys for breakfast." And Angela—rather than pretending to be confused, or shocked, or even offended—makes it clear that she won't play along. She does a mock little flutter of fear—like the innocent she's no longer pretending to be—and then pours out the caffeinated peace offering.
Sister Night is not Mr. Shadow, falling for an obvious trap. Sister Night is not Looking Glass or Red Scare, bending easily to Laurie's supercilious intimidation. And Angela is definitely not God, too omnipotently overconfident to know when a brick is heading towards her head. She's not going to fall for Laurie's misdirection. This is her life, and her job, and it is not—to her—a fucking joke.
"Yeah, I knew Adrian Veidt. I, too, am not a fan." — Laurie
Finally, let's talk briefly about Adrian Veidt.
Misdirection was a key factor of the original Watchmen, of course. Veidt's entire mad gambit to save the human race was nothing more or less than the largest con-job in history, a global smoke-and-mirrors show designed to distract the world's powers from their destructive course. "People swallow lies easily, provided they're big enough," Veidt said—quoting Hitler—and he proved it by faking an alien squid attack and slaughtering three million people. It all began with the death of The Comedian, and it was, in essence, the greatest practical joke of all time.
And what it is his reward? I have, since the moment he appeared on-screen, been predicting that there was far more to the scenes with Jeremy Irons' character than met the eye. (It seemed so obvious that Irons was playing Adrian Veidt that Lindelof's refusal to confirm that was, itself, suspect.) My speculative prediction was that this was in fact Dr. Manhattan in disguise, living an odd simulacrum of human existence out in space, for reasons of his own.
I'm not completely ready to let go of the idea that there is more misdirection at work here on Lindelof's part, but for now let us agree that, at the very least, I was right about the space part. In "She Was Killed by Space Junk," we see Veidt conducting a little science experiment. We do not see exactly what happens, but we can piece together enough to guess that this experiment involves putting poor Mr. Phillips in a homemade spacesuit and launching him with a trebuchet into the cold vacuum of space. (As we have already seen, "Mr. Phillips"—a title that passes from one clone [or whatever] to another—is a shit job.) And we realize this week that Veidt—though styled as Lord of the Manor—is in fact a prisoner: He is chastised for his attempts at escape by someone called the Game Warden, who threatens retribution if these little experiments continue.
"I don't mind being the smartest man in the world," Veidt said, in the graphic novel, in an interview with the Nova Express. "I just wish it wasn't this one." Be careful, as they say, what you wish for: Veidt now appears to be the smartest man—really, the only man—on another world, imprisoned there (we assume) by Dr. Manhattan. Adrien Veidt saved the world, and Adrien Veidt killed millions of people. He was a hero, and—as Laurie's God says—he was "a fucking monster." And his reward for all of it is—just as Laurie's parable predicted—to be trapped by God in a special form of Hell.
Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- When I write about a show, I actually go into a secluded bubble-mode, where I don't read articles, reviews, or other external information. This is how I completely missed, until this week, the existence of "Peteypedia," an HBO site hosting supplemental material compiled by none other than Special Agent Dale Petey himself. This is a marvelous callback to the graphic novel, as all but the last issue of Watchmen ended with some such supplemental material, in the form of book excerpts, magazine articles, psychiatrist's notes, and the like. Peteypedia fleshes out a lot of Watchmen's world—it is here, for example, that we learn Laurie once operated as "The Comedienne"—and I'll consider it required reading from here on out.
- Speaking of Petey, I think we can assume his first name, Dale, is a passing homage to Twin Peaks' Special Agent Dale Cooper?
- The title "She Was Killed by Space Junk" is a reference to a Devo song, off the same album Laurie plays when she returns to her apartment. The graphic novel established Laurie as a fan: She tells Dan Drieberg that his see-in-the-dark Nite Owl goggles—which are probably the same design as Angela's—are "kinda Devo." ("I don't want to be Devo," frumpy Dan later protests.)
- Speaking of which, knowing Dan is in prison makes it a little more clear why police departments now seem to be using his tech: Obviously, all of his inventions were seized when he was arrested.
- It was new information this week that Tulsa's masking of its police officers is a local experiment, not (yet) a national trend. We haven't seen much of the world outside of Tulsa yet, but it will be interesting to do so. What has New York become, for example, thirty years after it lost half its population to a giant psychic squid invasion?
- "She Was Killed by Space Junk" eases up the pedal on both its racial commentary and its dealing with police brutality. On the latter, however, we do see shades of Abu Ghraib in the roundup of 7K suspects, and we hear Laurie ask a suspect if his constitutional rights are being violated. ("Just kidding," she says, when he responds. "I don't care.")
- Worth noting: We learn in passing about rumors that the Russians are attempting to create their own Intrinsic Field Generator, the machine that accidentally created Dr. Manhattan.
- "Lady Trieu" is presumably the person the girl was collecting newspapers for last week. ("Does she really read all of these?" the newsstand owner asked.) I'm already reading up on the significance of that name, and I have definite theories about how she fits into this story, but we'll save it for her first appearance next week.
- I'm not too proud to admit it: I laughed at the giant blue dildo. Say what you will about having sex with a god: It's probably a tough act to follow. (Good luck with that, Agent Petey.)