We are on a farm, somewhere in the heartland of America. The owners of this farm are a decent, hardworking white couple, and they are very happy, except for one thing: They have no child. They have always dreamed of having a child, but they could never conceive one themselves.
And then, one day, out of nowhere, a flaming object falls from the sky, and crashes in their field, and the couple is granted a miraculous child to raise as their own.
This is a story we know: It is the origin of the first true superhero, Superman, and it is as familiar to us as any of our foundational myths. But, just as the black lawman Bass Reeves rode out of history in Episode One to reclaim his narrative from the whitewashed legend of The Lone Ranger, Watchmen is now taking this story from white people and repurposing it to the show's own design. Here, the (pointedly named) "Clarks" (Robert Pralgo and Christine Weatherup) do receive a child, but this one is—at best—a "thermodynamic miracle." In exchange for this child—genetically pure, fashioned from their own ordinary DNA—they sign away the rights to their little piece of America's heartland and anything—or anyone—that happens to fall in it.
"That's mine," says Lady Trieu (Hong Chau), of the real miracle that crashes to Earth before the Clarks' astonished eyes. Because whatever it is, it's power, and this time, in this story, things are going to be different.
"If You Don't Like My Story Write Your Own"—written by Damon Lindelof and Christel Henry, and directed by Andrij Parekh—draws its title from a quote by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. And, like many such references in Watchmen, it is not a throw-away aside, but an important statement of principle.
Before his death in 2013, Achebe spoke often about the importance of "the balance of stories," of countering colonialist narratives with stories written by the colonized. In his 2000 collection of lectures Home and Exile, Achebe describes this process as "'re-storying' peoples who had been knocked silent by the trauma of all kinds of dispossession." He explains how he wrote his first novel, Things Fall Apart—which Cal is reading later in this episode—partially as a response, as a counter-narrative, to Anglo-Irish novelist Joyce Cary's colonialist novel Mr. Johnson. Cary's novel had developed a reputation in Europe and America as "the best novel ever written about Africa," but Achebe and his fellow West African students—taught this book by their white colonialist teachers—found its Nigerian protagonist "an embarrassing nitwit," and detected in Cary's depiction of Africans a "contagion of distaste, hatred, and mockery" familiar from other such canonized works as Conrad's Heart of Darkness. (Achebe quotes an African parable: "Until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter.")
And the quote that gives this episode its title comes from Achebe's 1994 interview with The Paris Review:
When I think of the standing, the importance, and the erudition of all these people who see nothing about racism in Heart of Darkness, I'm convinced that we must really be living in different worlds. Anyway, if you don't like someone's story, write your own.
Watchmen is writing its own story, 're-storying' the victims of America's legacy of white supremacy and imperialism. “For the next three minutes, you two are the most important people in the world,” Lady Trieu says to the Clarks. She leave unspoken the next logical thought: And then you're not. You get three minutes, and then your part in the story is over.
Because this time, the white people aren't the stars of the story. This time, the lions are controlling the narrative. This time, it's all going to be different.
"Legacy isn't in land, it's in blood." — Lady Trieu
I've said from the beginning of Watchmen that Angela Abar may be our protagonist, but she is not necessarily our hero: Her arc is, at best, going to be one of awakening to her own unwitting complicity in an unjust system. She is, after all, a police officer, a servant of the American state and, by definition, a protector of the existing, inequitable power structure. (She was shocked to discover Klan robes in her boss's closet, but really, should she have been? "Did you know he was a racist?" she asks Looking Glass here. "He was a white man in Oklahoma," Wade replies, unperturbed. Angela might as well have expressed surprise that Judd had two eyes and a nose.)
And Angela, significantly, was born in Vietnam, which—in the reality of Watchmen—became America's 51st state. In the graphic novel, Nixon sent Dr. Manhattan to intervene in Vietnam in 1971, and his godlike powers ended the war in a matter of months. ("If we'd lost this war," the Comedian tells Dr. Manhattan. "I think it might have driven us a little crazy, y'know? As a country. But thanks to you, we didn't.") So America won the war in Vietnam, and Nixon was not only re-elected but served three more terms. (The Watergate scandal never happened either: Woodward and Bernstein were found dead in a garage, assassinated—it is strongly implied—by the Comedian.) So these superheroes changed the narrative: They weren't "vigilantes" anymore, but agents of the American government. Thanks to them, the checks on American imperialism that occurred in our reality never occurred in theirs.
All of this is contained within the character of Angela Abar. Like Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian—and now Laurie Blake—she's a superhero that serves the government, and she herself was a product and agent of America's military colonization of Vietnam. (She served as a police officer there, too.) So ingrained within her is this legacy of American imperialism that she has appropriated the Vietnamese culture, wearing Vietnamese clothing and naming her bakery "Milk & Hanoi." ("Let Saigons be Saigons," is their motto.)
It is a marvelous moment, in the middle of "If You Don't Like My Story Write Your Own," when Angela and Lady Trieu—the two women of color—"code-switch" into Vietnamese in order to exclude the white woman from the conversation. But it is important to realize that these two woman do not have the same relationship to that language, or that country, or that culture. Lady Trieu and her family were the colonized oppressed; Angela and her family were the colonizing oppressors.
"Legacy isn't in land, it's in blood," Lady Trieu tells the Clarks. Angela might have grown up in Vietnam, because America conquered it, but that is not her legacy. As she learned a couple of episodes ago, what has been passed to her through her blood, from her ancestors like Will Reeves, is the legacy of America's enslavement and continued oppression of her own people. So there is an inherent duality to Angela's character: She is both an agent of American white supremacy and a victim of it. And she has embraced the first, while neglecting—even resisting—the second. "The answer to life’s mysteries is life histories," a recorded voice intones at the Cultural Center, but Angela isn't ready to solve the mystery of herself and her place in the story. “A hundred years from now you’re gonna roll back into Tulsa and blow my life up,” she tells a hologram of young Will in the Cultural Center, as his face is literally superimposed over her own. “So wherever you are, leave me the fuck alone.”
The metaphors of Angela's life—of her conflicted duality, of her unwitting complicity in the system that has oppressed people of color—pile up the more we think about them. Legacy, according to Lady Trieu, is "passed to us by our ancestors, and through us to our children." But Angela, of course, has no blood children: Her children are white, the orphans of another white police officer, another "white man in Oklahoma" She has literally adopted the legacy of white supremacy and nurtured it as her own.
This, I suspect, is going to become very important as Watchmen reaches its endgame.
"Now, Vietnam never leaves me." — Lady Trieu
So Angela is African by blood, Vietnamese by birth, and yet she has chosen to serve white America and raise white Americans. And the inherent discordances and disconnections within her nature are contrasted with the total, holistic commitment of Lady Trieu, embodied in a delightfully quirky performance by Hong Chau.
Let's talk about the name, for—make no mistake—"Lady Trieu" is a superhero name. It is the Anglicized version of Lady Triệu, or Triệu Thị Trinh, a 3rd-century warrior woman who has been called "the Vietnamese Joan of Arc." (And actually, since she arrived first by more than a millennium, shouldn't Joan be called the French Lady Triệu?) In the year 43 A.D., Vietnam had fallen under the rule of China, and by the time in which Lady Triệu lived, two hundred years later, most Vietnamese people had accepted Chinese rule as a normal fact of life. As historian Truong Buu Lam writes in A Story of Vietnam:
“Two hundred years of further Chinese domination and assimilation had unmistakably shown their mark; the Vietnamese population no longer responded with the same enthusiasm to the calls to drive out the foreign dominators. They have, on the contrary, become either so assimilated culturally to or so mixed up ethnically with the Chinese that they no longer recognized themselves in the insurgents led by lady Trieu.”
But Lady Triệu—then only 20—refused to forget the crimes of the past, or accept her people's subjugation and assimilation by foreign invaders. (This, incidentally, is a quality she shares with Okonkwo, the hero of Achebe's Things Fall Apart.) As legend has it, she took to the mountains and rallied thousands to join her in driving out the Chinese invaders. “I will not resign myself to the lot of women who bow their heads and become concubines," she is supposed to have said. "I wish to ride the tempest, tame the waves, kill the sharks. I have no desire to take abuse.” She and her guerilla troops—at least half of whom were women—fought valiant battles against the overwhelming power of the Chinese army, before ultimately being defeated. Her story was purged from the Chinese histories—as we've seen already on Watchmen, history is written by the oppressors—but she lived in the memory as a Vietnamese folk hero.
So—make no mistake about this, either—Lady Trieu is here to kick ass, take names, and redress the injustices of the past.
"On her deathbed, my mother made me promise I would never leave Vietnam," Lady Trieu tells Angela and Laurie. "So I found a loophole. Now, Vietnam never leaves me." Legacy is blood, not land, but even so Lady Trieu has imported Vietnam's climate—its plants, its humidity—in her vivarium. Where Angela appropriated Vietnamese culture and made it American kitsch, Lady Trieu has brought the real thing. (Considering the size and power of her company, it is not an exaggeration to say she has, in a way, colonized America.)
And where Angela is denying her own heritage (in the form of Will), and raising white children with whom she shares no blood, Lady Trieu is literally infusing her own blood and memories into her Vietnamese daughter Bian. "I had a nightmare," Bian says, after bolting awake and pulling a mysterious I.V. from her arm. "I was in a village. Men came, and burned it. And then they made us walk. I was walking for so long. Mom, my feet still hurt." "Good," Lady Trieu says, and refuses to walk her daughter back to bed.
There's a lot to unpack here, and a lot yet to be revealed. But certainly, we can assume Lady Trieu is somehow feeding her own memories—and the memories of her ancestors?—into Bian, ensuring that she never forgets the crimes of the past or assimilates to this new country. And, to aid in that, she will not provide any false comfort to her daughter: Her daughter should feel the pain of that experience, and her daughter will have to deal with it alone, as Lady Trieu no doubt had to do. Here, again, we have parallels with Angela: "You and I, Topher, we don't do rainbows and lollipops," she told her adopted son, a couple of episodes ago. And in "If You Don't Like My Story Write Your Own," we see that she and Cal are raising their children without any comforting delusions of religion. ("Sweetheart, heaven is pretend," Cal tells his daughter. "Before Uncle Judd was born, he was nowhere, didn’t exist…Now he’s nowhere again.”)
And in these parallels—and in the reveal that Will is working with Lady Trieu—the patterns of Watchmen's fabric start to become clearer. Lady Trieu's past and culture are very different from those of Will and Angela, but they have a common oppressor: white Americans. Bian's nightmare of "walking" evokes, too, the Trail of Tears, the genocidal forced relocation of native American tribes that ended—of course—in Oklahoma. (Will Watchmen introduce an indigenous American character to complete this triumvirate of oppressed peoples reclaiming power? I hope so.)
“We should have killed the white man if you had listened to me.” —from Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
We do not know yet what kind of deal Will and Lady Trieu have made, but we know Lady Trieu is worried about Will's commitment. "When family is involved, judgment gets cloudy, feet get cold, deals get broken," she warns. "You're not in."
"My feet are just fine," Will responds, standing up for the first time that we've seen and generally looking forty years younger (and stronger) than he has looked so far. (Gossett is 83, playing 105, but looks 60.) To me, this—and other information in the episode—all but confirms my theory that Will was once the masked vigilante known as Hooded Justice. (We learn from Laurie that "Will Reeves" was a police officer in New York in the '40s, who retired young and disappeared. This fits perfectly with the appearance, and disappearance, of Hooded Justice. And Will, we notice, even still prefers to wear red.)
I have been recklessly speculating about future plot points throughout my Watchmen pieces—and, for the record, have yet to be proven right about much of anything—but let me continue that tradition here. It is from Will's next words, I think, that we can begin to speculate about Lady Trieu's—and Watchmen's—endgame. Something is going to happen in three days, something that has to do with the true purpose of the Millenium Clock Trieu is building—"It tells time," Bian says, ominously—and perhaps has to do with whatever it was Trieu recovered from the Clark's land. "Angela's family," Will says. "It's true, I betrayed her, and in three days she'll know what I've done, and she'll hate me for it."
The key words here, I believe, are "Angela's family," and I think that's important because Angela's children are white. Whatever they are planning—whatever it is that the Millennium Clock really does—I think we can assume it will strike at the heart of white America. (“We should have killed the white man if you had listened to me,” Achebe's hero, Okonkwo, says in Things Fall Apart. And at the end of the novel he does kill one of the white colonialists who has threatened to destroy his village's way of life.)
So I think it's entirely possible that Lady Trieu and Will Reeves are planning to enact a terrible vengeance—or justice—against their common oppressors. And their endgame could put even Adrian Veidt's to shame.
And here—while I'm recklessly speculating—we come back to the enigma of Lady Trieu. Just who is she? She is not a character, after all, who appears in the graphic novel. We do not know how she amassed her fortune, or how she was able to predict the meteor crashing in the Clarks' field. We do not, obviously, know just exactly what her plans are.
But, as the Cultural Center reminds us, "the answer to life’s mysteries is life histories." So what if Lady Trieu is Laurie Blake's half-sister?
Bear with me here. In the graphic novel, on the night the Vietnam War ends, a very pregnant Vietnamese woman confronts Edward Blake, the Comedian, to ask him what he intends to do about the child he has left growing in her belly. He brutally tells her he's leaving the country, and will forget all about her. "I do not think so," she says. "I think you will remember me and my country." And she hits him in the face with a broken bottle, leaving him a scar he will carry the rest of his life. In retaliation, he shoots her in cold blood.
Dr. Manhattan witnesses all of this—and seemingly does nothing. When he chastises Blake for gunning this woman down, Blake accuses him in turn: "Yeah, that's right. Pregnant woman. Gunned her down. Bang. And y'now what? You watched me. You coulda changed the gun into steam or the bullets into mercury or the bottle into snowflakes! You coulda teleported either of us to goddamn Australia, but you didn't lift a finger."
This scene was mostly included to demonstrate Dr. Manhattan's disconnection from humanity. ("You don't really give a damn about human beings," the Comedian says.) But the scene ends with the Comedian walking away, leaving Dr. Manhattan—and the shot woman—alone.
If my theory about Will is correct, Lindelof and his team seized on one of the ambiguities of the original Watchmen—the mystery of Hooded Justice's real identity—and cleverly used it to insert a major character of color into the original story. And I'm suggesting they may have done something similar here. Perhaps Dr. Manhattan did do something to help the woman—or at least her unborn child—after the Comedian walked away. (Certainly, it would be within his power.) Lady Trieu would need to be a little older than she looks—the Comedian's child, if it lived, would be almost 50—but that's a fairly small leap to make. And it would make thematic sense in this story that is largely about the sins of the past—particularly white America's sins—coming home to roost.
"Welcome to the Manor. I am your Master." — Adrian Veidt
And somewhere, in all of this, the purpose of the Adrian Veidt segments of Watchmen begin to come into thematic focus.
For Veidt's absurd playground—which is also his prison—is a perverse mockery of white European colonialism: a grand 19th century manor house where he is the unquestioned lord and master. He doesn't capture his servants as slaves, or indenture them from the working class: He fishes for them in the river, carelessly throwing back the ones he deems unworthy. "Welcome to the Manor," he says to them, once they've grown, and before they can even speak. "I am your Master." We hear, in this, an echo of that horrific classic of colonialist literature, Daniel DeFoe's Robinson Crusoe, and how the first thing Crusoe did—upon finding a black man in the water—was establish the power relationship: "It came very warmly upon my thoughts, and indeed irresistibly, that now was the time to get me a servant, and, perhaps, a companion or assistant," Crusoe narrates. "I let him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life…I likewise taught him to say Master; and then let him know that was to be my name."
Here, Veidt hits much the same note. "Do you know what you are?" he says to the new Mr. Phillips and Ms. Crookshanks. "Of course you don't. You are flaws in this thoughtless design. For while I may be your Master, I am definitely not your maker. I would never have burdened such pathetic creatures with the gift of life. For to be alive, you have to have purpose, and you have none, except to serve."
And what does he do with the only other human beings in his world, the ones he has deemed inferior to himself? He forces them to serve him, and he puts on absurd entertainments in which they are his puppets. Mostly, he kills them. "I apologize for the mess," he says, entering the dining room in which a dozen Phillips and Crookshanks lie slaughtered. "I had a rough night." It is the Tulsa Massacre, it is the genocide of native Americans, it is the war in Vietnam in small, all perpetrated to satisfy the white man's urges and aggressions. Phillips and Crookshanks are themselves white, of course—this is a white fantasy land in which everyone is white, but one can still listen to reggae music—but otherwise their role is to fulfill the white master's dreams of supremacy and imperialism.
And those dreams will never be satisfied: The Master will never be happy. "In the beginning, I thought it was paradise," Veidt says. "But it's not: It’s a prison." But that scarcely matters: He'll just keep throwing the bodies of the lower classes at the problem. "With your help, with your lives, with your broken, mangled bodies, one way or another, I will escape this godforsaken place," Veidt says. He's living in a hell of his own making, one in which he gets to be both the hero and the victim.
It is a brilliant reinterpretation of the Veidt character from the graphic novel. In the novel, Veidt was thought of as a super-liberal, and he thought of himself as the savior of humanity. In fact, he convinced himself that all the terrible things he did—including murdering millions of people—were justified in order to stop imperialistic aggression. But Lindelof's Watchmen recognizes that this is what America always thinks of itself: the savior, the good samaritan, the cowboy (or superhero) riding out to help the helpless. But, in reality, Veidt epitomized the aspects of America we don't want to acknowledge: the arrogance; the unchecked capitalist greed; the careless racism (Veidt murdered all his Asian servants); the thoughtless, reckless imperialism and interventionism that leaves death and destruction in its wake. Veidt is the America that pretended it was "civilizing" Native Americans and Africans when it was enslaving and conquering them for its own purposes. Veidt is the America that destroyed most of Southeast Asia under the guise of "saving" it. Veidt is the America that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the name of "peace."
"Our country appreciates the opportunity to right the wrongs of a dark past," the holographic Skip Gates said, in Episode Two of Watchmen. "Although the work of redressing which needs to be done may appear too daunting, I believe it is not one day too soon to begin," Achebe writes, in Hope and Exile, of the need to tell different stories that counter the white canon. Damon Lindelof—a straight white American male—might seem an unlikely catalyst for "re-storying the dispossessed." But Lindelof has assembled a diverse staff behind the cameras—this episode, for example, was co-written by a black woman, and directed by a man of Indian and Ukrainian descent—and together it seems they have set out to do just that. Throughout Watchmen, Lindelof and his team have reimagined the all-white world of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel—one of the foundational texts for our current (still predominantly white and male) culture of superheroes—and centered it around women and people of color. And, through all of it, they have been casting a light not just on the privileging of whiteness in superhero stories, but the privileging of whiteness in the larger story of America.
Is it any wonder that there has been a backlash from alt-right fans (mostly white, one assumes, and mostly male), who (as we've discussed) no doubt misinterpreted the original Watchmen too? Is it any wonder that these are some of the same people who objected to the centering of a white woman and a black man as the heroes of the new Star Wars trilogy? ("They took everything that was good about Watchmen and Rorschach, then defecated all over it Last Jedi style," one disgruntled fan writes. "This isn't Watchmen, it's Wokemen, sorry, Wokepersons.")
So the title "If You Don't Like My Story Write Your Own" can be seen, on the one hand, as Lindelof's response to the angry fanboys. ("Fuck you, I'm doing it anyway," is what Lindelof said he would say to disgruntled Watchmen creator Alan Moore, so it's not a leap to imagine him saying that to the disgruntled fans who feel he's "politicized" Moore's vision.) On the other, more important hand, however, it's a mission-statement declaration for Watchmen, channeling the spirit of Chinua Achebe and prioritizing the balance of stories. This is not a story that flatters the world view of white people: Those stories have held dominion for far too long already.
The hunters have told their histories: Now we're seeing a counter-narrative, from the perspective of the lions. And the lions have a plan.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- I assume it goes without saying—though I'll say it anyway—that Hong Chau is a fucking fabulous addition to this cast. Her performance is strange, quirky, endearingly likable, and absolutely terrifying. Watching her, King, and Smart work together is an absolute delight. (Find me another superhero story—or many stories in any genre—with three such strong, compelling female characters: Go ahead, I'll wait.)
- Our weekly roundup of Easter-eggs: Mrs Clark is reading Fogdancing, by Max Shea, a novelist who Veidt enlisted to write the "script" for his fake attack on New York. Laurie is playing Billie Holiday's "You're My Thrill" in the car while they drive to see Lady Trieu; this was the song playing when Laurie and Dan Drieberg first made love in the novel. And the idea of "thermodynamic miracles" comes from something Dr. Manhattan told Laurie on Mars: how every human life is a thermodynamic miracle, resulting from generations of unlikely ancestors meeting and coming together to exchange DNA, untold moments of chance and thousands of millions of genetic possibilities all resulting in one particular human being. ("The world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles, that they become commonplace and we forget," Dr. Manhattan says. "You are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg.")
- Speaking of Dr. Manhattan, I continue firm in my belief that he is hiding in plain sight somewhere. The most likely candidate now is Topher, who was, after all, building the same structure Dr. Manhattan built on Mars, the same structure in which Adrian Veidt is living. But I haven't ruled out Cal—the suspiciously perfect man—especially after his explanation about death to his daughters this week. "Before Uncle Judd was born, he was nowhere, didn’t exist. Then he was a baby, then he was a child, then he was an adult. Then he died. Now he’s nowhere, again.” To me, that sounds very much like the man who once said "A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there's no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?"
- Speaking of Cal: What accident?
- In a show where reparations play a large role, I doubt it's a coincidence that the land Lady Trieu buys from the white couple is "40 acres." Did she get a mule, too?
- I can't wait to see how Lube Man factors into this story. (The good news is, some spandex and a couple of bottles of salad dressing, and my next Halloween costume is sorted.)