After the televisual tour de force that was "This Extraordinary Being," it was perhaps inevitable that Watchmen would need to deliver a relatively straightforward, table-setting sort of episode like "An Almost Religious Awe." The first episode not co-written by creator Damon Lindelof—it was written by Stacy Osei-Kuffour and Claire Keichel, and directed by David Semel—"An Almost Religious Awe" is far from being a weak entry in Watchmen's canon. (Knock wood, but we strongly suspect there are going to be no weak episodes in this series.) But it does have a certain rushed, workmanlike feel to it, as if it had certain abrupt plot points it had to hit, by hook or by crook.
I don't know when (or why) the decision was made to make Watchmen nine episodes instead of the standard ten, but it feels like Lindelof handed his writers the task of making up for those missing 50-odd minutes here. They fielded this challenge ably—there's a lot of good stuff here—but "An Almost Religious Awe" is, quite understandably, the least dense chapter of Watchmen to date, both textually and thematically.
I'm not really complaining. In fact—just between us—it's actually very convenient for me, since I'm getting a perilously late start on my writing this week, and need to get through this one rather quickly. So this review will, itself, be rather workmanlike, and (by my usual, long-winded standards, at least) relatively brief.
"I'm sorry, was I not supposed to confess yet?" — Jane Crawford
Let's get the worst out of the way and begin with Laurie's subplot, since I think that's the easiest place to discuss what I mean about the almost box-ticking nature of "An Almost Religious Awe."
From the beginning, Watchmen has walked a very fine line between its pulp-fiction, comic-book inspired genre material and the more serious purposes to which Lindelof and his team are putting it. It's a marriage of the silly and the sophisticated that works, almost always, far better than we had any right to expect. But there are places where the awkward joins are obvious, and "An Almost Religious Awe" has more of these visible seams than usual.
Throughout the episode, characters are required to summarize the plot and pontificate upon their plans like—to borrow Adrian Veidt's phrase—"a Republic serial villain." (Jane, Joe, Petey, Lady Trieu, and even Angela all do this at various points.) Here, Laurie visits Jane Crawford and—for reasons that rather evade explanation—tells her everything. She tells her how Angela took the Nostalgia, and about Will's being Hooded Justice, and about Judd's death, and about the Cyclops conspiracy. Basically, she lays out the entire investigation to date, and where she thinks the evidence is leading:
"I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't at least entertain the idea that the chief of police of Tulsa wasn't a secret white supremacist. Which has to make you wonder about his friends, like Joe Keene. What if the 7th Kavalry is just Cyclops by another name? And what if Senator Joe used them to kill a bunch of police so that he could put all the cops in masks, and pretty soon, no one can tell the good guys from the bad guys, because everybody's covering their fucking faces and pledging loyalty to their newly elected leader, President Joe?"
Surely, if Laurie suspects that Judd and his friends were part of the massive 7th Kavalry/Cyclops conspiracy, she must be at least a little suspicious of Judd's wife as well? So what purpose does it serve for her to lay all her cards on the table for a suspect this way? Jean Smart is fabulous, as always, and the episode more or less gets away with it because Watchmen has already established Laurie as a somewhat guileless, brick-to-the-head sort of detective. (She showed her hand to Angela when she first met her, she readily confessed that she had bugged the cactus on Wade's desk, et cetera.) But it's awkward writing, just an obvious short-cut for Watchmen to bring the audience up to speed (if they're not already there), and to bring the investigation-plot to a sudden head.
Which, of course, it immediately achieves, because Jane—in classic serial-villain fashion—surprises us and Laurie by simply admitting everything. "Well, that was the original idea, but something extraordinary happened, and suddenly president seemed a bit small potatoes," Jane says. And then—using one of the oldest tricks in the writer's handbook—Osei-Kuffour and Claire Keichel have her hang a lantern on the awkwardness: "I'm sorry, was I not supposed to confess yet? You've just been going on and on and on."
I do, for the record, mean my criticisms very lightly, because plot in a Lindelof show—as viewers of Lost and The Leftovers can testify—is never the point. Plot is always simply an engine for generating—and a skeleton for supporting—exquisite individual hours of television like last week's "This Extraordinary Being." And the strength of the two actresses, and the amused self-awareness of the writing, makes it all more or less okay here: I mean, the Crawfords have—to use Laurie's words—"a fucking trapdoor installed in their living room." So of course Jane confesses like a pulp-fiction villain, and of course she does so while activating that trapdoor very awkwardly, with an old-fashioned remote control. As a metaphor for the clunky plot machinations, it's almost too on the nose.
So Laurie falls into the basement lair, where she encounters Republic Serial Villain #2, Senator Joe himself. And, once again, Osei-Kuffour and Keichel call out the awkward plot machinery in the dialogue itself. "Oh, Jesus, please don't," Laurie says. "What?" Joe asks. "Talk me through your fucking plan," Laurie says. She doesn't want to hear his super-villain origin story. She doesn't want to hear him confidently monologue about his evil scheme. "I'm tired, Joe. I'm tired of all the silliness."
Watchmen walks this very fine line fairly often—acknowledging the superhero absurdity even while taking it seriously—and the show usually gets away with it. But it's tricky, and potentially dangerous, to gamble with our suspension of disbelief this way. I'm not sure it completely works here: Joe, like Jane—and like Lady Trieu elsewhere in the episode—gives up too much information, far too quickly, and with far too little motivation:
"You're wrong about Cyclops. We're not racists. We're about restoring balance in those times when our country forgets the principles upon which it was founded. Because the scales have tipped way too far, and it is extremely difficult to be a white man in America right now. So, I'm thinking I might try being a blue one."
So Joe's master plan is to become Dr. Manhattan? This is a plausible enough scheme within the world of Watchmen. (After all, we heard rumors in Episode One that the Russians were attempting to recreate the experiment that made Jon Osterman a god.) And in terms of the show's larger mission—to address white supremacy—it's certainly on point for this white man to want to become the ultimate "supreme" being. But it is also, at this point in the series, a little disappointing, because it lacks subtlety. Both Joe's speech and his plan are just a little too on the nose—compared, for example, to the more sophisticated metaphor of the movie-projector scheme from last episode—and the reveal just comes too quickly and easily. It's as if the show suddenly realized it was running out of time, and couldn't fart around any longer with conspiracies and investigations.
These are not, for the record, fatal missteps for Watchmen to take. As I've said, the plot is not the point, and my hope is that Joe's plan is intentionally obvious and cartoonish. My hunch, in fact, is that Lady Trieu and Will Reeves—and Watchmen itself—have much larger and more serious things in store for the endgame than Joe and his silly comic-book agenda.
"I gave people the means to visit the past so they could learn from it." — Lady Trieu
Fortunately, there are far more interesting things happening in "An Almost Religious Awe" than whatever Senator Joe and his racist henchmen are up to.
If there's a unifying theme running throughout "An Almost Religious Awe," it's the familiar theme of memory, which has been central to Watchmen from the beginning. Obviously, Angela is still dealing with overdosing on her grandfather's Nostalgia, as she undergoes a treatment for "recollective infestation." Will's memories, Lady Trieu explains, have literally invaded her brain, insinuating themselves along existing neural pathways. Her mind, in other words, has been rewritten, his memories threaded through hers to the extent that she seems to be experiencing his past, her past, and her present all at once.
(This, by the way—and I doubt the association is incidental—is not unlike how Dr. Manhattan's mind works, as he explained to Laurie in the novel. "Time is simultaneous, an intricate structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet," he said. And later in that same conversation, he told her, "If you'd only relax enough to see the whole continuum, life's pattern, or lack of one, then you'd understand my perspective." Dr. Manhattan had the added complication of being able to see the future as well as the past, but nonetheless the overlapping of memories in Angela's mind here evokes the nonlinear way he himself saw the patterns of his own existence.)
Lady Trieu describes the treatment Angela is undergoing as "mnemodialysis," a flushing of the foreign memories with the cerebrospinal fluid of a host. Angela assumes it is Will at the other end of the tube in her arm, but when she finally tracks the host down, she finds not her grandfather but an unconscious elephant. It is literally "the elephant in the room," of course—the pun is impossible to avoid—and it's worth noting that the legendary Vietnamese warrior for whom Lady Trieu is named rode a giant elephant. But the symbolism here is more poignantly rooted in another fabled aspect of the largest pachyderms: Elephants never forget. (It is scientifically proven that the animals have fantastic memories: They are able to recognize each other decades after passing acquaintances, and they are able to recall, in their old age, survival techniques they learned in their youths. They celebrate reunions, and mourn deaths, and—according to the myth about elephant graveyards—literally remember where the bodies are buried.)
So I suppose it makes literal sense that Angela's treatment would involve the animal with the most sophisticated memory system after humans. But I think the symbolism is important, too. In her speech celebrating the imminent activation of the Millennium Clock, Lady Trieu speaks of the importance of learning from the past, but she also seems to champion the merits of forgetting:
But there were failures, too. My greatest was Nostalgia. I gave people the means to visit the past so they could learn from it, so they could evolve and transform and better themselves. Instead, they became fixated on their most painful memories, choosing to experience the worst moments of their lives over and over again. And why? Because they were afraid: afraid that, once unburdened by the traumas of the past, they would have no excuse not to move gloriously into the future.
It's a curious speech, and a confusing sentiment within the larger scheme of Watchmen. For, surely, for everyone to unburden themselves of the traumas of the past is not the point, in a show that has been so careful to ensure that we remember some of the traumas that we might have forgotten. This apparent disconnect, we suspect, is located in racial memory: Lady Trieu is speaking from the perspective of people of color. (Notice that there are no white people working at Trieu Industries.) White people need to remember, to learn from the past so that they can evolve and transform and better themselves; it is people of color who are faced with the burden of unburdening themselves of trauma and moving gloriously into the future.
None of this, however, involves forgetting, because Watchmen is clear that it is essential that we do not forget. Lady Trieu herself is feeding traumatic memories to Bian, who, we now learn, is not her daughter but the clone of her mother, Bian My. (We know a little about this apparently amazing woman from "Peteypedia," including the fact that she wrote a best-selling book about raising her genius daughter to be a leader and a liberator. The title of this manifesto, incidentally, roughly translates to "Pachyderm Man.") "Before she died, I harvested her memories, and then I cloned her," Lady Trieu explains, in one of this episode's many (slightly unmotivated) revelations. "Of course, she wouldn't be my mother unless she had my mother's experiences." Bian, then—in another echo of Dr. Manhattan's view of time—is simultaneously past, present, and future all in one. She would not be who she is—would not be everything she can be—without those traumatic memories.
"Subject Disconnected." — A recorded warning
And neither would Angela Abar. We learn about her background in "An Almost Religious Awe," and discover that she has plenty of her own painful memories. "People who wear masks are driven by trauma," Laurie said a few episodes back, and here we meet young Angela (an excellent performance by Faithe Herman) at the moment of her formative trauma. Like many a superhero, it begins with the death of her parents (Anthony Hill and Devyn A. Tyler), blown up in a suicide bombing in America's 51st state, Vietnam. It happens just as Angela has rented a VHS copy of a blaxploitation movie called Sister Night, about a devout Hell's Kitchen nun who moonlights as a masked vigilante: "The Nun with the Motherfuckin' Gun." (Once again, Peteypedia provides some interesting background on this film, part of a wave of such movies made in Vietnam in the 1970s and '80s catering to "the large population of African Americans who migrated there after the war to escape the institutional racism of the Nixon era and seek new opportunities in the new frontier.")
Like Looking Glass's origin story, it's all almost too on-the-nose. But the racial complexities of this are fascinating. It's a film about racism in pre-Squidfall America, made for an audience of black Americans who had left the continental U.S. for the more inclusive opportunities of Vietnam. (There is a faint echo here of that propaganda letter Will Reeves' father—Angela's great-grandfather—received during World War I, encouraging him to expatriate.) But, as I've mentioned before, the Reeves family's presence in Vietnam—especially since Marcus is a soldier, and Angela grows up to be a cop—allies them not with oppressed people of color but with the oppressors: They are the beneficiaries of, and the active agents of, white colonialism. ("Death to the invaders!" the suicide bomber yells, as he detonates his bomb and kills Angela's parents.) Significantly, the masked vigilante Sister Night is on the other side of the fight from the mythological figure of Lady Trieu, who—like the bomber—died fighting to rid her country of foreign invaders.
So Angela grows up with plenty of personal trauma. (In addition to the death of her parents, she has a pretty shitty time in an orphanage, and her Grandmother June [a perfectly cast Valeri Ross] dies just minutes after their warm reunion.) But Angela did not grow up with the legacy of institutional racism that comes with being a person of color in the (continental) U.S.: She was, symbolically, at least, on the other side of privilege, an oppressor, not the oppressed. In fact—and despite what Agent Petey says is a "large population" of African Americans in Vietnam—she grew up not really knowing other black people. "She looks like me," Angela says of Sister Night, explaining her attraction to the movie's box. "I reckon there's not a lot of people here in Vietnam who do," June observes. It's a lovely little moment, both acknowledging the importance of diversification in the superhero genre—Angela craves a hero who looks like her—and establishing Angela's disconnection from her own heritage. When June promises to take Angela home to Oklahoma, she says "It's where we're from," and we see Angela smile at the idea of reconnecting with this missing piece of her own identity.
But June's sudden death means that this promised pilgrimage—this planned reconnection to her roots and her people—doesn't happen. Angela remains in Vietnam, and remains disconnected from her heritage. ("Subject disconnected," as the recording warns when Angela unplugs from the elephant.) We see the birth of her desire to be a cop here, as she meets two Saigon police officers (Jennifer Vo Le and Danny Le Boyer) who summarily execute the bomber's puppeteer accomplice (Hawn Tran). The two cops are Vietnamese by birth, but they wear the American flag and have Americanized names ("Officer Jen" and "Officer Roy"): Like Angela, they are disconnected from their natural loyalties, their allegiance transferred to the oppressors. They are brutal agents of a white colonialist state, and they symbolically make Angela one as well, as Jen hands Angela her first badge.
What is brilliant about this, however, is that—after the events of "This Extraordinary Being"—Angela's memories of this disconnected childhood are now reconnected to her actual heritage: Her family's legacy of black pain is now threaded alongside the neural pathways of her own personal trauma. ("You wouldn't know where he ends and you began," Lady Trieu has told her, of Will.) She remembers the bombing that killed her parents, but interspersed with that memory are flashbacks to the massacre that killed Will's parents. She remembers the police officers executing the puppeteer, but she also flashes on the police officers putting a noose around Will's neck and stringing him up. Representing O.B. and Ruth, Will and June, Marcus and Evelyn, and Angela herself, it is four generations of her family's pain viewed simultaneously. This is Dr. Manhattan's view of time as an "intricate structured jewel," only the jewel is a blood diamond, the various facets of transgenerational trauma reflecting and illuminating each other. Angela became a police officer in both Vietnam and Oklahoma, but she can now see the complex implications of that, and how she has become part of the institutionalized oppression her grandparents fought against. She can see, as Dr. Manhattan once said, the whole continuum, and see how—like Manhattan himself—she can simultaneously be both savior and oppressor.
"We're all puppets, Laurie. I'm just a puppet who can see the strings." — Dr. Manhattan
None of this is exactly her fault. In one way or another, she has been shaped by the trauma of racial oppression and violence, in ways she never fully knew or understood. But she can see it now, and—here we return to the elephant—her charge is to not forget it, but to learn from it, as Lady Trieu says: to evolve from it, and transform, and better herself. This is what Watchmen is charging us to do, with its centering of suppressed voices and the counter-narratives of the dispossessed: to see the whole picture, the entire, troubling, blood-soaked fabric of the American century in all its complex weave. "We're all puppets, Laurie," Dr. Manhattan told his girlfriend in the graphic novel. "I'm just a puppet who can see the strings."
But—as we learn this week, in the episode's big reveal—Dr. Manhattan hasn't been seeing much of anything lately. "She wouldn't be my mother without my mother's experiences," Lady Trieu says of Bian, and the same is true of everyone, even gods. Dr. Manhattan has been here all along, in the form of Angela's husband Cal, but—his memories completely erased—he didn't know who he was.
This is not a complete surprise. Watchmen has been hinting since at least the second episode that Dr. Manhattan "could look like us," and I had already suggested that the likeliest candidates were Angela's son Topher and her (suspiciously-perfect) husband Cal. (I confess, however, I had not suspected that Angela knew who Dr. Manhattan was. I'm going to need to rewatch the earlier episodes to see if that was seeded anywhere.) But it is a fantastic sequence, with Angela telling her husband how much she loves him, and then brutally cracking his skull open with a hammer to remove the metal hydrogen-atom symbol from within. "Time to come out of the tunnel," she tells him, and we hear an echo of Wade's words to his support group, about fear. "Does it ever end?" Wade asked, rhetorically. "Of course it does, because we are all in a tunnel, and every tunnel ends. It ends with light."
It ends with light: the blue light glowing in the eyes of Angela Abar, reconnected with her true lover, who is reconnected with his memories, with his all-encompassing view of time and all its complex, simultaneous facets. "Hey, baby," Angela says, as a gorgeous instrumental arrangement of Bowie's "Life on Mars" plays. "We're in fuckin' trouble."
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Is it possible that some of the awkward writing in this episode was constructed in anticipation of a look-in audience following "This Extraordinary Being"? There's suddenly just so much clunky hand-holding for the audience, after six episodes of Lindelof and his team trusting the audience implicitly. (Here's Agent Petey providing an unnecessary exposition dump: "Remember when you told me to drive over to Detective Tillman's house, or, you know, Looking Glass, because you thought it was really unusual that he ratted out Detective Abar, and you were worried that maybe he was working with the 7th Kavalry?" And here's Laurie trying to excuse the clunky writing by hanging a lantern on it: "Yes, Petey, I remember it as if I said all of that to you verbatim.") I'm all for making a show accessible to new viewers, but god help anyone trying to jump into this show in Episode 7.
- I never got around to commenting on this episode's title, which is fairly straightforward: It comes from the graphic novel, and it is how Dr. Manhattan described the reaction of the North Vietnamese army to his presence. "Often they ask to surrender to me personally, their terror of me balanced by an almost religious awe." We hear about this dichotomy in the opening narration from a 10-hour documentary on Dr. Manhattan: "Was he the liberating hero who single-handedly ended the war and delivered his country its 51st state? Or was he the cold blue conqueror who decimated an entire way of life?" (And we see it in the conflicting imagery in which the blue god is represented throughout Vietnam, the canonizing mural of him graffitied to call him "murderer" and show him with horns and blood on his hands.) And, obviously, this reflects the hero/villain, liberator/oppressor dualities—of superheroes, soldiers, colonizers, and police officers—with which Angela is just now coming to grips.
- I don't have the space or energy here, but I'm making a note to myself to think about "the adaptive function of empathy, and the role of rage suppression in social cohesion”—the subject of Bian's dissertation—in relation to the rest of Watchmen.
- June and Angela dine in a "Burgers 'N Borscht" restaurant, which I've been waiting to see: This was a fast-food chain that sprang up in the novel, reflecting the U.S.-Soviet detente that followed 11/2.
- Among the films on the video rack Angela peruses is Silk Swingers—originally titled Silk Swingers of Suburbia—a terrible softcore porn movie featuring Laurie's mother Sally, the original Silk Spectre. There is also—more promisingly—an adaptation of Max Shea's novel Fogdancing, directed by David Cronenberg. As we discussed briefly in Episode Four, Shea was a novelist Adrian Veidt enlisted to script the horrific images he implanted in the brain of his giant squid, which then telepathically traumatized everyone in the psychic blast range. "Illustrating the sequence where the young chew their way out of their mother's womb was quite an experience," an artist who worked on the project told Shea. It sounds like perfect material for Cronenberg.
- "Is your father here too?" Angela asks Lady Trieu. "He will be," she replies. Despite my early predictions about the Comedian, I think the smart money is now officially on Adrian Veidt as Lady Trieu's biological father, and that his message pleading for rescue was directed at her, as I suggested a few episodes ago. (She may rescue him, but I will be very surprised if she and her father share the same goals or worldview.)
- Speaking of which, I am so over the Veidt sequences: Whatever gonzo amusement they provided is a distant memory at this point, and they're now about as entertaining as the prolonged fart joke we get this week.
- "Your husband's fucking hot," Laurie told Angela, back in "She Was Killed by Space Junk." So Laurie's taste in men remains unchanged. And as several people have pointed out—I didn't think of it myself, but I think I saw it here first—Laurie's giant blue dildo from that episode is called "The Excalibur," making it a clever hint about her ex, Cal Abar. (Cal's name also evokes Kal-El, of course, the birth name of Superman.)
- Things to take note of: There are five dead 7K goons in Wade's house, but only four Rorschach masks. I think we can expect to see Wade turn up alive, and undercover with his fellow white people in Joe's "abandoned J.C. Penney" lair.
- Finally, what do we imagine Lady Trieu's "secret plan to save humanity" might be? It is not—of this we can be sure—simply to stop Senator Joe and his goofy racist plot. A few episodes ago I predicted that Lady Trieu and Will were planning to strike at their common enemy: white people. I actually dared to imagine they might kill all the white people, but now I think it's probably more subtle than that, and definitely tied to this recurring notion of memory and transgenerational trauma. For it occurs to me that no one ever discusses transgenerational guilt, and that white Americans are, in general, unwilling to own their own privilege and take responsibility for the crimes of the past. Is it possible that this is what the Millennium Clock does? That is somehow implants the trauma of thousands of years of oppression in the minds of white Americans, so that they must acknowledge it, live with it, and learn from it, as people of color have had to do? That would be very on-point for Watchmen's overall project of providing counter-narratives and revising the memories of suppressed and overlooked atrocities. We're four hours from the Millennium Clock's activation, and two episode from the end of the series, and I'm very excited to see where all of this is going.
- Huh. I did write this piece fairly quickly, but, somehow, it did not turn out to be any shorter or more punctual than my usual efforts. Welcome to my life.