Has it been a love story all along?
From the beginning, Watchmen has examined time as a continuum, as—to quote Dr. Manhattan in the graphic novel—"an intricate structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time." We pretend that the past is known and finite, and we pretend that the future is open, unknowable, and infinite in its possibilities. But we know better, deep down. We know that, as Faulkner said, the past is never dead, and it is not even past: It is a living thing that continues its life in us, shaping us in the present and determining the path of our future far beyond the ability of our so-called "free-will" to control. We know that this future is not only inevitable but inseparable, distinguishable from the past only by our desperate illusions of self-determination. We know—as surely as we know anything—that the same terrible fate awaits us all in the end.
And so we pretend we don't know the things we know. It is not self-deception, exactly—a lie is not a lie when it is acting, as Watchmen has already reminded us—but either way it is the only way we know to live in the present: by turning only one facet of the jewel to the light at a time. The past and the future are a continuum we can not, or will not, see whole, and so all we can do, most of the time, is focus in the moment on the moment we occupy, and pretend that it is everything.
"This is the moment," Dr. Manhattan says, near the end of "A God Walks Into Abar." The thing once known as Jon Osterman can not only see the continuum whole but experience it whole, aware every second of every second of his existence. For him, every moment is the moment, the moment happening right here, right now. Yet he goes through the motions, behaves as if he has free will, acts as if what he does can change the future even though he knows it can't. It's the only way he knows to live. It's the only way he knows to find—and give—happiness, however transient. It's the only way he knows to love.
In this, perhaps the god is not so different from the rest of us. "We're all puppets, Laurie," he said once. "I'm just a puppet who can see the strings."
“This is the first time I know love.” — Dr. Manhattan
Last week I pointed out that Angela—after taking her grandfather's Nostalgia—was experiencing time somewhat in the manner of Dr. Manhattan: She was simultaneously experiencing Will's past, her own past, and her own present, all at once, the facets turning into and out of the light, each one reflecting on the other to illuminate four generations of her family's trauma. This week, in the episode puntastically titled "A God Walks Into Abar"—written by Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen, and directed by Nicole Kassell—Watchmen makes that parallel explicit. Separated by only one episode, "A God Walks Into Abar" and "This Extraordinary Being" are themselves just different facets of Watchmen, speaking to and illuminating each other across the surface of the gem.
(In retrospect, it now seems almost churlish of me to have complained about the plot mechanics of last week's "An Almost Religious Awe," sitting as it does between these two fascinating experiments in serialized storytelling. In a Lindelof show, I said, "plot is always simply an engine for generating—and a skeleton for supporting—exquisite individual hours of television." And the two exquisite hours on either side of "An Almost Religious Awe" are worth whatever blunt engineering was required to hold them up.)
"A God Walks Into Abar" is—apart from everything else—a surprising hour of television. Perhaps we can blame the eight years I spent writing about Game of Thrones, but I had expected horrors in the second-to-last episode of this season. I expected the dark and complicated plot to reach its climax. I expected blood, and trauma, and a terrible reckoning with America's past. I expected—to quote an old Veidt advertising campaign—bodies beyond our wildest imaginings, as the comic delivered in its penultimate issue.
There is blood in "A God Walks Into Abar," of course, and the plot does reach a certain terrible, cliffhanging height in its final moments, but this episode has not only a different agenda but a different perspective than any we have seen in Watchmen so far. To date, Watchmen has been focused on the worst aspects of American life and American history: the violence and brutality, the loneliness and despair, the institutional racism and pervasive white supremacy. Now, however–without minimizing any of that—Watchmen delivers, just before the endgame, a love story of startling sweetness and optimism.
For there are deliberate echoes of those earlier horrors in "A God Walks Into a Bar," but the focus is different. Consider, for example, the story of young Jon Osterman (Zak Rothera-Oxley). Jon and his father (Anatole Taubman) are Jewish refugees, fleeing the terrors of the Third Reich, and taking refuge at the country estate of a kindly English couple (Tom Mison and Sara Vickers). It is not exactly the same story as Superman's, and it is not exactly the same story as Will's, and it is not exactly the same story as Angela's, but these stories about the birth of heroes all speak to and evoke each other. And Nicole Kassell, who directed both this episode and "It's Summer and We're Running Out of Ice," reminds us of these parallels. Notice, for example, how a shot of the young refugee Jon echoes a shot from the pilot of the young refugee Will:
But the focus is different. Young Will, from his hiding place, was seeing the massacre of his community at the hands of white supremacists, an act of hatred and destruction that put him on his path towards becoming the violent vigilante Hooded Justice whom we saw in "This Extraordinary Being." But the story of what young Jon sees from his vantage point is different: He is watching the kindly people who have taken him in make love. "There, in the darkness of a closet, I have no idea what I am seeing or hearing," Dr. Manhattan says. "But whatever these two are doing to one another, it is overwhelmingly joyful." Later, they will explain it to him as a beautiful thing, the creation of a new life. "This is the first time I know love," Dr. Manhattan says.
Love and hate, creation and destruction: They are different sides of the same gem, and where "This Extraordinary Being" prioritized one, now "A God Walks Into Abar" shines a light on the other. For certainly, young Jon and his father must have seen terrible things on their journey—things to rival the Tulsa Massacre for horror and injustice—as they fled the genocide of Hitler's Germany. But that is not the facet Dr. Manhattan chooses to turn to the light.
This is a digression, perhaps, but I'm focusing on it because I think it's important to understanding the part "A God Walks Into Abar" plays in Watchmen's overall plan, and I want to understand it. Is this the answer to the riddle Lady Trieu posed last week, when she seemed to suggest that it was a mistake for everyone to focus on the horrors of history? "I gave people the means to visit the past so they could learn from it, so they could evolve and transform and better themselves," she said in her speech. "Instead, they became fixated on their most painful memories, choosing to experience the worst moments of their lives over and over again." Dr. Manhattan has the ability to literally experience any moment of his life as if it were happening right now. (For him, in fact, it is happening right now.) He has seen terrible things. He has, for that matter, done terrible things. But he seems to prioritize the good: the moments of mercy, the moments of creation, the moments of love.
Even this episode's view of the British couple can be seen as a counter-narrative to the accusations of colonialism and white supremacy that have run throughout Watchmen. They are colonialists—missionaries, of a sort, handing out Bibles to their Jewish refugees—but they represent goodness to him. Offering their home to refugees, they are the best version of white Christians, using their privilege to help out the oppressed peoples of the world; they personify the highest of England's (and America's) supposed ideals, the ones we have seen white people betray throughout Watchmen. Later, Dr. Manhattan will actually create a society in their image, "a kind of life that was superior to the life here on Earth," he says. "Kinder, gentler. Beings who are designed to care for others instead of themselves." (That society, however—"completely devoid of conflict"—turns out to be so boring that he has to abandon it. "Their love is infinite, which is the very reason it's so unsatisfying," he tells Veidt.)
So this is what fascinates me about "A God Walks Into Abar": The episode seems to offer a light contrapuntal narrative to the darkness of "This Extraordinary Being"—and of Watchmen in general—without ever arguing, over-optimistically, that the light can somehow vanquish the darkness.
For example, when Angela took her grandfather's Nostalgia, and was able to see time's continuum, she saw the love story of her grandparents play out, and it began exactly as her own begins: With a man entering a bar, grabbing two beers, and bringing them over to a woman sitting alone at a table.
This is how both love stories begin, and both love stories end, tragically, after too few years of happiness. But "This Extraordinary Being" focused on the darkness, on the narrative of how love was overcome by anger, hatred, and violence. "A God Walks Into Abar," on the other hand, focuses on the love as a triumph, as a brief and precious joy that flourishes, miraculously, amidst all the anger, hatred, and violence. The story is fundamentally the same, but the first is a lamentation, and the second is a celebration.
"Fuck it. Why not?" — Angela
In the graphic novel Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan abandons Earth to its inevitable destruction, after he decides that life is ultimately meaningless. But then he has a long conversation with Laurie, on the surface of Mars, in which Laurie comes to the realization that her father was Edward Blake, The Comedian, a man she grew up hating because he'd once attempted to rape her mother. Her mother had forgiven Blake, and they had eventually had a consensual relationship, and it was this union that produced Laurie. It is this unlikely event—this "thermodynamic miracle"—that convinces Dr. Manhattan that life is worth fighting for. "I changed my mind," he says:
"Thermodynamic miracles…events with odds against so astronomical they're effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing. And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive, meeting, siring this precise son, that exact daughter…until your mother loves a man she has ever reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold, that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle."
But, Laurie points out, you could say the same thing about anybody in the world. "Yes," he agrees. "But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles, that they become commonplace and we forget."
"A God Walks Into Abar" reminds us that every love story is the most commonplace of miracles. Even leaving aside the obvious "thermodynamic miracle" of Dr. Manhattan's existence, Angela's existence is just as unlikely and miraculous. Her story is one of generation after generation of unlikely chance, and terrible trauma, and remarkable endurance. It is a long story of improbable survival that began with her unknown ancestors in Africa, and continued through their forced migration to America. It has sustained itself through their enslavement in the American South, her great-grandfather's war in Europe, her grandfather's survival of the Tulsa Massacre, her father's birth in Harlem, and her own birth in Southeast Asia. Her ancestors overcame slavery and wars and massacres and conspiracies, somehow living, and loving each other, long enough to produce this exact woman, strong and funny and good, sitting alone in a bar in Vietnam. That is the crowning unlikelihood, the thermodynamic miracle: all of the things that had to happen, that had to be endured, so that this one woman could fall in love with a man—a god—she had every reason to hate.
What is amazing about "A God Walks Into Abar," however, is how commonplace the miracle turns out to be. For this relationship between a god and a human woman—soon to be a superhero herself—is remarkably normal. Cleverly, the episode sets this decidedly non-linear story within a linear, even mundane framework: Set entirely before Angela knows (or believes) who this man really is, it becomes just a late-night conversation between two strangers in a bar. The performances here are fantastic. Regina King is always great, of course, but here she channels more happiness and humor into this younger version of Angela than we've seen in her before: It's a subtle but dazzling transformation. And Yahya Abdul-Mateen II—playing Dr. Manhattan even before he looks (and sounds) like "Cal Abar"—matches her beat for beat. As Laurie told us earlier this season, Dr. Manhattan never had a sense of humor, but Abdul-Mateen somehow actually makes this god charming, even flirty.
The writing in these scenes is so delicately brilliant that I can't possibly do it justice here. Dr. Manhattan is completely honest with her, about everything, including his godlike nature and the eventual path of their relationship. But it is all translated into terms that make it normal, human, and relatable. Asked to perform a miracle, he instead does something that could be human sleight-of-hand, producing an egg from his apparently empty hands. Predicting her favorite song on the jukebox, he simply informs her–when she says he's wrong—that it just isn't her favorite song yet. When she asks him how he could have made mistakes—since he could supposedly see the future and all—he asks her in return, "Haven’t you ever done anything you knew you were going to regret?" He is a god, and he's completely open about it, but he's also just a guy in a bar trying to pick up an attractive woman with some clever patter and witty banter. I honestly can't overstate how impressive the trick Jensen and Lindelof pull off here is, just as a writing challenge: to make this absurd, impossible relationship so ordinary and achingly human.
And of course, what's truly dazzling about it, is that this is the entire point. "So, we spend 10 years in the tunnel of love, and once we're out, something terrible happens?" she asks, and he confirms that this is true. Well then, "I cannot get serious with someone if I know it's just gonna end in tragedy," she says. "By definition," he points out, "don't all relationships end in tragedy?" And she has to concede the point. We all go into relationships knowing they are doomed. Most will end with breakups—as Dr. Manhattan's previous relationships, with Janey Slater and Laurie Blake did—but the best-case scenario is that we stay together long enough for one lover to watch the other die. Love is always a tunnel, with a beginning and an end, and we all know this every bit as much as Dr. Manhattan does. He is more open about acknowledging it, and is perhaps more accepting of it, but none of us can avoid the tragedy: We can all see the future—the continuum as a whole—if we only care to look.
He buys her a drink. He invites her to dinner. Later there will be sex. He will change for her, and she will change for him. Eventually, he will give her a ring, and the ring he gives her is a promise, a promise to live in the moment, and to act as if their love will last forever. They will marry, and live together, and fight, and fuck, and have children, and be happy together for as long as they have—and then, inevitably, it will end. This god and this superhero are—in these regards, and many others—no different from anyone else: They know what will happen, but they will willfully live as if they do not, as if they can prevent the doom, as if the tunnel will go on forever. His agreement to forget everything he knows, to surrender foreknowledge, is nothing but a metaphor for how we all have to push the terrible knowledge from our minds in order to enjoy our transient, temporary joy. There is, in the end, no other way to live. There is no other way to love.
And, in emphasizing their universality, I also do not want to lose sight of the important fact that he does not merely become human for her: He becomes a black man. (The scene where they pick out his body is absolutely adorable: the coy way in which she saves her preferred choice for last, rolling out the body of this beautiful black man and shyly telling him, "I would be comfortable with him.") His becoming "Cal" is not, as Adrian snidely comments, "appropriation," but—within the larger context of Watchmen—symbolically something more. It continues the unlikely miracle of her birth—the hard-fought perseverance of her ancestors—and makes their relationship not just a celebration of human love but a celebration of black love, of a particular brand of unlikely miracle that survives and thrives against overwhelming odds.
And yes, it is transient, like all love. Eventually they must wake each other from the waking dream, and acknowledge the inevitable doom. They got 10 years together—much more than some, much less than others—before the tunnel ended. The white supremacists found them in the end. ("They're already here," he tells her. They're always already here.) But it's not a defeat, because the miracle has already happened. The miracle is not to avoid fate, but to live as if you can. The miracle is to have hope. "Fuck it, why not?" as Angela says, because what else is there to say?
I am reminded of Nietzsche, who contemplated the theory of "eternal return"—the notion that we live our predetermined lives over and over, the exact same way, for all eternity—and found it "horrifying and paralyzing." But he also found the solution to the conundrum in amor fati, the love of fate: “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it […] but love it.”
And then I think of Albert Camus, who imagined Sisyphus making the long walk down his mountain to resume his "futile and hopeless labor," and found that moment joyous and heroic. "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart," Camus writes. "One must imagine Sisyphus happy"
"This is the moment," Dr. Manhattan says, at the end of "A God Walks Into Abar," as he watches Angela rage against the inevitable. He has told her what will happen, and everything he has ever told her has come to pass, and still she behaves as though she can change it. It is the only way she knows to live. It is an act of self-deception, a doomed leap of faith, a desperate act of love. “By definition, don’t all relationships end in tragedy?” he asked her, when he met her, and she conceded the point. Yes, all love ends in tragedy, but we behave as if it doesn't, because that's the only way we know to live as humans, and because the struggle itself is enough to fill a heart.
"This is the moment," Dr. Manhattan says, of the moment he falls in love, just a few moments before his love story ends.
And we must imagine Dr. Manhattan happy.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- So, in a bit of timey-wimey stuff, Angela herself set the story in motion, by having Jon ask Will, in the past, about Judd Crawford? To this I say: "Hodor!"
- We also learn this episode that Dr. Manhattan can, "theoretically," pass his powers on through foodstuffs. This probably won't come up again, and certainly has nothing to do with his sudden craving for waffles, and we definitely won't see Topher walking on water at the end of the next episode.
- Reflecting my increasing lack of patience with the Veidt storyline, I skipped over all of it this episode. In the past, we see that Veidt remained in Antarctica for a quarter century after completing his master plan. (Doing what, exactly, besides manufacturing tiny squidfalls?) And, in the "present," we see—in an end-credits sequence—Veidt getting a lot of tomatoes squashed in his face before receiving, in a cake, Chekhov's Horseshoe from the first episode. (OK, boomer: whatever.)
- We finally have an explanation for how Angela survived the White Night: Cal's latent powers kicked in, out of reflex, to save her.
- In Peteypedia this week, we learn more about Max Shea's novel Fogdancing, which has come up several times before, and which Adrian is reading in his cell this week. (Among other things, we learn that its hero was a secret-agent super-soldier who wore a "skin-tight silver suit shimmering with SPF-666." It sounds like we've found the inspiration for the mysterious "Lube Man.") More troublingly, we get a glimpse of the future, in a memo from Agent Petey sent "the morning after the calamity in Greenwood" when "martial law remains in effect throughout the city" and Haz-Mat teams are working to collect and identify the bodies. So we've got that to look forward to next week.
- A (relatively) short piece this week, as I found myself pressed for time and wanting to reserve my strength for the big finale. I'll be honest: I don't really see how Lindelof and Co. can wrap everything up in one final episode. But Watchmen has yet to do anything but surpass expectations, so I'm choosing to have faith in the face of inevitable doom. See you at the tunnel's end.