[Reading Time: 20 minutes]
This review contains discussion of mature topics, major spoilers for Watchmen’s third episode, “She Was Killed By Space Junk,” as well as a major spoiler for the season three finale of Lost.
I watched Watchmen’s series premiere on Hulu/HBO live, while it was airing. The only other events I’ve watched live in the last few years were the James Comey and Robert Mueller testimonies before Congress, and the Game of Thrones series finale. (I never watched a single episode other than the last one, solely so I could get in on the memes.)
After I typed out my review, I didn’t expect that I’d come back to write about the show again. I thoroughly enjoyed the second episode, but as it appeared to be a continuation of mostly the same story and themes raised in the first episode, I didn’t feel compelled to offer any additional thoughts. I’m just not that kind of reviewer, pumping out copy to fill pages for ad space.
The third Watchmen episode gave me that same magical feeling of “hot damn; there really is something special going on in this series” that I had while watching the premiere. Like immediately. I felt like it was personally begging me to open the Notes app on my phone and start fingering the words out. The opening scenes display such clever cinematography that I’m just going to assume it’s all intentional and move forward with my nerditry.
The first two episodes took place mainly from Angela Abar’s perspective. This episode’s protagonist is not Angela, though they do meet toward the end. Our new ‘hero’ exits a taxi and walks across the street toward a fancy building, wearing what at first appears to be a red cape and black boots. The camera pans upward with each reframed shot as she walks into the building, and you begin to realize it’s actually a woman’s coat that she could have bought at Nordstrom, not a superhero costume at all.
Then you realize she’s actually a bank robber?
Then you realize she’s actually an FBI agent!
It’s a triple trick! Designed to make you feel a little uncomfortable. You don’t quite know what’s going on, but you’re not completely lost either. An identity shell game. She’s also kind of… fascist? I wasn’t really sure what to make of her character at the very beginning, though through reflection now that I’ve watched the rest of the episode and know her entire life story, I understand her aversion to those who don masks — for good or evil.
She’s played by Jean Smart, who has been in everything, though I know her best as Martha Logan from 24 where she plays the first lady to a corrupt US President over a couple of seasons.
(A fun coincidental parallel: 24’s fictional President Charles Logan looks and feels a lot like Richard Nixon, whose Watergate building break-in was never discovered in the Watchmen universe, and who’s apparently idolized by the white supremacist terrorists of the HBO series. It’s also fun that Jeremy Irons played Batman’s butler/pseudosidekick Alfred Pennyworth in two recent DC Comics movies directed by Zack Snyder, who himself directed Watchmen’s film adaptation in 2009.)
If you recognized this FBI agent’s first name (Laurie) from the original graphic novel — which I did not — you maybe realized that she’s a significant force in this universe. If not, a later conversation hands us a much louder clue:
“They finally declared him dead,” another agent says in conversation with Laurie. “But I’ve got a buddy on the Argentina desk who says Veidt got plastic surgery and is now living incognito down there. You knew him, right? Back in the old days? When he was… Ozymandias?”
Laurie casually spits something out of her mouth into a coffee mug. She annoyingly asks, “You want my autograph?”
“Well, you clearly have a hard-on for the past, so what do you want me to sign?”
It was at that very moment that I shot up on the couch and shouted “IS THAT SILK SPECTRE??” at my television screen. The agent subsequently refers to Dr. Manhattan as her ex, which was a ‘clue’ meant for people who are about 10% denser than me, which is already clearly a lot.
I then realized the opening scene with the cape-coat was actually a quadruple trick, that my initial suspicion that we were watching a superhero was correct. (At least, she used to be one.)
Though there was another hint after the bank robbery, before the airplane scene.
Senator Keene visits FBI Agent Laurie Blake in her apartment. He looks at a blanket covering something roughly shaped like a birdcage. It’s shaped like a birdcage because it is one.
“Can I take a peek?”
Laurie cautions him. “Watch your fingers…”
A caged pet owl pokes his head forward as Keene lifts the blanket, hoohooing in an assertive but curious greeting.
They stare at each other for a moment. Another hoo.
Keene asks, “What’s his name?”
Her response is flat: “Who”
Keene clarifies, “The owl,” with a slightly annoyed tone.
“Who. That’s his name. Ask him yourself.”
At first I rolled my eyes just a tiny bit because it’s like… really, we’re doing Abbot and Costello?
But by the end of that scene, I understood. That dumb joke paid off. A throwaway piece of character development about her owning a pet owl turned into a reveal that she obviously knows Nite Owl, one of the main characters of the original series. And that he’s probably in jail?
Keene “Those cops have kept the peace down there for three years, and now someone’s trying to start a war. And if they do… it all goes to shit.”
“And you don’t get to be president,” Laurie replies in a mocking tone.
Keene seems offended, caught off-guard, yet also portrays a facial expression that indicates if she’s willing to drop the polite pretenses, then so is he.
Yes. Yes he does want to be president when he grows up.
“You know, Laurie…” he says with a slightly more condescending tone than before. “The president can pardon aaaaanybody he wants. Anybody. He could even get your owl out of that cage.”
The camera then points in a direction head-on toward Laurie, revealing a colorful poster hanging on the colorless wall behind her. Divided into four quadrants, it features four superheroes from a bygone era, who are unmistakably Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Dr. Manhattan, and… someone else whose face you can’t see because Laurie’s head is in the way.
It took me until the scene on the plane to figure out who she is, but it really shouldn’t have.
(Full Disclosure: I have not read a single review of any episode of Watchmen from any publication, nor have I visited any subreddits, nor participated in any forum theorizing about who Jeremy Irons may or may not be, nor obsessed over the casting choices. It’ll probably stay this way until the end of the season, whether I choose to continue writing about the series or not. I prefer going in blind.)
She’s also funny.
Laurie “Sir, I’m with the FBI. Are your civil rights being violated?”
Prisoner “Yes, ma’am. These people came into my place of business, and they just grabbed me. They didn’t read me my rights or—”
Laurie “Okay, sorry, I was just kidding. I don’t care.”
The show utilizes her character to almost-break the fourth wall, walking just up to the edge of the stage but never actually directly looking at that metaphorical theater audience. Collectively as a society, even for those who’ve never seen Watchmen, there’s one cultural joke we all have access to:
The Blue Penis.
Laurie Blake casually mentions that Dr. Manhattan “likes to stroll around with his dick hanging out,” which acknowledges what we’ve decided as a culture: that the graphic novel and film adaptation’s brazen display of his giant blue dong was pretty unintentionally funny. The characters always kept a straight face, though we definitely did not.
The show takes that unspoken awkwardness and directly verbally addresses it.
The reference helps to continue painting that “realness” over the source material, and the reality-grounded examination of the concept of superheroes in general that Watchmen became instantly famous for. I’m a massive fan of fourth-wall breaks, as you may surmise from my constant use of it in my own writing, such as pointing out that the previous sentence ended in a preposition and you’re just gonna have to deal with it.
– – – – – – –
The character development of the former-second-Silk-Spectre-now-turned-federal-agent continued along the course of the episode, and will undoubtedly exponentially expand throughout the season/series. But we were introduced to another fun character who tickled my cinema fancy:
I don’t even remember his name, and even though I have access to an interconnected international superhighway of information so convenient that it’s accessible on the toilet, I’m going to leave it that way for now purely out of my own temporary amusement.
He’s sitting in the background of an FBI meeting Laurie attends, though technically he’s sitting in the direct center of the room. He’s introduced when the boss/briefer questions his choice of PowerPoint slides, something I can directly and intimately relate to as a former military intelligence analyst.
“……What the hell is this?”
“Oh, it’s, uhh… [ahem] an excerpt from Rorschach’s journal. The Kavalry wears his mask. Sir. I just thought for, uhh… psychological context? You might want to—”
“Is it the 1980s, Petey?”
“Uhh… mm-mm. No, sir.”
“Then who gives a shit about Rorschach? Next slide.”
After the briefing, Laurie then chooses Projector Guy as a partner/sidekick for the murder/terrorism case that she’s being assigned to investigate. The show doesn’t say a single word as to WHY she chooses him, letting you guess for yourself. HBO’s Watchmen gives its audience a lot of intellectual credit, and I appreciate that. My initial thought was that her reasoning is at least two-fold:
(1) He clearly knows a lot about the history of the Seventh Kavalry terrorist organization. He’s read their lore, if you will. He’s an analyst, with possible emphasis on the first four letters of that word. He wants to understand their motivation, just as I once strived to understand the internal motivations of Boko Haram.
(2) He’s pasty white, which, when combined with his nerdy thinness, gives him a non-threatening presence to the white supremacist terrorists (and/or vigilantes) she intends on investigating.
The first dialogue between Projector Guy and Laurie is not easy to describe in text. Dustin Ingram’s acting is just as crucial as the words written down in the shooting script that he memorized.
The camera pans in front of the projector, seamlessly transitioning into the next shot where the source of bright light in your face is now the sun. Cut to the inside of the airplane. Laurie Blake hears an announcement on the intercom that they’ll be landing soon, taking off the eye covering she was using to block out the light so she could doze. I’d call it a “sleep mask,” but she’d probably object to me using the m-word.
“I brought one too,” says Projector Guy, a bit excitedly. He comically puts it up to his face, peering through the two eye holes in the black mask as if to say “I see you!” like a child.
Laurie is not impressed. “It’s got holes in it.”
“Oh, it’s… not for sleeping. In the briefing, Director Farragut said…” he trails off as he swallows a gulp. “Uhh, I just thought if the police wear them… When In Rome, right?”
“Tulsa’s not Rome. And you’re a federal agent. Not the Lone Fucking Ranger.”
Amazon Prime’s “Jack Ryan” series throws a lot of bones toward government suits, and I hella appreciated that as a former analyst. I even paused the screen once to squint my eyes and scrutinize the fictional CIA report briefly shown on someone’s desktop screen, and while I can’t confirm or deny this or that specific detail, I did make the Obama “not bad!” facial expression.
This show isn’t a military show, nor is it even really a police drama in the traditional sense — just the literal sense. But that “when in Rome” bit is a strikingly accurate depiction of actual government personnel policy. When military members live in a country like Japan where adults are legally permitted to drink at the age of 20, they’re allowed. When I was stationed on a French aircraft carrier, I was allowed to grow a beard, which is otherwise strictly forbidden in the US military. (And I mean STRICTLY.)
I like this kid. Projector Guy wants to be a superhero, and honestly, I respect that. I admire his wonder and enthusiasm. This is an alternate universe where superheroes are not a silly concept you read about in children’s comic books. Real-life adults actually do wear masks and capes and run around fighting crime. Children in this universe grew up reading comic books about pirates, not caped crusaders.
Laurie’s dismissal of his closeted desires is thematically appropriate for her character, but it’s not the same dismissal you would hold toward me if I told you that I wanted to wear a cape, mask, and boots to run around fighting crime at night. I’ve already said this like six times, but Watchmen has always been a story that examines the implications behind what it would actually take for someone to put on a gaudy costume and become a literal vigilante. Think of what’s probably wrong with a person who would do that. Surely there’s trauma, or a personality disorder, or something ‘abnormal’ driving them to act like this.
But while we dismiss superheroes as modern fairy tales (or billion-dollar movie franchises after RDJ nailed Iron Man), Laurie dismisses his masked aspirations because she has lived her life as a sort of cross-species hybrid of two different schools of superheroism. She grew up as the daughter of a former hero who experienced a washed-out-of-Hollywood style of fame due to never wearing a mask during her crimefighting. Her biological father is also arguably the worst person in the entire comic series, including the literal literary villain.
She has strong personal feelings about masks, those who wear them, and what they do to a person.
Projector Guy is not a pushover, though. Which leads me to believe he’ll be an actual character in the series, not simply the straight-man to Laurie’s comedienne. I’ll probably even remember his name after the next episode!
Laurie “You want my autograph?”
Laurie “Well, you clearly have a hard-on for the past, so what do you want me to sign?”
He pauses a moment before answering.
PG “I wrote my graduate thesis on the police strike of ’77, when you and your ex were in D.C., and by ‘ex’ I mean Dr. Manhattan, the most powerful being in existence. Sorry for not pretending that I don’t know who you are because we’re supposed to leave famous people alone, but… you brought me here, Agent Blake. And before I was recruited by the FBI to… run the slide projector… I had a PhD in history. So please don’t treat me like I’m some kind of… fan.”
That last word hangs in the air for a moment, delivered with just a dash of disdain.
Later, after Senator Keene gives a moving speech in front of the cameras:
PG “Well, he’s got my vote.”
Laurie “Are you even old enough to vote?”
A beat of silence while Projector Guy rolls his eyes a bit.
PG “So, can I get that autograph now, or…?”
“That was almost funny, Petey.”
My immediate reaction was that this is the exact kind of GOTTEM joke my friends and I poke fun at each other with. It might not be the most sophisticated banter, but as for depicting how government workers tease each other… it’s genuine.
– – – – – – –
I have two leftover hanging-chad thoughts from the first two episodes now that I’ve had longer to reflect on the series. (I wrote my initial review immediately after the premiere aired.)
One: This show is about racial problems in America. Obviously. But while racial problems exist in our actual IRL America, the show postulates what modern racial issues may have [also/instead] arisen if given (1) the same backstory of African enslavement that America was built on, and (2) that superheroes started running around in the middle of the 20th Century. It’s a sort of “remix” of America’s history of the systemic oppression faced by those with African ancestry at the hands of those whose ancestors arrived in the Land Of The Free™ and actually found it to be as advertised.
Two: I love how Angela Abar’s husband unequivocally supports her. He doesn’t demand she stop putting herself in danger. I don’t even think he tells her to be careful — he knows she might not have that luxury. Dare I say, he treats her as you might expect a woman to treat her brave superhero husband. I personally don’t think this show is explicitly partisan Democrat, and if you do feel that way, you probably spend too much time on Reddit and/or Twitter. But HBO’s Watchmen is definitely feminist in its portrayal of female superheroes.
– – – – – – –
I’m gonna get into major spoiler territory now, so this is your last chance to back out if you haven’t seen the episode yet.
The ending of the first two episodes were designed to puzzle and mystify, leaving us with a huge chunk of mystery. First has an old dude in a wheelchair supposedly stringing a man up over a 20-foot-high tree branch, and Second has that same dude being picked up in a giant magnet from a floating spaceship. That sentence doesn’t make any more sense to me even WITH context.
Episode Three ends with revelation, not riddles.
The reference to a fabricated alien invasion of New York confirms that we are watching the continuation of the graphic novel’s timeline, not the film’s timeline.
The WTF side-story going on about the crazy old man living in a countryside manor with robot servants (or whatever they are) finally halfway explained itself. He’s THE Adrien Veidt, aka Ozymandias, the technical villain of the original series. I’m sure most of you already suspected this, and I kinda did too a little bit, but again, I haven’t been participating in the online conversation about this series on purpose. No shade to those who are, I just prefer to go in blind. Leftover habit from watching Lost, where I would even skip the “Next week, on Lost” bits at the end credits of each episode.
SPEAKING of Lost…
I thought it was very clever for the “Mars phone booth” scenes to be eventually revealed as all happening chronologically at the end of the episode, not actually a flashback as we initially thought. A callback to Lost’s season three finale, where the Jack cutout scenes are revealed at the end of the episode to have all been a ‘flashforward’ into the future, rather than a flashback to the past. We see Jack meet up at an airport with Kate, a person he clearly met on the island, simultaneously showing us that (1) they do eventually get off The Island, and (2) that it’s not the end of the story.
[Are we still capitalizing ‘The Island’ when discussing Lost? Ah, nevermind, forget I asked.]
The show’s dialogue directly addressed the awkwardness of the infamous Blue Penis, which puts us at ease a bit as an audience. We’ve all now acknowledged the big blue elephant trunk in the room.
Laurie also has a trunk of her own, full of something blue. Yet eternally firm, not flaccid.
Okay, I’m just gonna say it. On her trip to Tulsa, Laurie brought with her a locked briefcase with a huge blue dildo inside it, obviously some sort of in-universe phallic equivalent to a celebrity-likeness sex doll. (Whether that link is safe to click on is for you to decide in your own heart.) The Esquire cover on the inside of the briefcase titled “Silk Spectre Takes Manhattan” is quite possibly one of the best in-joke puns I’ve ever seen.
This marks the second reference in the episode to Dr. Manhattan’s azure anatomy, though this one is much more in-your-face about it. Or in-your-something.
We didn’t get ALL our questions answered, however. I will admit I was utterly baffled as to why Laurie decided to have sex with Projector Guy that night, or why she seemingly requested that he wear that stupid superhero mask he brought along for the journey while they did it. I guess human sexuality is the real mystery.