Reflections on ‘Watchmen’: Can we ever break out of cycles of trauma?
An ambivalent ending matches the many questions raised by the HBO show
I keep wondering what Angela’s grandmother would have said about The Egg.
I bet, after the dissolution of her family, and after witnessing what donning a hood did to her husband, that June would have advised her granddaughter to break that thing into a zillion radioactive pieces and see that it was destroyed.
Alas, June’s death haunts me because hers is the death of the person who embodies the sort of Wise Black Woman pragmatism I wrote about when discussing The Oath, Travisville, and Black Light. It is a pragmatism born of informed weariness and the desire for personal peace, a pragmatism that comes from the realization that black women cannot fix a world that doesn’t want to be fixed. Lest you think that I’m being overly dramatic, keep in mind that Bian decided to knock herself up with Adrian Veidt’s sperm to avenge an injustice that began in the third century. June’s pragmatism is one that looks upon the next generation and tries to provide normalcy and security and protection from the grand traumas that imprint themselves on DNA.
Is it a fruitless enterprise? Are we all just bound to the shackles of everything that preceded us? And if we are, what is our obligation to them?
The more I thought about the ending of Watchmen, one of the best pieces of television in a decade that included Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Atlanta, Veep, Fleabag, When They See Us, and The Americans, the more I began to mourn. And I wasn’t mourning that there might not be a second season — in fact, I think such a decision is for the best. (If there is a second season, I’m in agreement with Alyssa Rosenberg: It should be focused around a deep dive into Vietnam. The atrocities committed there deserve just as much excavation as those that occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921.) I’m not sure something so exquisite and self-contained can be reopened without inevitably courting destruction or disappointment.
No, instead, I mourned for June, and I mourned for all of the Abar children, but especially Topher. Topher, who already knows from experience that the world isn’t made of sunshine and rainbows, now knows the truth about his mother, her job and her second identity as Sister Night. Topher, who seems destined to grow up to become just like his adoptive grandfather, and to possibly resent his mother.
There is a personal cost to leading the fight against injustice — just ask the children of anyone who’s done it.
I included the words of John Dalberg Acton, better known as Lord Acton, in my finale recap: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
With its allusions to godly sacrifice and resurrection, Watchmen’s ending, like so many superhero stories, appropriates the story of Jesus. There’s another story that does this, too, one that informed my initial frustration with Angela making the decision to become a god herself: Harry Potter.
After an epic, yearslong battle against the most evil being in the universe — one who is aided and abetted by supporters invested in creating and preserving some superior race of wizards and witches unsullied by mudbloods — Harry has to sacrifice himself to finally destroy Lord Voldemort. Harry’s altruism and faith is rewarded, first with resurrection, and then with the Deathly Hallows. The elder wand, the invisibility cloak, and the resurrection stone provide the tools for Harry to rule the wizarding world for eternity, like a god. And yet, with the battle of Hogwarts finally won, Harry does the only thing that makes sense to a person who believes that absolute power corrupts absolutely: He destroys the elder wand.
Oh, how I wanted Angela to destroy that egg and live the life that June wanted to give her in the first place, one that could maybe give the Abar children a chance to break out of a cycle of inherited trauma. I admit that my longing for Angela sprouts directly from the black woman I admire most in the world. My late aunt, Cornelia McDonald, dedicated her life to breaking the psychological chains inflicted by multiple generations of white supremacy, and I have little doubt that her life was shortened because of it.
Though Angela lives in an alternate-universe America where Vietnam is the 51st state and there’s a radioactive blue dude who can walk through walls and teleport, she still lives in America. Perhaps vanquishing Lord Voldemort, once and for all, was enough to leave the wizarding world safe for eternity. But the fight against American white supremacy is a continuous slog, even with the leadership of Cyclops vaporized into nothingness. There are still plenty of people seething at every reminder of “Redfordations.”
“If I learned anything through the experience of writing the show and reading all the things that I’ve been reading, it’s the insidiousness of white supremacy,” showrunner Damon Lindelof said in an interview with Vulture. “I don’t think that I ever would have even put it in the show if I felt like we were going to try to convince the audience that it could be defeated. But we could convince the audience that it was worthy of pushing back and fighting against, which is more than most superhero stories do.”
My larger concern is informed by the experience of Adrian Veidt. Even a casually racist, Olympic-level narcissist can be right once in awhile, and I do believe Veidt is correct when he says, “Anyone who seeks to attain the power of a god must be prevented at all costs from attaining it.”
Will assuming Dr. Manhattan’s powers slowly turn Angela into a fascist? Can we “trust in the law” when the law is black? Or is it inevitable that well-meaning individuals simply become subsumed into a system that is inherently violent toward black people? Is the only way to correct a racist system to exist outside out of it?
I don’t know.
There’s no guarantee that Angela won’t end up falling into the most regrettable habits that come with the power Dr. Manhattan wields. She’s already got some preexisting Rorhschachian tendencies, namely his penchant for finger-breaking. Sure, it’s satisfying to see Angela violating the Geneva Convention when the bones in question belong to a white supremacist, but what happens when she’s mistaken? The interesting thing about Dr. Manhattan is that while he’s omnipotent, he’s not infallible, and there’s nothing to suggest that Blue God Angela would be infallible, either.
I did wonder if Dr. Manhattan’s experiences living as a black man in Tulsa are what persuaded him to entrust his powers to Angela in the first place. If there’s one question I wish the Watchmen writers would have addressed, it’s that one. We don’t know, because we don’t get to see Dr. Manhattan in that context. We’re left with a smaller story of romance, sacrifice, and gift-giving that is beautifully, heartachingly human. Dr. Manhattan’s last gift to Angela is the gift of knowing. After all that Angela experienced, she gets the antidote to the thing that causes her more pain than anything else — being repeatedly and unexpectedly robbed of her loved ones.
I don’t know that Angela’s godliness is a happy development, and I don’t know that Watchmen believes it is, either. The final song is “I Am the Walrus.” In the Lewis Carroll poem that inspired the song, the walrus in question is a villain. But it wasn’t until after the Beatles released the song that John Lennon realized he’d made a mistake.
“To me, it was a beautiful poem,” Lennon said in a 1981 Playboy interview. “It never dawned on me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist and social system. I never went into that bit about what he really meant, like people are doing with the Beatles’ work. Later, I went back and looked at it and realized that the walrus was the bad guy in the story and the carpenter was the good guy. I thought, ‘Oh, s—, I picked the wrong guy.’ I should have said, ‘I am the carpenter.’ But that wouldn’t have been the same, would it?”
The choice to end on “I Am the Walrus” is one of sound, logical, complex, and extraordinarily justified ambivalence.
Could there be a more fitting tribute to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, the original creators of Watchmen? I think not.
Here you can find additional materials that may enhance your understanding of episodes six through nine of the show. Looking for Volume I, which covers episodes one through five? It’s here.
The Devil Finds Work by James Baldwin
God is Disappointed in You by Mark Russell and Shannon Wheeler
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibrim X. Kendi
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibrim X. Kendi
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
FILM AND TV
I Am Not Your Negro
What Happened, Miss Simone?
JUST EPISODE SIX