‘Watchmen’ episode eight: ‘A God Walks into Abar’
Dr. Manhattan makes a gorgeous sacrifice in the name of love
In the universe of HBO’s Watchmen, the wound, it turns out, is the place where the blue light enters.
Apologies to Rumi for the bastardization of this lovely quotation. It couldn’t be helped.
A God Walks Into Abar gives us several crucial missing pieces before what I imagine will be an epic showdown between the Seventh Kavalry, Lady Trieu, and those remaining who know about the Cyclops plan and are determined to thwart it. But the best thing about this episode is the story of how Angela Abar and Cal came to be a couple in the first place.
So let’s begin with the love story of the Abars and that Rumi quotation.
Angela has one giant wound: She’s lost everyone who she ever cared about. Her parents were murdered by a Viet Cong sympathizer-turned-suicide-bomber after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, which resulted in American statehood for the previously independent country. Upon learning that she had a grandmother who wanted to raise her, Angela was left with no place to turn except the orphanage where she was raised because grandmother June died the same day the two were supposed to depart for a new life in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And so Angela nurses her wounds with state-sanctioned violence/vengeance (she becomes a cop), distance (she doesn’t seem to have any friends), and control (even when a literal god tells her they’re going to end up together for 10 years, she’s incredibly skeptical).
Dr. Manhattan, then, is Angela’s blue light, her salve, her reason for allowing herself to be vulnerable, to love, and to be loved in return. He’s kind of perfect for her, at least on the surface.
Who could possibly be a better match for a woman whose heart keeps getting broken by unpredictable circumstances than a time-bending god who knows about everything before it even happens?
A time-bending god who knows about everything before it even happens.
Once Angela assents to dinner with Dr. Manhattan, and later, a full-blown relationship, she realizes that his ability to see and experience the future is a downer. I’m so impressed by the way co-writers Jeff Jensen and Damon Lindelof committed to falling down the rabbit hole of what it means to be in a modern relationship with a superhero. These romantic entanglements tend to be ultimately unfulfilling for the civilian partner, especially if that partner is a woman. There’s an inherent power imbalance, one that I wrote about when discussing Luke Cage’s relationship with Claire Temple.
If Dr. Manhattan can see, know, and experience everything before it happens, Angela quickly becomes robbed of her own sense of agency. She’s in a relationship in which she has no control.
“If you know everything that’s going to happen, what is there to be afraid of,” a frustrated Angela asks Dr. Manhattan, “what is there to risk?”
And so the sacrifice Dr. Manhattan makes, in the name of love, is to give up the very thing that makes him, well, Dr. Manhattan, thanks to a device Adrian Veidt created with just this situation in mind. Dr. Manhattan gives up the very thing humans seem to be addicted to most: power. It might be one of the most romantic gestures I’ve ever witnessed in a television show.
The penultimate episode of Watchmen, directed with stunning tenderness by Nicole Kassell, mirrors Dr. Manhattan’s galaxy brain in that both are running on multiple and concurrent tracks. The first, the microtrack, was the Abar relationship.
Now let’s zoom out and look at the macro view: Dr. Manhattan wins the Vietnam War for the United States at the request of President Nixon. He turns himself into a 100-foot-tall, one-man weapon that lays waste to the Viet Cong army, resulting in Vietnam’s statehood. Of course, there can be no war without unintended consequences, and Dr. Manhattan is indirectly responsible for the deaths of Angela’s parents — his actions in Vietnam provided the motive for the suicide bomber who killed them. In one lifetime, Jon Osterman goes from refugee fleeing tyranny to reluctant and regretful agent of American imperialism. It’s all rather Einsteinian. Woe is Dr. Manhattan.
Like the rest of the series, episode eight carries the through line of Watchmen graphic novelist Alan Moore’s skepticism toward the idea of superheroes and the unforeseen havoc their actions create. But it also provides a path to redemption, one that is paved with love.
Besides learning from the mistakes he made as a boyfriend to Laurie Blake, Dr. Manhattan comes to similar conclusions about allowing himself to become a hired gun for the U.S. defense department. And his remorse for both converge in one person: Angela.
Dr. Manhattan’s biggest departure from the God he learns about in the Bible he’s given as a boy in 1936 may be that he is, in fact, quite fallible. What’s more, he’s capable of regretting his actions. It’s obvious that Dr. Manhattan is contrite about his role in the Vietnam War, in which he becomes the deified equivalent of a nuke. I think Dr. Manhattan is also introspective about his previous relationship with Laurie. We know how she feels about it, thanks to the voicemail message she leaves for him in one of Lady Trieu’s Mars phone booths. She’s been forsaken by a god who was seemingly cold, unfeeling, and distant, even if he was all-powerful. He creates an Eden on the moon of a planet (Jupiter) that shares a name with Laurie’s mother, Sally. Dr. Manhattan, it would appear, feels bad about the way he left things with his ex. If the Dr. Manhattan who destroyed the Viet Cong and Laurie’s heart is Old Testament blue god, then the one who gives up his omniscience for the woman whose life his actions inadvertently destroyed is most certainly New Testament.
But now that he’s been sucked into the Seventh Kavalry’s teleporter, what will become of Tulsa and the country at large? Can Adrian Veidt save the world now that it appears to need him again? Preferably without killing 3 million humans as collateral damage this time?
Stray, but maybe important observations:
- We finally know how Veidt fits into everything. He’s been living on Europa, the moon of Jupiter where Dr. Manhattan has created an Eden. The two people who have been cloned over and over? They’re facsimiles of the English couple who offered refuge to Jon and his father Hans in 1936 — they left their home country of Germany when the Osterman matriarch decided to run off with a Nazi.
- What an odd relationship Veidt and Osterman have. Veidt tried to destroy Osterman. But Veidt, who has a maddening Machiavellian streak, does have a heart. He possesses enough capability for sentiment that he creates a mechanism that will allow Dr. Manhattan to forget who he is, before Dr. Manhattan even knows that he might need or want such a device. No wonder Jeremy Irons is having such a blast playing this guy.
- God complexes, it turns out, are incredibly difficult to satisfy. When Dr. Manhattan offers Veidt dominion over Europa, Veidt accepts it with grateful enthusiasm. But soon, he grows bored: He’s still manufacturing squid falls in an effort to stave off nuclear annihilation on Earth. He monitors his home planet and despairs over the meltdown of a nuclear reactor (I’m guessing it’s Chernobyl, considering that the creator of the Chernobyl limited series, Craig Mazin, is also the host of the Watchmen podcast. What a nifty bit of media synergy, eh?). Eden becomes a prison for Veidt, regardless of the outcome of his trial for the 1985 catastrophe. “Heaven is not enough,” he explains, “because heaven doesn’t need me.”
- The title of this episode, A God Walks Into Abar, is a clever pun when taken literally. But it’s also a parallel to the Christian idea of welcoming God, or Jesus, into one’s heart. Jensen and Lindelof, in their telling of the story of Cal and Angela, are especially sensitive to power dynamics and consent. See: Angela’s invocation of Zeus, who was notorious for disguising himself and hooking up with humans without disclosing his true identity. Dr. Manhattan does the opposite; he lets Angela know exactly who he is from the moment he walks up to her at the bar in Saigon. Dr. Manhattan leaves the decision up to Angela whether she’ll welcome him into her heart. It’s just that, given his nonlinear relationship with time, he already knows that she will.
- Even Zeus couldn’t control the Fates. Knowing the future is not the same thing as being able to control it, something Dr. Manhattan has had time to reckon with but Angela has not.
- Rapper and Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley has said multiple times that superheroes are just cops. There’s some powerful symbolism in Dr. Manhattan’s act of sacrifice and devotion to Angela, which he commits to earn her trust, and to make their relationship a partnership of equals. He relinquishes his omniscience, his power, the very thing that makes him a walking, talking nuclear weapon. What happens when actual cops do the same? Well, then we’ve got ourselves a paradox, much like the chicken or the egg, that brings us right back to episode one. Remember, in President Redford’s America, before the Seventh Kavalry decided to rise again, the ability for cops to inflict lethal force had been greatly constrained. Watchmen doesn’t have answers for how to fix the deeply entrenched mess caused by white supremacy, but it sure knows how to raise difficult questions about it. This episode seems to come to the same conclusion as writer and professor Ibrim Kendi: that when it comes to defeating racism, love alone is not enough.
- Finally, if you’re in New York, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is premiering a new work about the Tulsa Race Massacre, the same fateful event that frames Watchmen. Choreographer Donald Byrd created Greenwood, a work that examines the various versions of events leading up to the massacre. There’s more information on performance dates and the work itself here.