‘Watchmen’ Review: Phenomenal Season Ends With a Creative Big Bang

“All we ever see of stars are their old photographs,” Dr. Manhattan utters in the fourth issue of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s superhero murder mystery, “Watchmen.” He recalls these words in the season finale of Damon Lindelof’s HBO remix of the story, one that has long been a bible of inspiration to him, alongside countless other genre creators.

When key story information is withheld for a long time, it’s easy to remain skeptical about the emotional payoff of so many long-gestating riddles, but “Watchmen’s” season (and potentially series) finale, “See How They Fly,” eradicates all fear of disappointment in its first thirty minutes. Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons), whose storyline has thus far sat in exile on Jupiter’s moon, clicks into place with the rest of the plot, a series of brilliantly seeded twists pummeling the viewer, one on top of another.

Sitting in front of a camera inside the Antarctic lair, Karnak, Ozymandias calls action (“Watchmen’s” title card atop the production clapboard) filming his confession to the murder of 3 million people by telepathic alien squid, something we have already seen from the other side of the TV screen in the fifth episode, “Little Fear of Lightning,” from detective Wade Tillman a.k.a. Looking Glass’ (Tim Blake Nelson) perspective. One of the most impressive things about “Watchmen” is how it’s tapped into various aspects of the original series’ world-building to expand the possibilities of the social consequences of today, and its handling of the Cthulhu-like beholder with a single eye, created as a piece of scare-tactic propaganda by media mastermind is a royal example.

While Veidt pumps up his five-act tragedy theatrics to President Robert Redford, Lady Trieu’s (Hong Chau) mother, steals a vial of the smartest man in the world’s semen (from a fridge, behind a painting of Alexander the Great, of course) impregnating herself in Veidt’s office (die-hard fans have suspected Trieu of being the daughter of either Ozymandias, or the Comedian for some time). Two of the show’s most prevalent themes, fake news and creation stories, are seamlessly woven together in the prologue. Lady Trieu has inherited her father’s hubris, planning to kill Dr. Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and steal his abilities to do good, as he and so many men never could; but her humanism is a mask for vengeance.

Back in the present, Senator Keene (James Wolk) and the white supremacist leaders of the The 7th Cavalry, a.k.a the Order of the Cyclops, have imprisoned Manhattan and kidnapped Agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart). Luckily, her favorite Mirror Guy, Looking Glass, survived the attempt on his life, infiltrating the Cavalry’s ranks in a Rorschach mask. Our trusted hero, Angela Abar, a.k.a. Sister Night (Regina King) races to save her husband Cal, the accident mentioned all season revealed to have been a cover for his real identity (his name being a clever Superman homage). Practically every thread established knits together perfectly as the blue nuclear god is murdered for his power.

Like the original text, HBO’s “Watchmen” hit with dramatic oomph because its storytelling was airtight. Every aspect of the narrative did multiple things at once — characters, milieu and motifs overlapped perfectly and in an ongoing number of ways. Virtually all of the creative decisions made by Lindelof and his crew, had impact, and ended up being integral to the plot and overarching themes of the series. A cover version of the Beatles’ “I am the Walrus” plays over the end credits of the finale, and the lyrics “I am the Egg-Man,” very well could have been the title instead. And Nite Owl, the only major character from “Watchmen” whose legacy remains for the most part absent from the show, was inspired by a superhero called Blue Beetle. One can pick apart almost every significant element of the show’s production with this level of dense detail.

How the show serves as a legacy hand-off from the comics is gobsmacking as well. Looking Glass and his relation to the character of Rorschach is a prime example. Rorschach’s real name is Walter Kovacs, he refers to his mask as his “face,” having been deeply traumatized throughout his childhood. Detective Wade Tillman also uses a mask, albeit a reflective one, which he calls his “face,” to hide behind; being traumatized by Adrian Veidt’s extradimensional alien squid creation.

In the original “Watchmen,” Rorschach, a mentally ill radical whose journal is appropriated by white supremacists that don his mask in Lindelof’s series, discusses his conspiracy theories with Adrian Veidt, who calls their associate, the Comedian, “practically a Nazi.” Rorschach’s responds if the Comedian’s politics made him a Nazi, then he might as well call him one. Talking with Wade in the fourth episode, Angela, a black woman, asks her fellow police officer if she believes their sheriff could possible have been a secret Klansmen, after a robe was discovered in his closet (the same as the Comedian’s costume was discovered in the original comic). His response: “He was a white man in Oklahoma.” Expanding on the thematic idea, Wade starts the series wearing a red hat and ends up posing as a white supremacist in a Rorschach mask to save his superior, literally meeting the maker of his trauma (Ozymandias) and bringing him to justice; unlike his legacy character, Kovacs, who became consumed by his fears and obsessions, further spiraling into a damp well of nihilistic philosophies.

When Lindelof’s adaptation was first announced, many fans were perplexed as to what the show would be. Most anyone who is deep into comic lore holds the 12-issue series up on a pedestal, and for good reason; it’s arguably the most successful pop culture deconstruction in the history of the sequential art medium, displaying an uncanny mastery of graphic storytelling possibility, serving as a metaphor for the performative masks the most privileged citizens in the United States of America have always been afforded a permit for, given our status as a national super power. But Moore has long disavowed all adaptations of his works. It’s a long and complicated tale, but due to a loophole in his publishing contract — wherein DC has never let “Watchmen” go out of print — they have retained the rights to his masterpiece, and Moore has asked for his name to be taken off of anything they produce related to his material; it’s a real shame, as what Lindelof’s crew has accomplished not only pays respectful and intelligent homage to the material, one can argue it even improves it. 

To many, that may read like blasphemy, but how “Watchmen” uses black heroism to reveal the forgotten depths of history should be celebrated, while shining a light on this country’s ability to put on a play, pretending something horrific didn’t happen whenever it is best suited. Masks allow us to tell ourselves a story. Whether out of fear, or shame, people justify their actions through performance, as a method of coping with the trauma we don’t want to deal with — personal, historic, or both. All season, “Watchmen” handled deep-seated issues of American race, tackling the essentials in thrilling, romantic and original ways. Last week’s episode, “A God Walks Into Abar,” is a beautifully tragic love ballad that shares qualities with Zeus and Europa, an etiological origin story for a land that would breed many stories, just like America. 

For too long our country’s self-proclaimed mythology has been filtered through a lens of white male hubris. Damon Lindelof turned down trying his hand at “Watchmen” a few times before reading current Captain America writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, “The Case for Reparations.” Perhaps the greatest strength of his TV evolution of “Watchmen” lies in its acknowledgement that it’s time pop culture stories of artistic substance start recognizing new voices, ones that can perhaps better inherit the power to create, than those born into believing they are gods among men. 

Watchmen” season one finale aired Sunday, Dec. 15 on HBO.