Season 1, Episode 8: “A God Walks Into Abar”
“By definition, don’t all relationships end in tragedy?”
As a pickup artist, Dr. Manhattan could stand to work on his game, but he’s not wrong about this. The end is something everyone implicitly accepts from the beginning, that death will do you part, if not some other terrible rupture along the way. The hope is that, on balance, the experience will be worth the inevitable pain, but the element of surprise would seem to be important.
Knowing exactly when the end will come would seem like a deal breaker for someone like Angela Abar, who surely imagines herself as an active player in determining her own righteous destiny. But there’s never any sense she has a choice in the matter. How do you say no to a god?
In the “Watchmen” book, Silk Spectre II, also known as Laurie Blake, did succeed in saying no to Dr. Manhattan, albeit under different circumstances. It turns out that having a loving relationship with a god isn’t so easy, because the more distance Jon Osterman gets from his human self, the more detached he becomes from humankind at large. After all, it’s hard for Big Blue to stay “in the moment” when time isn’t linear and he’s in constant simultaneous interaction with the past, present and future. (Presumably, he was disappointed with the final season of “Game of Thrones” before George R.R. Martin even started writing the novels.) At one low point, Dr. Manhattan is so detached from Laurie that part of him is working in the next room during a lovemaking session.
This week’s episode presented an interesting thought experiment: If someone walked into a bar, presented themselves to you as a romantic partner and told you the basic outlines of your relationship together, including when it ended, would there be any circumstance in which you left with that person?
For Abar, the answer is yes for reasons the episode isn’t persuasive enough in articulating, but her goals as a justice-seeker can only be helped by the most powerful being the world has ever known. Besides, the show has invented a doohickey that makes it possible for Dr. Manhattan to exist as Calvin, a stable and supportive husband and father with no memory of his life as Jon Osterman, who can live out those 10 years as something close to a human being. And through this “tunnel of love” they go, perhaps without regret at the end of it.
Using the meet-weird between Dr. Manhattan and Abar as the structural anchor for the episode provides for a fine union of form and content. He can stay in one place and know that she is going tell him in 20 minutes about the anniversary of her parents’ death, or cite the moment from a decade later will make him fall in love with her. Yet their experiences of time create a strange discord between them: He can see enough of their future together to love her before she can even start to get to know him.
Bachelors can’t usually come on this strong at a bar and hope to succeed, but then again, never has a parlor trick been this dazzling. He ended the Vietnam War single-handedly. He can pull this off.
The warmth that develops between Dr. Manhattan-as-Calvin and Abar stands in sharp contrast with the vibe between Dr. Manhattan and Adrian Veidt, perhaps because both men are wrapped up in bigger plans. They have a chilly relationship in the book, to put it mildly, but their actions are also by far the most consequential for humanity. Veidt’s strange activities in “Watchmen” have been frustratingly removed from the rest of the show all season long, but at least this episode attempts to reel him in a bit. As it turns out, Dr. Manhattan hasn’t been exiled on Mars this whole time; he’s been busy creating a verdant new Garden of Eden on Europa, the smallest of the four Galilean moons orbiting Jupiter, and appointing his own Adam and Eve.
While it’s a relief to get some basic answers about Veidt’s situation — we know where he is now, and we know how his oft-replicated servants were created — his subplot continues to feel as distant from the rest of “Watchmen” as Europa does from planet Earth. The contrast between Dr. Manhattan-as-Calvin and Veidt in this episode makes the problem worse: Calvin is an attempt by an exiled superman to rediscover his inner Jon Osterman and turn himself into someone who can live like an actual human. That allows him to be the man who’s capable, years later by mortal chronology, of being moved by his wife’s refusal to accept the inevitability of defeat without fighting back.
Veidt’s detachment is total. Whatever instinct he might have once had to save mankind is gone, and the Adams and Eves he keeps cloning are merely magazine-pretty laboratory rats. That detachment has given Jeremy Irons the freedom to sulk and fart and fire off droll one-liners, but he’s in every sense on a different planet from the rest of the show — thematically, narratively, physically. He’s the shoe that never drops, the puzzle piece that collects dust under the table.
Meanwhile, the battle against white supremacy rages on. It takes the Seventh Kavalry turning up in the final moments to remind us of the true stakes this season and reestablish momentum heading into the final episode. Damon Lindelof has suggested this could be a series finale, but whether or not that proves to be the case, he wants this season’s story to feel complete. Without Dr. Manhattan around to put his radiant blue finger on the scales, the fight belongs to Sister Night, Hooded Justice and others whose basic identities are under attack. At this point, all other side plots are a distraction.
If you’re accustomed to clicking away once the credits roll, be aware that there’s a post-credits sequence with Veidt behind bars, like a scene from “The Count of Monte Cristo.” And much like Edmond Dantès, Veidt seems to be plotting his revenge.
Dr. Manhattan’s relationship with time recalls my favorite line from “Primer,” Shane Carruth’s no-budget indie science fiction about two guys who invent a time machine (of sorts): “Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.”
Veidt has trouble working the remote, just as Jane Crawford did last week. That’s such an extremely specific detail that it can’t be accidental, right? Is it a sign their stories might overlap? Or that they should merely invest in some AA batteries?
More eggs again, incorporated into Dr. Manhattan’s pitch to Abar. It hurts the brain to consider, as Abar does, that his relationship to time has created a chicken-or-egg scenario in which she might have just set in motion certain events from several years before.
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