Unlike Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen comic, Damon Lindelof’s HBO sequel series isn’t all that concerned with deconstructing modern comic book heroes (aside from the occasional American Hero Story sequence). Watchmen 2019 tugs harder at the social and political threads of the original, building on its mythology in provocative ways.
But episode 8, “A God Walks into Abar,” leans into a new superhero tradition from the last decade: the post-credit scene. The idea of including one feels like a devilish wink, but in true Watchmen fashion, it’s also a moment that challenges what viewers think they know.
[Ed. note: the rest of this story contains major spoilers for Watchmen episode 8.]
“A God Walks into Abar” unravels the mystery of what happened to Doctor Manhattan after the events of the comic, tying up loose ends in several timelines. We see how Jon Osterman met Angela in Vietnam, how the two fell in love, and how Jon transformed into the body of “Calvin,” eventually blocking his memories and godlike self-awareness using a tachyon bug invented by former superhero Adrian Veidt, who he zaps to Europa to live in paradise. We also watch Jon “die” at the hands of the Seventh Kavalry, who hope to replace the otherworldly being with their new-and-improved Doctor Manhattan, Senator Joe Keene.
Episode 9, the Watchmen finale, will deal with all that. Lindelof, co-writer Jeff Jensen, and director Nicole Kassell devote the entire episode to Jon/Calvin, but after the credits, a new scene picks back up with present-day Adrian, who was found guilty of various crimes against the Europans by a jury of pigs, and has now been tied to a rack. “Will you stay, Master?” his constituents ask. Each time he declines, he gets another tomato to the face. Eventually, he lands in a prison cell, where he’s visited by the “Adam” of Doctor Manhattan’s terraformed Europa. The masked man has a cake for Adrian — and questions. Does Adrian want to suffer?
Though Adrian toys with Doctor Manhattan’s creation, the final beat of the post-credit scene is a convincing argument that he does want to suffer.
As Ozymandias, Veidt took on the herculean task of forging world peace at the most fraught moment in mankind’s history. He became an ends-justify-the-means hero, staging a transdimensional squid attack on New York City that left millions dead and brought the living together. The end of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ comic painted the criminal act as a success — as long as Rorschach’s journal never made it into the wrong hands.
But the world didn’t need an unveiled conspiracy to fracture again. In “A God Walks into Abar,” Doctor Manhattan visits Adrian at his Antarctica base in 2009 to find the supervillain staring at his bank of televisions and angrily futzing with a remote control. The world is still making “godforsaken bombs,” and Adrian, still trying to averting doomsday, is dropping baby mutant squid through portals to keep up his charade, hoping society might wise up.
The meeting of old friends ends with Adrian gifting Doctor Manhattan with a tachyon ring to lock his non-linear understanding of the universe in the back of his mind. Doctor Manhattan returns the favor by giving Adrian what he thinks he wants: paradise. The population of humans the blue superhuman blinked into existence on Europa are “still there, waiting for someone to worship them,” and Veidt is an obvious candidate.
Based on the previous seven episodes, we know how the experiment goes. Adrian’s behavior, which included hurling clone bodies past the moon’s bubble barrier in order to arrange them into an SOS, suggests that his life on Europa was a monkey’s paw wish that backfired on him. But was Doctor Manhattan punishing Adrian for murdering millions, or unintentionally dooming him to be stranded 390 million light years from home? Speaking to Polygon, Watchmen executive producer and “A God Walks into Abar” director Nicole Kassell suggests that we shouldn’t assume that Manhattan’s non-linear understanding of time gives him that much forethought into his action.
“He is just impossibly honest,” Kassell says. “The future just exists to him, without that emotional weight that we bring to it, or civilians bring to it. I think a big thing to grapple with in this character is, he is not perfect, even though he’s the most powerful being in the world. He’s not perfect, and that’s very important for us to ponder.”
If Veidt’s existential torture was entirely accidental — if Doctor Manhattan knew Veidt would eventually decide it was hell, but didn’t ascribe any importance to that outcome, then Veidt’s subplot feels more calculated than ever. The episode 8 post-credit scene puts a dot on it: Veidt may actually enjoy being tortured by the challenge of impossible scenarios, like solving mankind’s destructive instincts, or making it back home from Jupiter’s moon. Veidt is just another human with Doctor Manhattan envy. He wants to be the greatest hero of all time, and prove his genius is a superpower akin to manipulating matter. He’s willing to prove it by doubling down on every idea he has — raining squid on cities, murdering Europans to use them as props — and in the process, he digs himself deeper and deeper into his own limiting holes. The final beat of the post-credit scene is a wicked twist on that entire idea. Now armed with a horseshoe, Veidt believes he can tunnel out of prison and beat the odds again.
Why leave the poignant moment to a scene that some viewers might miss? Kassell says it was a structural decision.
“This story flows as a whole so perfectly,” she tells Polygon. “It was very mathematically calculated and mapped out in the writing. And the structure of the source comic — it has those chapters in attendance at the end of each chapter, the Under the Hood excerpts and other notes. It allowed us to do an episode that was structurally an homage to that structure in the comic.”
Under the Hood makes sense structurally, but Tales of the Black Freighter, the in-universe pirate comic, makes even more sense thematically. Lindelof planted hints in the Veidt storyline that there were parallels to Black Freighter — see the crossbones flag in episode 3 — and “A God Walks into Abar” drops another. When the “Adam” clone walks into the prison cell, Adrian is reading Fogdancing, a novel by Max Shea, the writer of the Black Freighter comic.
In Watchmen, Black Freighter was a blunt allegory for Veidt’s arc, the hero pirate going on to become a murderer. In HBO’s sequel series, Veidt’s story serves a similar purpose. The words Doctor Manhattan spoke to him in the 1980s seem apt for the present: “Nothing ever ends.” Veidt will continually try to solve the universe’s biggest problems and fall short. The characters back on Earth may face the same problem in the show’s final act.