Who is Doctor Manhattan?
More than any other character in Watchmen, Doctor Manhattan feels more like a way to convey a point of view than a person. His spotlight issue in the comic, “Watchmaker,” effectively communicates the way he experiences the expanse of time, but it’s still difficult to wrap your mind around what it must be like to be Doctor Manhattan. He’s a person who is, in effect, not experiencing the world like a human—or is at least far enough away from the experience of any other person that his inner life seems almost incomprehensible. How does he see the world? What is it like to be him?
Watchmen the TV show tries to answer these questions in “A God Walks Into Abar” (get it?), positing Jon Osterman as being, fundamentally, human. The results are equally thrilling and deeply frustrating.
The sweep of Jon’s post-Watchmen comic life is more or less clear now: after leaving Earth, Doctor Manhattan goes, not to another galaxy, but to Europa, where he attempts to create a perfect world using Crookshanks and Philips, humans he’s given life based on some English nobles he saw bone. He returns to Earth in 2009, in order to walk into a bar in Saigon and embark on his relationship with Angela Abar. Thanks to a tachyon-laced device created by Adrian Veidt, he spends ten years as Calvin, unable to remember his past life. And, after a brief spell as himself at the house in Tulsa, he is captured by the Seventh Kavalry.
Watchmen has been, if nothing else, ambitious and potentially very stupid in its creative scope. Turning Doctor Manhattan into an amnesiac black man is nothing if not ambitious and potentially very stupid.
I appreciate that Damon Lindelof has recentered Jon Osterman’s primary motivation; he is, as he was in the book, an incredibly horny man incapable of really emotionally engaging with anyone. Which is to say, a man. And Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is uniformly excellent, presenting a version of Jon who is distanced and disarmingly charming, something that comes across less in what Jon he than in the slightly bemused tone in which he says it. (Hearing Abdul-Mateen clearly voicing pre-Calvin Jon is a little unsettling, but I think this is, like him keeping Calvin’s shape after being cracked in two, basically convenient. Whatever, let’s go with it.) In moments where Jon laughs, whether at coincidences between two of his experiences or Angela’s sense of humor, we know what she sees in him.
Abdul-Mateen’s performance makes for an illuminating contrast with Nicole Kassell’s direction, which takes great pains to keep Jon out of our field of view — unfocused, obscured behind a glass or a mask, head out of frame — until he becomes Cal. Effectively contrasted with the sweep of the rare scenes in which we see him as classic Doctor Manhattan (i.e. bringing life to Europa), it gives a sense of Jon’s experience as encompassing the very big and very small alike. But the most important thing for him to connect to is not Europa. It’s Angela.
Regina King is great in this episode, particularly as a (relative) newcomer reacting to Jon’s presence. But Angela’s actions are still a bit of a blank space in the middle of the season. It’s fun to watch her be so calm and funny when confronted with Doctor Manhattan — at least, once she starts to believe him — and King and Abdul-Mateen have great chemistry. Still, I’m not sure why she’s in this relationship. They have a pleasant enough conversation, and maybe dinner the next night. Two weeks later though, she’s raiding a morgue to look for people he can pretend to be. Does that sound like the Angela we know? Worse still, Jon’s presence continues the flattening of Angela’s backstory that happened in “An Almost Religious Awe.” From his perspective, and now from ours, she looks like a pool ball moving in a predetermined arc based on the way it was struck, a choice in disservice to King’s frayed-wire performance, and to the complexity of the Angela we’ve seen so far.
There are some really fantastic moments in “A God Walks Into Abar,” but Angela’s actions get at its big weak point: The episode is mechanically filling in holes from earlier in the season, trying to give answers when the premise of Doctor Manhattan — and Damon Lindelof’s entire career — suggests it would be more artistically satisfying to toss off a few additional questions. Take the moment when Adrian Veidt off-handedly theorizes that Jon will still be able to use his powers in “life-threatening situations” even after becoming human. It’s easily the most heavy-handed Watchmen’s writing has been all season, existing purely to set up the moment when we realize that Jon saved Angela from the Kavalry when it would have been much easier to just trust the viewers to get that that’s what happened.
In the penultimate hour, we also find out where Adrian Veidt has been this whole time. He’s on Europa, where he was originally intended to be the leader of the new society Jon had built. He was never in prison; it was supposed to be paradise. Their scene together is, I think, the highlight of the episode, and not just because of Jeremy Irons’ hair (which is good) or a joke about appropriation (which is bad, but still very funny when Jeremy Irons says it with that hair). It’s because Doctor Manhattan recognizes one of his limitations: he lacks imagination, or a way to grapple with how he could change things away from the preexisting — let’s say, Calvinist — plan.
Is Doctor Manhattan genuinely incapable of changing the world, or does it just feel that way? The Watchmen book does an excellent job of leaving the answer on a knife edge. One could come away from it feeling like Jon is simply too detached and nihilistic to do much of anything, or you could think that his total knowledge of the future acts like a set of shackles, Dune-style. Watchmen the TV show suggests that the answer is both at the same time. Jon sees the path laid out in front of him — all around him, really. He just never had the imagination to figure out how he could deviate from it.
This tension comes to a head at the end of the episode, when Doctor Manhattan is captured, and seemingly about to be destroyed. In some ways, the conclusion feels absurd — Doctor Manhattan is basically a god, and the idea that some racists with guns would be able to take him out is illogical. But Abdul-Mateen’s performance suggests that Jon is, for the most part, going along with the plan, because he thinks (knows?) what’s going to happen. Even in the final confrontation when he actually does Doctor Manhattan stuff (blowing up white supremacists, stopping bullets), he really just stops Angela from being shot before going on to his predetermined captivity.
How does this all wrap up? Beyond what seems like the obvious question — who is going to become this world’s new god after Jon is likely killed? — we have to get through some answers to questions with the Seventh Kavalry, Lady Trieu’s real plans, the identity of her father, and, most importantly, the identity of Lube Guy. (Oh, also, in a post-credits sequence, Veidt acquires another horseshoe, which he seemingly uses to begin digging himself out of captivity.)
Like a meticulously crafted watch, the moving pieces and gears of Watchmen are all starting to click into place, creating one, singular machine. I just wish there were a few more parts that existed solely to be beautiful.