Entertainment

The Ending of 'Watchmen' Betrays Its Biggest Ideas

watchmen
HBO

This post contains major spoilers for the Watchmen season finale.

It feels silly to expect a perfect ending from a show as ambitious as Damon Lindelof's Watchmen. From its opening moments to its final ones, Watchmen was juggling an absurd amount of balls. It was a sequel to a beloved work of art, one that wanted to weave in its predecessor's mythologies without being overly reverential. At the same time, it was an alternate history about America's original sin of racism, imagining a world where reparations existed but the looming threat of white supremacy was just as present as it always has been. And then there were the goofy things: Lube man, the giant dildo, clones on Jupiter, the falling squids

By the end -- and to its detriment -- Watchmen also became a show about godlike power and possessing it thanks to Dr. Manhattan, the all-powerful nuclear accident that Alan Moore introduced in his comics. When Moore's narrative ended, the blue guy -- née Jon Osterman -- had given up on humanity, gone to live a solitary life on Mars. The series brings him back to Earth, where he falls in love with Regina King's Angela Abar, and takes another man's body to become her husband (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).

watchmen
HBO

The end of this love story plays out over the last hour of the season. The white supremacist organization, the 7th Kavalry, captures Dr. Manhattan in order to transfer his power to wannabe president Joe Keene (James Wolk). But the group is just a red herring. Instead, it's Hong Chau's Lady Trieu who emerges the show's true Big Bad. The finale reveals that she is Adrian Veidt's (Jeremy Irons) daughter via artificial insemination -- and the theft of his sperm sample -- and has inherited his Messiah complex. When all is said and done, Dr. Manhattan is gone, but so is Lady Trieu. Manhattan was able to teleport Veidt back to his Antarctica lab where he, along with Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) and Wade Tillman (Tim Blake Nelson), unleashed more squids and saved the day. 

The ending of this saga was thrilling, certainly. Lindelof and this episode's co-writer Nick Cuse gave us human goo and a hailstorm of squid bullets from the skies. It all culminates in an evocative cliffhanger of a final shot: Angela eats an egg she assumes contains Manhattan's power and places her foot to the surface of her pool, testing whether she can walk on water. "I Am the Walrus," yet another cheeky, inspired music cue, hits. (Get it? "I am the egg man.") Perhaps Angela -- if she indeed becomes the new version of Dr. Manhattan -- could do more for the world than her spouse ever did, just like her grandfather, Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.), formerly Hooded Justice, suggests.

But as exciting as that concluding beat is, disappointment hit as the credits rolled. The early episodes of Watchmen had been brilliantly messy, eager to wrestle with difficult themes, including the historical trauma with which many black Americans live. But in making Dr. Manhattan the center of the story in the final two episodes, it streamlined its plot in a manner that felt almost too neat. The painful history Angela endured when she swallowed and re-lived her grandfather's memories in the devastating sixth episode, becomes secondary to her devotion to a spouse who knew this tragic ending was predetermined. 

watchmen
HBO

Watchmen's boldest move remains the opening sequence of its pilot, recreating the 1921 massacre in Tulsa in which the black residents of the Greenwood community were attacked and murdered by white people. The graphic novel used masked heroes to unpack Cold War anxiety, but the series boldly stated it was telling a story about racial injustice underneath the comic tropes. In doing so, it rewrote its source material. Hooded Justice became a black man, wearing the noose meant to lynch him around his neck. 

And yet the show's desire to engage with this history grew increasingly less relevant as the narrative drew to a close. The 7th Kavalry and the white supremacist organization behind it, Cyclops, were not the preeminent evil, and were easily obliterated by Lady Trieu, whose own motivations are broadly and cartoonishly painted. (She seemingly wants to save the world, but is inherently misguided, blinded by her self-confidence.) At the end, it just became about who gets to maintain Dr. Manhattan's power, without really grappling what that power means in a broken world. That Trieu so easily evaporates the racists becomes an unfortunate metaphor for how Lindelof deals with the most complicated element of his plot. 

This might just be a Dr. Manhattan problem. No matter what you do, he's a near impossible character to write for: All knowing, yet obtuse. Watchmen never stopped being thoroughly entertaining, but as soon as the blue guy stepped into the frame, it became blinded by his glow, losing sight of what made it so intellectually stimulating. By the end, the series was operating on a cosmic scale, but its interest in Earthbound ugliness is what made it engaging in the first place. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.