Nothing ever ends, right?
We’re one episode and one hour away from the moment when credits roll on the Episode 9 season finale of HBO’s Watchmen. Though it’s fair to wonder what time really means after the events of Episode 8.
“Nothing ever ends” is a quote from the comic and the show, and it signifies the important thing to always keep in mind about Watchmen: We’re watching a linear story unfold, but every single moment of that story is shaped in the writer’s room by the events that both precede and follow it.
For its first four episodes, Watchmen told a relatively chronological story set in the (alternate) present. The four episodes that followed, culminating in Sunday’s eighth chapter, “A God Walks Into Abar,” turned the notion of time on its head. But while the show leaped all-around in time, we viewers at home experienced the story in the only way it makes sense, irrespective of where the in-universe calendar might fall from one moment to the next.
Confused? Good. Episode 9 promises to tie much of this together. In the meantime, let’s talk about comics and history.
King of kings
In Episode 8, we finally saw Adrian Veidt as he’s always been: a man so full of arrogance and overinflated self-worth that he actually named his costumed superhero identity after a poetic monument to hubris. In Percy Shelley’s famed 18th century sonnet, the fictional titular ruler declares: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Of course, that declaration isn’t spoken. It’s carved into the pedestal of a once-towering statue that the passage of time has worn down into “two vast and trunkless legs of stone.” Just like his costumed alter-ego’s namesake, Veidt’s comic book victory of saving the world from itself was actually a defeat.
A decade before the events that kick off with Watchmen‘s premiere episode, Veidt is still secreted away in his secret Antarctica lair, called Karnak. It’s from there that he watched as a giant “alien” squid crushed Manhattan on 11/2, and it’s from there that he still stages squid falls. It freaks people out, sure, but that fear is what Veidt sees as the fuel for world peace.
It’s still not a win, though. Veidt toils away in total obscurity while humanity continues to pursue the dangerous course of relying on nuclear power and using it to build bombs. Doctor Manhattan tells him, 10 years ago, that the bomb-building paradoxically helps people feel safe. But all Veidt sees is a lack of appreciation: In his own view, he saved the people of Earth from annihilation by World War by dropping the squid on 11/2. Where are the accolades? Where’s the adulation?
That’s why Adrian willingly accepts the one-way ticket to Europa. Dr. Manhattan reveals that he flew off to Jupiter’s moon in the hopes of creating a more perfect species. Beings that resemble humans, but who are wholly committed to living in the service of others. And why does he eventually leave them? Their “infinite” capacity for love is “unsatisfying.”
For Veidt, who’s spent decades keeping the plates spinning to enable world peace, the idea of flying off to a kingdom where he’s worshiped and adored sounds like paradise. That’s all he wants! Though of course, he eventually comes to the same realization as Dr. Manhattan: it’s not satisfying. What work is there for a God in a realm where non-believers don’t even exist?
This is who Adrian Veidt is, and it’s who he’s always been. Comics fans now understand that time hasn’t changed him in the slightest. A newcomers who first hopped aboard with the HBO series now understand: “Ozymandias” is perfectly named.
A fortress of solitude
We’re not quite finished with Veidt. Karnak, the ice-crusted lair where he’s holed up, is worth some discussion as well.
I last mentioned Karnak in the aftermath of Episode 4. That’s when we were introduced to Lady Trieu, the mega-rich genius who took over Veidt’s corporate holdings before his disappearance. In the earlier episode, we spend some time in the Trieu Industries vivarium that lets Lady Trieu recreate the climate and flora of her native Vietnam when she’s far from home.
There is, or was, also a vivarium housed at Karnak that served a similar purpose for Veidt. But it no longer exists in the present-day timeline of the show. The structure is still there, but the delicate balance of life it maintained inside has tipped, and it happened long before the events of the show. In fact, it goes back to the comics.
There’s a pivotal moment that occurs late in the earlier story when Veidt goes off on an extended monologue about his fascination with Alexander the Great and the origins of his costumed name. It’s a speech he delivers in the Karnak vivarium to a trio of Vietnamese servants he’s just poisoned, on the eve of the 11/2 squandering. When he finishes speaking, Veidt opens the vivarium up to the elements and lets Antarctica destroy everything inside.
You can see the remains of that vivarium as Dr. Manhattan approaches the entrance to Karnak. It’s the big, shattered greenhouse-looking thing stretching into the sky, clearly visible in the background.
How Veidt’s layer factors into the end of Watchmen Season 1 remains to be seen. We know from the Episode 9 promo that Karnak still has a role to play in this story. So it’s worth reminding you now that the comic’s climax also unfolds, at least in part, in Veidt’s Antarctica getaway.
Nothing ever ends
I’ve spent a lot of words here talking about Adrian Veidt because it’s important. A picture of who he is has been taking shape all season, and the eighth episode brings that picture into sharp focus. But let’s be clear: “A God Walks Into Abar” is Dr. Manhattan’s story. It’s the episode where Watchmen newcomers especially finally come to understand who this god-like being really is.
The Dr. Manhattan we’ve heard about all season is larger-than-life. He might have been a watchmaker’s son-turned-scientist in his early life, but the catastrophic lab accident that tore Jon Osterman apart in 1959 gave birth to an entirely new being capable of traveling through the stars unassisted, growing to superhuman proportions, and all manner of other “superhuman” things.
All of that is true. In the comics and in the show both, Dr. Manhattan has evolved beyond human understanding. But Episode 8 reveals what is perhaps the most important aspect of his character: As much as he says he lives outside of time and no longer concerns himself with human affairs, the part of him that started life as Jon Osterman remains inescapably human.
It’s happened before. Janey Slater, who was Jon’s romantic partner prior to the accident, stuck with him – and he with her – after he re-formed as Dr. Manhattan. He even professed his undying love for her after the accident, knowing full well – as a being who lives in every moment of his existence at all times – that it would eventually fade.
And it did when Dr. Manhattan took up with the costumed hero Silk Spectre II. We know her on the show as Laurie Blake. They carried on a relationship for a number of years because Jon simply cannot let go. For all his godlike powers, he’s seemingly blind to the fact that there’s still a relentlessly human piece of him.
Late in Episode 8, when Dr. Manhattan sits down for a chat with 10-years-ago Ben Reeves, he says this about the first time (relatively) he saw Angela: “I know the moment I first see her, I sense profound emptiness and loss. I know because she says over and over again that she doesn’t want a family, yet it is clear through her actions that it is all she wants.”
It’s funny. The words he uses to describe Angela at that moment could so easily be applied to Dr. Manhattan himself. In the years after the accident, he pushed humanity away, again and again. But something keeps drawing him back. He calls it love, but for all of Dr. Manhattan’s apparent omnipotence, I don’t think he’s quite got it.
What Dr. Manhattan truly craves is his own, normal life. He longs for human connection even as he denies it to himself. Like Angela, he is profoundly empty, having been robbed of his expected future way back in 1959. Dr. Manhattan might experience every moment in his timeline simultaneously, but he’s also his own biggest blind spot. I think his ability to recognize that, or not, is going to play a critical role in the way the remaining hour of Season 1 unfolds.