This review contains spoilers for Watchmen episode 8, "A God Walks Into Abar." To refresh your memory of where we left off, check out our recap of Watchmen episode 7. Once you've watched, check out all the Doctor Manhattan teases in Watchmen up to this point, plus our ending explainer on that Watchmen episode 8 post-credits scene.
The reveal at the end of Watchmen episode 7, “An Almost Religious Awe,” feels like it shouldn’t have worked. It does. The idea that Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) was secretly Dr. Manhattan, unbeknownst even to him, came, quite fittingly, out of the blue — albeit placing us perfectly in his disoriented perspective.Fortunately, the show didn’t make us wait long to get reoriented. With his relative omniscience now restored in episode 8, the former Jon Osterman’s story finally comes to light. Previously, the official title had been listed as “A God Walks Into a Bar,” but in the episode, its last two words are collapsed on-screen — the official title thus revealed as “A God Walks Into Abar,” a spoiler hiding in plain sight all season — as Manhattan walks right up to Angela Abar (Regina King) in Saigon in 2009. The episode, like the last two before it, skips back and forth in time to reveal a secret history, but its meticulous, clear-eyed editing and direction (by Henk Van Eeghen and Nicole Kassell respectively) results in an intense, emotionally charged hour of television that feels like a minor miracle, well and truly portraying the way Manhattan might perceive time. Most pertinently, it feels like the episode Damon Lindelof’s career has been building to.In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan was the deconstructive focal point for godlike beings like Superman, and their relationship to humankind (the way Miracleman explored violent superhero fantasy in Moore’s run on the character a few years prior). In the Watchmen comic, Manhattan’s aloofness and his disconnect from society were central to the plot — how, the book wonders, would a superpowered deity even view humanity? How would he go from apathy to benevolence? And though he was seen having multiple romantic relationships, the question of how a being such as him could even come to love another person was left unexplored.HBO’s successor series zeroes in on that narrative gap. It gets into the weeds of how a Superman — Cal Abar, seemingly named for both Kal-El (DC’s Superman) and 1977 blaxploitation film Abar: The First Black Superman — would even navigate an idea as deeply human as falling in love. How would a saviour, so aloof from humanity as to abandon it, truly become a part of it?The fourth issue of the comic, “The Watchmaker,” has been an adequate structural template thus far for moments like Angela overlapping, drugged-induced flashbacks. In the comic, Manhattan speaks of perceiving moments in time, past and present, simultaneously — not unlike the pages of a comic book, which can be flipped through in any order, revealing cause and effect as the reader sees fit. Film & television don’t usually work that way. You can rewind and fast-forward, but you can’t view more than one image — one moment — at a time. You can’t tilt and turn the pages in your hand, and view past and present simultaneously if you want. Even Angela’s flashbacks in episodes 6 and 7 are rooted in a present moment, according to the story’s chronology; Lost, which Lindelof co-created, worked the same way. Episode 8, however, upends that structural norm.As Manhattan tells his story to Angela in 2009, the episode skips back in time to his creation of life on Europa and, subsequently, further back to the childhood that inspired it (a childhood where kind people helped him flee the Nazis). These flashbacks establish a language with which we’re already familiar, drawing us into a montage of the past using details and voiceover rooted in the present: the bar in Saigon.The first time it skips forward, to the morgue, where Angela presents Manhattan with a way to disguise his appearance, the transition is quite traditional. The camera moves downward in the bar, into darkness, as the new scene opens two weeks from “now.” It plays out like any other scene, establishing the new present. Its shots linger, so its beats can land. It unfurls slowly and meticulously, the way any other chronological events in the series might. That is, until it cuts jarringly back to the bar a few weeks prior, and to Manhattan and Angela discussing these morbid events that have not yet come to pass — only they have. We just saw them transpire. Not through hints or premonitions, or details inserted in the edit so as to merely hint at the future — the way, say, Looking Glass recalled traumatic details of his past in episode 5 — but through a future scene playing out in its entirety. From the standpoint of the story, there is no longer one, singular “now.” No one moment in time from which the story is told.The next time the episode flashes forward from the bar, it does, in fact, use the language of a flashback (or in this case, a “flash forward”). Manhattan tells Angela: “Right now, you’re asking me where I am,” before we cut to a closeup of Angela doing just that. These little details and closeups yank us into the new scene, before it begins to play out like the “present” once more. Manhattan and Angela’s fight unfolds in its entirety. The episode moves forward from there, to Manhattan visiting Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) in Antarctica — like a sequel about sad old men trying to find new purpose — who presents Manhattan with the device to suppress his memories. When Manhattan looks down at the device in his hands, the point-of-view shot from which we see it occurs even later, bringing us into the scene in which Angela helps him insert it into his head. Before she does, the episode returns once more to the bar in Saigon, as Manhattan and Angela discuss the aforementioned scene — which then appears once more, before the episode returns to what we, the audience, have perceived as the “present” for the last eight weeks: the events transpiring in Tulsa in 2019.The cut between Manhattan looking down at his hand in Antarctica and seeing the device in his hand in a POV shot days later in Saigon is key to understanding the cinematic sleight of hand. It isn’t just a rhythmic bit of continuity editing to bring us into a new scene. It is, for all intents and purposes, the exact way Manhattan would perceive that moment — or perhaps “those moments” would be more accurate. To Manhattan, this plurality of perception is a singular continuum, and the way the episode slides between moments, collapsing them, expanding them, re-shaping their narrative roots and their relationship to one another, helps situate us in various moments of time, all at once.Of course, this mind-melding structure would be for naught were it not for the story it tells. The episode uses only its first 40 minutes to build the entire romantic history of Manhattan and Angela from the ground up, answering a lifetime’s worth of questions so that the remaining screen time can be dedicated to the 2019 plot. In these 40 minutes, Manhattan strides into the bar as a god — his defaced mural from last week re-appears, its devil horns replaced with a halo and an enormous penis — but engages in the most human of conversations: a flirtatious courtship. He does so with knowledge of not only the impending romance, but of impending tragedy. Knowing how most of it will play out makes him a deity, but his decade-long blind-spot, an inability to know how this romance will unfold, makes him achingly human. However, it’s this very humanity — this sense of risk, of powerlessness, of normalcy — he seems to yearn for. A sense of equal-ness in a relationship, something he hasn’t had since Janey Slater in 1959.The way director Kassell and writers Lindelof and Jeff Jensen tell Manhattan’s story taps in to that very humanity. It’s odd, and even risky, that such an action-heavy show with so many rich alt-history details should tell this tale almost entirely in closeup. However, it evokes the sublime series finale of Lindelof’s sci-fi masterpiece The Leftovers, in which entire scenes play out as seated conversations, and the frame is filled with nothing but the faces of Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux. The long-lensed closeups on Angela, as employed by Kassell, are revelatory; they allow her to speak some of her truths, and allow us to gauge the truths she’s hiding, in her moments of silence. We, like Manhattan, already know what the future holds (at least in part). We know the honesty of his predictions, about him and Angela falling in love, moving to Tulsa and adopting children, but what we’re left to perceive, and experience, is the trepidation with which Angela walks that path.In addition to Angela’s future, we’re armed with the knowledge of her past — the violence that took her family, and the isolation that followed — and so we know what lies beneath Regina King’s hardened, uniformed exterior. The tension, and even the excitement in the bar scene, comes from watching King peel back these layers, so skillfully and vulnerably as to make this knowledge of past and future feel irrelevant. We know where it all leads — after all, the 2009 setting is a flashback relative to the main plot — but King’s eyes, which see parts of herself reflected back to her in Manhattan’s words, keep us grounded in the “present.” Regardless of anything else, any conspiracies in Tulsa or any approaching danger, each moment of close-up feels like the “now.” It feels like getting to know Angela, her desires, her insecurities, most intimately — after last week’s reveal, this trip into her past is the most honest we’ve seen her — and it feels like falling in love with her.But what of Dr. Manhattan? The episode is told through his eyes, and we don’t actually see his face until halfway through the episode (when he finally takes the form of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Therein lies yet another cheeky directorial sleight of hand. Obscuring Manhattan’s face feels a bit goofy at first — that’s hardly a complaint; Watchmen has historically been more pulp than prestige, despite the latter being conferred upon it — although it certainly helps tether us to the image of Cal, and Cal alone, as Dr. Manhattan. What we’re witnessing in “A God Walks Into Abar” is certainly the present for Manhattan, and so we experience it as he does (from the closeups of Regina King to the Antarctic rendezvous) but the moment that finally brings us back into 2019 is Angela holding the memory-suppressant. The episode is as much the “now” for Manhattan as it is a flashback for Angela, and so everything we see of Manhattan in Saigon plays with that visual language.We don’t see Jon Osterman’s face, because it isn’t the face Angela fell in love with; it may not even be a face she remembers. Though what is revealed to us about Manhattan before he took Cal’s form are his details — the kind of details that would draw Angela into a Nostalgia trip if this were episode 6 or 7. We see Manhattan’s shape. We see his chin, peeking out from behind his mask. We see the knot of his tie, and the collar of his suit. We see his hands as he speaks; they’re gentle, but firm. They’re the kind of hands you could be seduced by, or fall in love with, painted so vividly and delicately by Kassell.Abdul-Mateen II’s performance is key. As an upright Manhattan, walking around in 2009 and 2019, the stiffness of his arms and the curiosity with which he looks at every detail make him feel like he’s still learning how to be human; his knowledge, while vast, keeps him constantly at odds with human wisdom and experience. Though in the moments he’s seated opposite Angela, that stiffness in his arms seems to fade. His hands move more fluidly; he feels most human when he’s with her.The entire episode feels like an update on Lost’s “The Constant,” in which the consciousness of Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) travels temporarily through time, and he can only free himself from this paradox by making contact with his ex-girlfriend Penny (Sonya Walger), who grounds him in the present. Only in this case, the simultaneous existence of Manhattan’s consciousness is a permanent fixture, and Angela grounds him not only in the present, but across multiple points in time. She’s there when he loses his memory. She was presumably there when he woke up as “Cal.” And she’s there when he comes back.When Manhattan returns to consciousness in 2019, he continues to take the face of Calvin Jelani. There’s no real logistical reason for this — maybe he’s still coming out of his daze; it doesn’t matter — but it works dramatically, keeping us tethered to his and Angela’s story.He claimed to be in love with her before they met, but that evening, Angela planted the seed of a specific human experience that would go on to define him. She questioned whether he’ll ever have “the moment;” the jolt of realizing that what you feel for someone — the deep yearning, the gratitude, the comfort, and the electricity — is love. How can this superpowered deity truly feel love, one wonders, if he never fell in love in the first place?Of course, for Dr. Manhattan, even this linear question falls under the purview of the chicken-and-egg paradox, which keeps rearing its head during the episode. He did fall in love, albeit on the last day he and Angela were together, when she decided to wage war on the Seventh Kavalry to protect him, despite knowing it would end in tragedy. He had, therefore, already fallen in love before they met — and since he perceives all of time at once, he was falling in love with her at every moment.Was this causality, or a self-fulfilling prophecy? Did Manhattan already know he was in love — presumably sometime after the events of the comic, when the future was no longer blocked from him — or did he eventually fall in love, and therefore come to know it in the past? Like Angela tipping off Will (Louis Gossett Jr.) about Cyclops a decade in the past (using Manhattan as a conduit, no less), there is no defined point of origin for this story. It’s like the mysterious compass in Lost, given from Richard Alpert (Nestor Carbonell) to John Locke (Terry O’Quinn) in 2007, and subsequently given by a time-travelling Locke to a younger Alpert in 1954; the compass was, therefore, never physically created in the world of the show. It existed only as a creation of the people writing it.Instead of this irksome physical paradox, Watchmen’s is an emotional one. Events were set in motion as determined by the way the story, perhaps, needed to unfold. Perhaps things played out the way they did because Manhattan knew that, at some point, the Seventh Kavalry would attempt to re-create or imbibe his powers. And so, Tulsa became the center of events, so as to expose festering white supremacy as it becomes an existential threat. Or perhaps he knew Lady Trieu would build her clock in Tulsa — or perhaps his presence brought her there in the first place. Perhaps his goal was Angela discovering the inherited traumas of her past; perhaps that past, Hooded Justice, is the reason Angela was involved at all. Or, perhaps it was both.Perhaps everything converges at Tulsa for the simple reason that Damon Lindelof read a Ta-Nehisi Coates article on reparations and the buried history of the Black Wall Street Massacre, and he wanted to un-bury it. It doesn’t matter. The causality of what brought Manhattan to Tulsa is irrelevant, when the details of his journey — his romance with Angela, his sending Veidt to Europa as a gift so he could be worshipped — while cyclical and foreknown, still came from instincts and emotions that made him more human.It’s that very humanity on display in the episode’s final moments, in which Sister Night and Dr. Manhattan — a woman defined by the death of loved ones, who jumped headfirst into a romance she knew was doomed; a man who knew all and saw all, but took the plunge towards the one thing he could not see; two characters who should have been at odds, as one’s destruction in Vietnam led to the death of the other’s parents — fend off the Seventh Kavalry together. They do so in slow-motion, scored by operatic strings, angelic voices and heavy guitar riffs — some of Reznor and Ross’ finest work — in a scene rooted, visually and musically, in the overwhelming power of love. All this, despite knowing it would end in tragedy. The way all relationships do, as Manhattan reminds her.Their own little thermodynamic miracle.As we enter the final episode of Watchmen, the burning questions all remain, but their answers are within reach. Where is Dr. Manhattan now? (Is he dead, or merely captured?) Where is Looking Glass, who we haven’t seen in three whole episodes? Where is Ozymandias, after that post-credit scene hinting at his escape? How, if at all, does a god taking the form of a black man intersect with white supremacists coveting his power — a microcosm of the show’s political premise? What are the consequences of this god abandoning his creations because he’s unsatisfied with their devotion? How will the idea of Manhattan passing on his powers factor in to the finale? What crashed down on the Clarks’ farm, and what the hell is Lady Trieu’s clock tower?Whatever form the story takes, one thing is clear: the emotional pieces to this puzzle are all perfectly shaped. We know what drives each character intimately — Angela Abar, Laurie Blake, Looking Glass, Lady Trieu, Dr. Manhattan, Will, and Ozymandias — and so we’ll know what the picture looks and feels like as soon as it snaps into place.
Watchmen’s penultimate episode is a thermodynamic miracle. An expertly crafted piece of television that positions us in past and present simultaneously, while exploring what makes Dr. Manhattan human — and therefore, what makes the rest of us. A story of doomed romance, of sacrifice, and of what it feels like to remember falling in love.