I am a fan of the TV show Watchmen. I understand that the show is divisive, but like millions of other Americans, I enjoy serialized television, enjoyed the Watchmen comic in college, and don’t have anything better to do on Sunday nights. And so, I watch Watchmen. [It should go without saying, but this piece contains spoilers]
As much as I enjoy the show, there’s something deeply frustrating about it. It doesn’t have anything to do with the story, or the characters, or the writing or the directing, or the acting; I even love the goofy stuff that might grate on some viewers, such as the existence of Future’s “Crushed Up” in the show’s alternate timeline or the one-off appearance of a masked adventurer who sprays himself down with lube and slides into a drain (his name, per the internet, is “Lube Man,” and the gif is truly something to behold).
However, I can’t help dodge the feeling that Watchmen is the product of a group of people who are very much aware that they are making a TV show about Watchmen, and that they’d better not let us down. Some of this can be explained by the fact that Watchmen itself was a comic about comics, so that same discursive spirit is going to bleed through a bit. This is all compounded, though, by the presence of showrunner Damon Lindelof, a prestige TV nerd for whom meta-commentary and unexplained twists are second nature. His approach to plotting is to create a never-ending series of mysterious set-ups and pay-offs, and his inability to not shut up and let the work exist on its own terms means he’s constantly in the press wondering if he did an okay job.
In a piece about Lindelof’s tendency to show his work, our Deputy Editor Jeremy Gordon wrote of the series:
I recognize [Watchmen is] still revealing layers of its larger structure one painfully obvious allusion at a time, in such a way that a future episode will probably make everything snap together and inspire 500,000 blog posts headlined “Let’s talk about THAT moment in this week’s Watchmen.”
Reader, Watchmen’s proverbial “THAT moment” has come. Last night’s episode revealed that our hero Angela Abar’s husband, Cal Abar, a pleasant, doting stay-at-home-dad, has been Dr. Manhattan all along, a secret so secretive that even Cal himself had no idea he was Dr. Manhattan. Now, Dr. Manhattan is probably the most well-known of all of the characters in the original Watchmen comic, which meant that he was going to have to show up in the Watchmen TV show at some point. Meanwhile, the fact that Dr. Manhattan is also a nude blue demigod means that he has the ability to resolve basically any plot tension that Lindelof and the show’s writing staff could set up.
So like little Dr. Manhattans themselves, they snapped their fingers and informed us that — surprise! — Dr. Manhattan has been onscreen in disguise for the entire series. From Lindelof’s perspective, I’m sure this was a great idea: it provides him with the ability to insert Dr. Manhattan into the story, and the fact that Dr. Manhattan doesn’t realize who he is means he can’t pull out his pesky superpowers and put an end to the white supermacists wreaking havoc upon the citizens of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
As a fan of the show, however, I can’t help but feel like the show’s Big Reveal was a little out of nowhere. Were there hints that this was coming? Technically, yes, but they were so random and abstract that in a show throwing every bit of randomness and abstraction at the viewer that it possibly can, I’d all but forgotten about them by the time the show got to the payoff. The most memorable and abstract of them all involved Laurie Blake, Dr. Manhattan’s ex-girlfriend, owning a giant blue dildo called Excalibur. Laurie’s EX is CAL ABAR, get it? Perhaps the most glaring hint wasn’t in the plot at all — it was that Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, the actor playing Cal, is too talented to not play some sort of significant role in the series.
Don’t get me wrong, the “Big Reveal” is an integral part of basically every thriller or mystery, and there are plenty of them that I absolutely love. But the Big Reveal works best as a destination, not a pit stop. This is why The Matrix is so fantastic and the sequels kind of suck. There’s not a ton you can do to keep things universally interesting once you reveal that Neo is The One; the Wachowskis essentially forced themselves to delve into wonky myth-building while hoping that cool CGI action set pieces would keep the non-nerds from walking out of the theater.
In Watchmen, the Big Reveals — there have been two so far, plus way too many Small and Medium Reveals to count — arrive as announcements that the stakes are about to get even higher, ratcheting things up to a level that feels ridiculous if not wholly unsustainable. Lindelof isn’t unique in leaning on the promise of a Big Reveal to hook in readers only for things to get unwieldy once he actually drops one on us. Twin Peaks, probably my favorite show of all time, famously dipped in quality once we found out who killed Laura Palmer. After Bernard discovered he was actually one of the robots in Westworld, the show ceased to be about what it means to be human and turned into a show about how Westworld had disappeared up its own ass.
The question of “Where is Dr. Manhattan?” has both been central to the plot of Watchmen and the reason why many viewers (though not me) were interested in Watchmen itself; no matter what the answer actually had been, some people were going to feel let down. And I’m going to keep watching it, because I enjoy watching things that are actively insane, and besides, my Sunday evenings aren’t going to get any more interesting. But once, just once, I would like to watch a prestige TV show that lays its cards on the table from the very beginning, offering few big reveals and certainly no Big Reveals, instead throwing a group of characters into a situation and allowing the drama to develop organically. No mysterious ice kings, no learning who shot J.R., and for the love of all that is holy, no secrets that get foreshadowed by the presence of a blue dildo.