Monday, December 16, 2019

‘Watchmen’ Finale Review: Episode 9 Takes Off Its Mask to Reveal a Perfect Ending — Spoilers

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Watchmen” Episode 9, “See How They Fly” — the season finale.]

Setting aside for a moment the collective power of “Watchmen’s” unmasked story, the symmetry of its ending is absolutely beautiful. A series that begins in Tulsa’s Dreamland Theater ends there. Devastating attacks are happening outside both times Will Reeves (then played by Danny Boyd Jr., now by Louis Gossett Jr.) sits in his cushioned seat, staring above the stage. Over 100 years ago, his mother is nearby, and a century later his granddaughter (Regina King) sits by his side. When he leaves the theater as a boy, his family is about to be destroyed. When he walks out an old man, his family has been united, minus one sacrificial figure.

The question invoked by Will’s parallel beginning and ending is simple: What’s changed? And the answer is as fitting as it is painful: not enough. For Will, his lifetime of suffering and loss culminates in a reunion; in being seen for the man behind the mask; in the valuable lessons he passes down to the next generation. It’s a happy ending, but not an unblemished one. Despite years of famed crime-fighting as Hooded Justice, his most heroic efforts are done without a mask, without lies, without hiding. Through an overdose of nostalgia and a few choice words in a movie theater, he imparts his true heroism to Angela.

Will’s anger was driven by fear. His fear was driven by pain. “You can’t hide under a mask, Angela,” he says. “Wounds need air to heal.” In this quiet exchange between family members, the collective power of “Watchmen” unveils itself. There is no simple fix to the racism and injustice inflicted upon Will and Angela. There’s no secret plan that can eradicate such hate and prejudice from our country’s history, nor keep it from boiling over again in the nation’s present. Frozen squid flung from the sky like bullets can stop further madness from spreading, but they can’t roll back time. Efforts must be made to keep the peace, but solutions won’t come from above, be it man’s squid or god’s hand, and they won’t come from people wearing masks. They’ll come when everyone takes them off.

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The only way forward is through acknowledgement; through listening; through sharing stories, like Will’s. “Watchmen” understands the power of being seen, onscreen and off, and it conveys that power with remarkable clarity. What Damon Lindelof, Nicole Kassell, Tom Spezialy, and so many more have created is a magnificent and substantial story not only because of the voices it elevates, but because of the way it encourages people to listen — and to do more.

“Watchmen” isn’t just Will’s story. Perhaps his most heroic effort came in his final lines. Looking at Angela in the kitchen, staring down at the fateful egg that may or may not bestow her with godlike powers, Will remembers Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) as Doctor Manhattan. “He was a good man,” he says. “But considering what he could do, he could’ve done more.” The line lands a bit funny. With Cal’s death so fresh, is Will really questioning the accomplishments of the diseased? In his own kitchen? To his wife?

Hong Chau in “Watchmen”

Mark Hill/HBO

Yes and no. Will may know Cal still has more in store for Angela, but even if he doesn’t, he’s reminding her of what she already knows — and doing the same for viewers. As she looks down at the box of eggs, one telling white oval left unbroken, she starts to piece things back together. “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a couple of eggs.” Again, the symmetry is stunning: We first met Angela when she broke a couple of eggs into a bowl in front of her son’s classroom. Now, she’s staring at an egg that could, and likely does, contain Doctor Manhattan’s powers. All she has to do is break it, and accept the attached responsibility.

As she walks to the pool, I immediately thought back to why Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) ultimately decided to stop his daughter, Lady Trieu (Hong Chau). Despite Trieu’s claims that she wants to fix the world, Veidt recognizes too much of himself in her to believe it. “Anyone who seeks to obtain the power of a god must be prevented at all costs from obtaining it.” Veidt learned as much during his time on Europa, not only observing his servants kissing his feet but seeing himself become bored to the point of cruelty with their devotion. He went there because he wanted to be worshipped, and when that wasn’t enough, look what he did to paradise.

But back to Angela. By taking the egg and eating it, isn’t she seeking to obtain the power of a god? Shouldn’t she, too, be stopped? Honestly, it’s a fair question, but one we feel comfortable answering for her: No. She’s not Lady Trieu. She didn’t kill anyone to get what she wanted, and she doesn’t desire to be idolized. Accepting responsibility is different than craving power, and Angela has shown throughout her journey that she’s capable of listening and taking action.

Just look at her in the last few episodes, in contrast to Cal as Doctor Manhattan: Accepting the inevitable isn’t an act of heroism (as Cal always does), but rejecting it can be. We saw as much when Angela refused to listen to Doctor Manhattan when he told her there was nothing she could do to stop him from being taken. She was willing to sacrifice herself to protect him; to protect her family. It’s an innately human quality, but also a quality of an innately good human.

Angela Abar is a hero we can all believe in because she’s real. She’s flawed. She’s not hiding behind a mask, not anymore, and whatever she does next will be for the greater good. Angela’s not driven by logic or narcissism or hate, but love.

You can’t hide behind a mask. A god can’t hide behind their power. And Angela’s not going to be hiding anymore. By cracking that egg and reaching her foot out over that pool, she’s answered Will’s call to action. She’s going to do more, whether she’s a blue god or not. That’s what heroes are made of, and this has been a story of her birth — perfectly told, from start to finish.

Grade: A

“Watchmen” is available to view in its entirety via HBO.

Jean Smart in “Watchmen”

Mark Hill/HBO

Masks Off: What We Know

The egg contains Doctor Manhattan’s powers… right?

Listen, I know Damon Lindelof loves ambiguous endings, and the final shot can be taken on its face as an “Inception”-level cliffhanger — but I’m pretty sure that egg has powers. Everything in the montage preceding Angela’s trip to the pool suggests as much, especially Will’s message to Angela from Cal: “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a couple of eggs.” Besides serving as an accidental callback to one of 2019’s best lines, Cal’s message to Angela has to mean something, and the broken eggs on the floor seem like the most logical extrapolation of that hint. Plus, Cal told Angela before she broke the eggs that it was important she see him in the pool. Toss in the ongoing egg theme throughout the season, and all those eggs have to get cooked into something. I eagerly await the case arguing the opposite, but I’m also perfectly content thinking about Doctor Regina King.

Doctor Manhattan is dead… right?

I’m not going to get into whether or not Doctor Manhattan can put himself back together again, as he has before in the past, but it’s important to note that “Watchmen’s” symmetry extends to the comics. Adrian catching the Game Warden’s bullet is a nice little callback to when he caught his would-be assassin’s bullet in the comic, and there are dozens (if not hundreds) of other examples scattered throughout the series.

But while some callbacks, like Adrian catching the bullet, are validated by the comic — without reading the comics, there’s no real reason to believe a man could catch a bullet — the best are effective on their own. Take Doctor Manhattan’s death. When Jon Osterman first became Doctor Manhattan, it was because he was caught in an intrinsic field generator. Through a glass window in the immovable door, Jon looks at his horrified coworkers as they all realize together that he’s about to die. Janey, his fiancé, runs away, even though Jon begs her to stay so he’s not left alone as he dies.

Here, it happens again. Time doesn’t just happen simultaneously for Jon, but it repeats itself. Again, he’s trapped. Again, people are watching. Again, there’s nothing anyone can do. But this time, he tells Angela he didn’t send her away to help because he doesn’t want to be alone when he dies. And later, when he tells her it’s time to go, she refuses. She stays by his side. The last memories Jon has are of his time with Angela. “I’m in every moment we’re together, all at once,” he says. “I love you.” As she watches, he dies. It’s a fate no one should have to watch, and no one should have to live through — let alone twice — and Jon knew this is what he had to do.

So is he dead? I think so. To come back from this could lessen the impact of his sacrifice, unless he didn’t know if he could survive. Either way, it’s a wrenching piece of symmetry, and a wrenching scene on its own. That’s how any standalone story should be told: with an eye toward honoring the past, without short-changing the present.

Jeremy Irons in “Watchmen”

Mark Hill/HBO

White supremacists are fucking stupid.

Maybe Lady Trieu let them steal the wrong machines. Maybe they just did the calculations wrong. Either way, that James Wolk — whose seething racist rant is already the stuff of super-villain legend — steps into a machine to become “the most powerful man in the world” and instead oozes out as a massive puddle of melted human goo, well, pardon my verbiage, but it’s so fucking juicy you can taste it. “Absorbing atomic energy without filtering it first” is how Lady Trieu describes the Cyclops’ faux pas, and such an embarrassing, anti-climactic end to their years-in-the-making plan is an emphatic “fuck you” to a group of empty-headed elitists. Yes, there are powerful racists as evil as they are brilliant in this world, but seeing Lady Trieu annihilate a group of them on behalf of Will Reeves is damn satisfying (especially after Wolk’s bravado final bow).

What the hell is going on with Adrian Veidt? (Part VII)

While much of Lindelof’s “Watchmen” reimagined certain mysteries of Alan Moore’s original comic books — for instance, Moore never unveiled Hooded Justice’s identity, so Lindelof did just that (making him an integral character in the process) — the finale does render judgement on Adrian Veidt. Laurie (Jean Smart) arrests her friend (with the help of Tim Blake Nelson’s “Mirror Guy”) for killing 3 million people with a giant squid. This, obviously, took Adrian by surprise: She’d never tried to punish him over the last 30 years, so why now? “People change,” she says with a shrug, before Looking Glass knocks him out and they drag him off to trial.

Perhaps he’ll get a presidential pardon (if Robert Redford finally takes his call), but it seems only fitting that Adrian spends the rest of his life in a cell. “Watchmen” was about holding people accountable for their actions, and its ending was about the eradication of fear. Adrian described his master plan as a means of weaponizing fear — uniting people toward a common enemy out of fear of a mysterious foe. But fear not only fades (as he saw over the years, as the world devolved around him and sent him in search of proper appreciation on Europa), it divides. As a wealthy, white man literally designing the world as he wishes, Adrian never felt afraid.

Worse still, he wants to be worshipped for killing all those people — his persistent narcissism makes you think he’ll probably try something squid-like again someday, and that can’t be his decision to make. He must be punished for his role in a fearful world. Still, it’s a bold choice to comment on a decision left purposefully blank in the original comics, and fans will undoubtedly have opinions on the matter. Just remember: If you have to choose between Veidt and Laurie, the choice should be easy. Adrian Veidt may not wear a mask, but he can’t hide behind his privilege either. Tick tock. Times up, old man.

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