From its debut’s depiction of the 1921 Tulsa race riot, to its Dr. Manhattan-centric penultimate episode, Watchmen has been rooted in the idea that the past is always present—and, consequently, that the sins of the father are difficult to shake and, for better or worse, make us who we are. It’s a show about legacy, and in its alternately suspenseful and moving season finale (penned by Nick Cuse and creator Damon Lindelof), HBO’s series reckons with the lengths one must go to break ingrained cycles or, at the very least, to come to terms with them in order to forge a more peaceful future.
The most obvious bad daddy in Watchmen’s ninth installment (“See How They Fly”) is Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), who’s spent years callously ruling over clones on Europa courtesy of Dr. Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and whose connection to Lady Trieu (Hong Chau) is fully explicated by a prologue sequence beginning in 1985. As Adrian records his message to future president Robert Redford about the apocalyptic squid-hoax he used to save the world, Trieu’s mother—a Vietnamese janitor at the genius’ facility—sneaks into her boss’ office, breaks into his vault-like freezer, and takes one of the many vials of his sperm (#2346) that he’s stored away for safe keeping. “Fuck you, Ozymandias,” she spits while inseminating herself with his seed, thus providing us with Trieu’s secrets-and-lies origin story.
Cut to 2008, and Trieu arrives at her father’s Arctic stronghold to inform him of his paternity, about which he’s none too pleased. In their ensuing chat, Trieu explains to Veidt that “you’re just a man… you have limitations,” and then reveals her plan to absorb Dr. Manhattan’s power and use it to once more deliver mankind from self-destruction. Suspecting the big blue god is hiding on Europa, she’s launched a probe to take photos and confirm her theory. As is soon dramatized, this is the reason Veidt has been catapulting his clones onto a barren moon to form a written missive with their corpses. Though Veidt tells Trieu in 2008 that he’ll never recognize her as his offspring, he reneges on that promise now, leaving her a “Save Me Daughter” message that convinces her to send a rescue ship.
Veidt is a callous paternal figure not only to Trieu but also to his test-tube minions. When the warden (Tom Mison) asks why he was forced to wear a mask, Veidt responds, “Because masks make men cruel,” and that “having a worthy adversary helped keep me sane.” The notion that sanity comes from engaging in violent conflict with both the present and the past is at once logical and, well, insane, though paradoxes have long been a prominent facet of Watchmen. And no sooner has Veidt returned to Earth than Trieu is telling her daughter Bian (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport) what the girl already knows: that she’s really Trieu’s (cloned) mother.
Disguises and deception are the order of the day for every character in this superhero-ish saga, including Republican Senator Joe Keene (James Wolk). On the eve of executing his plot to usurp Dr. Manhattan’s abilities, Keene gives a captive Laurie (Jean Smart) and his adoring 7th Cavalry audience a clichéd villain-explains-everything speech, blaming his movement on President Redford’s decision to steal white people’s guns and make them apologize for their ancestors’ failings—yet another view of history as a cyclical wheel of injustice, suffering, resentment, and more injustice.
Director Frederick E. O. Toye underlines that point through copious circular imagery, as well as a collection of other standout visual flourishes—in particular, a late split-diopter shot of Trieu and a giant crucifix. Refusing to heed Angela’s warning that he’s a pawn in Trieu’s game, Keane triggers his Manhattan-transfer device, which kills him and teleports his entire setup to an outdoor courtyard where Trieu is waiting, ready to use her quantum centrifuge to steal Manhattan’s godliness in the same way that, per Adrian, she and her mother “stole” his genius. “The end is nigh,” cautions Veidt, but Dr. Manhattan has one more trick up his sleeve, beaming Veidt, Laurie and Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson)—via the bloody splooge that was once Keane—back to the former’s headquarters. Determined to prove that his raining-squid parlor trick wasn’t just a “rerun” of his original master plan, Veidt freezes the creatures and sends them back to Trieu’s location, creating a deadly rainstorm that destroys Trieu and her machine—albeit only after Dr. Manhattan has perished.
With the Earth saved from “raging narcissist” Trieu, who’s an additional example of what comes from bad (literal and figurative) inheritances, Angela makes her way to the town theater. There, Oklahoma! has finished its run and her grandfather Will (Louis Gossett Jr.), sitting in the very seat from which he watched Bass Reeves’ silent movie all those decades earlier, is now guarding her slumbering children, who were sent there by Dr. Manhattan. Yesterday looks over today, hopefully in a way that’s more caring and considerate than before. Time also repeats ad infinitum, as evidenced by their subsequent walk through Tulsa’s streets, once again littered with the gruesome aftermath of a slaughter, adults carrying innocent children to refuge—in this case, Angela’s lair, where her son gazes at her costume, and Angela watches him put two and two together, her heavy-hearted sigh suggesting she fears the same old cycle may have restarted.
For all its shout-outs to prior episodes and the original comic-book series (Veidt catching a bullet; another full-frontal shot of Manhattan’s enormous member), and for all its typical aesthetic splendor—highlighted, as usual, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ stellar score—Watchmen’s finale derives its greatest emotional impact from its cautious optimism. Veidt is arrested by Laurie and Looking Glass for his genocidal-squid plot, and both Trieu and the 7th Cavalry are no more. Still, nothing here feels totally mended, much less triumphant, especially in the wake of Dr. Manhattan’s annihilation—and, of course, the (twice-remarked-upon) fact that much of this could have been averted in the first place if the deity had cared enough about mankind to use his limitless powers to help it.
In the chapter’s closing moments, Angela takes the first step toward becoming godlike, but it’s a tentative one without a definitive conclusion, which is in keeping with a story that, to its credit, remains unsure about humanity’s capacity for true change. Not that the series—which could continue onward after this finale, or end here, complete—is all bleakness. “You can’t heal under a mask, Angela. Wounds need air,” says Will.
In its confrontation of the myriad ways in which racial, social and personal traumas beget only more of the same, especially when they’re concealed and buried deep within, Watchmen practices what Will preaches: exposing American scars in the hope that doing so is a gateway to renewal.