Best ‘Watchmen’ Episode Yet: The Arrival of Dr. Manhattan, a Full-Frontal God Among Men
Director and Executive Producer Nicole Kassell walks us through “A God Walks Into Abar,” the eighth (and best) episode of the stunning HBO series.
With its eighth episode (the cleverly titled “A God Walks Into Abar”), Watchmen finally spilled the beans about its big blue god. With time-warping deftness, it elaborated on last week’s bombshell that Dr. Manhattan (originally known as Jon Osterman) has spent the past few decades living undercover as Angela’s husband Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), delivering the entire backstory to the couple’s relationship, which began years ago in a Saigon bar and came to a conclusion in the present, with Cal, resurrected as his old superpowered self, getting zapped by a 7th Cavalry tachyon cannon. Throw in further surprises about Dr. Manhattan’s authorship of Adrian Veidt’s predicament—the former Ozymandias has been living on the Eden-ish planet of Europa, which Manhattan created, replete with a manor house and servants modeled after his childhood experiences fleeing Nazi Germany—and you have the most revelatory series installment yet.
Penned by creator Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen, it’s also the most impressively-directed hour of Watchmen to date, courtesy of executive producer Nicole Kassell, who previously helmed the show’s initial two chapters. Guided by a fractured structure that speaks to Dr. Manhattan’s simultaneous experience of the past, present and future, it spins a tangled web of love, trauma, memory and inevitable doom that’s intimately related to the superhero saga’s portrait of yesterday’s pull on today. It also takes considerable risks, given the racial/ethnic politics at the heart of its portrayal of Dr. Manhattan, a German Jew who’s been posing for years as a black man, and whose power is now sought by a cabal of neo-Nazis.
All in all, there’s a lot to unpack, which is why we went straight to the source, speaking with Kassell about the intricacies of this standout episode, as well as what we might expect from next week’s highly-anticipated finale—which, it turns out, could be the end of the series itself.
“A God Walks Into Abar” introduces us to Dr. Manhattan in a time-splintered way that echoes the original Watchmen’s fourth chapter, “Watchmaker.” Did you go back to that issue, or discuss it with Damon, when putting this episode together?
It was definitely written that way. Jeff Jensen and Damon wrote the script, and it’s absolutely an overt homage to that chapter. In talking about that character, it just felt essential to take that structure on. So that came entirely from the writer’s room.
Was it a challenge to find the episode’s structure, both visually and editorially? It has all these harmonious elements, both big and small, sprinkled throughout.
Yes. Cinematically, it was enormously challenging. I would honestly say this episode was almost harder to direct than the pilot or episode two, in that 25 pages [of the script] take place in that bar with two people, one of whose face you can’t show. So it was a real puzzle to me, how to make that visually engaging. I direct because I believe in it as a visual medium, and I really had to be analytical about how the camera could evolve. We had time limits on how long we could shoot, so I had to block-shoot as well. I had three days to shoot the 25 pages, and it was very hard for the actors, in that I asked them both to be off-book for about 12 pages, and ready to run scenes back-to-back in the same set-ups. But then I also wanted to make sure that the visuals progressed, so there are some set-ups that I didn’t want to repeat, ever, once they were used.
It was, I’d say, truly a head-scratcher. The thing that was very grounding were the transitions. Every transition you see was very specifically designed, and intended. So within the scenes, there was definitely a whole process of trying to figure out how much or how little to play on Dr. Manhattan. But you always had those ins and outs of the scenes to ground the process.
One of the key creative decisions is to hide Jon’s face, at least in the bar. Can you discuss the thought process behind withholding that information?
Even having been there and lived through it and having looked at Yahya every day, and even though you’ve seen it at the end of episode seven, when his face is finally revealed in the morgue, it’s just this AHHH! moment! [Laughs] I think that’s really due to the withholding during all of that time. I love that whole idea of, what isn’t shown allows the viewer’s imagination to be more creative than any decision that I make, or we make, to put on screen. Who or what Dr. Manhattan looks like—it’s a mystery for the show that we’ve already told you. So what he looks like, pre-that moment, to me, it’s however anyone wants to imagine him looking like from the source.
When we finally do see Jon re-emerge at the end of the episode, he still resembles Cal. What was the thinking behind that approach?
There’s a great expression Damon used: we called him Cal-hattan [Laughs]. It was basically the idea that he’d been in that form for so long that it was a holdover of that physicality. It’s like a lingering holdover, or hangover—however you want to put it.
It makes sense that, upon his initial “resurrection,” he’d still feel vestiges of his life as Cal—and maybe also want to be Cal at the moment he finally falls in love with Angela. But were you worried about a backlash to the characterization of Dr. Manhattan as a “black” blue man, compared to his more canonical (and historical, as a German Jew) “white” form?
Yes. We’ve been concerned about a backlash with every episode—you just can’t help but have nerves. With all of these major decisions, whether it’s about who Hooded Justice is or who Dr. Manhattan is, yes, it’s very nerve-wracking. But it also is absolutely integral to the story. It just feels both surprising and inevitable, and essential.
Adrian has a great line in which he tells Jon that posing as a black man in 2009 (versus the ’80s) is outdated cultural appropriation. Did you feel you had to get that in, both to preemptively address any potential criticism and to critique Jon, who is engaged in cultural appropriation, in a way?
[Laughs] Absolutely. I think that’s what’s been really fun. Even getting to read the scripts and then watching the cuts—as in episode seven, when Joe Keene says, “It’s very tough being a white man in America these days.” Just calling it out—it’s both hilarious and bold. So that absolutely was the perfect moment to address that potential criticism. For Cal, we wanted him hiding in plain sight. And it was essential that he was Angela’s husband, as you see in episode eight and for reasons coming up in episode nine. But I’d say there was an enormous amount of complexity when it came to making that decision, and letting that play on screen—letting us watch Angela make the choice.
Was having Cal hide in plain sight at least partly based on the idea that, by doing so, he has to wear a figurative mask?
Exactly. And also, as you know, we’re taking on race very directly. Hopefully, if people are shocked that he is Dr. Manhattan, it’s related to the question: is part of the reason why you’re shocked because that man is often seen as invisible? The classic “Invisible Man?” I just think staying true to being willing to try and talk about race from all angles is definitely inherent in this as well. You can analyze it quite deeply.
To follow-up with a not-deep question, we get a full-frontal nude shot of Jon. Did you feel that such an homage was vital, given the character’s history?
It was. It was definitely scripted. I absolutely touched base, first and foremost, with the actor and asked, are you comfortable? Because we’re not going to do anything he’s not comfortable with. But it felt so true to who his character is. And I’m also sure that had we not, we would have gotten grief for it. Because it would have looked prudish, when he [Dr. Manhattan] is not. He’s completely oblivious and confident; it just doesn’t matter to him. That’s a beautiful aspect of his character. Then playing Jeremy Irons off of that was just beyond hilarious. Because Jeremy’s character, Adrian, we’re meeting him at the very, very low point—he’s aged, he’s forgotten—and then the one being he wished he could be, and that he never could be, walks in, in this beautiful body, in the prime of his life.
This episode struck me as a companion piece to episode six, in that both are about how the past, present, and future are intertwined, and in fact always present, simultaneously. How closely did you, and do you, play off of the episodes you’re not directing?
Episode six was so truly stand-alone that I did not consciously try to echo anything. But having watched six, fresh, last week, I realize now that there’s definitely a direct line between the violence that Will commits against the KKK and Angela commits against the 7th Cavalry. It just continues to play into this whole idea of legacy, and unconscious inherited trauma. I didn’t go into it cinematically deliberately, but I knew every episode inside-out.
I’d say that, technically, there are actually a handful of scenes that were playing direct pick-ups from episode eight to episode nine. Like the egg carton—I’m in direct contact with the director following me. And for episode seven, I was actually on set at the end because I repeat that moment [in episode eight]. So there’s that kind of essential communicating—designing the scenes with each other in mind. I just made sure, as the producing director, that the three of us were in contact.
The series has been rooted in emotional, racial and apocalyptic trauma, and how that lingers. But this episode also gets at another core theme: that “nothing ever ends.” Is that central to your thinking about Watchmen? And if so, is the show begging the question: is there an end to all this hate and pain, or is it doomed to repeat because of inherited legacy?
I think I’m going to answer from the optimist’s point of view, in that my hope is that by learning who you really are, you can break cycles that might be damaging or less healthy. To me, the real journey for Angela is, who are you? And for Will’s character, it all starts with the pilot and the very first words spoken, which are: “There will be no mob justice today. Trust in the law!” His character lived a life that showed to what degree he could not trust in the law. And Angela has inherited that. Yet hopefully, with becoming conscious of what’s in her legacy, things may shift. And I say that to all humanity.
We now know about Dr. Manhattan/Cal, and Angela and Will, and the 7th Cavalry’s evil plot, and Adrian’s residence on Europa. Still, there are outstanding mysteries. How many answers should viewers expect from the finale—especially given that Damon has previously suggested that the series might end after one season?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say I believe everything you wish to have answered is answered, and that simultaneously, you will be left fully satisfied and hoping for more. The hope for more will be there, but the piece as a whole should have that sense of closure.
Do you foresee this continuing onward into a second season?
I’m not sure I can answer that! [Laughs] You’re peeking behind the curtain.
So that can’t be answered at the current moment?
Definitely not by me. I’m going to be coy.
Might we hear sometime shortly after the finale?
I don’t know. That’s really an announcement that should come from Damon and HBO. So I’m with you, as a true fan, even having lived every inch of it, that I’ll be in everyone’s shoes—hoping for more, but also fully satisfied. And when we will know what’s coming next, that I don’t know.