“A God Walks Into Abar” is finally our Dr. Manhattan episode, after we got our origin episodes for the other main players in the previous weeks. It is our explainer for what is going on with Veidt and the clones and Europa. It is a pretty great pun. And it is Damon Lindelof’s spiritual sequel/reboot of one of his most memorable and acclaimed creations, LOST’s time-tripping epic romance “The Constant” an episode whose concept was certainly and specifically influenced by the Manhattan-centric “Watchmaker” issue of the comic series with just a skosh of WEEKEND AT BERNIES mixed in. The episode is, like the entirety of this strange series, brilliantly daring and shockingly effective in large parts but not without goofy or clunky bits cropping up here and there.
|You know, kind of like WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S II|
It clears perhaps the most difficult aspect of this entire scenario, that of presenting Manhattan’s non-linear experience of time to the audience in a coherent way, with aplomb. Although it does have the comic’s blueprint to work from on that score, and the deceptively simple method of having him describe something occurring years in the past or future in the present tense remains as effective on the screen as it was on the page, bolstered by fluid editing between different where and whens. All the necessary blanks for how Angela, Cal and Veidt got to Europa and/or Tulsa and into the various wacky guises in which the series introduced us to them are filled in. Where it stumbles for me (though it seems to have worked like gangbusters for many) is in trying to frame this convoluted sci-fi claptrap as a heartfelt romance. Regina King does some terrific work bringing some real romcom charisma to a younger version of the hard-bitten character we’ve met previously, but I feel like my emotional connection with that character has been broken by this big twist. It was already a bit of a stretch to put myself in the shoes of a secret vigilante policewoman who adopted the family of her murdered partner, dealing with the revelation that her long-lost grandfather was secretly a famous superhero who secretly murdered her secretly-racist mentor with hypnosis, as she learned by overdosing on his Pensieve pills. King and the writers have made many of those individual bits of crazy more affecting and relatable than they would seem, don’t get me wrong. But there’s also a bit of…look, what I really want to do here is just link to a scene from the “Juneteenth” episode of ATLANTA, where a sixtysomething academic is proudly describing her play about “two gangbangers holding a pastor, a pregnant teenager, and a drug dealer hostage inside a strip club, in the middle of Hurricane Katrina”. But I can’t seem to find a clip or even a .gif of Donald Glover’s perfectly deadpan response “That’s a real situation. I’m glad that story is being told.”
|You'll just have to take my word that the reference would have been apropos AF|
But anyway, the point I'm driving at is that especially with genre and mystery shows, it pays to be careful how much contrivance one piles on top of contrivance. The outlandish elements are in part what draws us in to these stories, but the line between total engagement and utter rejection can be perilously thin. At least with all those other crazy motions, we went through them with Angela in "real time". Finding out that she was also the guardian of the most powerful secret in the world that whole time, a secret that would define her emotional state and mindset even more than all that other insanity we assumed was the most important part of her day, just makes me feel like I never really knew her at all.
Which wouldn’t be as big of a deal, except the other half of this central pairing is even less relatable. Dr. Manhattan is a singularly brilliant fictional creation, but everything distinctive and compelling makes him uniquely poorly suited as a romantic lead. Not that there isn’t precedent for him to be romantically involved; his last girlfriend was in fact also a superhero. It made for an interesting shade to the character in the comics that, as he shed nearly every facet of his humanity, he retained a sex drive and interest in younger women. This does seem a bit incongruous with the rest of the character, and if one were so inclined, it’s not terribly hard to see it as part of a strain of dirty old man vibes that run through Alan Moore’s work, which includes a work of self-professed “pornography” about the teenage heroines of classic fairy tales. But I’m not very interested in wagging that sort of finger, and I’m not well versed enough in his full output to do it properly anyway. Suffice to say that WATCHMEN, while it can be sexually frank, is hardly salacious in how it presents its sexual elements. And those elements are crucial to the story. Moore has talked generally about how he has to know how the characters operate sexually, even if it never comes up directly, in order to really understand them, and with Manhattan in particular his sexuality serves a definite narrative purpose. His relationship with Laurie gives him a remaining, necessary tether to the world and plot, but in terms of emotion it is really only affecting on her end rather than his, as she struggles with the complications of dating the most powerful being in the universe.
|Of course, this is not the first show to break this particular ground|
The show actually gives more context for Jon’s continued interest in romance after he has transcended all other physical bounds, via his childhood encounter with the most open-minded and gently encouraging sex-positive couple of Anglican aristocrats in all of 1930s Bedfordshire. But in telling this as a love story, and a repeatedly, explicitly tragic love story at that, it tries to make him a bit too human. I want to stress that this gripe is about overall effect, not believability. I find it very plausible that people would be romantically interested to Dr. Manhattan, particularly if those people have daddy issues (which would be most of the world’s population and all of the cast of a Damon Lindelof show). Manhattan even makes this explicit in the episode, that the traumatic upheaval of Angela's childhood made his placid omnipotence especially reassuring to her in the big picture, even as it becomes increasingly impossible to live with day to day. And for his part, the episode does a good job of establishing how omniscience has made him eager to experience actual risk and the unknown again.
What I don’t buy so much is that Adrian’s convenient amnesia-ring is actually a solution that either of them would really buy into. This is potentially a rant for another blog, but suffice to say that if there is one narrative device that I hate, hate, hate, under almost any circumstance it is amnesia. Okay, there may be a couple instances where I can abide it (MULHOLLAND DRIVE and certain Bioware RPGs come to mind as examples where something interesting is done with it), but generally it strikes me as the laziest of crutches a writer can possibly lean on. And here, I just don’t get what Jon and Angela are even going for. When she asks him “if your memories are gone, will you still be you?”, my immediate response is “NO, OF FUCKING COURSE NOT WHAT A STUPID QUESTION.” He reassures her that amnesia won’t mean she is losing him, but…yes, it absolutely means that. Our memories are who we are, and Cal is not Jon, not at all. He is a blank slate. A Realdoll. Her relationship with Jon is entirely defined by his power and omniscient perspective, right from the start. If he even has a personality independent of those things, Angela has no knowledge or connection to that man, and without his memories he has no connection to her, not to mention no context or way to appreciate the risk he is finally able to take.
I can almost roll with the idea that he would just go ahead and do it anyway, although it would be more because he is so supremely bored with omniscience as to risk oblivion just for a change of pace than because, as the show would have it, he is so in wuv with Angela that he will do anything to be with her. I’m struggling to come up with a real world analogy for how utterly backwards I find this conception of love, but nothing quite captures the depth of the wrongness. If my wife had been a pirate of the Caribbean when we met and fell in love, and then you told me today that the only way we could stay together is if she got a full frontal lobotomy, forgot about me entirely, and we had to start over with her not being a pirate, but a dental assistant in Cedar Rapids, then I would have real reservations about what we were even preserving. But even that doesn’t really get there, because while a pirate is a strong identity, it is nowhere near the level of being a god unstuck in time.
If you are willing to lobotomize someone you love in order to be with them, I find that pathetic and even reprehensible rather than romantic, but it also seems self-defeating on even a selfish level. With my piratewife, at least I could tell myself that there is some core of personality that would transfer to dental hygienistry; her humor, her kindness, her intelligence would reassert itself in some recognizable. But Angela has nowhere to even begin imagining what Jon is actually like underneath the godhood. The only consistent personality trait is the placidity, which yes, is reassuring in the context of an all powerful deity but is not exactly a unique or exciting enough trait in a partner to inspire the type of wacky lengths these kids are going to in order to (sort of but not really) remain together. She fell in love with a godhead, and then they go to all this trouble so she can what? Be married to Snuffaluffagus?
|Sorry, man, no shots.|
So anyway, the upshot of all that is that while many of the beats of this arc are executed very effectively, I think there is a fundamental misjudgment involved with making Dr. Manhattan, one of the least romantic character in literary history, into the focal point of a romantic tragedy. This misses the point at least slightly, in ways that tie into how I’ve felt Veidt’s characterization has been a bit off too. In both cases, I don’t think I would have issues if I didn’t have the examples from the book to compare to, but that’s the nature of this project so I can only play the ball as it lies. Veidt gets his best scenes yet when he meets with Manhattan this week, that finally lay out exactly how and why he is trapped 390 million miles from Earth. And the reasons, when typed out or summarized, make enough sense – he is so disillusioned by how his grand plan succeeded in ending the Cold War but failed to produce the utopia he expected that he jumps at the chance to go to Jon’s utopia on Europa and bask in the worship he felt entitled to on earth. That is a workable motivation and scenario, but the execution just doesn’t quite fit for me. The reason, I think, touches upon one of my favorite, most maddening and endearing phenomena in fiction: getting to see a dumb person’s idea of a smart person.
Now, I should hasten to add that I don’t think any of the writers on the show are actually dumb. In all likelihood, they are to a man/woman, smarter than me. But one of the things I’ve come to appreciate about the novel is that Alan Moore is an honest to god mad genius (emphasis on both words), and as such he has an rather unique ability to write characters of extraordinary intellect with a plausibility that transcends the capes and tights and psychic squids of it all. It’s a difficult thing to define exactly, but characters like Veidt and Manhattan carry an unmistakable air of complexity that requires a genuinely extraordinary mind to craft. Whereas the show’s versions, while you can kind of see how they got there, are just a slightly simplified. In the book, Manhattan was presented as a deity of sorts, but a stubbornly secular and distant one. The show leans heavily into the most obvious religious symbolism available, making him a more explicit Christ figure by having him walk knowingly into his own death to further a grander design, and whipping up a batch of Eucharistic waffles to pass on his godliness to whatever followers consume it (more on that, and a whopper of a prediction, in the bullet points). He also maintained romantic attachments, but in an almost vestigial way that was presented as tragic mainly for his significant others, but only sad for him in a faint, almost clinical sense. The show presents it as almost a TWILIGHT-style romance, where the boyfriend’s supernatural powers are just so awesome that it makes dating him difficult.
|Okay, low blow, but there is a part of this episode where |
Manhattan's level of skin sparkling is an issue between the lovers
That’s oversimplifying, for sure, but hold on, I have even finer hairs to split with Veidt. The picture the show paints, of a megalomaniac coming unglued when the success of his plan does not provide him with all the satisfaction and accolades he believes he deserves, is again fine enough on its own. But while retaining the advanced intellect, the show removes the crucial element of self-awareness that made the character stand out from any of the other supposed evil-genius-as-written-by-a-C-student that populate comic books. Veidt in the book had hopes for “a stronger loving world” to result from his squid gambit, but he was nowhere near naïve enough to expect a utopia to arise or maintain itself overnight. He had plans to continue to help the new world along, because he knew full well that there would be more work to do after the Cold War ended. Show Veidt is completely undone by the failure of this childish notion to come to pass, not to mention completely blindsided by the prospect that a sterile utopia full of nothing but servants that worship you abjectly may be in some way unsatisfying. Which is an idea that anyone who has taken a high school level philosophy survey or seen like, maybe two TWILIGHT ZONE episodes, should be acquainted with.
I really think you could have gotten to the same place with only a little more screen time and slightly subtler direction. If the performance leaned more on exhaustion than petulance, if there were another line or two making more explicit that his stronger loving world has rejected his guiding hand, insisting on pursuing dirty energy sources and rebuilding nuclear arsenals (there are suggestions of this, but they are buried within his self-pitying rantings), this would go down smoother. If those lines included some of the self-awareness of the comic version, saying, perhaps that he knew the world would not transform into utopia overnight, but I thought, by now, things would be better, but they have only gotten worse. Or an acknowledgment that while he didn’t do it intending to ever take credit, he’s been surprised as the years go by how much it’s come to eat at him that no one knows what lengths he went to in order to give the world the fresh start he’s watched it piss away . My ability to sketch in these character motivations and details for myself has been honed mightily over the last few seasons of GAME OF THRONES, but I really would like for the show to connect and underline a few of these dots for us sometimes.
Okay, that’s enough churlish whining for one week. For all my griping, this remains the most interesting, involving, best looking-and-sounding (seriously, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s scoring is so fucking good) show on television, and I’m very excited not just to see how it wraps up next week, but to get back to the characters I like and relate to best, i.e. Laurie, Looking Glass, and Lube Man.
|The Hero We Deserve|
Now let’s do some random points and one big wild prediction that I am actually pretty damn sure of.
RANDOM POINTS AND ONE BIG WILD PREDICTION
- Angela’s assault on the 7K at the end was supposed to be a grand romantic feat, but it gave me a heavy vibe of a late-game GTA/RED DEAD mission. Dozens of faceless goons huddled around a mounted weapon that you can mow through, but you/she are scripted to lose before you can reach the objective because that is the only way the story can progress.
- The Veidt jail scene was pretty clearly repositioned as a post-credits bit very late in the game. I bet they realized when cutting it together that maintaining the audience’s orientation in Jon’s uncanny perspective was difficult enough without inserting any significant departure from it halfway through the episode.
- Veidt’s aside explaining how Manhattan’s powers could only reassert themselves by instinct in, in life-threatening situations, made me actually laugh out loud as about the most hamfisted bit of plothole spackle I ever heard. It seems like Irons doesn’t even try to make it seem like a natural aside in the moment; the snapping of his fingers like it just occurred to him is particularly unconvincing. His hands are really chewing the scenery throughout the entire scene, actually.
- Introducing the episode and Dr. Manhattan with the opening strains of “Rhapsody In Blue” may have one toe over into “too cute” territory, but I’ll allow it.
- I talked negatively a lot, but the interactions in Antartica are largely great. The exchange about Adrian gambling on Manhattan still having morals is my favorite bit.
- Look, I’m not saying that the episode would have been better if they had used Bruce Springsteen’s “Tunnel Of Love” on the jukebox instead of whatever do-wop song with that title they went with. I am saying it would have been better if they had used Dire Straits’ “Tunnel Of Love”.
- Dire Straits rules.
- It’s awfully nice of Red Scare, Pirate Jenny and the rest of Tulsa PD, who are presumably hot on Angela’s tail and have cars and radios and stuff, to give her and Jon a 20 minute or so break in which to sort out their shit. I was going to say that Red and Jenny have been the most underused elements of the entire show, but also here is my prediction: the season ends with Red Scare becoming the new Dr. Manhattan.
- Hear me out. This episode establishes that Jon could, if the plot demanded, put some of his essence into some food (say a batch of waffles) and pass on his powers to whoever eats it. Obviously this has to come into play in the finale, and most people are assuming that Angela takes a bite in order counter Keene and 7K’s plan to steal the powers. But there is also this bit player, who has basically one character trait established over the course of the season, which constantly being hungry to the point that he will eat potential evidence while on the job. And he’s headed toward the house with those waffles. So I say it goes something like this: Looking Glass shows up disguised as 7K to rescue Laurie, but ultimately they need Lube Man to bail them both out. Keene ascends to godhood, Laurie pops back up to off him somehow, and the coda has Red Scare grabbing a waffle, setting us up for a new, angry red Russian god to replace the placid blue American one. Roll on snare. Curtains. Cue “Back In The USSR”. Good Season.