Let’s talk about Damon Lindelof, which is to say, let’s talk about mysteries. Specifically, let’s talk about mysteries, versus twists versus questions. Starting with the last one, a big capital-Q QUESTION is something that operates on a thematic level, a moral or philosophical conundrum that can drive an entire longform narrative. Does the universe have a design or Creator? If so, is there any reason it should care about human beings or what they do? Is artificial intelligence less “real” than that of organic beings? Can vigilante justice actually be justified? Is it moral to commit murder, if you are (reasonably) certain that it would prevent a hundred more deaths? Does free will actually exist, or is is just easier to tell ourselves so than to process the millions of different causal puppet strings yankking us around at any given moment? These types of heady questions are what Damon Lindelof wants to explore through his distinctive brand of sci-fi mysticism, and they are the sort that not only do not require a definitive answer, but tend to diminish any work of fiction that does try to offer a conclusive “solution” to them.
On the other hand, you have a mystery, which is a plot puzzle that does need to be solved or the narrative will feel incomplete on a basic level. Concrete questions without a direct tether to the larger mysteries of creation, like why was that polar bear on a tropical island? Who killed the Comedian/Laura Palmer/Mr. Body/shot JR/Mr. Burns? Where did my lunch go? The difference, between this type of story mechanic leaving a trail of esoteric breadcrumbs to nowhere and a narrative arc that confronts the characters with the fundamentally unknowable, is one that Lindelof did not have the firmest grasp in the earlier, LOST era of his career. But to his immense credit, he has developed by leaps and bounds since then, steering directly toward the more thematically challenging elements of his work and exploring them with greater levels of sophistication and intentionality.
|You could tell that things had gotten sophisticated when he had |
Justin Theroux put his dick in a scanner so he could assassinate the president
He has also, over time, developed a common structural blueprint for his shows. Lindelof's dramas are built around a central traumatic event that clearly demarcates a Before and After timeline. Generally, we begin following a present-tense mystery plot in the After, interspersed with flashbacks to the Before versions of the characters. This is a conceit he no doubt learned from WATCHMEN itself. With LOST, the trauma was a plane crash, and THE LEFTOVERS no doubt attracted him because it was already built around the Sudden Departure as this sort of dramatic fissure. With WATCHMEN it appears to be the White Night, when the 7th Kavalry murdered dozens of Tulsa police and drove the rest to hide their identities. At least that’s what it is for our new, central characters; the events of the original books may end up serving a similar function for “legacy” characters like Laurie, Veidt, and Manhattan in whatever form they appear. All of which is layered on top of the original text’s sophisticated web of these lines of demarcation; its brilliance arises in no small part from how it organically uncovers these various inflection points for a variety of characters as the present-day mystery unfolds. The most explicit would be the especially grisly crime that Rorschach himself identifies as the true “birth” of his vigilante persona. But the Comedian’s assault on the Silk Spectre functions similarly for his divorce from the “hero” community, marking the end of the golden age of the original Minutemen and beginning their various spirals into violent deaths, madness, or obsolescence. For the later generation of heroes, it is the Keene Act and surrounding riots that forced Dan and Laurie to confront the public opposition to their trade and their own arrested development. This leads us to initially presume that it was the same for Ozymandias, but it eventually becomes clear that it was actually the aborted attempt to create a Minutemen 2.0 that spun him away from small-scale “heroics” and toward larger efforts. And underneath all that, you have the emergence of Dr. Manhattan acting as the tipping point for the larger world of story, between a settting that asks “what if people really put on costumes to fight crime?” to a full blown alternate history with radically different technology, pop culture and especially politics.
|Although to be honest, five terms of Nixon doesn't seem |
nearly as frightening a prospect now as it did in 1985
Which is all well and good; it’s only an observation and not a criticism that Lindelof likes to work within this dramatic structure, which is broad enough to contain endless multitudes of characters, plots and genres. If I have worries about where his WATCHMEN is headed, it is with it becoming a twist-based show. The characters, the world, the difficult subject matter and impeccable production values would be plenty to keep me invested so far, but I am immediately wearied by having to play the guessing game of “who is Dr. Manhattan in disguise?” for the rest of the season. There seeemed to be plenty of intrigue already, between sussing out the “vast and insidious conspiracy” in Tulsa, what exactly Jeremy Irons is playing at, fingering the inevitable Kavalry double agent on the police, and uncovering exactly what is up with Angela's granpa and what was up with Judd. A lot of those things are probably inter-related, and I’m excited to dig into basically all of them except for the first one.
This is because while Dr. Manhattan is one of the greatest creations not just in comic books, but all of popular fiction and I am totally on board with having him involved in this new iteration of the story in some fashion, I don’t want to spend the entire season waiting to find out who is a secretly an inhuman robotic intelligence masquerading as a real human. I got bored with that in the first season of WESTWORLD, and by the way, this same network still has WESTWORLD going on. Mentioning the possibility of him walking around in disguise twice (and that he could be multiple people to boot), is maybe/hopefully an ingenious red herring, but I fear that it is merely a seed for an end-of-season climactic reveal that the internet hivemind will have sorted out by next week. Just like it did with WESTWORLD’s big twists.
|"Hey....I think this guy might be a robot!!"|
This is gets to the difference between a mystery and “just” a twist. A mystery is a plotline the audience is supposed to follow and try to guess the resolution of. That resolution is most satisfying when it has a twist of sorts; that is to say, when you find that the real answer is something you could have deduced with the information available, if the manner in which the information was provided hadn’t manipulated you into thinking it was something else. A mystery is like a game the audience is invited to play, and a great mystery makes them delight in being outplayed. Whereas a "mere" twist is more like a trick that requires that the audience not understand the game being played for the impact to land.
And really, it’s just less and less possible to pull that off in the internet age, at least for a show that still airs as a weekly event like HBO’s Sunday prestige bloc. It surely fares better in a streaming episode dump, where obsessives will burn through the whole batch rather than spending a week sifting through each episode for clues before moving on to the next hour. It literally only takes one viewer cottoning on early, and it can spread through Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and poorly named blogs faster than herpes through a retirement home. And it sucks, because it makes it pretty much impossible for any fan engaged enough to read (much less write) about a show while it is airing to avoid being exposed to every possible iteration of the twist before the show has a chance to play it out on its own terms.
|"What?? Stop looooking at me..."|
Which is something I have mentioned before in the context of other shows, and which hopefully will become quickly moot if the next episode clarifies what exactly is going on with Dr. Manhattan. It would be nice if I didn’t have to spend time every week going through every character and asking “but wut if dey blue tho?” And while it might seem to be in a similar vein, I really don’t mind theorizing about who Jeremy Irons really is and what “The Watchmaker’s Son” is setting up for a few more weeks. That is a mystery game we are actually invited to play, and the possibilities there are much more wide open than the elaborate game of GUESS WHO that is trying to figure out who is secretly blue tho.
Of course, it’s possible that it is Irons himself that is secretly Manhattan, which would fit both the show’s playing coy about naming the character outright, and the basic principle that if there is to be a twist about a major character’s identity, it can’t be whatever the first two episodes are hinting at most heavily. His mucking about with the butler/maid/actor/key grip clones could sort of line up with his stated interest in creating life in the comic, but it could fit even better with Adrian Veidt’s work in genetic engineering. Because if DM was going to make life, would this really be the type of life he would make? Is this how he would insert himself, as a bitchy amateur playwright? It wouldn’t break any federal statute or anything if they were to say that in 34 years of tinkering away on his own, he has developed more human personality quirks, but his complete lack of affect was pretty much the entire point of the original character. And if he is just feigning the pique and pride Irons displays, not to mention the pasty human complexion, for whose benefit is the deception exactly? Why would he need to hide his real voice and big blue dong from the simpleminded pawns who are delighted to burn themselves to horrible death for his nightly amusement? The deception would only be for our benefit as the audience, to throw us off the scent. Which I’d love to say is obviously beneath Lindelof’s standards as a storyteller, but I can still recall with blood-boiling ease how the final season of LOST opened with a scene that displayed the Island sunk far beneath the ocean, something that no character could or ever would see, or be elaborated upon in any way that would justify it in any way except as a blatant lie directly to the audience about the nature of the “sidewaysverse”.
Seriously, this just never comes up in any way
again and it infuriates me like nothing else
Which brings us around to the question of the skeletons in Judd’s closet, which does function as a mystery, rather than a twist-in-waiting. But it does have some of the same issues, where the conclusion being teased in episode 2 can’t be the real one, on top of which the characterization doesn’t line up with the obvious twist. If the twist were “just” that the seemingly-kindly sheriff was secretly aligned with the KKK, then it’s a bit early to play that card, and also boy was he playing his part to the hilt. I can see the benefit to the Kavalry of having the chief of police on as a double agent in theory, but I’m not sure why expending years of he and his wife’s time building a close personal (like, doing-cocaine-at-dinner-parties-with-their-kids close) relationship with the most capable black officer who secretly remained on the force while publicly retiring would be more effective than…not doing any of that. Tulsa PD seems to have been teetering on the brink since the White Night anyhow, it seems like a chief who really wanted to could have broken its back entirely in a hundred less baroque ways, that didn’t involve so much blowing up his own dudes. On top of which, neither he nor the wife seem to betray the slightest irritation at having to keep up this elaborate non-racist façade 24/7, even when alone together.
But squaring away Johnson and Frances Fisher’s overwhelmingly sincere performances with a secret, malevolent agenda is a more difficult issue than just processing the surface-level emotional dissonance. It also raises a subtextual knot, of what exactly it would mean about the show’s depiction of racism. While the idea of white supremacist organizationsactively infiltrating law enforcement is about the least fantastical concept the show is playing with, I have a strong feeling that it doesn’t look much like this in practice. I doubt the active KKK members found in a Florida police department were hiding their bigotry as deeply and effectively as Judd, whose “cover” would seem to have gone so deep as to enter reverse MOTHER NIGHT territory; and beg the question of whether, if he was really able to avoid betraying the slightest racial animus for years of working closely with his secretly-hated enemies…is he even a “real” racist anymore?
|Questionable Racial Tangents are brought to you, as always, by Papa Johns|
I don’t mean that to dismiss actual racism, and it’s entirely possible I’m going full clueless white guy and missing the point with this thought. But it does seem to me that maaaybe we should be so lucky if the real bigots in positions of authority were just racist werewolves, who actually felt the need to hide their one day of cross-burning a month by spending the other 29 days warmly supporting co-workers of color as they administer vicious extrajudicial beatings to their fellow honkies and killing a few themselves with a flamethrower while stanning for black OKLAHOMA! I’d hazard a guess that there are minority communities that would actually prefer that their police confined their prejudice to that occasional racist PURGE day, since it would give them something like 96% less overall racism to deal with.
All that said, not many entirely innocent reasons jump to mind for having a full blown Klan outfit hidden in a secret shrine, so something was going on with him. And while Angela’s grandfather is really indulging the cryptic “if I told you what I know now, the story would be over!” contrivance that one might have hoped Lindelof had grown out of since the 400 times it showed up on LOST, you still have to figure that most of his outlandish claims are basically true. He probably did kill Judd, since it’s a weird thing to insist on if he didn’t and writers aren’t prone to repeating outright lies in dialogue unless there is some point to it (which usually takes the form of it being true, if only on “a certain point of view” technicality). But I don’t want to get too far out ahead of the show before it has a chance to develop these plots and themes further, as difficult as that can be in the internet hot take economy. So I’ll sign off for now, with a couple of random notes and observations.
RANDOM NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS
- Angela warns her girls that they need to weigh down the ghost in their game so he doesn’t just float away when they make him walk the plank, which is exactly what Grandpa does at the end.
- Speaking of Grandpa, I’m sticking with him being Hooded Justice despite some circumstantial evidence starting to cut against it. He claims to have telekinetic powers that allowed him to string up Judd, which you’d think would have been a pretty big part of a masked crimefighter’s schtick, and also the opening with the German propaganda prominently names the typist as Fraulein Mueller, which is the same surname as the circus strongman who was the presumed alter-ego of HJ in the book and (the hilariously over-the-top) AMERICAN HERO STORY.
- I am not going to try to exhaustively list every connection and echo of the comic book, but they are many, as big and obvious the discovery of the robe compartment mirroring the discovery of Blake’s Comedian closet and the reenactment of Dr. Manhattan’s origin, to as tangential as the paparazzi (presumably) coopting Mothman’s wingsuit to intrude on crime scenes. That last bit demonstrates the sense of deadpan absurdity that Lindelof developed on THE LEFTOVERS continuing to serve this eerie/silly reality well.
- One formal tic that the show has aped from comics is the extensive use of match cutting to connect scenes and timelines, which was a huge part of book’s “cinematic” feel and masterful blend of intimate characterization with epic scope.
- Veidt/Irons has apparently been staging his play for a year, judging by the extra candle on the cake he waves off. This confirms that his scenes are not operating in “real time” with the Tulsa stuff, and also suggests that the anniversary they were commemorating is not actually for the squid attack from the book, unless they are playing very fast and loose with Irons’ appearing to be at least 20 years older than the notably well-preserved middle-aged man he was in print. So what exactly did he do a year prior?