Watchmen: 1.07 An Almost Religious Awe
“People who weak masks are dangerous.”
This is the advice Angela’s father gives her when she is a little girl. It is her tenth birthday and in Vietnam people are “celebrating” Dr. Manhattan ending the war. Moments later a suicide bomber robs Angela of both her parents and sets her on the path to becoming Sister Night. So starts what is arguably the best episode of Watchmen yet. Origins are explained, questions are answered and plans are revealed. Then just when you think you have a handle on how things are going to play out you suddenly get thrown a curveball. More questions are asked, things descend through surreality and into downright farce. Oh, and then the elephant in the room is addressed. A literal elephant.
The blue tinged fingerprints of Dr. Manhattan are all over this episode, from Angela’s Vietnam flashback beginning to the startling revelation in the finale. The unmistakable blue tone of Manhattan is seen continuously during the intro. People are wearing his mask, a cardboard display in the video rental store uses Dave Gibbon’s original art from the comic and one reveller has donned full blue body makeup as he cavorts through the streets. Later we see footage of some of the phone calls made in the Manhattan booths that Lady Trieu has set up all around the world, including the one Laurie made in a previous episode.
Angela is still suffering the side effects from overdosing on her grandfather's Nostalgia pills. His memories still intermingle freely with hers and scenes are edited together in rapid succession as we see his life as Hooded Justice flow into Angela’s upbringing. Watchmen has done a fantastic job at taking all the seemingly random threads of plot and knitting them all together into a cohesive whole. No easy feat with such apparently disparate stories.
The greatest achievements of An Almost Religious Awe are its ability to surprise and also to just suddenly drop massive amounts of exposition almost effortlessly. That most of the information coming at you is also a great surprise adds yet another level of enjoyment. Watchmen certainly can’t be accused of being predictable and its carefully layered story absolutely complements that of the original comics. Laurie visits Judd Crawford’s wife to tell her she has discovered who her husband's killer was from listening to Angela’s Nostalgia-fuelled ramblings. She also tells her that Judd was very probably mixed up with the 7th Kavalry and that also probably includes Seantor Keene. Just as you’re expecting Mrs Crawford to exclaim surprise and denial she instead just says “yeah but it didn’t start out the way”. Before she can react Jane Crawford triggers a trapdoor plunging the hapless Laurie into darkness (not before the trapdoor malfunctions several times adding to the surrealism). It’s such an unexpected development and not the sort of thing that ever happens in this sort of show. Damon Lindelof is often accused of asking lots of questions but never adequately answering them. Well not so with Watchmen.
No sooner are you getting over one surprise development, when another one suddenly hits you for six. Laurie winds up in the 7th Kavalry hideout where Keene just lays out all his plans. In one fantastic villainous monologue, he just comes out with it and says they are building an intrinsic field generator to trap Dr. Manhattan and then he plans to somehow become him. With his extreme racist views, he claims that it’s no good being a white man anymore so he’s going to try being a blue one. In fact not just a man but a god. These sort of unexpected plot devices remind me of the original comic where Ozymandias outlines his plans to the other Watchmen. When they decry that they will stop him he simply states that he already teleported the squid into New York a while ago. It was a real eye opening moment back then and it still works now.
The surprises still come thick and fast as Angela undergoes treatment at Lady Trieus’s facility for her Nostalgia overdose. It seems the treatment involves being hooked up by a drip to a biological host. The obvious one would be Will as it’s his memories that Angela is reliving. This is certainly teased throughout the episode until Angela breaks into the room where her medical host is staying. It turns out it’s not her grandfather. It’s not even a person. It is a huge sedated elephant just lying on the floor. It’s a fantastic visual image and quite bizarre. It’s not really explained why but I’m assuming the overdose Angela took was so large a huge host was required to help detox her. Whatever the reason, it is an unexpected but quite genius idea.
In another bizarre twist, Lady Trieu reveals that her daughter Bian isn’t her daughter at all. It’s a clone of her mother and she has been drip feeding her Nostalgia memories every night . It’s a fantastic piece of pure science fiction, whatever is going to happen when the Millennium Clock is turned on Lady Trieu wants her mother at her side when it does. According to Trieu, it’s going to save the world. I imagine it’s some kind of weapon to combat Keene and his plan to become a giant blue deity. However with the way Watchmen keeps surprising its viewers, I may be completely off in that regard.
After last week's absence, I was very pleased to see the return of Jeremy Irons as Ozymandias. It has been a year since his attempted escape from whatever prison has been constructed to contain him. It appears he has been on trial for that whole year and it’s time to deliver a verdict. First though, he must deliver his defence. So he does. It is just one big fart. Then he sits. Obviously this can only be followed by the jury being brought in. The mysterious Gamekeeper is presiding as judge and states he has found the only jury capable of judging Ozymandias, his peers.
I though for a second that the original Watchmen were about to be ushered in, but no. Going by what has already occurred, it shouldn’t have been any surprise that a herd of pigs come running in. It shouldn’t work, nothing that happens in the journeys to Ozymandias should work, but they do. They absolutely do. Jeremy Irons is a joy as the older Adrian Veidt, the once smartest man on the world now looking resigned to his fate, yet still dressed in his finery. I can’t wait until he outsmarts everyone and escapes, for surely that’s what’s coming.
An Almost Religious Awe saves its greatest surprise for last. After Angela views the various phone calls made in the Manhattan booths, Lady Trieu admits that they’re all pointless. Dr. Manhattan isn’t listening. He is never going to answer peoples' prayers for the sole reason he isn’t even on Mars anymore. He’s in Tulsa, disguised as a human. This revelation was foreshadowed several episodes ago when the point was made several times that Dr. Manhattan couldn’t make himself look human. It stuck out and I suspected this was exactly what would happen. I didn’t force however that we’d already met him several times. There was a reason Angela’s husband Cal can’t remember his life prior to his car accident. Total amnesia doesn’t exist says Lady Trieu, and she should know as an expert in memories, it’s just used in hokey TV shows.
Watchmen has proved itself anything but hokey so by the time Angela takes a hammer to her husband and removes the atom symbol from his head you know the exact reason why he couldn’t remember his former life. A beautifully framed close up of Angela’s face is bathed in the reflective glow of the all too familiar blue light. As Trent Reznor’s haunting piano version of Bowie’s Life On Mars plays Angela closes out an outstanding piece of television, “Hey baby, we’re in fucking trouble.”
So the answer to the question is finally given. Is there life on Mars? No, not anymore, but it is absolutely alive and well in Tulsa.Welcome back Jon Osterman, I can’t wait to see what you do next.