This review contains spoilers for Watchmen, episode 8, “A God Walks into Abar.”
Up until now, regardless of my feelings towards the pacing of Watchmen, the saving grace of the show has been its unpredictability. I never once expected that we would receive an episode dedicated to Hooded Justice. The Doctor Manhattan/Cal connection was shocking when it was revealed last episode. Even watching Judd die in the premiere took me by surprise. Yet “A God Walks into Abar” is the most predictable episode of the series by far. Worse, it’s everything that I was worried that the show could have been in lesser hands — a rip-off of the original limited series.
The concept of the episode is right there in the title. Doctor Manhattan walks into a bar, meets Angela Abar (Regina King), and proceeds to act exactly as you would expect Doctor Manhattan to. He perceives time simultaneously, alerting Angela not only to the fact that they’ll fall in love, but that it will end in tragedy. The two of them proceed to have a discussion about how Angela will react to Doctor Manhattan’s advances as well as learning partially about how her life will unfold.
As far as a premise goes, it’s a spin on Doctor Manhattan that at least feels different. In the original Watchmen, Manhattan’s backstory was conveyed through his own narration and not through a conversation between him and another character as we see here. Seeing him convince Angela that he really is Manhattan is amusing, especially given how resistant and cynical she is about everything having to do with him.
However, a large portion of this episode either goes over information that we already knew or gives us backstory that is entirely perfunctory. Yes, it’s nice to know that Jon created the paradise on Europa, but there was zero reason to see the backstory behind why Jon teleported a castle deep into space. It adds a detail to his character that did not need to exist and adds next to nothing for it. It’s reusing an idea from the Watchmen comic without completely understanding why it was so well received there.
We were also given more context about why Jon made life on Europa, but it mostly answers a question that audiences really weren’t looking to have answered. Jon stated at the end of the original series he was going to leave to create life, so he did it on Europa. It’s a simple answer, but it doesn’t answer why the past seven episodes have been so dodgy about giving us a straight answer. Even then, knowing that it was Jon’s little experiment does nothing to justify all of the strangeness on Europa. It doesn’t explain why Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons) has been on trial for a year for his actions or about why the fetuses need to be fished out of the water.
Thankfully, this episode gave us a version of Ozymandias that finally feels integral to the plot, giving Jon the device to short-circuit his memory. The conversation he has with Jon is one of the standout moments of the episode, as Ozymandias comes face to face not only with an old acquaintance, but with his own demons. For the past 24 years since 11/2, all Ozymandias had done was sit in Antarctica and quietly drop squids on the world to maintain the illusion of peace. Upon seeing Jon though, he asks him if he’ll ever see his peace fully realized. Jon does confirm that he’ll see peace, but not on Earth, before offering to send Adrian to Europa. All of Adrian’s efforts for the past 24 years haven’t amounted to the vision that he so dreamed of. Humans still produce nuclear weapons and all he can do now is toil away in his frozen castle, slowly realizing that he only made a temporary fix to an impossible problem. He knows that this world isn’t the world he envisioned, so he takes the easy way out.
It’s these brief moments that grabbed my attention, only for Watchmen to go back to aping the relationship between Jon and Silk Spectre, replacing Laurie with Angela. We’ve seen Jon in love before, so what makes Angela so different from Laurie? Not much. Jon says that he loves her, so that’s that, missing the entire reason why Jon left Earth in the first place. He lost his sense of humanity, and it was only through an act of true human emotion — Laurie realizing her father was the Comedian — that he decided to act to humanity’s benefit. Here, he’s interacting with humanity because the show needed him to do it.
Jon’s relationship with Angela doesn’t feel authentic at all, which greatly damages his character. It doesn’t harm Angela’s all that much because her relationship with Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) never came into focus until this episode. When we return to the present, we do get a wonderful scene where Angela inadvertently plants the seeds for Judd’s murder and William’s (Louis Gossett Jr.) involvement by telling him through Manhattan that Cyclops is still active and Judd was involved. It’s clever moments like that that remind me that when the show is good, it can be brilliant. It’s just that “A God Walks into Abar” doesn’t know how to properly set up the payoff.
Jon knows how everything is supposed to play out, but that shouldn’t extend to the audience. When Jon states in the opening that his relationship with Angela will end in tragedy, it robs the entire episode of an emotional payoff. It’s not impossible to make a movie or a TV show interesting regardless of if the audience knows the ending or not. To use a recent example, Knives Out reveals the answer to its mystery about a third of the way into the movie, yet it still manages to be highly engrossing and entertaining. The same can’t be said for “A God Walks into Abar.” Instead of being engaged, it’s waiting for an hour to see the inevitable conclusion.
With only one episode left, next week’s proceedings are going to be jam-packed with content. Jon is now a prisoner to the Cavalry/Cyclops, as is Laurie (Jean Smart), which should hopefully creating an interesting reunion. The Millennium Clock is about to be activated, and the Europa scenes may finally have some bearing on the plot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show where so much about the quality of a show was hinging on its finale. If done well, Watchmen could redeem itself and go out on a glorious high note. If not, then it could be trite and predictable and ruin all of the good will it garnered so far. Only Dr. Manhattan knows what the outcome will be.