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[This story contains spoilers for the season one finale of HBO’s Watchmen, “See How They Fly,” as well as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel on which the show is based. Additionally, there are spoilers ahead for the series finale of Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers.]
In the final scene of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, not long after an act of “otherworldly” mass murder changes the world forever, a young employee at conservative publication The Newfrontiersman reaches into the so-called “crank file,” hand hovering over the deceased Rorschach’s journal, inches away from publishing a piece of writing that could once again change everything. In the final scene of HBO’s Watchmen, executive producer and showrunner Damon Lindelof follows the original text’s lead — albeit with a foot and a pool, not a hand and a book.
Co-written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse and directed by Frederick E.O. Toye, “See How They Fly” closes out the first season of the HBO drama with Regina King’s Angela Abar at the edge of a pool, not to mention the edge of divinity. Her husband, Doctor Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), is dead, but it’s strongly implied that his powers live on, baked into an egg in the Abar kitchen — the culmination of a running visual motif throughout the series, not to mention the first trick the late Jon Osterman ever performed for his wife. Angela takes the egg outside and consumes it by the Abar family pool where just one night earlier, Doctor Manhattan walked calmly on the water. With the egg in her system, Angela closes her eyes, takes a breath, holds one foot out over the water, and…
Listen to the Series Regular: Watchmen podcast for more on the season finale.
Watchmen ends without confirming Angela’s next step one way or the other. For his part, speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Lindelof stops short of outright confirming the answer, but he believes the intention is clear — clearer than the intention behind the ending of his other powerful HBO drama, The Leftovers, at least, which closed with an open-ended question about central character Nora Durst (Carrie Coon).
“It’s a bit apples and oranges, or egg whites and egg yolks,” Lindelof says about the difference between the two tales. “In the case of Nora’s story, there’s a case to be made for, does it matter whether it’s true or not? There’s a case to be made for her definitely lying, and there’s a case to be made that everything she said actually happened to her. I guess I would say it’s hard to make a case in this instance that Doctor Manhattan said all of these things to Angela about the egg, that Angela threw that egg carton down with such velocity, [and it’s all a coincidence]. It’s much easier to make the case that something wonderful is about to happen to her. It’s not my place to say, but I think our intention here is much clearer than it was at the end of The Leftovers.”
Lindelof points out a few different signposts indicating the intention behind the finale, including one clue hidden in plain sight weeks before the series premiere. He also points to the original Watchmen ending, that hovering hand, as a map for why he ended his story with a hovering foot. In an extensive interview with THR, Lindelof gets into all of that and more — including why he still has no update on a second season of Watchmen, despite his interest in the story’s continuation.
Angela Abar eats the egg. We’re left to wonder whether or not she’s about to walk on water, with Doctor Manhattan’s powers coursing through her. How did you land on this as the end of the season?
One of the really difficult parts of plotting any television show, let alone one called Watchmen, is that characters have to have plans. Plans are tough, because they are plotty. They’re narrative. I feel like I’m much more comfortable when I’m in a space talking about emotion, overcoming trauma, living with grief or trying to connect with someone you love. Those sorts of challenges come a little bit more naturally to me than constructing plot.
Ultimately, for a pilot that features the Seventh Kavalry saying “tick tock, tick tock” and counting down to some plan they had, we have to ask: “So, what’s their plan?” And then there’s Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.), whom we do not yet know is Hooded Justice at the time, who arrives and murders Crawford (Don Johnson). What’s his plan? Why did he do that? Then we find that he’s in cahoots with Lady Trieu (Hong Chau). What’s her plan? Where do their plans overlap? Where do they deviate? Then there’s Senator Keene (James Wolk), whose plan seems to be the same as the 7K, but maybe he knows more than what the people wearing Rorschach masks know, so what’s their plan? Etcetera, etcetera, and it was all a bit dizzying.
What it came down to is that Angela was the character who actually knew the most. She’s married to a god. She knew even more than he did. The only person who knows their secret is wandering around on a moon of Jupiter. She’s wandering around, possessing what’s akin to a nuclear weapon, in terms of when she’s going to release and deploy it. This nuclear weapon has told her that it’s not interested in detonating, and that it is in all likelihood going to die.
Those were all the plot machinations we were dealing with coming into the finale. At the end of the day, one of the things we seeded into the season was the egg motif, and the idea of fertility. Doctor Manhattan had an advantage that we did not when we first sat down to start talking about the story: Doctor Manhattan saw the finale. He watched the finale. But he only gets to watch up to the point where he blows up. He does not know what happens after he blows up. That part for him is unseen. So what is he going to do before he blows up to ensure that his power, which everybody is after — it’s sort of an It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World construct where the white supremacists and a narcissistic trillionaire are after his power — is protected? He decides that anyone in pursuit of his power probably shouldn’t have it. But this is a show about legacy. He wants to give his power to the woman he loves. Once we settled on that idea, then it was just a matter of executing it.
This is not me saying what happens when her foot hits the water. There are certainly two possible outcomes. But if you watch the entire season again, or if you look at the poster for Watchmen that existed fifteen weeks ago, our intention is clear. That’s what I’ll say.
It’s similar to the ending of the graphic novel: a hand hovering over Rorschach’s journal. Is it going to make it to print? Are these secrets going to blow up the world? Here, it’s a foot: is it about to stand on water, and is the world about to change once more?
Correct. I understand some people will probably shout at their TV screens. I feel that this ending is the closest to Watchmen, based on what you just said. It’s not that it’s not important as to whether Rorschach’s journal is going to get published or not. It’s just that it feels like a good place to end the story. Both stories moving forward are less interesting than ending in that moment of choice. Without demystifying it further, that’s what our math was.
Near the end of the finale, Will Reeves has the great line: “You can’t heal under a mask, Angela. Wounds need air.” Hours at most after her husband’s death, Angela eats the egg, presumably with the intention of inheriting Jon’s powers. You say “something wonderful” may be happening for her, but is it something wonderful, or is this dangerous in its own right?
You mean aside from the fact that it’s dangerous to eat raw eggs?
I believe there are athletes who vouch for the practice.
Rocky does it, so it’s all good! I think it’s reasonable to ask the question: what was Will Reeves’ plan in coming to Tulsa, beyond killing an influential member of a white supremacist organization and kicking off the story? The plan was to form a bond with his granddaughter, for her to understand her legacy, for her to understand how she became a masked cop. When we meet her in the pilot, she doesn’t have an understanding of why she spray paints this mask on her eyes, or why she has this violent anger within her. It’s a very reasonable anger, by the way. He contextualizes that story for her and explains her legacy. She’s one generation removed from the very first superhero. He wants to give her the cautionary tale: “Wounds need air. As long as I was hiding my face, I could never heal. Hopefully this information I’m giving you will help you in this next phase.” It does seem the conversation between Manhattan in Cal’s form when he went to visit Will ten years earlier did in fact continue. We know that Manhattan said, “I want to form an alliance with you.” It suggests that both of them conspired to give Angela this decision, as to whether or not she wanted this power. But Manhattan couldn’t have known whether or not she would take it. The last line of dialogue in the show comes from Will, and I think it’s very telling as to what our intention was.
Angela makes her decision, Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) is arrested and the world may soon learn about his hoax… the world of Watchmen may once again be fundamentally changing at the end of the season. Before the series aired, you said you were viewing this season as its own piece, that this may be the end of the story. With the finale now upon us, has that changed? Are you interested in a second season? Is it something you’re still considering the possibility of exploring?
It’s so interesting that you present the question that way, because, am I interested in a second season? The answer to that question is yes, in the same way that I’m interested in anything that calls itself Watchmen. I do find it interesting, where the story could go next. More importantly, I think we always think about how season two of a show is the continuing adventures of the first season of the show. That’s what happened on Lost. That’s what happened on Breaking Bad. But there’s another thing that’s happened on television. Look at season two of The Wire. That season, it’s the docks. McNulty and the cops are relegated to being second-stringers, no pun intended, in the second season of The Wire. The third season is “Hamsterdam,” the fourth season is a deep dive on public schools. I think Watchmen, not unlike Fargo or True Detective, can accommodate a much larger space of storytelling. That’s interesting to me.
As for me? I haven’t had the idea. I had to convince myself if this was going to be a satisfying nine-episode series, we wouldn’t bury things for later, having done the opposite of that thing on both Lost and to some degree The Leftovers.
Yup, exactly. Look at where the needle is, and run it all the way down to empty, knowing wherever the car stops, that’s it. Now, is a helicopter going to come down, lower its ladder, I hop on and the journey continues? Anything’s possible. But I have to be able to answer the question: “What’s the idea for the second season?” I don’t think I’m interested in, nor do I think the audience is interested in, “Let’s just do more of the same.” Because then it wouldn’t be Watchmen. It requires a new idea. Maybe that idea is going to come from someone else. I would welcome that, one hundred percent.
You worship the original Watchmen text, or “the old testament,” as you have called it. There is no “The Constant” without issue #4 of Watchmen, for example. Here, in your series, Doctor Manhattan dies. Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) arrests Adrian Veidt for the events of the graphic novel. What was your process in adapting the stories and creating the endings for iconic characters from the comic?
I think there’s this Charlie Kaufman-esque idea, because it comes from the movie Adaptation, this idea that adaptation is actually about change. We have it in our heads that if you’re adapting a book, you’re sort of just doing the book, but in fact, the more bravura approach is: “Okay, this book exists, and everybody loves it. How can I adapt it? How much can I change, so that it’s still familiar, it still retains the fundamental genes of its parents?” It’s a kid, a baby in many ways, because it shares the genetics of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and now I’m basically trying to insert my genetics into this thing as well. What’s the tolerance for change?
One of the benefits of having the 30-year gap between the original Watchmen and this story beginning was the idea that the characters have lived [so much]. Laurie has lived close to half a lifetime in that span. The idea of coming back to her as more or less the same as when we left her? Especially when we leave the original text, she’s talking about wanting to get guns and put on leather, which seems to suggest she’s flirting with the idea of embracing her father, who she’s recently learned was the Comedian and he sexually assaulted her mom… it’s a very complicated and potentially problematic idea, but really interesting. Now we get to start our story ten years after that. Can this character tolerate an adaptation where she behaves more like the Comedian than she does like Silk Spectre? The more we thought about that, and once we cast Jean Smart, we felt like it would work. Originalists might dispute whether or not that’s still Laurie, and I think that’s fair. When you move into the area of, “Are people not going to like this?” That’s when things start to get very interesting. You can’t change anything beloved without raising that potential criticism.
The same is true of Veidt. We relied largely on the performances to inspire the writing. This is going to sound crazy, but we cast Jeremy Irons, he came and shot the scenes in the pilot, and it became immediately apparent that his take on the character was going to be comedic. When we cast Jeremy Irons, he’s an incredible actor, but he’s not who you go to for comedy! He first impressed upon my pop culture awareness in Dead Ringers, which is one of the least comedic and most disturbing movies I have ever seen. There’s a wink and a twinkle to the guy, but when [executive producer] Tom Spezialy and I had lunch with him, we found he’s a very funny person. It felt to me like this was a really interesting take on Veidt. There’s no precedent in the original text that Veidt is funny. How do we have a comedic performance here where the character isn’t trying to be funny, but it’s a slightly absurd and ridiculous treatment of the character? We just went for it, because it felt right, but there are people out there who are [going to disagree]. If you told Alan Moore that Adrian Veidt farted in a prominent way? His head would explode. I can’t argue with that logic! In fact, if somebody told me that? If I wasn’t making Watchmen, and someone just said to me, “Spoiler alert, in the seventh episode of Watchmen, Veidt is on trial for dropping the squid on Manhattan, and the entire speech of his self-defense is that he farts,” I would say, “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard, and whoever wrote it clearly has no understanding of Watchmen.” And yet, here we are! There was a level of interpretation by the characters we just sort of leaned into.
Is there something that you and the writers cooked up and placed on the show where you felt particularly nervous about its reception, and maybe now are surprised to find you were not taken to task for it? Something you felt would be extremely divisive, but maybe wasn’t as divisive as you expected?
I’m not lying to you when I say: “Almost everything.” Almost everything!
What does that tell you, then? I’m in a bubble, of course, but it seems to me that Watchmen landed so well with the folks you hoped it would land with. What does that tell you about where you are and where you’re moving as a storyteller?
I’m trying to get some perspective on it. It’s becoming more apparent to me that I need to get more uncomfortable in order to be comfortable. That sounds like a paradox, because I’m not actually feeling comfortable in the eye of the hurricane. I’m feeling uncomfortable the entire time. Right now, we’re [speaking] 48 hours away from the finale airing, and I don’t know. I don’t know! I know how I feel about it, but as someone who is really wired to care about what other people think, to the degree that I want people to connect to the show? It’s super important to me. But I was in over my head from the moment I decided to do Watchmen. Right there, the idea that I’m going to adapt something that I deeply care about, and that not only I care about, but something with a fandom that wants to fiercely protect it and I can’t get it wrong. And while we’re at it, this Watchmen‘s primary area of storytelling is going to be as it relates to race and white supremacy in America? There was no part of me that was comfortable with either of those things. But those were the things that were compelling me to move forward anyway: “I kind of have to do this now.” You can talk to anyone who was around me for the last two years. It was not fun, for me or for most of the people who made the show, because we were all holding ourselves to this standard of, “We cannot fuck this up. The stakes are too high.” If you mess it up? Okay, you made a bad version of Watchmen. But because we’re dealing with material that dealt with systemic pain inflicted on people of color in America over the course of the past four centuries…
You’re risking much more than just botching Watchmen.
Right. It could be harmful. Really harmful. If we get this wrong? Studio executives could point back at this for decades and go, “Well, look what happened with Watchmen.” We could become a cautionary tale. Because we were all terrified the entire time, but still walking the tight rope, versus feeling, “We got this! We’re not worried about falling.” Maybe that’s what saved us in the end.
Midway through the finale, Lady Trieu dispatches the Seventh Kavalry leadership. They stepped into the night expecting to become Manhattanites. Jane Crawford (Frances Fisher) basically has Trieu yadda-yadda through her speech; “get to the part where you kill us,” effectively. What did you want to say about the way these faces of white supremacy are dealt with?
We were pretty clear from the jump that what made this Watchmen is Adrian Veidt might temporarily prevent nuclear war from happening between us and the Soviet Union, but the thing that makes us point nukes at each other isn’t going to be solved. The fundamental insanity and violence and territoriality and tribalism of humans is ultimately what leads to these very dangerous situations. With this version, just because a couple dozen members of the senior leadership of one white supremacist organization have been decimated by Lady Trieu, it doesn’t mean white supremacy in America is defeated. That’s a cultural problem that’s not personified by any one individual or group. That said, if your interpretation of the ending of the show is the first black woman in the history of the world is about to be imbued with the powers of a god? Then white supremacy better watch its back.
Final question: who is Lube Man?
I will just say this: there is one final installment of the Peteypedia that will come out following the airing of the finale. It will not definitively answer your question, but in the same way that Hooded Justice’s identity wasn’t revealed in the original Watchmen…
This is for your successor to deal with?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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