Watchmen Love Story

Watchmen is a show that does many things right. What could have easily turned into a disaster became instead a fantastic show that reconciles the past with the present, as it tells a story of generational trauma through the lens of a superhero story. What few if any of us predicted at the beginning of the season is that Watchmen would turn into a love story.

Then again, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. As Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson pointed out on Twitter, Damon Lindelof’s TV work often starts by setting up very complex genre puzzle box mysteries, only to reveal that at their core, they’re wounded love stories about people trying to connect with others, just as they’re fighting to put themselves together.

The best episodes of a Damon Lindelof show are usually those that take a step back from the mystery, and instead tell weird yet very personal stories about love and interpersonal relationships. So, now that the first (and only?) season of Watchmen is done, we’re going to look at how Lindelof’s entire TV work has prepared the audience for Watchmen’s story of finding community and love, even as baby squids rain down from the sky.

This article contains spoilers for Lost, The Leftovers, and Watchmen.

We Have to Go Back

As I’ve written here before, since its early days, Lost used its mystery to tell a very human story of having to build a community and learning about yourself through others. No matter how crazy the show got (and boy did it go crazy at times), the heart of the show always laid with the castaways and their relationships towards one another. This became especially true in the later seasons of the show, but no episode showcases this better than “The Constant.”

The fifth episode of the fourth season of Lost, “The Constant” follows Desmond, Sayid and Lapidus as they finally set foot on the mysterious freighter that looms near the island and was definitely not sent by Penny. After going through turbulence, Desmond’s consciousness starts traveling through time between 1996 and 2004. The episode then deals with Desmond’s attempts at stabilizing his mind before he dies of a brain aneurysm, while we explore more of his relationship with Penny Widmore. The episode is the culmination of a love story that was teased for several episodes across two seasons, as we first saw a picture of Penny all the way back in the third episode of season two, and here we finally get a reunion between Desmond and Penny – albeit via a phone call. 

The non-linear structure of “The Constant” instantly brings to mind the non-linear structure of “A God Walks Into Abar,” the eighth episode of Watchmen. We knew that Doctor Manhattan experienced time in a different way than humans, and maybe you have already read the source material, but to see that brought to life on the screen is an entirely different thing. The beauty of the episode is how it manages not only to portray the time-travel aspect of Doctor Manhattan’s powers, but how it uses it to show how Manhattan was able to see his entire relationship with Angela from even before he meets her. Because of Manhattan’s powers, he experiences the entirety of is life simultaneously. He is both falling in love with his wife Jane as he flees for Mars, at the same time as he meets Laurie for the first time, as he is being trapped by the 7th Kavalry, and also asking Angela for dinner. This could have easily backfired, but the acting, writing, and the hauntingly beautiful score make this story of a Zeus coming down from Olympus to settle down one of the best love stories on TV in years. 

Let the Mystery Be

The criminally underseen The Leftovers has a lot in common with both Lost and Watchmen. Taking a cue from the later seasons of Lost, Lindelof’s last TV show before he tackled Watchmen is all about how desperate we as humans are for answers to the greater mysteries in life, and how we find ways to cope with not getting those answers. The show deals with the aftermath of a cataclysmic event that results in 2% of the world’s population disappearing. The Leftovers never fully explains what happened to those who disappeared or why those people disappeared (sound familiar?), but that’s not the point of the show. Instead, the focus of the show was the ways we try to move on and the barriers we put on to avoid getting close to people after suffering a personal loss. Hence, the show dealt with deeply broken people trying to move on and rebuild some sense of normalcy in a world where “normal” disappeared years ago. The communities and relationships the main characters build through the show’s three seasons is what gives purpose and meaning to their lives, which were broken way before they crashed on the island…I mean, before the “Sudden Departure.”

Watchmen, though not at its focus, also touches upon this quest for meaning, and morphs it into a question of how a search for meaning and healing from trauma turns people into masked vigilantes. As Laurie Blake tells Angela in episode four of the show, “people who wear masks are driven by trauma. They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered.” Where The Leftovers showed the way people isolated themselves (even in a community) because of trauma, Watchmen showed how that trauma, together with a deep anger and sense of justice, results in someone wanting to put on a mask. The show also deals with the questions of faith seen in both The Leftovers and Lost. Where Lost had the character of John Lock put his entire life in service of the island he believed had given him purpose, The Leftovers had Matt Jamison go through his own crisis of faith. His entire character arc in The Leftovers echoed that of John Locke by having him witness a miracle that no one else saw, and spend the rest of his life in service of a future miracle that never came.

Though Watchmen doesn’t have a specific character with the same arc as Matt or John, a brief scene in episode seven does tackle the same crisis of faith. While Angela is recovering from her nostalgia-overdose, she discovers a machine that replays all the prayers sent by people over the Doctor Manhattan phone booths. Lady Trieu talks about the desperate pleads people send to Manhattan, hoping he would come down from Mars and help them, even if they never hear a reply. By the season finale, Watchmen placed this as the central question of the show’s overarching mystery: why wouldn’t God come down and help the people who plea for his mercy and help? If it was as easy as coming down, waving his hand around and solving all the world’s problems, why doesn’t he do it?

Lindelof’s answer to that question, at least in part, seems to be that God coming down wouldn’t fix anything. The answers are instead within our ability to form communities and relationships, but only after we tear down the walls we put up in our minds and hearts. In an interview with Vulture, Damon Lindelof said that The Leftovers was ultimately a love story. He then expanded on an interview with Esquire, where he explained that the question he really wanted to explore with the show was “how could anybody ever feel stable or safe in a relationship again knowing that at any second people that they care most about would be gone.”

Indeed, it became clear rather quickly that the emotional focus of The Leftovers was the relationship between Kevin Garvey and Nora Durst. We see in the span of the three seasons how much the two want to be together and how much they unintentionally resist the idea that they could be happy together. They lie and fight and do everything they can in order to avoid accepting what has happened to them in the aftermath of the “Sudden Departure” that they avoid seeing each other for over a decade instead of letting themselves be vulnerable and accepting love. The very last episode of the show dealt with Kevin and Nora beginning to let go of the past.

As Lindelof said in his Esquire interview “It felt like the journey of The Leftovers was ultimately going to be about people saying, “Fuck it, I’m knocking those walls down anyway, because this is not a way to live my life. I would rather love and lose than never to have loved at all.”

Nothing Ever Ends

The last two episodes of Watchmen felt like a continuation of that same sentiment. If the graphic novel was a noir mystery that evolved into a commentary of politics and superhero stories, the HBO adaptation was a superhero story that evolved into an exploration of trauma, love and faith. Our main characters by the last episode, Angela, Laurie, Wade, Adrian, Lady Trieu, and Will, all suffered trauma when they were young, and that trauma evolved into a crisis of faith that informed the rest of their lives. They became cops, evil geniuses with a god complex, and superheroes because they all had their faith in a higher power – God, the law – turn to ashes by the cruelty of the real world.

But by the series finale, it seems like they have at least started to acknowledge this trauma and how much it prevented them from actually living a life. Laurie finally decided to expose Adrian Veidt and together with Wade, they arrest him. Angela realized the generational aspect of her own trauma, and decided to at least invite her grandfather to stay with her for a few days. Doctor Manhattan may not have descended from the heavens to answer everyone’s prayers and fix all the world’s problems, but he inadvertently made each of our main characters find a way to heal and eventually to get better.

Watchmen, like Lost and even The Leftovers before it, is a show that will continue to be written about and dissected for years. This is a show that uses mystery and crazy genre storylines to get at the hart of what makes us human, and how we can be better people and also heal from past trauma through love and community. Leave it to good old Jack Shephard to best summarize it: “If we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone.”

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