Watching Watchmen, Episodes 6-9: Playing the Blues

Where the first half of HBO’s Watchmen spent its time digging around in a pre-existing fictional world, poking its head into the lives of the men and women living in the aftermath of Adrian Veidt’s (Jeremy Irons) grand dream of a utopia, its final four episodes strike out on their own in a more plot-forward direction. The first and most dramatic change to the show’s tone and pacing is the introduction of Dr. Manhattan, whose casting constitutes a major spoiler. Manhattan quickly becomes the focus — to Watchmen’s detriment — around which the story revolves.

From a complex and fascinating unraveling of mealy-mouthed liberalism and the intersection of blackness, criminal law, and white power the show decays into thinly-justified theatrics about various factions competing to steal Dr. Manhattan’s powers for themselves. It’s exactly the same kind of bland corporate comic story arc Moore first wrote his comic to unpick and examine, and without the benefit of his formidable insight it drags down the show’s stellar cast and intelligent dialogue until the whole mess falls apart under its own weight. All the show’s careful character work and world-building goes up in smoke in the space of a few minutes.

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That’s not to say there’s nothing worth seeing along the way. Looking Glass’s (Tim Blake Nelson) origin story as a hapless, sexually humiliated Jehovah’s Witness caught in the psychic blast of Veidt’s alien squid is as sympathetically gonzo as his adult life as a deeply traumatized police interrogator is compelling and sad. The show sketches many such portraits on its way to its unimpressive finale. Veidt’s self-pitying narcissism nurtured in the crucible of his private paradise/purgatory, Lady Trieu’s (Hong Chau) delusional attempts to rebuild a life she never got the chance to lead, and Will’s (Louis Gossett Jr.) lifelong struggle with the horror of having survived the Tulsa Race Massacre all make for incredibly compelling television.

Watchmen’s problem is that while it excels at setting its pieces up, it fumbles when it comes time to do anything with them. The music, while singularly brilliant when it comes to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s synth score, tends toward the ploddingly obvious when it drops its cues, concerned more with half-smart word association (‘Rhapsody in Blue’ hits as soon as Manhattan shows up) than with letting sound and image work in concert. It’s symptomatic of the same kind of low-grade cleverness that dogs the show’s story, a fervor for fitting pieces together above and beyond an awareness of what’s interesting about them in the first place.

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