Watchmen dives into Angela’s past in an episode packed with explosive reveals

Angela recovers at Lady Trieu’s headquarters.Angela must recover from taking too much Nostalgia in another thrilling episode of Watchmen. | HBO

Has Watchmen not quite been working for you these past few weeks? Maybe it just needed more Regina King.

“It’s time to come out of the tunnel,” Angela Abar says, pushing an already great episode of Watchmen toward the transcendent.

She’s talking to her husband, Cal, who is deeply confused by what she’s saying. But the audience by now has hopefully caught on to what’s happening: Cal, somehow, is Doctor Manhattan in disguise, and the Seventh Kavalry is coming to take him away and imbue his powers into Joe Keene.

It’s a plan so crazy it just might work, and the only way Angela can save the day, it would seem, is to turn her husband back in to Doctor Manhattan — and she seems to succeed, if the blue glow on her face at episode’s end is any indication. (Her method is to hit her husband in the head with a hammer multiple times, so.)

“An Almost Religious Awe” is the most Angela-centric episode of Watchmen yet, which is something to be said on a show that has already devoted three other episodes to her. But it’s also, cunningly, about Doctor Manhattan, who keeps turning up throughout Angela’s childhood in Vietnam. We watch as she goes from happy kid whose parents won’t let her watch the blaxploitation film Sister Night, to an orphan, to somehow even worse than an orphan when the grandmother who shows up to take her in dies almost immediately after meeting her. (The girl who plays young Angela — This Is Us costar Faithe Herman — is really incredible.)

Throughout all of this, we never see Doctor Manhattan himself. But he’s everywhere, from the documentary playing at the video store when the episode begins to a massive painting on a building near the orphanage Angela lives in for a time. He’s God, more or less, and he inspires the religious awe of the episode’s title.

And Angela has apparently been … married to him all this time? How? What? And why?

Those are questions we can’t quite answer yet, but in talking about this episode with Vox associate culture editor Allegra Frank, I (Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff) realized that she hasn’t wholeheartedly liked an episode of Watchmen since the show’s third (the Laurie-centric hour). Then she saw this one, and loved it. So I wanted to know what was different about “An Almost Religious Awe” and why some of the show’s other installments haven’t worked as well for her as they have for me.

We’ll talk about that — as well as the big Cal reveal, Angela’s tragic childhood, and the sheer number of plot threads still dangling with only two episodes left in the season — below.

Watchmen is a series about Angela Abar, but also … is it?

Angela identifies the man who killed her parents.HBO
Faithe Herman is amazing as young Angela.

Emily: Allegra! When I found out Watchmen wasn’t working for you, I was so sad, because it very much was working for me. What have you found off about it? And what was different about this episode?

Allegra: Emily! It pains me, too, to admit that Watchmen has … not been growing on me. Quite the opposite! The farther we’ve strayed from that killer pilot, the harder I’ve found it to stay engrossed in the show.

I think some of our readers, including several friends of mine, picked up on it before I did. Every week, someone would say, “Yeah, you’re not liking the show, are you?” “I thought I was,” I’d reply. “I don’t know! Am I not?” And no, I was not: Having never read the Watchmen comic, I found myself increasingly glassy-eyed as the original Watchmen’s history seeped into the show’s world.

Episode five in particular really tied into the comic series by referencing the squid attack that ravaged the New York metro area and solidified Adrian Veidt as a bad guy. These revelations left me largely unmoved; I find the squid attack plot to be absurd, even if all that death is a bit more devastating to see play out in live action than to read about on the page. And I love Adrian Veidt because he’s a kooky old man, not because he’s a kooky old man who readers remember as that genius madman Ozymandias.

Episode six, meanwhile, was definitely an ambitious work of television that brought a lot of focus to Watchmen’s exploration of how racism impacts and intertwines with contemporary power structures. And I can appreciate the expansion of the backstory for a smaller character from the comic, i.e. Hooded Justice. But I’m hardly invested in that storyline in terms of how it affects the comic’s canon. I came away thinking that what Hooded Justice’s backstory means for the Watchmen comic was meant to be an integral part of the reveal.

I guess what unites these gripes is that, as a viewer who’s not familiar with the source material, the parts of Watchmen I find most exciting — the mystery-solving featuring strong female characters like Angela and Laurie, the exploration of systemic abuses of power and racism, and the absurd and hilarious contrast of Adrian Veidt’s space life — can feel undermined by callbacks to the comic. Episode six offered insightful commentary on the impact that historical racism has on contemporary society, and the way systemic racism bred the institutions that racists now manipulate for their own gain. But in order to do that and build a surprise for comics readers, it didn’t confront how Angela now exists in that modern space, keeping the focus instead on Will Reeves’ past.

But “An Almost Religious Awe” is the exact opposite of episode five, in that sense. Angela and Laurie (and Lady Trieu, another fascinating character whose screen time has been lacking of late) are at the fore, making meaningful gains in their search for the truth behind the racist Seventh Kavalry that’s manipulating the checks and balances of Tulsa. These are the aspects of the show that feel most interesting and important to me, in terms of moving the story along.

Finding out what happened in Angela’s own dark past — as opposed to that of her grandfather, of Tulsa, of her male colleagues — and witnessing how it affects her in the present … that is the kind of story I crave. And episode seven delivered.

Emily: It’s interesting you say that, because to me, “An Almost Religious Awe” functions almost as a call-and-response with episode six, where we saw all of the ways that Will’s story is now echoed by his granddaughter’s story, even though the two just met each other recently and they lived decades apart. The episode even blatantly asks: Why would Angela become a cop when there’s so much darkness in her family history around the police?

It’s a question the episode doesn’t quite answer to my satisfaction. As a kid, Angela met a “nice” police officer (who also carried out an extrajudicial vigilante killing with her partner!), and that led Angela to think perhaps the badge would protect her. It’s also clear that a life in law enforcement is something multiple generations of this family have pursued as a way to make the world a better place, especially if we assume that Will is himself the grandson of Bass Reeves (something Watchmen more or less suggests).

Angela, like her father, like Will, like Bass, hopes to impose her will on the world by joining its power structures. But those power structures try to destroy her and grind her down, sometimes in more subtle ways than they tried to destroy and grind down her grandfather, and sometimes in more brutal ways. The device of having her memories all mixed up with Will’s memories from the pilot (where he remembered the Tulsa massacre) and episode six is a masterstroke here, because it underlines all of the ways we are built atop traumas we barely understand, traumas that are passed along to us.

That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited to get Doctor Manhattan involved in this story. Canonically, he was born Jon Osterman, a Jewish child who fled the Holocaust, and he became Doctor Manhattan after a Cold War-era weaponry experiment. And now he’s apparently hidden himself away as a black man in America. It’s a potent combination of elements that could well blow up in Watchmen’s face, but that seems to be where this version of Watchmen thrives. It’s a shaken soda can, passed along the line of viewers, in hopes it won’t explode.

I’m also interested in how it was episode five that made you become more openly frustrated with the season and the series, because that was the episode that took me from “I think I love this show?” to “No, I definitely love this show.” It’s telling, also, that episode five represents the season’s exact midpoint — four episodes before it and four after — and that it marks the point where the story stops expanding and begins to contract, like a nuclear explosion that collapses in on itself.

But your irritation also makes sense. For all the elements this season has put into play, it’s Looking Glass’s story that seems furthest off the map in terms of whatever Angela and Laurie will end up doing. (That said, “An Almost Religious Awe” does reveal how episode five’s cliffhanger resolved — with a bunch of dead Seventh Kavalry members.) Still, it’s crucial to the overall story of the season, which is a metaphorical push to confront what happens when white Americans are forced to look at all of the injustices their whiteness insulates them from. Do they work to decentralize themselves? Or do they dig in and make things worse, because they know the consequences won’t affect them?

Looking Glass is our biggest question mark in that regard — and he’s also been completely missing from the last two episodes! I have faith his absence is going to pay off in a big way, but if it doesn’t, then the fifth episode is somehow both an hour of TV I deeply loved and one that feels completely disconnected from the design of the rest of the season.

Meanwhile, there’s another prominent white character driving the action of the story’s narrative: Laurie Blake. And in this episode, she doesn’t appear to be in very good shape, does she?

“An Almost Religious Awe” is a great reminder of how many amazing women characters this show has

Laurie interrogates Jane about holes in her story.HBO
Laurie has had just about enough of Jane’s shit.

Allegra: I love that we feel so opposite about episode five — especially because, as you said, it is an inflection point where Watchmen began to cull from and reference the comic book more explicitly. Episodes five and six also operate on a much smaller scale than the previous, wackier episodes of extraterrestrial visitations to outer space mansions and bizarre aerial crafts picking people up and taking them away.

Fitting also that the episode with Laurie’s introduction was the last episode I truly, unequivocally liked. Even loved! Her full-fledged return here is quite welcome, especially as the season approaches its endgame. Just as her investigation seems to be on the up-and-up, Laurie is trapped. Literally. Her visit to Judd Crawford’s wife to tell her that the FBI has figured out who killed Judd — and that it was Will — ended in such a shocking way, with Judd’s wife, Jane, hitting the button on a remote and sending Laurie into a void beneath the floor. Apparently, everything is going according to plan so far regarding the Seventh Kavalry’s racist machinations, and they’re not about to let Laurie mess that up.

I loved this scene as another surprising and exciting development in a storyline I’ve felt really invested in. Perhaps it says something about me that I love Watchmen’s crime drama-adjacent mystery more than its more meditative aspects. But I find Laurie to be a layered, fascinating character, and to watch someone so unflappable potentially fail is thrilling. Especially in light of what we must assume is coming next: the return of Doctor Manhattan.

Most importantly for me, however, is that Laurie is a middle-aged woman, a retired superhero, who is working alongside another middle-aged woman to solve the murder of a man. (And then an older woman, Judd’s wife, ends up taking Laurie down.) It’s rare to see this kind of dynamic on an action-heavy TV show, and I so immensely appreciate it: a multiracial cohort of women in a genre that traditionally skews male. You mentioned that Laurie is another “white character,” which is objectively true. But the relationship between Laurie and Angela, and between Angela and Lady Trieu (an Asian woman), are absent of the racial lines that divide the men on the show. And to me, that feels even more special.

Emily: It’s been widely reported that the Watchmen writers’ room was split evenly between black and white writers, but what’s come up far less often is that it was also split evenly between women and men.

That’s displayed beautifully in “An Almost Religious Awe” (the first episode of the season whose credited writers — Stacy Osei-Kuffour and OA veteran Claire Kiechel — are both women), which captures the shared solidarity women can often feel when the world just makes us want to say, “What the fuck?” (Note that I say “can.” It’s pointed that the person who imprisons Laurie is another older white woman. Solidarity will never entirely trump racism.)

I’m increasingly fascinated by the ways this season is centered on people who’ve suffered first being forced to confront the historical traumas that continue to influence the present, then making others see that suffering, too, so that its pain dissipates, at least a little bit.

It’s probably significant that Lady Trieu is of Vietnamese descent. (And when she says her father “will be here” after revealing that the young teen hanging out in her lab is her mom — she has to mean Veidt, right?) It’s probably also significant that the animal Angela finds herself tethered to is an elephant, represented in culture for centuries as having a long memory and impossible resiliency. To be alive in the world of Watchmen — maybe just to be alive in the world — requires a long memory and impossible resiliency.

But it also requires finding some new way to move forward, and that seems to be the task the show has set for itself as we enter the final two episodes. Now that we know Cal is Doctor Manhattan, we have to deal with that reveal (preferably immediately, in next week’s episode). But nearly every other dangling plot thread concerns what the state of the world will be in the wake of the events of this series. For as much as I want to see more of Watchmen past this season, I almost hope episode nine provides such a definitive ending that the show can’t go forward. Anything else might taint what it has accomplished here.

Allegra, how do you feel about the Cal reveal? And which dangling plot threads have you most anticipatory about future revelations?

Allegra: CAL! Cal. C A L.

It’s kind of funny how devastated I was to discover that the beautiful, doting Cal was not who I thought him to be — in the sense that, until that moment, I really couldn’t have cared less about where Doctor Manhattan was. His existence meant so little to me; from what I know of the original comic, it seemed there wasn’t much more to be said about this glowing blue giant. I was amused to see Laurie unpack a big blue dildo at the end of her episode, but beyond that? He can stay on Mars, for all I care.

When it’s revealed that Doctor Manhattan is not in space like he’s thought to be, and that he’s been living in Angela’s house this whole time? As her husband? Well, that rattled me. Those are surprises that are affecting, no matter how much Cal being specifically Doctor Manhattan resonated with me.

“An Almost Religious Awe,” however, did an excellent job of offering more context for what Doctor Manhattan’s deal is than any previous hints. It began with news footage to succinctly sum up who he was and what happened to him after the squid attack that ravaged New York. Then the appearance of all of those Doctor Manhattan balloons in Vietnam as Angela roamed through the streets as a child helped show the persistence of that history. And finally, Lady Trieu warning Angela that the killer was somewhere inside the house — that Doctor Manhattan was on Earth — built a modern mystery component around the character. Each of these ramped up the intrigue slowly, subtly, and, most important to me, in ways that made it clear just how connected this character is to the woman I want to protect the most.

And that woman is Angela, who I must know going forward: What the hell is she going to do about Doctor Manhattan? And will someone promise me that there is still an actual, real, beautiful, hunky Cal somewhere? Please!

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