Television

How Watchmen Designed a Superhero Sex Toy

“When you see it up close, it really kind of looks like a Jeff Koons.”

Jean Smart holds a shiny blue dildo in a scene from HBO’s Watchmen.
Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) and her big blue friend in HBO’s Watchmen.
HBO

This post contains spoilers for Episode 3 of Watchmen.

Sunday’s episode of Watchmen introduced, or rather reintroduced, FBI agent Laurie Blake, aka Laurie Juspeczyk and the second Silk Spectre in the original graphic novel, here played by Jean Smart. Laurie was once romantically involved with Dr. Manhattan, but she hastens to show everyone she’s not the same girl she was back then—which is why it’s such a surprise when, toward the end of the episode, she opens her briefcase and pulls out … a big blue phallus, reminiscent of her big blue ex, who’s currently in exile on Mars. Slate talked to Lila Byock, a supervising producer/writer on Watchmen and co-writer of this episode (“She Was Killed by Space Junk”), about the mythology of Dr. Manhattan’s genitals, the prop’s resemblance to a Jeff Koons sculpture, and whether commissioning it violated HBO’s human resources handbook.

Slate: First things first, was Laurie’s toy a dildo or a vibrator?

Lila Byock: I guess technically it would be a vibrator. The phallus actually vibrates when the testicles are attached magnetically. We kept referring to it as a dildo, but then we just kind of hit on this idea that in the actual design, the testicles would be kind of separate in the case and they’d have to be attached, and when they’re attached it starts vibrating. We all just loved that idea. So I guess it sort of became a vibrator. It evolved into a vibrator. All of the best ideas in a writers room are iterative.

What was the genesis of the big blue vibrator?

As I recall, basically we had first hit on the idea of the briefcase. We knew that [Laurie] had this briefcase that she was carrying around with her that contained some kind of secret, something that was important, that was meaningful to her. So we were sort of pitching on what’s in the briefcase, and I pitched that she’s got a giant blue dildo in the briefcase as a joke to make everybody laugh. And Damon [Lindelof] called my bluff. From then on it was just like, “Well, of course we’re doing that.”

We really connected with this idea that she’s a character who, for all intents and purposes, has kind of put her past behind her in a very definitive way. In fact, she is now devoted to fighting vigilantes, fighting costumed adventurers, which is what she herself used to be. She professes not to be interested in that part of her own history. And yet when she’s in the privacy of her own bedroom or own hotel room, what’s the first thing she does? It’s clear that even though intellectually she has sort of shut down that part of herself, on some deep animal level, that’s what gets her off, is nostalgia for her own past.

What percentage of you was kidding when you pitched it?

I will say, having worked with Damon before on The Leftovers—and I co-wrote with him the lion sex orgy episode from Season 3 of The Leftovers—at this point, I know pretty well that if you make a joke in the writers room, there’s a decent chance that he’s going to run with it. So I think that when I pitched the giant blue dildo, I knew that there was at least a 30 percent chance that it was going to wind up in the show. But I was still delighted and a little surprised when it wound up actually happening. And certainly by the time I saw the actual prop, it was so far beyond anything I could have imagined.

How much did you know about fans’ preexisting fascination with Dr. Manhattan’s penis, going back to the graphic novel?

I knew there was much talk about the big blue dong, and it was a topic of discussion in the writers room, certainly, from the very beginning. And we were aware of the conversations about, “Oh, are you going to cast Justin Theroux to be Dr. Manhattan?” We were paying attention to all that stuff. So in a way there was certainly an element of it that was like a wink to the fans.

Is the penis reveal something that stuck out to you personally when you read it?

Yeah, I would say it stuck out to me, so to speak. It was definitely that iconic image of Dr. Manhattan first rising out of the ashes of Jon Osterman. It in a way is one of the more memorable things about Dr. Manhattan, because he doesn’t have a particularly strong personality. It’s a quality about Dr. Manhattan that you kind of latch onto.

How much did you think about the design versus kind of just leaving it to see what the prop master came up with?

We were very meticulous about giving the prop designer instructions. So we knew that we wanted it to be large. We knew that we wanted it to have detachable testicles. And we knew that we wanted it to be sort of luminous in the way that Dr. Manhattan is luminous. We wanted it to have a kind of glowing quality. We talked about the resemblance to a Jeff Koons sculpture. When you see it up close, it really kind of looks like a Jeff Koons.

How did you land on the specific size?

Well, as you know, Dr. Manhattan can change size and so we knew we wanted it to be large, and we kind of imagined that this might be the size that Dr. Manhattan assumes during lovemaking.

Did you see sketches or provisional designs along the way?

I saw sketches, but I only ever saw one actual finished design. And it was definitely the most fun I’ve ever had approving a prop. I was so, so excited. I mean, it’s amazing. It’s really a beautiful, beautiful object.

There are actually real-life Dr. Manhattan dildos available to buy online.

I did not know that, but I think ours is better.

If these vibrators from the show were ever mass-produced as a line, how would you feel about that and your impact?

I guess I would feel so totally thrilled about my unique contribution to American popular culture, and also I hope that they would cut us in on the royalties.

Did you come up with the idea of the Esquire cover in the writers room too?

Yeah. We really liked the idea that there had been an iconic Esquire magazine cover featuring Silk Spectre and Dr. Manhattan in the prime of their romance in the style of one of those great George Lois Esquire covers from the ’60s and ’70s.

Did you discuss the vibrator and what it meant for her character with Jean Smart?

We definitely talked about kind of what it means to her and why she gets off this way. And I think on some level she probably doesn’t even really understand it herself. I think that she is somebody who has really complicated feelings about this era in her personal history. I mean, keep in mind, she was 16 when she got involved with Dr. Manhattan, and that relationship occupied her entire adult life until she turned 30 and sort of ran off with Dan Dreiberg and Manhattan left earth. So I think it’s probably a relationship that she still has unresolved feelings about. And of course we see her calling Dr. Manhattan on Mars, so it’s clear that she’s still thinking about him on some level.

Why did you decide to show her opening the briefcase but not any more, uh, interaction with the vibrator?

Well, obviously the first time she opens it, she gets interrupted by Sen. Keene. The second time, I think she has really complicated feelings about Dr. Manhattan and about the kind of power dynamic that was involved in their relationship. Meanwhile she knows that she has a willing suitor right next door in the motel, someone over whom she has a fair amount of power, and I think that in the moment that is more interesting to her. But I do like that she makes Petey put on a mask before they have sex.

And then the episode title, “She Was Killed by Space Junk”—is that supposed to be a pun?

Yes, we were very aware of the pun. The title, obviously it comes from a Devo song. Devo is referenced a couple of times in the original text. When we were searching for titles, it was like, “Well, how about a Devo song?” And then as soon as we realized there was one that had the phrase “space junk” in it, it was like, “Well, duh.”

Do you know where the big blue vibrator is now?

You know, I don’t know what happened to it. I know that I dropped many hints that I wanted it as a wrap gift when the show finished. But I think probably due to HBO HR policies, that was not possible. Or maybe there are future plans for it. I don’t know. Maybe it’s in the prop warehouse awaiting future use. We’ll see.