If the headline wasn’t enough to warn you that this article contains spoilers for the HBO series Watchmen, consider these words a second warning. We hope, for your own good, that this will be sufficient.
This week’s episode of Watchmen, like many episodes of Watchmen, featured a big twist: Doctor Manhattan, the one character in Watchmen with genuine superpowers, has not been living on Mars as most of the show’s characters believed, but instead has taken up residence in Tulsa, Oklahoma, disguised as Calvin Abar (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the unassuming—and until now, irrelevant to the plot—husband of Angela Abar (Regina King). Dr. Manhattan has glowing blue skin; Jon Osterman, the human being who became Dr. Manhattan after being irradiated by an “intrinsic field subtractor,” had white skin; Cal Abar, hiding in plain sight, has brown skin. But although you’d have to be Dr. Manhattan (or at least Adrian Veidt) to have figured out Cal’s secret identity in advance, once you know who he is, it becomes apparent that prior episodes were packed with clues.
Actually, it’s probably a mistake to call most of these “clues,” given that they don’t provide enough information to solve the mystery. They’re closer to Chinatown’s repeated images of vandalized symmetry—eyeglasses with one broken lens; two identical pocket watches, one smashed; Jake Gittes’s nostrils—all of which play as a sick joke on a rewatch, after you know what happens to Evelyn Mulwray. Watchmen isn’t as sadistic as Chinatown, but most of the show’s allusions to Doctor Manhattan are examples of the writers having fun with things they know that the audience does not, which is to say the show is constructed to reward repeated viewing, not to allow viewers to anticipate the plot. Here are the biggest things that play very differently once you know that Cal is Dr. Manhattan.
The Giant Blue Vibrator
Let’s start with the biggest clue of all. In the third episode of Watchmen, we see Laurie Blake holding a gigantic blue sex toy, the signature color of her ex-boyfriend Dr. Manhattan’s frequently-exposed penis (as well as the rest of his skin). Blake is actually Dr. Manhattan’s second love interest in the Watchmen comic books—like an ageless god or a run-of-the-mill rich man, he eventually leaves his aging human wife for Laurie Blake, who was still a literal teenager at the time. Eventually he leaves Blake, too, along with the rest of humanity, to decamp for Mars. By the time he briefly returns to earth, Blake is seeing Dan Dreiberg, a character who has not yet appeared on HBO’s show (unless he’s in disguise). We know, because HBO posted the blueprints online, that Laurie’s vibrator was a parting fuck-you gift custom-designed by Dreiberg, who was angry she hadn’t gotten over Dr. Manhattan. We also know that Dreiberg—a big fan of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King in the comic books—gave his invention a suitably Arthurian and suitably phallic name: “Excalibur.” Dr. Manhattan, the owner of the penis Excalibur is modeled after, is Laurie’s ex, and he is living under the name Cal Abar. Whoa! (More predictive fun with names: Cal’s surname is a reference to the 1977 movie Abar, the First Black Superman.)
Maybe I’m Dr. Manhattan
The scene in which Will Reeves briefly claims to be Dr. Manhattan does a lot of expository work for the big reveal, introducing the idea that Dr. Manhattan could undoubtedly appear in any form he liked, including that of a black man. On first viewing, it appears to be a straightforward scene in which Will is taunting the police officer who has detained him, before being outsmarted by her coffee-mug/DNA trick.
Rewatching the scene after this week’s episode reveals that it is also about something entirely different: Will is hinting to Angela that he knows who Dr. Manhattan is, and knows that she knows; Angela is cool enough to give him nothing in return. Also note the glowing blue light from the coffeemaker, conspicuously in-frame on Angela’s side of the screen in the wide shot. Angela is often associated with Dr. Manhattan’s signature color—in the fourth episode she spends a whole scene in her kids’ glowing blue, outer-space-themed room—but it’s hard to tell if this is a clue to the fact that she knows who Dr. Manhattan is, misdirection intended to make the audience suspect she is Dr. Manhattan, or random noise caused by the limited number of colors visible to the human eye. That’s Watchmen-induced apophenia for you!
The White Night
Angela’s memories of the White Night, a Christmas Eve attack on police officers by white supremacists, are the clearest example of the writers having fun with the fact that they know more than the audience does. On a rewatch, it’s a feast of misdirection. Dr. Manhattan famously—and annoyingly, to people who have to have conversations with him—experiences time non-linearly, living through everything that has ever happened or ever will happen to him at the same instant. So here we see Cal behave in the most un-Dr.-Manhattanish way possible: impatiently watching the clock because he can’t wait to see what he got for Christmas. Even if Dr. Manhattan didn’t have x-ray vision—he can see quarks, so wrapping paper can’t be much of an obstacle—if he wanted to know what he was getting for Christmas, he could simply consult his memories of the future. (Also, Cal’s “I’m opening up that present in exactly 30 seconds” is, in retrospect, classic Dr. Manhattan non-linear time dialogue—compare it to, e.g., “In twelve seconds time, I drop the photograph to the sand at my feet, walking away. It’s already lying there, twelve seconds into the future.”) The fact that Cal cannot see the future, combined with his immediate agreement that Dr. Manhattan could not take the form of a black man in a later scene in which Angela mentions Will’s theories, indicates that Cal either doesn’t have Dr. Manhattan’s powers or doesn’t know how to use them. The fourth episode, too, has a moment where the writers are pranking the audience: Angela asks Cal what he’s reading (Things Fall Apart) and spoils the ending because she is trying to piss him off. Dr. Manhattan does not care about spoilers.
The biggest open question about Dr. Manhattan is how much his ex knows about his current whereabouts and disguise. She seems to know more than Cal, who doesn’t seem to recognize his ex-girlfriend when they meet again at Judd Crawford’s funeral:
And it sure seems like she might know as much as Angela. They share a car ride in the fourth episode that plays, on first viewing, like a game of cat and mouse between an FBI agent and a cop with something to hide. But it plays equally well as a game of cat and mouse between an ex-girlfriend and the woman who replaced her. Beyond jealous curiosity, it seems like Laurie may also be trying to figure out whether or not Angela knows who Cal is, judging from the way she looks for a reaction after telling Angela that Dr. Manhattan was “no Cal.” And Blake’s loaded delivery of “Oh, an orphan—that makes sense,” is at least as much about Dr. Manhattan’s taste in women as it is about Angela Abar’s path to becoming a masked vigilante. Finally, Blake’s entire monologue about the psychology behind wearing a mask reads differently if she knows she’s talking to Dr. Manhattan’s new girlfriend. The scene works on multiple levels, and all of them are tense and uncomfortable, a Laurie Blake specialty:
Over its first season, Watchmen has obsessively recreated most of the comic books’ formal qualities, from the structure of individual chapters all the way down to the fonts, but until this week, the show hasn’t really tried for one of the original text’s most distinctive stylistic quirks: the way Moore and Gibbons make context and content bleed across panels through the extensive use of double meanings. Most famously, Watchmen has a showstopping sequence in which a newsvendor’s ramblings are in accidental dialogue with the text of a pirate comic book a nearby customer is reading. Here are a few panels:
The intercutting isn’t the trick here—the trick is writing text that makes perfect sense whether you read it as a standalone pirate comic, a standalone newsvendor’s monologue, or a dialogue between the two. HBO’s Watchmen occasionally gestures toward the comic books’ use of texts-within-texts with its prestige-cable-show-within-a-prestige-cable-show American Hero Story, but until now, it didn’t seem like the writers were going to attempt the kind of extended stunt writing that made Watchmen such a distinctive series of comic books. Now that we know Dr. Manhattan’s identity, however, it turns out that the Watchmen-style double-meanings were there all along. Hiding in plain sight.
Update, Dec. 2, 2019: This post was updated to include the origins of Cal Abar’s name.