Television

All Your Questions About the Watchmen Finale, Answered in Spoiler-Filled Detail

Regina King, in costume as Angela Abar from Watchmen, stands in a warehouse looking confused. Giant question marks are drawn all over the background.
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Photo Illustration by Slate. Photo by HBO.

On Sunday night, HBO aired the finale to Watchmen, Damon Lindelof’s television sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ legendary comic book. As is traditional for Watchmen, its final episode answered some questions—spectacularly!—but raised even more. Below are the answers to everything you might have wondered during the Watchmen finale.

What does the episode title mean?

“See how they fly” is a lyric from the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus.” (Spooky Tooth’s 1970 cover of the song plays over the credits.) The complete verse is:

Mr. City Policeman sitting,

Pretty little policemen in a row.

See how they fly, like Lucy in the sky,

See how they run.

That resonates with the finale’s final scenes of policemen fleeing a squid attack in terror, but the more important line is “I am the eggman,” for reasons that become clear by the episode’s end.

What is Bian talking about right before she impregnates herself with Adrian Veidt’s semen?

Bian’s line, as translated in the subtitles, is, “I want to ride the strong winds, crush the angry waves, slay the killer whales in the eastern sea, chase away the Wu army, reclaim the land, remove the yoke of slavery. I will not bend my back to be a slave. Fuck you, Ozymandias.” This is roughly the same as the historical Lady Trieu’s supposed reply to her brother when he asked her to stop leading a rebel army and act like a more traditional Vietnamese woman:

I only want to ride the wind and walk the waves, slay the big whales of the Eastern sea, clean up frontiers, and save the people from drowning. Why should I imitate others, bow my head, stoop over, and be a slave? Why resign myself to menial housework?

The explicit reference to the Wu army was presumably added to make it easier to recognize the quote; the significance of Veidt’s housekeeper replacing Lady Trieu’s original line about menial housework with a fuck you to Adrian Veidt is obvious.

What’s the deal with the elephants?

They’re a symbol of the historical Lady Trieu, who was said to ride an elephant into battle. (She was also said to have 3-foot-long breasts that she tied behind her back before going into battle, so who knows.) Watchmen’s Lady Trieu has adapted an elephant for her company logo, suggesting both her namesake and the memory-related work she did during the Nostalgia years. She also uses them as spinal fluid donors in the treatment process for Nostalgia overdoses.

What is Adrian Veidt talking about when he first sees Trieu’s Millennium Clock in action?

His lines are “Israel is desolate, and her seed is no more. Palestine is become a widow for Egypt.” This is an excerpt from the inscription on the Merneptah Stele, dating from 1208 B.C., the only surviving textual reference to Israel from ancient Egypt. The stele mostly deals with a military campaign Phaero Merneptah led against the Libyans, but the last lines deal with a campaign against Israel (although the some scholars dispute this interpretation). Wilhelm Spiegelberg, the first person to translate the stele after Flinders Petrie discovered it in 1896, rendered those lines (and the three that follow) this way:*

The people of Israel is laid waste,—their crops are not,

Khor (Palestine) has become as a widow for Egypt,

All lands together, they are in peace.

Every one who roamed about

Is punished by King Merenptah, gifted with life, like the sun every day. 

Veidt’s translation, using “seed” instead of “crops,” has obvious resonances when spoken by a man who believes he is about to watch his daughter become a god or die trying. The lines he omits, about an all-powerful ruler uniting the world and punishing evildoers, also seem apt. The Merneptah Stele was found right across the Nile from Karnak, the Egyptian temple complex that Adrian Veidt named his Antarctic retreat after. There’s more: Merneptah was the son of Ramesses II, whom the Greeks called Ozymandias. Say what you will about Veidt’s mass murders, he is very good at choosing appropriate epigrams.

What the hell was Cyclops trying to do?

Well, I guess the question is “When?” In 1947, with the help of a Queens businessman named Fred T., they have developed mind control technology and integrated it into harmless-looking movie projectors. It’s unclear if the riot Cyclops provokes in a Harlem movie theater is part of a plan to justify police crackdowns with a few carefully-placed riots, a plan to get people of color to self-genocide, or just a test of the system, but whatever it was, it ended when Hooded Justice killed everyone working on the project and stole the technology. (The lines between Cyclops, the Seventh Kavalry, and the Klan are blurry because they are all the same organization.)

Around 2016, Joe Keene hatches a new plan: He orders Seventh Kavalry members to murder police officers, in the hopes of sparking a war between the police and the Seventh Kavalry in Tulsa. (This part of his plan works exactly as designed.) Since Keene secretly controls the Seventh Kavalry, his plan was to mediate a peace between the police and the Kavalry, then use his reputation for successfully reaching across the aisle as the centerpiece of a presidential run in 2020. However, the events of the White Night—specifically the fact that one Kavalry member gets unexpectedly teleported to Gila Flats, New Mexico—tell Keene that Dr. Manhattan is in Tulsa, not on Mars. At that point, the Kavalry switched gears and dedicated itself to building a cage to trap Dr. Manhattan (for whatever reason, he can’t teleport through synthetic lithium), then transfer his powers to Sen. Keene. In Watchmen as in life, the centrist fixation on bipartisanship is a machine that white supremacists can harness to give themselves superpowers. In Watchmen, but not real life, they also build a literal machine.

What happens when Cyclops activates their machine?

Everyone in the immediate area is teleported to the Greenwood district in Tulsa, where Lady Trieu is waiting (and has apparently built part of her quantum centrifuge into the lamposts in the city’s historic Greenwood District). Cyclops used a lot of equipment stolen from Trieu Industries during its construction, which Trieu apparently altered so that the Seventh Kalvary’s machine would work differently than they believed. Given the great cost and grand scale involved in building the Millennium Clock, and the fact that nothing in their lair resembles a quantum centrifuge, it’s unlikely that their plan would have worked even without sabotage.

Why was Sen. Keene wearing that ridiculous underwear?

The original Dr. Manhattan went through a series of fights with marketing executives hired by the U.S. government to introduce him to the public over his costume. There’s a running gag in the comic books’ flashbacks that show Dr. Manhattan wearing less and less over time until he fully embraces wandering around with his junk out. The panels below show Dr. Manhattan’s original costume in 1960, and what it looked like in May of 1971.

Two excerpts from Watchmen. In the left, Dr. Manhattan is wearing a full-body superhero outfit; in the right, he is wearing a bizarre, v-shaped pair of underwear.
DC

Not too surprisingly, Keene has chosen to model his clothes after the outfit Dr. Manhattan wore while massacring people of color.

What killed Sen. Keene?

Keene goes into a chamber that he believes will transfer Dr. Manhattan’s powers to him, but instead, he gets turned into a slurry. In Lady Trieu’s words, “absorbing atomic energy without filtering it first is going to pop you like a water balloon every time.” Note that the dark red liquified blood and tissue that pour from Keene’s chamber echo his promise to “squeeze [Dr. Manhattan] like a grape and drink him all up.” Whoops!

Is it kind of badass when Lady Trieu kills Oklahoma’s leading white supremacists with lasers?

Yes.

Why does Lady Trieu have it in for Dr. Manhattan?

She explains to Veidt that she thinks he hasn’t used his powers wisely—Dr. Manhattan could end the threat of nuclear war, for instance, but hasn’t. But she also dislikes Dr. Manhattan for personal reasons: We know that Lady Trieu is making her “daughter” (who is, in fact, a clone of her deceased mother) re-experience her mother’s memories. Here’s one of them, from the fourth episode:

I had a nightmare. I was in a village. Men came and burned it. They made us walk. I was walking for so long. Mom, my feet still hurt.

According to Peteypedia, Bian’s village was destroyed by Edward Blake and his “Blazin’ Commandos,” but Blake worked closely with Dr. Manhattan during the Vietnam War. We also know that by 1985, Trieu’s mother was one of a group of Vietnamese refugees—presumably from North Vietnam—hired by Adrien Veidt to staff Karnak. So she wasn’t just dispossessed by Dr. Manhattan’s actions in Vietnam: She was dispossessed all the way to Antarctica, where she narrowly escaped being murdered along with the rest of Veidt’s servants to preserve Karnak’s secrets. So killing Dr. Manhattan is personal for Lady Trieu, and the memory treatments she is giving to her mother’s clone ensure that it is personal for her, too.

How does Laurie Blake feel about Dr. Manhattan spending his last moments of existence revisiting his time with Angela instead of his time with her?

Not great, I bet!

What does Veidt say before dropping frozen squid on Tulsa?

“Opus esse uno, unum cognoscendi.” His translation—“It takes one to know one”—is accurate, but for once he’s not quoting an ancient text, he’s translated an English maxim into Latin to give it unearned and unnecessary gravitas. What a phony.

So what was Dr. Manhattan and Will Reeves’ plan?

It was twofold: prevent Lady Trieu from gaining Dr. Manhattan’s powers and—at least on Will Reeves’ part—make sure those powers went to someone who would make better use of them than Jon Osterman had. (Will’s final assessment of Osterman—“Considering what he could do, he could have done more”—is brutal but apt.) To accomplish this goal, Dr. Manhattan transferred some of his powers into an egg in her kitchen—he got the idea from Angela—and left her enough hints and clues, in his bizarre way, for her to realize what he’d done: calling her attention to the eggs by attempting to make waffles with them, walking on water in her swimming pool so she’d know how to test the results. If there is a second season, outdoing Dr. Manhattan shouldn’t be a difficult bar for Angela to clear: Osterman had complete control over time and space and he used it to leave his wife for a teenager and become a tool of imperialism, then fled to Mars when his feelings got hurt. He made a pretty good dad, though.

Did the plan work? Does Angela have Dr. Manhattan’s powers?

We’ll find out in Season 2, if there is one, but the fact that the marquee of the Dreamland Theater ends up looking like this is probably a good sign:

Angela Abar and her family exit Tulsa's Dreamland Theater. The sign has been smashed by falling squid, leaving only the letters D R M illuminated.
HBO

What was Lube Man doing during all this time?

Well, if Lube Man, the bizarre figure in full-body reflective spandex who briefly appears in Episode 4 before diving into a storm drain and disappearing, turns out to be Special Agent Dale Petey, he was in Looking Glass’ bunker with the bodies of several Seventh Kavalry members. If Lube Man is not Petey, he was probably just slidin’ around in the sewers, doing Lube Man things.

Update: Peteypedia confirms that Dale Petey was Lube Man, and furthermore seems to have gone full vigilante after getting fired from the FBI shortly after the finale.

When, and in what order, did the major events in Watchmen happen?

Maybe this will help!

If Angela hadn’t figured out Dr. Manhattan’s plan and eaten the egg, is it likely that a blue “superchicken” would have hatched in her kitchen, leading to catastrophic results for the poultry industry and, indeed, humanity itself?

It’s not just likely, it’s certain.

Correction, Dec. 16, 2019: This post originally misspelled Wilhelm Spiegelberg’s last name.