Television

He Had to Go Back

With the Watchmen finale, Damon Lindelof finally exorcises the ghost of Lost’s polarizing ending.

Watchmen's Lady Trieu stands in the town square of Tulsa, a glowing booth behind her.
Watch out for falling squid. HBO

You have to be a real TV nerd to finish Watchmen’s finale—an episode that included weaponized crustacean weather systems, a white nationalist atomized into a carpet of bloody goo, the death of a god, and the maybe-creation of a new one—and think first of Damon Lindelof, the white, bespectacled mastermind of the series. But, being a TV nerd, that’s exactly what I found myself doing.

No one knows better than Lindelof, the co-creator of Lost, that finales matter. (Watchmen may continue for future seasons, but Lindelof has said he won’t be a part of them: For him, this was the only finale there will be.) The furious reaction to Lost’s hooey-bologna finale hit Lindelof hard, as he expressed in any number of soul-searching, shirt-rending interviews and pieces he wrote in the years immediately following. His most productive response by far though was just to make another TV show.

The Leftovers, a series about a grief-stricken planet, was completely sui generis: wild, intricate, deep, emotional, strange. Like one of its most famous episodes, it was a dream of a TV show, following only its own logic. It was also in a conversation with Lost, taking as its premise a mystery—why has 2 percent of the Earth’s population vanished?—that, as Lindelof said from the start, would never, ever be answered. Lindelof was making another obsession-worthy show, but he would not be putting himself in the position of having to pay off years of audience expectations with a single episode.

With Watchmen, Lindelof was ready to return to the scene of the crime. In  Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ famous comic, Lindelof was knowingly taking on a project laden with expectations and fans and that would appeal to the modern, clue-hunting, puzzle-solving TV community that Lost basically created. He was diving back into the pool, one that might be full of electric eels ready to zap him again for getting things wrong. Instead, he took everything he knew about making something precise yet huge, intimate yet mysterious, everything he learned about plot and payoff, and he got his show to walk on water. If anyone ever asks you what the upside to a chip on the shoulder is, just show them Watchmen.

The finale had a satisfying inevitability that made it feel to me like a save, in the baseball sense, rather than as exhilarating an outing as the episodes that have come before. It preserved the victory. After a head-spinning, time-hopping explanation of Adrian Veidt’s extraction from a moon of Jupiter—one that started with clandestine artificial insemination and ended with Veidt being frozen like a gold-plated Han Solo—the show began to methodically cash out its well-placed bets.

The storyline involving the white supremacist organization Cyclops, the Tulsa police department, and the White Night was tied up by the first of the episode’s villains—Sen. Keene—to do the villain-y thing of explaining their motivations and machinations to a captive audience. (It was one of several expository speeches designed to ensure the whole audience would definitely follow what was going on.) Next came the wrapping up of Lady Trieu, whose story and motivations were almost the focus of the episode. After murdering the white supremacists, Trieu proceeded to murder Doctor Manhattan in order to become a god herself, only to be taken down by a large helping of freezer squid. One wrench to Adrien Veidt’s head later, and the only question left—a real doozy—is what will become of Angela Abar, whose husband left her one potentially incredible, definitely edible, egg. Will Angela Abar become the next Doctor Manhattan? Lindelof lets this one mystery linger.

It’s a potent, useful kind of lingering. Watchmen is a show that feels complete, even if HBO decides it wants more seasons. The show that comes after Angela eats the egg is not as interesting as the show that came before. It’s either the show we started with, but with lower stakes: The evil, racist cabal has been temporarily destroyed, and no one on Earth has real superpowers. Or, Angela has become an omnipotent being who will do more with her powers than Doctor Manhattan did, but who will still have the dull Dr. M quality of being a literal know-it-all. “He was a good man, but considering what he could do, he could have done more,” Angela’s grandfather Will says and he’s not wrong. As much fun as it would be to see Regina King as an activist god—correcting historical injustices, dispatching racists, destroying nukes—it might get a little predictable after a while. Deities have a way of controlling everything.

Will’s conversation with Angela, as they sit in the theater where the show started, safe from the cephalopods raining down outside, suggests to me one way to imagine what happens after the episode’s final frame. Will tells her that they—he and she, vigilantes, traumatized, most of all black—don’t put on masks because they are angry, but because they are hurt and afraid. “You can’t heal under a mask, Angela. Wounds need to air.” This is a TV show that reframed the Watchmen story as being fundamentally and historically about racial injustice. The show began during the Tulsa massacre, which was slowly revealed to be the origin story of the first masked vigilante, Hooded Justice, who as a black police officer realized that the law refused to provide real justice, so he put on a mask to get it himself. In asking who in America most needs justice, most desires justice, who most faces injustice, Watchmen didn’t just reframe its comic book source; it reframed all superhero sagas, all stories about men and women in capes and masks fighting the good fight. Will’s remarks highlight one final tweak. In either ending of the show, there’s Angela Abar fighting on, her face—black, or black and blue—plain for all to see.