Television

The Casual Viewer’s Guide to WTF Is Going On in Watchmen

HBO’s superhero series is superconfusing. We’re here to help you understand the first eight episodes ahead of the finale.

A man in a black suit with blue skin stands over a blue mask on the ground. Question marks surround the scene.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mark Hill/HBO.

There’s only one episode of HBO’s Watchmen left, and Sunday’s explained much of what’s happened so far—albeit in a time-scrambled fashion that’s only fully intelligible to blue-skinned superbeings. In case you are not a blue-skinned superbeing, we’ve put together this guide to attempt to answer some of your most burning questions.

I can’t believe Watchmen is almost over! And I also can’t believe how confused I still am! Can you help?

That is what I’m here for.

Let’s start with … Doctor Manhattan was Cal Abar all along?

Indeed he is. Or was. (Tenses tend to get awfully confusing around him.)

But when Angela calls Cal “Jon,” he seems confused. Doesn’t he know he’s Doctor Manhattan?

In fact, he does not. “A God Walks Into Abar,” the series’ eighth episode, lays out the details, albeit in a somewhat scrambled chronology. Cal doesn’t really exist, at least in any straightforward way: Calvin Jelani was just the name of the dead man whose form Jon Osterman took to make Angela more “comfortable.”

Wait, one sec: Isn’t Cal’s last name Abar, not Jelani? Where did that come from?

Watchmen doesn’t explain where Cal got his—and eventually Angela’s—surname, but at least in our reality, it’s clearly a reference to the landmark, if largely forgotten, blaxploitation movie Abar, the First Black Superman. (According to Peteypedia, the world-building online supplements collated by the show’s fanboy FBI agent, Watchmen’s universe does include a movie called The Black Superman, regarded as “an on-the-nose spoof of Dr. Manhattan.”) So we don’t know why he picked it, except that Angela’s family seems to have a history of choosing names that overlap with those of on-screen heroes: Her estranged grandfather, who would become the first masked vigilante, Hooded Justice, calls himself Will Reeves, a name that aligns with both his childhood hero, Bass Reeves, and George Reeves, who played the TV Superman for most of the 1950s (not to mention Christopher Reeve, who played the Man of Steel in the Superman movies of the ’70s and ’80s).

How did Angela explain Cal’s lack of memory?

Angela told Cal, and everyone else, that he’d been in a car accident and had total amnesia. Perhaps as a nod to the man who made it possible, she told the authorities that he’d last been employed by Pyramid Global Construction, one of Adrian Veidt’s companies.

This is all still in 2009, right? But most of Watchmen takes place in 2019. What happened over the next 10 years?

Angela and Cal lived as husband and wife, moving from her home in Vietnam (which, thanks to Doctor Manhattan, became the 51st state) to her ancestral home of Tulsa, Oklahoma, as a way of wiping the slate clean.* They adopted three children—although how that happened is one of the few things Doctor Manhattan can’t see/predict/remember—and Angela went from being a uniformed police officer to a costumed one once the police were forced to wear masks. That catches us up to where Watchmen, the HBO series, began.

You said their kids are adopted. But doesn’t one of them—the boy with the long hair—have powers that are at least a little like Doctor Manhattan’s?

He does! You remember more than you thought you did. Their son Topher is indeed seen levitating objects, constructing something that looks a lot like Doctor Manhattan’s Martian hangout. Jon explains during his first meeting with Angela that he could, in theory, place his powers into an object that, when consumed, would pass them on to another person. How he could have done this without knowing he had any powers to pass on is … something we might find out in the final episode. But it’s worth remembering, not only because of Topher, but also the scene where Angela sees Doctor Manhattan walking on their swimming pool—which is filled with water, which is a substance that can be consumed. “It’s important for later,” he tells her. You can bet it will be.

Before we get to the end of the episode—So. Many. Questions.—what’s going on with Adrian Veidt?

I’m glad you asked. We’ve known since Episode 5 that Veidt’s house arrest—OK, mansion arrest—isn’t taking place, as it appears, in the English countryside, but on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, and his carefully cropped SOS—“SAVE ME D-”—made it seem likely Doctor Manhattan would be involved somehow. It turns out his exile was engineered by Dr. M, but as a reward and not a punishment. Toward the end of the Watchmen comics, Doctor Manhattan muses that he might try his hand at creating human life, and it turns out he did just that.

The problem was that Europa’s clones were created to serve, and Doctor Manhattan doesn’t need anything from anyone. Adrian Veidt, however, has plenty of needs to fulfill, so after Adrian hands him the memory-erase ring, Doctor Manhattan proposes that Adrian take his place on Europa. Adrian jumps at the chance, but something clearly went wrong along the way, perhaps because, like his namesake, this Ozymandias found he had no worlds left to conquer.

OK, so: Adrian Veidt has been on Europa this whole time, being served by an endlessly replenishable army of subservient clones. (Man, this show is weird.) So who is the Game Warden, and why does it seem like the clones whose only purpose was to serve Veidt have turned on and imprisoned him?

Adrian Veidt has been plotting his escape for years, and killing hundreds of clones to do it—the message he writes on Europa’s surface is spelled out with pieces of their frozen bodies. And they’ve been OK with it, or at least incapable of rebelling against him. But the Game Warden, who we learn is actually the original, and thus most evolved, Mr. Phillips, has already been abandoned by his previous master and seems dead set against it happening again with Doctor Manhattan’s successor. So they convene a trial, and rule Adrian Veidt guilty of trying to leave, which is how he ends up in a dungeon in the post-credits scene.

Wait, there’s a post-credits scene?!

There is. I suggest you watch it.

OK, give me a minute. But while I’m doing that, can you explain what’s happening in the present day with Cal? I mean, Doctor Manhattan. I mean …

It’s OK. I get it. After getting wind of the Seventh Kavalry’s plans, Angela wakes Doctor Manhattan up (hammer, skull, etc.), and though it takes him a few minutes to collect his consciousness, he eventually sees their plan clearly: They’re going to use a tachyon cannon to teleport him against his will and then destroy him in order to give his powers to Sen. Keene, who told FBI Agent Laurie Blake—also one of Doctor Manhattan’s ex-lovers—that given the tough lot of white men in America, he “might try to be a blue one.” Given that Keene is allied with, and possibly leads, the Seventh Kavalry, having that kind of power under his control would be … extremely bad. (The space where Laurie’s sitting when he tells her this contains what looks like a version of the intrinsic field subtraction chamber Adrian Veidt used to try to kill Doctor Manhattan in the comic, which suggests an alliance, or at least a relationship, between the various factions. But back to that in a minute.)

Angela naturally wants to stop the Seventh Kavalry, but Doctor Manhattan informs her it’s too late. They’re already right outside their house, and though Angela and Cal put up a good fight, it ends just as he said it would: tragically. It seemed like the two of them had killed all of the attacking Kavalrymen, but someone appears behind the tachyon cannon just long enough to fire it, and Doctor Manhattan is teleported away.

Right, but who fired the cannon? Like you said, it seemed as if all the Seventh Kavalry members were dead.

The figure who activates the cannon is out of focus, seemingly disappearing as suddenly as he or she appeared—and on a show as carefully calibrated as Watchmen, there’s no way that’s an accident. We’ll almost certainly get a definitive answer in the final episode, but I’ve got an idea … sort of. You want to hear it?

Sure, why not.

OK. So let’s go back to that post-credits scene. In it, we see Adrian Veidt receiving a cake with seven candles on it, presumably marking his seventh year on Europa. If Doctor Manhattan teleported him there in 2009, that means it’s 2016, still three years before Watchmen’s present day. At that point, Doctor Manhattan is still asleep in Cal’s body, so teleportation’s not an option—but what if Adrian Veidt, last seen using a horseshoe to dig his way out of his jail cell, found a way to physically transport himself back to Earth? The Voyager 1 probe made it from Earth to Jupiter in less than two years, which gives Adrian Veidt at least a year to build himself a spaceship and still make it back in time for the unveiling of the Millennium Clock. Or to hitch a ride back on someone else’s: We learned earlier that Lady Trieu launched the world’s first “microfusion” spacecraft years ago, at age 30, meaning that she could have sent one to pick him up.

Regardless, we know Lady Trieu reveres him, and we know she pressed a couple into selling their farm just before an object crashed into it from space. We also know that she’s Vietnamese and that she took her name from a legendary warrior against colonial invasion. Wanna guess how she feels about Doctor Manhattan, who single-handedly destroyed the Viet Cong and allowed the U.S. to annex Vietnam? (A newspaper article in Peteypedia’s files confirms that she’s dedicated to Vietnamese independence and obsessed with Doctor Manhattan—though probably not, as the breathless society reporter speculates, in love with him.)

So Lady Trieu and Adrian Veidt share a common enemy—if not substantially more—and some messianic views about molding the future of humanity. Messianic enough to ally themselves with the Seventh Kavalry? Maybe so, or maybe they’re just working toward the same end from different directions. But there’s definitely some kind of overlap: The mind-control technology the racist secret society Cyclops was testing out when Will Reeves was a beat cop seems like a cousin to the device Adrian Veidt used to psychically traumatize millions. And look at the symbol with which J. David Keene—father of the current senator and author of the law that criminalized masked heroes—signed a letter to Sheriff Dale Crawford, owner of the Klan robes found hidden in his late grandson’s house: a cyclops eye that also looks, unmistakably, like a squid’s, and which appears again behind the current senator at the Seventh Kavalry’s hideout.

That … doesn’t explain who fired the cannon.

It does not! But it does mean that the Seventh Kavalrymen, who mostly seem like shotgun-toting rednecks, are at least connected to some pretty high-tech folks—remember the watch batteries they were collecting in the first episode, full of the synthetic lithium Doctor Manhattan created to get the U.S. off fossil fuels? And the scene where they shoot hoops with a teleporter? And one of Peteypedia’s entries raises the possibility that Lady Trieu’s Millennium Clock might have something to do with time travel. Even in a world where omnipotent blue men can create life on a barren hunk of rock, that seems like a stretch—if time travel were possible, Doctor Manhattan would have figured it out by now. But teleportation is definitely within their grasp, and you can picture either Lady Trieu or Ozymandias himself just itching to pull the trigger and zap Doctor Manhattan into their trap.

It also doesn’t explain why Doctor Manhattan—a character who seemingly saw all this coming—didn’t get out of the way!

Doctor Manhattan has a weird relationship to fate. He sees everything coming, including his own actions, so the reason he doesn’t step out of the way is because … he didn’t step out of the way. (Dealing with stuff like this is why Angela broke up with him back in 2009.) It’s possible it’s all part of some greater plan, that it’s the only way to defeat the Seventh Kavalry or foil Lady Trieu’s presumably evil plan, or just to save Angela and their children. There are also tachyons involved, and as both the comic and the show have established, they’re the one thing in the universe that messes with Doctor Manhattan’s omniscience. For now, we can only say it’s a question we’re definitely meant to be asking, and just as definitely not to be able to answer.

I somehow feel like I have more questions now than when we started, but I’m also powerfully in need of a nap. So just one more thing before I close my eyes: What the heck is up with Lube Man?

Dude, I have no idea.

Correction, Dec. 9, 2019: This post originally misstated that in Watchmen, Saigon became the 51st state. The state is Vietnam, not Saigon.