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Watchmen 1.9 Review – ‘See How They Fly’

December 16, 2019 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Watchmen - See How They Fly Regina King
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Watchmen 1.9 Review – ‘See How They Fly’  

[Warning: spoilers abound for those who have not seen Sunday’s episode of Watchmen.]

Confession time, folks: the finales of HBO limited series make me nervous. It’s tough for me to go into a finale when, as typical with HBO shows, there’s so much still left to be answered. As a result, in many cases the bulk of a season’s final assessment must be laid at the feet of the last episode. And – well, let’s just say that I watched and reviewed True Detective season two all the way through to the end. What I’m saying is, I’ve been burned before.

That same situation was the case with Watchmen. As I mentioned in last week’s review, the finale had a hell of a lot of work to do in order to hit any point of conclusion, especially considering that this season may be the online one by design. Veidt’s storyline didn’t have an obvious direct connection to what was going on, we had two separate master plans to see through in Lady Trieu and Cyclops, the fates of Laurie and Looking Glass, whether Dr. Manhattan will survive – and that’s just the big plot points, to say nothing of little things like what’s going on with Will, if the Abar kids are really okay and such.

Fortunately, like its big blue naked supporting character Watchmen does the impossible. In the show’s case, I mean that it manages to avoid pulling a Lost and gives satisfactory to exceptional conclusions to all these points. Damon Lindelof had better be careful; between this and The Leftovers, he’s developing a reputation for a guy who can end a series with at least a reasonable probability of a satisfying conclusion, and that’s going to get people’s expectations up for the next big thing he does.

Watchmen Veidt

One of the biggest reasons why “See How They Fly” works is that it has a clear vision for where it wants to go. Too many series finales try to be too many things to too many people, satisfying different factions of the fandoms who want (or who they predict will want) very different things. This episode is under no such burden. Lindelof and co-writer Nick Cuse have their end goal and set up enough plot that every piece this episode moves is in service to reaching the end point. It’s an intricately plotted dance without any wasted motion.

Case in point: Veidt’s storyline. This whole season, the trio of Jeremy Irons, Tim Mison and Sara Vickers have made the excursions to Europa entertaining, even when there hasn’t been a particularly clear direction of where things are going. Of all the pieces in play, this was the one I was least confident about just because it was so cryptic and purposely so. That’s what makes it such a pleasant surprise when I found myself enjoying Veidt’s storyline the most in the episode.

Veidt is arguably the most complex character in Watchmen the graphic novel in terms of morals. I’m not saying there’s ambiguity in terms of whether he’s a good man; there isn’t, and he’s not. But there’s the ever-present debate about his actions were for the best. Ozymandias is essentially a subversion of the Magneto trope, the villain whose actions may be wrong but whose reasons are right. He does what may be the right choice, but for the wrong reasons. Even the most generous read of his graphic novel “how I did it” monologue makes it clear that his reasons for his plan are ego-infused as much as they are about saving the world. Veidt wants to be a hero, when he’s clearly not.

And that’s what brings us to his arc. On Europa, we learn that Veidt is the person who set his own rules of his imprisonment. He chose the Game Warden, gave him his role. He even made him wear the mask, all because he wanted a “worthy adversary” to pass the time before he could be rescued by Lady Trieu. Veidt used Europa — Jon’s paradise — to create a fantasy where he was the hero, a hero that murders countless of his servants and uses their bodies to affect his escape. He goes to leave Europa dressed in his Ozymandias gear, the victorious hero in his mind, right down to his circlet.

Watchmen Trieu Bian

Of course, the truth of the matter is that he’s anything but the hero of this story. Sure, he helps save the world, but that doesn’t make him a good man. Even his benevolent actions are to feed his own ego. When Lady Trieu comes and visits him to tell him she’s his daughter, he doesn’t have the briefest second for her until she calls him the smartest man in the world and dangles the carrot of recognition in front of him. Then he’s intrigued, at least for a little bit.

And that brings us to Trieu. Much like Cyclops, Trieu is in fact one of the antagonists of this story. I think it’s fair to say she’s a far more sympathetic antagonist; her motives at least don’t involve white supremacy, so there is that. But she’s also, as Veidt accurately points out, a malignant narcissist who under no circumstances should get Jon’s power. To use an HBO-to-HBO comparison, she’s kind of the Daenerys Targaryen of Watchmen in that as long as she’s doing bad things to the bad guys like Cyclops, we don’t mind. Trieu (and Dany before her, for that matter) are effective stand-ins for the dangers of tribalism in a very different manner than the tribalism of white supremacy. Mankind will forgive a lot of evil as long as it’s done to the right people.

Unfortunately for Jon, not all of Trieu’s evil is being done to the right people. Once Senator Keene is a hilarious mess of blood and tissue and Cyclops is vaporized, Trieu moves on to her plan to take Jon’s power. She wants to do good with Jon’s power, and that makes her very much like her father: ego-driven enough to believe she knows what’s best for the world and justifying the horrible things she does to get there. It’s a predictable but effective plot point that makes the same point with Trieu vs. Keene that Watchmen did with Veidt vs. the Comedian and Rorschach – it doesn’t matter what direction your worldview goes, because evil exists in all sociopolitical mindsets.

Watchmen Laurie

For some, that’s the kind of pessimism that turns them off of the story as a whole. And I can certainly understand that with Alan Moore and David Gibbon’s comic. But interestingly, I see the series – particularly the finale – as incredibly optimistic by comparison. Much of that centers on the most cynical character in the series in Laurie Blake. I can’t say enough good things about what a joy it’s been to see Jean Smart nail this role week in and week out; she’s sarcastic, biting and downright vicious when she wants or needs to be.

But Laurie also gets the moral turning point of the series when she puts Veidt under arrest. When Adrian scoffs at her attempt, positing that the world will end as it almost did before, she says, “Yeah. People keep saying than, but then it doesn’t happen.” Where Adrian can’t get past who he was, Laurie’s changed. This is an Agent Blake who is willing to give humanity a chance by telling it the truth, a sentiment that abjectly belies the criticism that Watchmen is just cynical nihilism.

Sure, there’s also plenty of that. But if a story is going to explore the pitfalls of power, colonialist attitudes, tribalism and populism, then maybe it can do more than just tear those things down. Alan Moore – and I say this with all the reverence in the world for him – pointed out the problems, but he didn’t do much to offer solution. That’s fine; that’s not the job of Watchmen on the page. With Watchmen the series, Lindelof seems to want to move beyond that and say “Okay, we have a problem. What are we going to do about it?”

And that, perhaps, may be the biggest rub that people will find with this series. There are some people who are going to hate what this finale does in serving not only as an updated look at the original story’s themes, but also an origin story for someone new in Angela. Through those very careful plot pushes and twists and nudges, Lindelof creates a situation where Angela may just be the new Dr. Manhattan. Many will latch onto the idea of a black woman taking on the godlike powers of a white male superhero and rail against it. But this is less about Angela’s racial identity than it is about who she is morally. Assuming she did get the power – the final shot doesn’t make that clear – she’s the person least likely to use it for corrupted purposes. Sure, she still might. She’s human, and we’re flawed creatures. But if someone in this series was to end up with it, she’s clearly the right choice.

And that’s where we leave off or, perhaps, end the story. Watchmen ends on a hopeful but uncertain note, which is the truest way it could have. Instead of being all about the violence and the pain and the vigilantism, Lindelof wants to move beyond that. “You can’t heal under a mask, Angela,” Will tells her. “Wounds need air.” You wouldn’t expect a character in this world to talk much about healing, but that seems to be sort of a thesis of the series. But it’s done in a way that recognizes that this isn’t all simple as it sounds. That, perhaps, is the final piece of the puzzle to make this, against all odds, a great series.

Watchmen Trieu

Some Final Thoughts:

• For those who are curious as to the identify of Lube Man from episode four, the Peteypedia files reveal that it is, in fact, the now-former FBI agent Dale Petey.

• I loved some of the Easter eggs in this episode, including Veidt catching the bullet as he did the one Laurie shot at him in the book and Keene wearing the same superhero underwear that Jon did back when he still wore clothes at one point.

• By the same token, lovely to see Archie make its return.

• Speaking of Keene, mad respect to James Wolk for finding a way to make Keene go full asshole villain while still maintaining his charm. Still glad Keene ended up a pool of blood, though.

• While I think that this season was all we needed and would be fine with that, I’d also love to see one more go to see what happens now that everything’s changed involving Veidt, Redford, Keene, etc.

• I never found the spot to mention it, but Lady Trieu’s name is a reference to a real woman in 3rd century Vietnamese history that helped the country resist Chinese occupation. Bian’s words in the prologue are a (mostly) direct quote of the real Trieu’s famous quote.

• If you haven’t listened to them yet, check out Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ three Watchmen soundtracks. They’re really, really good.

• Thank you, fellow Watchers, for following along with my Watchmen reviews! I appreciate that while not all of us agree on the particulars of whether or why the show was quality television, we all at least are likely confident in believing that Alan Moore probably hates most everything about it.

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
"See How They Fly" represents quite the accomplishment for Watchmen, as it succeeds in tying all the appropriate pieces together into a satisfying conclusion. It's fair to say that this was one of the best, if not the best, new shows on television in 2019. And while there are a few plot contrivances here and there to get the pieces in place, the finale is entirely successful on completing the arc of the series (for now).