It’s amazing, really. In just two episodes, Watchmen has become my favorite TV show of my work week. The show has mostly focused on telling its own story. It presented a thoughtful continuation of the comic’s storyline. And unlike Doomsday Clock, it doesn’t have to worry about trying to integrate Watchmen’s dysfunctional, compromised heroes with the rest of DC’s characters. So far, it’s made for a better, more logical story. Of course Rorschach’s journal wouldn’t have undone the peace after it was published. He sent it to a fringe right-wing newspaper. It stands to reason that, in an America that elected Robert Redford president, the journal would be written off as conspiracy theory. Only far-right extremists would take it seriously.
The show spent two episodes letting us get to know its new world and characters. Characters from the comic have only appeared briefly. All we’ve seen up to this point are a few scenes of Ozymandias. While strange and interesting, they’ve mostly been hinting at things to come. Now, three episodes in, it seems the events of the comic are coming to Tulsa. At least one character is. We open with Silk Spectre, now going only by Laurie Blake. Taking her, um, father’s name sure is an… interesting choice. It appears she hung up her costume years ago, and is now part of the FBI’s anti-vigilante task force. She hunts down vigilantes and arrests them. You know, given everything she went through in the comic, it tracks that she wouldn’t be to fond of masked heroes 30 years later.
The bureau sends her to Tulsa in the wake of Chief Crawford’s hanging. Between the masked cops and Rorschach-inspired white supremacists, they want to prevent a full-scale war from breaking out in small town Oklahoma. As you can imagine, she isn’t too keen on the whole cops wearing masks thing. Not that she’s a Seventh Kavalry supporter. When she arrives at a Tulsa police raid, she makes a show of asking a captured suspect if his rights are being violated before getting bored and saying she doesn’t care. This Silk Spectre is hardened and bitter. I’m definitely looking forward to watching her continued clashes with Sister Night as the series goes on.
You know there will be some, too. She meets up with Angela at Crawford’s funeral, and the first thing she says is a joke about how she can’t tell the difference between masked cops and vigilantes. She makes it very clear she doesn’t trust the masked heroes in this town. Even after Angela saves everyone’s life. A Seventh Kavalry member tunnels into Crawford’s funeral with a bomb strapped to his chest. He wants to take Senator Joe Keene Jr., who has ambitions of running for president, as a hostage. The Seventh Kavalry see him as a race traitor. Laurie, thinking he’s bluffing about the bomb being wired to his heart, shoots him. As the bomb starts beeping, Angela tells everyone to run while she drags the bomber’s body into the open grave and pushes the casket onto it. You might think such an act of heroism would change Laurie’s mind. But this is the former Silk Spectre we’re talking about. She’s had experience with heroes.
Later that night, she finds Angela checking out the Kavalryman’s tunnel. It quickly becomes clear that she knows way more about this case than she’s letting on. She noticed the wheelchair tracks by the tree where Crawford was hanged. And she noticed the secret compartment in Crawford’s closet. Curiously, all she found was a naked bust, though she’s willing to bet it had something on it when Angela found it the other night. As she points out, Silk Spectre has had some experience with secret compartments in closets. She says Crawford likely thought himself to be the good guy, and Angela probably thinks she’s the good guy for hiding his secret. Intentions don’t matter to her. At least for the time being, Sister Night and the former Silk Spectre aren’t going to be friends.
The story as we’ve known it doesn’t get too much forward movement here, and that’s kind of the point. What makes this third episode so good is that it’s an hour-long elaborate joke. Once again, the show proves itself to be a more faithful adaptation of Watchmen than any retelling of the comic’s story could ever be. Watchmen isn’t a classic because it’s a well-told story, though that certainly does help. It’s a classic because it explored the boundaries of what can be done with a comic book. With supplemental materials, background details, and seemingly unrelated tangents that become super important, the original comic was a meditation on how stories are told in comics. Now, this show is trying to do the same for TV. This week, it does that with a brick joke.
If you don’t know the brick joke, Laurie gives us an example of one in the phone message to Dr. Manhattan that frames the episode. (In another cool instance of world building, there’s a service that allows you to send recorded messages to Mars in the hope that the naked blue man will listen.) Basically, you start telling one joke that ends with a brick being thrown into the air, then you say you messed it up and start another joke. The second joke then ends with the brick from the first joke coming back into play. Interestingly, the second joke Laurie tells involves three heroes from Watchmen, Nite Owl, Ozymandias, and Dr. Manhattan, dying and confronting God, who sends them all to hell. The joke ends with the brick from the first joke landing on God’s head, killing him. Where do gods go when they die is certainly an interesting question for any DC property to raise.
The hilarious and genius part of the episode comes right at the end, when it reveals itself to be an hour-long Brick Joke. Remember last week’s episode ended on a strange cliffhanger. Angela put the old man she learned was her grandfather into her car, and her car shot up into the air. Just as Laurie finishes telling her joke and hangs up, the car, now empty, falls to Earth right in front of her. We ended in the middle of a story last week, began this week with a completely different one and ended with a metaphorical brick crashing down from Mars. This is the adaptation Watchmen always deserved.
I am still a little disappointed that we didn’t get much in the way of story here. If it weren’t for the brick joke, the entirety of this episode would have been a pause so we can get a new/old character into the mix. I want to know more about the old man in the wheelchair. I want to know more about the Klan robe Crawford kept in his closet. I really want to know more about what Ozymandias is trying to accomplish. This week it involved a homemade spacesuit/diving suit. It’s unclear at the moment. All we see is that his clone servant suffocated inside. And we got to see him put on his old costume, which was nice even if it doesn’t tell us much.
The episode was so well put together that I don’t mind the lack of answers. I’m glad that, even with a short 9-episode run, it’s still finding time to do something surreal and metafictional like this. I’ve been wondering how any ending could pay all this off. These first three episodes, though, showed that the series’s strong start wasn’t a fluke. And even if the ending can’t possibly cash these checks, I’m glad it’s giving us such a strange ride.
Watchmen airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO
Previously on Watchmen: