A divine interlude in the tunnel of love: "Watchmen" and the intersection of comic books and faith

Two episodes of the HBO drama questions the nature of pop culture's religion before embracing the power of faith

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 10, 2019 8:02PM (EST)

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in "Watchmen" (Mark Hill/HBO)
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in "Watchmen" (Mark Hill/HBO)

Humanity’s fascination with gods has informed culture since the beginning of memory itself. The sway the Judeo-Christian God holds over American life is the most obvious these days, of course, but box office returns for the films of the DC and Marvel Cinematic Universes – Hollywood’s version of the nation’s collection plate – prove our unflagging zeal for superheroes.

Humans are wired for religiosity. What dogmas and guidance systems we choose to plug into that wiring makes all the difference. As such, many have discussed the ways that our mass adulation for comic book stories and legends parallels an increased pliancy to the notion that the wealthiest and most influential among us are somehow better suited to hold power.

But it’s very easy to refrain from contemplating this darker side of the superhero worship, because what keeps us returning to the altar are the heightened emotions of these stories – the operatic struggles, the exhilarating revelations, and the heartbreaks. All of this matters as much or more than the explosions and slugfests that demonstrate all the reasons that might equals right.

Throughout eight episodes of the nine-part “Watchmen” that have aired thus far, Damon Lindelof and his writers thoughtfully question some of these aspects of Western culture’s widespread superheroes deification, doing so through action and dialogue alike.

This is in the tradition of the original comic’s direction, where Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons question America’s mythologizing of omnipotent fictional personas — people who operate outside of the law, mete out their definition justice by using violence and sometimes deadly force. The fact that all of the comic’s central characters are white and a couple of them openly disparage minority groups is placed out front as text, not subtext.

Lindelof’s evolution of the story into an examination of America’s failure to reckon with its history of racist subjugation and colonization substantively evolves the initial aims of the “Watchmen” mythology. This is how the original Reagan-era indictment of capitalist warmongering believably sails into a 2019 where the topmost threat of annihilation, both in our timeline and the alternate version depicted in the series, is posed by racist animosity.

The writers also recognize that it’s impossible to take a look at stratification in America through such a prism without examining the intersection of cultural conquest and monotheism, specifically American Christianity. Putting it more simply, it scrutinizes the ways that America’s practice of throwing around its weight abroad is partly guided by an implication that our god is better that everyone else’s.

In “Watchmen,” the American god is named Doctor Manhattan. The twist lies in the truth of him. Doctor Manhattan has been referenced throughout this season but never seen. The official line is that he’s on Mars, but phone booths are placed around the world where people can talk to him, sending up pleas that go unanswered.

The common assumption is that in the way of all gods, he is beyond caring and refuses to revert to ancient times – the Vietnam era, in this case – where he adopted a more interventionist stance. But this could not be farther from reality. As it turns out, the lord of subatomic matter, time, and space has been walking among us for all this time in the body of a black man. We know him as Cal Abar (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), husband to Angela Abar (Regina King), who operates under the masked persona of Sister Night.

With the understanding that the entire season of “Watchmen” fits together as a whole, a paired viewing of Episode 7, “An Almost Religious Awe,” and the recently aired “A God Walks Into Abar” is essential to grasping its critique of the superhero-as-god complex.

But in contrast to the rest of the season’s barbed commentary on the mainstream portrait of saviors, these two episode ultimately reaffirm Lindelof’s curiosity about faith and the spiritual bent in much of his work, including “The Leftovers.” “A God Walks Into Abar,” however, most closely resembles the fourth season episode of “Lost” titled “The Constant,” which Lindelof wrote with his co-showrunner Carlton Cuse. (His writing partner on this episode is Jeff Jensen, the former Entertainment Weekly writer who rose to prominence by way of his intricate dissections of “Lost.”)

There are the obvious similarities in terms of flashbacks and non-linear leaps through time: both “The Constant” and “A God Walks Into Abar” are episodes about men unstuck in time who find an anchor to the here and now in the form of the women they love. Between Doctor Manhattan in "Watchmen" and Desmond Hume of "Lost," only Doctor Manhattan has seamlessly mastered the art of being in the now, then, and places-yet-to-be simultaneously.

Each story, disparate as they are, follows the common thread of people alone in the universe finding each other by some magic combination of purpose and destiny. Life doesn’t begin that way for Angela Abar. “An Almost Religious Awe” places us inside Angela’s childhood as she’s emerging from the memory-altering coma that resulted from her overdose on her grandfather’s nostalgia pills.

While her body recovers in Lady Trieu’s (Hong Chau) biodome of a lair, we see Angela as a child in Vietnam, which is now America’s 51st state. Angela spent her formative years here thanks to Doctor Manhattan’s role in winning the Vietnam War. He does this by transforming into a 100-foot-tall giant and decimating the Viet Cong with the wave of his hand, forcing them to surrender and delivering President Richard Nixon and America a decisive victory.

But before Doctor Manhattan is transformed into god born of science, he is a mere man – Jon Osterman, a nuclear physicist who gains his powers in an accident, one that could have been avoided if he hadn’t prioritized bringing happiness to the woman he loves.

He’s also an immigrant who came to the United States with his father to flee the Nazis in World War II. Later, even as he acts out of a duty to his country, it is an adopted homeland, much in the way Vietnam is to Angela.

In that same episode, Angela attempts for the umpteenth time to get her parents to let her watch a VHS of what appears to be a violent blaxploitation-style action movie called “Sister Night: The Nun with the Motherf**king Gun.”

This time, the ritual of plea and denial happens on VVN day, the celebration of America’s victory over the Viet Cong, which soon marks a dark anniversary for Angela. While she’s running back to return the video, a suicide bomber bikes into the crowd of soldiers where her parents are standing and detonates his explosive, killing her mother and father.

A country’s victory celebration is nearly always intermingled with pain. Without bloody loss, destruction and death, there would be no Independence Day. Calling these patriotic deaths honorable sacrifices may mitigate some of the sorrow in the short term; in the longer term their loss becomes part of a holiday’s legend, and the explosive instruments of death that took these lives – bombs, missiles, landmines – symbolically transform into fireworks. Dangerous still, but colorful, family-friendly attractions.

In “A God Walks Into Abar,” the root cause of the celebration and her parents’ murder strolls into the bar where Angela, now an adult and a police officer in Vietnam, drinks alone on Vietnam’s victory day, ignoring the revelry. To the rest of the world, it’s a party. To her, it’s a memorial.

Doctor Manhattan joins Angela at her table, hiding behind a mask at first. Never does he obscure his intentions, though. He tells her everything he knows about her, starting with what she’s going to tell him 20 minutes from their first conversational exchange to his boldest swing, which he knows as an inevitability.

He tells her he’s in love with her, and she loves him. Angela scoffs at this, informing Doctor Manhattan that she despises him. If not for Doctor Manhattan, she explains, the man who blew himself up and took her parents with him never would have been radicalized. Perhaps her parents would still be alive, and she would have a different life.

But Doctor Manhattan is a curious blend of human and god. He can exist in the past, present, and future in what is for him the same moment. The only section of time that he’s blind to, he explains, are the 10 years they have together – a “tunnel of love,” he calls it. He meets her in the before and informs her that the end, the after, will be marked by tragedy.

And as for the middle part, and what comes after that tragedy – what of those? Call them mysteries of faith. But the mystery and faith are experienced on his side, not ours.

To be with Angela, Manhattan accepts a device from Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), a man who once tried to destroy him. Veidt tells Manhattan that once the device is placed inside of his brain, it will erase the memory of his omnipotence and leave only his humanity. This is the tunnel Angela experiences with Cal, whom she leads to believe survived an accident that caused his amnesia.

(What’s interesting is that in their bar conversation Angela drops a line about Zeus, the Greek pantheon father figure famous for disguising himself in human form to seduce and procreate with unsuspecting women. Typically theme park “tunnels or love” are associated with Cupid – and the story of Cupid and Psyche, which involves faith, darkness, comas and forgetting, bears many more similarities to that of Cal and Angela.)

In exchange, and with gratitude, Doctor Manhattan sends Veidt –  a man obsessed with achieving utopia – to Jupiter’s moon Europa. This is where Doctor Manhattan has busied himself with creating a paradise devoid of want or sin or crime, and whose beings exist to love and serve. He gives Veidt Heaven, and Veidt eventually comes to see this paradise as a prison.

But let’s return to the beginning of the tunnel, when Manhattan is still wooing and persuading Angela. Weeks after their meet-cute, he gives her the choice of the form he’ll take, and this scene contains significant, intricate signals.

Angela takes him to a morgue and initially offers him the choice of three bodies with no next of kin to claim them.  One is Asian, the other two are white. Manhattan informs Angela that since he wants to assume the body of a man she would be comfortable with, she should choose. Following a moment’s hesitation, a note Angela wears on her face, she opens a fourth drawer, containing a black man: Calvin Jelani, who died of a heart attack. This is the man she would be comfortable with, she says, and so that is the form Doctor Manhattan takes.

The Bible contains a number of directives about embracing the outside, the alien. “You shall also love the stranger,” reads Deuteronomy 10:19, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And Angela, in Saigon, is a stranger in a land that is supposedly America, owing to her skin color.

That Doctor Manhattan, a god who used to be a European man, would choose a form that causes deep discomfort among white Westerners and other cultures, is a significant demonstration of love and loyalty. (In the previous episode, Angela tells her grandmother before she dies that she was drawn to the “Sister Nun” movie cover because the character drawn on the cover looks like her.)

This is an addition to the drama’s overall intent of interrogating whiteness and white supremacy, certainly. But it also adopts a spiritual tone, making the bombshell reveal of Cal as Doctor Manhattan more of an affirmation of divinity as opposed to an act of identity politics. Make no mistake, though – it is both.

These episodes are additional examples of the ways that “Watchmen” defies conventional superhero franchise entertainment plotting. What mystical or science fiction elements lurk within its narrative are somehow connected to science. This also is true of Doctor Manhattan’s origin story: his powers are the result of a romantic gesture alloyed with tragic mishap in which his “intrinsic field,” i.e. his flesh, is obliterated, transforming him into a being of pure energy.

Lady Trieu’s immeasurable wealth and casual command of science, including the art of genetic cloning, are a camouflage for her own god complex, one in which she is the only force that can stop a super-powered Seventh Kalvary without an equal force to keep her in check. Her assumption from her encapsulated viewpoint is that only she has the vision and the means to use her might wisely. And she’s probably right. So why doesn’t the viewer automatically trust in her? The answer is in the show’s alternate history, where men who styled themselves as gods killed millions for the greater good and yet somehow witnessed the world worsen.

The story of Doctor Manhattan as Cal, Angela’s doting husband, is more than a little divinely informed as opposed to what we know about Lady Trieu. Lindelof and Jensen drop plenty of details into the plot to set up the finale and perhaps to ignite a glimmer of assurance that the “good” guys will prevail.

Allusions to Cal as a Christ figure abound: It begins with Doctor Manhattan’s opening pick-up game, when he places the choice of pursuing a relationship entirely in Angela’s hands – concretely requiring her to accept him into her heart. (A nun, after all, is a bride of Christ.) Shortly before it ends, he teleports into their backyard and stands on the surface of their pool’s water, making sure Angela sees him walking on water.

“It’s important, for later,” he cryptically explains.

Despite the tragedy Cal warns Angela about – which comes to pass in the shocking final seconds of their love story – throughout his narration he reminds Angela many times before they head into that tunnel that he is all-seeing and all-powerful, and he has the ability to choose where his energy may go.

For Angela, his unconventional interpretation of time is the source of massive frustration. It also persuades this hardened, lonely person to open her heart to the strange, holy journey he offers. Until their meeting, that was hard to come by for a woman whose links to her family history has been severed, who presumes she has no one . . . until a living god approaches her at a bar, gives her reason to have hope, and buys her a beer.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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