As a young boy, Watchmen’s Jon Osterman had no idea that he would one day grow up to be the closest approximation of a god that anyone would ever live to see or that he would fundamentally alter the course of history in nearly unimaginable ways. But this week’s episode posits the idea that for all of his superhuman powers, Doctor Manhattan never really stopped being human.
“A God Walks Into Abar” isn’t exactly Doctor Manhattan’s origin story, which for the sake of the HBO series still more or less mirrors the comics, but it expands upon the details of his life and more intricately intertwines his destiny with the whole of humanity’s future.
The world is very much on the brink of a devastating cataclysm that few other people in existence are prepared to deal with, and now that time’s almost truly run out, Watchmen raises the stakes by giving us a fascinating glimpse into how Doctor Manhattan perceives reality itself.
Towards the end of the previous episode, Watchmen focused on how close a much younger Angela almost came to being whisked away from a Vietnamese orphanage. If only her grandmother June hadn’t died just after travelling to the 51st state to find Angela and head back to Tulsa where their family had roots. As the most recent episode opens, though, you see that an adult Angela never left Vietnam after those events and eventually, the future masked cop followed through on her plan to join the police force in Saigon.
The episode begins in 2009, on an evening when Angela returns to the same corner where her parents were killed by a suicide bomber. She settles in to have a drink by her lonesome in a bar where a number of drunken people are hanging out wearing various Doctor Manhattan costumes. Because Angela wants nothing more than to be left alone, and she’s quite good at projecting that energy outward without saying a word, she’s surprised when a man wearing a suit and with blue skin (plus a cheap Manhattan mask) comes up to her table and asks if she might have a drink with him.
Angela’s even more taken aback when the blue man accurately guesses that she’s there mourning her parents, but her shock quickly turns into bemused suspicion when he tells her that he knows about her past because she’s told him about it in the future.
Angela doesn’t initially believe the man’s story about being the real Doctor Manhattan, but she’s somewhat intrigued and muses that he must be on some sort of Zeus-like mission to descend from the heavens to masquerade as a human and rub shoulders (amongst other things) with the local mortals.
Angela, like everyone else in the world, knows Doctor Manhattan’s meant to be somewhere up on Mars fiddling with one of his incomprehensible projects, but the man informs her that the being currently being observed off-planet is something akin to an echo of himself that’s going about a set of predetermined actions to fool everyone into thinking that he’s still there. In actuality, the man explains, he’s been spending the past 20 years on Europa where he successfully terraformed the moon and created new life.
As Angela and Doctor Manhattan have this conversation (set before the events at the start of the series), the episode repeatedly shifts its focus through time in order to emphasise that for Manhattan, all of the events in his life are happening simultaneously. Every moment he’s lived through is something he’s currently experiencing and while Angela will find it interesting at the beginning of the relationship, it’s something she’ll come to loathe about him.
As the pair are chatting in the bar, Manhattan is also, in a sense, still on Europa waving his hands about and creating new life on a world that was once a void. Angela readily jokes about how he’s far from the first man to create a living thing in under two minutes, but she realises he’s being serious when his story turns to how he also created two humanoid beings—a sort of Adam and Eve to live in the Eden of his creation.
Up until this point in the series, Watchmen’s subplot about Ozymandias living out his days in a palatial mansion staffed by adoring clone servants has been something of a distraction that didn’t seem to have much connective tissue to the main plot lines, but “A God Walks Into Abar” makes clear just how these threads are connected.
The man and woman Doctor Manhattan created on Europa aren’t just any two random people, they’re the same beings we’ve been watching Ozymandias kill this entire season, and the mansion we’ve seen them all living in was put on the Jupiter-orbiting moon by Manhattan himself. Because Angela still doesn’t fully grasp Manhattan’s concept of time or believe his story, she’s sceptical of what he says, and so he looks further into his past to tell her of his life before he immigrated to America as a small child while fleeing the Nazis with his father.
Before the male and female clones were dutiful servants to Ozymandias’ every whim, they were actually the Lord and Lady of a house who were willing to do whatever they could to help anyone escape the fascism rising to power in Germany. Manhattan explains to Angela that while the Ostermans’ time in the mansion was brief, it was significant for Jon because it’s the place where he first witnessed people having sex. While hiding in one of the mansion’s many closets, the young boy is shocked to see the man and woman attempting to get it in, and when he accidentally drops an apple, the couple realises they’ve got an audience and hurriedly try to hide what they’re doing.
Some time later, the couple pulls Jon aside from the group of people staying at the house, not to punish him but to explain that what they were doing was an act of love—they were trying to make something with one another. The two adults might not have thought of it as a bribe, but they offered Jon a Christian bible as a kind of gift and when the boy explains that he’s never read one because his father is an atheist, they respond by telling him that he can still appreciate the book’s stories. What the couple wants in exchange for the Bible isn’t Jon’s silence, but rather that he make the two of them a promise: to go forth and create something beautiful of his own once he’s gone to America and become a man.
As far as additions to the source material go, this fleshing out of Manhattan’s origins works surprisingly well, as it gives you a better idea of just why he became the kind of person he ultimately did. Even though he would eventually express being disinterested in humanity, for a time after his transformation, he did still go through the motions of being a normal man and did things like become romantically and sexually involved with women. On some level, those sorts of things still held a degree of interest for him, and even after all those years he spent off-planet, that kind of human connection is still something he wants.
Angela finds all of this rather difficult to take at face value because a.) it’s ridiculous, and b.) she can’t imagine what Doctor Manhattan would be doing in Saigon hitting her up at a bar. But Manhattan matter-of-factly tells her that he’s there because he has always loved her, even if the moment he and Angela got on the same page about their feelings has yet to occur in the traditional sense. Again, for Angela and most of the people born in Vietnam, Doctor Manhattan represents the brutal power the U.S. was willing to use in order to turn the former country into the 51st state.
He’s the reason her parents were murdered and why she’s alone in the world without a family to call her own. Still, though, Manhattan persists because to him, their romance is an inevitable one that they’re both going to be willing to risk their lives to maintain. Even if Angela wanted to entertain the idea of dating Manhattan, she reasons that it wouldn’t be possible on any other night anywhere else because of his blue skin, but he reveals, that sometime in the near future, she will come up with a plan to hide his identity.
As one of the “perks” of being a police officer, Angela has access to all of Saigon’s recent dead, many of whom are people whose bodies go unclaimed by any next of kin before they’re cremated and forgotten to the world. Angela reasons that if Manhattan’s who he says he is, he could easily transform into that person, take their identity, and go on living as them without anyone being the wiser. This is how Jon Osterman takes on the form of Calvin Jelani, a physical shape that doesn’t mean anything to Manhattan other than the fact that it’s what will allow for him to live a relatively more normal life with Angela. One of the more clever things about the episode is the way it repeatedly emphasises Manhattan’s humanity by drawing parallels between his relationships with Angela and Laurie Blake.
As was the case with Laurie, Manhattan walks into Angela’s life and charms her off her feet with a mild display of his powers. Like Laurie, it doesn’t take long for Angela to fall for the man before subsequently deciding to leave him because of the way his powers make it difficult for her to feel as if he’s living in the present with her. While having sex with Jon in a flashback, Angela can sense that while he’s technically there with her, he’s also back at the bar, and in 1959 in Gila Flats where the intrinsic field generator tore his every molecule apart. For the whole of his existence since becoming Doctor Manhattan, Jon’s been living every moment of his life at all times, and while the idea horrifies Angela, she still needs her partner to be there for her because she’s human.
The episode also raises the idea that tragic fate or no, this specific kind of dynamic with Jon is just something that he willingly seeks out both because of the way he perceives time and because it’s something he’s just into. At multiple points throughout the episode, Angela’s anger at Jon stems from her belief that if he can “see” the future, then he should also be able to constantly change his future, because there’s nothing stopping him from simply avoiding potential outcomes.
Manhattan and Angela’s first major fight breaks them up, but eventually the pair end up back together, but not before the episode cuts to Antarctica of all places in 2009. It’s there a quite naked Manhattan trudges through the snow to pay Ozymandias a visit. Ozymandias’ is none too surprised when his former colleague announces his arrival because there’s very little that’s ever blindsided him, and he’s far more concerned with the fact that after all he’s done to “save” the world from nuclear annihilation, people still insist on developing nuclear technology.
Ozymandias does express a bit of disbelief that Manhattan’s now presenting himself as a black man because, well, it’s still blackface of a sort that Watchmen hurriedly glosses over.
So much of Watchmen’s world has appeared to be positively influenced by Ozymandias’ plan, but the episode establishes that the backlash to technological developments like wireless communications was, in fact, something Ozymandias’ didn’t expect, and to be quite honest, he’s pissed. He believes that humanity’s squandered the gifts he’s given it, and at this point in his life, all he can really do is live in obscurity, watch the news, and repeatedly orchestrate the rainfalls of baby squids that still freak people out in the present.
Manhattan’s reason for coming to see his old friend, though, is simple. If there’s anyone in the world who might be able to devise a way for him to live as a human so that he might be with Angela, it’s Ozymandias. Unsurprisingly, he’s right.
Ozymandias would have been remiss if he’d never developed multiple plans to neutralise the man-turned-god, but the solution he offers to Manhattan is far more elegant than the last advanced weapon he attempted to use on him. “Plan A,” Ozymandias explains, was always meant to stand for “amnesia,” something he could afflict Manhattan with by use of a small metallic device meant to be embedded in the blue man’s head that would make him forget who he was.
Without his memory, Ozymandias reasoned that Manhattan would become functionally mortal again and lose the ability to use his powers, which is precisely what Manhattan wants in 2009.
But Ozymandias being Ozymandias, the solution comes at a price that only Manhattan could have ever paid. All Adrian Veidt ever wanted out of life was to be recognised for his genius—which he was for a period—and that’s something that can never happen on Earth because to reveal what he did with the squid would immediately destabilize whatever peace he actually managed to achieve.
Having grown bored of his Europaen’s undying admiration of him, Manhattan figures that they can trade, and suddenly Ozymandias’ presence on the manor and his present-day desire to escape it make sense because one imagines that he, like Manhattan, would have eventually gotten tired of hanging out with the clones as well.
In 2009, Angela and Manhattan’s plan for him to fully become Cal Abar isn’t something either of them is certain will work, but the uncertainty is what excites Manhattan even if his powers allow him to know that they do end up becoming closer, moving to Tulsa, and living like a regular couple. On the night of their first date, Manhattan reveals to Angela that they’re fated to become parents with one another and when she asks him whether their kids will inherit any of his powers, he explains that while he can pass them on to other people, he would only ever do so after obtaining their permission.
This particular moment of the episode feels as if Watchmen’s plopping a big, old Chekov’s gun right into the mix, but it becomes one of the less compelling elements of the story, as he also clues her in to the fact that there are significant moments of their time in Tulsa that he cannot perceive.
Tachyons are the only thing capable of obscuring Manhattan’s future vision, and it feels like whatever Trieu’s been working in the present might be related to Manhattan’s time blindness, or that the cause might have something to do with the Seventh Kavalry. Another, even wilder idea that the episode subtly introduces is that Angela herself might be the source of Manhattan’s predictive dysfunction.
In 2019, Angela watches in amazement as a glowing Cal recovers from the bludgeoning she gave him in the last episode and attempts to shake off the residual disorientation that’s left over from having Ozymandias’ device buried in his brain. With the 7K on their way to murder Cal, all Angela wants for him to do is get his shit together so that they, and the children sleeping upstairs, can escape.
However, Cal’s more interested in conveying important pieces of information to her about his actions before the white supremacists show up. After terrifying the shit out of the kids by letting them see him walk on the liquid surface of the pool, Cal teleports their children away with a wave of his hand. When a panicked and furious Angela demands to know where they are, he tells her that he’s sent them all to Will, who’s at the Dreamland Theatre.
Cal goes on to tell Angela that the last bit of unfinished business he needed to tend to before leaving Vietnam with her was to travel to New York City, where Will was then living in Nelson Gardner’s old mansion. Like Angela, Will didn’t initially believe Cal’s story about being Doctor Manhattan, but he was similarly convinced once Cal phased through his front door and telekinetically moved a chair.
The reason Cal gives Will for his seeking him out is simple. He’d always known how desperate Angela was to have any connection to her family despite Will’s reluctance to seek her out and tell her his life’s story. In the present, a stunned Angela asks if Cal is speaking with Will in the past, and when he confirms that he is and that he’s willing to act as a conduit so that they can communicate, the only questions she has are about how Will could have known about Judd Crawford’s involvement with the 7K and that he was hiding a Klan hood in his house.
But, speaking through Cal from the past, a confused Will responds by saying that he has no idea who Judd is, and Angela immediately realises that by asking the question, she’s inadvertently set into motion the series of events that will lead to her present predicament. This sort of thing seems like an application of Manhattan’s abilities that could potentially lead to his not being able to hone in on a specific moment in time, but before either he or Angela can contemplate that, Cal informs his wife that the 7K is too close to their home for either of them to escape.
Jon’s accepts that the terrorists will be able to capture him, but that’s an idea Angela can’t abide by, and while he contently waits for what’s about to come, she breaks out the guns, ready to light up anyone who dares to step foot into their house. Even though he’s about to die and they’ve been together for a decade, Cal explains how that moment is when he knew he loved Angela, and even though he’s told her countless times, he once again explains that he’d seen all of this coming long before they met.
Right on time, the 7K pulls up to the Abar residence armed with a tachyonic cannon capable of hurting Cal, but before they can storm the place, Angela rushes out with her guns loaded and actually manages to take out more than a few of the racists. It isn’t long, though, before they’ve got her cornered behind a car, and just as it seems as if she’s lost, Cal reveals himself and proceeds to disintegrate the group of would-be murderers. For a fleeting few seconds, Angela genuinely believes that she’s proven Cal wrong about their future, but the 7K’s weapon suddenly activates seemingly on its own, and Angela looks on dismay as Cal’s ripped apart and sucked back into the contraption.
“A Man Walks Into Abar” closes back in 2009 as Angela and Manhattan’s first encounter is winding down, and much to Angela’s surprise, she more than game to see the strange man again even though he’s promised her that their relationship will eventually end tragically. They both know that all relationships run the course in due time no matter how passionate the love between people is. But with one episode left and Cal’s on-screen fate not yet revealed, things might not yet be over for the Abars.