“What happens when you mix masks with the administration of the law?”
This question has been a central theme in HBO’s Watchmen from the jump, and — as discussed in the first episode of HBO’s Official Watchmen Podcast, released just after episode three of Watchmen — showrunner Damon Lindelof reveals that he asked himself just that when conceiving of the nine-episode series with his writers’ room.
Episode three, titled “She Was Killed by Space Junk,” continues to explore this question in even greater depth and is rife with duality-heavy imagery, symbolism and characterization.
Laurie Blake, FBI
The line between lawful justice and costumed vigilantism becomes grayer with the introduction of Laurie Blake (née the Comedienne née Silk Spectre II née Laurie Juspeczyk) in this episode, played by the incredible Jean Smart.
“What’s the difference between a masked cop and a vigilante?” she asks protagonist Angela Abar upon first meeting her. When Angela says she doesn’t know, Laurie says, “Me neither.” As a costumed hero turned FBI Anti-Vigilante Task Force agent, Laurie represents both sides of the thematic coin. She had her fun moonlighting as a vigilante with former Watchman Nite Owl, but since then, her outlook on masks has significantly changed.
As revealed on Peteypedia, a site that contains canon ancillary materials that help to fill in timeline gaps between the Watchmen comic and show, Juspeczyk adopted the moniker the Comedienne as an homage to her late father, the Comedian, and then sometime later started going by his real last name, Blake. These are somewhat confusing developments because when we last left Laurie, she hated the Comedian for having sexually assaulted her mother, but it seems her sense of morality in the present day may be more closely aligned with his.
The character of Laurie is one of the few consistent criticisms of the comic series. She’s seen by many as one-dimensional and second fiddle to the men around her. Whether or not you agree with that assessment, it’s hard to argue that even in the span of just one hourlong episode, she’s now one of the most interesting characters in the Watchmenverse: a hero who modeled herself after her mother, then her terrible father; a vigilante turned vigilante hunter; a woman who cares for both a glowing blue godlike super-being and a nerdy everyman.
Most of this episode’s runtime is spent dissecting these dualities in her character. She fakes an elaborate bank heist just to arrest a masked hero, to the protestations of nearby civilians, whereas Laurie circa 1986 would have been the one wearing the mask. And despite her anti-vigilante crusade, she hasn’t stopped trying to reach ex-lover Dr. Manhattan via galactic payphone, though he’s allegedly been living on Mars for the past 30 years. And when she receives a surprise visit from Senator Joe Keene, who implies that he can help free her other ex-lover Nite Owl from police custody if she helps solve the mystery of who killed Tulsa Police Chief Judd Crawford, she reluctantly agrees.
Through the Looking Glass
Laurie's Tulsa investigation quickly brings her face-to-face with the new characters we've gotten to know over the first two episodes, and it's a smart choice to wait to bring this legacy character into the fold until a third of the way through the season. The badassery of Sister Night, Looking Glass, Red Scare and Pirate Jenny has already been well established, so when Blake arrives on the scene and is not all that impressed with any of them, it drives home how experienced she’s become since the comic and how little shit from vigilantes she's willing to put up with.
She takes turns pushing each character's buttons. When she meets Glass, she calls his interrogation pod a “racist detector,” knows his real name and even uses his mask as a mirror in which to clean her teeth. "You wear a mask on your face,” she says, “people are gonna use it.” Not used to being the one interrogated, Glass quickly becomes agitated, much to Laurie’s satisfaction.
She reveals that she’s already figured out Sister Night's true identity as well, but that's not all. After offering Angela a cup of coffee, Laurie tells her about Judd's secret compartment. Angela feigns surprise, but Laurie sees right through her act and asks Angela what was inside. When it looks like Laurie might have gotten to her after this confrontation, Angela instead makes a mock "ooh, I'm so scared" gesture, pours out her coffee and leaves the empty cup with Laurie, harking back to the scene in episode two where Angela swabbed DNA from a mug she’d offered her grandfather.
The two women are perfect foils to each other, having had similar but reversed career trajectories while still both being able to command any room (or funeral) they’re in. When Angela’s car crashes back down from space, just inches from Laurie, at the end of the episode, it’s the perfect visual representation of this dichotomy between the two characters. It perfectly mirrors the last scene of episode two, when Angela’s car containing her grandfather was lifted into space by a super-magnet attached to what seemed to be a high-powered spacecraft. Angela’s declarative “What the fuck?” was an expression of fear and confusion; aside from the occasional squidstorm, she hasn’t been party to any threats outside the bounds of Tulsa. But Laurie can only get out “What the—” before breaking out in cathartic laughter at the sight of the space junk that almost kills her; after dating a god, cosmic debris is old-hat. Like her voicemail to Dr. Manhattan about the girl who throws a brick into the air that kills God, this moment — whether divine intervention, incredible luck or total coincidence — is, to Laurie, a mere punchline.
Good joke. Everybody laugh.
My Name Is Ozymandias, King of Kings
Meanwhile, the seemingly random cutaways to Jeremy Irons in each episode continue to be an absolute delight to watch, and it’s clear Irons is having as much fun with them as we are. While we still have a plethora of questions about what's happening in these offbeat vignettes — Do the candles mean a year is passing between each scene? Why is he so obsessed with Dr. Manhattan's origin story? Did he genetically engineer the Mr. Phillipses and Ms. Crookshankses himself? — we do at least finally have confirmation that his character is indeed former Watchman and squid-dealing terrorist Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, as people have speculated since before the series premiered. (This delayed confirmation makes the Watchmen New York Comic Con poster labeling Irons’ character as “Probably Who You Think He Is” even funnier, to be honest.)
After last week’s hackneyed, macabre and hilarious production of The Watchmaker’s Son, Veidt has shifted to a more scientific task. Using crude armor and buffalo skins, he creates a makeshift space suit for one of his “organic life people” (Lindelof is “not entirely comfortable with the designation of ‘clones.’”). After being shot into the sky, the poor Mr. Phillips quickly returns to the ground as a frozen corpse. Veidt takes out his frustration on the body, kicking and breaking it repeatedly. I mean, he’s got plenty of other Mr. Phillipses, so why not?
To prepare for the next round of suit-making, Veidt rides out on his horse and shoots a buffalo near his manor, but he’s quickly shot at by someone called the “game warden” (we don’t get a look at his face in the episode, but the official Watchmen Instagram has since revealed a promotional picture of him), who later writes Veidt a passive-aggressive letter saying that Veidt is dangerously close to breaking the rules of his captivity and that this will be his first and final warning. (This development adds fuel to the popular "Veidt is Dr. Manhattan’s prisoner" theory. Thoughts?)
Veidt passive-aggressively replies, dictating his words to Ms. Crookshanks as she types, in yet another scene that mirrors one from the previous episode: the German leader borrowing an English-speaking German typist to whom he dictates his open letter to black soldiers in the U.S. (a real-life document).
At the end of Veidt’s dictation, he clearly states his name in a dramatic “reveal” that is so unsurprising, Irons’ over-the-top delivery is made that much funnier because of it. We even get to see him re-don his iconic purple-and-gold costume, but unfortunately that’s it for Ozy-Man until next week.
When asked in the Official Watchmen Podcast why he and his team decided to hide who Irons would be playing, Lindelof says, “The answer is that I couldn’t say out of one side of my mouth, ‘This is not a Watchmen sequel’ and then out of the other side say, ‘Jeremy Irons is playing Adrian Veidt, playing Ozymandias,’ so announcing that there were gonna be legacy characters appearing in this, we’d be sending mixed signals.
“I’m not entirely sure it was the right path to take to not say that he was Adrian Veidt,” he continues, “especially because that’s what everyone sort of assumes he is, and then he just in the third episode says his name, and it’s, like, duh... But that was the thinking behind it.”
In a very recent self-aware Instagram post, Lindelof admits, "Okay, maybe [Watchmen’s] SORT of a sequel.” So really I have no choice but to believe he's just a sadist who enjoys making the audience squirm. If Watchmen continues its streak of being the most interesting, well-written and well-directed show each week, though, I have a feeling we won’t mind the squirming, all the way up until that final:
Roll on snare drum. Curtains.
- Although Nite Owl has yet to appear in the show, the owl imagery is strong in this episode. Laurie Blake keeps an owl named Who (who? Who) in her apartment; the design on a wrought-iron door she approaches looks like an owl mask over her face; we see her reflection in Sister Night’s Nite Owl–esque X-ray glasses, which may in fact be police technology adapted from Nite Owl’s designs; and when she opts to trade her big shiny blue Koonsian Dr. Manhattan sex toy for Agent Dale Petey instead, he falls asleep next to her wearing a sleep mask with holes around the eyes that looks very much like a a simple Nite Owl mask.
- Laurie and Dale stay at Black Freighter Inn & Suites, a nod to the comic-within-a-comic Tales of the Black Freighter from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.
- Black Freighter is also the name of a fictional record company, as revealed in liner notes included with the Vol. 1 vinyl of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ Watchmen score. The vinyl even looks like an album titled The Book of Rorschach by a band called Sons of Pale Horse, an homage to the oft-cited band Pale Horse in the comic. (The amount of worldbuilding here is just *chef’s kiss*.)
- During Laurie’s staged bank heist, a man can be seen holding a newspaper with the headline GRISHAM TO RETIRE FROM THE SUPREME COURT, alluding to our universe’s best-selling author John Grisham, who was, in fact, a lawyer before becoming a novelist. (This is almost but not quite as good as Dr. Oz being the Watchmen universe’s Surgeon General.)
- During the FBI briefing, we’re finally given a glimpse of The Rorschach Journal cover as well as an excerpt. The page we see contains some of Rorschach’s word-for-word Watchmen comic narration.
- During Laurie and Dale’s flight to Tulsa, we can see Lady Trieu’s mysterious Millennium Clock building from the plane window, an opulent and futuristic monolith sure to be revisited in future episodes. Trieu Industries now owns Adrian Veidt’s company and is responsible for creating the Dr. Manhattan phone booth Laurie uses throughout the episode (among other things, I’m sure — maybe even that giant Manhattadildo?). We have yet to meet the Lady herself, but based on the teaser for episode four, she’ll figure prominently into the story soon.
- Director Stephen Williams might have given us the best shot of the series so far in how he framed Laurie sitting in front of her Andy Warhol Watchmen painting. Her head is haloed by the pop-art images of Nite Owl, Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan, but when the camera pans away, we see that her head had been eclipsing the fourth image on the painting: Laurie herself as her Watchmen alter ego Silk Spectre II. (The four heroes on the painting are also the four she references in her joke to Dr. M throughout the episode.)
- The vigilante Laurie apprehends during her undercover bank heist, Mr. Shadow, sure does look an awful lot like a certain cave-dwelling hero who keeps the company of bats, doesn't he?
- The title of the episode, “She Was Killed by Space Junk,” is a lyric from the song “Space Junk” by Devo, a band comic-Laurie loved. Present-day Laurie even plays a Devo tune in this episode before being interrupted by Senator Keene's surprise arrival.
- There’s a moment in the Official Watchmen Podcast when Lindelof stumbles over his words for a brief second in a way that might hugely support the theory that Dr. M can in fact change his appearance to look like us: “Manhattan is gonna have to appear in one way, shape or— He has to kinda roll in at some point.” Theorists, do your worse.
- The brick goes up; the brick comes down. The car goes up; the car goes down. The Mr. Phillips goes up; the Mr. Phillips comes down, gets his frozen body crushed under the boots of Ozymandias and likely gets incinerated. RIP (again), Mr. P.
- HBO has consistently released new Peteypedia files after every episode, and this week is no different. Three new documents curated by the fictional Anti-Vigilante Task Force Special Agent Dale Petey have surfaced, but this week we get to read them after finally having MET Petey in the show. For fans who’ve been reading the supplementary material since episode one, I swear it’s almost as exciting as meeting a celebrity. And kudos to the real-life writer(s) making these documents; as soon as I saw and heard Petey on the screen, I immediately knew it was him before anyone addressed him by name.
- MEMO: AHS: Based on UNFactual Events: The contents of the documents released so far point to Petey being a tad bit obsessed with the history of the Watchmen and how the heroes have affected pop culture. This new memorandum is no different and serves as a sort of “sequel” to File 2’s MEMO: Masked Vigilantes in Pop Culture, in which Petey expresses his frustration over not receiving advance copies of the fictional-show-within-a-show American Hero Story: Minutemen. Now he has finally gotten and watched the episodes, and let me tell you, our boy has some thoughts.
- There’s some interesting speculation that Hooded Justice may have had a romantic relationship with other hero Captain Metropolis, but my favorite part is this delicious bit of dramatic irony: “My condolences, Agent Blake,” Petey writes. “You deserve better, too. I wouldn’t advise watching; but as you do not read these memos nor know I exist, I have every reason to believe you will tune in with millions of others as every airship and bus in America is demanding that you do.” As we know, Laurie and Petey end up sleeping together in episode three, so...this won’t end badly at all, right?
- CLIPPING: White Flight to Mars: This clipping from radical right newspaper New Frontiersman — the publication where Rorschach delivered his journal — lambasts the current liberal political climate, including the appointment of John Grisham, and sides with a Senator Keene ticket. The “white flight” of the title refers to both the hilarious and terrifying suggestion of a white exodus to Mars, the planet on which Mr. Manhattan resides. Get it? Red, white and blue.
- EVIDENCE: Four Letters: Easily the most interesting document yet, as far as its connection to the narrative of the show goes, is this June 1955 letter from John David Keene to Sheriff Crawford. In the comic, Senator Keene was responsible for passing the Keene Act, which forbid “costumed adventuring,” while the “Sheriff Crawford” here is no doubt our hanged Sheriff Judd Crawford’s pops. We know from the show that the Keenes and Crawfords are good friends, but this letter cements the fact that these families’ roots go deep.
In the letter, Keene explains the story behind the painting he’s gifted Crawford, “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship” (also the title of episode two of Watchmen). Painter George Catlin had sold many of his original paintings to support himself financially, then re-created many of them, in effect plagiarizing himself. Keene laments Catlin ever having to stoop so low and speaks of “never betraying your birthright.”
“When the time comes for you to give up the mantle of our order to your replacement,” Keene writes to the elder Crawford, “we expect you to give him this painting, and with it, this story.” This very painting — depicting Native Americans at war — was still hanging in Judd’s house moments before his death. The revelation of the KKK outfit in Judd’s secret compartment coupled with this letter strongly points to a Crawford and Keene family history of white supremacy. And yet, partially because actor Don Johnson is just so charming but mostly because it would kill me to see Angela learn this horrid truth about her friend and mentor, I really, really don’t want to believe it’s true. Could Judd have only kept these racist totems around to remind himself of what not to become? Or did he truly embrace his father's seeming white supremacist legacy?
Only time will tell, I guess.