Let’s talk about trauma — specifically, the inherited kind.
On top of racism, upended power dynamics, the seeming oxymoron that is liberal authoritarianism, vigilantism, musical theater, and the history of the West, HBO’s Watchmen has now dumped epigenetics — the study of how genes are altered because of a person’s exposure to trauma, and how those alterations get passed down through multiple generations — into the bucket of things to consider as we’re watching the show.
“Oh,” you say.
“This is too much to hold in one’s head,” you say.
Damon Lindelof & Co. seem to have an answer to that objection in the form of the title of this week’s episode: If You Don’t Like My Story Write Your Own. That’s not the only bit of meta commentary folded into this episode. This week’s Watchmen isn’t just about inherited trauma; it’s about how it informs the way we think of ourselves, if we choose to engage with it at all.
The new character introduced this week, Hong Chau’s Lady Trieu, appears to be feeding her own Vietnam War trauma to her daughter with an IV drip. Still, she doesn’t seem to appreciate Will’s efforts to do the same to his granddaughter Angela, using a bottle of pills, as we learn during a tête-à-tête between the two in the final minutes of If You Don’t Like My Story.
“The pills — they’re passive-aggressive exposition,” Trieu says. “If you want her to know who you are, just tell her.”
“She’s not going to listen,” Will says. “She needs to experience things by herself.”
“It’s still too cute by half,” she answers, sneaking in a winking critique of the show itself.
We’ve got a lot of trauma to unpack, and I want to start with Laurie and Angela. Last week, I theorized that the two women have more in common than they realize. They’re both cops. They both have experience with vigilantism. And they both seem to be having some spiritual issues. Now that Angela Abar’s atheist husband Cal (Yahya-Abdul Mateen II) has met Laurie, he seems to think Laurie might not be Angela’s enemy, but someone who can help her.
Laurie, who is now running the Tulsa Police Department in the wake of Chief Crawford’s death may not know everything about Angela, but she’s making some intelligent guesses. The two are riding together, trying to solve the mystery of how and why Angela’s car was sucked up into the sky the night Chief Crawford was killed, and returned the night of his, err, explosive burial.
“People who wear masks are driven by trauma,” Laurie tells Angela. “They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered, usually when they were kids. Ergo — mask. It hides the pain.”
Laurie was born to wear the mask. Her mother, Sally Jupiter, was the original Silk Spectre of the Minutemen, the crime-fighting cadre from Alan Moore’s Watchmen comic. Laurie’s father, Eddie Blake, also of the Minutemen, fought crime as The Comedian. Eddie also sexually assaulted Sally. Years after the assault, Sally and Eddie had a consensual encounter, and Laurie was conceived. Laurie grew up to go into the family business of costumed crime-fighting, fell in love with Dr. Manhattan, broke up with Dr. Manhattan, and took up with another hero, Nite Owl/Dan Dreiberg.
Well, now Dreiberg’s in federal custody thanks to the Keene Act, a law passed in 1977 that outlawed costumed vigilantism, and he’s been there for decades. Just as Laurie is actually a second-gen Silk Spectre, her former boss, Senator Keene (James Wolk) is a second-gen public servant — the “Keene” of the Keene Act refers to the senator’s father, who drafted the legislation in the first place.
In the wake of the Keene Act’s passage, Laurie retired from being a superhero and joined the feds. Now she’s trying to solve Chief Crawford’s murder in exchange for Dreiberg’s freedom. Laurie’s dealing with some ambivalence about her role in the world. No wonder she’s making phone calls to Mars to an ex-boyfriend who never seems to answer!
Angela, on the other hand, carries trauma that she doesn’t fully understand. She’s a descendant of black people who were targeted during the Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma. But she’s looking for more answers, and she finds them by breaking into the Greenwood Cultural Center to take a look at her family tree. Will is her paternal grandfather, but the government has lost track of him and assumes he died in the massacre. Not so. Will, it turns out, became a police officer in New York in the 1940s and changed his last name to Reeves, which he shares with his favorite hero, the black lawman Bass Reeves.
So besides the trauma of the White Night, which is the reason Angela wears the mask that makes her Sister Night, Angela’s carrying the racial trauma of the Tulsa Race Massacre in her genes. And all she wants to do is outrun it. Angela, after all, is the one who proposes sex with Cal in their closet — the same closet where they were having sex when Angela found out that her boss, friend, and mentor had been hanged. The slogan of her bakery is a pun that celebrates historical Alzheimer’s: “Let Saigons be Saigons.” This is not a woman who wants to confront the past, but bury it. And the thing that won’t allow her to do so is a literal lynching — a radioactive recreation of American racialized extrajudicial violence — that has killed a cop with a Klan robe in his closet.
Talk about an irony that’s too cute by half!
And so Will has entered an alliance with the mysterious Lady Trieu, the trillionaire who purchased Adrian Veidt’s company. So what do we know about Lady Trieu? She has a vivarium that’s recreated the ecosystem of Vietnam in the middle of Tulsa. She’s building a giant clock that she asserts is more than just a giant clock, one that she’s made impervious to rising seas and seismic shifts. She calls it the “first wonder of the new world.” And she’s harboring and/or protecting a fully able-bodied Will.
Watchmen introduces Trieu with a situation that exposes both her questionable ethics and her interest in Veidt’s work. Remember how Veidt keeps creating rudimentary clones and experimenting with them? Now that Trieu’s taken over his company, she’s also taken his research into hyperdrive. When we meet her, she’s using a baby she created with genetic material she owns to extort an infertile couple into selling her their house and land in exchange for it. Trieu’s pitch to them? “Legacy isn’t in land,” she says. “It’s in blood.”
This extraordinarily dense episode was about the trauma we inherit with blood — legacy — whether we want it or not. Does that mean the next episode is about what we do with it?
Stray, but maybe important observations:
- Lube Man? Really!? Some guy in a shiny silver elastic onesie starts running when he sees Sister Night, douses himself with something, and zips into a sewer grate? I am just as confused about this guy and his significance as you are. But sure, let’s slide with it.
- I found Chau’s construction of Lady Trieu to be instantly bewitching. She’s self-assured, but not pompous. She’s distant, but not cold. I’ve seen Chau’s work in Downsizing and in the upcoming film Driveways. In all these works, she’s created intricate, detailed characters who are completely distinct from one another. Yet another mesmerizing performance that sets off sparks (in Vietnamese!) when Trieu and Angela meet.
- Trieu Industries owns and operates the phone booths that allow humans to make calls to Dr. Manhattan. So, are the booths really communing with Mars? Is Trieu Industries listening to the conversations and gathering data about the humans who use the booths? Or are they a placebo — a way of reinforcing a false reality marked by interdimensional squid attacks that help keep the peace by providing humans a way to talk about phenomena they don’t understand?
- Veidt, wherever and whenever he is, says that he’s been imprisoned for four years. It would appear that he’s growing servants to kill, not just for his own entertainment, but also as subjects for experiments. He’s rigged up a trebuchet whose sole purpose is vaulting humans into the atmosphere. Where exactly is he trying to go?
- As Will stands up, he tells Lady Trieu, “my feet are just fine.” He walks away from her, unaided. He’s stuck his hand into a pot of boiling water without getting injured. Why was Will using a wheelchair he doesn’t need, one that Angela has now destroyed?
Laurie seems to have a deeper-than-usual interest in the Abar marriage. I can’t tell if it’s because she envies Angela’s ability to have a healthy romantic relationship and fight crime, or if it’s something else. Given her personal history, I can’t blame Laurie for being intrigued. Cal is nurturing, loyal, and handsome. He’s not a rapist, he doesn’t wear a mask, and he’s not in federal custody. In Laurie’s world, he’s practically a unicorn.