One of the advantages that Damon Lindelof had during The Leftovers run on HBO is that it was not one of those dramas popular enough to get picked apart by Twitter, Reddit, and the rest of the Internet (Lindelof frequently admitted as much himself). It’s on nearly every critic’s list as one of the best series of the decade now, but at the time, it struggled to get a second and third season renewals, and there wasn’t really an army of people trying to pick it apart and dissect it and predict the twists. Granted, I tried very hard to predict the second-season twist, and it still absolutely blew my mind when it was revealed, all the more so because the clues were there all along.
Lindelof has been around long enough to understand, however, that Watchmen would become one of those series that is picked apart and dissected. In the social-media era, it is almost impossible to outsmart a million people with infinite time all working collectively to solve a television series. Let me back up: It is possible, but not if it’s done well. Left-field, out-of-nowhere twists that are impossible to predict generally suck because a good showrunner lays the groundwork, which means that the collective intelligence of the Internet will eventually figure it out.
Thus, the big mindblowing twist in this week’s Watchmen was not necessarily a surprise to everyone. People have been predicting that Cal could be Dr. Manhattan for weeks (we suggested as much nearly a month ago). Lindelof hid the reveal around the corner, but he didn’t try to bury it with Jimmy Hoffa’s remains. Will Reeves had mentioned that Manhattan was hiding in plain sight; Cal had exhibited some characteristics of Dr. Manhattan (specifically, his thoughts on the afterlife); and it was the clearest way to explain how Angela survived the White Night massacre. There were some smaller hints, too, that only really make sense in retrospect, like Laurie Blake’s fascination with Cal; the way Cal slyly handled Laurie’s questioning (or so he told Angela); that cool magnetic LEGO castle on Mars that Topher built. Plus, as has been pointed out everywhere this morning, the name of Laurie Blake’s Dr. Manhattan dildo is Excalibur … Ex Cal Abar. That is clever beyond words. (Did Lindelof start with the name of the dildo and work backward in naming Angela Abar?)
But what Lindelof has done so exceptionally well this season is to make the reveals themselves almost beside the point. A lot of folks predicted that Will Reeves would be Hooded Justice after the first episode, but the reveal was not the point: The point was why, which was answered last week with arguably the best episode of television in 2019. If you were surprised, that’s cool, but nothing about last week’s episode relied upon the identity of Hooded Justice being a surprise to TV viewers.
Likewise, I don’t think anyone was that surprised that Chief Crawford was working with the 7th Kavalry (even Looking Glass seemed unshocked by the revelation that a white man in Oklahoma might be racist), and casting James Wolk as Senator Keane practically gave his alliances away. Of course he’s a bad guy. Have you met a James Wolk character? That he is a bad guy is not a surprise; it’s his plan that matters, and there was perhaps no line more chilling than Trieu’s when she asked Abar, “Can you imagine that kind of power in the hands of white supremacists?” Ooof. The power of Dr. Manhattan? Yes. But also, the power of the Presidency.
Lindelof had to know that a lot of people would predict Cal is Dr. Manhattan, too, which is why he hid the secret that no one was looking for behind the secret that everyone was looking for (it’s also what Rian Johnson did so well in Knives Out). The bigger twist is that Angela knew that Cal was Dr. Manhattan the whole time. The even bigger twist is that Cal doesn’t seem to know himself. The big secret is that Cal’s body is just a vessel, that Dr. Manhattan seems to be contained within some sort of ring inside of Cal’s brain, and that Senator Keane and the 7th Kavalry’s plan all along was to steal Dr. Manhattan’s powers and use them to “restore the balance” because it is “extremely difficult to be a white man in America right now.” The reveal that Cal was Dr. Manhattan was cool as hell, but it’s the secrets behind the twist that move the action along, that propel the plot forward, that generate more questions, like “How the hell did Angela Abar end up with Dr. Manhattan, anyway?”
Lindelof may be the first showrunner who has truly figured out how to make a weekly, serialized mystery for the social-media age. Sam Esmail accidentally succeeded with the first season of Mr. Robot before falling up his own ass trying to outsmart Reddit in the second. Westworld lost itself trying to play to social media. Once Game of Thrones ran out of source material, it blew itself up trying to both outsmart the Internet and give it what it wanted. A lot of people tried to turn Mad Men into a social-media mystery (including myself), but that’s never what Matt Weiner intended; Nic Pizzolatto couldn’t stick the landing on True Detective, claimed not to care, and then clearly illustrated how much he cared in seasons two and three; and Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould succeed by not playing the game at all.
With Watchmen, though, Lindelof is playing the perfect game. The average viewer gets their mind blown by the twist; the Reddit user gets the satisfaction of following the breadcrumbs to the big twist but then finds another twist behind the door and Lindelof is doing all of this while also building upon (and transforming) beloved source material, satisfying woke Twitter, and creating a series based on a 35-year-old comic book that resonates as much today than it did back then. With the Veidt storyline, Lindelof has even mastered the art of trolling. It’s worth mentioning, too, that he’s doing all of this with directors and a writers’ room that is fully half female and half people of color. That’s 👏 how 👏 you 👏 do 👏 it.
It’s almost as though Lindelof has spent a decade listening, and then he took everything he learned and applied those lessons to Watchmen, which may be perfect television series for 2019, and one hell of a way to end the decade.
Header Image Source: HBO