This review contains spoilers for Watchmen episode 4, titled "If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own." Check out our recap of Watchmen episode 3 here.
With its fourth episode, titled “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own,” HBO’s Watchmen finds itself in a major way. While the show’s central mystery remains vague — as it did in last week’s Brecht-laden entry “She Was Killed By Space Junk” — lingering questions of what and why (and malformed political mechanics) fade into the backdrop. Instead, the focus falls on characters we know, and their respective inherited traumas. It’s with this episode, written by showrunner Damon Lindelof along with Christal Henry, that the series’ emotional scope finally begins to crystalize.
Like the comic, the show continues to draw admirably on superhero iconography. Its opening scene, which introduces the trillionaire Lady Trieu (Hong Chau), begins with a childless farmer couple and their otherwise warm & loving life, and ends with an object from outer space crashing down on their farm. Like the Black Wall Street Massacre prologue in Episode 1, it’s the Superman mythos re-written — the farmer’s name is Jonathan Clark, a mere stone’s throw from Jonathan Kent (father to Superman/Clark Kent) — but what happens between the introduction of the Clarks and the yet-to-be-revealed alien arrival speaks to the intrusion of money and power, in a story that might otherwise feel idyllic. What if, rather than adopting a divinely delivered saviour, Superman’s kindly parents bartered their farm for a biological son they didn’t think they could have? A son engineered, without their consent, by a Lex Luthor type, who then takes charge of whatever alien ship or object makes contact? It’s a chilling thought, since Trieu’s motivations remain shrouded in mystery.
The Clark family are unlikely to show up again — the prologue serves more to establish the enigmatic Trieu — but the rip-roaring intensity of the scene, in which the Clarks are forced to choose between the legacy of their blood and the material legacy of their family farm, narrows the series’ focus with aplomb. As the Clarks’ infant son is brought inside by Trieu’s daughter Bian (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), this world’s American flag hovers over them, as if to replace the Superman story of “truth and justice” with capitalist manipulation. The miracle of life, reduced to a bargaining chip so that Trieu can purchase real estate.
It’s a cynical thought, but cynicism permeates the entire episode, something director Andrij Parekh unearths during intimate conversations. When Abar’s husband Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) explains Judd Crawford’s death to his children, he disposes with any sugar-coating pretense about Heaven or the afterlife; could the catastrophic events of the comic have led the world into total nihilism? When Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) speaks of “thermodynamic miracles,” she no longer refers to the sanctity of life, as Dr. Manhattan once did. Rather, she uses the phrase as dry sarcasm to hint at deeper conspiracy.
The episode teeters constantly between the fragility of life — fleeting, finite — and life looked upon scornfully by various characters. The inter-dimensional squid chicks that fall from the sky, a seeming result of Ozymandias’ attack in 1985, live a mere thirty seconds before dissolving. “Thirty seconds of life,” says Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), who photographs them in their moment of death, “and they spend all of it dying.” Regardless of how these squidlings came to be, they inherit the same curse as Ozymandias’ gargantuan original, which perished as soon as it materialized in the middle of New York. They live only to die.
In his Lost-like purgatory, Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) fishes foetuses from a river at night. He cruelly disposes of some while placing others in a machine that cooks them into full-grown adults — the interchangeable Mr. Phillipses (Tom Mison) and Ms. Crookshankses (Sara Vickers) — only for them to become servants and playthings, who live and die according to Veidt’s whims. A horrifying scene reveals dozens of these “clones” murdered in Veidt’s manor, their bodies strewn about with casual abandon. Veidt’s brutality, too, seems born of whatever trauma plagues him, as a prisoner of this mysterious place he once thought of as paradise. The “clones” that inherit Veidt’s violence are catapulted into, and seemingly through, the sky as part of his ongoing escape attempt. Like the squids, these clones’ lives are the result of the callousness of their creator — who Veidt claims not to be (could he be referring to Dr. Manhattan?) — while their deaths are the result of the callousness of Veidt, the man charged with raising them and giving them purpose.
A straight line is drawn between Veidt and Lady Trieu, the woman who inherited Veidt’s company after his apparent demise. Her opulence, her vivariums, and her seeming involvement in larger conspiracy all position her as the Veidt of this new Watchmen tale. She even quotes Veidt while employing his villainous “I already did it” methodology. However, while Veidt is charged with someone else’s cloned creations, Trieu engineers human life herself.
The thematic connections between Veidt, Trieu, and Dr. Manhattan are noteworthy, and reveal the dark underbelly of a story so deeply entrenched in creation. One of these characters, Manhattan, was granted divine powers by accident, while the other two acquired it through scientific achievement — by bastardizing nature. Veidt’s steampunk aesthetic evokes the turning gears of a watch; symbols of the Godlike Manhattan surround him constantly. But as the creator of the giant squid, he’s also akin to the destructive God of the Old Testament, adjudicating life and death as he sees fit.
Trieu, too, has achieved a kind of Godhood akin to Manhattan; she creates living human beings, and appears to have created her own daughter this way as well — or, at the very least, she’s passed down her trauma to Bian, with the intent to do so. While there’s no explicit mention of Bian being a clone, the end result is equally disturbing. The young girl wakes up with nightmares of men storming a Vietnamese village; Trieu reacts to this story with a knowing grief, as if Bian is recounting one of Trieu’s own memories.
Much like Veidt’s bizarre vignettes, the “when” of Trieu’s story across the episode appears obscured. Is Trieu, a middle-aged adult in 2019, old enough to have experienced the horrors of the Vietnam war? Perhaps, but the presence of implanted traumas, and the visual language of the Clark farm prologue, hint at something more mysterious. There’s no indication of when this scene takes place relative to the rest of the plot. The Clarks mention Trieu coming to town to build her giant clock tower, which we first saw on screen in last week’s episode. However, the tower is only referenced in this prologue; we don’t actually see it on screen this week until it’s nearly complete, later in the episode. When the camera hovers over the farm and moves towards downtown Tulsa, the image fades from open fields to modern shops and advanced technology, as if these things were erected upon the Clark’s land over a long period of time. Whatever the case, time is vital to Trieu story. The way she tells time is by transposing nature — life itself — into new places and eras, and preserving its memory. I can’t help but wonder if preserving memory across time is key to her experiments.
The revelation of Trieu’s enormous tower also offers a contradictory tension. Trieu speaks of the legacy of blood, a legacy she appears to preserve in perfectly mechanical terms — especially if her own daughter is indeed her clone — yet her own legacy, as far as anyone knows, is not unlike the public legacy of Adrien Veidt. It is the legacy of money, of power, and of the material. I wonder: can Trieu, through her cloning experiments, transcend this?
How many Trieus have there been? How many Bians? How many Phillipses and Crookshankses — and in what ways do these people carry forward their traumas and memories?
These questions, presented at their most oblique with Veidt and Trieu, come to the fore at their most literal with Laurie Blake and Angela Abar (Regina King). When Laurie theorizes that masked vigilantes act out of trauma, she makes Agent Petey (Dustin Ingram) explain her story from the Watchmen comic to Angela: that her father, The Comedian, attempted to rape her mother, the original Silk Spectre. Much of Laurie’s arc in the comic revolves around parsing and dealing with the reveal of this torrid family history.
Unbeknownst to Laurie, Abar has been reckoning with parts of her own history, and her own inherited trauma. Amidst a museum exhibit and holograms depicting the Tulsa riot, Abar walks among the ghosts of the massacre — both its black victims, and its Klansmen perpetrators — before coming face to face with a ghostly image of a young Will Reeves, her grandfather. She also finds out that Will was a police officer, much like herself. As Abar walks the very ground where the Will we know was born, through the violence of white supremacy, the eyes of the Klansmen’s holograms follow her as she approaches her family tree. She herself was a victim of the violence of white supremacists, a centuries-old spectre she cannot escape. It’s the reason she wears her mask. And it raises the question: what did she inherit from him?
This episode is also the first to mention Will’s last name. While he likely took it from Bass Reeves — the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi, and fictional hero in the film Will watches in Episode 1 — it can’t help but read like another reference to Superman, whose mythology feels tied to Will’s. George Reeves was the second man to play Superman on screen (in the 1953 series Adventures of Superman) and like Will, he was born into a world at war in 1914. George Reeves donned his red cape and died under mysterious circumstances during the 1950s, not unlike presumed-dead Minutemen member Hooded Justice, with whom Will seems to have some connection (Will, too, was believed to have disappeared). Though perhaps more potent than the episode’s comic references are its allusions to Nigerian literature. The title, “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is a direct quote from Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel Things Fall Apart — an essential text on collective and intergenerational racial trauma — which Cal reads during his tender reconciliation with Abar.
Achebe’s book was published on the precipice of Nigeria’s liberation from colonial Britain in 1960. It tells a story of white Christian missionaries in the 1890s, and of the ripple-effects of colonial racism on its main character, Igbo Nigerian wrestler Okonkwo, and his family. Fittingly, the character of Hooded Justice, frequently alluded to in both the Watchmen comic and show, was believed to be a strongman, and the timelines line up well enough for Will to have donned this vigilante identity (another thing Abar inherited, perhaps?). In HBO’s Watchmen, Will essentially fulfils the role of Okonkwo, a man who returns to his village to find it fundamentally changed by the presence of whiteness. Whatever Will’s mission — he kills and exposes Crawford, though his greater purpose is yet to be revealed — it appears intrinsically tied to unveiling nascent truths about whiteness and racism in Tulsa.
In the final moments of the episode, the wheelchair-using Will rises from his seat in Trieu’s vivarium and walks over to look at the moon, as if in direct reference to Achebe’s novel (“When the moon is shining the cripple becomes hungry for a walk”). Will makes vague reference to some agreement between himself and Trieu, something that appears ready to come to light in three days’ time. While there’s no hint as to the scope or focus of this deal — the logistics of this particular mystery aren’t that alluring — Will mentions how this nonspecific revelation might feel like a betrayal to Abar.
The fourth episode of HBO’s Watchmen sidesteps the show’s less interesting mysteries in order to spotlight its characters. Filled with references to American comics and Nigerian literature, it tells a potent story of inherited trauma, while promising to unravel personal secrets alongside greater conspiracies. Hong Chau shines as the enigmatic Lady Trieu, while Jeremy Irons continues to confound and amuse in the show’s most intriguing scenes.
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