Although it’s previously been taken as read, ‘An Almost Religious Awe’ starts by detailing some of the ways that Doctor Manhattan changed technology forever simply by screwing with matter. Electric cars, for instance, are ubiquitous, which by extension probably means the train has gone the way of the dodo. This is ironic, because the revelations in this episode come like trains – after waiting ages for one, all of a sudden a bunch turn up at once.
It’s hard not to put this down to it being Damon ‘Lost‘ Lindelhof at the helm, defaulting to what he knows. The comics had their share of twists, but not so many they could be physically used as a corkscrew. This isn’t strictly a negative, as ‘An Almost Religious Awe’ rattles along at a fair old lick, yet also feels like it’s fitting a lot into fifty-five minutes – going for broke and firing off reveals left and right does seem to work pretty well as TV.
In this, it’s reminiscent of the little-remembered crime thriller series The Following, which managed to successfully cast Footloose star Kevin Bacon as a hard-bitten tough-guy by having him pursue a Hannibal Lecter-esque English professor. The Following, too, chucked out twists like it had a never-ending bag full of them, mainly in the form of ‘ha-ha, I was working for the English professor all along, didn’t see that coming, did you Bacon’, but never really achieved the success it more than deserved. This was because a few too many people, possibly including the creators, didn’t see it for what it was, which was a glorious comic farce.
‘An Almost Religious Awe’ may not be a comedy, but nonetheless most of those twists have something of the punchline about them. This is most obvious in Ozymandias’s section this week – since the start of the show he’s always seemed a bit like a self-contained comic aside, but this time around he’s just being straightforwardly silly. It wasn’t quite Pagliacci, but a great clown once said that your baser humour is only funny ‘when the sap’s got dignity’, which would seem to explain why they stuck Jeremy Irons in a massive castle.
Slightly harder-edged, as humour, is our glimpse into Angela’s past. We already knew she’d been orphaned in true Batman style, but what happened after that turns out to have been, if not more traumatic, then at least crueller. The old saying is that when history repeats itself, as it so often does, it comes first as tragedy, then as farce – yes, there’s that word again – and this is precisely what happens here, in a way which will make you feel profoundly guilty for laughing. It’s a fairly straightforward emotional sleight-of-hand, but performed a great deal more deftly than last week’s simplistic morality tale.
The humour runs out when ‘An Almost Religious Awe’ comes to presenting Vietnam, or rather, what the Watchmen universe made of Vietnam. Until now the fact it was made the 51st state after Doctor Manhattan won the war for America has been kept in the background, a funny little detail of this alternate universe – now, when we see it up close, it’s not pretty. In the comics, The Comedian opined that had America not won the Vietnam war, it would have sent them “a little crazy as a country”, obvious dramatic irony given the long shadow that David-and-Goliath matchup casts on American culture – but on the other hand, The Comedian’s own non-crazy version of America is the one with a big blue guy wandering around altering matter at the subatomic level. ‘Crazy’ is fairly relative.
Suddenly providing a focus on occupied Vietnam provides a bit of a wildcard in terms of the show’s racial politics, which has thus far been almost entirely a matter of black and white. It’s clear that, other than outliers like Lady Trieu, the Vietnamese aren’t too high on the social totem pole. We haven’t, for instance, seen more than a handful of them in the continental United States. And on that basis, it’s likely this isn’t going to be touched on again (if it is, it’ll almost certainly be via Lady Trieu), much like other confounders like the police’s restricted access to guns – mentioned in the first episode, then hastily removed in the second and never mentioned again.
This, sad to say, is a recurrent theme in ‘An Almost Religious Awe’ and in the wider show – an utter disinterest in the genuinely powerless. There’s no equivalent of the common-man viewpoint which the comics provided via the news vendor and his drifting clientele. The closest we have is Angela, who was powerless as an orphan, but now decidedly isn’t for any number of reasons. Other than that, any actual member of the masses is presented as a threat to be dealt with. This applies to both the Vietnamese and the inhabitants of Nixonville (who, lest we forget, we first encountered being brutalised by the police for a crime Angela knew for a fact they had nothing to do with) – both groups who, we see, have turned to violent resistance.
To make a tired point, the reason the Watchmen needed watching – and I’m not talking about HBO’s viewing figures, here – was because without oversight, they could do as they liked to anyone weaker than them. Even with the noblest of intentions, this was a dangerous state of affairs, as the comics made very clear by providing a scenario in which half of New York was wiped out with the noblest of intentions. And while it can be hard to distinguish depiction from endorsement, the show’s offered no kind of knowing wink to assure us it’s conscious of what’s wrong with – or even ambiguous about – this dynamic in the same way that the comics were.
(There is actually a literal knowing wink in this episode, but it precedes – and I’m deadly serious here – a massive fart.)
Of course, our perverse fascination with the powerful drives the whole superhero genre. When it comes down to it, this is why everyone preferred Rorschach to the comparatively pathetic figure of Nite Owl – to Alan Moore’s personal shock and bafflement, even though this weak-kneed fawning over strongmen was the exact attitude he was sending up throughout.
Appropriately enough, ‘An Almost Religious Awe’s’ final big reveal involves the reintroduction of an incredibly powerful figure indeed – at the violent expense of possibly the least powerful, most harmless named character present. The fans, many of whom saw this development coming via some absurdly oblique clues (or at least one loose-lipped gossip mag), have eaten it up as eagerly as you might expect. We’re yet to hear anything of The Comedian in the adaptation so far, but if we did, he’d likely have something to say about the joke being on us.
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A rollicking romp where the plot comes forward by leaps and bounds is undercut slightly by the way the show undermines its own apparent messages.
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