If you want to understand the themes of HBO’s Watchmen, the most important part of the show to watch is the ongoing saga of Adrian Veidt.
NOTE: This article contains spoilers for HBO’s Watchmen.
Like the original graphic novel, HBO’s sequel series has what first appears to be a bizarre B-plot: in some mysterious countryside, the lord of a castle is living a strange, disconnected life with his two servants. In both the original book and the television show, it is in this B-plot that the themes of the story are fully articulated.
The graphic novel’s B-plot took place in a comic book being read by a minor character: Tales of the Black Freighter. Over the course of the story, the main character (the sea captain) undergoes a slide into darkness as he tries to race the piratical Black Freighter to his home and save his village. When the sea captain gets there, he kills the people he was trying to save by mistake, and is left waiting to join the Black Freighter’s crew with the realization that the ship was never coming for his village, but for him.
The Black Freighter mirrors Adrian Veidt’s own fall from hero to mass murderer. Like the situation with the sea captain, Veidt perceives a threat of nuclear annihilation, but this threat is never actually confirmed. The reader is left with the uncomfortable feeling that had Veidt done nothing, the only difference would be that 3 million people would still be alive.
In HBO’s Watchmen, the B-story centres around Veidt himself, who is not only revealed to be the lord of the castle, but desperate to escape it. His two servants are impossibly loyal clones, willing to suffer horrible deaths to please Veidt’s whims. His jailor is a huntsman, against whom Veidt must match his wits.
As the series goes on, we learn that Veidt is not on Earth at all – he is on the Jovian moon Europa, in a bubble of reality brought into existence by Doctor Manhattan in his effort to create a better human being. He was sent there by Doctor Manhattan after lamenting that his plan to save the world did not work and a better humanity never emerged. Manhattan offered to him as a place where Veidt could see the humanity he had dreamed of creating. Once he got there, Veidt realized that it was a prison instead of a paradise, and arranged for one of the clones to be the huntsman so that he would have something to do while he awaited rescue.
It is here that we see the main theme of HBO’s Watchmen articulated in isolation: escaping from a world that somebody else created. In their own way, every single character in the series is attempting to make their escape with varying degrees of success.
Consider Will Reeves. The world he is born into hates him because of the colour of his skin, and will stop at nothing to prevent him from success. His story begins with the 1921 massacre of Black Wall Street in Tulsa. When he becomes a police officer so that he can seek justice, he finds that his every move is undermined by the racist institution he has joined. To escape he puts on a mask and becomes Hooded Justice.
Angela Abar, aka Sister Night, is likewise attempting her own escape even if she doesn’t realize it until the end of the series. She begins as an orphan in Vietnam where she becomes a police officer. While there she falls in love with Doctor Manhattan, for whom she chooses a mortal human form and marries. The two move to Tulsa, where she becomes a pawn in Cyclops’ plans to engineer a race war. Her story ends with her making the decision to accept Doctor Manhattan’s gift of his powers, rising above all of humanity in the process.
Even Doctor Manhattan is arguably attempting to escape his godhood. Jon Osterman never intended to become a living god – it was an accident. By becoming human (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) he escapes from an existence of experiencing every moment of his life at once, arguably regaining his free will in the process.
The pattern exists for every single character in the series. The Seventh Kavalry is attempting to escape from a world in which they feel persecuted by President Redford’s reparations. Cyclops is trying to escape from a world in which black people exist. Lady Trieu wants to escape from a world which still has nuclear arms and social problems. Laurie Blake (Silk Spectre) wants to escape from the world Adrian Veidt built, in which she must carry the secret of the mass murder Adrian Veidt committed when he attempted to save the world.
What differs is whether they are successful, and for how long.
Doctor Manhattan does escape his existence as a living god, but it does not last. He is forced out of his humanity again by the Seventh Kavalry and killed by Lady Trieu (whether his death is an escape or not is a matter of perspective). Angela Abar succeeds when she accepts Manhattan’s gift of godlike power, but we never see the result – that is left to our imagination.
Cyclops, the Seventh Kavalry, Lady Trieu, and Adrian Veidt all fail in their respective escape attempts, mainly through the conflict between them. Cyclops and the Seventh Kavalry were always doomed to fail – their attempt to turn one of their leaders into a god pulps him instead – but Lady Trieu is defeated by Adrian Veidt, who in turn discovers that he has escaped from the world Doctor Manhattan built into a new one built by Laurie Blake.
The most meaningful escape comes from Laurie Blake. Once all of the villains have been defeated, she arrests Adrian Veidt for the murder of 3 million New Yorkers, shattering the world he created and making a new one of her own. Veidt may be convinced she has just doomed the world, but as Blade observes, “People keep saying that [the world is going to end], but it never seems to happen.”
The meaning of HBO’s Watchmen is ultimately a challenge to its viewers: we are all born into a world created by somebody else – that has never been, and will never be, up to us. What is ours is to decide what to do with it: to make the best of what has been created for us, or to escape and reshape it into a world of our own.