Watchmen Questions Its Heroes’ Legacies

In last night’s standout episode, the HBO drama closely examined themes and characters from the original graphic novel.

Laurie Blake, now an FBI agent, is much more jaded than the costumed hero she was in the comics. (Mark Hill / HBO)

This story contains spoilers through Episode 3 of HBO’s Watchmen.

“Absent Friends,” the second chapter of the graphic novel Watchmen, gathered several “heroes” at the funeral of their murdered colleague, Eddie Blake (a.k.a. the Comedian), to honor him—and, more importantly, to contemplate his heroism. Adrian Veidt (a.k.a. Ozymandias), the world’s smartest man, remembered Eddie mocking the earnest attempt at forming a crime-fighting team in the 1960s. Doctor Manhattan, the blue godlike product of a physics-lab accident, thought of the time he witnessed Eddie murdering a pregnant woman after the Vietnam War. And Dan Dreiberg (a.k.a. Nite Owl), a regular man with a knack for owl-shaped gadgetry, recalled Eddie’s cynicism at a riot they once helped quell in the ’70s.

Hours after the service, another costumed figure appeared: Rorschach, a hero who had refused to retire and took it upon himself to investigate Eddie’s death. Paying his respects alone, he thought back to a joke he’d heard about a depressed man who visited the doctor. The doctor recommended seeing the clown Pagliacci, and his patient burst into tears; it turned out that he was Pagliacci himself. “Good joke,” Rorschach concluded in the issue. “Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.”

The third episode of HBO’s Watchmen, Damon Lindelof’s drama that sequelizes the events of the graphic novel, produced a modern update of this chapter. There was a funeral, for Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), the Tulsa police chief found hanged at the end of the season premiere. There were the assembled mourners questioning his heroism, among them Angela (Regina King), a.k.a. Sister Night, still reeling after finding a white-supremacist outfit hidden inside Judd’s closet in Episode 2. And there was a take on Rorschach’s joke, this time delivered by Laurie Blake (a steely, playful Jean Smart), an FBI agent tasked with investigating Judd’s death. Laurie is a new face on the show, but she’s a familiar one to the comic’s fans, having masqueraded as the costumed hero Silk Spectre in the graphic novel.

Though the first two episodes included plenty of nods to their source material, last night’s installment dove more deeply into the series’ past. Laurie is the first character from the graphic novel to be grafted directly onto the show—and unlike Jeremy Irons’s mysterious manor-dweller (revealed to be Veidt later in the hour), her past as part of Watchmen’s mythology is thoroughly explored. Her apartment features a large pop-art piece of Doctor Manhattan, Nite Owl, Ozymandias, and herself—a painting the camera lingers on, calling attention to her past. She keeps an owl as a pet (a reference to Dan), a copy of an Esquire cover of herself with Doctor Manhattan, and a blue sex toy, all clues to the life she used to lead. Petey (Dustin Ingram), the FBI agent who tags along with Laurie to Tulsa, is a former historian who knows her entire history as a hero. Laurie even glibly offers to give him an autograph.

Laurie visits a blue booth to call Doctor Manhattan. (Mark Hill / HBO)

But these aren’t just Easter eggs designed to appeal to fan nostalgia; they’re the show’s way of underlining its comic-book past, of highlighting the symmetry between its current story and the one that came decades earlier. Watchmen observed, through the older Laurie last night, not only how history inevitably repeats itself, but also how characters have to grapple with the complex humanity—or inhumanity—of heroism. The Comedian’s actions were intensely interrogated by those who survived him, and now on the show, the same is happening to Judd.

Indeed, everything old is new again. In the comic, Laurie was the key to convincing Doctor Manhattan of humanity’s worth: The revelation that the Comedian was her father proved to him the miracle of life. Now Laurie’s become somewhat of the new Comedian. She’s a jaded former costumed hero working for the government and condemning vigilantes. She’s followed in her father’s footsteps, taking both his last name (she was Laurie Juspeczyk in the novel) and his dark sense of humor.

Laurie’s not the only one recycling former heroes’ legacies. Rorschach was the only protagonist to defy Veidt in his squid-driven plot to stop nuclear war, the primary conflict of the 1980s. And in the show, Rorschach’s mask has been repurposed for the Seventh Kavalry, the white-supremacist faction threatening a race-driven war over “Redfordations”—reparations for the black victims of the Tulsa massacre—the primary conflict of Watchmen’s present-day universe. The as-yet-unseen Lady Trieu (Hong Chau), who worshipped Veidt, is taking his place as the nation’s leading mind, implying that the secret villain of Watchmen has also found a successor.

If these repetitions expose the cyclical nature of heroism, they’re also delving into the messiness of what heroism means. Consider the voicemail Laurie left for Doctor Manhattan, which framed the episode. She began by telling a story of a little girl who tossed a brick into the air. Forgetting the punch line, though, Laurie dismissed it and offered a tale about a group of heroes instead. She recounted a blue god, a smart man, and a man dressed as an owl all talking to God, who—after listening to their life stories—sent all of them to hell despite their heroics on Earth. But after the Last Judgment, a woman appeared; she’d gone unnoticed by God, having stood behind the men. She told him she was the little girl who threw the brick—and before God could react, the brick from the earlier story fell out of the sky and destroyed Him. “Roll on snare drum,” Laurie said, wrapping up the joke the way Rorschach once did. “Curtains.”

But that wasn’t the universe’s punch line. When Laurie exited the phone booth, a vehicle (Angela’s car) fell out of the sky, nearly crushing her. In that moment, Laurie realized that her own judgment of her past didn’t matter. She wasn’t the one in control. Others, one day, would decide if she had helped save the world. Heroes, according to both versions of Watchmen, don’t get to define their own legacies.