This story contains spoilers through Episode 9 of HBO’s Watchmen.
Superhero stories don’t tend to end. In the pages of comic books, their deaths rarely stick, they never run out of villains to face, and their backstories prove malleable. On-screen, those qualities have translated into the proliferation of both universes and crossovers, and as a result, most films and TV seasons in the superhero genre wrap up with finales that serve only to set up bigger, more epic installments: Teams are formed, upgrades are unveiled, and new villains are teased. Stay tuned, those finales say. There’s more to come.
HBO’s Watchmen, however, gives its characters definitive endings: The villains—Senator Joe Keene (played by James Wolk), the leaders of the white-supremacist group Cyclops, and the members of the Seventh Kavalry—die in clear-cut, gruesome ways, and their deaths have been confirmed. Lady Trieu (Hong Chau) kills Doctor Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), but her own hubris and misplaced trust in her father, Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), destroy her in turn. Laurie (Jean Smart) and Wade (Tim Blake Nelson) arrest Adrian for his crimes from 1985, delivering much-delayed earthbound justice.
Most important, Angela (Regina King) survives and leaves her mask behind, doing what the costumed heroes before her could not: She refuses to let her alter ego define her. By wrapping up the story with a scene in which she accepts not only her life without Doctor Manhattan but also her own legacy, Watchmen proves that telling a self-contained superhero story on-screen is possible. The series built upon a recognizable, celebrated title without indulging in the maximalist nature of today’s franchises. Instead, it created something original in its own right.
The season finale, “See How They Fly,” closes with a shot of Angela stepping into her pool, about to test whether she’s inherited Doctor Manhattan’s powers. He had previously told her that he could imbue his genetic material into an egg, and that whoever consumed it could presumably obtain his powers. In the penultimate episode, he retrieved eggs to make waffles, and Angela, wondering if he had altered them somehow, eats one before the end of the finale. One read of the scene could be that Watchmen is setting up the potential for Angela to adopt the boundless abilities he had. But the way it’s shot and staged—as a quiet moment alone for a widow—speaks to something less cosmic and more intimate. Pondering her late husband’s last hours, Angela is grieving him and taking a step forward at the same time. “You have to stay,” she told him just before he disintegrated. But in the season’s final moments, she’s accepting the fact that she’ll have to go on without him—and realizing that she can.
It’s an ending unlike those typically found in onscreen superhero stories today. There’s no new costume for the hero, no villain revealed to still be alive, not even a post-credits scene that gives viewers an Easter egg—or an answer to Angela’s question—to cheer on. In fact, it’s in stark contrast with the ending of the graphic novel on which the series is based. In the comic, the final panel implies that the main narrative arc is far from over. It shows a minor character reaching to potentially publish a journal written by the masked antihero Rorschach, who documented the truth behind the attack that halted the nuclear arms race. Indeed, decades later, DC Comics released a sequel titled Doomsday Clock, in which the revelations from Rorschach’s journal cause the fugitive Ozymandias to attempt to save the world. HBO’s Watchmen, however, wrapped up the conflict in Tulsa and let the final moment highlight a character’s emotional journey instead.
Even if the finale poses a fascinating question—could Angela somehow have gained Doctor Manhattan’s powers?—it doesn’t overshadow the rest of the story. Angela lingering on the surface of the pool is not the kind of cliff-hanger that telegraphs a need for a second season. It’s more so the kind of image that demonstrates how far she’s come as a character. She began the series resistant to confronting her past and her own identity by helping hide her husband’s true nature, using an unopened bakery as a front for her masked detective work and refusing to engage with her grandfather Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.), the retired Hooded Justice. By the end of the finale, however, she talks—and agrees—with Will. “You can’t heal under a mask, Angela,” he observes. “Wounds need air.” And so, before she brings her family home, she allows her children to see the costume she’d been wearing in secret, implying that she’s moving on from her Sister Night days.
Behind the scenes, the series’ creator, Damon Lindelof, and his writers intended to tell a story that ended. “I felt that if these nine episodes end without feeling like we completed a story, in the same way that we [felt] that at the end of a season of Fargo or True Detective, you know, then it’s not really Watchmen,” Lindelof told Paste magazine. “It’s just another continuing show where you have to come up with a cool cliff-hanger for the finale.”
Rather than leaving the viewer hanging on a new conflict, the ending speaks to the show’s ultimate thesis: As much as Watchmen interrogated the illusion of racial equality through its main conflict, the underlying story was always about the dangers in the ways both heroes and villains use masks to hide their real faces. The white supremacists wore Rorschach’s “face”; law-enforcement officers wore yellow ones or invented their own. Some weren’t literal masks: A racist swaggered around as a charming senator, while a narcissist with a god complex dressed herself up as an eccentric philanthropist. In Watchmen’s alternative history, where masks have become ingrained in everyday society, a projected identity can overwhelm the true self. It’s better to, as Angela does in the final scene, see yourself for who you are.
And so, Watchmen ends not with a bang, but with a thought-provoking image unencumbered by any need for universe building or sequelizing. Minor questions are left unanswered—for instance, will the clone Bian (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport) grow up to be like her daughter-mother, Lady Trieu? But that’s the point; they’re minor. Yet if another writer does decide to pursue another season, Lindelof isn’t completely against it. “It’s also not my story, right? I appropriated it. And so the idea that someone else could come along and do another season of Watchmen, that’s really exciting to me too,” he continued in Paste. “I would watch the fuck out of that.” As Doctor Manhattan put it in the comic, nothing ever ends. But Angela’s story, the focus of this season, has—and it’s refreshing to see such a story do so.