As the decade staggers its way to a close, at least we have this: The finale of HBO’s “Watchmen” on Sunday night capped off an arguably perfect season of television — so flawless that many fans and critics are debating whether there should even be another season. (Warning: Spoilers for the finale start here.)
To wit (and let’s all take a deep breath): The plot of the white supremacist organization the Seventh Kavalry to capture and kill Doctor Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) so they can steal his god-like powers are thwarted by trillionaire genius Lady Trieu (Hong Chau) — who then kills Doctor Manhattan so, yup, she can steal his god-like powers. Her plans, however, are thwarted by her absent father Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), who is subsequently arrested by FBI agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) and Tulsa police detective Wade Tillman (Tim Blake Nelson) for murdering 3 million people in 1985. As you do.
In the middle of all these machinations is the show’s lead, Angela Abar (Regina King). First, she’s forced to watch helplessly as Doctor Manhattan — who has lived incognito for 10 years as Angela’s husband Cal — dies in front of her. Then she reunites with her grandfather Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.), who used to be Hooded Justice, the masked vigilante who serves as the inspiration for all costumed crime fighting in both the 1986 graphic novel “Watchmen” and HBO’s TV update.
In the final scene of the show, Angela discovers a raw egg that she realizes Cal almost certainly left behind for her to ingest so she could absorb his god-like powers. She walks to her pool, swallows the egg and tentatively puts her foot on the water to test if she, like Cal, can now walk on it. And that’s where “Watchmen’s” executive producer and showrunner Damon Lindelof — who co-wrote the finale with Nick Cuse — chose to end the season, and perhaps the series.
Lindelof has been clear that he does not see this ending as a cliffhanger, and he has hinted strongly (without quite claiming outright) that the writers’ intention was always that Angela does indeed take on Doctor Manhattan’s god-like powers. Since the show premiered in October, Lindelof has been even clearer that he sees this nine-episode run of “Watchmen” as a self-contained story that does not require a second season, and even if there were a Season 2, he cannot see himself making it. While HBO has not officially announced the show’s return, meanwhile, all its promotional material has referred to these nine episodes as “Season 1,” strongly suggesting the pay-cable network at least hopes there will be a Season 2 — especially after the finale’s overnight ratings set a series record.
In an interview with Variety the day after the finale, however, Lindelof is more equivocal, suggesting that he’s giving himself a few months to see if he can think of an idea for what Season 2 of “Watchmen” could even look like. And if that doesn’t happen? Let’s just say Donald Glover and Jill Soloway could have an intriguing phone call in their future.
I’m not going to ask you whether the finale ends on a cliffhanger, but let me ask this: Did you ever entertain the idea of Angela smashing the egg instead?
Absolutely. We entertained multiple options, but the three finalists were that she smashes the egg and the yolk just runs through her fingers and that’s the end; that she takes the egg and she puts it back in the carton, leaves it there, and goes back to cleaning up the floor; and then the third option was the one that we shot. As you might imagine, there were, I would say, impassioned conversations about what happened when she stepped foot on the pool — like, how far to go. There wasn’t debate as to whether or not she would sink to the bottom of the pool or whether she would walk on it, but there was debate into how much to show. To illuminate those conversations further, I think, would demystify too much the ending as it exists.
One of the focal points of the finale was this idea of, should anyone have the power of a god, so how did you decide that Angela would choose to at least see if she could get them?
We had to decide that Angela was making this choice long before the finale was written, and put everything else in service of that. But once you do all that work and you arrive at the finale, then you have a conversation where you say, “Okay, we’ve now arrived at the moment that we’ve been driving towards — do we earn it? Is there anything else that we need to do, or is this going to be one of those instances where we feel like we haven’t earned it and therefore we must make another decision?” And so all of those conversations occurred and we went with what we went with.
Our consensus opinion of Doctor Manhattan was the same as what Will’s opinion was, which is that he is a good man, but considering the power that he had, he could have done more. There are so many things that he could have done to improve life on earth, and he didn’t. It felt like if someone is going to get his abilities, it shouldn’t be someone who wants them, or who is aggressively pursuing a path of action to take them. We were of the universal opinion that Angela Abar would handle those powers with the highest degree of responsibility. But in order for it to be the highest, highest degree of responsibility, she first needed to know where she came from and why she wore a mask. If she arrives at the point where she no longer needs a mask, then she’s ready for that power.
And so if Doctor Manhattan was an incredibly passive character, who was very reluctant to use his power, we wanted to Angela Abar to be a character who was a little bit more impulsive. One of the things that I love about her character is that once she sees the egg and she sort of understands what she thinks it is, she doesn’t really hesitate. She’s ready. That’s impulsive, but that’s Angela. And so that was some of the thinking that went into at least why she decides to eat the egg — knowing that eating raw eggs is very dangerous.
You’ve spoken a lot about how the process of making “Watchmen” was so collaborative, and Regina King talked to me last week about how the she felt the writers’ room you put together held your “feet to the fire” when writing about things outside your experience, especially as a straight, white, cisgender man. So how did you assemble that writers’ room? What were you looking for?
I don’t want to get too romantic about it, but it is a romantic process. And by romantic I mean, like, you don’t know what you’re looking for until you found it. What I did know on a fundamental, empirical, scientific basis was that I needed to work with people that I hadn’t worked with before, primarily. There’s going to be a couple people that I worked with before, because my experience of working with them was so overwhelmingly positive, and one of the reasons was that they challenged me constantly. I’ll just say this — and I know that it’s going to paint myself in a very self aggrandizing way: Because I’ve had the level of success that I’ve had, it’s harder to find people who are going to challenge me and tell me to my face that I’m wrong, or that their ideas are better than mine. If I’m going to continue to be successful, it’s essential for me to find those people.
Every single writer that I interviewed, the only criteria that was essential was that A, I read their sample and I thought they had a unique voice, and B, they were not like me. “Like me” is an arbitrary thing, but it’s like, I worship “Watchmen,” I’m, as you mentioned, a white hetero cisgender male. I’m 46 years old. I like science fiction television programs. It was OK if there was some overlap in the Venn diagram, but for the most part, I was just curating for people who were not like me.
Once we were in the room and we were talking to one another, I would pitch them what my vision was for “Watchmen,” which included the cornerstone of my take on the material, that the first masked vigilante was a black man in the late 1930s, who didn’t cover his face because he thought it was cool, he did it because that was the only way he could survive. I pitched that idea to every single candidate for the show, and the ones that I hired were the ones who said, “I think that’s a cool idea, but I’m really concerned about it.” The ones who said, “That’s an amazing idea,” I didn’t hire, and the ones who said, “That’s a really s—ty idea,” I didn’t hire. The ones that I hired were the ones who saw the potential of the idea, but realized that a lot of work needed to be done in order to earn it.
You’ve also been very clear about where your head is at about making another “Watchmen,” but if HBO asked, and maybe they have, who would you recommend they have a meeting with to hear their ideas for Season 2?
I’ll say it’s still too early to answer that question. Right now the space that HBO is in and that I’m in is we’re asking the question, Should there be another season of “Watchmen”? And if there should be another season, what would it be? I’m not saying I don’t want to do it, or it shouldn’t exist. I’m just saying, “Boy, every idea that I had went into this season of ‘Watchmen.'” I’m going to put up my antenna, see if it’s receiving anything. If it’s not receiving anything in a reasonable period of time — and I’ll just say off the top of my head, it feels completely and totally arbitrary, but like a couple of months doesn’t feel unreasonable, you know, January, February, maybe March — then I think we move on to your question, which is, if not me, then who?
Because I actually do agree with HBO that this should be a continuing series. Maybe it’ll continue in a year or two, maybe they’ll continue it in four years or whatever, but I want to see more “Watchmen.” I always said to them, I do see “Watchmen” as “Fargo,” as “True Detective.” They were ongoing anthology shows, but each season had a design with a beginning, middle and end that allowed subsequent seasons to feature entirely different characters, or even be set in entirely different time periods. That’s why I think HBO is calling it an ongoing series. I didn’t say to them, “Guys, this is going to be nine episodes, and it’s going to be like ‘Chernobyl,’ and then we should just walk away.” And so it’s unfair for me now to say, I’m changing the rules.
I do think that there has to be space for private, personal conversations that happen between HBO and I. My guess is some of those conversations are going to start happening this week, and I probably won’t be sharing them with the press. I don’t think it’s appropriate to do so. But I can tell you, at this moment in time that you and I are talking, I haven’t said anything to you that I haven’t said to HBO, and vice versa.
So while you’re figuring out your future with “Watchmen,” what is your thinking about superhero storytelling in general? Would you want to take a crack at Marvel Studios’ inevitable reboot of X-Men, or anything else involving established comic book titles?
Wow. Right now it feels like the answer is no, I shouldn’t do that. But a couple years from now, anything can change. I’m fascinated by these myths. There are many characters inside the canon of superheroes, and even more characters inside the canon of comic books, that interest me. And if you had asked me four years ago if I was going to do “Watchmen,” I would have said, “No, I’m not, I’m never going to do it and I shouldn’t do it, and no one else should do it.” And here we are. There are Marvel and DC properties that I’m a massive fan of, and were they to be offered unto to me, they could potentially be tempting. But right now at this moment in time I feel like there’s other stuff that I want to tell stories about than superheroes.
So what is next for you? You’re an in-demand creative person in the industry, and I’m sure this show has made you even more so. Do you know what’s on the horizon for you right now separate from “Watchmen”?
My fantasy right now is to be in somebody else’s room, to work in someone else’s service — like, to not be the showrunner. That isn’t because I’m tired of it or I’m sick of it or I don’t want to do it anymore, but I sort of feel like for this next phase of my storytelling, I need to go back to school, to some degree. The idea of working for someone who I respect immensely and that I could learn from — like, if Donald Glover called me tomorrow and said, “Will you be a story editor on ‘Atlanta’?” that would be what I would do for the next two years. If Sam Esmail called me up and said, “I’ve got a new idea for a cool TV show now that I’m done with ‘Mr. Robot,’ I don’t want you to run it, but would you want to come and be in that room?” If Jill Soloway is, like, “I have my follow-up for ‘Transparent.’ We’re putting a room together, do you want to be a consulting producer on that show?” I would say yes. Because I don’t know how they do what they do. That’s my fantasy. I’m sure there are a lot of people who probably don’t want me to do that, but if you’re asking me what’s next, that would be a pretty awesome 2020, while I use all of my alternate time to write propaganda.
Final question: Is there an Easter egg or a detail from “Watchmen” that you deliberately put into the show that you haven’t seen people notice yet?
I haven’t had the opportunity yet do a deep dive on the finale, in terms of Easter eggs that people have found. But there’s one that we hid in the finale that I thought would be hard to find. I have to see if anybody has found it yet. It’s the shot as Angela, Will and the kids emerge from the Dreamland theater and begin walking down the street as Sinatra’s “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” is playing. I have to imagine that someone has found it by now. But, like, I was particularly excited by that particular Easter egg. As far as other episodes, literally not only have [fans online] found every single Easter egg that we hid, but they found Easter eggs that we didn’t hide. [Laughs] Like, oh, okay! Was that our subconscious hiding an Easter egg? That’s pretty cool, but that certainly wasn’t our intention.
Is there an example of that you could share?
I’m not at liberty to say at this moment, because that will take all of the fun out of it. It’s happened twice so far. I will say one of them involves Petey.