Spoilers for Watchmen follow below.
One of the biggest questions going into HBO’s Watchmen was whether the character of Dr. Manhattan would appear. Allusions were made to the character throughout the first few episodes, and Jean Smart’s Laurie Blake was seen wistfully reaching out to the god-like character in vain, clearly still harboring feelings following their relationship from the 1980s. But showrunner Damon Lindelof and his team of writers dropped a massive reveal on viewers in Episode 7, where it’s revealed that Doctor Manhattan has been with us all along: He’s Angela’s (Regina King) husband Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).
Indeed, it’s revealed that Dr Manhattan met Angela 10 years previously in Vietnam and struck up a relationship, but in order to keep his identity hidden and Angela safe, he used a device (created by Ozymandias) to basically wipe his memory and live out the next decade as a human man. When Angela removes this memory-wiping device, we see Doctor Manhattan use his powers to teleport himself and others, make Seventh Kalvary members disappear, and even walk on water.
But how are Dr Manhattan’s powers defined in HBO’s Watchmen? How did Lindelof and his team go about creating ground rules for what Doctor Manhattan could and could not do, especially given his tragic fate? This was the question that Collider’s own Steve Weintraub posed to Lindelof in an interview after the finale, and the showrunner’s answer was basically: with much debate, and very carefully.
Lindelof conceded that there was no consensus in the writers room on defining Dr. Manhattan’s powers, and they couldn’t contact the one person who’d have the definitive answer: Watchmen creator Alan Moore:
“First off, when you say me and the writers, there was not a consensus opinion. I think the cool thing is that there were multiple different interpretations about what Dr. Manhattan’s powers were and what his limitations were. As someone with a Judaic background, we’re Talmudic. That idea of, you question the original text, and then that provokes conversations, and then there are different interpretations. I think that there’s only one person who could probably answer what Doctor Manhattan’s powers are, empirically. But, because that person was not available to us, it left us to sort of say like, ‘Well, here in issue three he appears to be doing this. So, that would seem to suggest that he could also do this,’ and ‘No, he can’t [do that].’”
The showrunner says the ultimate “kryptonite” for Doctor Manhattan that they landed on was that he’s a passive character:
“Only because there was vigorous debate and disagreement were we able to lock in on what our version of Dr Manhattan could and couldn’t do. His primary limitation and vulnerability is who he is, as a human. Jon Osterman. And, Jon Osterman’s fundamental weakness, for lack of a better word, or vulnerability, at least for someone who has superpowers, is that he’s a fairly passive guy. He’s not a guy who wanted to change the world. He’s just a guy who kind of wanted to exist in it. So, when you take a guy like that, and you give him a more power than anyone has ever had, he’s going to be limited by that passivity. And he seemed to be more interested in falling in love than he did in saving the world. If you look at the original text and our Watchmen, I feel like both of those ideas are consistent.”
The major change in the HBO version of Watchmen is that Doctor Manhattan decides to live as a human being for nearly 10 years, in a human body. Lindelof says that decision did not come lightly, and he and the writers even seeded the debate over whether this was possible into early episodes of the show:
“When it comes to, what I would argue, was the biggest leap that we took in terms of what Doctor Manhattan’s powers were, it was, ‘Can this guy appear as human, if he chooses? And if so, why didn’t he do it before that?’ That, I think, was the idea that we wrestled with, more than anything. And, once we decided that he could, it was important for us to put that debate into the mouths of our characters, from the jump.’”
Indeed, Lindelof points to Episode 2 in which Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.) seemingly jokes that he’s Doctor Manhattan, to which Angela replies that’s unlikely—knowing full-well it’s not only possible for Dr Manhattan to take human form, but has happened:
“As early as episode two, you have Will Reeves theorizing that Doctor Manhattan could take human form, and Angela pushing back against that idea, when both of them know that he can. Angela knows that he can, because she’s married to him. Will Reeves knows that he can because he visited him 10 years earlier. But they’re both holding their cards very closely to their chest. But, we had to signal to the audience that that was on the table. I think if we hadn’t allowed for that conversation, it wouldn’t have been a fair card to turn over later in the season.”
A fair point, and yet another example of how deeply thought-out this entire, excellent, possibly only season of Watchmen was.
Look for more from our interview with Lindelof on Collider soon. For more on Watchmen, check out our breakdown of the finale.