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Inside the Arrival of Dr. Manhattan, a Full-Frontal God Among Men

With its eighth episode (the cleverly titled “A God Walks Into Abar”), Watchmen finally spilled the beans about its big blue god. With time-warping deftness, it elaborated on last week’s bombshell that Dr. Manhattan (originally known as Jon Osterman) has spent the past few decades living undercover as Angela’s husband Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), delivering the entire the backstory to the couple’s relationship, which began years ago in a Saigon bar and came to a conclusion in the present, with Cal, resurrected as his old superpowered self, getting zapped by a 7th Cavalry tachyon cannon. Throw in further surprises about Dr. Manhattan’s authorship of Adrian Veidt’s predicament—the former Ozymandias has been living on the Eden-ish planet of Europa, which Manhattan created, replete with a manor house and servants modeled after his childhood experiences fleeing Nazi Germany—and you have the most revelatory series installment yet.

Penned by creator Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen, it’s also the most impressively-directed hour of Watchmen to date, courtesy of executive producer Nicole Kassell, who previously helmed the show’s initial two chapters. Guided by a fractured structure that speaks to Dr. Manhattan’s simultaneous experience of the past, present and future, it spins a tangled web of love, trauma, memory and inevitable doom that’s intimately related to the superhero saga’s portrait of yesterday’s pull on today. It also takes considerable risks, given the racial/ethnic politics at the heart of its portrayal of Dr. Manhattan, a German Jew who’s been posing for years as a black man, and whose power is now sought by a cabal of neo-Nazis.

All in all, there’s a lot to unpack, which is why we went straight to the source, speaking with Kassell about the intricacies of this standout episode, as well as what we might expect from next week’s highly-anticipated finale—which, it turns out, could be the end of the series itself.

“A God Walks Into Abar” introduces us to Dr. Manhattan in a time-splintered way that echoes the original Watchmen’s fourth chapter, “Watchmaker.” Did you go back to that issue, or discuss it with Damon, when putting this episode together?

It was definitely written that way. Jeff Jensen and Damon wrote the script, and it’s absolutely an overt homage to that chapter. In talking about that character, it just felt essential to take that structure on. So that came entirely from the writer’s room.

Was it a challenge to find the episode’s structure, both visually and editorially? It has all these harmonious elements, both big and small, sprinkled throughout.

Yes. Cinematically, it was enormously challenging. I would honestly say this episode was almost harder to direct than the pilot or episode two, in that 25 pages [of the script] take place in that bar with two people, one of whose face you can’t show. So it was a real puzzle to me, how to make that visually engaging. I direct because I believe in it as a visual medium, and I really had to be analytical about how the camera could evolve. We had time limits on how long we could shoot, so I had to block shoot as well. I had three days to shoot the 25 pages, and it was very hard for the actors, in that I asked them both to be off-book for about 12 pages, and ready to run scenes back-to-back in the same set-ups. But then I also wanted to make sure that the visuals progressed, so there are some set-ups that I didn’t want to repeat, ever, once they were used.

It was, I’d say, truly a head-scratcher. The thing that was very grounding were the transitions. Every transition you see was very specifically designed, and intended. So within the scenes, there was definitely a whole process of trying to figure out how much or how little to play on Dr. Manhattan. But you always had those ins and outs of the scenes to ground the process.

One of the key creative decisions is to hide Jon’s face, at least in the bar. Can you discuss the thought process behind withholding that information?

Even having been there and lived through it and having looked at Yahya every day, and even though you’ve seen it at the end of episode seven, when his face is finally revealed in the morgue, it’s just this AHHH! moment! [Laughs] I think that’s really due to the withholding during all of that time. I love that whole idea of, what isn’t shown allows the viewer’s imagination to be more creative than any decision that I make, or we make, to put on screen. Who or what Dr. Manhattan looks like—it’s a mystery for the show that we’ve already told you. So what he looks like, pre-that moment, to me, it’s however anyone wants to imagine him looking like from the source.