As a child, I remember hearing the idea of God as a being who knows not just what I'm doing or what I have done, but what I will do for the rest of my life.
My reaction was to stay up at night picking at that idea like a scab. I would think of doing something spontaneous and unpredictable—throwing a book across my bedroom—plan on it, prepare the muscles in my arms to follow through, then slam the book shut in my lap instead.
God scene from futurama www.youtube.com
But even at that age I could tell that my sudden shifts in intention were illegitimate. I had already planned to change my mind. The kind of God I'd been led to believe in would have seen right through my pretense. Free will—the freedom to follow a course other than the one laid out for me—was incompatible with such a God. Eventually I stopped picking at that scab, and the idea seemed to have healed over—until I watched the latest episode of HBO's Watchmen last night. It was like peeling back a scar to find the wound still festering underneath. Just so it's clear, from here on out there will be spoilers.
The particular wrinkle that the episode "A God Walks into Abar" has added to this old paradox is in making Doctor Manhattan both godlike and human. He has the ability to control matter at the atomic level, to create life, to exist in multiple places and to divide his consciousness across multiple times, allowing him to seemingly predict the future. But there are limits to his powers. He is vulnerable to tachyons. He cannot know anything outside of what he will experience while his powers are intact, and all it takes for him to be stripped of his powers is for his memory of them to be suppressed—by some dubious neurosurgery.
Another issue that seems to be hinted at is that Doctor Manhattan does not truly experience all of time at once. He has access to all of it, the same way that a person with cable has access to every channel, but the number of channels he can watch at once seems to be limited, and they all seem to play out at a fixed pace.
The evidence for this is in Doctor Manhattan's laughter. When Angela Abar and Adrian Veidt contradict each other on the topic of his imagination, Doctor Manhattan chuckles at the coincidence of their synchrony, and when Angela interrogates him about the other times he's experiencing, he continually uses the verb "now," in the same way a human would use it to describe ongoing events to someone not present. If he was experiencing his entire life at once, there would be none of these coincidental synchronies—no surprises or organic reactions. Each moment would be equally tied to every other.
So, while he claims not to experience the concept of "before," the truth seems to be that his "before" is just immensely more complicated than ours. His future contains moments of awareness that precede what he knows now, and his past contains moments of awareness that reach far into the future, but he is not constantly aware of everything he will ever know. Different moments play out together across time, like multiple TVs playing different channels in the same room.
So, just as we never see him embody more than a handful of physical forms, he seems to experience only a handful of separate moments concurrently, and while he can report from the future, his behavior throughout the graphic novel and now in the new series, has consistently suggested that he cannot act in a way that will alter the future he perceives. He tells Will Reeves, in this episode, that his powers to control events are limited. After all, if he changes the events that inspire him to make those changes, he erases the knowledge that allowed him to act. This is the kind of mind-melting paradox that makes time travel such a confusing topic.
But could a god-man like Manhattan navigate the mess in order to avoid catastrophe—like Cyclops gaining his powers? Has he even tried? Having been a god for so long, detached from human motivations, he may simply have lost the will to try to change things—to destroy a timeline he knows and has already experienced. Does he believe himself incapable of changing the timeline, or does he simply prefer not to take the risk of making things messy and confusing? Because that's something else we learned in this episode: It is possible for Doctor Manhattan to be confused.
With the tachyon device removed from his skull via hammer, Jon Osterman—AKA Doctor Manhattan, AKA Angela's husband Calvin—has to relearn how to live as a god, and incorporate what he's learned as a human. With all his tremendous knowledge flooding back to him, it seems he is once again putting himself back together— mentally this time. And just as the experience of physically rebuilding himself in 1959 taught him how to access his powers, coming back to his uninhibited form after ten years as a human seems to unlock new understanding for him to process. He tells Angela, "I am experiencing confusion as a result of the device being removed, and am not entirely sure when I am."
He teleports himself to walk on the water of their backyard pool, and tells Angela this will be important later, then he teleports their children to safety—anticipating the impending shootout. He operates as a walkie-talkie-through-time for Angela and her grandfather, Will Reeves. Angela, looking for answers, accidentally incepts the idea that Judd Crawford—whom Will has never heard of—is a member of the organization Will devoted his life to defeating. And this is the defining moment of the episode.
Angela's distress about having caused the event she was trying to understand sets Manhattan off on a philosophical musing on the chicken or the egg, and the nature of his unique relationship to time—the paradoxical way in which a reaction to an event can become its cause. It no doubt also sets in motion the as-yet-unseen events of the finale, but Jon/Calvin/Doctor's immediate response is to go cook waffles.
"Watch the eggs," he tells Angela as the fridge pops open in front of her. She smashes the carton on the ground. He must have known she was going to do that—that he would not be able to finish making those waffles. He might as easily have conjured completed waffles if he had wanted to. He allowed the eggs to fall as a pretense for dropping a hint that Angela will no doubt pick up at just the right moment. Now, here come the real spoilers...
I have eaten the egg. I know what's going to happen in the finale.
What exactly does "watch the eggs" mean? The egg in the beer as Manhattan tells Angela that he can imbue a mortal with his powers through food. The egg of Calvin's suppressed memory, and of Adrian's comment that a moment of instinct may unlock his powers—which prompts Manhattan to say "Thank you, Adrian, now I understand what happened." The egg of the promised and insisted dinner—Manhattan spends his whole first night together convincing Angela to have dinner with him, yet with all the time jumps we never see the dinner take place. The chicken that will hatch is whatever tragedy is about to end their relationship.
Calvin didn't save Angela from the Kavalry shooter. He didn't zap that shooter away. Angela did it herself in that moment she blinked her eyes. Whether she knew it at the time or not, Manhattan gave her his powers at that dinner in 2009, their second night together. Perhaps she still didn't believe who he was then—he says, that first night, that he prefers for her to remain uncertain. She ingested those godlike abilities, but because she doesn't realize she has them, she cannot yet use them. When she learns what her husband has made her—when she can walk on water herself, and no longer relate to the humanity of her adopted children—will she be able to forgive him?
Jon's musing about the chicken or the egg—"The answer appears to be both at exactly the same time"—inspired him to meet Angela in the first place. To set up that dinner. To drink an egg while talking about passing on his powers. To go make waffles that he'll never finish, and tell her to "watch the eggs." Even to track down Will Reeves and have him dose Angela with Nostalgia. For all we know, he supplied the bomb that killed her parents in the moment she felt inspired by a VHS tape.
den of Geek
It is all deeply confusing, but what has become clear is that whatever tragedy ends their relationship in the next episode, it will involve Angela coming to terms with the fact that she is a god. Perhaps a better god—for her traumatic life experiences—than Manhattan could ever hope to be. Sister Night. A god with the will to fight against evil even when events seem immutable. That moment—when Manhattan tells her that their tragedy is unavoidable and she decides to fight anyway—is the moment he falls in love with her, and it's no doubt why he chose to make her a god in the first place. For the first time in Watchmen history, a hero will have superpowers. And we will see how she flies.
Watchmen 1x09 Promo "See How They Fly" (HD) Season Finale www.youtube.com
Of course there is someone else whom Jon has been feeding. A man with an all-consuming will to power—to reshape the world according to his vision. Adrian Veidt has been eating food that Doctor Manhattan created for the last ten years—including the cakes that Phillips and Crookshanks presumably pack with eggs. Is the horseshoe baked into that last cake perhaps a clue that the good Doctor has created more than one god? A good, humble Angela to oppose an evil ambitious Adrian? For that, and so much more—the millennium clock!—I don't have an answer. So you should probably tune in for the finale.