Are you convinced yet?! Do you believe me?! Everything is a circle! The circles are made of circles and there are circles inside those circles. The story circle is simultaneously the atom, proton, and quark of the story. A scene can be a circle, an act can be a circle, an issue can be a circle, and an arc can be a circle. It’s circles all the way down!
These last two chapters, 11 and 12, continue to deliver RETURNs and wrap it all up with a big CHANGE.
Why are RETURN and CHANGE connected? Because the human brain is a comparison machine. We build our reality out of comparison. We define things relative to other things. The story version of this is to bring a character back to the place they started so we can compare their new self with their old self, and compare the new world they’ve created to the one they left behind. In a sense, calling the final step CHANGE is a misnomer. A good story has change all the way through it. But the final step is where the change is accentuated. Characters and setting both change constantly over the course of a good story, and then at the end, we bring that change into focus by juxtaposing the new and the old.
And what a new world we get at the end of Watchmen. Some major beats are cleverly subverted, but keep in mind, the beats are still hit, even when they’re subverted. You gotta know the rules to bend the rules, kids!
Chapter 11: Look on My Works, Ye Mighty…
This chapter is the last origin story. We learned where Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, Nite Owl, and Silk Spectre came from. At last it’s time to learn the backstory of Adrian Veidt, AKA Ozymandias. Like the other origin chapters, this one weaves the origin story into the present plot and makes the telling critical to the climax.
This chapter also contains the series’ master mislead. When viewed in isolation, there is no question that this is Veidt’s chapter, but the reader’s not coming in a blank slate. We enter with ten issues of attachment to the other Watchmen. We already have had a reveal. We know Veidt is behind Blake’s death, Manhattan’s exile, and Rorschach’s framing. The heroes are coming. The bad guy’s overconfident. We’re going to learn Ozymandias’ master plan, and the good guys are going to stop him. It’s time for an epic fight scene and Ozymandias’s plan to backfire, right?
No, gentle reader, there’s something else lurking. Moore and Gibbons still have one last trick up their sleeve.
Ozymandias records an observation: that the future can be glimpsed by watching every TV channel at once. This comment is superimposed over images of his tropical dome and the stark white of the Antarctic landscape. He calmly does this, despite knowing that Rorschach and Nite Owl are bearing down on him to stop him. This scene does a lot of excellent character work. It illuminates Veidt’s intelligence, prescience, confidence, narcissism, and stoicism.
Nite Owl and Rorschach need to get into Karnak and stop Ozymandias. They provide a far more propulsive need than Ozymandias and are crucial to this chapter’s bait and switch. We’re too busy projecting ourselves onto the heroes to really worry about what the bad guy is doing.
Ozymandias has a need as well. He does need to prepare for the unwelcome guests that are inbound. He heads to a control console and presses a button. There is a blue flash. His face is set. Resolved, but tinged with sorrow. “What’s he doing?” we think, But then, “who cares, bad guy stuff. The good guys will stop him!” And that’s the trick of subverting the trope. We know the genre, and so think that we know the plot. We just watched the villain kill millions of people, but the mundane presentation allows us to breeze past it without considering it.
Ozymandias summons the last three servants that know about his plan, and heads to his vivarium.
Ozy pours himself and his servants glasses of wine, and he begins telling them the story of his past. That’s our Unknown for this issue, and similarly to the other “flashback” issues, the retelling of the past will culminate in a revelation at the climax.
We learn he was born a genius to wealthy parents. He idolized Alexander the Great, who nearly united the ancient world. Wanting to prove himself, he gave away his inheritance and followed Alexander’s path.
As he speaks, it becomes clear his servants aren’t moving. Their eyes aren’t following their employer. Butterflies are landing on them. Ozy explains that after following Alexander’s entire life story, he had a vision, and realized that the wisdom behind Alexander was that of the Egyptian Pharaohs. This is when Adrian Veidt decided to become Ozymandias: crime fighting superhero. His flashback pauses.
His servants are dead from the poisoned wine. Ozymandias appears truly sorrowful as he walks to a control panel and opens the vivarium dome, leaving all the tropical life contained within to die in a frozen wasteland to cover up the murder of his servants. These aren’t the only innocents Ozy killed today, as we are soon to learn.
Rorschach and Nite Owl are given the FIND beat. They reach Karnak and bust in. They pass through the laboratory in which Ozymandias pressed the button back at NEED. The lab is full of technological marvels. It’s made clear that Nite Owl is in awe of Ozymandias, as, looking around, he states “this must be how ordinary people feel…around us.” This dialogue is an important insight, Ozymandias is super even to the other superheroes. He possesses great prowess, great intelligence, and therefore, great authority. It’s part of how he convinces the rest of the Watchmen to keep his secret in the next chapter.
They reach Ozymandias, and Rorschach tries to sneak up on him, but it’s useless. He’s been preparing for their arrival, and he’s just better. Ozymandias disables the two of them over the span of two embarrassing pages.
This part is very clever. Nite Owl asks “what are you trying to do?” And Ozymandias continues the story he was telling to his servants while also continuing to kick Rorschach’s ass. We learn about his encounters with the Comedian over the years, and how the Comedian’s perspective convinced him that a dramatic intervention in the course of human history was necessary. He explains what all the scientists and artists that got blown up in the last issue were up to: making a big psychic space squid and teleporting it to New York so it could explode and drive millions of people insane. His life story ends with Ozymandias retelling how he murdered Edward Blake to ensure he would never tell the world what he saw. Rorschach and Nite Owl, thoroughly beaten, and now held at bay by Ozymandias’ cat, are forced to passively listen incredulously.
Why does Ozymandias kill Blake, but not the other heroes that learn about his plot? Why, in Chapter 12, does he trust Nite Owl and Silk Spectre not to betray him? He even lets Rorschach storm out to go tattle on him. It’s Dr. Manhattan who independently stops Rorschach. It’s all a hint that Ozy is not as evolved as he likes to think. Despite recognizing that Blake was remaining silent, Ozymandias killed him out of pettiness: Blake’s cynical worldview and mercenary attitude grated against his own authoritarian idealism. Additionally, Blake may be the only person that ever handed him an ass-kicking.
“I did it thirty-five minutes ago.” The past catches up to the present and BANG. Brick wall. What would a real genius supervillain do? Not wait around for the heroes to stop them. We flip back to the start of the issue. There it was. The button press, the blue flash; the disaster already happened. The Watchmen were late. All of the events happening in New York over the course of this issue were a flashback. What the genre trained us to expect was dead wrong.
This still hits after three decades, even with all our exposure to superhero subversion in the intervening years since Watchmen was first published. It’s just that well-crafted.
Rorschach and Nite Owl now know exactly what kind of man Adrian Veidt willed himself to become. His calculating intellect has appraised humanity, decided we need an enemy or else we squabble among ourselves, and so he has created one for us. And while the squid might be the face of the operation, it’s Veidt himself that killed half of New York. He is humanity’s true greatest threat.
Rorschach and Nite Owl are left stunned. Their inadequacy has been laid bare.
On the next panel, the denizens of New York are struggling in the street across from the newsstand. Lovers turned enemies, police, thugs, and strangers all simultaneously attacking and saving one another. It’s an effective metaphor for the whole human condition. Then there’s a flash. White light swells in slow motion and swallows them all up.
Chapter 12: A Stronger Loving World
This chapter is about confronting failure. None of the characters escape unscathed. The change we’ve been waiting for comes, and it is truly tragic. All but Rorschach become parties to Ozymandias’ plan, and Rorschach dies for his refusal. Our heroes go from trying to stop Ozymandias, to trying to bring him to justice, to becoming his accomplices.
Silk Spectre and Dr. Manhattan have finally returned from Mars, also too late to prevent catastrophe. They have landed at squid ground zero. The streets look like a passage from Rorschach’s journal. Laurie is horrified. Dr. Manhattan is distracted. He may have recognized the value of human life in the abstract, but he is unaffected by death in any sort of concrete form. He mutters about tachyons messing with his view of the future and realizes the particles are coming from Antarctica.
Dr. Manhattan needs to find the source of the tachyons, and Laurie needs to get the hell out of there. It’s the final chapter. The needs get simple out here. The soul-searching is over. There’s nothing left but the final confrontation.
They teleport to Karnak. Dr. Manhattan heads in first, leaving Silk Spectre in the freezing cold. Rorschach and Nite Owl are still standing there dumbfounded. Ozymandias flees. He uses Bubastis to lure Dr. Manhattan into an intrinsic field subtractor and vaporizes him.
Laurie, wielding a gun she pulled off one of the dead detectives in New York, fires on Ozymandias. He catches the bullet and kicks her in the stomach. Nite Owl uselessly threatens Ozymandias, but both he and Rorschach do nothing. Something interesting about these fights is how disorganized the heroes are. None of them ever work together effectively or coordinate against Ozymandias. Even now, when Bubastis is dead and they have him three to one, they are so demoralized that they fail to act.
Dr. Manhattan reforms himself as a giant, smashes back into Karnak, and is preparing to deliver some Martian street justice when…
…Ozymandias turns on his wall of TVs. The news reports are coming in. World superpowers are coming together to organize against the new alien threat. World War III has been cancelled. The rest of the Watchmen are forced to confront both their tragic ineffectiveness, and the horrifying effectiveness of his plan. Ozymandias tells them they are in checkmate: if they expose him or kill him, humanity goes back to killing each other. The heroes are forced to choose between justice and Ozymandias’s ill-gotten peace.
Dr. Manhattan agrees immediately, and Silk Spectre and Nite Owl soon follow. It’s good old dependable, unchanging Rorschach who turns his nose up at the prospect of participating in Ozymandias’ draconian sacrifice, and leaves. In an extremely telling panel, Ozymandias makes a smug pun about Rorschach’s “blotting out reality,” while holding his own bloody hand to his chin.
Innocence completely lost, Laurie and Dan slink off to go bang beside Ozymandias’ pool. Unable to face their failure, and the awfulness of the world around them, they choose nihilistic escape.
Dr. Manhattan follows Rorschach outside. Even when threatened with obliteration by a demigod, Rorschach refuses to compromise. Manhattan, now completely in the thrall of Ozymandias, blasts the tearful vigilante into red mist. This is the end Rorschach was destined for. He won’t trade his principals in for all the beans and sugar cubes in the world.
Dr. Manhattan, after a brief stop by the pool to beam lovingly at his ex-girlfriend and the man that stole her, casually wanders to Ozymandias’ orrery. Ozymandias says “I dream…about swimming towards a hideous…no. Never mind.” I suspect what he’s swimming toward is The Black Freighter from the pirate comic the kid Bernie was reading at the newsstand. Like the protagonist of the Black Freighter, Ozymandias has allowed himself to become a monster in order to stop what he thinks is a greater evil.
Dr. Manhattan will act as force of judgement for TAKE one last time. Ozymandias asks him if he did the right thing in the end, to which Manhattan replies, “nothing ever ends,” and then vanishes. Ozymandias is left looking over his shoulder in doubt.
This chapter has a big TAKE, because this story is a tragedy.
There is a time jump. Laurie and Dan show up at her mother Sally’s house with bad dye jobs so she can say goodbye. They’ve changed their identities and are going into hiding. It’s a RETURN to normal life, and a return to one of the last remaining heroes from the previous generation.
Laurie tells her mother that she’s learned who her real father is and that she forgives her. Laurie and Dan leave. Outside the retirement community she tells Dan she wants to get back into crimefighting, but with a new persona and equipment, more reminiscent of the Comedian. Having confronted her own strange origins, and having faced a terrible moral compromise, Laurie is now in on the joke. She’s going to become a vigilante once more, but this time on her terms.
Sally, tearful, plants a kiss on an old photograph of the Comedian. She has forgotten the bad parts of the man that once tried to rape her, or, less cynically, she has forgiven a monster, because he brought her more love than pain, in the end.
New York has changed too. The newsstand is gone and has been replaced by a vending machine. US/USSR unity posters are being hung. Pyramid Construction has begun rebuilding. Millennium perfume is being advertised. Ozymandias appears to be making a tidy profit in the wake of committing history’s largest single act of terrorism. Seymore, the assistant from the New Frontiersman, has just picked up take out from Burgers’n’Borscht, the new restaurant that has replaced the Gunga Diner. Back at the office, his boss orders him to run any story he wants. Seymore reaches for Rorschach’s journal, resting on top of the “crank file”. The final panel is centered on Seymore’s smiley shirt, spattered with ketchup, just like the Comedian’s bloody pin from the very first issue. The final joke is that all this compromise in order to “save humanity from itself” is just going to fall apart. The CHANGE wasn’t permanent.
Do you see the clockwork? There’s a great big ring of mechanisms, some of which are large gears, while others are made up of yet smaller cogs. Each turns and interlocks with the others, creating a sort of mythical orrery. This is the apogee of episodic storytelling: a story made of smaller, synergistic stories. Every unit of the narrative delivers a satisfying journey into the Unknown. That’s what humans desire: to learn about the world by confronting the Unknown. We love it so much that we don’t even have to do it ourselves. Give us a phantom to empathize with, and we will become them, and learn from them on their journey. We will rage and celebrate and cry with them, because there is deep truth in good fiction.
Sure, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons could have saved themselves a bunch of work and just said, “hey, beware of compromising your morals when you try to do good in the world,” but that makes for a pretty poor comparison to Watchmen, doesn’t it?
I hope, in this deep exploration of the structure of Watchmen, I’ve made a good case for the story circle as a useful and flexible tool for analyzing and creating stories. There’s an undeniable pattern that just keeps stacking up. I keep seeing it in the most beloved stories, and far smarter people than me saw it first. I think it’s more than a product of culture. Something about this pattern is connected to human sensemaking. Stories are in us, and this pattern feels true. I think it is true. Our minds were shaped by billions of years. Trillions of cycles. Days and nights. Births and deaths. Hungers and hunts. Lusts and ruts. Sowings and reapings. Tides. Full moons. Seasons. We were built for a world of cycles. To see them, adapt to them, and share the adaptation. The act of adaptation is itself cyclic, and a story is an ancient codification of adaption: information readily packaged for other humans. The story circle is the best paradigm we currently have for analyzing that code.