Let the mystery be: What Watchmen learned from The Leftovers about answers


The beauty of Watchmen as a TV show is that it stems from beloved source material while completely charting its own course. A large part of the show’s effectiveness as a narrative derives from its ability to exist outside the realm of a conventional sequel, while retaining a sense of reverence for the past mythology fans have come to love so dearly over the years.

At its core, the original Watchmen graphic novel was a mystery. Rorschach’s efforts to uncover the Comedian’s killer unveiled a broader plot to achieve world peace through mass murder in the context of the Cold War. Set in the same world 30 years later, the TV show approaches its story similarly, with Angela Abar’s efforts to uncover her police chief’s killer unveiling the sinister plot of a white supremacist group known as the Seventh Kavalry.

Mystery is a favorite subject of series creator and showrunner Damon Lindelof, co-creator of beloved TV series Lost and The Leftovers. And both shows saw their legacies largely defined by his ability to address (or not) their core mysteries.

For all its accolades and high placement on lists of the greatest TV shows, Lost remains a highly polarizing experience. The finale, “The End,” in particular, earned fans’ ire for its handling of many of the show’s longstanding questions. As Lost progressed through its six seasons, the show introduced more mysteries than it ever could have addressed, from tropical island polar bears, to vengeful smoke monsters, to time-bending nuclear warheads. For fans seeking answers, “The End” buckled under the weight of immeasurable expectation.

Lindelof’s next show The Leftovers, based on Tom Perotta’s novel of the same name, with Perotta serving as co-creator/executive producer, ran for three seasons. Set during the aftermath of the “Sudden Departure,” a rapture-like event that caused 2 percent of the world’s population to disappear with no explanation, The Leftovers rarely tried to explain the method behind the show’s madness. In fact, it often felt framed as a direct rebuttal to Lost, a dynamic most explicitly articulated through its season two credits song, “Let the Mystery Be.”

The Leftovers got progressively weirder, and far more critically acclaimed, in its second season, the more it veered off course from Perotta’s novel. The season featured undead parallel universes and afterlife karaoke, absurdist sequences that marked a drastic departure from the first season’s somber tone. For its third season, the show abandoned the consistent credits song, opting instead for a variety of eclectic songs that ranged from ‘80s sitcom themes to lounge covers of Depeche Mode. Notably, for its final episode, the show returned to “Let the Mystery Be,” reinforcing the show’s reluctance to offer answers.

When it came time to wrap things up for Lost, the resolution provided naturally clashed with the fan theories that in many ways offered more satisfying alternatives. The Leftovers possessed no such struggle, with “Let the Mystery Be” serving as a persistent reminder that answers often don’t provide a satisfying form of clarity. By refusing to peel back the layers, The Leftovers forced fans to engage with its characters on its terms.

Watchmen waded gradually into the lore of its source material, using the first few episodes to establish Angela (Regina King) before ramping up connections to the graphic novel’s broader mythology. Notably, the show waited until its third episode to introduce Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), the second Silk Spectre, and to confirm the identity of Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) in a dramatic reveal. This narrative dynamic allowed the show to firmly establish Angela as the protagonist without too drastically diverting from the Watchmen world.

Like the show, the graphic novel includes very few scenes of the costumed adventurers together. There was never an actual “Watchmen” team. The group of Rorschach, Silk Spectre II, Nite Owl II, Ozymandias, Doctor Manhattan and The Comedian gathered together for a single meeting at the urging of Minutemen founder Captain Metropolis. Though the new group, referred to as the Crimebusters, was intended to succeed the Minutemen, The Comedian’s bad attitude quickly derailed the meeting and the group never collectively met again.

This second generation of costumed adventurers remains a fairly unexplored part of Watchmen lore. The graphic novel supplies the origin stories for most of the core characters, but we see very little of them in their prime. Veidt, in particular, receives far less attention in the comic than the others, a dynamic reversed for the TV series. Unlike the other main characters, Adrian ended the graphic novel without a clear sense of closure, fitting given his extreme villainy, while also leaving his story ripe for the series to explore.

Plenty of mysteries surrounding the legacy characters are bound to remain unanswered, but the show’s declaration from the onset to proceed with Angela as the lead encouraged longtime fans to be content with any lingering uncertainty.

Lindelof himself noted that the Watchmen series is centered around Angela, with the legacy characters existing in service to her character, not explicitly to continue their own narratives. The structure of the TV show as a self-contained season allows Angela to enjoy the same potential for narrative fulfillment enjoyed by the graphic novel’s protagonists. Plenty of mysteries surrounding the legacy characters are bound to remain unanswered, but the show’s declaration from the onset to proceed with Angela as the lead encouraged longtime fans to be content with any lingering uncertainty.

Doctor Manhattan and Ozymandias conclude the graphic novel with a similar lack of clarity about their futures. Jon Osterman intends to leave the earth for a destination unknown, vowing to create life of his own — a promise fulfilled in the TV series. He leaves Adrian’s Antarctic fortress with the cryptic observation that, “Nothing ends, Adrian,” sending the normally calm and collected Veidt into a panic as Manhattan disappears in a cloud of blue smoke.

Watchmen / DC Comics – Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
Watchmen / DC Comics – Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons /

The Watchmen TV series so far has expanded quite a bit about that encounter. Adrian may have prevented nuclear war, but humanity is hardly saved in the way he used to justify his actions. Manhattan may have left the complicated galaxy for a time and he may have created new life, but he came back eventually. The late-season revelation that Doctor Manhattan was living on earth disguised as Angela’s husband Cal is a bombshell practically on the scale of Adrian’s attack on New York. Most important of all, nothing ever ended.

Episode 8, “A God Walks into Abar,” returned Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan to the scene of their final conversation in the graphic novel. Adrian raises his question, but instead of lingering on the uncertainty, Veidt looks forward, asking Jon if he will ever live to see the utopia he created. Somewhere in the decades between their encounters, Veidt learned to let that mystery be.

The possibilities for what Jon Osterman has been up to in the decades since the events of the graphic number rival the number of Lost mysteries. Episode 8 offered a glimpse of his Eden-like activities on Europa, demonstrating his altered views on life after the events of the graphic novel, but the show seems unlikely to answer any more questions about what happened during that stretch in the series finale.

By using Angela as its anchor, Watchmen has avoided the pitfalls of Lost’s endless mysteries. King’s fascinating protagonist has a rich backstory of her own. “This Extraordinary Being,” perhaps the finest episode of the season, used Watchmen’s broad history to advance Angela’s own story, using the previously fairly blank portrait of Hooded Justice to tie Sister Knight to one of the franchise’s first costumed adventurers. Such journeys into the past can provide answers about the present, but the effectiveness of this episode is owed at least in part to the restraint the show has exercised in revisiting Watchmen’s past.

Each of Adrian Veidt, Laurie Blake and Jon Osterman offer enough material for three separate compelling series, but Watchmen is Angela’s show. That isn’t to say that we can’t, or shouldn’t, learn more about how these characters fit into her world, only that there’s a delicate balance to be maintained. Laurie and Jon in particular enjoyed a strong sense of closure from the graphic novel. To revisit their relationship with a shared scene could be satisfying for longtime fans, but at the risk of mudding waters better left still.

Nostalgia plays a big role in both the graphic novel and the TV show. The past can start to eat away at you if you allow distant memories to control your present life. As a television show, Watchmen has to constantly juggle the past, present and future in its narrative. With regard to the memories that longtime fans of the comics bring to the table, Damon Lindelof was right to look more toward the The Leftovers than Lost. A little reminiscing here and there can be good for all of us, but as it pertains to Watchmen’s past, sometimes it’s better to let the mystery be.

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