Trying to find flaws in HBO’s Watchmen is a bit like playing Whack-A-Mole: every time I think I’ve found a particular gripe, its been fixed by the next episode. After last week’s choppy reintroduction to the original comics characters, Episode 4 finally begins to weave the two timelines together in a subtle, exciting way. It picks up the slack of its predecessor by picking up the pace and seamlessly welding together the old with the new with exposition so well-delivered it barely feels like exposition at all.
In the prologue, we meet Katy (Christine Weatherup) and Jon (Robert Pralgo), a childless couple in a little farmhouse who can’t quite seem to get their produce off the shelves. One night, in walks Lady Trieu (Hong Chau), our mysterious trillionaire mastermind – it’s too soon to start calling anyone heroes or villains; this is Watchmen after all – who effortlessly persuades them to abandon their house, and gets them out the door before we’ve hit the seven minute mark.
I won’t say how – that would spoil the fun – but rest assured that not a second of those seven minutes is spared, but not a second is rushed either. Their story is told almost completely visually, without a single line of dialogue delivered until two minutes in. The acting is phenomenal on all sides. Pralgo and Weatherup really throw their all into these bit characters, and their performances clash wonderfully with Chau’s calculating, manipulative coldness. Its jarring to see her in such a domestic setting, but it works. The whole scene works. And this is just the prologue.
The rest of the episode is spent with Laurie (Jean Smart), now chief, and Angela (Regina King) hunting down the Seventh Cavalry, the mysterious old man who claims to be Angela’s grandfather, and the magnet in the sky he used to steal her car. We also get to learn a little more about Veidt (Irons) in his paradise-turned-prison, in a sequence that has some laugh-out-loud black comedy and gorgeous special effects.
Some critics might call this one filler, and I don’t blame them; but it’s the good kind of filler. It’s planting the seeds for what’s to come while not only developing what we’ve already seen, but improving on it as well, all while remaining interesting and engaging. The pace has improved so much since last week’s episode that I had to double check the difference in run time, expecting a difference of ten, maybe even twenty minutes, but no – it’s less than a minute shorter.
What cowriter Christal Henry brings to the table here is some of the best writing of the series so far. She knows how to use a quiet moment, utilising the TV format to tell us the story through visuals and actions, not just through dialogue. This is not to say that the dialogue is bad; far from it. It’s rich but also snappy, skipping from beat to beat in a way that always feels authentic but still fun; this is especially true in the hands of Smart and King, who are fantastic on their own terms but phenomenal when forced to butt heads. King in particular is brilliant in this episode, and perhaps the best suited to Henry’s minimalist writing style. Without saying a word she conveys her every thought and every feeling, and makes it look easy.
There are too many great things in this episode to point out in a single review, so I’ll make these last ones quick: The production design in Lady Trieu’s indestructible vivarium is stunning; the matching scene transitions from editors David Eisenberg and Henk Van Eeghen feel like overleaf matching panels ripped straight out of the comic; and costume designer Meghan Kasperlik has really outdone herself with her “Lube Man” design (don’t ask), which reminds us of the original point of Watchmen – superheroes aren’t cool, they’re nuts. There’s also some great camerawork in this episode: There’s a quiet, intimate moment in Topher’s bedroom, when he asks his adoptive mother if she was afraid after nearly getting blown to smithereens in the previous episode, and in that moment the camera pulls in just a little bit. It’s so subtle you almost can’t tell straight away, but it adds to the intimacy and tenderness between the two characters, and it just goes to show the level of detail put into an episode in which, honestly, not a whole lot else happens.
“If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” brings together the mystery of the first episode, the character development of the second, and the fan service of the third, all while keeping the story engrossing and the pace marching along nicely. You could call it “filler” and I wouldn’t argue, but who cares? It takes talent to make filler this good.
Watchmen continues on Monday 11th November, 9pm, on Sky Atlantic.