There’s all over the place, and then there’s Watchmen’s fourth episode, “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own,” which is all over the place. That’s probably a compliment coming from me (Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff), but the first time I watched this episode, I definitely wondered if the show had any idea where it was going, especially after the relatively contained and controlled narrative of episode three.
“If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” doesn’t just start with something out of the ordinary — it starts with yet another new, incredibly important character, whose existence has been kept from us to this point. That character is Lady Trieu (the always welcome Hong Chau), a woman who’s so rich that she can simply grow a baby for an infertile couple whose land she wishes to purchase, handing over the infant in exchange for the right to destroy their family farm. But the couple gets a son, so … it all works out in the end?
This cold open is the kind of parable that Watchmen already does so well: Here’s a little story about the avariciousness of capitalism wedded to the kind of comic book tech that allows babies to be grown and dreams to be fulfilled. Is that beautiful or terrifying or gross? How about all three?
But set aside those questions and take note that Lady Trieu is yet another new character introduced on a show that just introduced an entire second ensemble cast centered on Laurie Blake. Add that to the cast we were following in the first two episodes and the Looney Tunes zaniness of the Adrian Veidt sequences and — it’s a lot. That’s all I’m saying.
With that said, if you’re going to create something loopy and over the top, well, you could do a lot worse than what this episode of Watchmen offers. And you could do a lot worse for an intro to that loopiness than the sequence with Lady Trieu.
To talk more about “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” and all its wackiness, including growing babies in swamps, I’m joined by Vox associate culture editor Allegra Frank and senior correspondent Alex Abad-Santos.
On Lady Trieu, constructed babies, and the inhumanity of the rich
Emily: Look, I might not have been as into this episode as the first three, but goodness, that Lady Trieu sequence knocked my socks off.
For one thing, my wife and I have struggled with fertility issues of our own (as did my own parents, which is why they adopted me), so it was so brutal and cutting to meet a character who could not only grow a baby for a couple longing for a child, but also use said baby as a negotiation tactic. The whole sequence unfolded with a kind of relentless if-then logic, as if the poor people wrapped into Lady Trieu’s scheme had no time to think about actual human emotions, because they probably didn’t.
Watchmen in all its forms has argued that having too much money is its own kind of superpower, but also that having too much money functionally makes you a supervillain. After all, in the original comic, Ozymandias embarks on a plan that kills 3 million people because he thinks he can save the world. He does, but he also dooms it, just a bit. When you’re rich, you can buy whatever you want. That includes both power and superpowers. Everybody else is just doing the rich and powerful’s bidding.
What do you think about this whole “growing a baby” thing? And is there any way the baby that Lady Trieu handed over to the couple doesn’t have something to do with Veidt’s giant baby swamp?
Allegra: I too was super fascinated by the cold open that introduced us to the magical baby-making Lady Trieu. I don’t have the same personal connection the sequence that you do, Emily — I’ve consciously uncoupled myself from the concept of love and marriage and children and what have you. So the scene with the couple and the strange woman who baited them with a child didn’t provoke much emotion for me, similar to the way you’ve suggested the scene itself was crafted.
I find myself observing Watchmen from a distance most of the time, as I try to make sense of how its world works and its stories connect. Sequences like Lady Trieu’s arrival at this unassuming, previously unseen family’s home — where she pulled a baby from thin air in order to get what she wanted — are the reason why. The trillionaire Lady Trieu grounds the scene in an actual temporal space by turning over an hourglass and then delivering an ultimatum: Give me your land, and I’ll give you this child who is actually biologically yours, and if you don’t, I’ll destroy the dhilc. But I have little else to cling to as of her entrance.
Who is she? Why does she want this couple’s house? How does she know that a strange alien aircraft that crash landed miles away is “hers”? I’ve stopped fretting over these details and instead turned toward the way that moments like this build an atmosphere: I became enamored of this character’s steady voice, confidence, and fashionably symmetrical bob. Lady Trieu, more than the words she is saying, conveys something like a physical manifestation of power.
So what I liked about the “growing a baby thing” was how bizarre it was, how out-of-step it was from the previous episode’s events, which had already deviated from what was established by Watchmen’s first two episodes. Lady Trieu seems to stand for the calculating need for all-encompassing power, at whatever cost. And in this case, the cost was a very cute swaddled baby.
Did either of you find yourself better able to comprehend the particulars of Lady Trieu’s storyline and how it related to Angela, Laurie Blake, and my favorite guy Adrian Veidt’s stories from the get-go? Especially since, as you mentioned, Adrian does have his own baby swamp thing going on … which, what?
Adrian Veidt in: Baby Swamps
Emily: Okay, let’s deal with the baby swamp in the room, people, and let’s check out whatever’s up with Veidt. It starts to become clear in “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” that Veidt was sent to a prison of some kind, and the last sequence of the episode — in which Will and Lady Trieu pointedly stare up at the moon — sure suggests that prison is on the moon. Like, where else are you going to keep a man like Veidt?
I have noticed that Watchmen viewers seem about equally split on the Veidt of it all, with some folks feeling horribly thrown by what he’s supposed to be adding to the story, while others love the way his sequences play by their own twisted anti-logic. Everything he gets up to in this episode is a case in point. From harvesting babies in some weird swamp to growing them to adulthood in a centrifuge of some sort, he’s as all over the place as the show itself.
Why am I so entertained by this? I think it’s because the Veidt scenes have their own sense of internal logic and storytelling consistency. They feel like their own separate TV show smuggled into this one, and even though the ending of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” suggests that everything will intersect sooner or later, I’m not entirely sure I want that to happen. What if, for the rest of time, Watchmen occasionally cut to Jeremy Irons trying to break free of outer space imprisonment? Wouldn’t that be fun?
I’m also toying with a theory that Doctor Manhattan is somehow the one holding Veidt prisoner. Plenty of people have caught that the structure we saw Doc (he likes it when I call him Doc) building on Mars in the premiere had a distinctly similar shape to the house that Veidt calls home. And the rules of the world Veidt occupies — what’s up with that weirdo “game warden”? — sure seem as if they were set up by an incredibly powerful being. Perhaps a godlike one? With blue skin?
What’s certain is that the Veidt storyline is where Watchmen gets to burn off all its excess comic book energy. Alex, as our resident comics expert, what say you to the way all of the comic stuff seems to have been shoved into this one storyline?
Alex: The comic book is a little easier to follow since Rorschach’s investigation ties into a series of disparate storylines, characters, and flashbacks. The TV show has a similar mystery to the original Watchmen comic in the murder of Judd Crawford and Angela’s efforts to solve his murder, but the characters around Angela, so far, seem to be opaque.
However, we did get a huge clue in this episode that seems to affirm the theory that Doctor Manhattan is keeping Veidt prisoner.
In Veidt’s big scene, after killing most of his staff (save for two new clones he just created), he gives us a big hint as to where he is and what’s happening. “Four years since I was sent here,” he tells his remaining clones. “In the beginning I thought it was a paradise, but it’s not. It’s a prison … one way or another I will escape this godforsaken place.”
If it’s been four years, then he’s been wherever he is since 2015. We know that Lady Trieu bought Veidt’s company in 2012 right after he disappeared, and that in 2012 the FBI began searching for him before officially declaring him dead in 2019. That means there’s a three-year window that’s unaccounted for, which apparently resulted in Veidt getting sent to his country manor.
Curiously, in episode two, Angela’s son Topher was playing with toys called “Magna-Hattan Blocks,” a set of magnetized legos that levitate. The structure he was building looked a lot like Veidt’s mansion. Because they looked awfully similar and because the blocks are named after Doctor Manhattan that connect feels like it matters. Granted, we don’t know the specifics of those blocks or whether Topher was just free-forming something that appeared to match the castle where Veidt is staying. But Veidt’s “prison” seems to be Manhattan-connected, and even if it isn’t, there’s still the mystery of who or what imprisoned Veidt wherever he is now.
Could Lady Trieu be responsible? We know she bought Veidt’s company, and she exhibits his habit for consuming all information (like those newspapers she makes her daughter buy). Lady Trieu is also responsible for the Martian phone booths — so perhaps there’s a connection there between her and Manhattan.
How does Angela fit into this whole bizarre pattern?
But I also noticed a parallel between Veidt and Lady Trieu in regards to Judd and Angela. In Trieu’s humid greenhouse garden, there’s a golden statue of Veidt that elicits some ire from Laurie. “He looks like shit,” she says.
Lady Trieu explains that in her culture, the elderly are revered, and that she holds Veidt in high esteem because he inspired her. People who read the Watchmen comic, though, know that it’s a little bit of a loaded statement, since Veidt killed millions of people to stop a world war that would have left the world in nuclear decimation.
Not unlike Trieu saying she was inspired by Veidt, Angela seems to be trying to hold on to any goodness left of her memories of Judd. She takes Judd’s KKK hood and uniform to Looking Glass and has him hide it so that Laurie and the FBI won’t find it. She’s doing her old friend one last favor by keeping his legacy intact.
Why exactly is she going through all this effort? Clearly she doesn’t want to believe he’s racist, but all signs point to something nefarious. Is Angela like Lady Trieu here, as oblivious to his possible villainy as Trieu is to Veidt’s?
Although with that said, we have to take what Lady Trieu says with a grain of salt, as we see her engage in some double-talk with Angela when Laurie isn’t listening — she Trieu delivers a secret message to Angela in Vietnamese. Her admiration for Veidt could be all an act, right?
Allegra: I’m not sure that I believe that either Angela or Lady Trieu could be unaware of the reality of their respective idols’ morals. While there is a case for Trieu to legitimately exalt Adrian Veidt — his mass destruction of humanity could be read as a necessary and selfless act by some less-empathetic types — I find Angela’s defense of Judd Crawford to be more begrudging. Not only is she “doing him a favor,” as you said, Alex, but Angela also seems unwilling to accept that the man who inspired her to join the vigilante force and mentored her throughout could have ill intentions. How could a man she brought into her home, who encouraged her to fight against white supremacy, be a white supremacist himself?
Giving Looking Glass the KKK hood to keep secret is apparently the best way to stop anyone from answering that question. Looking Glass isn’t surprised that Judd has some connection to the Rorschach-worshipping Kavalry; Judd was “a white man in Oklahoma,” Looking Glass says. To keep that hood in hiding with someone like Looking Glass gives Angela the agency to figure out the truth.
But now it’s become Chekhov’s KKK hood — we know where it is, and it feels safe to assume someone else is going to find out about it too. As such, I don’t see this ending well for Angela, especially what with Laurie planting herself so firmly into Angela and Judd’s world.
Going forward, I do have to wonder if and how Lady Trieu and Angela’s stories will further dovetail. They are both women of color (and even fluent Vietnamese speakers!) who looked up to white men that contain more shades of gray than they care to admit. Veidt is currently protected by living a cushy life in his apparent space prison and has a fancy statue to memorialize him on Earth; Judd is dead, but no one has to question the true intentions of his cause if Angela covers up his KKK connection. That’s a whole lot of emotional labor for these two women, and without much gratitude or payoff. I’m excited to see where Watchmen takes us on these paths, now that some stories are starting to converge a bit more. Maybe I’ll even be able to start watching the show without so many questions, instead of taking notes as an outsider looking in on this world.