“Wounds Need Air”: Personal Trauma in Watchmen

Watchmen S1E2 - Sister Night hugs the body of Judd as he's lowered down.

By Patricia Willenborg

Once upon a time in popular comic books, trauma was a pulse beneath the skin of the narrative, often embedded in origin stories. It was the steely motivation for Batman’s crusade, and the mournful reaction to Uncle Ben’s murder. But by and large, it was not a lived and limiting experience for heroes, who could always shrug off their wounds and save the day. Heroes had more to fear from people uncovering their secret identities than from PTSD symptoms or maladaptive coping mechanisms. Crippling human experiences were not the point of early comics, which were episodic and bound by social mores that suppressed unpleasantness.

In Watchmen, trauma is laid bare, personally, historically, and culturally. It is not just a motivation or memory that can be pushed aside at will, but a haunting, draining, confusing force which stymies every advance. The graphic novel was part of a trend that injected the superhero genre with the realities of human frailty and violence. It was not alone in this work, and we have seen this legacy on our screens, from Thor’s weight gain to Jessica Jones’s panic attacks. HBO’s Watchmen series has recently picked up the torch, starting with its first scene and following suit through every episode. It behooves us as a traumatized audience to examine how and why.

Although we hear the word “trauma” often, we need to understand it in more depth before we begin. Personal trauma is a mental and emotional response to a surprising and deeply upsetting development or series of events. It begins with an external threat that seems overpowering, such as violence, natural disasters, and terminal diagnoses. Trauma is emotionally overwhelming and interferes with remembering and analyzing what happened. This is more likely to happen when faced with a threat that seems lethal and inevitable, and when the victim feels helpless. How they respond depends on many things—like perspective, prior ordeals, and support—but ultimately, whether a person becomes traumatized or not is beyond their control.

Evolutionarily speaking, trauma serves a vital purpose. Our bodies are primed for survival. Having survived a major threat once, the body and psyche work together to assure a better outcome, if and when new threats occur. Details from horrifying events are embedded in the mind for future reference. When familiar elements arise, memories activate autonomic responses throughout the body, such as hyper-awareness, increased blood flow, and emotional numbness. The body’s goal is to escape a new threat, hopefully with less damage than before and, of course, to survive at all costs. The main problem is that the process is involuntary, automatic, and unpredictable, which puts the survivor under more stress. 

Trauma disrupts a survivor’s sense of control, along with whatever else is going on in their life. This doesn’t always manifest as a loud, quick freak-out, like we may have seen in movies; it can be a silent, internal struggle, and recur for years. It can affect us in obvious and hidden ways, leading to problems with relationships, health, and employment. Many do not even know they are suffering from trauma because they do not understand the signs and have seen only dramatic representations in media. We also tend to avoid that which bothers us to protect ourselves from further distress—which means we remain largely unaware of just how much the past continues to harm us.

Now that we have the tools we need, we can begin dissecting personal trauma in Watchmen.

Some Things Shouldn’t Happen to Anybody: Watchmen Then

[Quote from the graphic novel, Ch. 1, pg 21, Laurie]

The Watchmen graphic novel opens with the murder of Eddie Blake, an event which should be upsetting, but the audience doesn’t know much about him yet. Enter Rorschach, who discovers that Eddie was the vigilante known as the Comedian and goes to inform the other Watchmen. Rorschach is the canary in the coal mine—he wants them to care, to react with fear, and be spurred into motion. This is the key function of trauma, after all: to recognize threats and defuse or avoid them. He needs to awaken their anguish, and he does—not in the way he hopes, but in ways which reveal how they fail to cope with life. 

Dan is still wounded by being forced to retire when the Keene Act was passed. He felt helpless as the tide turned against costumed vigilantes and decided not to work for the government, so he became stuck in his normal life. He’s afraid of exposure, so his hidden lair stays dusty and forgotten; he refuses to get rid of his old gadgets but also doesn’t use them. His sorrow is plain as Rorschach leaves, but he stays put. Staying mired in sadness and avoiding what needs to be done are Dan’s primary ways of handling—or failing to handle—his trauma. But Dan also realizes what Rorschach is really trying to do, which is why he forbids him from visiting Hollis Mason: “Hollis is an old man. If you’re thinking about going over there and scaring him…” 

Rorschach is unable to breach Adrian Veidt’s calm during his visit. We eventually learn that Adrian is emotionally stunted. He says he mourns the millions of people he kills at the end of the novel, but there is every reason to doubt this claim. As he turns to the television screens reporting the horrific news, he has tears in his eyes, but his first words give away his true motive: “I DID IT! I saved Earth from Hell! Next, I’ll help her towards Utopia.” The only thing that haunts Adrian is the idea that he could be wrong: “Jon, wait, before you leave…I did the right thing, didn’t I?” All he has to offer are evasions and lies, which are ways of avoiding the trauma that could otherwise haunt him; this is also true of Veidt in the HBO series.

Dr. Manhattan is similarly undisturbed at the news of Eddie’s death. He falls back on his detached perspective and scientific principles, failing to consider anything outside of the most narrow logic: “Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?” Ethics do not figure into the equation, and neither do emotions. Jon also has not lost much; he can relive his experiences of Eddie whenever he wishes. It could be argued that Eddie was never fully alive to Jon, and cannot be fully dead for him, so there is nothing to avenge. (This might also explain why he did not intervene when Eddie killed his Vietnamese lover—and what Eddie meant when he said, “You don’t really give a damn about human beings.”) For while Adrian has one last fear in his heart, Jon has none.

During his transformation in Zack Snyder’s film, Jon explains: “I feel fear for the last time.” This line is not in the novel, but complements Alan Moore’s image of Jon powerfully. It reveals a key difference between the world’s only superhero and humanity. It’s unlikely that anyone on Earth can hurt him, but it wouldn’t matter if they could—he cannot feel fear. Thus, Rorschach can’t reach him and Jon refuses to act, which is how he handles most things. This continues on the show. He suppresses his powers and memory so he can experience a human life but his powers emerge when danger arises, so he cannot experience vulnerability or fear. When the final showdown happens, he only acts to save others, not himself, and he still does not express fear as a motivation. This leaves Jon as more and less than fully human.

Last but not least, at the start of the graphic novel, Laurie is enraged, but not at the murder of her former colleague. She’s incensed about the Comedian’s attack on her mother, and Eddie Blake’s violent end does not expunge his guilt in her eyes (nor should it; karma is not contrition and happenstance is not justice). Laurie is further inflamed by Rorschach’s refusal to Eddie’s crime seriously. She hears Rorschach’s response “I’m not here to speculate on the moral lapses of men who died in their country’s service” and immediately cuts him off. She counters with, “You know he broke her ribs? You know he almost choked her?” then orders Jon to remove him. She refuses to let Eddie off the hook out of hero-worship, but she also reveals her key responses to trauma: anger, avoidance, and denial. 

This pattern keeps Laurie from putting the pieces together and admitting that Eddie is her father. “I’m through thinking about my life, looking back on all my stupid memories,” she proclaims to Jon on Mars. “I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to talk about it.” But her repressed memories are all she needs. There is nothing Jon reveals to Laurie outside of her own memories—except for her tendency to ignore what bothers her. “You’re deliberately shutting out understanding, as if you’re afraid; as if you’re too delicate…I think you’re avoiding something,” he confronts her. “Don’t be stupid,” Laurie replies. “There’s n-nothing to avoid…I-I’ve never had any occasion to avoid the truth…” The irony here is that Jon is arguing that Laurie should try seeing things his way, but only by seeing things her way can he understand why she’s so afraid.

Laurie has many reasons to avoid her heritage. Her parents are damaged people, and her conception was a complicated secret. Laurie has spent her life being disgusted by her mother’s failings and being shoved into Sally’s footsteps against her will. What Laurie doesn’t know about Sally until the end of the novel is the full story. By the time Laurie faces the truth, she has also been pressured to keep a complicated secret. Both the book and the show insist that trauma never ends; it becomes a strange gift that is passed down to us. Dangers which visited our parents are likely to present themselves in our lives, sometimes in eerily similar ways. And when we are not aware of this legacy, we may react in similar ways as our forebears, replaying the best and worst moments of their lives.

Living in a Memory, My Echo, My Shadow, and Me: Watchmen Now

[Quote is a song from Episode 6, “This Extraordinary Being”]

The series continues to carefully modernize Moore’s work. In addition to cycles of painful events, the show employs the hypothesis that trauma is inherited via epigenetics. Some studies have found small, lasting chemical changes in the genes of survivors’ offspring. These alterations have been linked to stress-related responses in descendants, including increased body mass, cortisol levels, and mortality (perhaps due to too many years of hypervigilance). Results have been tracked more reliably in experiments with animals, and this area of science is young, but the show acknowledges the future of genetic science for a number of reasons. This is chief among them. Such commentary was not possible in the ’80s, given the state of technology, but it is the logical outcome of what began in Moore’s Watchmen

The show pulls no punches in its opening scene of the Tulsa massacre. The young Will Reeves, “this extraordinary being,” is established as a hardy survivor in the face of agony which dogs him for the rest of his days. The image of his mother haunts him, a poignant symbol of the legacy of fear he cannot escape. The rage against the injustices he and his forebears have experienced pushes him into a life of secret vigilantism. But Will never forgets where his bloody journey began: He carries the flyer the Germans dropped above his father’s regiment during the war for more than one reason. It’s not just that the flyer was right about American abuses of blacks; it’s a symbol of all the outrages his father suffered at home. These wrongs are also Will’s to bear—and to pass down, like when he leaves the note with Angela. 

That Angela’s life has been a rerun of Will’s is not a contrivance or a simple comment on how history repeats itself. The descendants of survivors may find themselves in comparable terror during their lifetimes. Will and Angela are both too young to foresee or stop the bloodshed they witness. Both are left in a hostile world to raise themselves. Each are hardened and drawn to the law in the aftermath, and neither find early love to soothe them. Angela’s chance for family dies when her grandmother’s heart fails before they can leave Vietnam. This may be the saddest part of June’s heartbreaking life: Years spent on edge take their toll when she is needed most. This is how generational trauma steels—and steals from—the offspring of survivors.

But unlike her grandfather, Angela is able to build a loving, supportive relationship with Dr. Manhattan/Cal, which makes a major difference in her life. Will has much to hide from his wife, June, but Manhattan knows and accepts Angela for who she is. He does not want or demand for Angela to change; instead, he becomes Cal so he can stay with her. Cal embraces active parenthood with Angela, something Will couldn’t offer his wife and son. While she spent her youth alone, Angela establishes stability and togetherness as an adult, with Cal’s help. From what we know, Will’s affair with Nelson didn’t get far. Love is not a magical cure, but it gives Angela healthier outcomes than Will, which allows her to support others better later on.

Angela’s partner Officer Doyle and his wife are murdered and she is shot on the White Night, and her reactions are worth exploring. The first flashback begins with her safely in Cal’s arms, sweetly arguing about opening presents before Christmas morning—but at the slightest sound, Angela goes cold. Cal makes a joke about how it must be Santa, but she is fearfully sure that someone is in the house and pulls him out of the way when the shooting starts. She springs into action without hesitation, turning out the lights and using the weapons at hand to try to save them. Military veterans and other survivors will recognize and understand her sudden shift; it is not just the outcome of combat training, but the lasting mark of trauma.

In the next scene of Angela’s recovery in the hospital, her first thought is of retribution. When she hears about how many of her fellow officers were slain, she is visibly upset but does not cry, even when Judd assures her it’s OK to weep. She is sealed in her rage then, but when Judd is killed years later, she has gained some clarity. She does not want to wantonly attack civilians, which surprises most of her fellow officers. Angela is struggling but showing signs of recovery and growth, particularly in her decision to become a mother. Though she is damaged, she is willing and able to use her wounds to address the needs of a trio terrorized orphans.

Angela takes in her partner’s three kids as her own and provides a stable environment for them, but her parenting style is notably different from the norm. The small girls are bright and happy in their ignorance, but Topher hid them from their attackers and remembers everything. His eyes are ever wary and he is shown having problems managing his emotions. But Angela has a special relationship with her son due to their shared losses, which she points to directly: “I remember what happened to my parents. You remember what happened to your parents. You and me, Topher, we don’t do lollipops and rainbows, because we know those are just pretty colors that hide what the world really is.” He does not disagree with her.

Topher plays with magna manhattan blocks

Their understanding as hardy survivors is the reason that Angela reveals harsh truths to Topher in plain terms. Viewers might find this a mistake with one so young, but she knows how to handle such a child because she was one. He reacts much like she does, diverting and swallowing his feelings, taking responsibility for handling his sisters, and lashing out when pushed too far. She respects his strength, but is concerned when he is too much like her. They do not have to be blood relations to reflect or influence each other. Topher’s awed interest when he finally sees her Sister Night costume hearkens to Will’s son watching Hooded Justice don his makeup. And Angela’s father later became a soldier, using a uniform instead of a mask.

The show implies that Topher could decide to wear his own mask in the future, but it also provides reasons for doubt. It’s not that Topher and his sisters will remain safe; they encounter new threats during the course of the story. But they have knowledgeable and dedicated protectors who get it. When violence erupts at Judd’s funeral, Angela checks in with Topher from the bottom bunk bed that night. “Were you scared?” he asks. “Yeah, I was scared. Still am, a little,” she answers truthfully. In the silence, he hands down his stuffed toy because it is the comfort he has to offer, but they lie awake together because fear is part of how they live. And later, Will shelters the children—and Angela—by watching over them calmly in Dreamland.

Legacy Isn’t in Land, It’s in Blood: Watchmen’s Future

[Quote is by Lady Trieu in Episode 3]

The series cements the theme of epigenetic trauma with Lady Trieu, who clones her mother and imprints the girl with her mother’s memories. Bian complains of nightmares and phantom pains, to which Trieu replies, “Good.” This may seem callous, but to re-create her mother, suffering is necessary. It is not enough for Bian to hear about the worst secondhand, and she cannot be who she was without those experiences. These are wounds mother and daughter share, and trauma is the driving force behind their work. This is why Will entrusts his Nostalgia pills to Angela and knows she will take them. Like her grandfather, Angela needs to understand. And once Angela has seen the legacy she has inherited through Will’s eyes, she cannot turn away. 

Angela Abar (Regina King) confronts a police officer at the pricinct.

As Rorschach says, “Once a man has seen, he can never turn his back. Never pretend it doesn’t exist. No matter who orders him to look the other way.” This is just as true for women, which is part of why the series brings women to the forefront of the Watchmen experience.

Like Rorschach, Eddie Blake, and Will, Angela is compelled to strike back in disguise against a world which allows so much evil to flourish. She is able to do so more easily than her female ancestors due to current circumstances; it is implied that more women may have reacted violently, if not for historic pressures. This is the way some people naturally respond to trauma, regardless of gender. Some are held back from wreaking full havoc due to dodging the law, like Rorschach. Others—like Blake, Will, and Angela—become the law to continue their personal crusades. None of them are upholding the red, white, and blue fantasy of justice, despite their appearances; all of them have deeper personal motives for their brutality. 

While the graphic novel hints at the problems with this approach, the show proclaims outright that becoming a vigilante is an unethical response to emotional wounds. This is why Laurie is so thoroughly disgusted by anyone in a mask, whether they are police officers or not. Through her parents’ lives and her own, Laurie has learned that donning a mask is an unhealthy coping mechanism. She has seen the fallout from using a disguise to justify harming others. Laurie is willing to kill, but she does so while showing her face and only to protect others. Is she perfect? No. Is she just like her father, firing against lover and foe alike? No. But can she turn away from the world like Jon and ignore its plight? Also no.

In the series, the Seventh Kavalry states: “Who am I? When I was little, every time I looked in the mirror I saw a stranger staring back at me and he was very, very angry. What could I do with all this anger? Hot, vibrating electricity with no place to ground. If he couldn’t release his rage, maybe I could help him hide it. I never felt comfortable in my own skin, so I made a new one. When I slipped it on, he and I became one. His anger became mine, as did his thirst for justice.” What we might take as white supremacist screed is the reality of trauma survivors like Will and Angela. Their anger comes from real threats across generations. Their masks transform them into versions of their ancestors, but they seek to avenge wrongs which violence cannot fix. 

We have less to fear from any of them than from Lady Trieu. She hides behind the ultimate disguise: the mask of wealth, and all the perks that come with it. She hides from society to control her image and avoid interference. She is a living legend, raised by a “pachyderm mom” to be the ultimate achiever—but an elephant never forgets. Like her parents, Trieu is too focused on the past. Peteypedia tells us that Trieu named herself after a historic freedom fighter. She earned her fortune with the creation of Nostalgia, which is personal history in pill form. Trieu wields trauma as weapon and shield, but her ability to feel is nearly as stunted as Adrian’s. She is aware of her wounds, but refuses to see her flaws, inherited or otherwise.

Trieu seeks to transform the world by becoming what others cannot: A self-directed superpower with historic awareness and the will to destroy all resistance to her plan for the future of the human race. She does not obey a government, like Dr. Manhattan. She does not dismiss the horrors of history, like Eddie. Unlike her father, Adrian, she wants to punish political strife rather than trick people into forgetting it. Trieu obliterates the Seventh Kavalry after she obtains Manhattan’s power, but she is as much a threat to everyone else. Her scheme is not Adrian’s single dramatic explosion but more like a series of drone strikes, precise and impersonal—a modern tactic of suppression in the hands of a megalomaniac. 

Adrian’s first failure is believing that following the past will create a better future. Adrian idolizes Alexander and the powerful few who exploited the ancient world. He seeks to become like them and create something better by using similar methods. “I resolved to apply antiquity’s teachings to today’s world,” he states in the graphic novel. But history is the scoreboard of barbarity, showing the same moves on every field; using the old plays cannot lead to a fair game. Trieu believes she is better than Adrian because she is relying on futuristic technology and powers that have never fully been used to cow humanity before. She believes she is just and that what she does to all sides will ultimately be fair—a level of arrogance worthy of her father.

Adrian’s next failure is in believing that the worst problems exist outside of humanity—as outcomes of our mistakes rather than deliberate choices driven by the human condition: “Thus began my path to conquest…conquest not of men, but of the evils that beset them.” But the evils he seeks to eradicate are man-made, created whenever power is abused, and justified by whichever story reigns—religious, governmental, or personal. This is something Eddie Blake knew and Trieu recognizes, but Adrian never learns. Lies cannot cleanse the human stain; people cannot create Utopia when they have been programmed to recreate hell. This is why Trieu takes her fight right to the Kavalry rather than trying to find ways around them.

But trauma cannot be exorcised by brutality, and wounds that are hidden can never heal. While the battle with Trieu rages, Will returns to the Dreamland theater, where his nightmare began—but he stays out of the fighting and only seeks to protect children who have also survived the murder of their parents. He explains to Angela what he has come to realize: He didn’t use the mask out of anger, but out of “fear…and hurt.” This is what finally gets Angela to break down and cry, and what he says next is the poignant logical conclusion to what began in the graphic novel: “You can’t heal under a mask, Angela. Wounds need air.” Every ugly thing must be brought into the light, mourned, and soothed, whether it is personal, historical, or cultural. 

Such a process is painful, but necessary. And when it is done, tyranny and terror must not be the response; ego, self-righteousness, and merciless retribution have no place. Community and love—based in the truth, not in lies—are the best hope for the future. Thus, Angela offers a room to her grandfather: “You can come home and stay if you want.” They agree that it will be “just for a couple of nights,” but having accepted each other as family and survivors in need of care, it’s unlikely that he’ll be turned away again. This does not mean, however, that wrongdoers should just be let off the hook. This is why Laurie insists on arresting Adrian Veidt, and why the twist at the end of the series is so ripe with possibility. 

Will the courts be willing and able to hold Veidt accountable? If she gains Manhattan’s superpowers, how will Angela use them? The series embraces Rorschach’s view when he says, “This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children, not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.” And only we can learn the lessons trauma has been trying to teach us for generations.

Written by TV Obsessive

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  1. Fantastic piece, Patricia. I am so moved by the treatment of trauma in the TV series, and most powerfully by Will’s words in the Dreamland at the end of the finale.

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