In Episode 3 of HBO’s ‘Watchmen’, Agent Blake, played by Jean Smart, makes a call to Mars. She tells a joke both to and about Doctor Manhattan in which the hero stands in God’s judgment. In the joke, Manhattan tells God, ‘I know you’re sending me to hell. Because I’m already there.’ In some other show, it would be safe to assume that a character stating that they are already in hell should be taken as hyperbole or metaphor. The character is unhappy with his lot in life and therefore thinks of himself as ‘in hell.’ In this case, however, Blake means this quite literally.
As is made more clear in Episode 8, Doctor Manhattan knows the future, or at least he can experience every moment of his life simultaneously. When he says something like ‘I’m already there,” referring to a place in his future, he literally means that he’s there now, from his perspective. Blake was telling a joke, be it an unfunny one, so this divine exchange didn’t happen. However, she knows Manhattan well enough to know how it would go down. Blake ends the story with its most telling line:
“A mere piston in the inevitable machinery of time and space, God does what he did and what he will do. He snaps his fingers and the hero goes to hell.”
Regardless of where you are on the timeline, any given action is set. Did, does, and will do are essentially the same, which informs Blake’s fatalistic perspective. It also explains Doctor Manhattan’s sometimes odd behavior. When the Calvary comes to blast Manhattan, for example, he lets them succeed even though it is within his power to vaporize them all. Why? Because Manhattan knows that they succeed and can only let things play out as they must. In philosophy, this is called Determinism, and it has implications that many find uncomfortable.
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The primary implication is that there is no free will, or at least that free will is an illusion. This applies to mere mortals, super-powered heroes, and even God — as Agent Blake points out in her joke. Free will is about having choice, which is the ability to select one action between possible alternative actions. You may believe that you can choose whatever you want for dinner tonight, but in a universe in which Doctor Manhattan can know that you will eat pizza, you have no possible alternatives. It’s impossible to negate that foreknowledge so it’s impossible to eat anything else. Your ability to eat chicken is equivalent to your ability to eat your car.
Philosophers have debated whether or not determinism is true for thousands of years. It’s ultimately an unanswerable question unless we make certain assumptions about reality, like whether or not an omniscience being can exist. In ‘Watchman’, no such assumption is needed. This leaves us with characters who are racist and murders… but who could be no other way. And this is the most uncomfortable implication of all.