On a city street corner, a news vendor mourns the state of the world and says that the U.S. should “nuke Russia and let God sort it out.” Next to him, a man sits reading a comic about a sailor whose ship and crew are destroyed by pirates. The news vendor talks to no one in particular about how news vendors see every front page—they’re the best-informed people in the world. The doomsayer with the sign declaring, “The end is nigh” asks the news vendor if he’s saved his copy of New Frontiersman for him. The news vendor gives it to him, and the doomsayer pays him to hold the next day’s copy when it comes in. In the pirate comic, the survivor washes the kelp off his ship’s figurehead, which washed up on the beach.
The news vendor appears frequently throughout the story, commenting on world events and headlines. Since the majority of Watchmen’s characters are heroes, the news vendor reflects the feelings of the general population as events unfold. The pirate comic becomes an ongoing motif, eventually coming to parallel the way that several characters occupy roles that seem closer to villains than true heroes. The New Frontiersman newspaper also becomes an ongoing motif, representing a “right-wing” view of the world.
At their military facility, Jon and Laurie start to have sex. Laurie’s eyes are closed, but she realizes there are too many hands touching her face. When she looks up, there are two Jons in the bedroom with her, and another one doing a science experiment in the next room. Laurie is furious and leaves, but Jon does not understand what he did wrong. In an office elsewhere, an aging Janey Slater interviews with Nova Express and tells them about how bitter and hurt she was when Jon left her for 16-year-old Laurie. Jenny Slater smokes a cigarette and coughs often. She’s glad someone will tell her story and reveal what sort of person Jon is.
The story never lays out precisely what Jon can and cannot do as a superhuman, but it implies that he can do nearly anything he wants, such as duplicate himself. This establishes Jon as a god-like figure within the narrative. However, Jon’s inability to understand why Laurie is mad at him suggests that the consequence of such limitless power is that he struggles to relate to simple, limited human beings. Nova Express occupies the opposite role of New Frontiersman, representing a “left-wing” view of the world.
Laurie goes to Daniel’s house. A handyman is installing a new lock on Daniel’s door. Laurie tells Daniel about her fight with Jon and how he barely notices the people around him—even now, after she’s left him, he’s probably just getting dressed for his TV interview. She says she’s tired of being around “super-heroes.” Daniel is about to go have a beer with Hollis, so Laurie offers to walk with him there. The repairman warns them that they’re headed toward a bad neighborhood.
Laurie goes straight to Daniel after leaving Jon, suggesting that she already sees Daniel as an emotional support. Laurie’s accusation that Jon is barely aware of the human beings around him again suggests an all-powerful superhuman like Dr. Manhattan—or Superman—would struggle to maintain any attachment to the simple lives of mere humans.
Jon Osterman teleports himself into the TV station for his interview. A producer talks Jon through which subjects to stay away from. The cameras roll and the interviewer tries to make small talk with Jon, but Jon does not understand how to banter. He speaks simply and directly. Doug Roth, a reporter for Nova Express, lists off many of Jon’s former associates, including Janey Slater and Moloch, who all have terminal cancer, and insinuates that their illness has some connection to him. This upsets Jon, and the producers end the interview. Reporters harass him, and Jon becomes so angry that he teleports everyone else in the TV studio out to the parking lot.
Jon’s emotional reaction to Doug Roth’s questioning suggests that, for all his separation from humanity, he still feels some range of human emotions, including frustration and anger. Jon’s outburst indicates that ultimate power mixed with human emotions is a dangerous combination.
On their walk through the streets, muggers with knives approach Laurie and Daniel. Laurie and Daniel beat them up. They catch their breath and laugh it off, then part ways. Laurie goes to find a hotel. Daniel goes into Hollis’s house and finds him watching Jon’s botched interview on TV. On the street corner, the news vendor looks at the new edition of Nova Express, which insinuates that Dr. Manhattan gives people terminal cancer. In the pirate comic, the survivor worries that the pirates will go to his home village and murder his family unless he can find a way to get there first and warn everybody.
Daniel and Laurie’s ability to fight off armed muggers suggests that they are both still physically capable, despite their retirement. The charge that Dr. Manhattan causes cancer is fitting, since his name evokes the Manhattan Project, where American scientists first developed the atomic bomb, which leaks radiation and causes cancer. Furthermore, Jon exists as America’s new ultimate weapon, much like the irradiated nuclear bomb used to be.
When Jon returns to the facility where he lives, he finds an officer fixing a “quarantine” sign over his door. Jon tells the man to let Laurie and everyone else know that he’s leaving, first to Arizona, then to Mars. The officer doesn’t believe him, but Jon vanishes in front of him. In Arizona, Jon walks through the rubble of an old bar and finds a photo of a man standing next to a young Janey Slater. Jon takes it, walks out to a clearing, and teleports himself away.
The “quarantine” sign suggests that even the government thinks of Jon as a possible threat, based purely on Nova Express’s accusations. This suggests that public opinion is incredibly fickle, able to turn on a person overnight, even without evidence or proof of wrongdoing.
On the street corner, the news vendor talks to the doomsayer about Dr. Manhattan’s disappearance. They suspect the Communists are somehow to blame. In the pirate comic, the survivor digs a pit to bury all the dead bodies washed up on shore. He thinks of his wife and children and hopes someone buries them after the pirates find them.
Although it’s never explicitly stated, Watchmen setting in 1985 indicates that it takes place during the Cold War era. The doomsayer and the news vendor’s fear of Communists typifies the American public’s fear of Soviet aggression at the time.
At the military facility, Laurie watches as men in protective suits take their home apart. A government agent tells her that she’ll need to be screened for cancer. He blames Laurie for Dr. Manhattan’s leaving and doubts that he’ll ever come back. Now that he’s gone, the government won’t support her financially any longer. The man thinks they’re all in “big trouble.” In Daniel’s house, Rorschach breaks in to tell Daniel that Dr. Manhattan’s gone too, and all the masked heroes should be worried.
The government agent’s fear that they’re all in “big trouble” without Dr. Manhattan implies that America’s sense of security relies on it having the biggest weapon, so that every other country does not dare to challenge it—without that weapon, they are at risk. The government’s immediate refusal to support Laurie over something that isn’t her fault also shows how the U.S. frequently fails to prioritize its citizens’ needs.
On the street corner, the pirate comic ends with the pirate ship headed for the survivor’s home and family. The story’s lack of ending angers the man reading it and he gives it back to the news vendor. However, the news vendor is staring at a headline announcing that Russia just invaded the Middle East. He’s so shaken by the news that he tells the man to keep the pirate comic for free. On Mars, Jon walks alone, carrying the photograph.
The fact that Russia invades the Middle East as soon as America no longer possess Dr. Manhattan, the ultimate weapon, reiterates the idea that America’s peace and security is only sustained by it having the most devastating weapons and the capacity to dominate any other country.
In a government building, President Nixon meets with his advisors, who claim that if Russia makes it to Pakistan, they’ll likely try to capture Western Europe as well. They run a computer simulation of what will happen if Russia launches its nuclear arsenal. The simulation predicts that hundreds of millions will die, including everyone on America’s east coast. The President decides they should wait a week before firing any missiles themselves.
The computer simulation establishes the stakes of a nuclear war: hundreds of millions of people would die within the first few days. With such catastrophic potential, America’s brewing conflict with the Soviets seems nearly apocalyptic, and many characters refer to it as “Armageddon”—the end of the world.
In another excerpt from Under the Hood, Hollis recalls that the 1950s saw the decline of costumed heroes. The public stops being interested in their exploits—now that Schexnayder no longer runs publicity for them—and the government forces the majority of them to stand before a court and reveal themselves. The Comedian, with his government contacts, is the only one who thrives, becoming a sort of “patriotic symbol.” During the McCarthy Era, Hooded Justice disappears, though some believe he is a Communist who later turns up with a bullet in his head. There are no more costumed villains left, since they all retire or turn to more professional, business-oriented crimes. Without flashy villains to fight, the costumed heroes feel silly and unnecessary.
The masked heroes’ swift fall from grace not only demonstrates how fickle public opinion can be, but also suggests that the heroes are not critical for the safe operation of society. This further casts a damning light on each of their motivations as heroes—they wanted to be heroes more than society needed them to be, and once the novelty wears off, the heroes just seem frivolous. The accusation that Hooded Justice is a secret Communist exemplifies the sharp opposition between left-leaning and right-leaning politics in America during the McCarthy Era, when Communism was feared as a purely evil force.
In the 1960s, Dr. Manhattan appears—the first true “super-hero,” who makes all the other heroes obsolete. Hollis thinks that Dr. Manhattan’s existence changes the entire world, causing both fear and wonder that settle into a constant sense of unease. Ozymandias, with his “boundless and implacable intelligence,” seems almost superhuman as well. Hollis realizes that he and his generation of heroes are aging, so he decides to retire and find a real job to do. He opens an auto shop to be a mechanic like his father and feels content. A young man (Daniel Dreiberg) writes to him, asking if he can become the next Nite Owl, and Hollis agrees to it, passing on the identity and costume. Laurie, who is just coming of age, sounds as if she will take up the hero life as well. Once again, costumed heroes seem to be a new mainstay “of American life.”
Dr. Manhattan’s character operates on several levels at once. As noted earlier, as the only true superhuman he occupies a god-like position among mortal humans. At the same time, the American government treats him as a weapon of mass destruction, and the fear and wonder that people feel toward him echoes the fear and wonder that news of the hydrogen bomb inspired in actual history (which Sally even compares Dr. Manhattan to). In both senses, Dr. Manhattan’s presence allows the story to explore existential topics like the meaning of life and the frailty of human society.