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[Warning: Here be spoilers]

One mark of a great story is the depth and complexity of the ideas presented. This can lead to situations where they seem to be saying one thing, until a critical piece falls in place and you realize they’re saying something else.

Take Rorschach, of Watchmen fame. He’s commonly viewed as the fundamentalist conservative of the group, someone who sticks to their principles even in the face of Armageddon, even when it could cost them their life.

Yet, he’s the biggest hypocrite of them all.

The key scene occurs near the end. Spectre has teleported to Mars with Manhattan, in an attempt to reconnect him with humanity. Rorschach is ranting about her to Nite Owl, spinning a wild conspiracy story about her trying to start nuclear war. In the movie version, at least, Nite Owl snaps at him; he points out Kovacs freely insults his friends, even as he hangs out with them, and takes advantage of his apparent craziness to mooch off them.

What is Rorschach’s response? Not “it’s the only way to keep to my principles,” nor “but I’m doing something none of you want to do, despite having a government out to get me.”

Nope, it’s: “You’re a good friend, Dan.” He knows it’s all true, and he now knows Nite Owl knows. But he also knows Nite Owl is too much of a bleeding heart liberal to resist; indeed, as penance for the high crime of saying the truth, Nite Owl capitulates on their method of investigation. “Let’s do it your way.”

It’s always done Rorschach’s way, though. Consider Antarctica: where was Rorschach planning on going, after he stepped out of the compound? Was he going to flag down a bus? Nite Owl may be a huge pushover, but loaning out Archie so Rorschach could break the peace isn’t going to happen.

Let’s approach this from another angle: did Rorschach have to die? Ozy may have killed off those scientists, but they were not only smart enough to plot an escape from Antarctica together, they would have been credible witnesses should that escape happen. Rorschach would be isolated and alone, in contrast, without the technical skill to pull off an escape. Ozy doesn’t kill without a good reason, wouldn’t torture for same, and Rorschach would be highly resistant anyway. Nearly everyone would dismiss him as a crackpot should he hit a witness stand.

But what if he couldn’t? Ozy could discredit Rorschach on the witness stand easily enough, and as the world’s smartest person he has a decent chance of cracking Rorschach’s resolve, but he can’t bring back the dead. Should Rorschach wind up dead or missing after going to Antarctica, that rambling diary suddenly becomes quite credible. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre would be more than willing to testify against him were he alive, yet having his death on their hands would weigh on their conscience.

The book does a better job of revealing how smart Rorschach is. He got very high grades in school, but no doubt his troubled history and anti-authority leanings meant he only got to express it via street smarts and detective ability. Still, that makes it quite plausible he figured all this out on his own, and took advantage of Ozy’s post-success contentment to try suicide-by-snow. Hence why he started goading Manhattan into killing him; the longer he stayed alive, the more likely Ozy would catch on to his scheming.

By itself, storming into the snowpack is in line with Rorschach just being a moral fundamentalist. But if he didn’t have to die, as I pointed out earlier, then he’s going above and beyond his moral code. His death is a spiteful act, retaliation against his friends for Kovacs not getting his way. There’s also the problem of his reaction to Manhattan’s threat: if Rorschach is a hardcore fundamentalist, why does he start to break down in the face of death? This is a guy who sat calmly during a prison riot done in his name, and thought nothing of leaping onto concrete from several stories up. Death for his beliefs should be a release, not a struggle, if he was so committed to them.

But that only works if he’s a fundamentalist. If instead he’s a grifter pretending to be a fundamentalist, it makes more sense.

Note that everyone else is honest here. Ozy lies, sure, but he makes no secret of being a utilitarian with dreams of ending war. Only Rorschach claims to have strong selfless desires, but cravenly acts selfishly. That marks him as the biggest hypocrite of the bunch.