Watchmen January 30, 2020
Tim Blake Nelson
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
Louis Gossett Jr.
atchmen, the comic-book series written by Alan Moore and published by D.C. Comics, is among the most pointed antitheses of superhero pulp. Last year’s Watchmen mini-series, which ran on HBO and was created by Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers), is among the most pointed antitheses of superhero movies and TV — and is one of the best.
Watchmen the show is set in the present-day; Lindelof has characterized it not as a reboot but rather a “remix.” It takes place in Tulsa, Okla., and, like its source material, is imbued with rage and complicates the act of superhero worshipping. Some of its characters are older versions of the ones introduced so many decades ago. Others are their descendants.
For the uninitiated, Watchmen the comic-book saga takes place in an alternate timeline. It begins in the 1940s, rejiggers major historical milestones (e.g., the goings-on of the Vietnam War) in the meantime, and ends catastrophically in 1985. It follows a cabal of masked vigilantes who call themselves the Minutemen and their personal dramas, traumas. The group comprises “smartest man on the planet” and egotistical billionaire Ozymandias; ass-kicker Silk Spectre and her daughter Laurie; the brawny Hooded Justice, who provocatively wears a noose around his neck; Dr. Manhattan, an aqua-colored, glowing, and oft-naked superhuman (courtesy of a nuclear malfunction); and others. The 1985 denouement came when Ozymandias, determined to bring about world peace (namely a détente between the United States and the U.S.S.R.), destroyed the bulk of New York City.
The cause of the shockwave-enacting destruction, seemingly, is a giant alien squid thing that plopped down from the sky. Ozymandias has engineered it; the incident kills 3 million people. The “invasion” surprisingly brings about the unity for which Ozymandias is searching. But undergirding the "breakthrough" is a feeling of ambivalence. Catalogs of superhero comics cheerily and with less directness announce that as long as evil is defeated and/or a big hurdle is leaped over, any losses along the way — whether they be innocent lives or not — are worth it. Watchmen, in contrast, isn’t so sure. Isn’t murder still murder?
In 2019’s Watchmen, two infamous days in history push much of the storyline(s) forward. One, of course, is the bizarre squid attack, solemnly referred to as 11/2. (Ostensibly it's this world's closest equivalent to 9/11.) The other date to know is May 31, 1921. That day, white supremacists, collaborating with the U.S. National Guard, descended on Tulsa’s Greenwood District — known colloquially as the “Black Wall Street” — and carried out a terrorist attack. The neighborhood was burned down. A 2001 state commission investigation estimates that as many as 300 people were killed in the process. This isn’t a fictional event created for Watchmen; it’s a real-life atrocity that tends to go undiscussed in white-washed history classes. There were no consequences for its perpetrators.
At first, we’re unsure, even a little uneasy, about where Watchmen is going, and how it will untangle the paradoxes that nearly immediately come to the fore. It begins with fictional scenes from that 1921 event. We first head into a movie theater, where a little Black boy is watching a valorous film about the Black Marshal of Oklahoma, Bass Reeves. “There will be no mob justice today!” Reeves announces on screen after taking down a foe. The boy grins. Then the outside calamity seeps into this oasis of a theater. This boy’s life will be more thoroughly chronicled in the centerpiece-like sixth episode, “This Extraordinary Being.” (More on that later.)
When we move into present-day Tulsa, the racial violence from 1921 is contrasted with a scene wherein a Black cop is shot during a routine traffic stop by a white driver. One of its protagonists, whom we subsequently get to know, is a Black woman detective named Angela Abar (Regina King). I pondered initially how the show would grapple with the fact that the police are historically inextricable from the perpetuation of white supremacy while also explicitly incorporating racism into its narrative.
The show keeps up the comic’s daring perversions of reality. In its version of 2019 Tulsa, cops now have to wear masks. They can’t tell their family and friends that they work for the police department. (Detective Abar professionally presents as a no-nonsense fighter in nun’s clothes called Sister Night; she says, in her civilian guise, that she’s retired, preparing to open a bakery.) Officers don’t get to make split-second decisions with a weapon; in a high-stakes situation, a policeman must ask a superior to “unlock” their electronically secured gun. This is all because a white-supremacist group born in Tulsa, the Seventh Kavalry, has become too threatening a force. They recently carried out an organized attack during which the homes of 40 department employees (including Abar's) were raided. Few survived. The Kavalry has based a lot of its dogma on the journals of the deceased, former Minuteman Rorschach, whose texts they’ve misconstrued. Robert Redford is the president. Those whose families were impacted by the 1921 massacre are eligible for reparations.
Watchmen is built on a crackerjack ensemble; each episode typically focuses on a certain character’s perspective in particular. We delve into the life and history of Angela, of course; we learn of her painful, death-stained upbringing in Vietnam (now the U.S.’s 51st state) and get acquainted with her present-day domestic situation. (She has three adopted kids and is married to the muscle-bound, genuinely kind Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.) We also get to know the sardonic Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), the second, now-retired Silk Spectre who works with the FBI and is a key member of its Anti-Vigilante Task Force; Wade Tilman, a.k.a. Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), who works with Angela and has debilitating 11/2 PTSD; and Lady Trieu (Hong Chau), the apparently smartest person in the world (sorry, Ozymandias) and billionaire plotting something big, and deadly, to be divulged in later episodes. Ozymandias, also known as Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), has been assumed dead since the 1985 attack, but he’s actually living in some expansive and anonymous countryside manor surrounded by hyper-obedient clones in housekeeper clothes played by Tom Mison and Sara Vickers. (The Veidt scenes, which are written as surrealist and darkly comedic, are the only parts of the series that consistently don’t work.)
Each individualized storyline is engrossing and brings to the screen an immersive intimacy; shared is the way they showcase characters grappling, to varying degrees of discretion, with their traumas. I won’t speak about the performances from the cast too specifically — I might drown the review in flattery — though King and Smart are particularly incendiary. They do jugular-grabbing work here.
or Lindelof, the exploration of trauma has long been an artistic throughline. His previous two shows have in fact fed off of it, similarly traversing points of view and how old wounds can stay wet and unclotted. In Watchmen, though, racial trauma specifically — which has been engaged with in Lindelof’s previous work but not with as much force — takes precedence. More and more, and with increasing
incisiveness, the series wrestles with how Tulsa’s racist past has evolved, and the conundrum of being an officer of color in a long-standingly white-supremacist institution. (The moment, spoiler alert, when Angela finds out that her lionized, recently murdered, Don Johnson-portrayed police chief is a Seventh Kavalry leader is a hardly subtle allusion to the broader picture.)
The sixth episode, which expands on the story of the little boy introduced in the pilot — disclosed to be Angela’s grandfather, William (Louis Gossett, Jr.) — deftly weaves together these narrative ideas. It’s revealed that William was the original Hooded Justice, but he had to pretend to be white to remain palatable and unknown. Beforehand, he served as a police officer, which dovetailed into one of the most traumatic experiences of his life: a racist attack at the hands of white colleagues. Angela watches this unfold through William’s eyes. (In the Watchmen universe, there exists a pill called Nostalgia, which someone can pop to relive its taker’s experiences. Angela swallows a handful from William’s prescription.) Through this the show further hammers in the force of its traumatic depictions and the ever-presence of institutionalized and
generational racial trauma. I thought about how little these realities are spotlit in comic-book lore — even by the original Watchmen saga.
Recently, Lindelof announced that there would be no second season of Watchmen. This was, at least for me, a relief. Admittedly, the rather ambiguous ending does leave us wanting a little more. It’s depressing thinking I will not again, unless I press play on the series a second or third time, see King and Smart in these roles. They’re thrilling to watch. But making Watchmen the comic-book series, which ran from 1986 to 1987, about as brief didn’t diminish its power. Though they cannot be compared on basically any other front, the failure of the second season of the near-perfect-first-seasoned Big Little Lies, for which there was no literary basis (its initial seven episodes were an adaptation of a very good Australian novel by Liane Moriarty), makes me apprehensive. Why mess with this good a thing? Watchmen is impressively profound, expansive, and concise. A