With its first episode, Watchmen‘s showrunner and episode writer Damon Lindelof along with its director Nicole Kassell inspired the one question, the very best question anyone could ask about a pilot episode: What the hell did we just watch?
Based on – and more or less a highly extrapolated sequel to – the iconic late ’80s graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen the HBO series is clearly being helmed and guided by people who understood not only what the original source material was about, but how its creators conveyed meaning and established themes and tropes. At the same time, this series has taken the story in a direction that should be considered completely new but somehow seems like a destination to which it was always heading.
The series opens with a silent film before pulling out to high-definition video. Just as Moore and Gibbons used the original graphic novel to comment on and deconstruct the very format of comics, Kassell is using the very format of filmed narrative in its various iterations right from the jump. The effect is disjointing, which is also very much an aesthetic mission statement of sorts, as the next hour continues to confuse, confound and upend expectations. The very first words of the series are spoken by a little black boy watching the silent film’s hero, real-life legendary African-American lawman Bass Reeves, and speaking the words he’s mouthing onscreen:
“There will be no mob justice today. Trust in the law.”
This idea of the law being embodied in a black man while at the same time being touted as the one true path to justice is an idea that both defies our understanding of history and our modern understanding of the law at the same time. These two competing understandings come crashing together immediately, as the scene unfolds to reveal the true-to-history Greenwood Massacre of 1921 Tulsa, in a scene exquisitely directed by Kassell, but intensely painful to watch. As two desperate parents try to dodge the devastation and get their young boy out and away from the carnage with a note to “WATCH OVER THIS BOY,” the Superman undertones come fast and thick, adding yet another layer of racial confusion to the mix. From there, we transition to the present day and the familiar sight of an authoritarian cop stopping a scared citizen in yet another superbly directed, taut wire of a scene. Except this time the cop, like lawman Bass Reeves, is black and the citizen he’s stopping (harrassing?) is not only white, but a suspected white supremacist and member of this world’s version of the Klan, the Seventh Kavalry. Notably, even with the power dynamic switched, the scenario still ends with a black man full of bullets. And this is in the FIRST TEN MINUTES. From there, we’re introduced to black parents from Vietnam with white children, an all-black version of Oklahoma, and a lynching where once again, the racial makeup is wildly reversed, with a white cop serving as strange fruit and an old black man sitting below and watching it happen.
It’s as disorienting and dense as a pilot episode could possibly be while still maintaining an impressive coherence. Regina King sure is likable and Sister Night has a killer costume and who could possibly argue in defense of protecting the civil rights of white supremacists, right? But any part of America that not only allows but officially endorses officers of the law with the ability to kidnap citizens, hold them without cause, and beat them for information while hiding their own identities is a part of America that’s seriously gone off the rails. The fact that fascism in this America is a dressed up as a black superheroine beating up a white supremacist is practically impossible to wrap your head around.
This is an America where cops have secret identities, where detectives engage in full-on superhero cosplay, where Vietnam is a state, and the sky routinely rains down interdimensional squid on the population. But it’s also an America with the same shameful racial history of this one, in the midst of a cold war turning hot between organized white supremacists in masks and officers of the law in masks. It’s an America with a famously liberal president (Robert Redford, in his third decade in the Oval Office) who nonetheless has allowed or encouraged authoritarianism to spread while holding onto a dictatorial power-for-life and allowing the greatest lie in history to continue to be the official story. An America where gun reform has seemingly been allowed to take hold alongside that same rising authoritarianism (and which the series suggests is a major problem for our race war-fighting police force).
It will be interesting to see the hardcore fans’ reaction to having the mask of Rorschach turned into a symbol of white supremacy, but this is where we think Lindelof may actually be pulling off one of the series’ boldest and smartest moves. He’s taking the source material and extrapolating from it, while also subtly critiquing it. We suspect he would disavow that reading, but whether he intended it or not, immersing yourself in the world of Watchmen, paying strict homage to its feel and extrapolating from its plot, and then radically shifting the focus away from superheroes, away from geopolitical politics, away from super-science and nuclear armageddon and the encroaching of fascism in modern life and instead practically slapping the viewer in the face with the question of race in America? That is an implicit critique of the original. In other words, Lindelof and his team took one of the greatest graphic novels of all time, one that is largely uncriticized in the conventional wisdom, and then effectively asked the one question that implies the original missed a big aspect of American social history: “Yes, but what about black people?” It’s a fairly damning question to ask; one that should be asked of more of our greatest pieces of speculative fiction.
Alongside the audacious and persistent examination of race in America as a natural extrapolation of the original material, the series is diving much deeper into referencing the source material than we expected. One of the more interesting revelations about this world is one that requires more than a passing familiarity with its history. The great disaster that befell humankind at the climax of the original story in the late 1980s – a gigantic telepathic squid materializing in New York and instantly killing millions (yes, really) – has not been revealed to be the hoax that it was. The novel ended ambiguously, with the possibility of Rorschach’s journal being published by the extreme right-wing press, which would have exposed Adrian Veidt’s entire scheme and collapsed the possibility of halting the nuclear clock at the height of the cold war. But with tiny squids falling from the sky with some regularity over 30 years later, and the population seemingly accepting the official explanation of transdimensional rifts opening up, it appears no one ever found out that the original squid was a home-grown special effect. Note that one of the questions Looking Glass (the Rorschach-like detective with the reflective mask) asks the Seventh Kavalry member during his interrogation inside the pod is if he believes that the government is staging the intermittent squid showers and lying to the public about them.
As for the mastermind behind said hoax, a passing newspaper shouted a headline that Veidt has been declared dead, but Jeremy Irons, (having more fun onscreen than we’ve seen him enjoy in years) while not specifically named as Veidt, is very much alive and has all the markers of the character, from the purple wardrobe to the grandiosity and the not entirely sentient servants. But he neither appears to be in charge, nor does he appear to be in jail. On the other hand, he doesn’t appear to be entirely sane or entirely free to do whatever he wants. Alongside the intensifying race war introduced in this sequel is the distinct possibility that the entire American government is in an incredibly precarious position, based on maintaining a decades-long lie and doing whatever it is they did to attempt to ensure a madman would keep his mouth shut.
There are a bunch of other, more subtle Easter eggs, like Judd’s owl coffee cup and copy of Hollis Mason’s “Under the Hood,” along with his use of an owl ship, which all tend to suggest more than a passing connection with the second Nite Owl Dan Dreiberg. Something about the implication seems way off, however, since Johnson’s performance – and accent – don’t suggest that he could be the former hero at the center of the events of the 1980s series. Adrian Veidt has written a play called The Watchmaker’s Son, a reference to Dr. Manhattan (briefly glimpsed in news footage on Mars) and his original identity as Jon Osterman. Notably, watches also play a part in the schemes of the Seventh Kavalry, with Judd joking that they were making a cancer bomb (a joke that doesn’t seem funny or remotely far-fetched). We also see the entire lineup of the original Minutemen as characters in a prestige TV series called American Hero Story.
But all of these little mysteries and Easter eggs are truly the fun window dressing on a much deeper, bolder, and potentially far more interesting story. Damon Lindelof and his team are to be commended for serving up something all-too-rare in this age of prestige television: a series that confuses, entices, tantalizes, entertains, and asks some deeply probing questions about America in a wholly unique way and unsettles the viewer with its density and strangeness. Whether Watchmen turns out to be one of the greats, it can’t be denied that right now, it’s one of the boldest.
And we didn’t even mention the guy with the stuffed panda head.
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