Damon Lindelof stuns with a tight, incisive continuation of the impossible-to-film comic book.
The prospect of making a Watchmen TV series, even on HBO, is a dicey one, to say the least. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal deconstruction of the superhero genre was long thought impossible to film, and (depending on who you ask) Zack Snyder’s Randian take on the material did nothing to assuage people of that notion. Along comes Damon Lindelof, fresh off The Leftovers, with a most intriguing take on the material: what if we explored the world after the events of the comic? How would a real alternate-history version of 2019 look like in its wake? And how would those concerns parallel our own? If the show’s premiere episode, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” is any indicator, Watchmen is off to a rollicking good start.
The show is set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the pilot’s first scenes give us a harrowing indication of why, flashing back to the horror of 1921’s Black Wall Street Massacre, in which a mob of white supremacists assaulted and killed blacks who lived and owned businesses in the city’s Greenwood District. One could be forgiven for thinking this haunting event, in which thousands of blacks were detained and hundreds injured, is just another alt-history thread in Watchmen‘s tapestry (like the fact that Robert Redford‘s been President since 1992), but it’s a terrifyingly real event in our own nation’s history. Right away, Lindelof’s take on the material is clear: this Watchmen is laser-focused on America’s complicated relationship with race, especially as it pertains to justice and policing.
Fast-forward to 2019 Tulsa, and the world is a much different place. Rather than superheroes being the ones wearing masks to hide from law enforcement, here it’s the police who wear masks: beat cops wear yellow scarves over their face, while detectives are granted more ostentatious getups. It’s a move borne of necessity, as cops are being systematically targeted by a white supremacist group known as “The Seventh Cavalry,” who themselves wear Rorschach masks seemingly in honor of the titular hero from the comics. (It’s high time Watchmen media hammered home the already-implicit idea that Rorschach was a violent, far-right fascist the whole time.) Only Police Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) shows his face; others, like Regina King‘s Angela Abar, aka Sister Night, put on slick, leather-clad outfits designed for anonymity and ass-kicking.
At first glance, the premise of ‘cops are the real victims’ feels like a Bad Look in 2019, where police brutality and the gunning down of unarmed black men is a clear epidemic. (Cops in the show must call in to headquarters before their firearms can be remotely activated, and it’s an aggravatingly long, bureaucratic process.) Still, given how deeply concerned the show seems to be with regards to the evils of racism and the ineffectiveness of systems to curtail it, I’m willing to reserve judgment.
One of the pilot’s greatest strengths is its ability to fully immerse you in the strangeness of its world without steeping you in dull exposition. Just pay attention, and elements like “Redfordations” (presumably a reparations program for black folks post-Tulsa riots by President Redford) and the unusual nature of Tulsa PD’s police force become clear. It’s a world made deliberately strange as a way to offer more incisive comments on the bizarre mythologies of our own timeline — which is exactly what made the original Watchmen so special.
It’s a world made deliberately strange as a way to offer more incisive comments on the bizarre mythologies of our own timeline — which is exactly what made the original Watchmen so special.
Craftwise, the show looks incredible: director Nicole Kassell stages the hour’s more exciting, horrifying sequences with aplomb — the historic Tulsa riots vibrate with tension, and a late-night police raid on a Rorschach compound is a tense showcase for Sister Night’s fighting skills, not to mention what a .50-cal machine gun can do to a cow’s corpse.
But all of this is in service to Lindelof’s script, which gamely follows up The Leftovers‘ incredible concern with history, mythology, and the despair of an uncaring universe. (We hear offhand that Dr. Manhattan is just watching Earth’s madness passively from Mars, a disturbing reminder that God is real and that he doesn’t care about us anymore.) As a tone-setter, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” is a killer setup for the rest of the series, and I can’t wait to see where Lindelof and company take us next.
- Welcome to The Spool’s Watchmen recaps! Now that Succession is done for the year, I’m looking forward to digging into another crazy-good HBO show.
- While this show can be watched without really knowing how the comic book’s story ends, the premiere richly rewards those who remember the graphic novel’s events. Tiny alien squids rain down on occasion like the frog storm in Magnolia, newspapers signal the purported death of Adrian Veidt, and Nite Owl’s vehicle has been repurposed as a police aircraft.
- While King brings her Oscar-winning clout to Sister Night, I’m very excited to learn more about Tulsa PD’s masked personas, like Tim Blake Nelson‘s Looking Glass and Andrew Howard‘s Red Scare.
- Also, we don’t get much of Jeremy Irons’ Adrian Veidt, but what we do get is deliciously weird and arch as he spends some time in his palatial mansion on his anniversary (anniversary of what? Guess we’ll have to find out). Are his two odd servants robots? Are they being mind-controlled? Who knows.
- I’m also eager to learn more about Louis Gossett Jr.‘s character, a Mr. Glass-like architect of our main characters’ pain who has disturbing connections to the Tulsa riots we saw in the cold open.
- It’s a shame we will (likely) not see more of Don Johnson’s character; he’s a highlight of the premiere and his rendition of a song from Oklahoma! around the Abars’ dinner table is a brilliant showcase for an actor who’s often dismissed as Nash Bridges – a show Lindelof himself worked on. But never say never!