Watchmen (HBO): Timely, unusual and thrilling TV
Ivan Radford | On 21, Oct 2019Reading time: 10 mins
Warning: This review of Watchmen contains minor spoilers for the set-up of HBO’s series.
“People who wear masks are driven by trauma. They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered.” That’s the sound of Watchmen returning to our lives, but not as we know it. From the pen of Damon Lindelof, HBO’s series takes the twisted graphic novel and twists it even further, turning an upside-down, subversive tale on its head by crafting a new story, one that’s set years after the events of the original. Everything that happened on the page happened here, right down to every last, squiddy detail, and that strange, disturbing, incendiary groove is still playing out as a background beat.
No wonder, then, that there’s trauma to be dealing with, as the world moves on to forge a new future – that above quote comes from Laurie Blake, an FBI agent with her own Watchmen-linked past who now tracks down superheroes.
But Lindelof, riffing on Alan Moore’s topical commentary with complex rhythms of his own, begins his series with another instance of trauma altogether: the Tulsa massacre of 1921, in which a host of black businesses, perceived as an rival to Wall Street, were wiped out by a white mob. It’s a bold, unsettling, disorienting start to a superhero show, not least because it actually happened in real life. Years later, in this alternate yet familiar modern America, Alan Moore’s Cold War takedown has been replaced by a searing look at racism.
Here, we discover, there have been widespread legal corrections to try and balance out the atrocities of the past, but, like any of the characters we meet, it’s just another mask covering up the trauma, identity and chaos that’s festering underneath. It’s only fitting, then, that the ever-shifting enigma of Rorschach – a hero in the original graphic novel, albeit in the loosest sense of the word (he was a fascistic, violent vigilante) – has become the iconic emblem of the Seventh Kavalry, a racist movement that may have resurfaced after a period of inactivity.
An early sequence sees a black police officer pull over a truck driver, only to find himself in danger – waiting, nail-bitingly, horrifically, for his superiors to release his handgun by remote control. This is a world where gun control laws have changed, but where police officers nonetheless wear masks to protect their own identities and keep them safe, after The White Night, a murderous evening that saw the Kavalry attack the police several years ago. It’s a mind-boggling paradox that positions the officers of the law as somewhere between official justice-makers and secret vigilantes themselves.
A key player in this fascinating universe is Detective Angela Abar (Regina King), who has purportedly retired from police duty, but dresses up in a ninja-esque costume to dispense retribution anonymously. Within the opening hour, she’s abducted a suspect and teamed up with Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), another masked enforcer whose reflective face-wear makes him a shrewd choice for interrogations. Between them is an excellent Don Johnson as police chief Judd, who has a nice home life, genuinely cares for Angela and reluctantly grants permission to all police officers to use armed force where judged appropriate – a decision announced at a meeting that doesn’t look all that dissimilar to the intimidating gatherings of Kavalry members. Except for one guy wearing a panda head.
It all unfolds in a swirl of Lindelofian confusion and uncertainty – which will be no surprise to fans of The Leftovers of Lost. Yet, in a bizarre fusion of the two, it’s all too apt for the subject matter, as we find ourselves adrift in a society where everyone is drifting apart. Particularly removed from it all is Jeremy Irons’ Veidt (one of the few returning characters from the original text), who is living a lush life as a country mansion recluse – but as he has a burning itch to replay familiar events to himself, is he freer, or more imprisoned, than the rest of the country?
Watchmen’s opening episodes hops between these traumatised people with a confidence and frequently striking visuals, dropping in blood-stained badges, eggy smiley faces and other nods to Moore’s comic, while equally rooting everything in a realism only a couple of shades away from our own reality – don’t forget that Robert Redford, as per Moore’s original vision for this world, was President at one point in the past, after Nixon’s successful stint in the White House. The dialogue, too, crackles with genre panache, with lines such as “I got a nose for white supremacy and he smells like bleach”.
How does it all fit together? Louis Gossett Jr as Will Reeves, an old man in a wheelchair with a connection to Angela’s past, seems to hold the answers, and he’s on hand to deliver cryptic hints to Angela, who comes across as the only honest person in this mixed-up world – yes, the one who spray-paints her face and puts up a hood to hide who she is. All the while, clocks keeping linking together scenes and different shots, a non-stop reminder that the end of the world, in a sense, is looming – a reckoning for the crimes of white supremacy that is waiting to erupt. Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.
As the suspense builds, and each strand overlaps to from a stronger (yet more distanced) tie with what’s gone before – go in expecting intriguing questions, uncanny observations and violent flashbacks – it’s testament to this compulsively unusual, excitingly ambitious and challengingly pertinent TV show that you barely feel the minutes pass by. Two hours in and you’ll have no idea where this is going, but you’ll want to find out.
Additional notes (spoilers)
– How do we, does anyone, move forward in this world, given what’s come before? That, among many other things, was a key question left hanging by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. Lindelof’s sequel to the graphic novel may not be blessed or endorsed by Moore, but it’s the same question that he returns to at the beginning and finale of his TV masterpiece. The comic book came up with a faked giant alien squid (crafted by Veidt) as a method to bring the world together and avoid all-out war. Fast forward to 2019 and that squid happened, and Veidt has been imprisoned on a moon for decades, but the question remains: how can society, can humans, move forward?
– In the past, the answer has been by hiding behind masks. Like the original comic book, Watchmen the TV series peels back the surface covering to reveal the festering horror and trauma sitting beneath, barely disguised by the socially acceptable facade.
– Watchmen the TV series is rooted in that past trauma, and it does so through an audacious, jaw-dropping piece of revision: by making Hooded Justice a black hero who was vaguely accepted by the white, heroic Minute Men, but whose identity left everyone presuming he was also white. He wasn’t: he was Will, Angela Abar’s grandfather. “A white man in a mask is a hero, but a black man in a mask is scary,” Will observes early on, and that crucial dichotomy is at the heart of Watchmen’s searingly timely truth – a scathing takedown of a country where the KuKluxKlan consider themselves superior and heroic, but hide cowardly behind masks to avoid being detected.
– “It was fear. Hurt. You can’t heal that with a mask, Angela. Wounds need air,” Will also reflects later on, and the show’s turning point is when we get to relive Will’s life and his heroic, unsung role. When she takes his memory pill and bleeds in and out of his own recollections, the only thing more jaw-dropping than the black-and-white, hazy production design, and Angela seamlessly alternating with Will’s face and physique is the ambitious, profound message being assembled patiently in front of our eyes.
– The Tulsa massacre of 1921 remained at the core of the whole series, taking us back full circle to the fact that the racial injustice still hasn’t been solved, even after generations of such dramatic transformations. No wonder Dr. Manhattan exiled himself on Mars.
– Or did he? (He didn’t.)
– That’s the other major reveal of Watchmen that’s an edge-of-your-seat moment: the realisation that John, aka. Dr. Manhattan, hid himself inside Cal Abar, agreeing to forget everything so that he could be Angel’s faithful (and hunky) husband. That opened up an incredible insight into Doc’s character, as Lindelof and co. nail the depiction of his experiencing multiple points in time simultaneously – an experience that makes his ability to love Angela all the more profound.
– However, it also put him in the crosshairs of master group Cyclops, which aims to kill the Doc and take his powers – because only a while, arrogant son of a senator could have the presumption that he’s superior enough to be able to become a god. The Seventh Kavalry all gather round to see the gun blow Manhattan to bits (well, transport him to their cage) and it’s hilariously satisfying to see the Kavalry’s plans completely superceded by Lady Trieu, who, with the Kavalry’s head liquefied, boldly steps in to show their lack of supremacy.
– And yet, what makes Watchmen so good is the fact that there is no absolute good and bad: Lady Trieu, who came from Veidt’s secret bank of sperm, is just as arrogant and egotistical as the white supremacists she casually leapfrogged: power in the hands on one person does not justice and equality make. Even Veidt, who vaguely almost redeems himself by using his squid-raining machine to wipe out all these villains with frozen squid bullets from the heavens, remains a terrible figure: he’s still happy to wipe out thousands or millions of people to save the billions across the planet, and do so without pausing for thought.
– The Doc’s actual powers, meanwhile, were deposited into an egg all those years ago when he and Angela first met – and the finale boldly takes us where even Marvel still hasn’t gone yet: it gives us a black female superhero ready for her own solo story, as she eats that egg and appears to be able to walk on water.
– It’s a conclusion that absolutely floors you, because it’s not a mystery of whether she takes the egg, or perhaps even whether she gets his abilities. Throughout the series, and the original book, we’ve seen how, time and time again, humans are incapable of changing the world for the good. The graphic novel averted the end of the world, yes, but Rorschach’s journal falling into the wrong hands only perpetuated more problems that, inevitably, led to the end of the world again.
– Who watches the Watchmen? And who can actually keep humanity safe? Who, in other words, can guide the world forward as it moves on from the atrocities of the past? Where HBO’s Watchmen departs from its source material, most radically, is in the way it builds to a cliffhanger of hope. We see Laurie arrest Veidt, along with Wade (without a mask), as both seem to place their trust in justice once more – a sign that the past tactic of hiding wrongs on other moons, burying it behind masks, is over. Can Angela, unlike the others, actually make a change with superpowers without becoming a megalomaniacal egoist? After generations of people fighting for a change in society’s unequal structure, the answer is almost irrelevant, because the answer, for once, is rooted in another perspective: for the first time, this story being told by a new, previously unheard voice, and if that isn’t reason enough to want a second season, we don’t know what is.