Watchmen (HBO): Timely, unusual and thrilling TV
Ivan Radford | On 21, Oct 2019Reading time: 5 mins
Warning: This review of Watchmen’s opening two episodes 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 Years later, in this alternate yet familiar modern America, Alan Moore’s Cold War takedown has been replaced by a searing look at racism.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.
Watchmen premieres at 2am on Mondays on Sky Atlantic. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW TV, for £8.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial.