Be aware there are some light spoilers for HBO’s Watchmen below. We’ve played it close to the vest, but if you want to go in completely blind, bookmark this for later.
Right out of the gate, Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen announces itself as a series that has some shit to say. An impressive act of world-building reverentially structured around the events of the beloved graphic novel, the new HBO series may not be what diehard fans are expecting, but it’s a vital update and doting love letter to the original that marries the spectacle of a high-profile cable budget with gripping philosophical storytelling, awards-worthy performances, and first-rate technical accomplishment across the board. And it wastes no time getting to the point.
Have you heard of Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Race Massacre? If not, you’re about to learn — Watchmen begins its tale of alternate history in the midst of the true-life horror. In 1921, over the course roughly 18 hours, thousands of white Oklahomans bombarded the affluent African American district of Greenwood; dubbed “Black Wall Street” for the thriving financial success of the Jim Crow-era segregated residents. Thousands of households, establishments, and community centers were destroyed in an assault that historians now believe cost the lives of somewhere near 300 black citizens. With thousands displaced and a thriving community destroyed, the cultural cost and the economic cost is even harder to quantify. It’s one of the worst atrocities of racial violence in American history. And one of the least known.
I’m not just a little ashamed to say that I’d never learned that history until I hit play on the pilot screener for HBO’s Watchmen series, but if you find yourself in the same position, don’t be surprised. The Tulsa Race Massacre wasn’t just a grievous crime of violence, but of disinformation; the reports purged from the records and press until decades later. It was only in 2000 that the State Department of Education mandated it a part of Oklahoma history classes and in 2004 that it became a requirement for U.S History classes.
Which is no doubt why Lindelof and his writing team chose to begin their Watchmen adaptation by dropping us into the horror – a too-forgotten moment in American history, the memory of which was dictated and distorted by those in power, that’s dripping with the blood on which America’s heartland was built. From that grain of truth, Watchmen spins its fantastical tale, equally interested in deconstructing superheroes, society, and belief systems; just as much about a badass masked cop who kicks the shit out of criminals in a nun costume as it is about how disinformation poisons and pollutes patriotism and community.
In this case, the community of Tulsa, the very specific and historically important location where Lindelof sets his tale. How important? Well, Lindelof titled his first episode “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice”, the first of several references to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! – another famous story about justice, communal culpability, and the dangerous bond of a shared enemy. (Interestingly enough, the classic knee-slapping musical is already in the midst of a bit of a cultural re-evaluation thanks to a critically celebrated Broadway revival that digs into the same thematic elements Lindelof is mining here.) But don’t let Watchmen’s heartland setting fool you, the narrative is every bit the expansive and inventive world-building that the title’s legacy implies, with the attention to character to match.
Inspired by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins’ seminal graphic novel of the same name, HBO’s Watchmen series honors and canonizes the events of that story while updating the themes for a new audience. Launched in 1985, Moore’s Watchmen pitted its morally dubious “heroes” against a possibly undefeatable foe in the form of Cold War paranoia and the looming threat of nuclear apocalypse. Elegantly transposing that world to the dominant themes of today’s discourse and prevailing cultural anxieties, Lindelof’s Watchmen pits its equally questionable heroes against the intangible societal ill of white supremacy and domestic terrorism. And like the original, Watchmen somehow manages to be impossibly thrilling and entertaining despite the bleak subject matter.
Much of the joy in watching Watchmen comes from the discoveries and mysteries Lindelof has laced in, so I’ll steer clear of digging into the plot, but in short, the series picks up in an alternate version of modern America, spun from the threads left at the end of Moore’s graphic novel. Robert Redford is president. There’s no internet and no smartphones. Vietnam is a state. Vigilantism is outlawed, but police officers seem mighty similar, wearing masks to conceal their identities after a horrific act of terrorism by a hate group called the Seventh Kalvary left countless officers and their families dead.
To get this out of the way; yes, the racist terrorists known as the Seventh Kalvary wear Rorschach masks. No, Watchmen is not saying that Rorschach was a racist terrorist. At its core, as the graphic novel was, Watchmen is interested in exploring ideas and beliefs, how they spread, how they take root, and how they dictate our world, even in their most perverted forms. There are also psychic interdimensional squids, so if you only know Watchmen from Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation, you’re gonna want to get hip to how the graphic novel ended. Spoiler: there was a psychic interdimensional squid.
It all works because Lindelof grounds his fantasy and philosophizing in a wealth of fascinating characters. Sure, there are some familiar faces. The great Jean Smart is reliably captivating as the aged-up Laurie Blake (aka, the second Silk Spectre) and Jeremy Irons certainly seems to be playing the older Ozymandias (though Lindelof and his team have been notably reluctant to confirm that), but Watchmen is also brimming with outstanding new players.
At the heart of it all is Regina King as Angela Abar, the aforementioned nun-costumed cop, who is also a loving wife and mother and one of the few to survive the terrorist assault on police known as the White Night. Enough cannot be said about how excellent King is in the role, a physical force who harnesses her preternatural ability to express the depths of human experience with the slightest expression. Nobody does stoic and steely better while somehow also communicating a ROYGBIV-level spectrum of emotion.
And she’s surrounded by equally intriguing characters and performances. The always excellent (and real-life Tulsa native) Tim Blake Nelson shines as a fellow cop and human lie-detector who goes by the moniker “Looking Glass,” as do Don Johnson as the strapping and strutting Tulsa Police Chief Judd Crawford and Louis Gosset Jr. as a mysterious figure who threatens to explode Angela’s life and the established order with the secrets he holds. Each character earns their screentime, and every episode – including some downright phenomenal bottle episodes – uncovers new details and histories between them that enrich and enlighten the story.
In fact, Watchmen is so dense and intentionally paced that it can seem to take a while to get where it’s going. The series starts in a hurry with a walloping, action-packed thesis piece of a pilot, but then it slows way the hell down and digs into the nuance of its characters and its world. But that’s also part of its strength. Like the graphic novel it’s building from, Watchmen reveals the scope of its ambition in strides, and while the middle portion can sometimes feel overwhelming, each new episode further elucidates Lindelof’s themes and story. The first six episodes sent to the press felt like a particularly effective eye exam where the text slowly shifts from obfuscation to razor-sharp clarity of vision.
And no matter how you end up feeling about where Lindelof took the world of Watchmen, there’s no denying the series is a product of precise vision. Lindelof has made no secret of his abiding love for Watchmen throughout his career, saying that all his work is a love letter to the graphic novel in some way. It’s easy to see how; the flashback character reveals and complex overlapping arcs, the quantum mechanics and unanswerable universal ponderings, the search for meaning, and the general, well, weirdness of it all. Of course the guy who gave us The Leftovers’ afterlife karaoke and dick-ID scanners loves the sociopolitical superhero epic that ends with a psychic squid.
In many ways, Watchmen feels like Lindelof coming home to write about the story he’s always wanted to tell, instead of writing around it, or perhaps through it. His candid open letter to Watchmen fans, penned in the style of Doctor Manhattan’s musings, reinforced his lifelong dedication to the story and how it shaped his own sense of storytelling. Lindelof’s love for and admitted riffing on Moore’s narrative devices was readily apparent in his The Leftovers series adaptation, which built from Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name into a staggering exploration of faith, religion, death, reality and the divine. In many ways, Lindelof’s approach to the very questions of being was crafted from the same quantum physics birds-eye view Moore implemented in Watchmen. You might say it’s the kind of show Doctor Manhattan would like, if you believed Doctor Manhattan still fucks around with enough human emotion to “like” things like TV.
At its most profound and spectacular moments, The Leftovers proved a capacity to re-frame those unknowable existential questions by grounding them in gripping character drama and reality-bending fantasy. Lindelof tapped into the universal by becoming radically inventive and specific. Likewise, Watchmen holds the potential to reframe historical perspective and enduring societal truths by inviting us to a fastidiously detailed alternate America that still feels too close for comfort. The Leftovers had the departure, Watchmen has the squid; either way, Lindelof’s focus is on the existential toll of facing the inconceivable – the fallout of living in Schroedinger’s reality, where the impossible and possible suddenly co-exist, and the world is nothing like you thought but core human truths somehow stay the same.
Having not seen the series through to its end (and Lindelof has said the series is designed for a single-season, for those worried about a Lost-style approach to ongoing mysteries,) I can’t yet say if Watchmen is as completely successful or transformative as The Leftovers ultimately proved to be, but it is an outstanding feat of character-driven storytelling and world-building in its own right. As rich with allusions as its namesake (the episode titles themselves invite rewarding investigation), fuelled by a vitalizing score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and layered with potent evocative imagery, Watchmen isn’t just a success for its technical excellence.
It’s provocative and challenging, posing hard questions with no easy answers, and the conversation around the series is probably going to get pretty… intense. But its greatest rewards are the strength of its perspective, the depth of its humanity, and the risky creative swings it takes to create an entirely new story that also feels right at home in the world of Watchmen.
Watchmen debuts on HBO on Sunday, October 20th.