Who watches the Watchmen? We do! Tonight, HBO debuted Damon Lindelof’s adaptation (or sequel, remix, whatever) of the legendary comic book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. I reviewed the show and interviewed Lindelof, and now it’s time to discuss the series premiere, “It’s Summer And We’re Running Out of Ice” — with full spoilers — coming up just as soon as I start war over lettuce…
A world on the verge of utter ruin.
A child spirited away to safety at the urging of his doomed parents.
The life he was born into exploding behind him.
The origin of Superman? Yes, but also the story of the little African-American boy at the start of this shocking, weird, wonderful take on Watchmen.
We open somewhere completely unexpected, whether you’re familiar with the comic book, the Zack Snyder film, or neither: a movie house in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921. Technically, we iris in on the climax of the silent movie the kid is watching: a Western where the hero is U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, a legend of the Wild West whose very real adventures were allegedly the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. Reeves was black; the Ranger was white. Reeves got to provide the plot, but not the pigment. In this version, though, Reeves — initially wearing a hood that makes him look very superheroic himself — lassos a corrupt small town sheriff, to the adoration of the sheriff’s all-white constituency. “There will be no mob justice today; trust in the law,” Reeves declares, as the kid — who has obviously seen this film many times — recites the line along with him. But the tears on the face of the boy’s mother as she plays the theater organ suggest that Reeves and the boy are both very wrong about mob violence. Within moments, a bomb falls on the theater roof, and the boy’s father enters in his military uniform, then leading mother and son out into the ugly maw of what would eventually become known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. This is not a scenario invented by a comic-book writer, nor by his screenwriting counterpart. It’s a very real, horrific blight on our history, and a most unexpected, distressing, grippingly immersive place for Lindelof and director Nicole Kassell to begin their off-center take on the world Moore and Gibbons created(*). The kid is placed in a car heading out of town, with nothing but a note stuffed into his pocket that reads “WATCH OVER THIS BOY.” Even his would-be saviors don’t survive the trip, leaving him and a baby (thrown, unharmed, from the wreckage of the escape vehicle) standing in a field facing an uncertain and terrifying future. Unlike Superman, they haven’t been sent to a world that gives them incredible powers. They are simply liberated from an immediate nightmare into the more all-encompassing one of being black in a country that has always had, at best, a problematic relationship with race.
(*) My usual desire to approach an adaptation as its own thing, rather than constantly compare and contrast it to the source material, gets complicated with a show like this. On the one hand, Lindelof and company wander very far afield from the comic book. On the other, the series is very much rooted in events from the comic, even if those events are often unexplained within the context of the show. My plan is to mostly devote these essays to the series itself, discussing some comics material if it’s unavoidable, and saving everything else for the bullet points at the end of each recap. So if you’re entirely new to Watchmen, you won’t be drowning in explanations about pirate comics or Hollis Mason.
What happens to these children in the aftermath of the massacre? We don’t know yet, though in the episode’s closing scene, the elderly man in the wheelchair played by Lou Gossett Jr. can be seen with the “WATCH OVER THIS BOY” note on his lap. Rather than follow the kid from that tragic Point A to this apparent Point B nearly a century later, the premiere instead stays on the road where it has just left him. We dissolve to the same lonely country highway in the present, albeit not quite our present. This version of the world seems just as senseless as the one we see in 1921, and almost as violent, where racism is the problem that won’t go away.
It’s a 2019 informed by the events of the comic book, and by what Lindelof and his writers imagine happened over the 34 years in between. Robert Redford is president. Richard Nixon’s face is on Mt. Rushmore. Vietnam is an American state, all cars are electric, and squid periodically rain from the sky, with humanity treating it as a familiar annoyance. The police officer we meet on that road in 2019 needs to get permission from a superior to use his gun — and the wait for that permission costs him his life — but he also wears a superhero-style mask, and as we’re introduced to other Tulsa cops, they seem less like the law and order that Bass Reeves wanted and more like the mob justice he so abhorred.
The traffic-stop shooting introduces us to Tulsa police chief Judd Crawford(*), who is in the midst of watching a local production of Oklahoma! featuring an all-black cast. Using this version of the play is an inversion of the idea of the black Bass Reeves becoming the white Lone Ranger. But Oklahoma! itself is a throwback to a bygone America that never quite existed in the form the play depicts, and some recent real-life productions of it have underlined the dangers lurking beneath its nostalgia. The Seventh Kalvary — whose members also wear masks, inspired by the right-leaning vigilante Rorschach from the comics — wants to make their America great again, never once considering how un-great it was for so many.
(*) Played by Don Johnson, who after his most famous role on Miami Vice was the star of Nineties CBS cop drama Nash Bridges, which turned into an incubator for Peak TV showrunners, including Carlton Cuse, Shawn Ryan, Glen Mazzara, and Lindelof, among others.
Sitting out this production of “Black Oklahoma!” — as she calls it, while refusing to let Judd do the same — is fellow cop Angela Abar, played by Oscar winner (and Leftovers alum) Regina King. Once again, the context in which we meet her isn’t what you’d expect for a woman who patrols the streets in a leather nun habit and calls herself Sister Night. But isn’t that the point of secret identities? Angela is addressing her son Topher’s class about her cover job as a baker, demonstrating the importance of separating egg whites from yolks — keeping the white and non-white components apart, as the Klan tried to back in 1921, and as the Seventh Kalvary (or, as cops call them, 7K) is trying to do in this alternate 2019. We get a few clues about how this world is different — Topher picks a fight with a bigoted classmate who wonders if Angela paid for her bakery through “Redfordations” — and an allusion to yet another massacre, one that resulted in cops taking on masked identities like Sister Night, Looking Glass (real name Wade, played by Tim Blake Nelson), and the Red Scare.
They wear costumes, have cool cars and other gadgets — like “the pod,” a high-tech metal sphere in which Looking Glass uses emotionally-charged imagery to confirm that Angela’s suspect is with 7K — but they aren’t superheroes in the sense of people with extra-normal powers. For the moment, that description still seems to apply only to the enigmatic, omnipotent Dr. Manhattan, glimpsed briefly on the surface of Mars in news footage. Instead, the masks and costumes are used to protect the police officers’ identities, while also making them feel they have greater license to take the law into their own hands. Angela finds out about the shooting, and within moments she has marched into a “Nixonville” tent city (whose residents have not taken kindly to Redford’s more liberal vision of America), assaulted suspects and stuffed one into a car trunk. Later, she beats a confession out of him while her colleagues look the other way.
In one of the premiere’s more fun surprises for those who know the source material, the police raid inspired by Angela’s work winds up involving Archie (short for Archimedes), the air ship that the second Nite Owl used throughout the comic. Why does Tulsa PD have control of this thing? It’s unclear, but also moot once Archie crashes after a brief pursuit of the escaping Kalvary plane. Judd’s people dress like superheroes, but they aren’t quite up to the task.
Angela’s response to seeing that Judd and his pilot, Pirate Jenny, survived the wreck is a bemused cry of, “What the fuck?” This would also be a good response to the inscrutably hilarious sequence that follows, where suddenly we appear to be in the English countryside as a wealthy man played by Jeremy Irons rides a horse, types in the nude, and is waited on hand, foot, and thigh by a pair of loyal but slightly bumbling servants named Mr. Philips and Miss Crookshanks. Could this be Adrian Veidt (a.k.a. Ozymandias) from the comics, even though we earlier saw a Tulsa Sun newspaper headline that read, “Veidt Officially Declared Dead”? It’s another mystery Watchmen is holding close at this point, but Irons is tremendous fun to watch, and adds a light touch to an hour that’s incredibly grim so much of the rest of the time.
Whatever’s happening there, we eventually land back in Tulsa, where Judd serenades his wife Jane, Angela, her husband Cal, and all three of their kids, with “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Oklahoma! The performance could just be a parting gift for would-be Eighties pop star Johnson (please, watch the video for “Heartbeat” when you’re done reading this) right before he’s killed off(*). But the innocence of the song, and the play from which it derives, again underscore what this Watchmen is discussing regarding how pop culture presents the past versus how it was. Jane notes that Judd played the lead in a high-school production, which would make him Curly, rather than his own namesake, Jud. In the play, Jud makes a scene at Curly’s wedding, Curly kills him, and a rushed court proceeding clears Curly of murder on the grounds of self-defense. Many productions treat this verdict as light comedy, while others frame it more chillingly as an example of how easily the state can approve mob justice, just as Judd tacitly endorses everything Angela and his troops do to get revenge on 7K.
(*) Remember: Lindelof and J.J. Abrams once wanted to kill off Jack before the end of the Lost pilot, and were hoping to stunt-cast Michael Keaton in the role so that audiences would assume he was the show’s lead. An ABC executive talked them out of it, but 15 years later he finally gets to do a version of that with Johnson.
But in the end, Judd takes after Jud, rather than Curly, swinging from the end of a noose while the old man in the wheelchair sits smugly beneath him, the musical’s “Pore Jud is Dead” playing on the soundtrack (including the lyric that provides the episode its title). Earlier, Gossett Jr.’s character had boasted to Angela that he could lift 200 pounds, no doubt aware that they would soon be meeting under these circumstances. We don’t know the depth of Judd’s corruption, beyond his fondness for cocaine and willingness to violate the Bill of Rights. But the tableau Angela finds as the premiere draws to a close feels like the Bass Reeves movie has come to life, with a new ending where Reeves is just fine with mob justice under certain circumstances, thank you very much. It’s a striking, unnerving image in an episode full of them, as the hour throws down a gauntlet about the subjects the series be tackling, the ways it will and won’t allude to the source material, and the kinds of very intense and intensely-flawed heroes, villains, and in between we’ll be watching. It’s tremendous.
Some other thoughts, most of them comic book-related:
* The biggest clue pointing to Irons playing Veidt — beyond the obvious question of why you would hire Jeremy Irons for a Watchmen show and not put him in that role — comes from the name of the play he is writing for his servants to perform: The Watchmaker’s Son. This is a nod to Jon Osterman, the man who would become Dr. Manhattan, whose powers and origin proved endlessly fascinating to Veidt in the comics.
* The blood dripping onto Judd’s badge at the very end is a reference to one of the most iconic images from the comic, where a similar streak of blood drips across one of the Comedian’s smiley-face badges after he’s murdered.
* The climax of the Seventh Kalvary’s recorded message to police is a paraphrase of one of Rorschach’s journal entries, where he declared, “All the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘Save us!’… and I’ll look down and whisper ‘No.'”
* The falling squid seem connected to the fake alien squid that Veidt unleashed on New York in his gambit to avert nuclear war. How? Don’t question it; just enjoy the alien squid raining down on Angela’s car while a cover of “Three Little Birds” plays.
* Among the biggest technological differences between the Watchmen universe and our own: Dr. Manhattan revolutionized battery power, resulting in the proliferation of electric cars like the pickup truck the 7K shooter is driving when he gets pulled over. But in the comics story, Veidt makes it appear that Manhattan’s powers can give people cancer. So people now use non-Manhattan-related batteries to power cars, watches, etc., while 7K is gathering up the old Manhattan-style lithium ones, which the Tulsa cops assume is to help build a bomb.
* As Judd is driving his truck to his fatal meeting, a news radio report mentions that Senator Joe Keene Jr. is running for president against Redford. He would be the son of Joe Keene, the Senator who in the comics introduced the 1977 act banning costumed vigilantes.
* In the farmhouse where the Kalvary members were hiding, Angela sees an old National Bank ad with a costumed mascot named Dollar Bill. Dollar Bill was one of the members of Thirties/Forties superhero team the Minutemen, but also a corporate mascot, as National Bank recruited its own costumed vigilante in response to what seemed a popular trend.
* Finally, speaking of the Minutemen, when Judd gets the call that leads him to his death, the TV in the background is showing the animated opening credits to American Hero Story, a Ryan Murphy-esque anthology that is telling stories about the Minutemen — in particular this world’s original superhero, Hooded Justice.