Watchmen (2019)

Written by Stephen Campbell on November 15, 2020

Exceptional in every way; thematically rich, aesthetically breathtaking, and emotionally devastating

The first thing I saw in the moonlight was the placard with its legend in large, block letters: "I defiled my race." Above the placard leered the horribly bloated, purplish face of a young woman, her eyes wide open and bulging, her mouth agape. Finally I could make out the thin, vertical line of rope disappearing into the branches above. Apparently the rope had slipped a bit or the branch to which it was tied had sagged, until the woman's feet were resting on the pavement, giving the uncanny appearance of a corpse standing upright of its own volition.

I shuddered and quickly went on my way. There are many thousands of hanging female corpses like that in this city tonight, all wearing identical placards around their necks. They are the White women who were married to or living with Blacks, with Jews, or with other non-White males. There are also a number of men wearing the l-defiled-my-race placard, but the women easily outnumber them seven or eight to one.

Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It's us. Only us.

I might point out that despite what some might view to be their later excesses, the Klan originally came into being because decent people had perfectly reasonable fears for the safety of their persons and belongings when forced into proximity with people from a culture far less morally advanced. No, the Klan were not strictly legal, but they did work voluntarily to preserve American culture in areas where there were very real dangers of that culture being overrun and mongrelized.

Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen was published by DC Comics in 12 issues in 1986 and 1987. Knowing absolutely nothing of comics, I was completely unaware of its existence until 2005, when it placed on TIME's "100 Best English-Language Novels (1923-2005)". The mere fact that it appeared on such a list, alongside such titans as William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929), Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973), and Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), was enough to pique my curiosity and so I read it, and I liked it a great deal. Its deconstruction of the superhero genre is brilliantly handled, dismantling and interrogating virtually every generic trope so as to question the very purpose of such stories even as it exists as an example of one. At the same time, its depiction of Cold War paranoia and condemnation of right-wing idolatry are front and centre without ever seeming forced. Moore himself considers the comic "unfilmable", and several prominent directors had tried and failed (Terry Gilliam in 1991, Darren Aronofsky in 2004, and Paul Greengrass in 2006). However, in 2009, it finally reached the screen, directed by Zack Snyder...and the less we say about that, the better. The film recounts the plot well, but it has none of the thematic nuance or subtle genre-interrogation. All of which brings us to HBO's new limited series. Created by showrunner Damon Lindelof (co-creator of the TV game-changer that was Lost and the seminal existential masterwork that was The Leftovers), this was actually HBO's third attempt to create a Watchman series under Lindelof's guidance, but he turned down both of their previous offers (in 2010 and 2013). The most significant thing about this particular adaptation, however, is that it isn't an adaptation; it's an original story which serves as a pseudo-sequel, taking place 33 years after the events of the comic, and featuring some (but not all) of the surviving characters, mixed with plenty of new blood. As expected, Moore refused to participate in the production in any way, but Gibbons was very much on-board throughout.

But is the show any good? Well, it's not as good as The Leftovers (what is?), but it is an exceptional piece of work, and literally gets better with each episode, culminating in a one-two combo of uncharacteristic emotional power, with the last two episodes being as good a couple of hours of TV as you're ever likely to see. The acting is immense, the writing is incisive and challenging, the aesthetic is stunning, and the show was a worthy winner of no less than 11 Emmys from its 26 nominations, including "Outstanding Limited Series", "Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie" (Regina King), "Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie " (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), "Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series or Movie" (Damon Lindelof and Cord Jefferson for "This Extraordinary Being"), "Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series or Movie" (Gregory Middleton for "This Extraordinary Being"), and "Outstanding Musical Composition for a Limited Series or Movie" (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for "It's Summer and We're Running Out of Ice"). All in all, Watchmen is that rarest of beasts – a show which lives up to the hype.

Familiarity with the plot of the original isn't a requirement so as to appreciate the sequel, as you're given all the world-building back-info you need, but it can certainly help you get the most out of Lindelof's intricate narrative and thematic tapestry, especially in the earlier episodes. The world of Watchmen is a slightly different version of our world, with the major point of departure coming with the publication of Issue #1 of Action Comics in June 1938, which introduced Superman to the world, and brought the still-in-its-infancy superhero genre into the mainstream cultural lexicon. In the world of the comic, unlike in the real world, this leads to the rise of "costumed adventurers"; ordinary people without any special powers who take to the streets to fight crime and corruption. The only person with genuine superpowers emerges in 1959 – nuclear physicist Dr. John Osterman is apparently killed in an Intrinsic Field Subtractor accident, only to return as Doctor Manhattan, a god-like being with immense quantum powers including clairvoyance, chronokinesis, dimensional travel, precognition, self-regeneration, subatomic manipulation, telekinesis, and teleportation. He also experiences time non-linearly, with every moment of his existence (past and future) happening at once. Due primarily to the involvement of Manhattan, the US win the Vietnam War, gaining a strategic advantage over the Soviet Union, and leading to an escalation of nuclear tensions. Over the years, however, the public come to lose faith in adventurers and in 1977, the Keene Act outlaws all costumed adventurers except those sanctioned by the government, of which there were very few.

As the comic begins, it is 1985, and Richard Nixon is in his fifth term as president, having abolished the 22nd Amendment in the wake of victory in Vietnam (Edward Blake, a government-sanctioned adventurer known as The Comedian, ensured all evidence of Watergate was destroyed before it was made public and also carried out the Nixon-ordered assassination of JFK). When Manhattan is inaccurately accused of causing cancer, he exiles himself to Mars and washes his hands of humanity. As the US depend upon him as a nuclear deterrent, his departure throws the geopolitical sphere into chaos. However, as Walter Kovacs (an adventurer named Rorschach) begins an investigation into a possible conspiracy to kill former adventurers, Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre) is able to convince Manhattan to return to Earth. Meanwhile, Rorschach uncovers evidence which suggests the "smartest man in the world", Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias), may be behind the conspiracy. He confronts Veidt, who explains his plan to save humanity from nuclear war by faking an alien invasion, which he hopes will unite the superpowers against a perceived common enemy. Rorschach vows to stop him, but Veidt reveals that he has already enacted his plan – a giant squid supposedly from another dimension (but really just a genetically engineered earth squid), has emerged in New York unleashing a "psychic shockwave" which has wiped out half the city's inhabitants (around three million people). Rorschach insists he will reveal the truth, but is confronted by Manhattan who argues that such a truth can only hurt humanity. Rorschach, however, refuses to listen, and Manhattan is forced to kill him to keep Veidt's actions secret. The comic ends with a copy of Rorschach's journal, which explains Veidt's plan in detail, reaching the far-right publication New Frontiersman, with the journal placed in the "crank file" for possible future publication.

And so we arrive at the TV show.

Tulsa, OK, 2018; the preceding 33 years have seen a series of dramatic change in the world of Watchmen. Veidt's plan worked perfectly, and the US and Soviets formed an alliance to guard against the possibility of another 'invasion'. Rorschach's journal was published by the New Frontiersman, but has been dismissed as a hoax ever since, with only the far-right and conspiracy theorists believing it authentic. Meanwhile, white supremacist groups have been on the rise, and after an incident in Tulsa where almost the entire police department was wiped out in a coordinated attack by a KKK off-shoot known as the Seventh Kavalry, a law is passed that allows police to wear masks and remain anonymous. There are even certain police officers who wear costumes and operate under an alias, not unlike the still-outlawed costumed adventurers of the previous century. Another important part of the make-up of law enforcement is that police officers' guns are secured in their car, and can only be released remotely, and only if the officer can justify to HQ the potential use of deadly force. Meanwhile, with Nixon now dead, a Democratic president sits in the Oval Office – former actor Robert Redford, who is currently in his seventh, and final, term, and has introduced a massive system of reparations for African-Americans whose ancestors experienced racial injustice (contemptuously called "Redfordations" by the right). Finally, Doctor Manhattan has returned to Mars and no longer communicates with Earth.

In essence, the story follows the fallout from a murder, which is soon discovered to be much more complex than originally thought, and could have far-reaching implications not only for Tulsa, but the entire planet. Within this milieu, we follow multiple characters, some new, some old. The protagonist is Angela Abar (a predictably stunning (Regina King); officially retired from Tulsa PD, Angela continues to work as the masked cop known as Sister Night. Other characters include Laurie Blake (a wonderfully acerbic Jean Smart), aka Silk Spectre, who is now an FBI agent tasked with rounding up costumed adventurers whenever they emerge; Judd Crawford (a still effortlessly-cool Don Johnson), chief of Tulsa PD; Wade Tillman (Tim Blake Nelson), a cop who works under the moniker of Looking Glass and specialises in interrogations; Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr. reminding us all how good he is), an elderly man confined to a wheelchair, but who seems to know a lot about a great many things; Senator Joe Keene Jr. (James Wolk), son of the senator who wrote the Keene Act, and the man mainly responsible for allowing Tulsa PD to wear masks; Lady Trieu (a brilliantly emotionless Hong Chau), the world's first ever trillionaire; Cal Abar (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), Angela's husband; Red Scare (Andrew Howard), a proudly communist member of the Tulsa PD, originally from Russia; Jane Crawford (Frances Fisher), Judd's wife; Pirate Jenny (Jessica Camacho), another costumed Tulsa police officer; Bian (Jolie Hoang-Rappaport), Trieu's daughter; and Agent Dale Petey (Dustin Ingram), an expert on the history of costumed adventures who accompanies Laurie to Tulsa to investigate the murder. At the same time, we are also introduced to an unidentified man (played by Jeremy Irons, who is clearly having the time of his life) living in luxury on the grounds of a remote castle at an unknown location. So too do we meet his butler, Mr Phillips (Tom Mison) and his maid, Miss. Crookshanks (Sara Vickers). How all of this relates to what is happening in Tulsa is perhaps the show's biggest ongoing mystery (and don't expect early answers).

As with the original comic, the TV show is thematically rich. Lindelof has stated that he wanted to tackle whatever socio-political issue that was to 2019 as the Cold War was to 1985, and to him, it "felt like it was undeniably race and policing" (the fact that the show has proved so extraordinarily prophetic is essentially irrelevant to its quality, but it is amazing that here we have a show depicting African-Americans refusing to bow down to oppression that was made before the death of George Floyd, a show depicting the widespread but controversial wearing of masks that was made long before the COVID-19 pandemic was a thing). Politically then, the show does much the same thing as the comic did – it deploys a real-world socio-political problem in a not quite 1:1 fictional milieu. In Ronald Reagan's America, the focus was on apocalyptic Cold War paranoia, whereas in Trump's Divided States, the most pressing existential threat is the rise of right-wing extremism, with those who once remained in the shadows having been emboldened by a racist president to confidently espouse their hatred for all to see. At the same time, on the show's official podcast, Lindelof explains,

For Watchmen to be culturally relevant in 2019, it has to be some sort of funhouse mirror reflection of the time that we're living in. There's a really fascinating conversation that erupted around the show as we were airing the first three or four episodes, which was the idea that "this show is too political", and also, parallel to that, how can the show call itself Watchmen. Well, the show is political, but my own personal politics, and I make no bones about the fact that I'm a liberal and very progressively minded, but at the same time, the original Watchmen is kind of anarchist in its blood and it has to troll the extremes, so you have to troll extreme liberalism, extreme progressivism. I happen to think that reparations are a really good idea, whether they're reparations for slavery or reparations for something like the Tulsa Massacre. I also have to accept that were reparations actually enacted, there would be a virulent pushback from a large sector of our society. Do I take sides? Well, my side is that I think we have a big white supremacy problem in the United States of America. I'm not here saying, there's good people on both sides. That being said, I'm just presenting what I think would actually happen were reparations to be passed.

This is a key point; in a country as ideologically divided as the post-2016 United States, achieving any kind of political or cultural harmony is next to impossible, and how the show presents the reactions of right-wing characters to Redfordations reminds us of how attempts at reconciliation can often serve to force people even farther apart.

The theme of white and black and racial tension comes up time and again throughout the series. For example, the Abars have two children, although both Angela and Cal are black and the children are white – a black couple adopting white children is very rare on TV or in cinema, where the prevailing narrative trope remains that of the "white saviour". Another good example is that in episode seven, "An Almost Religious Awe", a member of Seventh Kavalry asserts that "white men in masks are heroes. Black men in masks are scary", whilst in episode nine, "See How They Fly", another member of the group proclaims, "it is extremely difficult to be a white man in America right now" (a hilarious, if it wasn't so dangerous, sentiment taken very much from the real world, where racists will often argue that there's no such thing as White Privilege, and those who are really oppressed are white, Christian, heterosexual males). In the same episode, speaking of President Redford and his "libstapo", it is stated, "first he took our guns. And then, he made us say sorry. Over and over again. Sorry. Sorry for the alleged sins of those who died decades before we were born. Sorry for the colour of our skin" (and this, obviously, ties back into the notion that Redford's attempts to heal division has led only to enhancing it).

Of course, within this, another major theme is law enforcement, with Lindelof posing the fascinating question of what happens when you mix masks with the administration of the law. The show is obsessed with law and order, and specifically how racial tensions are manifested within such a system, from literally its opening frames. As the first episode begins, we are watching Trust in the Law, a 1921 Oscar Micheaux film about Deputy Bass Reeves, aka The Black Marshal, the first African-American federal marshal west of the Mississippi (Bass Reeves was a real marshal and Micheaux was a real director, although Trust in the Law is not a real film). The scene opens with a man in black chasing a man in white across a prairie. Reaching a church, the man in black dismounts the man in white just as the congregation emerge. The man in white is then revealed to be a local sheriff and the man in black is an African-American. The congregation immediately assume that the victim here is the white bedecked sheriff, but it quickly emerges that the sheriff is corrupt and the man in black is a marshal performing an arrest. When the congregation decide to string up the sheriff, Reeves prevents them, stating, "No mob justice today – trust in the law" (which, of course, is doubly ironic insofar as not trusting in the law is the very basis for costumed adventurers in the first place – inversion on top of inversion). After a brutal and harrowing depiction of the Tulsa Race Massacre (when white supremacists launched an attack on the predominantly black-owned Greenwood District, killing up to 300 people, injuring over 800, and torching the businesses in the area), the first scene set in 2018 depicts a masked and menacing cop pulling over a truck and exchanging a few words with the nervous driver. However, again, the colours are inverted – the cop is black and the driver is white. These two scenes form a beautiful bit of visual story-telling, establishing immediately the centrality of racial tensions, conveying that such things are often more complex than they appear (there is no fixed black and white), and that the show plans to upend and invert common tropes.

A third major theme is trauma. The core purpose of Redfordations is to address and acknowledge generational trauma, but many of the characters are wrestling with much more private and personal traumas, which, to one extent or another, have come to define who they are. Angela and Judd, for example, carry with them the trauma of surviving the Seventh Kavalry's massacre of Tulsa PD; Cal carries with him the trauma of an unspecified accident several years earlier that left him with partial amnesia; Looking Glass carries the trauma of being in New York when the squid attacked, and has become paranoid about the possibility of something similar happening again; Laurie carries the trauma of her family history (her father was the masked adventurer The Comedian, who raped her mother, Sally Jupiter, aka. the first Silk Spectre, although Laurie was the product of a later, consensual, relationship between the two) and a failed past romance with Manhattan which colours everything in her present; Will carries the trauma of witnessing the Tulsa Race Massacre.

As thematically rich as the show is, however, one cannot help also admiring its aesthetic, with the structure of each episode serving as a subtle nod to the structure of the comic. Instead of panels of various sizes, the comic was primarily structured by way of a grid of nine panels of the same size on each page. The middle two pages differed, featuring three panels on the outside edge of each page, and half of a larger picture per page, thus the two pages acted as structural mirrors to one another. This symmetricality is replicated in the show insofar as each episode features opening and closing scenes which mirror one another. So, for example, one episode begins with leaflets falling from the sky, and ends with a car rising into the sky; another begins with a couple patiently awaiting something that may not happen, and ends with two different people awaiting something that definitely will happen; another opens with a busload of people bringing a message of life, and ends with a van of people bringing death.

It's also worth noting how the show-within-the-show is presented. Within the Watchmen milieu, America Hero Story, an affectionate reference to Ryan Murphy, is a hugely popular TV show about the Minutemen, a group of costumed adventurers formed in 1939 by Nelson Gardner (Captain Metropolis), Silk Spectre, and Spectre's agent Laurence Schexnayder. We see several extracts from the show, but none are more eye-catching than the scene in episode three, which depicts the first time Hooded Justice (the first costumed adventurer) foiled a crime. This scene is staged as an elaborate over-the-top action sequence with a quite ridiculous amount of unjustified and unnecessary slow-motion (mixed in with fast transitions and regular speed footage). Sound familiar? If you've seen any of Snyder's films, you'll recognise the style – and if you've seen his adaptation of Watchmen, you'll immediately see why American Hero Story was shot this way. For me, the main reason the 2009 film failed was that style was far more important than theme, often to the point of undermining that theme. These characters are not supposed to be noble and badass action heroes whom we admire for their toughness and bravery. Quite the contrary. Yet in Snyder's film, characters who are supposed to represent the utter unworkability of heroes in the real world and illustrate how human foibles will always destroy idealism are shown having elaborately choreographed slow-motion brawls set to a thumping score and frenetically edited. The style is literally contradicting the theme – it's amateur hour 101 and smacks of someone who responds to the coolness of the comic's visual design, but understands none of the underlying context. Thankfully, Lindelof most definitely does understand that context, and it's that understanding which makes the American Hero Story scenes so funny.

The aesthetic is also impressive on its own terms, particularly the cinematography and editing, and I'd be remiss here not to mention episodes six and eight. Directed by executive producer Stephen Williams, "This Extraordinary Being" is shot primarily in black and white, and takes place in the 30s and 40s, with the cinematography by Gregory Middleton, nothing short of exemplary. Employing the odd bit of colour here and there within the black and white photography to focus our attention on particular objects, there is also an extraordinary 4-minute single shot which goes in and out of several buildings, features a plethora of extras, some VFX, and a lot of SFX. Stunning stuff. As for "A God Walks Into Abar" (as good an episode of TV as you could ever imagine), all I can say is this: if you're interested in learning about editing, watch this episode. Directed by head director and executive producer Nicole Kassell and cut by Henk Van Eeghan, the episode essentially tries to give a visual representation of how Doctor Manhattan experiences time – with every moment in his experience all happening at once, so he can 'remember' things that haven't happened yet, or be 'within' multiple memories from the past all at the same time. It's a spellbinding exercise in stylistic control. The editing (and writing) are so tight, and the time jumps so absolutely flawless, folding organically into one another to form a single cohesive template, it's some of the finest editing I've ever seen.

Watchmen is an exceptionally good show. By default, of course, there will be fans of the comic who'll dislike it on principle. There will also be those who accuse it of pandering to a liberal PC agenda (look at the negative (and frankly, hilarious) review bombing on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes), and there'll be those who simply don't like the idea of a Watchman TV show with a black woman at its centre. Make no mistake, however, this show has been put together by people who know, appreciate, love, and understand the comic. Thematically complex, aesthetically breathtaking, brilliantly acted, Watchmen is an exceptional piece of television.