Beyond Silk Spectre: How the Women of HBO’s Watchmen Grapple With the Book’s Sins
Silk Spectre and Angela Abar are perfect examples of how HBO's Watchmen can both remain faithful to the book while moving past its mistakes.
This article contains Watchmen spoilers.
HBO’s Watchmen is the best kind of prestige revival – one that doesn’t try to recreate the success of the original property, but which, instead, builds on its legacy in new and interesting ways. In doing so, the series must also confront the failings of that original, of which Watchmen has several, despite the fact that it was and is a truly groundbreaking genre story.
The television version of Watchmen takes place 34 years after the events of the comic, and though the series still keeps the frisson of existential despair threaded throughout the original, it changes several other key elements, including the primary lens through which we view the story. Here, rather than focusing on a group of damaged and broken men, the series frames its narrative around a pair of powerful female characters in Angela Abar’s Sister Night (Regina King) and former vigilante turned FBI Agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart). In doing so, Watchmen positions itself to directly confront some of the more problematic elements of its own legacy, particularly how the original treated its women.
For many female readers and comic book fans, Watchmen hasn’t always been the most accessible of stories. Whereas the comic is often—and rightly—praised for its gritty, dark and highly original takes on male heroes, the same cannot really be said for its depiction of its female ones. The story is full of sexist tropes and misogynistic underpinnings, frequently killing, torturing or otherwise harming female characters solely to drive story and emotional arcs for its men. These women are generally scantily clad, highly sexualized, and not particularly fleshed out as individuals.
HBO’s take on Watchmen confronts this issue head on by making its main character a complex and capable woman of color who not only serves as our main window into the story, but into what it means to be a hero in this world. Angela Abar is an ex-police officer who, in the wake of a brutal attack by white supremacists, dons a mask and cape to become Sister Night. A talented fighter and intrepid detective in her own right, she also sports what is possibly the most comfortable, sensible costume in superhero television today (it’s difficult to overstate how exciting it feels to see a female costumed hero who appears as though she doesn’t need the assistance of an entire hair and makeup team to get dressed).
Since most superhero stories still tend to focus on the concerns and anxieties of white male heroes from major urban centers, the very idea of a black woman vigilante from flyover country is in and of itself fairly revolutionary. This is even more true in the world of Watchmen. The original comic never addressed racial politics in any significant way and featured few characters of color. That its small screen descendant decides to do from its opening frames feels like an important step forward. As does the fact that it chooses two women to serve as the axis around this story turns – one entirely new creation and one we’ve seen before. Albeit under very different circumstances.
Watchmen’s third episode, “She Was Killed By Space Junk,” introduces Laurie Blake, a modern day update of the original comic’s female lead Laurie Juspeczyk, the second Silk Spectre. There, she seems to exist in large part because traditionally, superhero teams always featured a token girl, whether it was Wonder Woman, Black Canary, Sue Storm, or Jean Grey. But if Laurie herself is meant as an attempt to undercut this trend in some way, the book doesn’t go nearly far enough in that regard. Like most of her teammates, she doesn’t have any particularly special abilities, but unlike her male compatriots her very identity was forced upon her by someone else (her mother). Her primary role in the story is generally to parade around in an uncomfortable, overly revealing costume and serve as a love interest for two different men. To say that Laurie was the most underused and underappreciated character in the bookhardly feels like an exaggeration.
Her presence in the original story is required to—among other things—motivate Doctor Manhattan to save the Earth, but Laurie gets little agency of her own. In fact, her place in the story is almost entirely defined by other people, right up until the very last panel in which she appears (in which you can at least argue that she finally makes a choice that’s just for herself). In her final scene, Laurie tells boyfriend Dan Dreiberg, otherwise known as Nite Owl, that she’s thinking about going to get some guns, indicating that she’s considering completely changing the direction of her life, adopting a new vigilante identity, and forging a new path. But the story of Watchmen ends just as the real story of Laurie Juspeczyk is beginning, and we never find out what that journey might have looked like or who she would have become.
Until now. Sort of.
The decision to turn Watchmen’s most underutilized original character into one of the television revival’s most fascinating leads feels like nothing so much as a necessary course correction we’ve been waiting an awful long time to see. Because Watchmen hasn’t invented a new version of her character from whole cloth – this is Alan Moore’s Laurie, for both good and ill, simply given her rightful chance to shine. Here, Laurie isn’t an afterthought, but a driving force of the story. She’s whip-smart, formidable, funny, angry and more than a bit sad—a world-weary woman full of contradictions and sharp edges, who can and does contain multitudes. This is someone who knows she was overlooked all along in the story of her more famous superhero counterparts, but has become confident enough in the intervening years to claim that fact as a strength rather than a weakness. She made it, after all, when so many of her compatriots did not.
The story that frames her introductory episode, a long joke left via interplanetary voicemail for Dr. Manhattan, sets her character up as the surprise hero of her own tale, a survivor who’s still standing, even when no one else really saw her worth. And it feels as though that’s a role she’s both fought for and achieved on her own terms, though the question of what she’s sacrificed along the way—or whether those choices have made her happy or more fulfilled—is still up for debate. HBO’s ancillary Peteypedia website offers us a few clues, including a transcript of an interview with Laurie following her 1995 arrest, which indicates that her relationship with Dan, the possibility of children, and the truth about Adrian Veidt’s squid plot are just some of the things she’s traded away over the years.
Since the original story of Watchmen, Laurie has certainly undergone significant changes. She’s adopted her father’s last name, and much of his cynical outlook on life and the idea of masked heroism. In doing so, she’s rejected the Silk Spectre identity she never asked to assume anyway, and made an uneasy peace—or perhaps merely a convenient truce—with her father’s legacy. Now, a leader in the FBI’s Anti-Vigilante Task Force, she works to bring down those who are doing the very thing she used to be famous for. That she still has a complicated and uneasy relationship with her own history is evidenced by everything from her home décor to her sexual aids, and her professional persona seems to rely on both people knowing who she used to be, and pretty much never mentioning it at the same time.
Both Angela and Laurie are complex, complicated women with their own baggage and histories, which is part of the reason watching the two of them circle one another onscreen is both so satisfying and so much fun. How often do we get the chance to see two women over 40 presented not just as equals, but as the driving forces behind any series, let alone a superhero show? Female characters may have gotten short shrift in the original Watchmen, but it certainly seems like HBO has (thankfully) learned from that mistake. In this universe, women are afterthoughts no more, and in just four episodes the difference that fact makes already feels incalculable.