This article contains nothing but spoilers for the first episode of HBO’s Watchmen. We have a completely spoiler free review right here.
HBO’s Watchmen is a sequel to the classic comic book story by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. That’s right, it’s a sequel, not an adaptation of the original work. And yes, you’ll note that we said it’s a sequel to the book and not Zack Snyder’s movie, which was faithful to the broad strokes of the book save for a handful of details.
While Watchmen isn’t the most sprawling superhero universe in comics by any stretch, it’s one rich in comic book mythology, commenting on the superhero genre as a whole while engaging in some incredibly detailed worldbuilding. HBO’s Watchmen moves the story from 1985 to 2019, offers echoes of the comic that inspired it whenever and wherever possible, and has hints that more familiar Watchmen characters could appear in the near future. These are compiled both from our own observations and secrets gleaned from HBO’s “Peteypedia” supplemental materials for the show.
The Tulsa Massacre and Bass Reeves
– The episode is called “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” a line from “Poor Jud is Daid” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!.
– The episode opens on a moment from history that seems like it should be fiction, but it wasn’t. The Black Wall Street Massacre of 1921 took place in Tulsa from May 31 to June 1 and killed hundreds of African-Americans. “When I first heard about the massacre of Black Wall Street in Tulsa of ’21 I couldn’t believe that I was a grown adult and I’d never ever heard about it before,” Watchmen executive producer and writer Damon Lindelof tells us. “And the more I researched it, the more I was just shocked and embarrassed that I didn’t know anything.”
Even the moments in this that seem like they might be “amplified” for this show, such as planes dropping dynamite on black businesses, are from the historical record. We have more info on that here.
– The hero of the silent film (which is called Trust in the Law!) the young boy is watching is Bass Reeves, a real historical figure who was the first deputy black marshall of America’s west. He notched over 3,000 arrests in his lifetime, and HBO announced a few years back that they were developing a miniseries based on his life.
Interestingly, Bass Reeves in his “disguise” here looks quite a bit like Hooded Justice from the Minutemen. We see Hooded Justice later in the episode as part of the “American Hero Story: Minutemen” advertisements, a documentary series about the original masked adventurers in the Watchmen world.
– The Reeves of the silver screen tells the angry lynch mob that there will be “no mob justice today, trust in the law.” This echoes the concerns about masked vigilantes that led to the passing of the Keene Act in the Watchmen world in 1977, where a police strike led to the outlawing of superheroic activity. But it also echoes the themes of this show, where police are now sanctioned to wear masks and keep secret identities. Also, it may be coincidental, but in Superman #1 (1939) one of the Man of Steel’s very first acts is to bust up a lynch mob who have broken into a prison.
– The young boy being sent away as Black Wall Street is being destroyed feel quite a bit like Jor-El and Lara sending young Kal-El away from Krypton in the Superman mythos. In some versions of that story, Jor-El intended for the rocket that carries Kal-El to Earth to also hold Lara, but there was only room for the baby. Even the “look after this boy” note feels like a particular version of the Superman origin story, Elliot S! Maggin’s Superman: Last Son of Krypton, where Jor-El sent a telepathic device to explain to potential foster parents the importance of the child they would find. This was no accident.
“The other thing about what happened in Tulsa ’21, it felt like it was very similar to what the way that a lot of superhero stories or comic book storytelling starts, which is it’s the destruction of the world that you know,” Lindelof says. “This felt a lot like Krypton or Bruce Wayne losing his parents. So to take an actual real world historical event and use that iconic sort of mythological comic book storytelling at the same time…because if you’re giving an audience vegetables, they’ll push them to the side of the plate. It has to feel like it’s as delicious as the rest of the meal. And more importantly, I think the more that the season goes on, more pivotal we’ll see Tulsa ’21 was to our storytelling.”
– When we arrive in the present day, you can see the truck driver is driving an electric vehicle. While hybrid and electric cars are no longer the stuff of science fiction in our world, in Watchmen, they were commonplace as early (if not earlier) than 1985, thanks in part to scientific advances brought on by the arrival of Dr. Manhattan.
– Watchmen stories always seem to take place in the fall, and this one begins on Sept. 8. The original comic takes place in the month of October. DC Comics’ print sequel, Doomsday Clock, takes place in November.
– The “good guy” lawman getting “bad news” while attending a theater production is a common trope in both regular law enforcement and superheroic comic book storytelling. You could easily see this scene playing out the same way if Don Johnson was playing, say, Dick Tracy for example.
I’m unfortunately not as fluent in the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein as I am in Moore and Gibbons, so most of the Oklahoma! significance is lost on me at the moment. Feel free to offer your own analysis in the comments.
– The concept of police keeping secret identities and wearing masks is explored throughout this show, but it’s a notable shift in policy from the comic book, where masked vigilantes were outlawed by the Keene Act, passed in 1977 after a police strike and violent riots. Later in the episode you can hear about Senator Joe Keene, Jr. during a radio broadcast, who we’ll see more of in future episodes.
– When you see Regina King’s Angela Abar cracking eggs in the classroom, one of the yolks has blood in it, at roughly the same angle as the bloodstain pattern on the Comedian’s badge in the comic book. The yolks also briefly make a smiley face that recalls that same Comedian badge.
President Robert Redford
– In the classroom, you can see photos of four important Presidents to this world: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Nixon (who in the world of Watchmen, not only never resigned in disgrace, but served multiple terms, well into the 1980s), and current President Robert Redford.
Redford’s candidacy for President was hinted at the end of the original comic, as someone who was likely to challenge Nixon in the upcoming election. In Doomsday Clock, which begins in 1992, he is already in office, and he’s still serving in the 2019 of HBO’s Watchmen. He’s currently in his 7th term, and apparently will not seek an eighth.
The “squid showers” everyone periodically endures appear to be an after effect of Adrian Veidt’s grand plan to avert nuclear Armageddon in the original Watchmen, in which he genetically engineered a psychic entity to simulate an alien attack and thus unite the world’s governments against a perceived common threat. The fact that squid showers are taking place confirms that this is a sequel to the book and not the squid-less 2009 movie version of the story. These have apparently been going in since the original incident in 1985 (and it turns out the giant squid from the end of the book also “evaporated” shortly after its arrival, as these fetal squid do on the show). As a result, there are public servants devoted to cleaning them up, squid anatomy posters to be in classrooms, and people to be formulating conspiracy theories about them in the press.
And while we’re on the subject of Adrian Veidt…
– Despite a newspaper headline that says “Veidt Declared Dead” it sure does appear that the mysterious “Lord of a Country Manor” played by Jeremy Irons is Adrian Veidt, doesn’t it? The colors he wears echo Veidt’s Ozymandias costume, and he seems to be the appropriate age that Veidt would be in 2019. Veidt has been missing in this world for seven years, according to HBO’s official supplemental materials for the show, which present the above newspaper article in full. It’s worth pointing out that in DC’s Doomsday Clock, Veidt departs the Watchmen reality for the DC Universe in 1992 in an attempt to find Dr. Manhattan.
– Veidt…ahem, I mean “the mysterious gentleman played by Jeremy Irons” is working on a play for his servants, “The Watchmaker’s Son.” That can only be a reference to Jon Osterman, better known by his glowing blue naked form as Dr. Manhattan. Osterman was indeed the son of a watchmaker.
This may not be important to anything, but in the background of the mysterious gentleman’s dining room is a Spartan war helmet. Veidt always did love ancient civilizations…
Sister Night and the Police
– Detective Angela Abar is Sister Night, personifying the idea that police in this world now must hide their regular lives behind, not just masks, but superheroic identities. And no, your eyes do not deceive you, this badass superhero’s look appears to be based on a nun. Why a nun? The Watchmen team ain’t saying just yet. Watchmen executive producer and director Nicole Kassell promises us that “you will learn that as you continue to watch… it’s not going to remain a mystery.”
– Other supercops include those with the equally on-the-nose codenames of Pirate Jenny and Red Scare. Pirate Jenny is a nod to how in the Watchmen universe, comic book superheroes never really caught on, since there were real ones making headlines every day. Instead, pirate comics became the dominant pop cultural force. The most significant of these is Tim Blake Nelson’s Det. Looking Glass, whose creepy full-face mask and Rorschach-esque monotone during interrogations are sure to make him a fan favorite. We have more on Looking Glass right here.
The Latin call and response that ends Judd’s meeting with the police comes from Roman poet Juvenal’s Satires. It’s essentially “who watches the watchers” or “who will watch the watchmen.” The response seems to be “the watchmen.” As in “we take care of our own.”
– There’s a red phone on Judd’s desk, which may or may not be a little nod to the 1966 Batman TV series. Then again, sometimes a red phone is just a red phone. But there’s also a copy of Under the Hood by Hollis Mason. Under the Hood was the autobiography of the original Nite Owl, several chapters of which are “excerpted” in the Watchmen graphic novel.
– The beating administered to the 7th Cavalry suspect behind closed doors is reminiscent of the jailbreak scene in the Watchmen book, where Rorschach excuses himself to the bathroom to take out an enemy. We don’t see the action, only the blood seeping out from under the door.
– Angela calling her bakery “Milk and Hanoi” is perhaps a reference to how much Vietnamese culture has been integrated into American life in the world of Watchmen. Here, the US won the Vietnam War and eventually annexed Vietnam as the 51st state.
Oh, and the code to enter that secret room in the bakery? 1985. The year the book took place in, and also the year the squid killed millions in New York City.
– Angela walks past a man carrying a “The Future is Bright” sign. Walter Kovacs used to walk around with a “The End is Nigh” sign when he wasn’t wearing a mask, trenchcoat, and fedora and issuing brutal justice as Rorschach.
Rorschach and the 7th Kavalry
– Speaking of Rorschach, he is the inspiration for the 7th Kavalry, a reactionary, right-wing group of white supremacists here who have adopted his mask and mode of speech. The end of the Watchmen book saw Rorschach mail his journal off to his favorite conservative publication, the New Frontiersman. It turns out that they did indeed publish excerpts from the book, but New Frontiersman had about as much credibility in that world as InfoWars does here, so nobody believed it…except for paranoid, racist kooks. Wow, this show IS realistic!
Of course, there is also a real Army regiment called the 7th Cavalry, one that was commanded by General George A. Custer, hence the “Little Big Horn” pager messages to report 7th Kavalry activity. It might also explain the whole “last stand” mentality and why these guys are so ready to die rather than get captured.
The suicide by poison pill of that one 7th Kavalry member does seem to have echoes of the (staged) assassination attempt on Adrian Veidt in the Watchmen book, right down to Angela trying to beat that pill right out of his head.
– The area of Tulsa with the highest concentration of white supremacists is known as “Nixonville.” Nixon had some troubling views on race that have been recently compounded and brought back to light by the audio of an awful phone call between him and then-future President Ronald Reagan.
– In the 7th Kavalry hideout, where they’re harvesting watch batteries for some nefarious purpose, there’s a poster featuring Minutemen hero Dollar Bill. Dollar Bill was an extremely minor character in the original Watchmen book, a college athlete from Kansas who was recruited by a bank chain to be their very own superhero, in what was essentially a glorified PR stunt. He died while trying to stop a bank robbery when his cape got caught in the revolving doors and he was shot to death. The poster in question is a racist depiction of a white hero (Dollar Bill) beating up on a cartoonish black criminal.
– The idea that the 7th Kavalry are harvesting watch batteries to create some kind of “cancer bomb” plays with how Doctor Manhattan’s presence was linked with cancer in people who associated with him in the book. As it was revealed by HBO’s supplemental materials for the series, specifically the FBI memo “The Computer and You,” anything that was considered “Manhattan tech” is also considered a cancer risk, and hence discontinued. This was a smear on Doctor Manhattan by Adrian Veidt as part of his broader plan to bring about world peace by any means necessary.
– The police apparently use the same technology for their aerial vehicles as the second Nite Owl’s ARCHIE Owlships, right down to the pushbutton operating system for weaponry like an aerial flamethrower. Considering that Dreiberg went into hiding at the end of the original Watchmen with a new identity, it’s not clear how local police forces would have ended up with this kind of hardware, but it turns out that Dreiberg and Laurie Blake were busted in 1995 for violating the Keene Act.
– Judd’s incongruous “you ok?” followed by everyone sharing a laugh as the camera tilts up to the sky faintly echoes Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk laughing at a dark joke at Rorschach’s expense in the first chapter of the Watchmen book.
– They even manage to squeeze in “Unforgettable” (the Dinah Washington version) which was the commercial jingle used to sell Adrian Veidt’s “Nostalgia” perfume line in the book. Yes, it was also used in the movie, but we won’t hold that against it.
– The episode ends with a drop of blood on Judd’s badge, echoing the “minutes to midnight” blood pattern on the Comedian’s badge from the first issue of the original Watchmen.