This Watchmen review contains spoilers.
Watchmen Episode 1
HBO’s Watchmen is a TV show, not a 10th grade essay – it doesn’t owe us a thesis statement. Still Watchmen episode 1 is nice enough to open its very first hour with a thesis statement of sorts all the same.
The first thing we see is the familiar bold and yellow Watchmen logo, only this time crackling on celluloid and flashing within the light of a projector. Then we watch a silent film about the exploits of Bass Reeves, The Black Sheriff Marshall of Oklahoma. After Bass Reeves lassos up some small frontier town’s corrupt sheriff, the white citizenry onscreen is confused but the only member of the audience, a black child, is riveted. He speaks aloud Bass’s written dialogue on the screen and in the process articulates what is sure to be Watchmen’s thesis statement with the show’s first ever line.
“Trust in the law, there’ll be no mob justice today.”
Outside the theater, the law and the mob alike have conspired to destroy a peaceful and prosperous black neighborhood. It’s Tulsa 1921 and Watchmen, yes, the show based on the book about God having a blue penis (among some other themes and plot points), is opening with the grim, terrifying real life story of the Black Wall Street Massacre, in which dozens of innocent black Americans were killed and an entire community was wiped off the map.
Welcome to 2019’s Watchmen. This ain’t your uncle Alan Moore’ Watchmen, though it very well could have been if Alan Moore were born in Teaneck New Jersey in 1973, grew up a Yankees fan, and then happened to stumble into one of the most important genre TV shows ever because one soon-to-be-fired executive at ABC wanted to make “Castaway: The TV Show.”
In one scene, Lost creator and Watchmen showrunner Damon Lindelof does the impossible. He, the writers, actors, editors, and everyone else involved makes the series feel like a vital part of our current cultural conversation, and not just the cynical corporate keyword mining that it also surely is.
As stated over and over again on this website and pretty much every other location where digital ink spills out from IP addresses, a Watchmen TV show probably shouldn’t exist. The original graphic novel from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is too singular and iconic to ever be redone, remixed, rebooted, or re-whatever it is that Lindelof and HBO mean to do here. So the best thing that the show does in its first hour is to not even bother trying.
Instead, Watchmen channels the original spirit of Alan Moore’s words and Dave Gibbons’ illustrations in its own language. In Watchmen episode 1 that language is saying, “trust in the law, there’ll be no mob justice today,” and daring us to believe it, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Like the first couple of issues of the graphic novel before it, this first “issue” of Watchmen understands the value of airdropping of a reader or viewer into a brand new, richly realized world and letting them explore the new environment on their own. There is no hand holding here from the Tulsa 1921 opener to the Tulsa present day moment that immediately follows it – a scene in which a black police officer pulls over a suspected white supremacist (with both driving electric cars in a nod to the original, no less) takes the unbelievable tension of the opening minutes and somehow finds a way to ratchet it up.
The viewer is able to learn the “rules” of this world on the fly and in the process doesn’t lose one bead of sweaty tension that the characters involved experience. We learn that a Rorschach mask is bad news and that police must have the department remotely unlock their guns to be used in the field. It’s not only a tense, brilliantly crafted tableau but also an uncomfortable inversion of the reality that we’re familiar with. In our world, the roles of the two men involved in this little danse macabre are likely reversed. Watchmen requires a lot of trust in the viewer right off the bat two scenes in a row that there’s a meaning to this inversion, even if the pilot doesn’t fully pay it off yet.
In fact, all of this first hour of Watchmen, titled “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” requires an uncommonly strong bond of trust between creator and viewer. Jettisoning the audience directly into this world with little guidance is almost certainly the correct artistic choice. The episode feels like the beginning of something big and something real because of it. But in real world terms, it’s also a seemingly risky or even dangerous decision. Viewers have to trust that the show knows what it’s doing and where it is going but the show also has to trust that there won’t be a deluge of orders on Amazon of canvas sacks for creeps who want to make their own Rorschach masks because it looks cool.
It’s not clear what conclusions Watchmen wants us to draw yet in this hour and that’s fine as the time for conclusions will come later. Now is the time for world building. Granted, for as much world building as “It’s Summer…” has to sneakily establish, the story of the episode is relatively straightforward on its (smiley) face. After those two bold opening scenes, Watchmen settles in for a slightly more conventional story structure as our “hero” or perhaps just “eyes and ears” Angela Abar (Regina King) is introduced.
Angela teaching her son Topher’s class how to make banh bia is a helpful way for the show to fill out its world. In this little vignette alone we learn that Vietnam remains an American state just like it was in Moore’s comic. We also learn that President Robert Redford has enjoyed a Nixonian extended term in office and even introduced something known as “Redfordations” a.k.a. “Redford Reparations.” Even the scene in the car after Topher attacks some brat for asking about Redfordations introduces another helpful bit of Watchmen world building with the introduction of squid showers. The squid is back! Sort of. It seems as though the world is experimenting some long-term environmental effects from Adrian Veidt’s master plan.
But after that Abar family introduction (including the perfect husband Cal Abar) is through, the basic thrust of the episode is simply Angela getting back on her bullshit – that is to say throwing back on a mask and cracking some racist skulls. The murder of a police officer at the hands of the Kavalry is clearly the inciting event for the story to come on Watchmen. It takes us from the precinct in which all cops wear yellow masks, save for too-beautiful-for-this-world administrator “Panda,” to a threatening message from the Seventh Kavalry about gutters overflowing with “liberal tears,” to police chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) essentially declaring war on the Kavalry once again.
Through it all there are plenty of thrilling moments for Watchmen fans and uninitiated alike. Crucial Watchmen Easter eggs include advertisements for a Minute Men TV miniseries (which is probably what most people feared this version of Watchmen would be), a brief news report about Dr. Manhattan on Mars, and even an old friend celebrating a nice anniversary with his two uncommonly subservient servants in an English manor. Yes, Jeremy Irons’ character still doesn’t have a name yet but like…come on. It surely begins with “Ozy” and ends in “mandias.”
Still, you don’t have to be a fan to appreciate something like Detective Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) having the world’s strangest interrogation with a suspected domestic terrorist while Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor’s excellent score blares. Nor does one need to know every detail of Tales of the Black Freighter to appreciate exciting assault on the Seventh Kavalry’s stash house, which pilot director Nicole Kassell says came to be known on set as the “cattle battle.” And what a cattle battle it is, indeed, with many noble steers losing their life but with Angela, Judd, Pirate Jenny, and a suspiciously Archie-looking ship kicking some Rorschach mask ass.
“It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” does such a marvelous job of balancing all the necessary pilot conventions of a TV show without making them feel conventional or even noticeable. Mostly this first hour of Watchmen just feels iconic, from its incredible opening scene all the way through to Judd Crawford’s blood dripping onto a sheriff’s badge.
At first glance, Watchmen isn’t so much a show as it is television myth making. The world is built, the stakes are set, and Watchmen has all the tools on hand to create something truly special.