This Watchmen review contains no spoilers.
Watchmen Episode 1
A Watchmen TV show probably shouldn’t exist.
The classic graphic novel from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is too iconic, too influential, and too good to have a second life as the “Watchmen Extended Universe (WEU, to be pronounced “Weeeee-ooooooo”)” or whatever the powers that be decide to call it. And no one understands that a Watchmen TV show shouldn’t have happened more acutely than the person who eventually ensured it did.
“I went off and asked myself, ‘Is there any reason that Watchmen needs to exist as a television series?’” Watchmen showrunner Damon Lindelof told Den of Geek earlier this month. “And if it existed, as a fan, what would I want to see?”
Based on Watchmen episode 1 “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” what Lindelof, the creator of Lost and The Leftovers, wants to see out of a Watchmen series just might be the best possible case for any Watchmen continuation on television – or in any other medium for that matter.
The series is set in modern day Tulsa, Oklahoma but in Watchmen’s version of modern day Oklahoma. That is to say that the alternative history that began with the introduction of masked vigilantes in the ‘40s, continues past the events of Watchmen in the ’80s, all the way through to the strange present of HBO’s show. In this Tulsa, cops wear masks to protect their identity from the Seventh Kavalry, a group of white supremacist terrorists who adopt both the mask and gravely voiced theatrics of erstwhile Watchmen “hero” Rorschach. Just like in the graphic novel, electric cars are the norm, and just like in DC Comics’ Watchmen sequel Doomsday Clock, Robert Redford is President.
Also like the early issues of original comic, this first installment of Watchmen introduces intriguing, believable characters. Angela Abar (Regina King) is a secret officer of the law who keeps a shotgun in her headboard and wants to protect her family. That family includes the amazingly likable Cal Abar (played by the amazingly likable Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and their two kids. Meanwhile on the side of the law are also Don Johnson as the gregarious yet weirdly sinister Judd Crawford and Tim Blake Nelson, fantastic as always, sporting a costume that’s among TV superherodom’s coolest looks.
Beyond just slick costuming, however, Watchmen’s key to success is its confidence and clarity of vision. “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” begins with a sequence in America’s not-distant-enough past that is abjectly terrifying and a purely Watchmen-ian take on the superhero origin story. Details of the opening scene have begun to trickle out via interviews with Lindelof and the cast, but blessed be those who are able to go into Watchmen’s unsettling first act unspoiled. The opening is somehow completely unrelated to the Watchmen mythos while feeling irreversibly tied to its soul.
In fact, that’s how most of Watchmen’s first hour feels. The show succeeds in capturing the essence of Watchmen by almost completely ignoring the particulars of Watchmen. Episode 1 should be pleasantly disorienting for Watchmen fans and Watchmen newbies alike. Several characters from the graphic novel will eventually join the series but save for an enigmatic “Lord of a British Manor” played by Jeremy Irons, none appear in the flesh in episode 1. Instead, Watchmen uses its running time to establish the particulars of the world and begin to present new themes and a consistent tone.
The political climate of the show is somehow both reminiscent of and completely unrecognizable from our own. In assessing what to do with a Watchmen TV series Lindelof has said he asked himself what would the modern day equivalent of the Cold War be in terms of social influence. The conclusion that he came to (after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations”) is the ugly intersection of race and policing.
That relationship plays out in fascinating, uncomfortable ways in the pilot. The police force of Tulsa is largely made up of black Americans, including masked crime fighter Angela, and a whole host of other yellow-masked beat cops, mostly of color. The domestic terrorists and therefore target of extrajudicial policing are exclusively white.
The end result for episode 1 is a story presented from an alternate reality in which the structures of white supremacy seem to be on a different side of the law than we’ve come to expect. That presentation of policing and domestic terrorism is surely set to evolve, and Lindelof has urged viewers not to draw conclusions on the show’s point of view until the series’ nine episodes have wrapped. Still, with those ill-defined battle lines, the Watchmen pilot carries the same level of moral ambiguity and moral complexity that made the original so timeless. It’s not immediately clear who is a protagonist, who is an antagonist, or if the concept of either even exists in this universe…so, you know: Watchmen.
That’s truly the defining achievement of this first hour of the show. There’s a sense of real danger in its storytelling. By incorporating the deeply entrenched roots of America’s racist past, present, and future, and running it through Alan Moore’s brand of chaos magick anarchic wizardry, Watchmen puts on a new mask but the face behind it remains the same.