This Watchmen review contains spoilers.
Watchmen Episode 2
Watchmen is the mystery box that J.J. Abrams always talks about.
Back when Abrams and Watchmen showrunner Damon Lindelof developed Lost together for ABC, Abrams’ reputation for a “mystery box” style of storytelling latched onto Lindelof in the public consciousness. That’s not necessarily a curse for Lindelof as there are far worse people to have your storytelling brand associated with than J.J. “I Freaking Did Star Wars” Abrams. That doesn’t mean the branding of Lindelof as the mystery guy was a perfect fit.
Lost certainly had a mystery at play, dozens of them in fact, but the show under Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s stewardship was just as interested in Jack’s daddy issues and Hurley’s golfing skills as it was with what was in the Hatch. Lindelof’s followup The Leftovers took things a step further. The show was adamant that the mystery of the Sudden Departure would never be solved. The point of the show, both for the characters and viewers experiencing it, is that we need to learn how to live without answers. If life can’t give us answers, then a TV show sure as hell can’t either. The Leftovers season 2 theme song even seemed to gently taunt the very concept of mystery box storytelling with a folksy twang of “let the mystery be.”
Now here we are two episodes into HBO’s Watchmen, and the myth of Damon Lindelof’s Abramsian mystery box storytelling has lingered long enough that it’s eventually become true. Watchmen seems to be “about” a lot of things: the mutable nature of the past, our country’s shameful racist history, and so on. But in purely mechanical terms, this is a mystery. There’s a mystery box juuuuust over there at the end of these here nine episodes and holy hell do we ever want to open it. In the long run, that might make episodes like “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship” feel inessential on second viewing, but in the present it also makes it an efficient narrative machine of dopamine distribution.
At some point during “Marital Feats of Comanche Horsemanship (so named for a painting at the Crawford residence)” I wrote down in my notes “WHAT A GIFT EVERY SCENE OF THIS SHOW IS.” While “Martial Feats” feels less cohesive and complete a story as Watchmen’s premiere, it makes up it in all these perfectly intriguing little scenes and moments that just radiate with the joy of discovery.
Once again Watchmen opens up with a baffling prologue to the distant past. A World War I era German officer asks for typist Fraulein Mueller because she knows English. He immediately dictates a message to the black American soldiers in the European countryside.
“Hello boys. What are you doing over here? Have the Germans ever done you any harm? But I ask you boys, what is democracy? Do you enjoy the same rights as white people in America?”
Do they indeed? The show almost immediately answers that question when a white American soldier spits on the father of the man who we soon learn is named Will (Louis Gossett Jr.).
Will’s father was a soldier in Europe and took home one of those German pamphlets upon which he would eventually write “Watch Over This Boy.” The scene brilliantly melds into the present where Angela must deal with not only the sudden death of her friend Judd Crawford but also the equally sudden appearance of this ancient man. Angela undershoots it when she guesses he’s 90; he’s really 105. Angela takes Will to Milk and Hanoi (is Megan Amram from The Good Place getting residuals on this food pun?) where she handcuffs him to a rod.
“Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship” does so well with its flashback scenes. Too many flashbacks run the risk of interrupting the rhythm of the story but at the same time, nonlinear storytelling has always been an integral part of the Watchmen experience. It’s hard to fully articulate the story of a world so big and richly realized without some clock manipulation. The WWI flashback sets the tone of the episode beautifully and then another, more recent flashback helps make the current political state of affairs make more sense.
So, the White Night was pretty brutal huh? Now it seems clear why Tulsa PD calls it the White Night. Not only is it a kind of cheeky perversion of the racist concept of “white flight,” but the Seventh Kavalry enacted their horrific plan right at the stroke of midnight on Christmas. Angela and Cal are dancing in their living room, disgustingly perfect couple that they are, when masked Rorschach thugs break in and attack them. Angela is shot and loses consciousness. When she comes to it’s Judd who greets her at the hospital.
That’s not just the beginning of Angela and Judd’s friendship, it’s the beginning of…well, everything to Angela. Very few police officers survived the massacre and those who did don’t want to go back to work with the Kavalry still out there. It’s up to Judd and Angela to rebuild the department with the help of some anonymity that masks afford.
The White Night is also how Cal and Angela come to foster Topher, Rosie, and Emma. Their father (and Angela’s partner) Doyle was killed and their mother was traumatized during the attack on their home. “She sounded completely fine even though I know she’s not,” Cal later says of Jenny when he speaks to her on the phone. The kids’ grandfather, played by the supremely overqualified Jim Beaver, is also unhappy with the current state of affairs. “Must be satisfying putting those Redfordations to work,” he says…you know, like a racist.
It’s pretty incredible the fashion in which Watchmen is able to delve out useful backstory so efficiently. The difficulty in doing so is high given how strange and foreign the history of this world is. But not only is Watchmen able to do so, it’s able to do so in a way that fits into its mystery box storytelling. Yes, every scene is a little gift.
Equally as effective as the flashbacks are Watchmen’s diversions from the “main” story in Oklahoma…or “flash sideways” to borrow a term from Lost. One of the (many, many) keys to the original Watchmen’s success was the inclusion of Tales from the Black Freighter, the dark pirate comic who pages unfurled alongside the story of Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, and everyone else.
This version of Watchmen doesn’t have a Tales from the Black Freighter, but it does have Jeremy Irons living inside what appears to be a Victorian Looney Tunes episode. The saga of Jeremy “Almost Certainly Adrian Veidt” Irons will likely intersect with the main story at some point and be more than just a Black Freighter style supplement. But for now it’s both an enjoyable diversion of the main story and a sort of meta commentary on it.
The Watchmaker’s Son is a hell of a play as it turns out. MaybeVeidt is so dedicated to truth in storytelling that Mr. Philips is incinerated to death when playing Jon Osterman’s fateful trip back into the particle lab to retrieve his watch. The play not only serves a helpful introduction to Watchmen lore for the uninitiated, it also confirms once and for all that there is something very off about the world of MaybeVeidt is very wrong.
Mr. Philips and Ms. Crookshanks are apparently clones. When one Mr. Philips bites the fiery dust, another identical servant gets to take over the role. Like much of the rest of Watchmen so far, it’s hard to fully judge what the show is pulling off here because we still don’t know the particulars. Also like much of Watchmen so far, the concept is just unfailingly cool. And not for nothing, but we finally get our first blue dong sighting thanks to a Philips clone playing the fully ascended Dr. Manhattan.
The more likely choice for a Black Freighter analogue is the TV miniseries about the Minutemen, American Hero Story. The much advertised and much hyped show-within-a-show begins its run this week. Before viewers can see the legendary story of the time Hooded Justice beat up some criminals at a grocery store, they are subjected to a lengthy “viewer discretion advised” spiel. American Hero Story is rated X for….well, everything: sexual assault, homophobia, racism, misogyny, the whole nine yards.
To the casual viewer just floating into the Watchmen universe this is another example of how the show could be interpreted about a dystopian liberal world run amok. Hollywood commie Robert Redford is President, all TV shows have lengthy trigger warnings, and those poor white people at the Nixonville trailer park are being harassed by the “diverse” police force. I mentioned last week that Watchmen is something of an extended trust exercise between creator and audience. The audience must trust that Watchmen knows what it’s doing and the creator must trust that…the audience knows what its doing as well, like in a general “get your shit together” life kind of sense. The audience has to be savvy enough to know that Watchmen almost certainly isn’t arguing that Nixonites are heroes. It’s not arguing much at all at the moment. It’s still just filling out the details of this endlessly fascinating, and meaningfully different world.
Back in the present, away from all the MaybeVeidt diversions, hero miniseries, and WWI flashbacks, Watchmen continues to set up that fascinating world. Save for the opening Tulsa 1921 prologue (which the show will likely never top), Angela’s trip to the Greenwood Center for Cultural Heritage is one of the coolest bits of world building the show has done yet. The mind traps for a better word than “cool” but how else are we describe a moment in which Angela is able to check the details of her family tree with the help of automated U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Louis Gates Jr.? Finding Your Roots, indeed, my man.
The existence of the center along with the angry white demonstrators outside once again reveals that something is seriously amiss in this weird world. America has seemingly acknowledged its terrifying racist past. Reparations are being made. Hollywood is in charge. Then why is everyone still so upset? Perhaps we’re just wired for misery. Or perhaps the rot at the core of American society goes deeper than anyone realized.
One thing is for sure, however, and that’s that Angela has discovered her grandfather. Yes, with the help of Mr. Gates Jr., Angela now knows that she comes from Will’s family tree. The reveal comes at an apt moment late in the episode, shortly after Will has somehow shed his handcuffs to hardball some eggs, but also at an appropriate time in Angela’s life.
Angela just lost a friend and father figure. Not only that, but given the hooded skeleton in Judd’s closet, she may have never had a friend and father figure in Judd. But what does it mean? What does this one want? What does absolutely anything mean in this barely comprehensible universe?
Watchmen is all questions right now. Good questions. Great questions. The kind of questions you can build a whole show and universe out of…for a time. This is an exhilarating and enriching TV watching experience at the moment. But, as your local J.J. Abrams can tell you, at some point you have to open the damn box. Will Watchmen’s reveals carry the same level of satisfaction as all the set up? I don’t know. Can cars fly? Angela’s does this week.