Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel (which I guess we still have to call a comic series to indicate we are taking it seriously, in spite of the medium) WATCHMEN is brilliant for a hundred reasons. But one of the biggest, and most pertinent to Damon Lindelof’s new television sequel/adaptation/reboot, is how it handles the answering and raising of questions. The series is built around an overarching mystery plot with a resolution that is both satisfying and surprising, but also only raises more difficult, unanswerable thematic questions while it pays off all the narrative threads dramatically. That is (part of) what makes it a masterpiece, and it is what a younger Lindelof was presumably aiming for with the ending of LOST, while falling woefully short. That show’s attempts to spin esoteric, plot-centric teases about where a particular bear came from, or how a fictional form of radiation affects women’s fertility, into stand-ins for the greater mysteries of creation ultimately felt like a cheap cop out once years of kited narrative checks had come due. But to his credit, Lindelof learns from past mistakes, and if his next series, THE LEFTOVERS, was even more overt about denying the audience the answers it craved, it was also much more successful at baking the grander scale of those questions, and the characters’ terror and anger in the face of their essential unknowability, into the core of the narrative right from the start.
So it is perhaps not surprising that The pilot episode of Lindelof’s WATCHMEN raises so many questions and provides little to no answers. We can dig into various plot threads more as they develop in the weeks to come, but up front the questions I’m most interested in are the broadest and most basic, like what the hell is this thing anyway? Is it a reboot of Zach Snyder’s misguided movie adaptation, which somehow managed to slavishly recreate exact lines and panels and scenes from the comic, while getting the aesthetics so completely wrong as to betray the entire essence of the book? Is it a direct sequel to the comic itself, but in a different medium? Or a prequel for that matter, since it opens over a decade before even the beginning of the backstory of the original Minutemen, which act as a sort of self-contained prequel within the book itself? Is it a THE NEXT GENERATION continuation of the universe with a passing of the torch from the old characters to a new class, a la THE FORCE AWAKENS?
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But whether this is a proper sequel or a reboot or fanfiction or whatever else you want to call it, it was a weird and scary and compelling hour of TV, and that will definitely do for my purposes. In that categorical sense, I would say that the remaining issue that actually needs to be answered is “why is this a WATCHMEN property at all?” I do expect this to become justified in the weeks to come, but there is nothing in the pilot that couldn’t be as well served as an original dystopic sci-fi story. What there is, for fans of the book, is a lot of clever and intriguing inversions of familiar set ups, big and small. The urban jungle of New York has been traded for trailer parks and suburbs of central Oklahoma. Where the original story’s set up included a police strike inspiring an act of Congress forcibly retiring all masked vigilantes, now the cops themselves have taken to concealing their identities behind masks. Whereas the book’s alternate history saw Nixon serving a 5th term in 1985, now he has been succeeded by president Robert Redford (the actor, who the book offhandedly mentions is mulling a run for office) who is entering his own third decade in office. Angela passes a man on the street holding a sign that reads “The Future Is Bright” rather than the iconic “The End Is Nigh” from the comics. Nuclear war as the backdrop threat has been replaced by boiling racial conflict, which presents its own set of more obvious inversions that even the uninitiated can process on their own.
Starting with the silent film opening, which reveals the traditionally white garbed/skinned sheriff to be the real villain and the black clad/skinned pursuer to be the righteous lawman rather than the grim reaper figure he initially cuts, and ending with a black man sitting under a tree where a white lawman has been lynched, the racial scripts are consistently flipped. In an episode with striking sequences to spare – the opening Greenwood massacre, the farm assault (why has no one staged a firefight within a herd of cows before?), and the trippy pod interrogation would all be standout enough to make this an impressive premiere on their own – the one that stands out above the rest is the traffic stop. A contained masterclass in building up both tension and the world of the story, it presents us with enough familiarity to know that for certain that something bad is brewing, but with the details off and inverted enough to keep us unmoored and uncertain in our instinctual sympathies. This guy appears to be a central casting redneck that Hollywood naturally paints as a villain, but he’s also blasting hip hop in his pickup, so maybe there is more going on? And then he is friendly and compliant enough to appear to be the reasonable one when the officer adopts that immediate and familiar aggressive cop tone, but the confusion mounts when we see that the cop is black (and no story that opens with that horrifying race riot is going to immediately switch over to making rural whites the real persecuted victims in the very next scene), and then he is also wearing an unsettling yellow mask to conceal his face. Then he gets back to his car, and we are introduced to the janky protocols for unlocking his gun, which escalates the certainty that something very bad is about to happen while giving just enough time for even the gooiest of liberals to wonder about how suddenly they got to be rooting against a mechanism to prevent a frightened cop from popping off shots at a traffic stop where he got a bad vibe.
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And then of course the bad thing happens, at the precise moment it feels like the danger may be passed. The driver opens fire with a bigger gun and a Rorschach mask on his head, which presents another twist for those familiar with the book. In the original, Rorschach’s vigilantism is depicted as an outlet for his emotionally stunted bigotry and not-subtle fascist leanings. But he is nonetheless at least nominally on the side of the “heroes”, and by virtue of operating as the closest thing the kaleidoscopic narrative has to protagonist, hes also on “our" side as the audience. He’s a sort of Travis Bickle character, who has a real drive to do the right thing that is perverted by being an overt sexist, homophobic, nativist ideologue, and “incel” back in the glorious days before we had that term. So it is not a big leap at all conceptually that he would be adopted as a hero by an insurgent KKK faction in 2019; the character is a favorite of the real-life alt-right already, and the mask does have a Klan-ish sort of look that fits quite well in this context. But it still does give me slight pause that what the iconography of a complex and nuanced, if not really sympathetic, portrait in a complex and nuanced story has now been assigned to the outright baddies on the show. Or really, that the show has set up such capital-V Villains at all.
I will probably backtrack on this pretty quickly in the weeks to come, because taken on its own terms, the Seventh Kavalry are effective antagonists for the pilot. But it does circle back toward the question vis a vis adaptation, of “why is this even WATCHMEN?” There were not really direct plot threads begging to be completed by a sequel, and as noted above this continuation sets itself apart so thoroughly in space, time, medium and subject matter that it would still seem to function equally well as a standalone work. That will probably change as the older versions of Silk Spectre, Ozymandias, Dr. Manhattan and Hooded Justice become more central to the developing plot, but this touches on is a theory I have about adaptations in general. Which is that with any given work, there is usually one or two things that are essential to translate properly to the new medium, and if they are gotten right then you can wander pretty far afield in altering the plot trajectory, changing up character designs or otherwise straying for strict, point by point fidelity to the source material. With superheroes, it is usually the central character; the MCU has free rein to adapt the INFINITY GAUNTLET or CIVIL WAR storylines in incredibly loose ways because the writing and casting nails the essence of Captain America and Iron Man so thoroughly, whereas actually killing Gwen Stacy can’t make up for how wrong the AMAZING SPIDERMAN series gets the core of Peter Parker’s character. With fantasy, it is often a setting; HARRY POTTER and LORD OF THE RINGS work their magic by making Hogwarts and Middle Earth feel like real and inviting environments. With books, it is frequently a tone, which makes adherence to the specific plot of TRAINSPOTTING or FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS a non-issue.
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But what WATCHMEN accomplishes as literature is something that is exceptionally rare, which is genuine polyphony. It is difficult enough to create variety of characters with distinct, conflicting voices in your head, but to render those points of view simultaneously on the page/screen, with all their strengths and flaws authentically exposed but without exposing any thumb on the narrative scales to indicate one as the “correct” stance that conquers all others? That requires an actual master, and it’s a hallmark of some of my very favorite works of fiction. THE WIRE does it amazingly, as does DEADWOOD. It saves Jonathan Franzen books from being endless depressing slogs. It elevated series like GAME OF THRONES and ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK at their best. It’s clear that Lindelof appreciates this quality as well, what with his characteristic aversion to definitive resolutions and LOST’s deliberately shifting character focus, although I’d argue that it still had a tendency to play favorites to an extent. He developed this skill further on THE LEFTOVERS, which gives me hope that this show can still capture that element of the original, even as all this was a very long-winded way of saying that the introduction of such a clear, unambiguous villain force at the outset cuts against the more detached, all-shades-of-gray perspective of the novel, which notably lacked a clearly defined villain until the final chapters. And even then, the villainy is complicated in ways I won’t fully disclose since while I’m obviously not exactly going to avoid talking about the novel here, it would constitute the most major spoiler possible. Seriously, go read the book if you haven’t, it’s incredible.
Anyway, I roamed kind of far afield here, as I am wont to do with first episode reviews since I prefer to let a series develop itself a bit before rendering any firm judgments. I could say more about the plot, or the fantastic turns from Regina King, Tim Blake Nelson and Don Johnson, but there will be eight more weeks to dig into that (give or take a Johnson, I guess). For now, I’ll sign off with some bullet points and idle speculation.
BULLET POINTS AND IDLE SPECULATION
- One other talent Lindelof has been honing for years is employing deadpan absurdity in a way that is both funny and ominous. The rain of tiny squids is the perfect example of something completely bananas that somehow manages to actually ground the strange reality of this world. At least for those who have read the book and have some context for squid-related shenanigans. I imagine those who hadn’t read it thought they must be having a very strange stroke.
- The Kavalry stockpiling old, recalled watch batteries, presumably to make a dirty bomb of some kind, is an interesting wrinkle. Nostalgia is a running motif in the book, in ways both subtle and extremely explicit. And it is a good thematic thread for the show to pick up for the modern day, when so much of our society is choking in it, from the stranglehold that remakes/reboots have on entertainment (which at least tangentially includes the series itself) to the entire political system being hijacked because the doddering ramblings of an aged racist vaguely comfort enough white voters in key counties by evoking a false memory of when they were the end all and be all of American culture.
- It can’t be overstated how much Trent Reznor and Atticus Roth’s pulsing, ominous score contributes to setting the doom-laden tone (or owes to John Carpenter).
- The Greenwood massacre opening is obviously very well-executed, but I was surprised to find I have become somewhat inured to the “bravura one-shot tracking the hero weaving through some intense war zone for minutes on end” sequence. It rocked my socks off in CHILDREN OF MEN, but I guess it’s a sign of how spoiled the golden age of television has made me that the beats of extras getting abruptly shot or blown up as soon as they entered the frame actually felt expected and almost rote instead of shocking. It’s all done extremely well, but despite being a real historical atrocity, the filmmaking just felt familiar, from some of the best episodes of MR. ROBOT and TRUE DETECTIVE, and not one, not two or three, but four of the best GAME OF THRONES-es . In fact, it was the moments of stillness in the Greenwood sequence I found most effective and horrifying. The white men leaning idly on a piano in the street, or the black boy standing silent with a dead baby in his arms.
- The idea of the Tulsa PD as its own gang of vigilantes, with their own distinctive masks to reflect 7K’s own “uniforms”, is going to be interesting to see develop. Only our “hero” characters get their own personalized masks, with King’s Sister Night and Nelson’s Looking Glass getting the most attention, though I expect we’ll get to know the vaguely Russian Red Scare and Judd’s co-pilot Pirate Jenny better soon. But I found most interesting how even Judd, as the chief and only unmasked member of the department, still treated his uniform like a costume that he has to don before performing the more difficult parts of his job.
- So Veidt is making some kind of androids in his country castle? Actual robots seem too close WESTWORLD’s lane, and since he pioneered genetic engineering in the book, I’m guess they are manufactured clones. His “tragedy in five acts” that he wants to have them star in suggests a plot that somehow involves using them to fabricate some new fraud related to Dr. Manhattan who was a “Watchmaker’s Son” before becoming a blue dong-dangling god (look, the novel has a lot of weird comic book shit in it. It's still great).
- There should be a special award for the delivery of the lines "Were there any croutons?/None that I could ascertain."
- I’m also guessing that we will come to learn that Angela’s conspicuously white kids are the adopted orphans of a partner killed in the White Night attacks that drove the police to hid their identities.
- So I reckon Louis Gosset Jr.’s character to be Hooded Justice, the first costumed vigilante in this world who is also the only one whose true identity is not confirmed in the book. This still feels like a major departure from “canon”, as the Greenwood backstory is very different from the identity the comic suggests, of a circus strongman of German descent, while also mirroring Superman’s origin rather directly. This was generally accepted by fans for a long time, on the basis of the book providing no other alternatives, but it was never set in stone, as it is presented as the speculation of Ozymandias, who suspected that he was murdered by the Comedian as revenge for a beating he took when Justice found him sexually assaulting a teammate. This alternative is certainly an interesting avenue for the show to explore, though. Being a black man, orphaned by a racist mob, gives a different context to the hangman’s noose that hung around the neck of his costume, which of course resonates further with the lynching tableau where Angela finds him at the episode’s end. But the main, basically airtight evidence when it comes to superhero identities is how when he speaks to her outside the bakery, his civilian clothes match the purple and red color scheme of the Hooded Justice costume, which an AMERICAN HERO STORY ad on a bus has just helpfully reminded us of.
- What confuses me more is, are we supposed to believe he is responsible for lynching Judd? That would seem to track from the episode opening on him as a child cheering on a masked black crimefighter lassoing a corrupt white sheriff around the neck, not to mention his cryptic comment to Angela about whether she thought he could lift 200 lbs, but I have a hard time squaring away Johnson’s performance with Judd being secretly villainous. Not that white supremacists infiltrating local law enforcement is such a far-fetched prospect in the real world, much less the heightened one of Watchmen, and I suppose his escalating of the conflict by releasing the cops’ guns could be somehow be playing into some master plan. But it just seems like if 7K did already have their own chief installed, there isn’t much need to go to open war with the department, much less for Judd and his wife to commit so fully to their roles as to be best friends with the family of a “straight” black cop, and not betray any inkling of it even when they are alone. It just seems like there is more risk than potential reward in that, not to mention the whole thing where he killed multiple Kavalry members with an airship-mounted flamethrower. No, right now my guess for the mole in the department (there has to be one, right?) is Red Scare.