By Andrew A. Smith
Tribune Content Agency
Oct. 24. 2019 -- Watchmen arrived on HBO Oct. 20, to rave reviews, viewer excitement and … well, honestly, a lot of anxious confusion. Let’s deal with that.
For those living under a rock for the last 33 years, Watchmen was a 12-issue comic book series published by DC Comics in 1986. Based on a line of C-list superheroes that DC had just purchased, the series explored the ramifications of superheroes had they really existed – how police and government agencies would react, what sort of people would become superheroes or villains, and so forth. Plus there was a crackerjack story, involving a murder mystery, the Cold War, clockworks, Mars, the Manhattan Project, insanity, erectile dysfunction, genetic engineering and a giant, telepathic squid that materialized in New York City. And, honestly, I’m just scratching the surface here.
Written by the legendary Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, etc.) and drawn by the almost legendary Dave Gibbons (Green Lantern, Dan Dare), it was a commercial and critical hit that is still in print – and in demand – today in graphic novel form. (If you haven’t read it, go read it. Right now.)
DC Comics has published prequels (a series of “Before Watchmen” miniseries and one-shots) and one sequel (Doomsday Clock), and Zack Snyder of Batman v Superman infamy directed a so-so movie adaptation in 2009. Alan Moore was involved in none of that – famously, he hates adaptations of his work – so the original stands alone as a monument to the power and potential of comic books, by one of its few, true geniuses in the field.
And now it’s a prestige TV show, airing on Sunday nights on HBO. It’s being showrun – if that’s the right verb – by Damon Lindelof, whose work on Lost and The Leftovers gives him a lot of street cred with me. (The only other showrunner I’d trust with the property is Noah Hawley, of Fargo and Legion fame.)
Watchmen began with this cover on issue #1 in 1986, which was also the first panel of the story, depicting the happy-face symbol of amoral “superhero” The Comedian in a gutter running with blood.
The premiere episode came at the viewer hard and fast, and didn’t explain much. So allow me to do so:
Thirty Years Later: Lindelof wisely leaves the original Watchmen events intact and untouched in 1986, a year and an era to which they are inextricably linked. This show takes place in the present, but the effects of the original book are everywhere you look.
In politics, Richard Nixon never resigned because Woodward and Bernstein were assassinated. Nixon then won the Vietnam War by sending Dr. Manhattan – the only character with actual super-powers – to defeat the Viet Cong single-handedly. Vietnam then became the 51st state, and a grateful nation rescinded term limits on the presidency. He served probably until 1992, and a picture in the premiere indicates his face has been carved into Mt. Rushmore.
Nixon was succeeded by Robert Redford, who is still in office. The former actor has instituted a number of items from the liberal wish list, such as strict gun control and reparations (“Redfordations”) for black Americans. A right-wing backlash has resulted, notably represented by the Seventh Kavalry (after the outfit once run by Gen. Custer), a KKK-like group who have traded in their white hoods for a mask based on a fascistic Watchmen character, the objectivist Rorschach.
Superheroes were outlawed in the original graphic novel in 1977 by the Keene Act (a politico named Joe Keene Jr. gets name-dropped in the premiere), and are still illegal in 2019. But now uniformed police wear masks, and detectives dress up as superheroes. This is the result of an event only mentioned so far, but not seen: the “White Night,” where police families were targeted for assassination.
Luddites Return: The giant squid attack (seriously, go read the book) resulted in a backlash to technology, because people thought it had come from another dimension using phone lines, television signals or similar. So there are no cell phones or Internet in Watchmen. In fact, all tech has been hobbled.
The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921: The first scene of the debut episode opens with a lot of white Oklahomans killing a lot of black Oklahomans. Sadly, this is not fiction (google it). In the process a young black boy is left orphaned in a field, with a note that says “Watch Over This Boy” in his pocket (from his father) and an also recently orphaned baby.
The final scene of the debut episode is set almost a century later, with an old black man named Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.) in a wheelchair at the foot of a tree where a white policeman has been lynched, with the same note as the boy. He is likely either the boy or the baby from the Tulsa field, and is probably related to Bass Reeves, a black marshal in the old West who is the star of a serial the boy is watching in the first scene.
In between the first and final scenes, Will Reeves shows up outside the bakery – actually a front – run by Angela Abar (Regina King), who is secretly Sister Night, a detective with the Tulsa Police Department. He asks if she thinks he can lift 200 pounds, which sounds like nonsense until that final scene, if you assume the dead man weighs about 200 pounds. Alternatively, Bass Reeves was thought to have amazing strength, as did the early superhero Hooded Justice, whose face we’ve never seen. Hmm.
Regina King plays Angela Abar, who is secretly police detective Sister Night of the Tulsa Police Department.
Scattered Squid Showers: During the premiere, tiny squids fall from the sky and then turn into a liquid goo. Everybody treats this as normal. It is presumably connected to the aforementioned giant squid (honestly, read the book, awright?), which also turned to goo before it could be examined.
Where Are They Now: Jeremy Irons appears as an older man living in a castle with two servants, about which there is something very odd. (They are very likely genetically engineered, like a certain tiger named Bubastis in the original.) This character was introduced as “probably who you think he is” at the San Diego Comic-Con, and I think he’s Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt, a superhero who retired to become a corporate titan, and whose machinations are at the heart of the original book. At one point in the premiere, a newspaper headline announces that Veidt, who has long been missing, has been declared dead.
Dr. Manhattan, who sees all time at once and controls matter and energy at a quantum level, still lives on Mars. (Trailers indicate he will return to Earth.) Laurie “Silk Spectre II” Juspeczyk shows up as FBI agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), having apparently taken the surname of her biological father, which is revealing. (Go. Read. The. Book.) There’s no sign of Dan “Nite Owl II” Dreiberg. But his owl ship Archimedes (or a very faithful reproduction) appears – and crashes – in the premiere.
Rorschach and The Comedian do not appear, for obvious reasons. (Obvious, that is, if you’ve read the book!)
Jeremy Irons is playing an unnamed character who is almost certainly Adrian Veidt, the former superhero Ozymandias, now retired after the events of the original graphic novel. Or not.
For More Information: The original Watchmen had a section at the back of each issue that fleshed out this world’s alternate history and the backgrounds of the various characters, usually in the form of “found material,” such as fictional newspaper articles, book excerpts, government dossiers, family photos, etc. “Watchmen” the TV show follows this tradition with similar material located online.
What we can ascertain from all this is that the TV show is going to try to be a lot like the graphic novel. It’s going to launch with a murder mystery, whose investigation reveals larger plots and layers of meaning. And it’s going to take an unblinking look at race, sex and politics in America, using superhero tropes as narrative vehicle and thinly disguised allegory.
Which means Watchmen is going to be terrific TV. (But you should still read the book anyway!)
Find Captain Comics by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), on his website (captaincomics.ning.com), on Facebook (Andrew Alan Smith) or on Twitter (@CaptainComics).
Just watched the first two episodes. Fantastic stuff!
We've got them recorded.
It's really well done. Did you notice that Watchmen started with a murder and the investigation by a "mask" uncovering a secret in the closet, and this show did the same?
Jeremy Irons is hilarious.
Regina King is a treasure.
What on Earth is Lou Gossett Jr. up to?
The guy who plays Looking Glass has one of the few legit Texas accents I've ever heard on TV. (He's from Oklahoma.)
Red Scare is genuinely Russian! "I am not Nazi, I am Communist!"
The police seem to be using all of Nite Owl II's gadgets. Archie (or a facsimile) appeared in the first episode, and Nite Owl's goggles make an appearance in the second. But where is Dan Dreiberg?
The answer to that is actually on Peteypedia.com, which all of us should be reading.
This week's episode has Laurie "Silk Spectre II" Juspeczyk, now calling herself Laurie Blake (after her sociopathic father), and played by Jean Smart. I haven't seen it yet, but I can't wait. It's already generating headlines on my news feed on stories I can't read yet!
HOLY CRAP! is episode three ever good!
I'm glad I didn't read your post until now, Cap!
This show is just so damn awesome.
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday we watched episodes one, two and three, which means, because new episodes air on Sunday nights, we’re just one episode behind (which we will watch tonight). I have not been this excited about a super-hero television show since Heroes. This is one of those instances in which low expectations yield surprisingly satisfying results. It takes place in the Watchmen universe and has hints of others (The Prisoner and, most notably, Jack Kirby’s OMAC), yet somehow manages to be refreshingly original. There’s something of a cognitive disconnect watching it because the fascists wearing the masks are actually the good guys. Well, no, they’re really the lesser of two evils, keeping with one of the main themes of the original that “the abyss gazes also.” It’s a chilling reminder of what might happen when the “good guys” stoop to using the bad guys’ tactics.
The show seems to be aping the general plot of the comic book, only with all the nouns changed. And the motivations. And the characters. And the ... well, everyhing. Which means it's not really aping the comic book. It's a whole different story. But with the same outline!
When one of the Mr, Phillipses was launched from the trebuchet and returned frozen, that told me Veidt was imprisoned off-world. And probably by Dr. Manhattan, who created an environment for Laurie on Mars. Same thing here, only larger. Which is just an assumption at this point.
The latest episode verified what we suspected, that Veidt is indeed a prisoner. I have no idea why he's launching Phillpses and Crookshankses into whatever barrier separates him from what I assume is hard vacuum, except maybe to measure distance? But surely he can do that on the ground, since the barrier would reach to the ground? Puzzling. And we still don't know who or what the "Game Warden" is.
I did notice that his cake has an increasing number of candles on it. I suspect each time we check in on Veidt a year has passed. Since he disappeared in 2012, I'm guessing that we'll see seven of these vignettes, with an increasingly unhinged Veidt trying to escape. I bet he does in the 2019 vignette.
I assumed Veidt would be imprisoned on Mars. But the way they shot the transition scene to Earth in episode four, they left us with the idea that he's on the Moon.
The Fetus Pond is an image that will stay with me a good long while. I guess he was throwing back the ones that weren't ready yet? Still, it looks and feels like infanticide. Then there's the adulterizer microwave thing that is apparently quite painful to the clones, or whatever they are. Veidt, of course, doesn't care -- he is not their creator, he says, only their master.
And that's just Veidt! The rest of the show is equally thought-provoking
We've finally met Madame Trieu. One wonders why she needs a clockwork that can withstand anything short of a nuclear blast. Seriously, why would you need that? Is she expecting trouble of that magnitude?
She's clearly cut from the Veidt cloth, in the way she manipulates others and hides her motives. But I don't know if she's working with him, or working against him. Yes, she has a statue of him. But maybe to remind her to kill him someday. The cold open in episode 4 shows she has the means to grow all those Phillipses and Crookshankses. She has all of Veidt's tech, since she bought the company. Can she teleport giant squids? Is she responsible for all those squid showers? I don't think it's beyond her resources to build a prison on the Moon.
OTOH, she has a vivarium, like Veidt did in Antarctica. Maybe the clockwork is part of a plan to rescue him? She's from Vietnam, so she might despise Dr. Manhattan, if her sympthathies were with the Viet Cong.
I keep bringing up her mother because Trieu did, and also because the Vietnam War ended on our world in 1974, and probably would have ended before the 1972 election in the Watchmen world, so Trieu would have to be in her 60s or 70s to have vivid memories. Perhaps she is, and is just well-preserved. Or it's her mother's memories she's accessed somehow.
I suspect that "daughter" of hers is a genetically created clone of herself. Or of her mother. Somehow she's feeding the kid old memories (hers? her mother's?) through that IV. Somehow.
Is Dr. Manhattan really on Mars? Or is that just what the government wants people to think? He might be on Earth messing with Superman, or he might have created multiple selves and is in different universes doing different things. Or he might really be on Mars.
Anybody know what that antenna-looking ring thing is around the Washington monument? Any guesses? It does look like an antenna array, but why build it there?
Laurie is a hoot. But interestingly, while she's tough-talking and -acting, so we're supposed to think of her as the John Wayne-esque hero, most of her actions so far have been a mistake or had unintended consequences. She shot the guy with bomb, assuming he was bluffing -- but he wasn't. She slept with a subordinate, which is an enormous no-no. She seems to have figured out much of Angela's game, but not all of it. She thought Dr. Manhattan dropped the car, but it was probably one of Triue's construction drones that did it.
Speaking of the bomb/kidnapping plot, that was so obviously a set-up that I am at this point just assuming that Keene Jr. is the money and power behind the Rorschachs -- using them to get elected president when Redford retires. He'll run on a law-and-order theme, as right wingers always do.
I haven't even reached the themes, which Jeff mentions above. Yes, they're all there, including the boldest acknowledgement of racism I've ever seen on TV.
So much in this show to talk about. So much.
This is definitely a show that benefits from multiple viewings.
Did you catch, in episode one, the replica (?) of Veidt's castle collapsing on Mars?
Maybe not becase, IIRC, we hadn't even seen it in "reality" yet.
Yes, I made the connection, but didn't know what to make of it. And, with my questionable vision, sometimes I wonder if I saw what I think I saw, or just what I wanted to see.
"So much in this show to talk about. So much."
You're not kidding. Almost too much. I'm still wrapping my head around it.
We're caught up now.
And Dr. Manhattan has been who...?!
Excellent series with many unexpected twists, certainly much more in the spirit of Moore's original story than the movie, which too often seemed to miss the point of the graphic series.
Last night's episode answered two of my standing questions, namely...
1) Did the New Frontiersman publish Rorschach's journal?
2) Given that Ozymandias engineered the giant squid hoax, where are all the little squids coming from?
It actually answered more questions than that, but those two stood out. My favorite individual episode so far. I can't believe there is only one episode left!