At first I wasn’t convinced that it isn’t called “WATCHMEN” mostly so Warner/DC can have another project in play that keeps the copyright from reverting to Moore & Gibbons. But creative justice notwithstanding, the HBO version is the only official continuation so far that does honor to its source.
In print there have been two stealth-sequels that stood with the original too: Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity issue that replayed the plot with the Charlton Comics heroes Moore had originally planned to use; and Kieron Gillen’s Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt miniseries, anchored by the one Charlton character he was legally allowed to. These were inspired meditations on loops caught in and escaped from, respectively (Morrison’s is a melancholy cycle, Gillen’s is a defiance of the conventions that Moore & Gibbons’ successors are still following); each were to some extent formal critiques which extended Watchmen‘s graphic experiments while seeking departure from its influence.
DC’s Doomsday Clock fell into the trap those two books averted, perfectly re-creating the aesthetic of Gibbons’ layouts and atmospheres but with a precision that lent no room for life; it added without advancing (which was the fatal aesthetic problem of Zack Snyder’s movie, among its many other problems of taste, tone, structure and sensitivity). All of these adaptations in large measure were responses to Watchmen as a groundbreaking comic, more than reflections on it as a cultural touchpoint; more concerned with Watchmen‘s form than its content — or comment. The best way to grow Moore & Gibbons’ social viewpoint is to transplant it, and Damon Lindelof’s debut episode on HBO was the first treatment ever to covey to me the kind of tense dread of a Trump century that the original comic did of a Cold War apocalypse.
The HBO Watchmen is about things we thought were over. Like the self-contained comic from 30+ years ago, or racism, or the world. One of the original comic’s most famous lines is that “Nothing ever ends,” so it’s possibly deceptive to assume that the discovery of Rorschach’s exposé about the hoax that brought on world peace would spark a decisive return to global suicide any more than the peace itself would eternally hold. In the world of TV-Watchmen, we’re the usual two-steps-forward, one-step-back into the future; race relations seem much repaired among those whites and people of color who deign to associate with each other, while in the heartland a low-intensity civil war with a white supremacist militia seems ongoing. As per the political turnover foreshadowed in the comic, after several terms of Richard Nixon in office, Robert Redford was elected president after the 1980s — and is still in office in the show’s 2019. Moore & Gibbons were making a subtle dig at the same-as-the-old-boss American way by imagining a liberal movie star being in office while a conservative movie star actually was. In real-life America, presidents like to undo whatever their predecessor accomplished but seldom dismantle any new powers the last guy gave himself; so, in the same way Obama rolled back none of Bush’s surveillance authority, it seems President Redford has carried on the Nixon policy of no term limits.
Thus, utopia isn’t what it was going to be. But raptures are made to leave somebody out. The Watchmen comic was never Black enough, but the TV version writes African America back into the history underpinning the show, opening with the militarized race-massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, whose scale and ferocity would make it hard to believe even if it hadn’t been cleansed from official histories for decades. The scar runs through the town in the TV-show’s 2019 (in ours, they only just began a pre-anniversary search for rumored mass graves). Detective Angela Abar (an Olympian performance of contained pain and fury by Regina King) is the first line of defense against The Seventh Kavalry, a white-power terrorist group who quote Rorschach’s journal and wear his mask design; their identities are hidden and Abar officially doesn’t even exist, publicly retired from the Tulsa PD while striking the Kavalry as the goth-nun costumed “Sister Night.” Superheroes had already been outlawed as vigilantes by the time Watchmen the comic started; now, the besieged civil society in Oklahoma authorizes cops themselves to wear disguises, and the depressing turnover of national values in general is matched by the way Abar in particular lives her life: playing out the simple tropes of the superhero and repeating them as tragedy, complete with a decoy-identity as a baker and an arsenal behind secret panels in her shop that evokes Bickel as much as Batman. King’s integrity is compelling, as is the stoic stance of her counterparts in Episode 1, especially Don Johnson as the police chief; remnants of the rainbow and the last best hope on a line between principle and barbarism that they frequently step over.
I said before that I wasn’t sure this had to be called “Watchmen”; even some of the most specific nods to the comic might at first have been considered fair-use pop-culture references — scraps of repurposed Rorschach dialogue are practically public domain post- AOC’s Twitter account; the smiley-face motif owes as much to the 2010s’ inescapable emojis as it does to the comic’s sardonic dead-1970s symbol; the few returning characters seen in the beginning could easily be renamed (as they were in Gillen’s Thunderbolt) — but from the start the series does make inspired use of the comic’s visual culture (the smiley-yellow half-masks that uniformed police wear; the monumental use of title-text; the counterpoint of vintage entertainment and other pop artifacts; the almost-sickening violence that insistently complicates our enjoyment and allegiances) — and the show gains strength from the references to the comic’s internal world, hanging on the periphery like suppressed traumatic memories (Nite-Owl’s remaindered hovercraft; the posthumous adoption of Rorschach’s look and rhetoric by lawless fanatics; the passing mention of Vietnam “before it became a state”; and of course the schoolroom posters of and rabid talk-radio rants about President Redford).
The repressed roars back a bit more in the second episode, though still displaced into the public unconscious of pop-culture and role-play: A bloody period-piece TV drama with the comics’ Hooded Justice massacring some grocery-store robbers; a macabre lo-tech passion-play version of Dr. Manhattan’s origin put on by an as-yet unnamed Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons in a tour de force of crazed compulsory good intentions) night after night in his idyllic country estate by a cast of expendable clones. Both are perverse, fixated forms of nostalgia; historical scars that keep getting picked at like the racial schism that resentful whites nurture after reparations have partially evened the field in this reality’s America. Louis Gossett, Jr. is captivating as a survivor of the Tulsa massacre with strange secrets to be unearthed, and, to the extent that figures we know from the comic return, like the mad, manor-bound Veidt and a hardened, plainclothes-Fed incarnation of Laurie Jucspeczyk, they are not so much recurring characters as refugees from the former, finished narrative.
As of Episode 3, Laurie’s the only one who doesn’t want to get back into it. The former “Silk Spectre” played by a kickass, 68-year-old Emmy-worthy Jean Smart, the character has completed her transition from pinup-fantasy to worst-nightmare; cynical, shoot-first, and supremely self-assured (or at least she wants you to think). Always the stand-in for normal-human readers in the comic, she’s now the observer within the show (if not necessarily a reliable one). Called into Tulsa from DC, through her eyes we see how narrow the world we’ve been immersed in since Episode 1 can be — in her town, the cops still don’t wear masks and those freelancers who do are taken down on sight (while barricaded protestors cheer the would-be superheroes); the storyline of the original comic surfaces fully in conversation only be dismissed automatically as ancient history, celebrity legend, irrelevant relics of a barbaric time best left buried. As we know from the finale of the comic, books have a way of reopening themselves, and Laurie (ominously known here by the surname “Blake,” after her murderous biological father) is literally coming face-to-face with her past in a contest of wills with “Sister Night,” the exact kind of warrior she once was and now hunts.
In Part 4 history begins to rhyme even as the series shifts ever more fully into its own continuum. Lady Trieu, successor to the rule of Veidt’s company (and, as played by Hong Chau, his match in distant menace and eerie serenity), lives in a biodome of her native Vietnam’s ecosystem in the middle of Oklahoma, mirroring the comicbook Veidt’s Amazon-in-the-Arctic; familiar soil for an utterly new character with a 21st-century style of buy-and-conquer. Lindelof’s eye for the comic’s practice of associative visual motifs is sharp; appearances or suggestions of a given symbol (smileys, clocks) recurred throughout Gibbons’ imagery, either to hint at unrecognized patterns or to wink at our human tendency to seek clues in random coincidence. In this episode, the subtextual theme is eggs — broken at a farmstand where a local couple is faced with a surreal choice regarding a solution to their fertility attempts; left on the stove of Abar’s secret hideout by Gossett’s mystery man, who briefly made himself at home; symbolized in the incubator among Veidt’s bizarre set of Jules Verne-era tech, where he matures his clone servants — alluding there and in other places to the eggs you have to break for something to come to life (or just cook). And of course, convergent with the comic’s visual vocabulary, in the yellow of the yolks which form into the Watchmen logo at the episode’s start; a point also of departure from the original, and a possible satire of the entire conspiracy culture that informs the show and surrounds it in real life: no meaning is getting put back together again, and for all our stop-and-rewinds and blog analysis, we’re getting nothing for Easter.
I revised this article four times for each episode; you don’t see where this series is turning because it’s going in directions that no one has been. Nothing ever ends, but with bravery and imagination, nothing ever begins the same way twice.
(Images: Second, third and fourth from top, excerpts from Watchmen, words by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons; Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt, words by Kieron Gillen, art by Caspar Wijngaard; and The Multiversity: Pax Americana, words by Grant Morrison, art by Frank Quitely; all other photos from HBO’s Watchmen.)