Few pieces of literature (at least as comics are concerned) seem as sacred as Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. Any thought of expanding on the title seems like a foolish endeavor; yet, here we are with two sequels to the book in 2019 — one in the comics world, Doomsday Clock (which is its own beast entirely) and the second Damien Lindelolf’s HBO produced TV series.
The show, not a sequel to Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen (which is easily Snyder’s best work) but instead Alan Moore’s original piece.
Building a World
The show takes place in an alternative 2019 where Vietnam is a state, Robert Redford has been president since the 1990s, and Rorschach’s image has been twisted into the white supremacy group called “The Seventh Kavalry.” The show’s first episode opens with the tension between the police and white supremacists reaching a breaking point. As the mask-wearing police force set out, a conspiracy takes root in the state of Oklahoma.
This episode has a lot of heavy lifting to do. It must catch the audience up into this alternative timeline in a way that feels natural and not exposition-heavy. Additionally, it takes the time to establish the lead characters, central theme, and plant flags for things later to pay off.
In a running time close to an hour, the pilot episode of Watchmen pulls most of it off in spades. “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” slowly unveils its hand, expertly finding small ways to fill out the world weaving between plot turns and character development.
This episode can be intricate and uses the tools of visual language and storytelling to communicate where the world is, whether through a newspaper headline we catch through a camera angel or a show within a show from which we see advertising.
For a new viewer not familiar with Alan Moore’s world, I can see how it might feel a little overwhelming, especially when the weirder aspects of the world start to unveil themselves. For example, there is a very direct Squid reference that you’ll understand, if you read the book.
The pilot doesn’t hold your hand (at all) but also your enjoyment doesn’t hinge on your knowledge of the book.
I watched this with a friend who didn’t read the comic beforehand and was still engaged.
The Tulsa Riots and Racial Themes
The biggest accomplishment of the first episode is the contextualization of the world in 2019 with race relations playing a pivotal role in the episode and the series going forward. In an interview with Decider, Lindelof said:
“When I started thinking about what Watchmen was going to be, trying to think about in the original source material the book was highly political. It was about what was happening in American culture at the time even though it was being presented by two British artists.
What, in 2019, is the equivalent of the nuclear standoff between the Russians and the United States? It just felt like it was undeniably race and policing in America.”
The series doesn’t open with superheroes fighting; it opens in the middle of the Tulsa race riots in Oklahoma in 1921.
A real world-historical event (pictured here) that, if I’m being completely honest, I was only vaguely aware happened. Judging by the reactions on Twitter, it is clear the opening was an introduction for many to this historical massacre.
I’m certainly no expert on the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, but the scene was harrowing, disturbing, and a shot-in-the-arm to any viewer. Lindelof lays out seemingly everything that his show is going to be about while also weaving in plot threads for later. There is also a silent movie clip that I can’t help but feel will be thematically relevant later.
I can’t speak too much to the historical accuracy or how it may be viewed by black audiences, but I’m glad it brought my attention to the event. If the show did one thing right, it did that.
It doesn’t end there.
The show is steeped in racial topics as a main thematic topic and plot threads ranging from policing to race and domestic terrorism.
The topic of white supremacy is dealt with poignantly and is positioned as the chief antagonist of the series so far. These are sensitive and important topics–ones that needs to be taken with great care and not lightly.
The first episode seems to set it all up in a very brutally honest manner and I hope to continue to see the show’s bravery in exploring these topics. It can easily be messed up by the season end and it remains to be seen if it’ll explore race in any sort of systemic way (although the first episode hints that it might) but so far I’m definitely willing to give Lindelof the benefit of the doubt.
Director Nicole Kassell
Here, we first our first glance at Nicole Kassell‘s powerful direction as the first of the series’ directors. She shows an adept fortitude for perspective in scenes–a subtle direction that keeps the frame visually interesting to the eye while also not appearing too flashy maintaining impactful action.
She is able to translate Lindelof’s and Moore’s morally ambiguous world casting emotion where the scenes require it and leaving doubt in the audience’s mind when perhaps we are meant to question action. All of this is aided by Trent Reznor’s and Atticus Ross’ pulsating score (always a win in my book).
We get introduced to Regina King’s Angela Abar, our series lead.
Angela, a police officer but also a vigilante named Sister Night. In this world, vigilantes and costumed heroes are co-opted into the police force. She works with other costumed police forces like Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), and Red Scare (Andrew Howard) led by chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson).
Crawford and King get the most screen time and development. If there is one flaw, the first episode doesn’t give the side characters enough time to develop.
It is understandable considering how much this has to cram into the hour run time (and we have eight more episodes to go) but it is a weaker point nonetheless.
But King and Don Johnson shine in the premiere. King especially comes out in force with a performance that is vulnerable but also able to portray a hardened exterior. I’ve been a fan of King ever since I watched her in Southland and am happy to see her star power rising because she a gifted actress (anyone who doubts that needs to watch her in If Beale Street Could Talk).
We get a small scene introducing Jeremy Irons‘ character (who may or may not be Ozymandias). It doesn’t add much plot-wise to the overall first episode but it plants the flag that his character will be important going forward.
Moving Forward…Tick Tock
There is a lot to unpack with this episode. I haven’t even gotten to the quick references to Doctor Manhattan and how that might play into everything going forward. The series could certainly fall apart.
The first episode deals with police brutality, white supremacy, and a contemporary reflection of modern politics–hard topics to talk about and even more difficult to pull off in a superhero show. No doubt it remains to be seen how Lindelof and the rest of the Watchmen cast and crew handle these themes and topics. but after the first episode, I have faith that it’ll all be handled in a meaningful way.
We won’t know until we continue but the first episode does the trick that a first episode needs to pull off, make you want to watch more (and wow do I want to watch more). Lindelof may be playing with sacred ground expanding on Watchmen but he is smart enough to realize that the best way to honor the book is not by redoing it (Snyder already did that anyway) or playing it safe but take the lessons of the book and translate that to his own take and vision.
I can’t wait for next Sunday…Tick Tock.