8:15am PT by Josh Wigler
'Watchmen': Making Sense of HBO's Strange New World
[This story contains major spoilers for the series premiere of HBO's Watchmen, "It's Summer and We're Running Out of Ice," as well as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel on which the show is based.]
As the closing credits start rolling on the first episode of Watchmen, you would be well within your rights to quote a very different piece of Damon Lindelof scripture: "We're gonna need to watch that again."
Squid rain. Owlships. Transdimensional attacks that may or may not be a United States government hoax. Police officers running around in full-on Party City gear like it's Halloween and they're running out of Reese's. It's easy to walk away from the Watchmen pilot with a headache so powerful it could only be topped by a telepathically-powered monster from another world. Familiarity with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel certainly helps, even though the HBO drama follows Regina King as Sister Night and a whole host of other brand new entities with no ties to the source material — at least, not yet.
Given how many high-concepts are in play, it's worth pausing to sort out what's what in the world of Watchmen. Below, an overview of this strange new world, which you can read alongside listening to the first episode of the Series Regular: Watchmen podcast:
Minutemen: First, let's start with some bedrock. Moore and Gibbons' 12-part comic book series is a meditation on the superhero space, the psychology behind those who would mask themselves and take on high crimes under cover of night. The first of these heroes: Hooded Justice, whose secret identity was never revealed but was highly buzzed about within the Watchmen universe. As the masked adventurer who started it all, Hooded Justice inspired the formation of the Minutemen, a group of like-minded heroes — at least on the face of it. Beneath the surface, darker dealings were brimming, as uncovered in Moore and Gibbons' tale. The group eventually disbanded, though other heroes emerged in their wake. Hooded Justice and his contemporaries are the subject of a television series set within the world of the HBO drama called American Hero Story: Minutemen, which is poised to honor the comic books' tradition of a story-within-a-story. In the graphic novel, a pirate comic called Tales From the Black Freighter ran parallel with the main plot, foretelling the tragic Watchmen climax.
The Manhattan Project: Hooded Justice and the Minutemen aside, there was only one true "superhero" in the Watchmen universe: Jon Osterman, better known as Dr. Manhattan, a veritable subatomic god who can teleport, enhance his own size, create duplicates of himself, see into the future, rearrange matter at will, you get the picture — he's not someone you want to mess with. Following his emergence via freak science accident in 1959, Dr. Manhattan becomes employed by the United States government to assist in the Vietnam War. As such, the U.S. won the conflict, and Vietnam eventually became an American state. HBO's Watchmen series lead Angela Abar (King) spent her life in Vietnam, before continuing her career as a police officer in Tulsa. In the pilot, it's revealed that Dr. Manhattan is apparently on Mars, where he spent a bulk of his time in the comic book — but this flies in the face of Manhattan's stated intention to find a new galaxy and create life of his own. Given those intentions, and given his ability to duplicate himself, we are almost certainly missing a much bigger picture as it pertains to Dr. Manhattan.
Hail to the Chief: Back to Dr. Manhattan's military conquests. Because of the American success in the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon's presidency never succumbs to scandal. In fact, he successfully extends presidential term limits, and remains in the White House throughout the 1985 setting of Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen. (At the end of the graphic novel, actor Robert Redford was eyeing a presidential bid; he has been president in the HBO Watchmen universe since the early 1990s, though it would appear his era is almost at an end: a newspaper clipping in the pilot reveals Redford will not be seeking reelection.) But Nixon's presidency eventually came up against a conflict even Dr. Manhattan couldn't solve: an impending nuclear world war, with a virtually assured and imminent Armageddon brimming beneath the surface of the graphic novel.
The Smartest Man in the World: Enter: Adrian Veidt, a brilliant man also known as the masked adventurer Ozymandias who retired from crimefighting with time to spare before it became illegal via the Keene Act, introduced by a senator whose descendant is name-checked in the HBO drama pilot. Dr. Manhattan can see the literal future thanks to his powers; Ozymandias claims to basically be able to do the same, using his brilliant intellect to game out likely events. In his calculations, the only way to defeat Armageddon was by beating it to the punch. He invested incalculable amounts of money, created shell corporations and hired the world's greatest creative minds to create a gigantic telepathic squid monster, imbued with psychic stories about another dimension, and dropped the thing in the middle of New York City. It died on arrival, releasing a psychic wave that killed millions of innocents and traumatized countless others. On an even wider scale, the squid's arrival signaled to the rest of the world that we as a human species are not alone, and we must abandon our enmities in pursuit of a better, more united mankind. Ozymandias' plan was a success in that regard. In several tangible ways, the world of HBO's Watchmen is a better and more environmentally friendly place than the world of the comic, with beepers still hanging in there in place of cell phones and no such thing as the internet. But what did the success cost? It's not outright confirmed but highly speculated that Jeremy Irons is playing a modern day Ozymandias, and his strange surroundings in the pilot suggest a lonely man far removed from his greatest feat.
Scattered Squid Showers: Thirty-four years on from the New York incident, it appears Veidt's fiction about the squid continues on. In the pilot, Angela and others are forced to pull over to the side of the road as a sudden downpour of squids rains upon Tulsa. Sirens signal their arrival, dedicated task forces are dispatched in the clean-up effort; clearly, Veidt's plans accounted for a need to maintain an illusion of a transdimensional threat, but Angela's relative ease (and, frankly, annoyance) toward the squids suggests an increasing cynicism about it all. Is the alternate world of 2019 moving on from the existential danger posed by another world — and if so, is the time ripe for someone like Ozymandias to remind them of that danger? Stay tuned.
The Blot in the Ink: Worth noting another fly in Ozymandias' ointment: Rorschach, born Walter Kovacs, the uncompromising, sugar-chomping crimefighter at the heart of Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen. A vigilante with a firm sense of right and wrong, Rorschach refused to buy into Veidt's fiction — and he paid for that refusal with his life, atomically obliterated at the hands of Dr. Manhattan. But Rorschach's justice may have been served anyway: before his death he sent copies of his journal to various news outlets, outlining his belief that Veidt was behind a vast and insidious conspiracy. At the end of the graphic novel, a young man named Seymour, working at the right-leaning newspaper The New Frontiersman, was left in a position to potentially read and publish Rorschach's journal. If it was published, the current scope of HBO's Watchmen indicates that few people believed the account — but the few who do believe the account are clearly very deadly indeed.
Smells Like Bleach: Rorschach's creed underscores the Seventh Kalvary, the white supremacist group at the heart of Watchmen. They have adopted the late crimefighter's mask as their own, they espouse his ideology, and they defy the Keene Act's laws against masked vigilantism. There's a strong indication that they are hip to Ozymandias' fiction, too: in the comics, Veidt gives an interview with New Frontiersman rivals Nova Express in which he draws a line in the sand between those who root for Armageddon — the horsemen of the apocalypse — and those who are fighting against it: "The Seventh Calvary," he says, a tongue-in-cheek reference to Custer's last stand. The Seventh Kalvary have co-opted Veidt's own joke and married it with the face of the one crimefighter who opposed him.
The New Watchmen: During her baking demonstration, Angela Abar delivers some crucial pieces of information about the current Watchmen world order. The Seventh Kalvary attacked police officers some years earlier during an event known as "The White Night," killing many and paving the way for a new law that allowed police to protect their identities with masks. The result: a new wave of costumed crimefighters, these ones with badges. We're left with folks like Angela as Sister Night, or Tim Blake Nelson's Wade as Looking Glass. There's even a man named Panda who works at the station, with a giant panda mask covering his face; inspired, truly. The "superheroics" are amped further by the tools of their trade: an interrogation "pod," essentially a Rorschach test writ large, as well as oddly-shaped hovercrafts modeled after Archie the Owlship, the veritable Batwing to the conspicuously missing Dan "Nite Owl" Drieberg. In an interview with IGN, Lindelof confirmed Drieberg's technology has been appropriated by law enforcement, which should hopefully put a dent in any "Judd is Drieberg" theories; even so, poor Judd (Don Johnson) is dead, hanging at the end of the pilot, an act of violence sure to escalate tensions between Tulsa police and the Seventh Kalvary throughout the season to come.
"Watch Over This Boy": Let's end where the episode begins, and it's one area where history has sadly not been altered much at all: Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, as airplanes drop bombs on civilians and Ku Klux Klansmen wreak havoc in the streets. It's a disturbing recreation of the Tulsa Massacre, largely and shamefully ignored in the pages of American history. It's utterly central to the ideas of identity, appropriation and America's own history of racism being explored in HBO's Watchmen. Learn more about the horrific act of violence here. From a story point of view, it's a central event in that it serves as the origin story for a young boy who grew up watching movies based on Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi River — once again an instance of HBO's Watchmen leaning on actual history instead of alternate history. That boy manages to escape Tulsa alive thanks to the sacrifice of his parents, and based on the end of the episode, it would appear went on to live a long life, potentially capable of lifting 200 pounds, as the wheelchair-bound man played by Louis Gossett Jr. His story, as well as his interest in Angela Abar and his presence alongside "poor Judd," is sure to be clarified as Watchmen presses on.
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