'Watchmen': Inside Damon Lindelof's Deadly Series Premiere

Watchmen Still 4- HBO Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of HBO

[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 the graphic novel on which the show is based.]

"The Comedian is dead."

Those chilling words close out the first issue of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, echoing the brutal murder that launches the game-changing comic book series into action. The echo sounds so far into the future as to be felt in the first episode of Damon Lindelof's HBO drama of the same name. No, Edward Blake himself isn't involved in the new series (though his daughter Laurie, played by Jean Smart, will come into play in due time), but the death of a powerful man nonetheless closes out the pilot: Judd Crawford, the Tulsa police chief played with glimmering relish by Don Johnson, hangs from a tree, one shoe missing, blood dripping down onto his badge on the ground — all set to the sad tune of "Pore Jud is Daid," from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma that occasionally underscores the pilot.

Judd's death galvanizing the forward momentum of the HBO drama clearly calls back to how the Comedian's death fueled the forward momentum of Moore and Gibbons' comic, just one of many ways the new story kisses back toward the old. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Lindelof looks at it a different way: "You say 'kiss back to,' and I think it's 'pay fealty to,' or 'kiss the ring of,' or 'take a knee to it.'" However you want to phrase it, the haunting ending is very much designed to interact with the source material, a work that has greatly influenced Lindelof's own career as a storyteller, from Lost to The Leftovers and everything in between.

"Easter egg is a very cutesy way of saying there has to be an open acknowledgement of the appropriation. We have appropriated the original Watchmen against the wishes of one of its parents. That's OK, because I tend to identify with and get along with people who don't listen to what their parents tell them," says Lindelof. "This Watchmen had to end with a moment that's a direct commentary on that appropriation, but also in a way that felt like it wouldn't be befuddling to someone who didn't know that there was a splotch of blood on the Comedian's badge — and he calls it a badge, by the way; he doesn't call it a pin."

As an additional "by the way," Lindelof shoots down the fan theories that Don Johnson's Judd and Edward "The Comedian" Blake are one and the same. For one thing, per Lindelof: "The [timing] just never made sense to me. In 2019, Eddie Blake would be 95 or something like that." For another, the Comedian dropped from such a height that "when he hit the sidewalk his head was driven up into his stomach," according to Rorschach's account of the grisly act in the comic book. (Theories that Judd and Dan "Nite Owl" Drieberg are the same person, however? Those might start flying fast and furious, based on the astounding amount of Nite Owl imagery surrounding Judd in the pilot.)

Listen to the Series Regular: Watchmen podcast for more from Lindelof, as hosts Josh Wigler and Antonio Mazzaro attempt to divine meaning from the series premiere through the lens of the graphic novel:

The mirror between Judd's death and the Comedian's death is just one of the ways in which the new Watchmen pays fealty to the old. There are countless in-universe connections — more on that in this story here — as well as structural similarities, such as the murder mystery angle, the show-within-a-show of American Hero Story matching the comic-within-a-comic of Tales From the Black Freighter, and beyond. Now that the series is out in the universe, Lindelof hopes fans of the original Watchmen text finally understand what he meant in his initial announcement of the series. ("Those original twelve issues are our Old Testament," he wrote in 2018. "When the New Testament came along, it did not erase what came before it. Creation. The Garden of Eden. Abraham and Isaac. The Flood. It all happened. And so it will be with Watchmen. The Comedian died. Dan and Laurie fell in love. Ozymandias saved the world and Dr. Manhattan left it just after blowing Rorschach to pieces in the bitter cold of Antarctica. To be clear. Watchmen is canon.")

"We started from a point of, 'Oh, Damon's going to do this,'" he tells THR about why he made that initial statement. "I hate referring to myself in the third person, but from a cultural standpoint, as someone who loves watching this stuff, it's the first thing you hear: 'Filmmaker x is now paired with Thing You Love y.' And so you're like, 'Oh, Todd Phillips, the Hangover guy, is going to do a Joker movie?' You always start from a place of [wondering] what that particular pairing is going to yield. From my perspective, from the moment I was offered Watchmen, I could only be in a defensive posture, for all the reasons we can go over ad nauseum. … I immediately needed to explain who I am, what's my relationship with the source material, here's what I'm going to do, here's what I'm not going to do."

Lindelof is also quick to point out that he's far from the sole voice responsible for the story of HBO's Watchmen, but just one part of the 12-headed writers room that studied the old text and brought a new vision to life. His sprawling accounting of the television series' creative origins:

"I know a lot of people say this — and it's the classic thing you're supposed to say but in this case is just 1,000 percent, authentically true: This pilot and all the episodes that follow it was broken by a group of 12 different writers, as were almost all of the episodes, including the complex world-building that we had to do between '86 and 2019, because we wanted to treat the original graphic novel as canon, but then we had to create 30 years of new history in between the two. Of those 12 people, there was a wide range of diversity in terms of the kinds of human beings we are and where we come from and our levels of experience, and whether we came from the world of playwriting or the world of television writing — gender, race, ethnicity, religious belief — all of that. But to the point of our relationship with Watchmen, three of us had a [deep] familiarity with the source material, and the other nine had some familiarity, and as we went through the story process, we would have a Watchmen book club. Every three days, we would go through an issue, panel-by-panel, talking about it. It was an amazing process. 

"By the end, we all had Watchmen familiarity. Even the 'neophytes' came to know and love the original material, but they weren't afraid to challenge it, in a way where I was even like, 'Fuck you, this is genius! You're not allowed to challenge it!' Suddenly, we're having these talmudic conversations about the original Watchmen as we were creating the new Watchmen. This show is the result of all those conversations. For someone who does a lot of talking, as evidenced right now, I did a lot of listening. It was hard for me. It shouldn't have been so hard for me, but it was hard, and it was certainly hard for the other 11 people to get me to listen. But once I did, the show was the result. If I hadn't listened, I don't think anything good ever would have happened, because I was holding this source material so tightly. Once I started feeling like it wasn't mine, but more like it was someone else's, a collaborative effort I was guiding, and it was bigger than any of us, even its original creators, then it started getting good."

It's a long way of speaking toward a now revealed truth: HBO's Watchmen follows new figures like Regina King as Sister Night and Tim Blake Nelson as Looking Glass, who exist within the world Ozymandias changed more than 30 years earlier by dropping a gigantic telepathic squid in the middle of New York City — and while they are on their own journey independent of the graphic novel, its structure and much of its substance exists with the blood of the celebrated comic book series running through its veins.

"We constantly had to find ways to tell the audience, particularly the people who felt about those 12 issues the way I felt about them, that we know we're doing this, we love this thing, we want to pay homage to it, but the way to do that is to not do the same things that it did, but to do them in slightly different ways," Lindelof explains. "If you're going to say 'Everything ends,' don't do it in the same way it was done in the graphic novel; do it in a different way. Put it in a new context, so that the audience of the original knows you know you're playing the hits."

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