‘Watchmen’ Is a Spectacular Assault on White Supremacy
The stunning new HBO series from Damon Lindelof (“Lost,” “The Leftovers”) envisions a future where masked vigilantes square off against a cartel of murderous white supremacists.
You won’t see the smiley-faced logo of The Comedian—a savage, cynical, cigar-chomping vigilante from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal Watchmen—in HBO’s new series of the same name. Yet his spirit hovers over the network’s superb latest, which views ideas about American nobility, altruism and gallantry—the very qualities that define classical superheroes, and their genre—as a sick joke. Like its illustrious predecessor, still the greatest and most influential comic book of all time, Damon Lindelof’s daring follow-up is a story about an alternate U.S.A. with a costumed-avenger past and a divided present, where men and women don masks to conceal their ugly, bigoted, sadistic identities from each other and the world at large—and, also, to hide from themselves, and the fear and rage that consumes them.
Good and bad, cop and crook, innocent and guilty—everyone in Watchmen thinks they’re on the side of right no matter their constant wrongness, which repeats itself, over and over, like the ticking hands of a clock. As another rogue do-gooder once famously said, “Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.”
That man, Watchmen devotees will know, was Rorschach, the ink blot-faced antihero of Moore and Gibbons’ deconstructionist masterwork, whose 1980s crime-fighting was driven by right-wing extremist beliefs about how liberalism was sending the country straight into the sewer. Lost and The Leftovers creator Lindelof’s series is set 30 years after Rorschach’s manifesto found its way into the media’s hands and in this 2019 he’s become a symbol for a burgeoning white supremacist movement known as the Seventh Calvary, whose Caucasian members wear his trademark mask as their new de facto Klan hood. What’s old is always new again, and that’s hammered home by the opening of the first episode, in which a young African-American boy in 1921 Tulsa watches a silent movie about a black sheriff arresting a white bad guy, only to have the film interrupted by a legitimate massacre on the streets outside perpetrated by whites against blacks—a calamity that orphans him and provides the foundation for the ensuing action.
Unlike in Moore and Gibbons’ antecedent, it’s race, rather than sex, that’s warped the country and its masked inhabitants. That’s the biggest thematic alteration Lindelof makes to his hallowed source (Moore, renowned for hating adaptations of his work, remains totally uninvolved), and it’s a bold move that doesn’t always hold together. Even so, it’s spiritually in keeping with Moore’s notion that individuals take up arms, and cover their faces, as a means of channeling internal frustrations, only to discover that said disguises, rather than fixing what ails them, amplifies it to brutal, self-destructive degrees. Certainly, the America envisioned by Watchmen is one in which racial strife has yet to die, even after (per Moore and Gibbons’ tome, which serves as backstory to this tale) genius and corporate titan Adrian Veidt, also known as Ozymandias, prevented ‘80s nuclear annihilation between the U.S. and Russia by orchestrating a hoax on humanity: dropping a gigantic alien squid on Manhattan and having it emit a psychic blast that killed 3 million, thereby turning mankind away from destroying itself and toward combatting a new, singular threat.
Having knowledge of the original Watchmen certainly enriches one’s experience with HBO’s sequel, given that it serves as the context for its action, and is repeatedly shouted-out in direct and subtle ways, including via snippets of a sensationalistic TV show about the historic “Minutemen” superhero squad. Still, it’s far from necessary. Lindelof doles out bits and pieces of lore for newbies while focusing his primary action on Detective Angela Abar (Regina King). Thanks to a recent Seventh Cavalry massacre of cops known as “the White Night,” all officers now hide their identities behind yellow masks. Abar, however, does her head-busting business in a long-hooded trenchcoat, black mask and spray-painted face as her alter ego, Sister Knight. She’s a fundamentally good person, married to a decent husband Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and the mother of three kids whom she took in after her partner was slain. Alongside her chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) and the silver-headed Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), she’s soon on the trail of the Seventh Cavalry, thanks to the organization’s re-emergence via the attempted murder of a traffic cop.
That’s merely the jumping-off point for an expansive tale that comes to involve Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), aka Silk Spectre, a former (and familiar) costumed heroine who’s now an FBI hotshot, and Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), whom the public thinks is dead and who’s doing who-knows-what in a remote mansion with a battalion of clone servants. Things really get going with a surprising early assassination and then splinter off in a variety of directions, with Lindelof pivoting each episode, The Leftovers-style, around one specific character, revealing their hang-ups and secrets and part to play in this conspiracy-rich melodrama. At the same time, Watchmen fleshes out its bizarre reality: lifelong president Richard Nixon has been replaced by commander in chief Robert Redford (who’s compensated victims of racial violence with “Redfordations”); masked vigilantes have been outlawed; and trauma is omnipresent, except for on Mars, where true-blue nude superbeing Dr. Manhattan continues to reside, disinterested in the mortals he left behind on Earth three decades ago.
At least in its first six episodes, Watchmen paints a chilling portrait of politically and racially divided 21st-century life, and those on both sides of the aisle will find much to like and loathe. It’s a big mixed bag of fury and misery, and one that’s full of on-point (and occasionally on-the-nose) musical cues and striking direction marked by superbly synchronized visual transitions and playful flourishes (including each episode’s title being transposed as yellow text on environmental backgrounds). Moreover, it’s overflowing with phenomenal performances: King is conflicted and intense; Johnson is ruggedly charming; Nelson is menacingly opaque; and Smart is wounded and steely. Lindelof makes sure his stars are front-and-center throughout, and consistently complicates their characters in ways that give them real dramatic material with which to work. It’s a superhero saga that’s at once sprawling and human-scaled.
If there’s a failing here, it’s that the show betrays Moore’s underlying critique by often depicting villain-decimating combat as thrilling rather than excessive and appalling—a mistake also committed by Zack Snyder’s uneven, if unfairly maligned, 2009 adaptation of the original Watchmen. Nonetheless, the further it proceeds down its spiraling path, the more it undercuts sympathy for everyone it portrays, including Sister Night, thereby proving its overtly articulated point that uniforms change people—usually for the worse. For these heroes and villains, a mask is a sign of derangement and deviance. And thus wearing one makes them, in the end, no different than everyone else.