Believe the Hype: ‘Watchmen’ is the TV Show of the Moment

When Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons collaborated on what would become their magnum opus, Watchmen, starting in 1986, they had no idea the effect it would have on the comics medium, and on popular culture more broadly. Watchmen, which takes place in an alternate-universe 1985 and dealt with the lives of several superheroes in a world where vigilantism has been outlawed, ushered in a darker, more mature sensibility to comics. Comics weren’t just for kids anymore, and soon, others began to emulate what had made Watchmen stand out: relatable characters with very human flaws; political and social themes, as well as meta-text about the nature of comic book storytelling itself; a frank approach to violence and sex; the idea that not everything was as clean-cut as they were in most other DC or Marvel storylines. From the omnipotent existentialist Dr. Manhattan to the nihilistic vigilante Rorschach, from a bloody smiley face to a giant squid plopped in the middle of New York, the imagery, characters, and themes of the graphic novel are likely to stick with anyone who engages with it.

It’s important to note that Watchmen is an inherently political text, written at the height of Reagan’s America. In the text of the graphic novel, Richard Nixon is still president, and Dr. Manhattan was used to win the Vietnam War and annex Vietnam as the 51st state. From the gung-ho nationalism of the Comedian to Rorschach’s Ayn Rand-inspired personal philosophy, each character has political baggage indicative of the era. Its climax is about an incident that takes the United States and the Soviet Union away from the brink of nuclear war and instead creates world peace. The simple fact is that Watchmen was always an inherently political text, even in the guise of a comic book superhero story.

My personal relationship with Watchmen started in my sophomore year of high school. I wanted to get back into comics, and everyone and everything I read pointed me in the direction of the classic graphic novel. I was enthralled, my first girlfriend even remarked at the time that she had never seen me so riveted by anything I was reading before. Watchmen remains a fundamental text in my life, still residing on my bookshelf reserved for my favorite books. And subsequently, both its film adaptation, directed by Zack Snyder and released in 2009, as well as a comic book prequel miniseries called Before Watchmen in 2012, were entertaining and fun to engage with when they were first released, but haven’t been as worth revisiting as much as the original text.

Tim Blake Nelson as Looking Glass in HBO’s ‘Watchmen’.

So imagine my surprise that, in the year of our Lord 2020, Watchmen is the most relevant it has been in years, thanks to an HBO miniseries that served as a continuation of the storyline that first aired last year. I was reluctant to start watching the show, in a year that included such misfires in long-standing franchises as the final season of Game of Thrones and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, I was afraid that this fundamental book in my life would have its legacy and reputation tarnished. It also didn’t help that it was being developed by Damon Lindelof, most famous for writing the underwhelming ending to the TV show Lost and the Alien-prequel dud Prometheus.

But somehow, like its time-jumping protagonist Dr. Manhattan, despite being released in 2019, it feels like the show of the current moment. Here is a follow-up to one of (if not) the most beloved comic stories of all time that dealt with issues of over-policing and police brutality, race relations, security, the fight against white supremacy, and reexamining American history in a much more critical way through the lens of racial dynamics. The show takes the inherently political message of its predecessor and doubles down on it. In 2020, the world caught up to Watchmen. Now it’s just a matter of what we do with it.

The show, which takes place 34 years after the events of the graphic novel, primarily deals with Angela Abar (the impeccable Regina King, looking like a shoe-in for her fourth Emmy and solidifying her as one of the best actresses of her generation), a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma who operates under the alias of Sister Night. She and a fellow detective who wears a reflective mask named Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson, in his best role since O Brother, Where Art Thou?) stumble onto a vast conspiracy once her boss, the police chief (Don Johnson) is murdered. This allows Angela to discover her own family’s history and ties to the events of the original text, as her grandfather, Will Reeves (played by Louis Gossett Jr. when he’s old, Jovan Adepo when he’s young), was actually a famous superhero vigilante named Hooded Justice and a member of the Minutemen, a progenitor group to the Watchmen.

Meanwhile, mainstays from the original, including Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons) and Silk Spectre, now called Agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), are still out there. Ozymandias seems to live in a utopian castle in the countryside, surrounded by loyal servants, but he is desperate to get out. Laurie seeks to find out what happened to her one-time lover, Dr. Manhattan, as well as investigate the murder of the police chief and the appearance of Angela’s grandfather. In so doing, she encounters Lady Trieu (Hong Chau), a rich and powerful Vietnamese businesswoman who is surprisingly invested in a major project she is developing in Tulsa.

And then, once it’s revealed where Dr. Manhattan has been hiding…stop, wait, that’d be giving away too much.

It would have been too easy, too convenient to merely reconvene the original characters and have them reenact their adventures 30 years ago. Similarly, anything that made the material more marketable, such as incorporating the Watchmen characters and concept into the larger DC cinematic universe, would have felt sleazy. (Though that very thing happened recently in the DC comic book universe in a miniseries called Doomsday Clock, which I didn’t even bother picking up.) But it felt like the creators of the show had a story, a vision that they wanted to convey. Rather than just mere fan-service, they expanded the lore of the mythology and took the material into bold, exciting new directions.

The creators of the Watchmen miniseries also had a take that was unique, and spoke to these times as much as the original text did to its time. Beyond the aesthetic of the police wearing yellow masks over their nose and mouths (a look so prescient to COVID-preventing facemasks that it’s almost eerie), Watchmen uncovers truths that would be points of public discussion come 2020, spoken through its main character, a woman of color. In the Watchmen miniseries, President Robert Redford (only slightly less ridiculous than the current holder of the office) passes reparations for Black Americans, referred to in-universe as “Redfordations.” Angela is accused of using her Redfordations to open a bakery by a combative student in her son’s class. The show is also critical towards police and their complacency in structural racism, while still maintaining a protagonist who is both a police officer and a Black woman. The fictional white supremacist organization, the Seventh Kavalry, attacked police officers, including Angela, in an incident that predates the events of the show called the “White Night,” leading to increased paranoia on the part of the Tulsa P.D. The Seventh Kavalry has misinterpreted and misappropriated the writings of the late Rorschach from the original source material, with its members donning his iconic mask.

The Seventh Kavalry pictured in the ‘Watchmen’. (HBO)

Just as the original book was a critique of Reagan’s America, the show seems intended to be a rebuke of Trump’s America, presenting the audience with uncomfortable truths that were about to be brought to the surface. One of the main points of the show is white supremacist infiltration of police units, now at the forefront of the national conversation. Soon after the police chief’s death, Angela stumbles onto Klan robes hidden in his bedroom. That she had a friend and mentor whom she trusted so deeply be revealed to be so despicable is not only indicative of the nature of racism itself, but the social dynamics and struggle that people of color face every day in this country.

The miniseries features flashbacks to a young Black boy escaping from the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. The series was credited for raising awareness to what happened in Tulsa, and was highlighted in several publications after the nationwide George Floyd/Black Lives Matter protests as a positive example of promoting largely unacknowledged events of racial violence in America. Additionally, in an episode entitled “This Extraordinary Being,” Angela begins to see her grandfather’s personal history, after she overdoses on a drug called Nostalgia that has preserved her grandfather’s memories. She learns of the racism he encountered as one of New York’s first Black policemen, as well as a plot to hypnotize Black people that even Jordan Peele might call high-concept. The message of these subplots is clear: the present is in constant conversation with the past, it’s just a matter of what you do with it.

And sure, the show isn’t just heavy politics and flashbacks to racial unrest. Its rousing conclusion is different than most other miniseries, which usually start strong and end more-or-less as expected (looking at you, Chernobyl). Watchmen switches it up towards the end, incorporating more of the mythos of the universe and revealing how closely tied all of the events depicted really were the whole time. Rather than feeling contrived, it works ingeniously, solving mysteries the audience has had the entire season and clearing up ambiguities so you can appreciate the thrust of the story as a whole. The penultimate episode, entitled “A God Walks Into Abar,” is the perfect example of this, filling in the holes of the narrative while at the same time giving the audience a more-or-less complete view of the central relationship of the show.

Watchmen feels like a miracle. Not just because of incredible imagination and thoughtfulness that went into making it, a follow-up to classic source material that should not have been feasible, but that it arrived at this time specifically. Now, more than simply being a water-cooler conversation or an interesting sequel to a beloved comic series, Watchmen is a resource. It’s a resource about engaging with the past and confronting the difficult parts of American history. It’s a blueprint about how to tell captivating, relevant storylines using established characters and canon. It’s a template for success: in an era where big ideas are more likely to breakthrough in the era of “peak TV,” here was a show committed to being something deeper and authentic. Beyond great dialogue, solid performances, and commendable visual effects, Watchmen sort of transcends all of it, becoming something greater than the sum of its parts. Like the comic book source material, it is the successor to, I’m confident it and the themes it imparts will both be with us for years to come.