Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel Watchmen, like Fight Club and Starship Troopers, has a knack for getting itself misunderstood. Frankly, that’s mostly because white guys in the demographic that usually watches this kind of thing are used to a certain kind of messaging and a certain status quo interpretation. Action heroes kill stuff. It’s awesome. Rah, rah, violence. Move along, see the sequel in a year. Past behavior is hard to escape; it’s also hard to criticize without accidentally dipping back into old habits. Watchmen’s HBO sequel series from Damon Lindelof isn’t perfect in this regard, but it’s easy to watch, tough to pin down, and well worth working through.
It takes place three decades since everything went down with Rorschach, Doctor Manhattan, and Ozymandias’ giant space squid. Racist Seventh Kalvary terrorists don Rorschach masks and attack cops like Angela Abar (Regina King) en masse, leading to police in Tulsa protecting their identities with masks of their own. Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) a.k.a. Ozymandias, is MIA while Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) a.k.a. Silk Spectre, is now an FBI agent.
They’re not the only familiar references from the comic. The striking use of color—like the bright yellow masks worn by Tulsa PD that match a certain ubiquitous smiley face’s hue—music, and speculative pop culture find adaptive fidelity here, as do some of the comic’s wonky framing stories. The show opens with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre that torched Black Wall Street, a set piece pulled off with sweeping, brutal effectiveness. It leaves two children alive and viewers prepared for this show to go hard on racial injustice. And it does … eventually. Early steps forward are pushed diagonally by choices that initially seem tone-deaf, like how, for example, the first episode ends with a white man’s surprise death by lynching.
But it mostly pays off. This murder serves as a mirror to that of The Comedian in the original—a simple instigation that gets messy fast. And things get messy. The FBI sends Blake while Abar tries to solve it on her own terms, and much larger machinations happen behind the scenes. Plotting that revels in asides, references, metaphors, and symbolism is alternatively rich, bewildering, trite, and ballsy. The wide ensemble’s storylines are rarely boring, but sometimes that’s because you’ll be saying “Wait, what the fuck is going on?” Sometimes that’s necessary for a mystery to work; sometimes it’s because the show isn’t sure what it wants to say.
The Kalvary, more on-the-nose as a neo-KKK than the actual alt-right, is given ulterior motives and a radicalization scheme based in conspiracy … which is way too much credit for an analogue to present-day alt-right, considering the conspiracy is canonically true. The first cops we see are black, including Abar. Clad in black leather and a mask, she nabs and tortures whomever her fellow police need. It’s fascists against fascists in this fraught pseudo-grey world. It’s also made even less palatable to be set in Tulsa, where in reality the police force allowed an elderly white donor to the sheriff’s reelection campaign to murder an unarmed black man while he was subdued and on the ground in April of 2015. In October of 2015, HBO began preliminary discussions about Watchmen. Other than this knowledge, my status as a former Tulsa-area resident isn’t very useful (except to note that Oklahomans never talk about Oklahoma).
However, anyone living in America will be familiar with the alt-present Watchmen envisions. A series of jaded cops, each more fed-up than the last, navigate a world of militant racists with militant means of their own. “Do you know how to tell the difference between a masked cop and a vigilante?” asks Blake. Abar doesn’t. “Me neither.” The series loves to traffic in provocative duality, like the line between accountability and safety. Those provocations may give Smart plenty of sass to sink her teeth into, but seems disingenuous considering the show’s ambitious thematic center.
The show becomes more and more about the traumas suffered by our progenitors, how they’ve lived on through us, and how we respond to their effects. It susses out the ways the government would attempt reparations for black Americans robbed of historical wealth—including the racist backlash against and cringe-inducing videos used to inform those receiving them. This applies to oppression and inequality, sure, but an entire episode digs into the 9/11-like aftershocks resonating into the American psyche from Ozymandius’ space squid drop on NYC. The past comes for everyone in the show.
This relationship to the past is both textual and metatextual: Watchmen can’t escape its history any easier than its characters. The Easter egg-filled show has an “Unforgettable” needle drop and The Owlship (or AN Owlship) torches a plane. Blake’s screwed-up psychosexual relationship with masks continues to undermine her own autonomy, while violence and action inside of an in-universe docu-drama manages to out-caricature Zack Snyder’s most egregious pieces of slo-mo silliness. Violence outside this meta-moment is still over-the-top (a cow is absolutely shredded by a Gatling gun) but presented with matter-of-fact seriousness.
Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor fans have another reason to partake: Watchmen sounds excellent, thrumming and metallic, bolstered with old-school synth syncopated to be just as unnerving as the images it scores. In fact, it all looks so good that its more complicated and trying elements have their burn chased almost entirely away. The effect and camerawork of Watchmen is great, whether it’s gorgeous, multifaceted black-and-white photography or simply the elegant capture of well-composed choreography. The show looks rich: fun futuristic tech VFX populate the fore and background, and elaborate set design supplement top-tier performances.
Irons, hamming it up perfectly in a strange and macabre Westworld-esque land of clones and steampunk, struts around in his underwear a lot. It’s intriguing mystery and excitingly eccentric. Tim Blake Nelson’s conspiracy theorist is often seen in a wholly reflective mask, and is the cops’ resident operative of psychological warfare. While trippy interrogations are his specialty, his endearing drawl and weary humor perfectly play off the no-nonsense badassery (and irony) dealt by King. King’s rapport with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who plays her husband, is just one facet of a forceful performance that requires everything from action choreography with a shotgun to literally reliving her past. Irons and King crush every second (snarling or riffing quotable lines in perfect, GIF-able snippets), but they’re just part of a vast and talented ensemble that includes highlights like standoffish, totally believable child acting from Dylan Schombing and a new, delightful facet of Hong Chau.
Even if scenes are introduced with a long-winded metaphorical joke—delivered confession-style via one-way satellite phone to the blue god hanging out on Mars—they almost always work once they get to the conversations at their center. The small-scale moments, the way families interact, work so well in Watchmen (something that’s equally true of the comic and has been lost in the quest to cram its strange setpieces into the modern superhero canon). The length of TV fits the material perfectly, giving plenty of time for its strange characters and their warped mentalities to explain themselves.
It’s a fun show to watch. Much of that credit has to go to Lindelof and his gaggle of co-scripters, but they also do their fair share in mucking it up. Behind all this fun is a story and a version of America that may rub some the wrong way because Lindelof and crew can be more interested in provocation and tantalization than clarity. That’s classic Watchmen. And it wouldn’t be Watchmen without a big story-redefining twist, but at the end of the six episodes I saw, the show stabilizes its political stance to a place that meshes well with its themes of choice, and would be ill-served to upend it.
Unlike some other prestige TV with muddled messaging, Watchmen doesn’t leave you feeling empty. The thematic throughline of the past’s haunting echoes and tangible consequences can get hammy at times, but it’s still a fascinating concept for a sequel series that nobody asked for. Clever, mean, blood-in-the-mouth humor meshes with politics warped and wild in this alt-present where Robert Redford is president and peace was forced upon the world by a murderous genius. Coping with this reality, moving on from the sins of the past, and figuring out how to find a just future—that’s a journey riddled with pitfalls, but one Watchmen makes irresistible.
Watchmen premieres Sunday, October 20th on HBO.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.