Watchmen: It's Summer and We're Running Out of Ice

“Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock…”

Well, this is sure to ruffle some feathers. And I don’t just mean Alan Moore.

Watchmen was supposed to be the book no one could adapt to film. That was proven wrong in 2009, although the reactions to Zach Snyder’s movie are somewhat mixed; mine included. But since it’s one of my favorite fictional universes, I couldn’t help but be intrigued when I learned they were actually making a series, let alone one that acted as a continuation of the story as opposed to a straight limited series adaptation.

The Skinny

I understand there are many who feel this was unnecessary and without merit on general principle, as the creator of Watchmen most likely does. However, as Moore himself once wrote, nothing ever really ends. And as great and poetic as the original story’s ending was, there is clearly a lot more one could do with that universe.

Damon Lindelof as showrunner seemed like another good omen. He is a die-hard fan of the graphic novel; its influence can definitely be seen in his work on Lost. However, while he is a fan, he's also a storyteller. As such, he's done a good job of neatly and cleverly interweaving elements and nods to the source material together with the fresh new plot, characters and setting.

What we see here does in many ways feel like a natural extension of where the book and film left. Watchmen was a story that famously questioned the true morality of superheroes in a way few have matched and explored the dramatic ways in which their presence would affect the world. It was also a mature tale of humanity, that explored real world issues and events.

This new series aims to do the same, but with a much different backdrop, since it is taking place over 30 years after the original ending. Instead of the bright and shining superhero haven of New York City, we find ourselves in the more small-scale environment of rugged Tulsa. Our crime fighters are no longer celebrity government assets or outlaw vigilantes, they are independent secret police detectives with masked alter-egos. And we trade in President Richard Nixon and the Cold War boiling over for President Robert Redford and the deadly divide between American races and political ideologies.

Our Ticking Clock

While a few characters are well established, this episode largely focuses on establishing the nature of this world. We see that not much has changed, and the United States is still a dystopia in disguise. For now we're left to speculate as to how the rest of America is changed, but Tulsa appears to be on the brink of war between the authoritarian Tulsa Police and the vicious white supremacist organization called the Seventh Kavalry.

I appreciate that we aren't drowned in exposition right off the bat. Lindelof seems to be a writer who likes to show rather than tell as often as possible. We don't necessarily need to be told that Robert Redford is the President, or that his "Redford-ations" to minorities are what triggered the Seventh Kavalry. We're given a little background on the conflict's origin, the White Night, in which the Kavalry organized a massive killing spree aimed at the police who enforced these new reforms, but we don't really need it to understand why every member of the Tulsa Police force wears a mask.

What stuck with me after the episode is the idea of using the very real Tulsa race riot of 1921 (more accurately referred to as the Black Wall Street Massacre) as a framing device for this bizarre alternate reality we're stuck with in the present. It's a horrifying historical event that isn't as well known as it should be in America due to various attempts to cover it up in the almost one hundred years since it happened, yet it is a perfect representation of the complex issues this show is trying to examine.

We are given another, modernized scenario in which the hatred and resentment of bigoted white people toward black people threatening to prosper explodes into bloody chaos. It's just one of many hyper-real takes on actual problems we face as a society, and the grey area below the surface. This one hour alone examines the deep ideological division between liberals and conservatives, the potential dark alternative to our America's current era of right wing fascism, and, of course, the measure to which the police and other law enforcers should be policed.

Doomed to Repeat

As fascinating as this all is, I do still appreciate that, despite the show's unexpected intro in 1921, it proves to be acting very much in the spirit of the original Watchmen. As seen when this episode's ending mirrors the opening scene of the comic, with the mysteriously lynched Chief Judd Crawford and his bloodstained badge in place of The Comedian and his bloodstained smiley face pin.

I'm gonna take a wild shot in the dark and say Dr. Manhattan killed Crawford.

You may have noticed I've been hesitant to mention too many details about the comic and how exactly they factor into this story. The truth is, I'm not sure how much I should say, because there is plenty about this episode that I naturally understand that someone who didn't read the comic or watch the movie probably wouldn't. I don't know what is supposed to be a surprise for the uninitiated. Some things seem like they'll be fully addressed at some point, like the role Veidt played in shaping this story or the Seventh Kavalry bastardizing Rorschach's black-and-white worldview. Other things, such as Dr. Manhattan's elimination of fossil fuels or the squid rain showers, may not be elaborated upon much at all.

This series premiere did keep me entertained and interested, but as much as it gave me, I feel like we're only scratching the surface of the show's ambitions.


Capes and Masks:

* I'm on board with most of our new characters. Regina King is certainly the lead star as Angela Abar aka Sister Night, but Looking Glass, Red Scare and Pirate Jenny were all cool too. The obstructive, literally by-the-book cop Panda was quite amusing, as was everyone's annoyance with his strict adherence to police procedure. I got attached to Don Johnson as Judd Crawford pretty quick and was disappointed when he didn't survive the episode. But I get the feeling it is Will Reeves, first seen as a child survivor of the Tulsa riots but now seems to be hyper aware of what is going on as a wheelchair-bound old man, who may be the most significant.

* Very cool score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

* Looking Glass's mask seems to function as a two-way mirror. Very appropriate, considering he seems to be an expert interrogator.

* How the hell did the Tulsa Police get their hands on Dan Dreiberg's owl ship? Is it just a standard paramilitary vehicle now?

* Love all the nods to the Doomsday clock.

* Something is very off about Veidt's servants. I have seen it speculated that they aren't human, but androids he has created.

* The building that Dr. Manhattan creates and then destroys on Mars looks a bit like the castle Veidt is living in.

* Easter eggs: a copy of “Under the Hood” on Judd’s desk; a picture of Mount Rushmore featuring the head of Richard Nixon; the very racist old ad for the bank Dollar Bill worked for in the Kavalry hideout; a cover of Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” playing over the dinner scene; the cake colors matching Veidt’s Ozymandias costume.

Quotes:

Judd Crawford: Why in Christ’s name would they start this shit up again?
Looking Glass: Maybe there was something in the truck they didn’t want found.
Judd Crawford: Something like what?
Looking Glass: There was a head of lettuce in Sutton’s car. Shooter must’ve tossed it in. I believe it was Romain.
Judd Crawford: … Were there any croutons?
Looking Glass: … Not that I could ascertain.
Judd Crawford: You don’t start a war over goddamn lettuce, Wade.

Seventh Kavalry Leader: Cop carcass on the highway last night. Soon the accumulated black filth will be hosed away, and the streets of Tulsa will turn into extended gutters, overflowing with liberal tears. Soon all the whores and race traitors will shout “Save us!” And we will whisper… No. We are the Seventh Kavalry. We are no one. We are everyone. We are invisible. And we will never compromise.

Judd Crawford: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Tulsa Police: Nos custodimus!

Sister Night: I got a nose for white supremacy, and he smells like bleach.

Looking Glass: Do you believe that trans-dimensional attacks are hoaxes staged by the U.S. government?

Adrian Veidt: It’s the bee’s knees.

Four and a half out of five pocket watches.

5 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Logan, what an interesting read. I really know nothing about Watchmen and I think this review is nicely balanced taking viewers like me into account. I don't have HBO right now, but you made me want to watch this.

FWIW, the title of the episode is a line from the very strange song "Poor Judd is Dead" in the musical, Oklahoma. I'm trying to figure out the context. Is it because of Tulsa? :)

Logan Cox said...

Thank you, Billie. Glad to know I did what I intended.

I'd definitely recommend reading the graphic novel, since the series is more of a continuation of that than the movie.

And yeah, that song plays at the end of the episode and it has to do with Don Johnson's character, Judd Crawford.

Sam Smith said...

Great review! I didnt catch the latin while watching, but it seems like thats more indicative of what the showrunners are trying to do than anything else in this ep. I do have a strong suspicion that Jeremy Irons might not be Veidt though.

Henrik Bennetter said...

Good grief Billie Doux!

You really should read the graphic novel. Shoulda. Oughta.

I thought this was very interesting. I love how we're not fed the answer but have to think for ourselves as well. We're just inserted into the universe.

Initially I was very weary to watching this, because I didn't want the novel tarnished, but I'm going to go ahead and watch a few more.

And by the way. We now now who watches the Watchmen. We do!

Logan Cox said...

Sam, I think it is Veidt, just not as we know him.

Henrik, I also dug the way they don't drown us in exposition right off the bat. Makes the world more intriguing.

I was also hesitant to watch out of fear that it would disgrace Moore's book, but I'm honestly having a lot of fun with it. So far, it's doing a good job of expanding on that story while paying homage to it.