Some thoughts on HBO’s Watchmen

A few weeks ago, fellow ASJ-er Jim posted a rather scathing indictment of the Watchmen movie, with which I entirely agree, and indicated that I would soon be posting my thoughts on the recent HBO Watchmen series. I’m finally getting around to doing just that (sorry for the delay – let’s just say that in early July real life got a little too real and for a time left me feeling depressed and apathetic and not at all in the mood for engaging in light-hearted, pop-culture related persiflage).

First and foremost, I have to say that – like Jim – I quite thoroughly enjoyed the series and have a mostly positive view of the entire thing. I say ‘mostly’ because my inner geek did fixate on certain story elements that I felt were either somewhat at odds with the source material (i.e., the original graphic novel) or constituted possible plot holes.

So first I’ll just run through some of my main criticisms, which may seem like I’m dissing the show. I suppose my biggest criticism is one I’ve seen aired at many places online that applies to anything made having to do with Watchmen: should anything beyond the original Moore/Gibbons graphic novel ever be done at all, i.e., using the characters, situations or even the very name Watchmen when everyone knows how shabbily (to put it mildly) DC treated Moore over the rights to it? This is a topic that probably deserves its own separate post, and it’s also something that’s been hashed out many, many times before at countless comic news sites, blogs and forums, and will be again, so I really don’t want to dwell on it any more here.

So, let’s look at some of the specific aspects of the actual show that irked me. (By the way, it hardly needs to be mentioned, but be warned anyway: I’ll be spoiling the hell out of the show, so if you’re planning on watching it and want to maintain the element of surprise, stop reading right here).

© HBO 2019

Laurie Blake/Juspeczyk: the character was perfect for the series, played wonderfully by Jean Smart, as she was an ideal foil for the various other main characters. However, I can’t square this Laurie with the one at the end of Watchmen – she’s more like the Laurie from just after her break-up with Jon/Dr. Manhattan projected 30 years into the future. At the end of the original comic series, she’s very much a whole person who’s moved on with her life, who’s well and truly over Jon and her entire past – not someone who’s all hung up about it, to the point that she’s a jaded FBI agent with an immense chip on her shoulder about masked vigilantes, and also apparently still pining for Jon not only emotionally but also physically (as we see when she pulls out a big blue dildo in her motel room in Tulsa).

Related to that, I was sort of annoyed at the short shrift given to Dan/Nite Owl. He just didn’t fit into the overriding narrative that the writers/creators of the TV series wanted to put forth, so they just kind of hand-waved him away with one or two passing mentions. But he is just as vital to the original story as any other character, and he and Laurie finding each other was just as important an aspect of that story as any other.

© HBO 2019

Lady Trieu (played by Hong Chau): she’s a fantastically intriguing character initially, but then all of sudden, in the last episode, she sort of devolves into a rather standard monologuing super villain. Also, by that point, I became far more interested in her mother, Bian. Who was she? How did she figure out how to hack into Veidt’s computer? How did she know he was not only collecting his own sperm, but also where he was hiding it? Her back story became fascinating to me, but we get nothing (unless, in some as-yet unannounced sequel, that would be something explored with her clone who took all of the memory pills. However, I hope there are no plans for anything like that. I think Damon Lindelof et al. told a complete story here and don’t see any point in dipping into this well again).

But let’s turn to what I think are the strong points, and make this series well worth watching – even with a plot-hole or two I’ll get to:

I really like that the main settings for the entire series are Tulsa, OK and Saigon, where the main character, Angela Abar, spent a good part of her life, first serving as a police officer there (remember, in the Watchmen world Vietnam is the 51st US state). It thus puts front and center two themes that were touched upon in the original graphic novel but not necessarily directly addressed: racism in the US and American imperialism.

The use of Tulsa in particular was just a stroke of genius, because it gave Lindelof et al. an opportunity to put a harsh spotlight on the Tulsa race riot/massacre of 1921 in that now much talked-about opening scene. Apparently this was the first time many Americans in particular ever even heard about that atrocity.

Outskirts of Tulsa, 1921 (© HBO 2019)

Not to digress too much, but I think making the destruction of ‘Black Wall Street’ the point of departure for the series was such a brilliant idea. It really was a major event, one that seemed to epitomize the horrible racial animosities that seem to be the leitmotif of American history – but it was very thoroughly erased from collective memory. It’s hardly ever touched upon even in academic settings. I know I first learned about it many years after I’d finished college (where I majored in history!) while web-surfing. In retrospect, it really shocked me that I’d never learned about it in college, esp. since, for example, in my sophomore year I took a survey course on 20th century US history and the professor was an African American woman whose specialty was society and culture in the interwar years. She never once mentioned it  – although she did highlight the Harlem Renaissance, something else that was new to me at the time (and I’m thankful to her for that).

Related to that, I really liked the retooling of Hooded Justice’s back story, making the first ‘masked avenger’ a gay (or possibly bisexual?) Black man named Will Reeves whose parents were among those killed in Tulsa and who later became a cop in NYC. I loved the slow burn reveal of who he was and I loved the portrayal of the present-day Reeves by Louis Gossett, Jr.

Will Reeves then (Jovan Adepo) and now (Louis Gossett Jr.) (© HBO 2019)

And now we come to my favorite character, who is in fact the main POV character: Will’s granddaughter, the aforementioned Angela Abar, adeptly played by Regina King (I’ve come to realize that King pretty much makes anything she’s in better). Officially, she is a retired Tulsa police detective who is still working under a secret identity, called ‘Sister Night’, for which she wears a nun’s habit and a ski mask. Together with Jean Smart’s Laurie, she really did the heavy lifting throughout and really kept viewers invested in the story.

(© HBO 2019)

However, probably the biggest plot-hole in the series comes when Angela finds out about her heritage, and Will’s back story. After ODing on his nostalgia pills, because she didn’t absorb his memory of meeting Jon ten years earlier, even though she also acquired his very recent memories (like how he got Crawford to hang himself). This, of course, would have spoiled some big reveals later, but it’s not explained why those little bits would have been excised when Angela was lying in bed and basically reliving her grandfather’s life.

That also leads to what I think is the second plot-hole, or maybe just the second inconsistency with the Moore/Gibbons original, namely Dr. Manhattan. Obviously, he was crucial to the story being told, and I liked the idea of him suppressing his own memory so he’s secretly Angela’s husband, Calvin (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the whole time. However, as with Laurie, it doesn’t quite square with what we see at the end of original series, as at that point, he’s serene and accepting of his, well, godhood, so no really convincing explanation is given as to why he actually decided to return to Earth, and then get into another intimate relationship with a human being.

(© HBO 2019)

Jim underscored in his post on the movie that the extra-dimensional alien squid monster plot cooked up by Ozymandias/Veidt is not stupid; I agree, and so did this show’s creative team. I liked that a minor plot point is that in the post-event world, showers of tiny squid still occasionally rain down from the sky at random, reminding the world that the danger still lurks – of course, we later learn that this was also set up by Veidt to keep the memory fresh. Tied to that, I like that the show also deals with the lasting psychological trauma that the 1985 event would have had on the survivors, so that, e.g., one of the main characters, Tulsa police detective Wade Tillman, is shown regularly attending group therapy for survivors (he was a teenager visiting New Jersey when it happened).

(© HBO 2019)

Wade (played by Tim Blake Nelson), by the way, is a character whose arc I really like. Initially, it seems like he would be this show’s equivalent to the original’s Rorschach: as noted, he’s been psychologically scarred since his teens due to the event and even his masked persona, Looking Glass, with the close-fitting mirrored hood, is similar to Rorscach’s look. However, we see that he ultimately goes in the other direction, and does not let his past traumas and insecurities define who he is or what he will become.

Speaking of Rorschach, I’ll just echo Jim in saying that I loved how his legacy is to be the inspiration for racist cosplayers (because this cannot be emphasized enough: Rorschach is NOT an aspirational character) who belong to a secret society called the ‘Seventh Cavalry’ (but they’re really just the KKK under a new name).

Looks even more disturbing now… (© HBO 2019)

And speaking of cosplaying, there’s also the aspect of the police in Tulsa all wearing masks, with detectives even adopting code names and specific personas (I already mentioned ‘Sister Night’ and ‘Looking Glass’, but there’s others like ‘Red Scare’ and ‘Panda’), in contrast to the illegality of masked vigilantes in the US. The ostensible official reason for this in Tulsa is to protect the police officers and their families. I was watching this series in late May and early June, in the wake of the George Floyd murder and the subsequent protests, so I found this aspect really made me think about police violence even more. The Tulsa police are often portrayed as going into action against the Rorschach cosplaying racists – for whom viewers have little sympathy – but their brutality in dealing with them was still shocking at times. Of course, another layer to this is that we eventually learn that the Tulsa PD was infiltrated at the highest levels by the ‘Seventh Cavalry’, most notably police chief Judd Crawford (played by Don Johnson) who is killed by Reeves in the first episode.

(© HBO 2019)

The B-plot involving Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias was really quite fascinating; initially, you don’t know what to make of it, and it seems like some kind of black comedy relief from the main story. Then it all falls into place when it’s revealed that Dr. Manhattan placed him on a refuge he created on Jupiter’s moon Europa because Veidt thought it would be like paradise. It became a personal hell, though, driving him a bit mad. Otherwise, Veidt getting arrested by Wade and Laurie for perpetrating the alien squid atrocity in 1985 was like a cherry on top for me. I found that so deliciously satisfying…

4 Comments

  1. Peter

    I really enjoyed the series myself, but I agree with you totally about Laurie and Dr. Manhattan/Cal. I like Jean Smart’s character here, but she is not really that close to the Laurie at the end of Watchmen. Same thing with Manhattan: I suppose there was a fair enough amount of exposition regarding his boredom with being a god, but I still don’t feel like he squares up totally with the Dr. Manhattan from the end of the comics. I also feel like Jeremy Irons was great, but Veidt was written a bit too broadly. It’s easy to forget given how badly his character was butchered in the movie, but Ozymandias was a compelling, charismatic character in the book and it was hinted but not telegraphed that he was the mastermind. I would have liked to see a little more complexity to his character in the show.

    I do appreciate the show’s thematic material a lot – I first read Watchmen after the Cold War had been over for at least a decade and a half, so I was intellectually aware of the tensions that existed in the 80s but I didn’t emotionally understand how dire the situation could have seemed to someone living in the US or USSR that a squid-plot would almost seem justified. I think that, unfortunately, the racial tensions in the show are even more relevant a year after its run, and I am able to feel that tension quite acutely where I know that something is deeply wrong in our society but its scope is so large that it is hard to contemplate seeing it fixed in my lifetime without some kind of miraculous intervention.

  2. I watched the first couple of episodes. Well acted but catching it after recent events masked unidentified cops busting bad guys has an entirely different resonance.
    And while it was well-acted, it seemed to show a lot of Lindelof’s “Lost” style and I have no faith in his ability to pull off an arc of more than one episode in length.

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