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The Watchmen pilot is as violent, thought-provoking, and humorous as the graphic novel

Regina King
Photo: Mark Hill (HBO)
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On the back of the 2005 reprint of Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ masterpiece Watchmen, there’s a pull quote from Damon Lindelof, showrunner of the current HBO series of the same title, that reads, “The greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced.” If the pilot indicates anything, it’s that Lindelof believes that statement with every fiber of his being. A clear studied work of the original text, Lindelof evolves the narrative from its 1985 conclusion, a world where Robert Redford contemplates running for President, masked vigilantes have suddenly reemerged after the ’77 Keene Act made their work illegal (unless you were a war dog or could turn your body into an atom bomb), and the Cold War reached a very unnatural conclusion by way of a doctored alien invasion.

The time feels right for a series based on Watchmen, one that sits in the Venn diagram of Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, and Blue Lives Matter; where a righteous anger crackles with friction across the land “won” through manifest destiny and slavery. America’s reckoning with its early tragedies is set at a crawling pace, but it’s coming nevertheless. Damon Lindelof opens his continuation of the source material with the bombing of Black Wall Street in 1921, an event that was ignored by most papers at the time due to sympathy with the KKK and private citizens who helped fund the homegrown terrorist operation. Their fear was that Black Americans with financial power could undo the entire system. The pilot, “It’s Summer And We’re Running Out Of Ice” leaps from injustice to justice—set in modern-day Oklahoma, reparations (referred to colloquially as “Redfordations”) have been implemented by President Robert Redford to even out the scales.

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All over Tulsa are Black memorials, Black musical stage productions of Oklahoma infused with Nigerian flare, and Black wealth visible from every angle. And why not? On the new American flags seen throughout the episode, the number of stars have nearly doubled. Where the original text was focused on the fear of global superpowers, this series focuses on local power—who wields it, and how are the little people affected? The show begins in a world where racism against the Black community exists, but the power dynamic no longer does. Showcasing this new era is a tricky balancing act. There are as many Black officers on the local police force as white, and it seems the only people oppressed are the racists. That could be problematic down the line, but early on, it feels like a set-up for a potential plot flip mid-season. For now, there’s plenty to mull over already woven into the series.

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Regina King comes out in full force as Angela Abar. The outfit, instantly iconic, looks like a cross between a monk and a Matrix cosplay. Both strong and feminine, the extra touch of lace across the mouth, highlighted by black paint across the eyes elevates this dynamic. On her belt are a mala, a beaded Vietnamese self-defense weapon, and her sheriff’s star sit on her hip. This persona, Sister Night, stands in direct contrast to Angela’s personality as a wife and mother. Her eldest son Topher (Dylan Schombing) seems as dark and brooding as she is. As the show delves into who gets to call themselves a hero, it’ll be interesting to see whether Angela or her dark persona is her true identity.

One of my favorite things about this series is how it handles dialogue. The cops all talk like cowboys, or detectives from film noir. This helps to further explore the American hero archetype as it exists on screen. HBO’s Watchmen comes at an interesting time, when the idea of who gets to be a hero is on everyone’s minds as calls for better representation ring across Hollywood. Where the ’70s and ’80s idolized men who were clawing their way out of the seedy underbelly of fat cities, men like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, today’s viewers might find connecting emotionally to angry disturbed men a challenge. Even super-polished superheroes have become normal. Everyday heroes fighting for their corner of the world makes a lot more sense for the focus of the next era of the Watchmen franchise.

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Yahya Abdul-Marteen II(left), Regina King (center), Adelynn Spoon (right)
Photo: Mark Hill (HBO)

The scene most folks will walk away talking about is the reverse role-play in the traffic stop. A white male, pulled over by a Black cop, immediately places both hands on the steering wheel. Before reaching into his glove compartment, he informs the officer of his movements. After seeing a mask that isn’t illegal to own, the officer radios dispatch for access to his firearm. It’s the sort of dream many Black Americans would love to see come through. There’s a comfort in Panda’s (Jacob Ming-Trent) insistence on going through each checkmark to make sure the situation calls for a gun. On the same road where a newly orphaned boy and a baby wrapped in the American flag escaped a bombing, here comes a presumed racist blasting hip-hop. The pervasiveness of Black art in this episode is a powerful thing to witness.

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How did cops get to become masked vigilantes? Despite working for the law, they seem to find and use any opportunity to circumvent having to obey it. Chief of Police Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) does blow at a gathering with Angela’s family. Everyone notices but no one seems to mind. When she learns of the officer shooting, Angela kidnaps a suspect with little more than her nose as evidence and brings him in for interrogation, then beats the literal blood and piss out of him. Despite what looks like a diverse police unit, they still feel as blue and regimented as those operating in the real world.

When Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) interrogates the man, he too seems to have heightened senses and just know the suspect lied to him. Flashing photos of Americana including the Negro baseball league, a KKK bonfire, Mount Rushmore (complete with Nixon’s head), Black graduates, and American apple pie and the heart-pounding retro-futuristic sounds of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross amp up the tension until Glass makes his decision. The Tulsa Police Department cares more for retribution than justice. A man behind a mirror says a man knows something, a woman cloaked in shadows beats him until piss and blood spew from his body, and they call it justice. In their minds, they are heroes.

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Tim Blake Nelson (left), Regina King (right)
Photo: Mark Hill (HBO)

This makes me wonder, do the Nixonville racists have a right to be afraid of the police? We know for sure that The White Night, where dozens of policemen and women were slaughtered in their homes, made it legal to put on the mask, and perhaps Night Owl’s former police background spoke to the officers. They used his ship Archimedes as a prototype for their aircraft. Maybe that’s why they feel it’s okay to step outside the bounds of normal due process. It’s here where the first links between the heroes from the comics and the heroes in the TV show can be made. Justice happens inside an organized system—anything less can only be called anarchy. Though this police force honors the best of the heroes who came before them, they’re no different than the Seventh Cavalry.

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Though Angela’s nose proved correct, she worked completely outside the judicial system. The secret of the police force makes for an almost McCarthy era fear among regular citizens. When Crawford goes to visit the wife of the injured officer, his condolences have an undercurrent of threat to them. He treats her like a suspect, leaning into to her to discover whether or not her husband may have revealed his job status to any additional parties. She swears he didn’t. Crawford plays buddy cop and bad cop simultaneously. It’s a credit to both the writing and Johnson’s performance that the situation doesn’t feel hokey.

Costuming tells a lot of story in Watchmen. The obvious costumes belong to the detectives. While officers wear the police dress uniform and a bright yellow mask (which weirdly makes them an easy target for criminals. Bright yellow show up well in the dark), the detectives get to show off their personality. The mystery around them makes them like celebrities of a bygone era, before social media gave us access to their interior lives. But even Judd’s uniform acts as a kind of costume. When he dresses before leaving the house one last time, there’s a look of pride in his eyes that he didn’t possess the moment before. The doubts he carried about being able to protect his men, about answering to the governor, disappear once he’s in costume.

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“We are no one, we are everyone, and we are invisible. We will never compromise.” This statement is made by the Seventh Cavalry, but one that the police live by. In the scene where the officers watch the Cavalry’s warning video, director Nicole Kassell points out the similarities by placing the camera equally between the screen and the officers. Both crews hide their faces, both promise retribution for perceived slights, and both delight in their forthcoming and unearned victory. Using words directly from Rorschach’s journal, and a quote from an interview Adrian Veidt gave in 1975, the Seventh Cavalry decided they should be the watchers of men. “I see the twentieth century as a race between enlightenment and extinction. On the one hand, you have the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” Veidt explained, “(and in the other) the seventh cavalry.” In American History, the Seventh Cavalry operated under General Custer in the Indian War. This army took out a Cheyenne tribe by surrounding them while they slept and murdering without mercy men, women, and children. Now, a group of citizens have taken the name. Their ultimate goal isn’t yet clear, but they believe in the white race, Nixon, and the destruction of the police. Oh, and they wear Rorschach’s mask.

Regina King
Photo: Mark Hill (HBO)
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If you haven’t seen the movie or read the graphic novel, here’s what you need to know about Rorschach. Born into an abusive home, a young Walter Kovac learned of his mother’s job in sex work by walking in on her and a customer. Relentlessly bullied as a child and scorned at home, he became accustomed to violence. At 16, he leaves, fashions a mask, and begins to tackle petty crime—until one day, when he uncovered a crime so horrific, he snapped. Rorschach believes justice in an unjust world means performing unjustly. He’ll cross any line to out the bad guy, meaning a lot of innocent people get hurt along the way. Before he dies, Rorschach sends his private journal to the New Frontiersman outing Ozymandias, a.k.a. Adrian Veidt, and his schemes.

The only character from the original text to appear in the television show happens to be the villain. Now, his name isn’t directly stated, but context clues lead me to believe the man on the white horse is Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons). He lives like an ousted king in a castle in the countryside, surrounded by robot servants. Listen, they’re robots, clones, or brainwashed runaways—either way, folks who do not think for themselves. He announces he’s putting on a play called The Watchmaker’s Son. This could be a nod to Doctor Manhattan’s childhood; his father made him give up watchmaking to become a scientist. The last time these two interacted, Ozymandias questioned whether or not his decision to drop a fake alien squid on New York was justified in the end. The doctor’s non-answer seemed to leave him stupefied. Perhaps he’s gone mad?

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A series pilot has two jobs: the first is to build and establish an authentic world in which viewers can be absorbed; the second, to ask questions intriguing enough to bring them back next week. Watchmen’s spectacular world-building expands upon Moore and Gibbons’ original vision, using newspapers, television spots, and ads to fill in the events of the last 30 years along with recent ones . One thing missing from the pilot is the life of the individual citizen. There are about a half-dozen citizens whose lives the story frequently peeks in on. Their tensions and struggles color a world with supers; without them, that world doesn’t feel as rich. But there’s still plenty of time to bring in such characters.

Jeremy Irons
Photo: Colin Hutton (HBO)
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Speaking of time, clocks and the relative passing of time play an important role in Watchmen’s storytelling. Moore and Gibbons use of time fluctuates with image size and the telling and re-telling of the story until time folds in on itself so that all events are happening simultaneously. Using audio, the Watchmen series starts a clock as Judd begins to sing “People Will Say We’re in Love.” over dinner with Angela and her family. The laughing is now on a timer. A hushed conversation ends with a jest about the end of the world. At the end of the night, Judd’s world does come to an end. But why? What was he involved in? The Seventh Cavalry seems too simple an answer. And why did that old man have a hundred-year-old piece of paper? Does “Watch Over This Boy” ask the boy to watch over the paper or for someone to watch over the child? Needless to say, I really want to know what happens next week.

Stray observations

  • The dialogue is bananas good. When was the last time we got line as good as “Were there any croutons?” or “I got a nose for white supremacy, and he smells like bleach.” Lindelof working at his best will be a joy to watch.
  • Is Ozymandias in a self-imposed isolation or has the world rejected him? And, is Crookshanks a hybrid cat harking back to Bubastis?
  • The use of the police badge as Comedian’s smiley face pin works wonders. If the Comedian thought law and order; life in general was a joke, is the show suggesting that the badge is a joke too? I can’t wait to uncover the darkness lurking in that police force.
  • By the way, I’m Joelle Monique! I’m super-excited to be recapping my first show for The A.V. Club! I’m a Watchmen die-hard, who has been very vocally nervous about this adaptation. But I was pleasantly surprised by the pilot. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts, and take this amazing journey with you guys.
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About the author

Joelle Monique

A contributor for Playboy and Hollywood Reporter Joelle writes about film, television, and comic books. A speaker, host, and avid podcaster her reviews have been featured on NPR, BBC1, and ET.