Watchmen series premiere recap: Oklahoma is not doing fine
Damon Lindelof's risky take on Watchmen kicks off with a thought-provoking series premiere.
Welcome to EW’s weekly recap of HBO’s Watchmen. Each week, EW’s resident comic book obsessives Chancellor Agard and Christian Holub will be breaking down the loaded drama.
After months (even years!) of build up, Damon Lindelof’s show Watchmen has finally arrived, and it’s almost definitely not what people expected when it was first announced years ago. Described as a “remix” on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ paradigm-shifting comic of the same name, the show takes place 34 years after the comic’s ending and is set in a funhouse mirror version of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where vigilantes have been outlawed and cops have adopted superhero personas to conceal their identities and protect their families. Whereas the comic was about the threat of nuclear Armageddon and Cold War paranoia, the show takes racism and the resurgence of white supremacy in 2019 as its big thematic concept. We’re introduced to the world through detective Angela Abar, who goes by Sister Night and is played exceptionally well by Regina King, who feels like a superhero from minute one. Below, we dig into all of that and more from Watchmen‘s first episode.
CHANCELLOR AGARD: Well, the Watchmen premiere sure is a lot of television. But I guess the best place to start is at the beginning. The pilot opens with a provocative sequence that depicts the horrific Tulsa massacre of 1921, which saw a bunch of racists murder the residents of their neighboring black community that had been referred to as “Black Wall Street.” Here, we see the events unfold through the eyes of a family of three, and there’s a very strong “destruction of Krypton” vibe to it. This black mother and father have their son smuggled out of the city in a crate to safety while they stay behind. Unfortunately, the son doesn’t make it completely out of town, and eventually wakes up in the middle of a field surrounded by the wreckage of the truck that had been carrying him. The only other survivor from his escape party is a crying baby. Unfortunately, unlike in Superman’s origin story, a nice white couple isn’t waiting there for him. He’s all alone as he walks through the night with the baby in his arms.
Framing this superhero story with a recreation of one of the worst acts of racial violence in American history is definitely a choice. I think we’ll have to wait to watch the rest of the series to see whether it works or not, but in terms of setting up the purpose of this show — exploring present-day racism and the resurgence of white supremacy — it’s definitely effective and places you in a very specific state of mind. The show draws a very clear line between the past and present because the action quickly jumps to Tulsa 2019, where we see a black cop get gunned down by a member of the Seventh Cavalry, a white supremacist group that was inspired by the late-Watchmen vigilante Rorschach. Personally, I love the idea that Rorschach, a militant and conservative figure in the original graphic novel, has inspired a radical group following the end of the comic. I’ve said this before, but it reminds me of the Joker gang in the future-set Batman Beyond.
Christian, what did you make of where the show begins and how it builds out from the original comic, specifically with the introduction of King’s Sister Night?
CHRISTIAN HOLUB: Hey Chance! Glad to be back with you recapping another superhero show.
It’s clear right away that this version of Watchmen has a different focus than the original. Perhaps because the comic was a story about America done by British people, it didn’t have a whole lot to say about the history of racism in this country — whereas that appears to be the show’s primary subject. When we cut back to the present after witnessing the horror of the Tulsa riots, we are treated to a strange scene in which a white man is pulled over by a black cop. There is a lot going on here, but the first thing that draws my attention is the use of Future on the soundtrack. I didn’t expect to hear Future in this show, and I certainly didn’t expect his music to be used to get us in the head of a white supremacist (whereas the “good guys” are mostly seen listening to songs from the musical Oklahoma! in this episode). Anyway, the rest of the scene proceeds like this: The cop, whose face is obscured by a yellow mask, spots a Rorschach mask in the white man’s glove compartment. He calls the station to request authorization for use of force because apparently in this alternate universe cops’ use of firearms is strictly regulated — a huge difference from our own world, where no one’s is! Someone named “Panda” (who, as we will eventually see, is literally a guy in a panda mask) eventually unlocks the gun. Too late for this unfortunate cop, though. The white man dons his Rorschach mask and opens fire on the policeman, confirming his identity as a member of the Seventh Cavalry. The police basically declare war in return, issuing an open-ended authorization of force against this militant organization. That’s where King’s character comes in. A baker named Angela by day and a superhero named Sister Night by, well, night, she works with the police to fight back against the Seventh Cavalry.
I’m not sure the translation of Rorschach into a racist icon is as black-and-white as it seems. For one thing, Sister Night’s style of superheroics is…pretty similar to how the original Rorschach did things! Both of them seem to love solving crimes by rounding up usual suspects and treating them harshly. Some quick context: Like every other original Watchmen superhero, Rorschach is based on a Charlton Comics character — in his case, The Question, originally created by comics legend Steve Ditko. Ditko was one of the founding fathers of Marvel, the co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, but he was also an early fan of Ayn Rand. The way I read Rorschach in the original Watchmen is Moore’s multi-faceted commentary on Rand, Ditko, and the libertarian politics they espoused. On the one hand, Rorschach stands by his moral beliefs without compromise, but on the other hand, he has terrible personal hygiene and a crude attitude towards women. However lofty his ideas about justice seem on paper, they often translate to cruel violence in practice. He’s not a character you’re necessarily supposed to admire (though many fans have, over the years), but he’s also not an overt white supremacist. At the aforementioned NYCC panel, Lindelof mentioned that the Seventh Cavalry’s adoption of Rorschach is a meta-reference to the Watchmen writers’ own adoption of Watchmen itself. In both cases, this is their interpretation, not something the original people may necessarily have agreed to. I mean, if you asked me to pick which original Watchmen character has the most in common with white supremacist violence, I would point to the Comedian before Rorschach.
I’m going on way too long here so it’s time to toss back. Chance, what do you think about how Sister Night and her allies compare to Rorschach in their own way? Tim Blake Nelson’s character Looking Glass, who also works with the police, wears a reflective face mask that looks a lot like Rorschach’s when images from the interrogation pod refract off it. Shall we discuss that scene next and its many visual hints and callbacks?
CHANCELLOR: Maybe the Comedian should’ve left a journal to be published in the event of his death…but I digress!
Yes, I think the episode purposefully draws many parallels between the cops and Rorschach. Take the unsettling interrogation scene between Looking Glass and the Seventh Cavalry member, which was very reminiscent of the prison doctor questioning Rorschach, and one of the episode’s many great musical moments. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ mechanical techno score does a fantastic job of setting the show’s tone.
I clocked a few other similarities, too, some benign and some troubling. For example, Angela chilling in Chief Crawford’s office reminded me of Rorschach breaking into Daniel Dreiberg’s home in the first issue (there’s even a shot of Hollis Mason’s autobiography Under the Hood on Crawford’s desk). On the other end of the spectrum, though, there’s the scene in which Angela drags the Seventh Calvary member into the bathroom, tortures information out of him, and when she exits, we just see blood trickle out from under the bathroom door along with the toilet water. That’s an obvious callback to the scene in Watchmen when Laurie and Daniel break Rorschach out of prison, and the latter makes time to execute an old enemy in a bathroom stall.
This brings up one qualm I have with the series. Watchmen wants to explore race in America, but its story casts the cops as superheroes and asks us to root for them even though in real life, police are sometimes part of the problem when it comes to racial violence. It’s a very weird choice. That being said, we’re only in the first episode, so it’s too early judge because the show might dig into this very problem as it goes on.
After getting the Seventh Cavalry’s location out of the suspect, Sister Night and the rest of the detectives head into the field to hopefully capture them for the premiere’s big action set-piece. While I don’t think it’s important to reference Zach Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, I couldn’t help but think about it at this moment. One of the problems with the 2009 cinematic adaptation is how cool and awesome Snyder made the action scenes look, which definitely runs counter to the spirit of the graphic novel. For the most part, the assault on Seventh Cavalry’s slaughterhouse avoids that. Well, that is until the Owlship comes out of nowhere, manned by Crawford (!), which elicited a whoop from me when I watched the pilot for the first time.
Of course, right after this scene, the premiere cuts to one of its weirdest moments: Jeremy Irons’ Adrian Veidt, who was officially pronounced dead, chilling in his castle in the middle of nowhere. What the hell did you make of this scene?
CHRISTIAN: Well Chance, I first saw this episode a few weeks ago at New York Comic Con. And yet somehow this Veidt scene is even weirder upon second viewing. It’s almost reminiscent of Doom Patrol in its pure surreal strangeness. You and I are both fans of Doom Patrol of course, but it’s an odd fit with the Watchmen tone.
For any newcomers reading this: Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias, is the antihero of the original Watchmen comic. It was his plan to destroy New York City with a giant tentacle monster to create the illusion of an alien invasion that could get the United States and the Soviet Union to stand down and end the Cold War, thus saving the world. Obviously, his plan worked, insofar as the world is still extant 30 years later, thought the squid monster seems to have left a strange legacy in the form of that weird living rain that strikes Angela’s car while she’s driving her kid home from school.
But “What do you do after saving the world?” is a hard question to figure out. From what we can see, Veidt’s response was to fake his death (a newspaper headline says that he has “officially” been declared dead, which means he could’ve been missing from the public eye for some time before that) and start a new life in a country manse with two loyal servants who, um, scrub his genitals and might not know the difference between a knife and a horseshoe. We’ll definitely need a few more episodes to figure out what exactly is going on here, though it seems to me like Veidt has either gone insane or is living in a well-maintained fantasy world of some sort. The most interesting element, to me, is Veidt’s revelation that he’s working on a five-act play to be titled The Watchmaker’s Son. That seems like an obvious reference to Dr. Manhattan, the all-powerful blue superbeing who is apparently messing around on Mars again, according to a TV news clip from earlier in the episode. Even people who haven’t read Watchmen are probably familiar with Dr. Manhattan from his frequent appearances in memes about how he’s “tired of this world; these people. Tired of getting caught in the tangle of their lives.”
Before he was capable of manipulating atoms and traveling through space, Dr. Manhattan (the only superhero in the Watchmen world with actual superpowers) was a man named Jon Osterman. Osterman’s father was a watchmaker, and the son wanted to follow suit. But the day the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Osterman’s father threw watch components out a window and commanded his son to pursue a career atomic science, which eventually led to him being accidentally locked in an experimental chamber that destroyed his human body and recreated him with the ability to manipulate matter at an atomic level.
Speaking of history, I have to agree with you that the show’s depiction of a conflict between police and white supremacists doesn’t ring true at all to me when there are often links between the two groups in real life. Obviously, this is an alternate history, but in order for that concept to work the way it does in the original Watchmen, the changes have to be in service of capturing something essential about the real world. This framework does not do that, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Hopefully, the show will interrogate this concept in future episodes. It could be the show’s way of riffing on the designation of “government-sponsored superheroes” like the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan used to be. We’ll see.
On that note, let’s talk about the ending. An episode that starts with a real-life racist massacre ends with…a white cop getting lynched. What do you make of the way our Watchmen premiere ends, Chance? Feel free to discuss Oklahoma! as much as you want here.
CHANCELLOR: Yes, the lynching of Don Johnson’s Chief Crawford is another bold choice, especially because I suspect there’s more to him than meets the eye. Initially, Crawford is presented as a good guy. He wears a white hat, he’s the chief of police, he’s very close with Angela and her family, and he even loved “Black Oklahoma!” (but he’s not allowed to call it that, as Angela jokingly warns him earlier in the episode). However, the premiere quickly starts to put some cracks in him. There’s, of course, his coke habit, which isn’t the most objectionable thing in the world but is a warning sign. More worrisome, though, (at least to me) is the way he says, “Just the end of the world. Tick tock, tick tock,” to Angela after dinner. You can definitely read it as him coping with a stressful situation by making light of it, and right before he says that, he tells Angela he is “worried as f—.” But there was something about the way he says that that feels a bit more concerning, especially because the camera then cuts to King’s worried face. I don’t know, maybe I’m reading too much into that moment, but that and the way Louis Gossett, Jr., who is revealed to be the boy from the opening scene, presents his body to Angela at the end raised a lot of questions.
Look, I’ll save you 1000 more words about Oklahoma! and just say that I love a good mid-episode musical number and Watchmen didn’t disappoint on that count. Is that why I loved this premiere so much? Definitely maybe.
Notes from the Black Freighter:
- Give Don Johnson an Emmy and Grammy for his performance of “People Will Say We’re in Love.”
- “I’ve got a nose for white supremacy, and he smells like bleach,” Angela to Crawford about her Seventh K suspect.
- Vietnam is a state now! We know from the original Watchmen that Dr. Manhattan allowed the U.S. to win the Vietnam War, but apparently in the years since it became a full-on state, geographical distance be damned. In fact, Angela says that’s where she was born.
- Just as the Watchmen comic bears rereading to catch all the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bits of visual storytelling, this show also packs a lot of clues into headlines and signs in the background of shots. On rewatch, I noticed that we see Angela walk by a person carrying a sign saying “The Future Is Bright.” Things have come a long way since Rorschach used to parade his “The End Is Nigh” sign.
Watchmen (TV series)