Still sorting out my thoughts (and waiting for Steven, who is probably more au fait with the comic—I read it once about fifteen years ago, but it’s never been a touchstone text for me—to weigh in). But in the meantime, a few initial reactions. Assume spoilers throughout the post and comments.
It’s an incredibly assured, engaging premiere, even if I found some of the action scenes rather forgettable—the opening recreation of the Tulsa Massacre is harrowing, but the raid on the white supremacist compound annoyed me with its idiot plotting (seriously, even the defenders of Winterfell had better strategic instincts than the cops on this show). If I had to sum up my reaction, it would be that I’m a lot less skeptical about the concept than I was before watching the pilot. I’m still feeling a tinge of annoyance at the puzzle-box nature of the show, but that’s largely outweighed by my delight at how robust and detailed its worldbuilding is. I can’t remember the last time a science fiction series arrived with a setting that felt so built, so tangible and full of interesting avenues to investigate (maybe The Expanse? But that show has never found anything particularly compelling to do with its world). It’s a bit shocking to compare a single hour of Watchmen to two seasons of Westworld, and realize that I know so much more about the former’s world, and believe in it so much more strongly.
On the topic of worldbuilding, this is what I’ve gleaned so far (feel free to amend and add to the list in the comments):
- The series takes place in 2019, in a world where both the Minutemen and Adrian Veidt’s telepathic squid attack exist. Veidt is still alive and living in seclusion. The attack, meanwhile, appears to have had some side effects, including periodic showers of tiny mutant squid. Doctor Manhattan is still on Mars, and nothing has been said yet about the other surviving Minutemen.
- In the intervening three decades, possibly as a result of Veidt’s attack, the US has undergone social changes that have resulted in African-Americans gaining greater social and economic power. The show is rather clever in how it hints at this, reversing certain class markers and how they tend to interact with race. The series’s heroine, Angela (Regina King), and her husband Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), are a black suburban couple with three adopted white children. An early scene features an all-black production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, but when we get a look at the audience, it is also made up almost entirely of black patrons, in sharp contrast to how real diversity initiatives on Broadway can nevertheless end up serving a predominantly white audience. It’s suggested that at least part of this prosperity has been fueled by slavery reparations enacted by a President Redford (as in Robert, who has apparently been in office for thirty years).
- The resulting society is not a post-racial utopia, but one in which white supremacy and race-driven terrorism are taken more seriously by the authorities than in our world. A group calling themselves the Seventh Kavalry have adopted Rorschach as their hero, wearing masks inspired by him and quoting his most famous lines in videos in which they also decry the alliance of black Americans and white liberals against underprivileged white people, and promise a violent overthrow of that order.
- Possibly as a response to this (or, again, Veidt’s attack) the police in the show’s world have significantly different powers and freedoms. Cops wear masks and conceal their identities as a matter of course, and are much freer about flaunting due process and the rights of suspects. There are multiple scenes of brutal, acrobatic violence against prisoners suspected of belonging to the Seventh Kavalry, while at the same time the show posits severe restrictions on police’s access to firearms (even if those restrictions are often more of a formality).
- Oh, and Vietnam is an American state, apparently.
In other words, pretty fraught material, and with a lot of potential for truly epic levels of failure. It’s obviously too soon to tell whether Watchmen will faceplant as it is so obviously poised to do, but for now, it seems to me that when it comes to this sort of politically-charged alternate history, there are two questions that need to be asked. First, does this world make sense? Is it coherent onto itself, and not rooted in boneheaded misunderstandings of how racism and white supremacy function, and how they’ve underpinned a lot of American history? On that level (and in the understanding that I am far from the final authority on this matter), I think Watchmen passes. A US that is more equitable than the real one but still riven by profound racial tensions, and whose institutions have responded with extreme measures to those challenges, strikes me as plausible, and certainly more interesting than a lot of the race-swapped dystopias that science fiction likes to throw out. After all, minus the cops wearing masks, this isn’t a huge ways off from what actually happened during Reconstruction, and the revolt of the Seventh Kavalry could be taken as a modern-day equivalent of the violent white supremacist backlash that led to Jim Crow.
But the second question we have to ask is: what is this all for? What are the show’s creators trying to say or illuminate by positing this alternate history? There, I’m less confident. The tone of the episode is such that I don’t think producer Damon Lindelof is aiming at some asinine, hand-wringing moral about how black people would be just as bad as white people if they had power so we shouldn’t do anything to address racism. But on the other hand, this is an episode that starts with a dramatization of the Tulsa Massacre, and ends with a lynching (admittedly, of a white man, a police chief who is accused by the Seventh Kavalry of being a “race traitor”). There’s a thematic connection, obviously—both are examples of violent white supremacist reaction to black prosperity. But at the same time, it’s hard not to wonder how much of the appeal here is just sensationalism. Are the references to real-life racist violence meant to inform viewers and spur debate, or are they mere shock-fodder, a grasp at the pseudo-profundity that comes from gesturing at horrors without having anything to say about them? And what, ultimately, is the value of imagining a world where systemic racism has apparently been eliminated, and focusing instead on the individual, violent racism of (admittedly well-organized and -armed) terrorist organizations? A lot of Lindelof’s past work—Tomorrowland, Star Trek Into Darkness, Prometheus—has political undertones that are at best incoherent, at worst horrifying, and it’s hard to trust that he can handle the weighty, fraught ideas with which he’s loaded up the show with the care and thoughtfulness they deserve.
And then of course there’s the Watchmen of it all. Why—apart from the fact that we live in an IP-driven hellscape where no new stories can be told—does Watchmen need to be Watchmen? At the moment, the show feels like an elaborately-wrought fanfic that doesn’t really have any connection to the core themes of the work it’s building off of. Lindelof’s Watchmen feels like it’s about cops, far more than superheroes—a point driven home by the episodes’s final image, of the iconic drop of blood staining not the Comedian’s smiley button, but a policeman’s badge.
On the other hand, maybe that’s the point. I’ve been saying for a while that a lot of superhero stories effectively depict their heroes as cops who don’t have to worry about pesky things like due process or prisoners’ rights. Watchmen may be reversing the arrow of influence. Its cops are clearly inspired by superheroes, with senior members of the police force even wearing elaborate costumes and calling themselves by strange monikers like Panda or Looking Glass—ostensibly because of the need to protect their identity, but the reference is clear. There’s even a running gag about how the show’s world is anticipating the premiere of a prestige TV series about the exploits of the Minutemen called American Hero Story, presumably a reference to the true crime series American Crime Story. And the episode even opens with a little boy watching a silent film about the exploits of Bass Reeves, the legendary 19th century black US Marshall, who has been suggested as an inspiration for The Lone Ranger, himself a proto-superhero. So the slippage between supers and lawmen appears baked into the show, and may be the way it approaches its genre in a way that reflects the original comic while also striking its own path.
Again, this is a puzzle-box show, so it’s impossible to guess, at this stage, which of the many different directions it could end up going in is the one we’re going to get. But as a first step, I find this one promising if also a little concerning.