Like many, I approached HBO’s Damon Lindelof driven Watchmen with heavy skepticism, yet was blown away week after week (for at least seven weeks in a row!) with one of the smartest, most ambitious superhero shows imaginable.
Spoilers for Watchmen (The Comic & The Show!) Follow – Seriously, I do not recommend reading if you haven’t seen the show!
After the three episode mark, John and I gathered for a Deep Dive where we compared and contrasted the TV series with Doomsday Clock (DC Comic’s 12 issue version of a Watchmen sequel), and the thing that amazes me the most looking back is that the exhilaration I felt for the series didn’t dissipate until episode eight (more on this in a moment, of course!).
Even with questions and qualms I may posit towards the show’s ultimate conclusion, Watchmen is my favorite TV show of 2019, and without question one of my favorite shows of the decade. I’m awed (almost religiously) by the craft and care that went into an honest to God “30 years later” take on the world of Watchmen. I’m stunned by the unflinching commitment to make American race relations the central focus of the series, and it’s ability to both educate and entertain. And I’m genuinely saddened that these 9 episodes may be the end, even if in the end, “Nothing ever really ends.”
For those who’ve been less obsessed (Watchmen is the only TV series where I can say I compulsively read the backmatter after every episode!), the HBO series takes place in the world of Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins’ 12 issue Watchmen story that set comics on fire in 1986 (and remains my favorite comic book of all time). While Damon Lindelof’s vision was reportedly a “remix” of the original material, the end result is actually a pretty straightforward sequel, set approximately 30 years after Adrian Veidt dropped a psychic squid on New York City in the name of world peace.
This is the first major bold choice Lindelof and the incredibly skilled writers make, choosing to very much live out the “Well, what happened next?” part of post-Squid America. All the costumed adventurers are around or alluded to with Laurie Blake (adopting her hated father’s surname) in the FBI, Dan Dreiberg in prison, Doctor Manhattan seemingly on Mars, Adrian Veidt mysteriously living out his days in an idyllic (?) manor, and Rorschach inspiring a cult of white supremacy.
It’s the latter detail that most deliberately connects us to the grounded reality of this new story, taking viewers to Tulsa, Oklahoma where The Seventh Cavalry supremacist cell revolts against Robert Redford’s liberal America, reparations, and the Tulsa police force. This police force gives us our primary new main characters, with Angela Abar (Sister Night) and Wade (Looking Glass) masquerading in that thinly clouded capacity of masked hero, law enforcement, and individual with their own deeply felt problems.
Quite wisely, Watchmen concentrates first on Tulsa as it stands in the wake of the Squid, before episode three brings Laurie into the mix and instantly crosses forth into familiar faces and potential fan-service. The opening scenes are of the real-world Tulsa race riots, before bringing us to the close-yet-fictional Watchmen world of today. This world is not our own, and we don’t have footage of Doctor Manhattan on Mars, but these problems are very much our own. Moore and Gibbons looked at the world in 1985 and found nuclear annihilation at the heart of tension. Damon Lindelof did the same in 2019 and found institutional legacy racism. I don’t think he’s wrong.
While tackling these delicate subjects, my favorite trick is how rewarding HBO Watchmen feels following a recent reread of Watchmen (or simply a loving familiarity with the source). From the Moore/Gibbons-esque cut scenes to Looking Glass eating beans out of a can to directors capturing character silhouettes on the walls there are easter eggs (not to mention literal eggs) everywhere in this comic. Even major plot points like the Hooded Justice reveal in episode six are rooted in original comic details and even some of the Darwyn Cooke Before Watchmen comics. The Peteypedia backmatter extends these details even more, in ways that feel additive to the story much like Moore’s own prose pieces did for the twelve issue original.
And yet, somehow, HBO Watchmen is not designed exclusively for the reader. There’s a surprising pop accessibility to everything from the soundtrack (shouts to Reznor/Ross!) to the in-universe parody show (a Ryan Murphy style take on Hooded Justice and the Minutemen). It takes some patience, but unlike some of Lindelof’s more infamous mysteries, nearly everything is very directly addressed, particularly in the exposition heavy eighth episode.
Which brings us to the most controversial decision in the series for me (and to reiterate also the biggest spoiler!). When John and I discussed the series after three episodes, one of our biggest differences was the desire to see more of the characters we know from the original comics. Smitten with Jean Smart’s electric charisma as Laurie Blake, I was hooked, whereas John was already feeling the reservations of too much character insertion into an already engaging new story.
The decision to bring God down to Earth, and extensively explore the motivations and role of Doctor Manhattan really puts this argument to the test. As hooked as I was by episode seven’s twist reveal that Cal is the Doc, episode eight is the Doctor Manhattan feature role I worried about. It’s still well-made TV, and it turns out Black Manta makes for an excellent Doctor Manhattan, but it’s the first time I was purely sucked out of the HBO Watchmen experience, like the Seventh Cavalry tachyon cannon blasted me with an over-eager dose of homage.
One of the most fascinating things about Watchmen, in any form, is it’s a world of adventurers with precisely one powered being. And he’s not just “powered,” he’s as Godlike as it gets, able to create life from nothing and view life through nearly omniscient eyes. The world is unique and separate from our own due to his presence (for example, Doc changes the Vietnam war and generates all sorts of technology), but the story changes irreconcilably when he’s walking around like an early period Red Hot Chili Pepper.
I don’t know that it’s the wrong decision by any measure, but it’s certainly the first time I even started asking the question.
It’s December 15, 2019, and I’m writing this review post-script two hours after episode 9, the final hour in what may be the only season of Watchmen. I still don’t know that the prioritization of the Watchmen mythos over the new HBO Watchmen world was absolutely the right call. As a fan, it was certainly entertaining, and I continue to marvel at the intricacies of the puzzle, but I can’t help but feel Wade, Angela, and Tulsa were rapidly shunted aside for “the classics.”
I’ll celebrate the ride regardless of the landing. Even with questions and internal debates, HBO’s Watchmen is astonishing. I’m so glad it happened, and would never have assumed that would the case.