In 1986, two graphic novels appeared that changed superhero stories forever. The first was Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, a book that redefined Batman for the modern age as a grim, violent vigilante driven more by inner demons and obsessions than by any do-gooder sensibilities. Miller's story took place in a dystopian alternate future, and so was not officially part of DC Comics' canonical continuity, but that scarcely mattered: It quickly became (and remains) the definitive imagining of the Dark Knight, influencing not only every subsequent Batman story but every superhero story released in its wake. Suddenly, the more innocent, fantastical tone that had dominated superhero comics throughout the previous three decades seemed childishly passé, and quickly gave way—usually with diminishing returns—to a fever for "darker, grittier, more mature" reinterpretations.

The second landmark book, of course, was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, released later that same year. This time using original characters (loosely based on a then defunct range of characters previously published by Charlton Comics), Watchmen was a postmodern superhero comic that expanded the possibilities of its medium even as it explored the fundamental limitations of its subject. Moore and Gibbons—using more sophisticated storytelling techniques than any superhero comic at the time could boast—were out to strip superheroes (and superhero fans) of their dangerous illusions, by exposing the inherently fascistic and psycho-sexual underpinnings of the genre. For Moore, at least—he has said as much in interviews—Watchmen wasn't intended to be a new look at superheroes: It was intended to be the last word on them.

It is a little ironic, then, that these two books are largely responsible for creating the superhero-saturated pop-culture climate in which we all now live. Comic books went mainstream: They were suddenly a respectable pursuit for adults, a fit subject for academic study, and—particularly once the absurd speculator boom hit the industry in the 1990s—a powerhouse industry and a sought-after commodity in the IP market. (In 1986, seemingly every magazine and newspaper in the world ran a story with some variation of the patronizing headline, "Bang! Pow! Zap! Comics are not just for kids anymore!")

Wondering how we ended up in a world where 17 of the 50 highest grossing movies of all time are superhero movies? Wondering how it could be that directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola are dragged on Twitter for not liking superhero movies? Wondering how we got to a world where Joker is the most talked-about and polarizing movie of the year? It all begins in 1986, with The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. 

Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns

These two books, it should be noted, were not created equal, though they certainly seemed like spiritual siblings at the time. Despite their surface similarities, Miller's Dark Knight has soured in the subsequent decades, while Watchmen seems smarter and more prescient with each passing year. Watchmen's character of Rorschach, for example, seems to have a lot in common with Miller's Batman. But Moore and Gibbons were critiquing the reactionary brutality of their self-righteous vigilante; Miller—as his subsequent work has now made clear—was just getting off on his. Watchmen was an exposé of the inherent fascism in superheroes; The Dark Knight Returns was, in retrospect, merely an exploitation of it.

The lessons of Watchmen, in fact, almost land more powerfully now, precisely because they have largely been misunderstood by so many of the book's fans and willfully ignored by the culture as a whole. More than 30 years after Watchmen showed us how our love for the adolescent power-fantasies of superheroes could be seen as a deeply troubling thing, we still love them: In fact, we love them more than ever.

My intention here is not to debate whether the current dominance of the superhero story in popular culture is a good thing or a bad thing. (As with many things, I'd say it's a little of Column A, and a lot of Column B.) My point is simply that we are undeniably living in a world of superhero stories, and Watchmen is one of that world's key foundational texts.

Which does not mean, of course, that it is a sacred text. I admit, I once would have blanched at even the idea of a TV series based on Moore and Gibbons' world. After all, I had read the unproduced (and disastrously silly) film script by Sam Hamm that had turned up in the 1990s, and it had proven to me that anyone attempting to change the original story would ultimately destroy everything special about it. Then I had seen—endured, really—Zack Snyder's almost slavishly faithful 2009 movie adaptation, which played all the correct notes but somehow never seemed to understand what the song was about. Any adaptation of Watchmen, I decided, would be superfluous at best. Like all great works, Watchmen was a masterpiece of its medium, achieving greatness by doing what only that particular art form could do. (Even the most faithful attempt to film it would be like attempting to faithfully paint a great poem.) So, despite thinking that Damon Lindelof's The Leftovers is one of the greatest TV shows of the 21st century, I initially greeted the announcement of his new Watchmen series for HBO with a skeptical roll of the eyes.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that treating Watchmen as somehow untouchable was a dog-in-the-manger attitude. If superhero stories dominate 21st century culture—and they do—and if Watchmen is the most important foundational text for those stories—and it is—then it seems like only fair game to let other creators expand its world and explore its meaning. After all, no great works, in any media, are hermetically sealed: They are all reinterpreted, retold, deconstructed and riffed upon as part of a great and endlessly evolving conversation. That, I realized, is how art has always worked. That is how art is supposed to work.

Even then, however, I did not quite dare hope that HBO's Watchmen could actually be good. I imagined something that would—at best—update and continue the discussion Moore and Gibbons had begun, bringing some much needed critical perspective on our current pop-culture love affair with all these four-color characters. Done well, it could be a welcome—if not particularly revolutionary—counter-narrative to the entertaining but fundamentally shallow films that are increasingly squeezing more serious fare out of the multiplexes.

However—based at least on the evidence of the pilot episode—I severely underestimated HBO and Lindelof. For they have looked beneath the top layer of Moore and Gibbons' work, and recognized that, while its primary purpose was to deconstruct the superhero genre, this was not its only purpose. In critiquing superheroes, the original Watchmen was also interrogating Cold War mentality, and the toxic dynamics of power, and repressive sexuality, and the dangerous romanticism of fascism. In its own way, it was as much a product of its era—and as scathing a critique of its political environment—as Moore's contemporaneous work with artist David Lloyd, V for Vendetta. There was as much of Reagan's America in Watchmen as there was of Thatcher's England in V. Rorschach was Batman, but he was also Bernard Goetz.

This, thrillingly, is the Watchmen from which Lindelof and his team have drawn their inspiration. They have more important things on their minds than challenging the adolescent fantasy of superheroes. Superheroes may be the genre the show is working within, but there are other, more essential American subjects that the new Watchmen is out to interrogate.

"There will be no mob justice today. Trust in the law." — Bass Reeves

Danny Boyd Jr. in WATCHMEN 1x01

The first (and largest) narrative Watchmen is challenging is American history itself. And, like all history, how it looks depends a lot on whose perspective we're viewing it from.

Many Americans—and certainly many white Americans—may have been surprised to discover that the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre depicted in the opening sequence of Watchmen's pilot was not part of the show's dystopian alternate history, but a shamefully overlooked chapter of our own. Over May 31st and June 1st of 1921, thousands of white Tulsans—acting with the cooperation of city officials—burned and looted the city's prosperous black neighborhood of Greenwood. Dozens of blocks were razed, destroying nearly 200 business and more than 1,200 homes. Hundreds of black residents were murdered—shot, beaten, lynched, dragged behind cars—and thousands more were made homeless. Planes piloted by white citizens literally bombed Greenwood, dropping bottles of gasoline and flaming turpentine from the air.

The thin justification for the massacre was the pursuit of a black teenager named Dick Rowland, who had been wrongfully accused of attacking a white female elevator operator. (The case was later dismissed.) But that was just the excuse for an explosion of the white racial resentment that surrounded Greenwood. Often referred to as "Black Wall Street," Greenwood was America's most affluent black neighborhood, a model of black ingenuity and industry that had managed to thrive in the middle of one of America's most fiercely segregated cities. In the words of historian James L. Hirsch (quoted in Meagan Day's excellent piece here), “Black success was an intolerable affront to the social order of white supremacy."

Greenwood, June 1, 1921. [Source: Library of Congress]
Long referred to inaccurately as a "riot," this was in fact a coordinated, systemic massacre of the black community, one of the worst in American history. And yet it was all but erased from the histories. As Frank Rick wrote in New York magazine earlier this year, the event was "literally purged" from the record:

The dead were tossed into the Arkansas River and unmarked mass graves. News accounts were cut out of the Tulsa Tribune before they were assembled into bound reference volumes. The incident was not a part of the Oklahoma public schools’ curriculum until 2000, and only recently entered American-history textbooks.

A bill in the state legislature requiring the teaching of the massacre in Oklahoma public school curricula was defeated in 2012.

So opening Watchmen with this horrific act of terrorism by the white community—and having a traumatized black child (Danny Boyd, Jr.) be our first point-of-view character—is a bold, ballsy, powerful statement of the show's intentions. Moore and Gibbons' graphic novel was about a lot of things, but race was never one of them. (Personifying the vanguard of the U.S. comic industry's British invasion in the 1980s, Alan Moore's otherwise brilliant writing was, in fact, often fairly tone-deaf on issues of race in America.) But here Lindelof and his team are establishing white supremacy as the central concern of their Watchmen, and announcing their plan to aggressively challenge, complicate, and expand our understanding of the received narratives. Whether they can pull this off—and justify the use of such triggering, potentially sensationalistic imagery—remains to be seen, of course. But the goal is both ambitious and admirable.

And so far, so good, for this agenda is coherent throughout "It's Summer and We're Running Out of Ice." It begins, in fact, even before we know where and when we are in the story. The first images we see in Watchmen—beginning with the title card of the show itself—are the flickering projections on a movie screen, accompanied by the clicking whirl of a projector and the plunking notes of a ragtime piano. It's a clever and efficient device: Like the similar opening of 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it draws attention to its own artificiality, to the very construction and delivery of the legends being shared. It reminds us that there is no story without a storyteller shaping it, and that we should not necessarily trust the telling, even—or especially—if we think we know the tale.

As we'll discuss, this is a theme that reoccurs throughout the episode. Already, Watchmen is—like its source material—rich with intertexts. The novel Watchmen is just the first of these, a rich and complex text that informs everything else we see, without necessarily offering us any definitive guidance. But we also see a production of Oklahoma; we watch part of a TV special on The Minutemen; we hear mention of a five-act tragedy that Jeremy Irons' unnamed character is writing. We see news reports, and hear radio talk shows, and we glimpse classroom posters and street signs that only partially fill in our understanding of this strange new world. We begin to piece together the alternate history of this world, and we compare it to our own imperfect knowledge of our own imperfect history. All of these texts speak to each other, comment on each other, complement and complicate each other, until we are where the show needs us to be: curious, unsettled, open to possibilities, and charged to read and question carefully.

And it begins here, with these flickering pictures projected on a movie screen. A man appears on horseback, firing a six-shooter over his shoulder at another who pursues him with a lasso. (Two riders were approaching, those of us who've read the novel recently may hear faintly in the back of our minds.) The basic genre is accessible—the Western is perhaps the most recognizable example of American entertainment—and the images, too, are familiar. The second, pursuing figure is hooded, evoking, perhaps, that bedrock, intensely racist work of American cinema, The Birth of a Nation. But the hood—and, we shall learn, the rider—is black, not white. It is the pursued man who is white, and in white, and on a white horse. In the visual vocabulary of westerns, these code him as the good guy, the "white hat," but the narrative is upended here. The black figure in black will turn out to be the hero; the white figure in white will turn out to be the scoundrel; both will turn out to be lawmen.

Even the direction of the scene challenges our expectations, because such a chase would usually proceed from the left of the frame towards the right. But that, too, is reversed here: In the visual language of film, by moving right-to-left, these figures are not going somewhere, but coming back from somewhere. They are coming back, that is, from history.

The intertexts pile up, and so do the themes. Obviously, that both of these figures turn out to be lawmen—one black, one white, one good, one bad—will resonate throughout the episode. The black rider's look echoes forward through the episode, to the hooded figure of black policewoman Angela Abar/Sister Night (Regina King). But, in reference to the graphic novel, it also echoes backwards: The rope-wielding figure in black visually evokes the superhero Hooded Justice, images of whom we shall glimpse in the Minutemen special and its advertising. (In the book, this character was white, intensely racist—an admirer of Hitler's Third Reich—and a possibly sadomasochistic closeted homosexual. He also, incidentally, wore a literal noose around his neck, echoing the lynching imagery that pervades throughout this episode.)

The lowering of this figure's hood, however, reveals him to the real-life lawman Bass Reeves. Born into slavery, Reeves escaped to live free amongst Native American tribes, and the knowledge he gained there led to his eventual recruitment as the first deputy black marshal of the American west. He had an illustrious 32-year career as a lawman—arresting over 3,000 criminals—and eventually ended his career in, of course, Oklahoma. Like the Tulsa massacre, it's another all-but-forgotten black narrative that Watchmen is choosing to highlight.

But what's most important about his inclusion here, I think, is that some historians argue that Bass Reeves was the inspiration for the creation of The Lone Ranger, one of the first-wave of proto-superheroes from pulp culture, contemporaneous with characters like The Shadow and The Phantom. (The character began on radio in 1931, and was permanently ensconced in the popular psyche by the popular TV show of the 1940s and 50s.) Particularly relevant to Watchmen, he was, of course, a masked lawman. 

And Lindelof is reminding us here that this this hero—whom we all remember as a white man with a racistly caricatured Native American sidekick—was based on a black man. Like the purging of the Tulsa Massacre itself, it's another example of black erasure in white American culture, and—knowing this—we can now read the silent movie shown in the opening scene a little differently. The first lawman, the villain all in white, riding a white horse, comes to resemble The Lone Ranger in our imaginations. Reeves, the black man, is riding out of history—right to left—to capture him, to reclaim the narrative, to right the wrongs of the story we think we know.

Like I said: It's an ambitious agenda for a TV series.

"It was a Rorschach mask." — Officer Charlie Sutton

Michael Graziadei and Charles Brice in Watchmen 101

The prologue to Watchmen ends with the little boy looking back at the destruction of the massacre from a distance. The movie he had loved and taken pride in—of a black hero loved and respected by the white townsfolk he served—is forgotten. The neighborhood he had grown up in—a hard-earned slice of the American dream carved out of a racist city by the children of former slaves—is burning. His family is almost certainly dead, and he and a small baby are the only survivors of their escape attempt. Both of them are orphaned, cast out, alone in the world except for each other, and he wraps it, ironically, in an American flag, to keep it warm.

And then we fade seamlessly into the same view, outside of Tulsa, almost a century later. And—once more as a prologue to chaos?—another masked black lawman is pursuing another white villain.

Leaving our own historic past, this is our first scene in the alternate present-day of Watchmen, and it is a disorienting splicing of reversed expectations and distorted narratives. For anyone with even a passing awareness of life in America, the notion of the "routine traffic stop" has become a racially-charged exercise in tension. And that real-life tension imbues every second of this scene—in which Officer Charlie Sutton (Charles Brice) pulls over Carmichael (Michael Graziadei)—in fascinating, funhouse-mirror ways. Carmichael, the driver of the pulled-over vehicle, is clearly nervous, fearing for his life, afraid to make the slightest wrong move. (He deliberately places his hands on the steering wheel, and when he has to move—to get his paperwork from the glove-box—he announces his intentions and telegraphs his movements carefully.) And the police officer, in parallel, seems unreasonably aggressive, menacing, and on alert. We do not know, for example—and he does not offer—the reason for the stop. He takes anger at the driver's attempt at humor. When he calls into the station, he announces that he is in immediate fear for his life, though we have seen the driver do nothing to justify this.

All of this is a clear evocation of the potentially deadly dynamics at work every time a black driver is pulled over by a white cop. But the races are reversed here: The driver is white, and the officer is black. Other elements conflict with our expectations as well, alerting us to the altered reality of this fictional world. The cop is masked, first and foremost, his identity a closely-guarded secret. He announces that the interaction is being recorded, and—obviously according to protocol—asks for and receives consent for that recording. Most surprisingly, perhaps, he is not armed: Weapons authorization must be requested, justified, and granted, by someone back at the station. All of this is our first indication of what will become clear throughout this episode: that police brutality, and police accountability, will be one of the central themes of Watchmen. It is a subject inextricably tied to the issue of racism that Watchmen has already announced, but the reversal of the roles here reminds us—not for the last time—that it is not precisely the same issue. As we have seen in real life, the way systemic racism manifests in law enforcement means that police officers of color are not immune from its influence.

But then—after our expectations for this encounter have been challenged—the inherent tension of the scene explodes exactly as we have learned to expect from life in our America: with the vicious shooting of a black man. A century after the Tulsa Massacre—a century after the little boy saw the heroic Bass Reeves cheered by his white neighbors—this is how a black lawman falls.

"You're doin' fine, Oklahoma. Oklahoma, okay!" — from Oklahoma

Black Oklahoma in WATCHMEN 1x01

Such is the incredible density of intertextual narratives running throughout "It's Summer and We're Running Out of Ice"—and their subtle but vital importance to the main storyline—that, yes, we even need to talk about the musical Oklahoma! 

Because even at this point in the story—scarcely 10 minutes in—Watchmen has made it clear that the erasure perpetuated in the cause of American white supremacy is one of its central topics. And the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, a perennial American favorite since its first production in 1943, is a classic example of that insidious art. Based on a play by Lynn Riggs, Oklahoma! takes place before statehood, among white settlers living in the region that was then known as "Indian Territory." (Oklahoma, after all, was the end point of the genocidal forced relocation of native tribes now known as the Trail of Tears.) Riggs' original stage play had acknowledged this, but Rodgers and Hammerstein—though otherwise faithful to Riggs' story—carefully whitewashed any references to Native Americans out of their musical. There are no Native American characters, and indeed the word "Indian" does not appear in their script. As Soraya Nadia McDonald writes, "Though it hasn’t always been acknowledged, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! has always been a musical about whiteness."

So the staging of an all-black production here is, once again, an interesting upending of the traditional narrative. And it gets more complicated than that, in ways that will resonate throughout the rest of the episode. Oklahoma! is the story of a love triangle, in which the good guy, cowboy Curly, fights the bad guy, farmhand Jud, to gain the affections of the beautiful Laurey. All three characters are presented (and traditionally cast) as white, but plenty of viewers have caught the not-very-subtle whiffs of racial othering in the character of Jud. (When the 5th Avenue theater in Seattle cast a black Jud in 2012, the production —having brought the subtext to the surface—instantly faced widespread accusations of racism.) As scholar Ryan Raul Bañagale has written:

In the musical, Fry is the embodiment of all things dangerous and dark, a brute who consumes copious amounts of alcohol and lives in a squalid shack plastered with pornography. At the time, in American entertainment, whenever writers wanted to set a character apart from proper, white society, it was common to deploy this trope. The symbolism isn’t reserved for African Americans and Native Americans. Jud’s character also embodies the looming danger of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany…

The death of Jud is Manifest Destiny and a new world order two-stepping its way into the 20th century.

I won't dwell further on this here, but it is already clear that nearly everything in Watchmen is deliberate, and worth unpacking. And it is certainly no coincidence that it is here, watching a narrative of whiteness being performed by people of color, that we first meet Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), Chief of Police Chief of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Don Johnson in Watchmen 101

Judd is a good old boy, Judd is friendly, Judd is—as far as we can tell—on the side of good. He is—and wears—a White Hat. But we have already been warned that a white hat doesn't mean here what it has traditionally meant, even—or especially—on a lawman. We will learn later in the episode that Judd has a special relationship to Oklahoma!. ("They're hearts weren't in it," he has said, of the black actors.) For Judd, you see, played the lead role of the hero Curly in high school. We even hear him sing one of Curly's songs.

But that's just it: He may have played Curly, but his name aligns him with the villain of the piece, Jud. And we wonder: Is he still just playing the good guy now?

Judd does not survive "It's Summer and We're Running Out of Ice," of course: The episode ends with Judd (in yet another reversing of racial imagery) being literally lynched, possibly by the ancient black man (Louis Gossett, Jr.), who is almost certainly one of the two survivors of the Tulsa Massacre. The last we see of Judd, he swings from a tree, his badge—the symbol of his office—laying at his feet, stained with a drop of blood, where the minute hand of a clock would be approaching midnight. Readers of the graphic novel will recognize the classic, iconic imagery: It echoes the blood on the smiley-face button of the superhero known as the Comedian, whose death is the mystery that set the original story in motion. (And the Comedian, we learn as that story unfolds, was not a good guy.) But we don't even need that intertextual knowledge, necessarily, to start questioning what we think we know about Judd: The song that plays over that final scene brings us back to Oklahoma!, and reinforces the notion that this Judd may have been the bad guy all along.

"I got a nose for white supremacy, and he smells like bleach." — Sister Night

Sister Night (Regina King) in Watchmen 101

We already suspect, however, that questions of good and evil will not have easy answers on Watchmen. Yes, white supremacy is clearly (and rightfully) the "big bad" of the series, represented here by the Seventh Kavalry, a terrorist group that has appropriated as their symbol the mask of the vigilante Rorschach. There are many reasons this is appropriate—I've already mentioned that character's fascistic leanings, and I'm sure we'll discuss him more as the series progresses—but one of them is that Rorschach's face is a stark symbol of black and white: It's an expression of the character's absolute, unyielding certainty about questions of good and evil and the rightness of his own actions. (This is especially true in the homemade versions of the mask the Kavalry wear: Rorschach's mask at least shifted, the symbol flowing into new shapes as he wore it. The Seventh Kavalry masks are fixed, unchanging, representing an even more dangerously simplistic duality.)  Compare it to the similar mask of the new character—original to this series—of Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson). His mask is not an overly-simplistic shape of black and white, but a mirror. This, we suspect, is what Watchmen intends to be as well: not a simplistic tale of good and evil, but a mirror reflecting—if slightly distorting—the complex reality of race and power in America. (Note that Looking Glass uses his mask to tease out the truth of a person's soul through "bias questions." Note, too, that one of the first things we see Judd do is gaze at his own reflection in Looking Glass's face.)

And perhaps nowhere is the complexity more evident than in the woman we assume to be our lead character, Angela Abar, a.k.a Sister Night. Regina King is as good an actress as we have in this country, and her involvement in this series should have been our first sign that Watchmen might have a serious agenda. King has built an honorable career playing complex characters on shows that take a sophisticated look at race in America, from The Boondocks to American Crime to Seven Seconds. She continues that streak here, playing a character who may be our hero, but will definitely not be simple.

We meet her giving a cooking demonstration at her son's school. (In a world where the identities of law-enforcement officers are secret, Angela's cover is as a baker.) Watchmen is rife with easter eggs alluding to images from the graphic novel—I'm going to resist the urge to call them all out—but we get one here, appropriately enough, in eggs: She is separating egg yolks, and forms them in the shape of the Comedian's smiley-face. What's perhaps more interesting however—though doesn't require much more commentary—is that in performing this demonstration she is separating whiteness. It's the protein in the egg whites that form the walls, she explains, "and if we don't have walls, it all comes tumbling down." If even a little bit of color gets in with the whites, she says, the walls won't be strong. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the metaphor is a sly acknowledgement of white fragility, of the tenuous narrative of a society built on ignoring its history of racism.

I do not mean, obviously, to suggest that Angela intends this metaphor—and that's the point. She is, herself, an agent of that lie, complicit in the narrative of white supremacy. Watchmen, we already suspect, will in part be the story of her awakening to this truth, and her reckoning with the reality of her friend and mentor Judd Crawford—which the episode ends by promising—will be the beginning of that.

For we see it already. I said earlier that police officers of color are not immune to the systemic racism and brutality that infects the entire law enforcement and judicial system in this country, and Angela is no exception. We see her committing terrible acts of police brutality: She smashes into a suspect's home and kidnaps him without any due process, then later literally beats the piss and blood out of him to gain information. That her lawlessness, brutality, and torture are all directed at a white supremacist should not—must not—blind us to the fundamental immorality of the acts themselves.

I want to dwell on this for a moment, because I think it's important: If we miss this, we risk missing what Watchmen is about, just as many readers missed it in Moore and Gibbons' original novel. I've already said that Rorschach (and other supposed heroes) in that book were intended as critiques of the inherently fascistic nature of the vigilante superhero, but it's equally important to note that they were not, universally, received that way. Alan Moore has discussed in interviews how horrified he was to discover that Rorschach—whom he intended to be "a bad example"—was actually the book's most popular character. Comic fans responded to his toughness and ruthless self-righteousness—as they did to Batman's in The Dark Knight Returns—and completely missed the fact that Rorschach was a dangerous, reactionary psychopath designed to demonstrate everything that was wrong with superheroes.

And Lindelof's Watchmen—quite deliberately, and quite brilliantly—courts the same misunderstanding. For Sister Night is, make no mistake, a bad-ass: She looks awesome, and she drives a sleek black car, and she kicks phenomenal butt. And she appears in every way, on the surface, to be kicking butt on the side of good. We like her, and we'd like to be like her. But that's just the thing: That sort of coolness is seductive, and so—as we've seen throughout American history, and American entertainment—is violence and brutality. That's a central element of every superhero story—making this a good vehicle for exploring that theme—but it's not limited to that genre, because it's true in Westerns, and cop stories, and science-fiction and fantasy. We romanticize mavericks and loose-cannons; we romanticize violence; we romanticize "heroes" who can kick ass and take the law into their own hands.

And this love affair with vigilantism—with doling out what we think of as "justice" through violence—goes hand-in-hand with nearly every problem we have, and have ever had, in America. It's part of why we can't pass reasonable gun control legislation; it's why we have "stand-your-ground" and concealed carry laws; it's why we have mob violence, and lynchings, and cops who are quick to shoot unarmed black men. It's a central component of systemic racism, and a fundamental tenet of America's military interventionism. To the white perpetrators, the Tulsa Massacre was vigilante justice. The Klan, in their silly costumes, no doubt thought—and think—of themselves as superheroes. The cops who gun down black teenagers believe themselves to be the good guys, the white hats, the heroes, righteous in every action they take and comfortably immune from accountability.

This, I am convinced—on the evidence of this extraordinary pilot—is what Watchmen will be about. These are the insidious narratives the show is interrogating, through the Trojan Horse vehicle of a superhero story. How well it will ultimately succeed remains to be seen, but the intent, and the effort, are exciting. For me, it has already more than justified Lindelof's decision to revisit the rich world Moore and Gibbons created more than 30 years ago. In reading that world, we'll be reading our own, and I'm looking forward to interpreting it together in the weeks to come.

Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits

  • Welcome to my ongoing coverage of HBO's Watchmen. For those of you new to my site, this is more or less the kind of thing I write from week-to-week. I expect future pieces to cover the actual story of the show in much more detail than I have done here—I had a lot of overarching thoughts to get through—but I don't do recaps, and I don't really even do reviews. I like to unpack the themes and attempt, often imperfectly, to figure out what it all means. And—as those of you who have been here before can testify—I write very long pieces, and I don't do it very quickly. I will always endeavor to have new pieces up within a few days of an episode's airing, but inevitably some posts will (as this one has) run terribly late. Please bear with me.
  • I said I wasn't going to call out every in-joke and easter-egg throughout the episode, and I'm not, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy them: So far, Watchmen is doing an honorable job of evoking, without aping, the sort of visual and verbal echoes that permeate Moore and Gibbons' original work. There are arguably a few too many clock-motifs (and the related smiley-face image), a little of which goes a long way with me. But I enjoyed rewatching the episode, noticing the incredible attention to detail in nearly every shot, and picking up on callbacks to the book that I missed the first time. I particularly liked the guy outside of police headquarters with the sign reading "The Future is Bright," which puts a twist on the "The End is Nigh" sign Rorschach carried in his "secret identity" as a street crazy. More relevant to the larger discussion, I loved the old poster that hangs in the Seventh Kavalry hideout, which features the original Minuteman Dollar Bill in a staggeringly racist advertisement for a bank. (In the book, Dollar Bill ended his career as a bank guard, and died in a shootout when his cape got caught in the revolving door. As Edna Mode wisely advises: "No capes!")
  • There are so many mysteries in this episode that remain to be explained, most notably the Rain of Squids, which is apparently a common enough phenomenon that street sweepers have little squid symbols on them. The book, of course, ended with a giant inter-dimensional squid appearing in the middle of New York, killing millions of people and setting all the nations of the Earth on the path towards world peace. But it was fake: Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias literally manufactured it to precipitate the peace talks. So when Looking Glass asks the Seventh Kavalry suspect, "Do you believe that trans-dimensional attacks are hoaxes staged by the U.S. government?", the answer may well be "Yes."
  • Speaking of Adrian Veidt, this is obviously who we are supposed to believe Jeremy Irons is playing, despite our glimpsing a newspaper headline saying Veidt has been declared dead. I'm going to offer my first crazy theory here, however, and suggest that this character is, in fact, Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan, and that these sequences all take place on Mars. Several things support this theory. Watch the segue to the first scene with this character: The camera pans up from the cattle ranch towards the stars, and the stars fade into the shoreline outside the estate where Irons is riding.  The play this character proposes is entitled "The Watchmaker's Son," a clear reference to Jon Osterman. And, most importantly, there is the presence of the two servants, who do not appear to be fully human. "But I thought you'd regained interest in human life," Veidt said to Dr. Manhattan in the book, when the latter decided to go live on Mars. "Yes," Dr. Manhattan replied. "I think perhaps I'll create some." Historically, my predictions about plot twists in shows have not had a high success rate, but I'm actually feeling pretty confident about this one. Remember, you heard it here first.
  • That's it for me this week. Now I can watch the second episode, which has already dropped. I'll be back—hopefully soon—with a discussion of that one. Hope to see you here, and to hear from some of you in the comments.

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  1. Upon seeing the movie "Watchmen" with a friend, we fought over Rorschach. The character's displays of prejudice and conspiracy theorizing turned me off. However, my friend, who tends to see everything in black or white, saw Rorschach as a hero for, in the end, sacrificing himself in the name of telling the hard truth to the world about what really happened in the plot, rather than go with the safer cover story which Dr. Manhattan and the others concocted.

    What's odd is the majority of those who are today ideologically aligned with Rorschach, including those who claim to be moral absolutists, deride the reporting of facts as "fake news," and instead embrace "alternative facts" that support their worldview.

  2. Thoughts on Rorschach–trust the tale, not the author. Rorschach is disgusting and psychopathic…true, but he is also unmistakably heroic in that you can't help but root for him. He's an underdog, and possesses the trait of cunning resourcefulness that is the hallmark of the American Hero (think Indiana Jones, for example, opposed to James Bond). If anything, Rorschach is the "bad conscience" of Nietzsche–hence the chapter title "The Abyss Stares Back." Rorschach is the "bottom-line" of society, representative of the basic faith that adheres in the conscience as Existentialism creeps into the Post-Modern 20th Century. We should be disgusted by him, but he's also familiar–like some manifestation of the immature ego inside all boys that so desperately wants the world to be black and white. It would be wrong to fail to understand the attraction of this character…disgusting as he is, there is something very cool about how he does what he does. If we dismiss the "cool" as simply symptomatic of immature "boy-stuff", then I think we miss a key psychological theme of the story.

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