Here’s the thing about The Watchmen comic and what makes it “unadaptable.” It’s not really about the story itself, it’s about its audacity; it’s a comic that is designed to break the rules and mythology of the medium its working in. This is the main problem with Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie from 2009, which reveres the comic book too much to actually expound on its ideas (and also is really just in love with Rorshach and Dr. Manhattan). If you’re going to adapt Watchmen, you have to first understand it enough to completely divert away from that story into something new.
Sunday saw the premiere of the Watchmen series from Damon Lindelof. The show takes place thirty years after the climactic events of the Watchmen comic in which Adrian Veidt a.k.a Ozymandias pulled off the ultimate false flag operation by wiping out half of New York City using a fake alien attack in order to unite the world in a “greater cause.” In this world, Robert Redford is president and Rorshach’s crazed, self-aggrandizing writings on the state of the world, as well as his discovery of Veidt’s plans (which he mailed to the right wing newspaper the New Frontiersman ahead of his death) has inspired a new class of lonely, angry white supremacists known as the Seventh Kalvary. This is of course a very obvious thing to expect that, even though Rorshach probably would hate these guys (he hates everyone really), it’s pretty clear that these are the kinds of men who would want to identify themselves with his warped view of morality and justice. At some point, the Kalvary took part in an event called the White Night which involved murder and violence towards all police officers in Tulsa, Oklahoma and as a result, the cops now walk around in masks and lie about their day jobs to protect their identities. Also it rains squids sometimes. From a structural standpoint, the show is almost a little too earnest in how hard it’s trying to be ambitious and provocative out the gate. This isn’t meant to be purely criticism, it’s certainly understandable that with tackling such a dense, revered, ambitious work, that you would try to show that you can be just as inventive and full of ideas in your own adaptation. Lindelof is a hell of a television creator so I have no doubt that this season will be quite a spectacle, but sometimes being pushed in the deep end of the pool is more annoying than enjoyable.
The first episode of Watchmen opens with a young black boy who’s watching an old cowboy film in an empty movie theater. In the film, a black US Marshall cowboy has just nabbed a criminal and the local citizens want him hung up for his crimes but the Marshall declines to take part in this mob justice, essentially saying that he will be given a trial to decide what should be done. After this short sequence, we are then tossed right into what turns out to be the Tulsa race riot of 1921, in which the Greenwood district, otherwise know as Black Wall Street, was destroyed by a white mob and a large number of black residents were killed. It’s an intense sequence in which the young boy’s mother and father are trying to avoid bullets and evil white men on horseback as they cause chaos and pure terror.It’s a bold way to begin a TV show, particularly one about Watchmen, but it does get at something truly in line with the spirit of the story.
Watchmen is about the role superheroes would play in our real world if they were to exist and the moral quagmire that they would present. In the comic, super heroes are introduced in 1938 and as a result they change notable moments in our history, including allowing the US to win Vietnam. The destruction of Black Wall Street takes place before super heroes and on the one hand you might wonder if they had been real could they have prevented this from happening, but on the other hand, are super heroes and super teams just another example of mob justice and vigilantism. The white men who murdered hundreds of black people and wiped out an industrious black area no doubt see themselves as saviors for this country, doing what their forefathers would have wanted. That’s part of what’s at the rotten core of America and really the world at large, this bubbling hatred that simmers until it boils over.
For all of the majesty and philosophical complexities in the original Watchmen comic, it doesn’t offer much insight into the racial dynamics that are very much sown into the fabric of the world. Expanding the story by delving into those racial dynamics is a smart decision; incorporating the Tulsa race riots–a most American crime–is a worthwhile way to get into the complex questions of who gets to be a hero and what defines them as such.
That said, we have to talk about policing. The juxtaposition of the show’s opening with the Tulsa race riots contrasted with the current day war between the Seventh Kalvary and the police can feel a little off-putting on first watch. For as “hashtag brave” as it may seem for a comic adaptation to make race a focal point it wants to tackle, and for as smart and thoughtful as Lindelof is, the thought of a white man making a show grappling with race should make anyone ready to roll their eyes out of the back of their head. Lindelof is walking on the thinnest tightrope here and the cops storyline so far can quickly go wrong. You cannot tackle race and white supremacy without discussing how the police are an important tool in upholding it (and also how police are full of white supremacists). So the idea of a war between police (with a black woman at the department center) and white supremacists feels a little too pat.
Despite that, the final image of a dead white sheriff hung up on a tree, with the young black boy who is now a wheelchair-bound old man (played by Louis Gossett Jr.) at his feet, seems to suggest more at play, but again it’s a really thin tightrope Lindelof is gonna be dancing on.
On an aesthetic point, the show is beautiful to look at. Regina King walking around with an all-black leather outfit and a matching monte carlo with blacked out windows is a provocative sight. The scene where it rains squids might be the finest one in the episode. The moment at the dinner table where Don Johnson sings a number from Oklahoma is wildly endearing and cute. For as heavy as a lot of the show seems to be, there is also a lot of fun being had, whether with an all-black play of Oklahoma, a racist listening to Future’s “Crushed Up,” and a Blade Runner 2049-esque interrogation scene; the show certainly has a vision and a swagger to it that keeps it from being overly maudlin.
Overall, I found the first episode to be pretty good and certainly worth watching to see where it goes. The thing about the comic was that it wanted you to question why you are so in love with the idea of a sociopath with PTSD, an alien who thinks little of humanity, and a government experiment meant to do the bidding of the United States. When you think you’ve figured out the story’s zig is when the zag takes place and ultimately you’re left unsure of anything. Whether Lindelof can accomplish that same feeling within his medium is left to be seen but the only thing that can be said about this show for sure is that it’s certainly going to try.