HBO returns to the ‘Watchmen’ universe to ponder: Who really makes the world?
In the grand scheme of human history, the quaint notions of equality among all persons and representative democracy are relatively new. Sure, one can see hints of the ideas in the works of ancient political philosophers, and in certain acts which are the foundation on which later ideas of modern civil rights grew from (e.g., the Magna Carta). However, as a belief which people take somewhat seriously, most of the tenets of a modern democracy are fairly recent developments. And even among the societies that have aspired to these kinds of principles for centuries, there are still some very big kinks to be worked out of the entire idea.
As of 2017, about 50 to 60% of Earth’s population lived in electoral democracies. However, some of those are basically democracies on paper but not exactly in practice, since almost every country in the world claims to be democratic and represent “the people” (i.e., People’s Republic of Tyranny). Also, about one-third of the world’s population—or 2.5 billion people—live in democracies which are undergoing “autocratization,” where rule of law is being undermined by power grabs.
When I was getting caught up in HBO’s Game of Thrones, before it went to shit in the later seasons, one of the things which struck me was a really dominant theme in George R. R. Martin’s story about the inherent instability of feudalism. The main tension of the story comes from how the feudal society distorts and twists aristocratic families into perversity, and how that perversity ripples out to destroy. A good chunk of European history is inbred cousins with crowns either killing jockeying for position within their own family, or whoring out their sisters and children to other kingdoms for alliances that might come in handy in case they wanted to order their subjects into battle. The Hundred Years’ War can basically be summed up as a series of conflicts that happened because some of those inbred cousins got together to fight for control of France.
Today, the inbred cousins fight over media empires instead of Marseilles. The just-finished second season of Succession exemplified the idea of how this perversity manifests itself in modern times, where the concentrated wealth of families like the Trumps, Murdochs, and Redstones has led to globe-spanning consequences, which would be hilarious in their ridiculousness if they weren’t also so tragic, leading to many of the same instabilities of yesteryear. Where Succession focuses on how the corruption of one family, their personal dysfunctions, and maneuvering for power affect the world, Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen is more about institutional power and who, if anyone, really has the power to change anything.
While Succession and Watchmen seem about as different as day and night, since one posits a world where masked vigilantes and blue god-like beings exist, they both center around the notion that the everyday lives of normal people are in the hands of powerful forces that may not be competent, moral, or even sane, but which the world accepts because of custom, tradition, belief in deceptive slogans, or misguided concepts of freedom and justice.
Adapted by Damon Lindelof as a companion piece to the original graphic novel, HBO’s Watchmen takes place in a very different 2019 than ours. Starring Regina King and Tim Blake Nelson, the series attempts to use the underpinnings of Moore’s story to tackle very real issues like race, police brutality, and the enduring power of past sins.
A bit of a warning before getting started. In order to discuss HBO’s iteration of Watchmen, some significant aspects of the graphic novel’s story will be discussed. So if anyone has not read Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ story and doesn’t want to be spoiled, it might be a good idea to stop right here.
Alan Moore: All the characters in Watchmen have a bit of me in them. I mean, Dr Manhattan has, Rorschach has and Veidt has … Probably Dan and Laurie as well, to a degree. Amongst the many other things I was trying to say in Watchmen was just that in this world we live in, with all its disparate characters and ambitions there are probably no two people who want the same thing. The world doesn’t work like that anyway. If there’s a central line in Watchmen it’s “Who makes the world?” Then again, that’s just my opinion. I’m sure other readers can find lines that are more meaningful to them, to me that’s the core of it: you’ve got all these vast powers—and Rorschach is a vast power in his own way just as Veidt is a vast financial power and Osterman’s a vast physical power. You’ve got ordinary people just muddling along, you’ve got people who don’t know what the fuck’s happening which is, like, most of humanity. You’ve got the Nixons and all this sort of stuff but … Who makes the world? Is the world really under the control of its most powerful people or are they just part of the design, the same as the rest?
One of the most fascinating aspects about the original story is how each of the characters represents a worldview and how those views conflict, evolve, and fail when people with great power get caught in the currents of history. A big contradiction in Watchmen, which fans of the story have argued about over the years, comes from how Rorschach deals with the revelation of Adrian Veidt’s plan to avert nuclear war and create world peace. Rorschach, a character based in part on Steve Ditko’s The Question and Mr. A—both expressions of Ditko’s belief in the moral absolutism of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism—will not accept the conspiracy to deceive the world for the greater good, even though earlier in the story we’re told how Rorschach supported President Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan, an action which to this day is still argued about on the grounds of whether it was a horrible thing done for the greater good of the Japanese and the world.
Is that hypocrisy? Or a form of moral integrity to truth above all other concerns, even if it means the extinction of the human race? It’s in this place of trying to be true to an ideal while standing on a foundation created by dark aspects of human nature which encapsulates the friction of righteous belief in a country built in part upon indigenous genocide and slavery. But, moreover, there is a feeling in both the particular Rorschach moment and throughout the story of the characters’ impotence. The power they wield is great and yet inadequate to affect change in a way which creates harmony either on a societal or personal level. And the movement which can be achieved exists like a house of cards in constant need of attention … because nothing ever ends.
HBO’s iteration of Watchmen is a continuation of the graphic novel, and NOT the Zack Snyder film (i.e., this is a universe where a (fake) giant inter-dimensional squid destroyed New York City in the 1980s), with its primary focus being American racism and how institutional power deals with it. According to Lindelof, the story for his Watchmen was inspired by the works of Ta-Nehisi Coates and started as a separate entity with no connection to Moore’s and Gibbons’ story, but whose similarities led to HBO—whose parent company, Warner Bros., owns DC Comics—merging the properties.
In the three decades since Ozymandias’ (Jeremy Irons) plan of a faked alien threat was enacted, Richard Nixon’s reign has ended. Robert Redford, whose possible election is hinted at in the graphic novel as being a “cowboy actor” interested in politics (an inverse of Ronald Reagan’s political ascendance in our timeline), is now the longest-serving president in American history. Where Reagan’s election ushered in a conservative revolution, Redford has instituted a far-reaching liberal agenda which includes reparations to African-Americans, nicknamed “Redfordations,” which exempts descendants of racial violence from paying taxes. Not everyone is happy about this, and domestic terrorists have started targeting the public and police. One of those groups takes on the name “Seventh Kavalry” while twisting the imagery and writings of Rorschach into advancing a white supremacist philosophy.
The action of the series is centered around Tulsa, Oklahoma, with the police now wearing masks and using masked vigilantes themselves in order to protect their identities and families from these terror cells. But that anonymity also allows law enforcement the ability to beat criminals senseless Batman-style, in a non-civil rights keeping way. Regina King’s Angela Abar is to the outside world a homemaker, baker, and mother, raised as a child in Vietnam, which is now part of the United States after Doctor Manhattan helped American forces win the Vietnam War. But Abar is also secretly “Sister Night,” a masked police officer who dispenses her own form of justice when she thinks somebody knows something. At a time in history where issues of media representation are such that Marvel still has to answer questions and angry reactions about female protagonists and their visibility within the genre, the imagery of a black woman as superhero within a story about race, police brutality, and institutional violence bites off a lot of things to chew on.
From Joelle Monique at the A.V. Club:
The scene most folks will walk away talking about is the reverse role-play in the traffic stop. A white male, pulled over by a Black cop, immediately places both hands on the steering wheel. Before reaching into his glove compartment, he informs the officer of his movements. After seeing a mask that isn’t illegal to own, the officer radios dispatch for access to his firearm. It’s the sort of dream many Black Americans would love to see come through. There’s a comfort in Panda’s (Jacob Ming-Trent) insistence on going through each checkmark to make sure the situation calls for a gun. On the same road where a newly orphaned boy and a baby wrapped in the American flag escaped a bombing, here comes a presumed racist blasting hip-hop. The pervasiveness of Black art in this episode is a powerful thing to witness.
How did cops get to become masked vigilantes? Despite working for the law, they seem to find and use any opportunity to circumvent having to obey it. Chief of Police Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) does blow at a gathering with Angela’s family. Everyone notices but no one seems to mind. When she learns of the officer shooting, Angela kidnaps a suspect with little more than her nose as evidence and brings him in for interrogation, then beats the literal blood and piss out of him. Despite what looks like a diverse police unit, they still feel as blue and regimented as those operating in the real world.
When Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) interrogates the man, he too seems to have heightened senses and just know the suspect lied to him. Flashing photos of Americana including the Negro baseball league, a KKK bonfire, Mount Rushmore (complete with Nixon’s head), Black graduates, and American apple pie and the heart-pounding retro-futuristic sounds of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross amp up the tension until Glass makes his decision. The Tulsa Police Department cares more for retribution than justice. A man behind a mirror says a man knows something, a woman cloaked in shadows beats him until piss and blood spew from his body, and they call it justice. In their minds, they are heroes.
A key theme in this version of Watchmen is the idea of how the public accepts a status quo, even a horrible status quo. The first scene of Watchmen depicts the Tulsa race riots of 1921 in graphic detail, where during Memorial Day weekend thousands of white citizens looted and destroyed black homes, killing hundreds in the violence. At the time, Tulsa’s Greenwood district was home to some of the wealthiest African Americans in the country in what was called “Black Wall Street,” with later retrospective analyses of the event positing the incipient act which sparked the trouble was little more than a rationalization by racists to attack a group which they saw as a threat to the existing power structure.
Who makes the world? We do. Who’s responsible for the evil in it? We are. Who tolerates the injustices which pervade around us? All of us, either implicitly or explicitly. Some might like to believe a mentality of ignorance and intolerance is endemic only to “red” America and voters in pickup trucks with Confederate battle flags. But historically, the sad reality is the blue areas of the country have just as much of a problem treating other human beings as individuals worthy of respect, an education, and a home if it means property values might go down a nickel. And while no one in places like Massachusetts or New York ever explicitly wrote their intent into a law or called it Jim Crow, the same tactics of appeals to ignorance and selfishness were used to divide and differentiate neighborhoods. It is the 21st century, and the most segregated city in the United States is not anywhere in the South. It’s not Nashville, New Orleans, or Atlanta. It’s Chicago, Illinois. The segregation within Chicago didn’t happen by accident, and it has persisted for decades. And the effects of this go beyond just housing to educational and employment opportunities, transportation costs, overall economic growth within a region, and how justice is doled out when a cop stops someone on the side of the road.
This city is afraid of me … I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”… and I’ll look down and whisper “No.” They had a choice, all of them. They could have followed in the footsteps of good men like my father or President Truman. Decent men who believed in a day’s work for a day’s pay. Instead they followed the droppings of lechers and communists and didn’t realize that the trail led over a precipice until it was too late. Don’t tell me they didn’t have a choice. Now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloody Hell, all those liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers … and all of a sudden nobody can think of anything to say.
— Rorshach’s journal, October 12, 1985
A few tidbits and notes:
In the Watchmen version of 2019, there are floating airships but neither the internet or smartphones exist.
As mentioned above, Vietnam is now a full-fledged state within the United States, but being from there seems to carry a stigma. In the original graphic novel, the U.S. victory in the Vietnam War actually makes the Cold War worse, inflaming tensions and escalating a path toward World War III. But it is also the reason the 22nd Amendment was repealed, allowing both Nixon and now Redford to serve more than two terms as president.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein production of Oklahoma! adds a subtext to the story, since the doomed police Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) shares a name with the villain of the musical, even though we’re told Crawford actually played the role of the protagonist Curly in high school. Although, in some iterations of the musical, the nature of Jud’s role within Oklahoma! is made far more ambiguous and sympathetic.
The Seventh Kavalry’s message in which they appropriate and corrupt Rorschach’s words includes the message: “ We are no one. We are everyone. We are invisible.” It has similarities to real-world statements made by groups like Anonymous and QAnon.
White supremacists and Seventh Kavalry supporters are shown living in a trailer park called “Nixonville.” Also, in a series of images used by Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), President Nixon seems to have been added to Mount Rushmore.
The event which has allowed police officers to hide their identities and made law enforcement a clandestine program is called the “White Night,” and is implied to have been a Kristallnacht-esque massacre of police officers and their families.
The nature of Ozymandias’s isolation is an open question. Newspaper headlines have officials declaring him dead. But squids fall from the sky, and the public has an alert system for it. So the lie about the Squid which attacked New York seems to still be holding, and someone is still faking inter-dimensional squid rain.
The Comedian’s smiley face logo is referenced in two ways. It is first shown in the eggs being prepared by Angela. But, more significantly, the blood smear on Chief Crawford’s badge at the end of the episode mimics the blood splatter after Blake’s murder in Moore’s story.
Within the series, American Hero Story acts as a show within the show, where the history of the “Minutemen” (i.e., many of the original characters from Moore’s story) is given a pop-culture anthology adaptation a la America Crime Story and American Horror Story. Reportedly, the creator of the latter FX series, Ryan Murphy, was almost tapped for a cameo.
In general, Alan Moore tends to run the gamut between disliking and hating the attempts to translate his stories to film. Moore has claimed to have never watched any of the movie adaptations of his stories, which include V for Vendetta, From Hell, Constantine, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Watchmen. Moore has stated his opposition is based on his belief these stories were created to be graphic novels and not films or TV shows, and they’re meant to be experienced in a certain way. Moore has gone so far as to ask for his name be removed and not used in marketing for any film he doesn’t own. He also refuses to accept any money from these adaptations. According to Lindelof, he hasn’t “made peace with it” even though he respects Moore’s wish not to have any association with the series. The situation with Watchmen has been exacerbated by the treatment of Moore with regards to the rights of his story. As part of their deal with DC Comics, the rights to Watchmen were to revert to Moore and Gibbons when the property went out of print. DC has gotten around the clause by never taking Watchmen out of print. Also, Moore was to be consulted on any licensing and merchandising of Watchmen products. DC circumvented those clauses by calling any products deriving from Watchmen to be promotional materials in support of the comic.
One of the controversies sparked by the series, since it wants to be a commentary on institutional racism, has been its portrayal of the police fighting racism, instead of having problems with racism within their own ranks that perpetuates the problem. However, as the series progresses this issue becomes more complex, and some of the criticisms about it will probably be less of an issue.
Even if some of the detail work had to be adjusted on the fly, King felt the show got the big things right on the page, especially when it comes to her role as a black woman who’s also a police officer — a fraught intersection for any actor but especially on a show examining racist policing via a genre lens.
“[I wondered], am I playing this right, being a police officer in America where policing is such a fucked up thing?” King says. “But the story itself addresses the history of being black in America and how things have changed and how they have not changed. … I never felt like, are black people going to see this and say, ‘What the fuck, Regina?’”
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