Watchmen: 1.01 It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice
The opening episode of HBO’s new Watchmen series is not at all what I was expecting. I suppose more to the point, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I was however very pleasantly surprised. The usual ideas had all been long rumoured: reboot, reimagining, prequel, sequel, what route would Damon Lindelof take with his spin on Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbon’s beloved DC comic series?
From the first episode, it would seem this take on Watchmen is ostensibly a sequel to the original comic. Set approximately thirty four years after the events that left half of New York levelled by a psychic inter-dimensional squid, this series feels familiar but takes the story in a completely new and unexpected direction.
Completely eschewing the big city setting of the comic, this episode at least is mainly centred in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Our protagonist is Angela Abar (Regina King), an “ex-cop” turned baker who it appears hasn’t quite given up the law enforcement life. Masquerading as caped crusader Sister Night, she deals out punishment to the bad guys when required. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the show. Superheroes are still outlawed under the Keene Act as established in the comic. After an event referred to only as ‘white night’, hinted as an uprising of mob on police violence, the police all now wear masks to hide their real identities. The costumed vigilantes of the past are now effectively the legitimate law enforcement agency of the future. It’s a clever inversion of the way we would normally expect things to play out.
The main plot concerns the reappearance of the 7th Kavalry, a white supremacist group that fashions themselves after original Watchman Rorschach. All the members illegally don copies of his iconic and outlawed mask. With their attempted murder of a cop setting off a chain reaction of violence -including a mass shootout in a herd of cattle - this group looks to be one of the major antagonists of the series. We are also introduced to possibly another leading villain in a scene with the always reliable Jeremy Irons. We are deliberately not given his name; his servants refer to him only as Master. It would seem a safe assumption to make that he is actually Adrian Veidt aka Ozymandias, the comics' original bad guy and creator of the aforementioned psychic squid. Of course in his own mind he was bringing about peace and harmony by uniting the factions of the world against a common enemy so it will be interesting to see how his character is treated.
Making a welcome return to our screens is Don Johnson as Police Chief Judd Crawford. He lends a gravitas to the role but also brings a real sense of joy during a scene where he is singing show tunes to some children. He also gets flex his action muscles when chasing a plane full of 7th Kavalry members in what appears to be a copy of Nite Owls “Archie” owlship. The rest of the cast is strong with a particularly memorable performance by Tim Blake Nelson as Wade, a police office a.k.a. Looking Glass. With his mirror like mask I suspect he’ll become a fan favourite. A scene where he interrogates a murder suspect inside a strange pod with pulsating sounds and images is highly effective and visually arresting.
The Watchmen comic was particularly successful at world building and the show looks to continue this in abundance. Little details are revealed quite organically during the course of the episode, be it in little snippets of dialogue or props strewn around for us to spot and savour. During a classroom scene, posters on the walls reveal that Robert Redford is now President of the USA, Nixon was never impeached and Vietnam became the fifty first state after America won the Vietnam War (mainly thanks to ubermensch Dr. Manhattan). A brief glimpse of a TV news report showing Dr. Manhattan in all his blue glory on Mars is pretty much the only overt reference to the original Watchmen team members apart from the Rorschach masks.
This is an aspect I really enjoyed; the fingerprints of the original comic are all over the show but in subtle ways. It would have been far too easy to have a new group of heroes mimicking the old favourites. It is to Lindelof’s credit that he has chosen a different and far more interesting route. It's also fun to try and spot all the little allusions to the famous blood splattered smiley face image that are dotted throughout the show.
One really nice element is the inclusion of references to the giant squid. During one scene, alarms sound whilst Angela is driving and she has to pull over and wait for a downpour of small squid-like creatures to stop. It seems whatever Adrian did when he teleported his monstrous creation into New York has had permanent consequences to the environment. Zack Snyder’s big screen adaptation left the squid out much to the disgust of some hardcore fans. I personally felt it worked in the context of the film. He had constructed a very real feeling, albeit fantastical, world and I’m not sure the arrival of a huge squid monster would have really worked. Also changing the story to frame Dr. Manhattan makes a lot more sense story wise as it effectively removes him from the conflict. For some reason though it does appear to work on the small screen. I suspect this is because we haven’t actually seen it happen, just the effects many years on. I hope this is an aspect they elaborate on in future episodes as it could be an interesting subject.
As a fan of Nine Inch Nails, I was pleased to see that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross were making their first foray into television. The music they have created is instantly recognisable as theirs and very atmospheric. It is particularly effective in the interrogation scene I mentioned previously. There is also nice uses of source music including songs from the musical Oklahoma, which is also where the episode’s title is derived.
Just as the comic made effective use of its 1980s setting to comment on the cold war and other topics of its time, so to does this new version. With a black main character and white supremacist villains, the show was never going to shy away from tackling the subject of race relations. The most incredible part of the episode that deals with this is the beginning. Now I don’t profess to be an expert on American history but I really thought the opening scenes set in 1921 where white mobs massacre black townsfolk were an invention of the show. I thought this especially as some people in biplanes were dropping explosives on fleeing families. Whilst researching for this review I discovered that actually this was a completely true event. It is quite astounding to think that in a show featuring superheroes and a giant squid monster the most incredulous thing shown on screen is actually an atrocity that is all too real. It is certainly food for thought and I expect many viewers will be as shocked as I was. The best science fiction always reflects on the social issues of its time and Watchmen is certainly no exception.
There is also some commentary on police violence and the always in the news gun control issues. The police in this alternate timeline have to get permission from their control in order to use their firearms. This leads to a very tense scene as an officer is trying to get access to his gun which has to be released from its holster remotely.
“Who watches the Watchmen?” was the question posed in the seminal comic book series. My recommendation is that everyone should watch this new interpretation as the opening episode asks a lot of very intriguing questions. My only concern is that Damon Lindelof has a habit of setting up a good story that asks a lot of these questions but doesn’t actually come up with any real answers. Time will tell for Watchmen but already it feels like this might well be a true classic.
Watchmen is available to watch on Sky Atlantic and Now TV.