HBO's Watchmen Wants to Dig into the Heart of American Racism...by Making You Like Cops

Scenes from HBO’s Watchmen.
Image: HBO
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The first 15 minutes or so of Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen are some of the most agonizing moments of television this year. They squarely focus on the brutalization of multiple black Americans during the infamous Tulsa race riots—a day when mobs of crazed white people descended upon, attacked, and murdered black Oklahomans because they felt empowered to do so.

io9 had the opportunity to view the premiere episode of HBO’s Watchmen at New York Comic Con this past weekend. Here are our first impressions.

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The attack on Black Wall Street is a real event that Watchmen uses to link itself to our reality while also building out the larger fictional universe Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons first created in 1986—a universe that was specifically meant to exist within the vacuum of a finite number of comic books. Of course, DC Comics ended up having different plans for Watchmen, which has gone on to become one of the integral aspects of the publishers’ intellectual multiverse, which the HBO series is part of. Unlike Doomsday Clock, Lindelof’s Watchmen errs on the side of realism and its curious story set some 30 years after the events of the original comic isn’t particularly interested in the usual superheroic trappings that typically come with live-action comic book adaptations.

In this universe, the Watchmen were very much a thing, but the legacies they’ve all built have played out in ways you wouldn’t immediately imagine. Doctor Manhattan, Silk Spectre, Rorschach, and the Comedian are parts of the show, but not exactly as characters. They’re the atmosphere and context that new characters like Angela Abar (Regina King), Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), and Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) exist in.

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Though the events of the original Watchmen comics play a significant role in the shaping of the series’ world—a place where the internet and cell phones don’t exist—they aren’t what the show is really about. Rorschach might have been a misunderstood antihero originally, but here his name and iconography have been co-opted by terror cells of white supremacists known as the Seventh Kavalry, who are coordinating a mysterious attack that’s meant to change the world as the series begins. In the show, Robert Redford has been the president for decades and ushered in an era of American liberalism complete with legislation meant to address the country’s history of anti-black racism and socio-political disenfranchisement. The pejoratively-referred to “Redford-ations” have made it so that the victims and descendants of racially-driven subjugation no longer have to pay taxes. Unsurprisingly, there are more than a few enraged white people—like the Seventh Kavalry—who hate that aspect of their society.

Years after being driven into dormancy by the police, the Seventh Kavalry begins operating once again in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Even though the police officers all wear masks, they quickly learn that the terrorists are more than capable of discerning their secret identities and targeting them in their off-duty lives. While the imagery of masked police officers is certainly arresting, it’s here the show begins to wander into messy and at times potentially irresponsible territory with the way it uses metaphors to explore very real problems plaguing society.

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Like all cops, King’s Abar is a woman who wears multiple hats. To the outside world, she’s a baker and something of a homemaker because the police still have to go to great lengths to ensure they aren’t targeted in their lives as private citizens. But she is one of the world’s watchmen who dresses up in an intimidating costume as part of her job taking on criminals who want nothing more than to hurt innocent people.

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King is captivating as Abar. But her performance can only do so much to distract you from the fact the Watchmen (at least in its first episode) frames white terrorists and cops as being diametrically-opposed groups that have no ideological overlap. Because this is a show that’s meant to explore aspects of American society, that framing just doesn’t work, or rather it doesn’t work if you’re actually trying to think your way through the multitude of things Watchmen is attempting to comment on.

Director Nicole Kassell does a wondrous job of immediately pulling you into this story and bowling you over with imagery that’s both beautiful and utterly devastating, and you can see why genre fans with HBO subscriptions are going to glom onto the show. But there are so many moments when Watchmen’s debut episode falls short of saying anything interesting or insightful about its subject matter, seemingly content to be a mirror of our society, albeit a seriously distorted one.

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There’s the reality—What if cops did drugs while on the job? What if kids of color got into trouble for calling out their racist peers?—and then the fantastical: What if we all lived in a world where squids periodically fell from the sky and we all just dealt with it because that’s how things are? Space squids aside, Watchmen presents numerous real-world scenarios ripe for commentary but it isn’t immediately apparent that the show feels the need to engage with the complexities of those scenarios.

The first episode isn’t going to encapsulate the entire series in a succinct way—that’s understandable—but at the same time, one doesn’t need to really spend much time making a definitive statement about whether morally sound people should feel empowered to fight fascists. We really don’t need more examinations of the police that aren’t honest about the organization’s own history of racially-driven terrorism. Watchmen should be more than that.

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In the end, the series could very well end up doing an excellent job of unpacking all of these things with the kind of care, grace, and honesty that the story (and audiences) deserve, but also, it may not. You can’t really get a definitive sense either way by the first episode’s end, which very much seems to be the creative team’s questionable intention.


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About the author

Charles Pulliam-Moore

io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.