Who watches the Watchmen? I do, and so do you. Welcome to HBO’s Watchmen.
The series begins with some an old silent film of a masked rider chasing down a bandit. The masked figure manages to capture the Sheriff, and it turns out that this sheriff is the same scoundrel who stole the cattle. So then who is this hooded stranger? It’s Bass Reeves, played by Jamal Akakpo, the Black Marshal of Oklahoma. The crowd orders that the thief be strung up.
Turns out that a young Black child is watching this all take place. He and his mother watch when an explosion rocks the theater. A soldier enters and hands her his gun as we see what’s happening in Tulsa, 1921. There’s panic in Black Wall Street as fighting erupts all around everyone. Blacks are assaulted and being killed every which way while airplanes fire from above.
The three take shelter in a barn. There’s no room in a getaway car, so the soldier will just send the boy. Mom tells his son that they’re going to get him someplace safe and they’ll be right behind him. Dad tells his son to take his thumb out of his mouth and stay strong. He loads his wife and son onto the vehicle which soon departs. The young boy is forced to hold his head down as bullets whiz through the trunk where he’s hiding.
Night falls as the boy emerges from the trunk as he sees his mother and the driver are dead. He opens the note in his pocket, which reads “Watch Over This Boy.” The boy hears the cries of a baby nearby and goes over to the child draped in a blanket. He takes the child away as Black Wall Street burns behind him. Also, It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice.
Welcome to Watchmen.
In present-day, we catch up with a man on the road when he’s pulled over by a police officer: Charlie Sutton, played by Charles Brice. Officer Sutton tells the man that this traffic stop is being recorded and asks what the man is drinking- it’s apparently Coca-Cola. As for what the man is hauling, it’s lettuce. Sutton asks to take a look, but the man wants to see the officer’s face, as it’s concealed by a yellow mask.
Sutton then asks for the man’s license and registration. As they’re in the glove compartment, the man reaches over to get the items. After taking them, Sutton returns to his vehicle, unmasks himself, and asks for any other available officers. He found Kavalry contraband- specifically a Rorschach mask- and requests that his firearm lock be released. The probability of weapons in the vehicle and threat level are high.
After a few buzzes, Sutton’s weapon finally works. However, it’s too late, as the driver opens fire and pumps Sutton full of bullets. The man, now donning the aforementioned Rorschach mask, throws his lettuce at the officer. Well, that’s just rude.
Then we cut to a crowded audience watching a performance of Oklahoma. A masked officer enters and whispers to one of the patrons, Officer Judd Crawford, played by Don Johnson, so he leaves while his wife, Jane, played by Frances Fisher, continues watching the performance.
Judd meets with another officer, Wade, also known as Looking Glass, played by Tim Blake Nelson, and asks if his uniform was brought out. Turns out that Officer Sutton has been brought into intensive care. Crawford tells Looking Glass to run a background check on all the employees at the facility that got a look at Sutton’s face.
Crawford tells Looking Glass that the man with the Rorschach mask has probably gone underground. Looking Glass asks if they should call in Red Knight, but Crawford advises against it. They wonder why would the Kavalry start up now? And why would they throw romaine lettuce of all things? Either way, this could start a war, so Looking Glass pulls down his mask and covers his face.
A group of officers, led by Judd, meet Charlie’s wife, Roberta Sutton, played by Zsane Jhe, and informs her that Charlie is in surgery. When he’s out, he’ll be moved to a secure medical facility at the precinct. Judd asks Roberta if Charlie told anyone he’s police, which he didn’t- it’s against the rules.
So what did Roberta say about where Charlie was going? Night school for engineering. Crawford will say officially that this was a carjacking- there are protocols, after all, and they want to keep everyone safe. Plus, Judd learn that Charlie really likes him.
Now as we see some news sightings on Dr. Manhattan on Mars, we meet up with another individual, Angela Abar, played by Regina King, talking about making egg whites. She explains to her class that, when she was a kid, this concoction was called a Moon Cakes. She then talks about her background as a police officer in Vietnam until she moved to Tulsa- before Vietnam became a state. She eventually retired.
As for why she retired, she was one of the officers attacked on the White Night. Officers didn’t wear masks back then, so people knew who she was. Doctors had to open up her side in order to get the bullet, so opening a bakery to bake cakes and cookies was better than getting shot. I agree.
One asshole kid asks if Angela’s bakery was paid with by Redfordations, causing one of the kids, Angela’s son, Topher, played by Dylan Schombing, to lash out at him.
On the car ride home, Angela tells Topher that this asshole kid wasn’t a racist, but he’s off to a good start.
Then an alarm goes off as it suddenly starts raining ink and miniature squids. Don’t you hate when that happens? When it finally passes, Angela and Topher continue their trip.
Angela heads home to meet with her husband, Cal, played by Black Manta himself, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who gives Angela her pager, which has been going off on morning. Cal asks what “Little Bighorn” is all about, but Angela tells him that she’s now headed to the bakery. Of course. Cal will pick up Rosie from school.
Angela heads to a building when a nearby man in a wheelchair, Will, played by Louis Gossett Jr, asks when it’s going to open. He asks if she thinks that he can lift 200 pounds, and she just says that he could. Don’t disregard Gossett Jr., by the way. We’ll come back to him.
Angela enters the building, goes to a hidden chamber, and suits up. She then hits the road, Jack, and kicks one perp’s ass before heading into a parking garage. She heads up where the officers have assembled to watch a meeting of the Seventh Kavalry, which is no one, everyone, and invisible. They refuse to compromise and they want no one to get in their way, or there will be more dead cops. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
Judd tells the officers that after three years of peace, the Kavalry has returned. Turns out that they were hibernating, but the officers know where their cave is. So go to Nixonville and bring them in for information. That could require lethal force, so the officers request that their weapons be released.
Judd asks Panda, played by Jacob Ming-Trent, to hand out the weapons, and Panda objects on the grounds that weapons should only be authorized if a majority of the officers feel that their lives are under direct, immediate threat. Judd asks two officers, Looking Glass, as well as Red Scare, played by Andrew Howard, if they believe their lives are in danger.
They do, so firearms will be released as authorized. Panda fears that Judd is making a mistake, but hey, that will be his funeral.
Angela heads to Judd’s office and demands to know why she wasn’t called after the Kavalry shooting until two hours ago. She figures that Judd didn’t call because he was angry because he had to go through Black Oklahoma without someone to roll his eyes at. Turns out that Black Oklahoma, as he calls it, was delightful. Judd figures that calling Article IV was the wrong call, but then Angela reveals that she has a guy in her trunk.
She figured Judd would order the Kavalry members be brought in, so she got a jump on likely suspects. So what makes her sure that this guy is Kavalry? She’s got a nose for white supremacy and he smells like bleach. Okay then, so time to put him in the pod.
Into the pod he goes as he speaks with Looking Glass. The suspect doesn’t really need a lawyer since that’s not how it works with terrorists. Looking Glass hits a button and changes the screens around him as well as plays some music as he asks the man about his daily routine.
He asks how the man would feel if the officer took a shit on the American flag, then asks if he’s a member of the Seventh Kavalry. The suspect turns it down, and he’s asked over and over if he’s a member of or associates with members of the Seventh Kavalry.
Looking Glass exits the pod, saying that the man knows something, but won’t talk. He was off the charts on the bias scale. A cop got shot, so the officers were a little wound up, so Angela apologizes to how she treated the man. With that, she pushes him into a restroom and begins beating the living hell out of him. When she exits- with blood now trickling out- she says two words: “Cattle Ranch.” Okay, so let’s take a little trip.
Indeed, the officers approach a house while Judd and Pirate Jenny keep surveillance on a possible four or five targets. Inside, members of the Kavalry inside are alerted to the presence of cops and begin moving, so the officers hasten their move. They head outside, lock and load, and turn on the lights as they begin opening fire through one badass machine gun.
The Kavalry continues its assault, but it turns out that they’ve also got a plane. Angela goes on the offensive, knocking the Kavalry member off of the machine gun and engaging him in a fight inside the trailer. She overtakes him, but the manages to swallow a cyanide pill before she can bring him in for questioning. However, two Kavalry members manage to take off in the plane and are headed right for Judd.
So Judd and Pirate Jenny head up and pursue the plane in their ship, but as they go higher and higher, Jenny points out that the ship can’t take it. Still, Judd releases the fire from the ship, which sets the plane ablaze. Some of the debris strikes the ship in the process, sending it ship crash landing back to the ground. Angela goes out to check the ship, but turns out that Judd and Pirate Jenny are just fine!
The next day, we join in on Mr. Adrian Veidt, played by Alfred himself, Jeremy Irons. Inside his mansion, he types up a document. While naked. His suit is prepared for the day, Mr. Phillips and the maid bring out his cake to commemorate his anniversary. For a happy anniversary, Mr. Phillips presents an elegant pocket watch that he managed to get functional again.
For that, Veidt is pleased. Speaking of surprises, Veidt has his own surprise: he’s writing a play- a tragedy in five acts. When it’s finished, Veidt wants the two of them to play the leading roles. So what is this play called? The Watchmaker’s Son.
They toast as the same time as Angela and her family have dinner with Judd and Jane. Judd goes to grab another bottle- and snorts some cocaine as well- and turns out that Cal didn’t know about Oklahoma. Judd apparently didn’t like Oklahoma, and Jane goes over the plot of the play.
Everyone begs for Judd to sing Oklahoma, so Judd breaks into song. Don Johnson’s got one hell of a voice.
Later, Judd and Angela go over what Angela found during the raid- watch batteries- figuring that the Kavalry is up to something. These old kinds of batteries can’t be bought in stores anymore. In the video, the Kavalry announced that they had plans, so it could be coming soon. Judd is indeed worried, but before they can go further, Jane asks for Judd to come on so they can go home.
Following this, Judd reports to the governor on the recent mission and what happens when the Cavalry crosses the police. He tells Jane that he’s full of confidence, and she brings up that she saw something coming out of his nose at dinner. Hey, it’s been a tough week. Then Judd gets a call from the hospital- Charlie Sutton just woke up. He decides to change into his uniform to pay him a visit.
Even though he shouldn’t drive unmasked, he tells Jane that he’ll get an officer to drive him. He does not, however, do that. On the drive to the hospital, Judd feels a jolt as his car suddenly comes to a stop. He exits his vehicle and finds that his truck now has flat tires due to a spike trap in the road. Then, a blinding light overtakes him.
But enough about that. Let’s cut to Cal and Angela having some fuck-time that’s interrupted by the phone ringing. She eventually answers and is asked about her father, Marcus Abar, and is instructed to head to a certain oak tree to meet someone who knows who she is. Oh, and don’t wear a damn mask. She decides to head out, but grabs herself a shotgun before heading out.
When Angela arrives at the meeting point, she’s greeted by a blinding light that eventually turns off when she threatens to open fire. Turns out that her mysterious caller is the wheelchair man from before, Will Reeves.
Next to him is Captain Judd, hanging from a tree as a single drop of blood drops onto his badge.
When a show starts, it has a lot to accomplish right off the bat. You have to establish your world and characters, hook viewers from the start, present an engaging storyline that will keep us watching from every week- or all at once on some streaming services- and give us a reason to care. Now, take all of that and set it within the context of a well-regarded graphic novel that many felt would be impossible to translate to screen.
I don’t need to tell you about the countless discussions and dissections of Watchmen and how the creative team of Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins gave us a comic that pretty much changed the landscape of the comic industry. There’s a reason it’s held up in such high regard and why many felt creating a live-action adaptation of it seemed daunting.
We’ve seen an attempt at this with Zack Snyder’s film in 2009- a film that I greatly enjoy, in particular the Director’s Cut. So despite the challenges, it can be done. Direct adaptations of particular comic book stories aren’t impossible, but based on the material, it can be an uphill climb. Given the number of adaptations we have today, everything is fair game.
After all, years ago no one could have predicted Iron Man would be the character to kick off Marvel’s film universe or that a Joker film would be held in such regard. Nothing is off-limits, so doing an HBO series on the Watchmen property may still be seen as challenging, but not impossible. Not anymore.
Damon Lindelof knew what he had in front of him when he decided to tackle Watchmen. The man has created my favorite television series over the past few years, The Leftovers, so that alone sold me on him bringing his own take on the graphic novel. This pilot gives us a great hook from the start, establishes itself taking place in a world where the events of the novel still happened, and makes a case for how this series can work.
It goes without saying that I’m feeling Watchmen, very much so, and while I have many questions, I am impressed with the world created and the job that director Nicole Kassell does in bringing us along for this no doubt crazy ride.
Let’s start right at the top with the hook, though. Opening with the events of the Tulsa Race Riot give us an immediate backdrop and establishes the tone and direction this series is headed in with a focus on a terrible period in American history. Hell, me even calling it merely a ‘race riot’ isn’t enough to go over the days when Black Wall Street burned.
That day, there was no justice. The mob in the silent film demanded justice, and the mob roaming Black Wall Street took out its own brand of “justice” all under the presumed rape of a girl on an elevator. Watchmen isn’t here to give you a history lesson by telling you everything about this event, but kicking things off with the violence already taking place helps set the tone and shows that yeah, this show is going there.
But keeping with the Tulsa tragedy and how it ties into the current story, fear is a strong motivator. Aside from hatred of Blacks, what kept Whites on edge was fear: fear that Blacks would continue their economic success and, Heaven forbid, have the thought that they were equal to any White. When that fear and anger exploded, you get the destruction of Black Wall Street.
That boiling anger carries over into the present day where we see two factions at work: the police and the Seventh Kavalry. Both sides are consumed with retribution in the face of an impending war and have the means to, pardon my language, fuck some serious shit up. Like the heroes in Watchmen besides Dr. Manhattan, these officers don’t have any supernatural abilities, but like regular officers, they can still kick ass.
But let’s take a step back and talk about the Seventh Kavalry. The parallels with the Klan are there and while that is a conversation starter, I’m more curious how this organization came about and how it established its beliefs.
Obviously Rorschach was a vigilante who had no qualm working outside the law, but he didn’t hate based on race or have a grudge with cops…okay, that’s not entirely true. Rorschach was no friend to police officers or authority figures, but he wasn’t for their blood. He continued to work after the passage of the Keene Act because the remaining heroes had hung up their capes and masks.
Yes, you can make the argument that Rorschach was unhinged and a loose cannon, but that’s looking at this from a purer morality. Rorschach had been twisted by the horrific things he’d seen around him, the worst being the murder of Blair Roche. He dispatched his own brand of justice and we rooted for him because, despite his extreme measures, he still had the desire to do what was right.
With the Kavalry, we see that this group has adopted Rorschach’s mask, but not his code. Perhaps this could have to do with the Kavalry being aware of the readings in Rorshach’s journal, assuming the contents made it to print. Neither Rorschach nor Walter Kovacs struck me as this sort of extremist type, so the Kavalry essentially perverting Rorschach’s words and symbol intrigues me.
That the Kavalry has been underground all this time and chooses now to resurface is another echo of how the Klan went through various periods of hibernation and rebirth from Reconstruction to now. This alone is sure to anger many, not just for the Kavalry being similar to the Klan or other extremist groups, but how it mirrors the way that extremists are seen today.
We hear a lot about many saying that they don’t want politics infused with their entertainment. Believe me, I get the dissatisfaction when real life politics influence shows and films. Sure, there’s no political message in Watchmen. That much is true, especially given that this world isn’t 1:1 the one that we live in. But with things like Nixonville or President Robert Redford, of course there are politics here.
Watchmen is as much a product of its time as any other novel, but its impact is still applicable in today’s society. Such is the case with, apparently, how Rorshach’s message has been twisted to give us the Kavalry that we have. At the very least I’m glad the Kavalry isn’t a group of pushovers. It would be easy to label them as fringe, cop-hating lunatics or straight-up cannon fodder, but they’re formidable.
I can’t deny that there’s a lot of tension right off the bat with Sutton’s interaction with the Kavalry member. Again, going into real-life parallels, it’s a twist on how Blacks are routinely pulled over by White police officers. We have the reverse here, but the same bloody impact when Sutton is shot, thus kicking off the impending skirmish between the police and the Kavalry.
The way that Lindelof and Kassell use this incident as a way to introduce us to the modern world is well-executed. The tension is slow and allows scenes to play out so we can take it all in even if we have many questions at the same time. Also, it introduces us to the various masks that the officers wear. They come off looking like the same masked sheriffs or vigilantes that you’d see in real life or silent movies like we see in the intro.
While these masks could just be seen as a way for the officers to protect their identities, I appreciate that the series goes a step further. Aside from officers wearing the yellow masks, some like Angela, Wade, or Panda have distinct looking masks. It helps them stand out from the yellow masks and is a nice way to add some variety to how the officers represent themselves.
Given how the Kavalry is hellbent on making officers suffer, it makes sense that they’d want to conceal their identity. We get some backstory on Angela, for example, and how she grew up during a time when officers didn’t have to wear masks. After this White Night attack, though, all bets were off, so it immediately sticks out when Judd opts to not wear his mask.
There are clear parallels to the police and Kavalry. Aside from both wearing masks, they each operate outside the confines of the law in order to get things done. The police are the law, sure, but that doesn’t mean they’re bound to act like good boy and girl scouts. As we see with Angela beating the suspect, as well as Looking Glass’ brand of interrogation, there’s some wiggle room to work outside the law.
They’re taking risks when they do this yes, and Judd’s decision to authorize firearms may not be wise in the long run, but he’s making that extreme call if it will guarantee the Kavalry is stopped. The same goes with the Kavalry and whatever their goal is with this upcoming conflict.
Still, though, the officers look to have the numbers and the fortitude to deal with the Kavalry. We spend the most time with Angela and it goes without saying that Regina King kicks serious ass- literally, at times- in the role. We’re given bits and pieces of her backstory, her knack to sniff out white supremacy, and her family life. But she’s no Suzie Homemaker.
Plus, she did still have a perp locked in her trunk, so she walks that line between good and bad.
In fact, when she suits up, I’m wondering if she, like other officers, feels a sense of liberation in the costume. Again, these officers are not super powered and have no abilities, but that doesn’t diminish their ability to kick ass.
Jeremy Irons as Veidt is shrouded in a lot of mystery right now. Irons is great in the role with what little screen time he has, but given that this takes place after the events of the comic, I wonder what happened to Veidt. Was he hailed as a savior for bringing the world together, or seen as a villain for his squid creation causing so much destruction?
Also, what the hell is up with his two servants? At the very least, it’s nice to see Veidt waited on hand and foot, given that in Irons’ most recent role as Alfred in Batman v Superman, he was the one providing assistance to Bruce Wayne. Now the tables have turned.
Even with the world established here and more to come, there are a ton of references and Watchmen Easter Eggs to catch. Judd’s badge with the single blood drop at the end works as an homage to the Comedian’s smiley face button, the footage of the Minutemen is a nice nod to Zack Snyder’s film, and we even see Dr. Manhattan’s sandcastle skills on Mars.
By the way, it can’t be an accident that the sand castle Manhattan brings down looks very similar to Veidt’s…
There’s a ton to dissect with Watchmen and we’re just scratching the surface on this new world. Much like the Marvel Netflix shows, Legion, and Preacher, to name a few, it’s a comic book adaptation that focuses on telling a good story first and being a comic adaptation second. Watchmen sticks the landing right from the start with its world building, cast, fight sequences, and intrigue that will keep me watching every week.
So to reiterate, who watches the Watchmen? I do, and I hope that you do, too. See you next week.