Watchmen manages to be quality science fiction, cutting social commentary, and marvelous entertainment all at the same time. This nine-episode series provides a remarkable mirror of our own society disguised as a dystopian reality.
Expectations were certainly high when HBO first announced the series back in 2017. Alan Moore’s graphic novel, first published in 1986, had already been made into a film directed by Zack Snyder in 2009. The violent, visually stark movie attracted mixed reviews, which can be interpreted as a reason that the series opts not to retell the events depicted in the graphic novel but instead to create a new story set in that same universe. Damon Lindelof, best known for his work on two series with cult followings – Lost and The Leftovers – was another reason to expect quality.
The opening scene is disturbing and unforgettable, reenacting the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, a real-life event where white Oklahoma residents terrorized and killed members of the Black community. Grounding itself in actual American history serves as an effective introduction to an alternate present, where violence against police has become so vicious that officers wear masks for their own protection. Just as some people have taken coronavirus mask mandates as a way to express themselves creatively, so too do police choose costumes that give them a distinct identity rather than simply making themselves unrecognizable. As a result, cops can become superheroes – or supervillains, depending on how someone views the police and the way they use or abuse their authority.
This series was prescient in that its content demonstrates a readiness to engage in a conversation that America is now having but wasn’t yet in a widespread way at the end of 2019. Members of the Seventh Kavalry, the group that targeted police in a brutal Christmas attack known as the White Night, proudly flaunt their white supremacist ideology, and it’s clear that not much has changed in a century. More frighteningly, the group wants to infiltrate the government and put their ideas into law, setting the country back decades in progress to align better with their worldview.
This series suggests that violence must sometimes be met with violence rather than any attempt at a peaceful resolution. Emmy winner Regina King portrays Angela Abar, whose codename is Sister Night. The police officer’s costume is that of a nun, and in one early and very memorable scene, she takes a suspect into a closed room and blood begins to pool out as she beats information out of him. She’s clearly supposed to be one of the “good guys,” and yet her methods are far from gentle or respectful of anyone else’s rights.
There are so many dimensions to this layered series, and the ensemble is exceptional. Emmy voters rightfully recognized King and Yahya-Abdul Mateen II with prizes, and nominated Jovan Adepo, Louis Gossett Jr., Jeremy Irons, and Jean Smart, who all contribute wonderfully in vastly different roles. In addition, Tim Blake Nelson delivers a quiet but formidable turn as a police officer haunted by anxiety, Hong Chau is immediately captivating from her first moment on screen as a mysterious and powerful self-described trillionaire, and Don Johnson proves memorable and unexpectedly charming as the Tulsa police chief.
Production values match the caliber of the acting, including a well-paced score and an overall very sleek look and feel. The superhero components of the graphic novel and film aren’t as prominent but still present themselves through the costumes and the incorporation of science fiction elements, which only add to the extraordinary visual experience this show provides.
The only disappointment of this impressive effort is that, at least for now, it’s self-contained. Originally announced as a series, the show was wrapped since Lindelof felt he had told the story he wanted to tell. While that may be true, the nine episodes produced of Watchmen demonstrate the existence of a far larger universe with plenty more to showcase with the characters introduced here. Like its less well-regarded HBO sibling Westworld, the complexities are indicative of such depth and careful planning that would likely make for excellent television if they were ever to be further explored. Deciding to end early is a fate that fans of this show will have to endure, even if the quality suggests that a second season might have been even more invigorating and astonishing.
Watchmen originally aired on HBO beginning in October 2019 and can now be streamed in its entirety on HBO Max.