Note: We will be reviewing Watchmen every Monday for the entire season, as well as sharing Zach and Brian Watch the Watchmen, a podcast dedicated to the show. This piece is more of an overview of the first half of the season, along with insight from various people involved in the production of the series. Check back on Monday for a more formal, critical analysis. All quotes are taken from the Watchmen press junket held in New York City on October 2, 2019.
When Zack Snyder made Watchmen in 2009, the intent appeared to be to do his damndest to bring the comic book to the big screen with as little deviation as possible from the source material. There were dozens of shots that were literally lifted from the comic whole hog, and this was seen as a point of pride in his filmmaking. Aside from trying to simplify the ending, and removing the backmatter, Snyder was trying to give viewers “Watchmen,” or as close of a facsimile as possible.
Watchmen, the HBO series that debuts on Sunday evening, doesn’t want to give you Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s comic. It also has little interest in giving you answers that tie up the loose ends from “Watchmen” in a neat little package. “The comic is canon,” says executive producer/showrunner/writer Damon Lindelof, but the series is not an adaptation of the comic. It is a sequel, albeit one with the same name, and one totally divorced from “Doomsday Clock,” the DC Comics sequel to “Watchmen” that is limping its way through a 12 issue story over 2+ years.
34 years have passed since the events of “Watchmen” and, with a couple of exceptions, the show isn’t all that interested in filling in too much of that gap. This is a story about 2019 but, like all of our lives, the events of 30 years ago still affect the world in many ways.
In many ways, Watchmen resembles Lindelof’s prior HBO gig, The Leftovers, but excludes the first season, which essentially adapted the novel reasonably straight. If you wanted to, you could treat Snyder’s Watchmen as that for this series, though you’ll find the two absolutely at odds tonally. Just read the comic again.
But like The Leftovers seasons 2 and 3, Watchmen takes the overarching questions of the book and pushes them forward. We do encounter some characters, like Adrian Veidt and Laurie Juspeczyk, who are familiar from the comic, but the majority of the folks we are spending time with are new creations. These characters allow us a fresh perspective on, perhaps, the most enduring question from “Watchmen” – did Veidt’s plan work?
While the answer to that is complicated and, sort of the point of the show, I’m not going to attempt to answer it with any authority. But there are undoubtedly changes that came to the world because of the events of New York, as folks have taken to simply referring to the appearance of a giant, alien squid in the world’s largest city. But that’s not the only traumatic event at the heart of the series. ‘The White Night’ is a Tulsa specific event that, especially for the characters we are spending a lot of time with, is every big as traumatic as New York for certain folks.
Again, like the Sudden Departure in The Leftovers, Watchmen is about how people exist in the world that has been shaped by disaster and violence. Some lean into that violence and chaos, others try to steer away from those aspects. Sometimes, these things happen in the same household. Angela Abar (Regina King) and her husband Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) have very different reactions to the world they live in. Angela patrols the streets as Sister Night, a police officer under a nun-inspired outfit, while Cal…well, we don’t know what Cal does, but it certainly isn’t that. Angela is all action; she never pauses when there’s something to be done. Cal doesn’t match her intensity, but rather complements her by being calm, collected, and supportive of all that she does.
There are a few scenes in the early episodes where Cal’s quiet, strong support shines through. These scenes are important, as they establish a true partnership between the two. Abdul-Mateen said that he was very glad to “offer up images of a family, a black family, a man, who is confident in his manhood and what that means, and he is willing to hold down the fort while his kickass wife goes out and handles her business.” Abdul-Mateen’s performance is so understated and strong, and buttresses King’s performance in a beautiful way.Continued below
The calm home life for the Abars allows the rest of the show to burn a little brighter, whether it is Tim Blake Nelson’s Looking Glass or Hong Chau’s Lady Trieu, both of whom push their characters into really interesting places that stretch the show’s tone in unexpected ways. Glass is an especially fascinating character, at times brusk and cruel, and others compassionate and helpful. His mask also provides a fair amount of comic relief, whether it is people using it to check their teeth for food, or his wicking impossible sweat off of it.
Race is such a huge part of Watchmen, both in the Tulsan setting and in the 7th Kalvary, the Rorschach-mask wearing group that plays a huge role in the series. Nelson is also the only Tulsa native in the cast, and spoke openly about his hometown’s checkered past when it comes to race. “When I grew up, there was overt racism everywhere. My teachers…it pervaded. And, thankfully, it’s not so much like that anymore, but that journey has been a long one for a lot of people. And so, it was sadly there for me to tap on. I don’t look at my state now and say ‘I come from a state of racist crackers,’ I don’t feel that way at all. I love Oklahoma, I love being from there, but there were aspects of that around me all the time.”
If none of this sounds particularly familiar, or like “Watchmen,” well, you’re correct. Sure, there are elements in every episode that are obviously thematically similar, but the show spends more time building than looking backwards. Nicole Kassell, who directed the first two episodes, spoke about reading the script before the comic, and using some visual clues – hidden smiley faces/clocks, some iconic red funereal flowers – to hint towards the past. But most of the energy of the show is spent inhabiting Tulsa and its citizens with depth that doesn’t require Kassell’s self-described “dog eared” texts of the comic to fully appreciate.
There are a number of characters, like Chau’s Lady Trieu and Louis Gossett Jr.’s Will Reeves, who seem like mystery machines (not a Scooby Doo reference), who throw the show into the unknown whenever they walk on screen. Each of these characters unfurl at different speeds than the rest of the cast, though at the end of the six episodes that HBO has provided reviewers, there is still a fair amount of unknown about each of them.
We’ve spent more time with Gossett thus far, and he is absolutely electrifying when he is on screen. His character represents a tether to the past, but instead of the typical, ‘wizened old codger,’ he is an agent of chaos in many ways. In the first two episodes alone, everything about his character is brought into question, from his physical abilities to his motives and everything in between. The show really utilizes Gossett’s talents beautifully, and when he shows up, you can’t help but pay attention.
Gossett and Chau had very different reactions to a question about how much they wanted to know about their character before filming began. Gossett was happy to work off the page and simply act what he was given; Chau said she wants as much information as possible to inform her choices. When studying their performances, it isn’t as if their preparation bleeds on screen at all, though both seem particularly comfortable in the skin of their characters.
The only two actors on the show who are playing pre-established characters are Jean Smart (Laurie Juspeczyk) and Jeremy Irons (Adrian Veidt), though both are playing them in very different circumstances. Irons is playing Veidt as a man, in a way, who is isolated from the world he believes he saved. Smart is playing a Laurie who has worked herself into the fabric of that world, and finds herself in a very different place, both mentally and emotionally, than she was at the end of the comic. Smart said that there was some pressure to playing a character that was so well known, but when you watch her performance, you marvel at its boldness and confidence.Continued below
Confidence is also the world I’d use for Irons as Veidt, though that barely scratches the surface at what is happening on screen when Irons is there. I am going to exercise a ton of caution here, as the Veidt scenes are as idiosyncratic as anything on TV, and unfold in such a spectacularly weird way that I don’t want to give anything away.
The most telling part of the show is the amount of mystery it holds. Lindelof addressed this when talking about why he wanted to write a sequel, not an adaptation. “I can’t think of anything lamer than tuning into the pilot of Watchmen and seeing the Comedian being killed, and then finding out ten episodes later that it was Adrian Veidt. I want people to wonder, ‘What will happen in episode 2? What will happen in episode 3?'”
Whatever you think this show is, at least through its first six episodes, it isn’t that. The show takes a lot of bold moves, and rewards keen eyed viewers with a lot of really interesting and provocative television. Even if, like me, think that adapting “Watchmen” is problematic for a few reasons, the series itself is interesting enough to make it worth your while.
And I cannot wait to talk to y’all about episodes 3 and 6.