***SPOILER ALERT – MAJOR PLOT DETAILS OF HBO’S WATCHMEN WILL BE DISCUSSED IN THIS ARTICLE! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!***
Wow. That was truly amazing! HBO’s Watchmen nine-episode run wrapped this past Sunday with all of the twists and turns one would expect from a comic book based television show. While most folks at NoE central have been drooling over The Mandalorian (and rightly so; it’s fun and nostalgic), Watchmen has been the better show on almost every technical level one could evaluate a television show.
No, there weren’t any cute fifty-year old infant aliens that have been meme’d to death, but there were weird clones being grown by Adrian Veidt in a lake on Jupiter’s moon Europa…so that has to count for something!
Simply put, HBO’s Watchmen is a brilliant sequel to the original comic. Faithful to the source material without being a mere “rerun” that rehashes the story over again for a new generation.
Picking Up Where the Comic Left Off
Watchmen is celebrated today by a vast majority of readers as the greatest comic book ever written. It’s an accomplishment in graphic storytelling that has certainly inspired nearly every funny book to be slapped on the shelves since its release, but it has seldom been met, let alone exceeded, by that output. It’s no wonder that many wanted to adapt the comic book to the big screen. It’s grand, audacious, and…un-filmable.
That was the general beat on the comic since it was released. Spectacular story, but the content’s density couldn’t be given true justice with a feature film. Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation proved just how difficult it would be to adapt the twelve-issue miniseries down to a “digestible” 163 minutes.
The folks at HBO and DC, along with series showrunner Damien Lindelof, decided to not go the direct adaptation route. Instead, they focused on making a sequel set decades from the original, in 2019. The comic book? The Holy Bible of the show: absolute canon from the first panel to the last. Given that backdrop, the show sprung from that fertile ground, deftly tying in connections to the original series all the while being set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a site never once referenced or visited in the comic book.
The great strength of the show was just how well the creators respected the intelligence of the viewer. There were no needless recaps of the comic book, no synopsis necessary for catching the viewer up. Lindelof & Co. dropped the world of Watchmen into the modern era and demanded everyone accept it and enjoy the ride.
And what kind of ride was the viewer in for? A doozy, that’s for sure.
Catching Up With the Watchmen
Watchmen focused on the trials and travails of the Tulsa police force, who had been attacked in 2016 by a group of Rorschach mask-wearing white supremacists called Seventh Kalvalry. With much of the police force decimated by the attack or too afraid to put on the uniform, the Tulsa police decided to don masks like the vigilantes heroes from a bygone era.
By 2019, the Kalvalry had resurfaced, killing a black police officer and then allegedly killing its police chief, Judd Crawford (Don Johnson). Series star Detective Angela Abar/Sister Night (superbly played by Regina King) begins investigating the murder in what initially looks like the Angela Abar show. What follows is a twisty road of murder, intrigue, and yes, Adrain Veidt putting around on Europa.
Veidt’s particular role in HBO’s Watchmen is a particularly interesting one. Originally thought to be dead, it’s revealed that he is enjoying (?) retirement on an unnamed country estate. As always, all is not as it seems with Veidt. The mad hero who killed millions in an effort to save humanity found himself unloved in the modern era.
The secret of his plot still intact, the viewer eventually learns that Veidt is in a somewhat self-imposed exile, voluntarily banished to Europa by Doctor Manhattan himself, where he would be worshipped by the residents of Manhattan’s utopian creation. It’s all Veidt ever wanted until he didn’t want it anymore. The long view treat of following Veidt’s deliciously weird exploits was one of the best parts of the show, and much of the credit comes down to Jeremy Irons’ portrayal of the enigmatic smartest man on Earth.
The other returning characters also get great moments in the spotlight. The revelation that Laurie Blake (Silk Spectre II) has become a grizzled, sarcastic FBI agent in charge of the vigilante task force was a bright spot. Her hardnosed approach to investigating the Kalvalry gave the show a deep connection to original series.
And then there’s Doctor Manhattan, whose big reveal came as a surprise to many in what would become the central story of the show. For the first two-thirds of the show, his presence (or lack thereof) loomed large over everything. Once the big reveal showed that Doctor Manhattan was Angela’s husband Cal, the show hit its stride, tying in the one character everyone wanted to see.
Doctor Manhattan’s reveal displays another strength of the show: the fact that it was patient in its storytelling. Several of the last few episodes dealt heavily with flashbacks. Given the show’s self-contained nature, one might think the last few episodes would ditch the flashbacks in favor of action, action, action. Instead, Watchmen took time to develop its characters background, delivering story shattering bits of information out in a measured manner, teasing all the way to the end.
Even in its final episode, Watchmen begins with a lengthy flashback revealing that Lady Triue is the real villain behind everything, and not the Seventh Kalvalry. In the era of peak story driven television, viewers expect a certain degree of explosiveness from finales, often times in a literal sense. Though the Watchmen finale provides plenty of action, its patient ability to still deliver new content while simultaneously wrapping things up in a satisfying manner places it above many comic book shows.
Shying Away from Controversy?
It’s hard to pick anything overly negative about such a well written, intricate show that dazzled on almost every level possible. The biggest obvious failing of the show is that it didn’t really tackle the racism of the Seventh Kalvalry as directly as it could have. Despite being set up from the beginning as the boogie man, the Kalvalry and its brand of white supremacy never really gets the full treatment that it deserves beyond labeling racism as bad.
The show does reveal that the white supremacists were being used by a wealthy one-percenter for their own personal, narcissistic motives (sound familiar?), the show never really delved deeper into the politics of the racial divide that exists in America. The scene stealing line from Joe Keene in episode 7 should have been a catalyst for more exploration: “It’s extremely difficult to be a white man in America right now, so I’m thinking, I might try being a blue one.”
Is white supremacy too much to tackle for a television show about superheroes? According to the source material, not at all. As I mentioned in a recent article, Alan Moore has never shied away from politics in his work. Apparently, we still do have to remind people why racism, prejudice, and discrimination are wrong in our society in 2019. Simply saying it’s wrong isn’t enough. Despite the fact that the Kalvary does get its well-earned punishment in the end, Watchmen could and should have explored the issues of white supremacy a bit deeper, but it’s a minor quibble.
Will There Be a Watchmen Season Two?
The finale solved much of the questions raised in the nine issue series, but also left us with others. The creative team and HBO have been deliberately coy about the chances for a second season. Watchmen certainly works well as a one and done show. Watchmen’s self-contained nature allowed the showrunners a sense of creative freewill that many scripted shows are not offered.
And yet, who doesn’t want to see what happens next as Angela Abar takes her first step onto the water, having presumably taken on Dr. Manhattan’s powers by consuming a humble egg? The number of questions that remain surely offers justification enough for a second season. Only time will tell, I suppose.
Regardless if there’s more, Watchmen is a more than worthy sequel to the original comic book series. It is certainly outdoing the comic book sequel Doomsday Clock that has improbably been released slowly through the last almost two years. HBO’s Watchmen offers a believable, interesting look into a world still struggling to get by after Adrian Veidt’s scheme to unite it to avoid nuclear holocaust. But did it work? Is the world a better, safer place? In an imperfect world, is that kind of security even possible?
That’s one of the many unanswered questions Watchmen has left us to ponder. Watchmen once again looks at the world and says “No” as we are left to consider its meaning.