What Makes HBO’s “Watchmen” So Relevant

HBO Watchmen is the strangest show to come to television in a minute: the kind of fictional world where FBI agents carry locked briefcases containing giant blue dildos, police interrogations incorporate that of Grant Wood american gothic, and a cheeky play of a shootout between superheroes and white supremacists relies heavily (and explosively) on the cows. Damon Lindelof’s new series, a long-awaited “remix” of the cult 1980s graphic novel series, is sublime and absurd. It is a symphony in which the highest note of each measure is proudly wrong. The plane he depicts, an America with an alternate history in 2019, is both strangely strange and unmistakably our own.

In this mirror version of reality, a superstar Liberal president succeeded in pushing through both a reparations bill and a gun control bill, twin policies that ignited societal tensions in the country. -beyond a breaking point. Cops now tend to fall victim to shootings involving police, due to restrictions on their use of lethal force. After a wave of synchronized attacks on members of the police force in Tulsa, Oklahoma, officers cover their faces in yellow masks, making them eerily look like emoji. Halfway through the first episode, as Tulsa’s cops gather for an emergency meeting wearing a variety of bizarre outfits to cover up their identities – red balaclavas, leather capes, even a faded panda costume – that’s to me. came to mind. Watchmen takes place in a world where there is no internet. But Watchmen himself is the Internet. It’s a fictional manifestation of the things online life has spawned: polarization, anonymity, doxxing, red-pilling, armed nostalgia, conspiracy theories. The supposed imposition of cultural orthodoxy. A feeling of victimization that turns into racist resentment.

The original Watchmen—created by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins – used the comic book form to deconstruct the very concept of superheroes in the blink of an eye. Set in an alternate story in 1985, in which Richard Nixon is still president and the United States won the Vietnam War, it presented a world where masked crusaders were as real and as imperfect as people, as most of ‘between them have been ordinary people. The adventures of its “heroes” (the anarchic Rorschach, the grandiose Ozymandias, the actually overpowered Doctor Manhattan) took place against the backdrop of an America marching towards apocalyptic conflict with the Soviet Union.

Lindelof, the creator of Lost and Leftovers, confessed that he wondered if he should take on the task of adapting Watchmen. While he was a fan of the source material since he was a child, as he wrote in an enthusiast Instagram manifesto Over a year ago, he was well aware that Moore, its original author, was fundamentally opposed to adaptations of the story outside of the medium in which it was born. Lindelof’s compromise was that he would let the story of Watchmen be, while also using it as a starting point for a story that takes place decades later in the same universe. “The tone will be fresh and mean, electric and absurd,” he wrote. Most crucial of all was that it “be contemporary. “

What Lindelof did not mention in his letter was the most striking thing he did with Watchmen, which reorients this canonical history around a century of American racism. The first episode of Watchmen begins with a representation of the Tulsa Massacre in 1921 (in which a thriving black community has been decimated by racist mob attacks) and ends with a body hanging from a tree. Rorschach is no longer a hero but the motif of a white supremacist terrorist movement whose members wear ghostly white masks adorned with amorphous inkblots. Their goal, they say in a video handed over to the police, is to turn the streets of Tulsa “into gutters overflowing with liberal tears.” They call themselves the Seventh Kavalry. As the camera looks at the talking masked member, it reveals that he is not wearing a full suit, but a regular plaid shirt.

The illicit power that masks and anonymity offer to their wearers is a subject that Watchmen comes back again and again. Without the burden of having their true selves exposed, characters can be isolated from the consequences of the things they do and the ideas they espouse. The central character of the new series is Angela Abar (played beautifully by Regina King), a former cop who “pulled out” from the force after White Night, a Kavalry synchronized attack on Tulsa police and their families who killed Angela’s partner and his wife. . After this event, the police were allowed to cover their faces to conceal their identity. Angela, taking it a step further, began moonlighting as a hero called Sister Night, supporting the cops as a costumed vigilante while keeping her true identity a secret to protect her family. His motives are sincere, suggests the series, but they are not straightforward. “People who wear masks are motivated by trauma,” Watchmen member turned FBI agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) told him. “They are obsessed with justice because of an injustice they have suffered.”

Like its raw material, Watchmen goes back and forth across time and space. And like Leftovers, which imagines a post-Rapture world, it devotes entire episodes to the biography and point of view of a single character: Angela, Laurie, the cop turned putative superhero Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson). There are extravagant and surreal interludes featuring the Watchmen the character of Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, who is having fun in the middle of what appears to be exile by playing God with his servants. There are flashbacks to 1985, when Veidt engineered the release of a gargantuan extra-dimensional squid on Manhattan, killing millions but preventing the end of the world. Watchmen also explores how the trauma of such an unprecedented event could reverberate through the generations who survived it.

The most crucial element of the series, however, is the conflict between Angela and her fellow vigilantes and the Seventh Kavalry. On the one hand, a faction uses anonymity to terrorize; on the other, individuals who feel compelled to position themselves as defenders of the universe. As far as the story goes, Lindelof’s intentions seem simple: the original Watchmen series it Told The New York Times, was rooted in fear of nuclear annihilation, as it was the most pressing concern of the time. Now, the great cultural anxiety of the moment is a delay in calculating white supremacy. Lindelof Watchmen reinvents the Hooded Klansmen as the original supervillains, and he doesn’t have to stretch to do it. The historical moments he recreates are horribly violent and heartbreaking to watch. And their significance is indisputable.

But when it comes to other contemporary flashpoints, Watchmen is more difficult to interpret. The depiction of the show of a black policeman being killed by a white driver during a traffic stop, its casual treatment of things such as trigger warnings and cultural appropriation, these are scenes whose messages can seem confusing . Almost as often as the series thoughtfully analyzes the legacy of racism, it digs out what it sees as overly liberal. Watchmen is bold enough to imagine radical legislation that attempts to right historical injustices. It also portrays how such attempts at reconciliation push Americans even further away. “I think we’re going to need thicker skin,” Jeremy Irons’ Veidt says in one scene, and while it’s literal, the moment looks a lot like an omen.

When Watchmen is at its most human, most imaginative level (like in the sixth episode, “This Extraordinary Being”), it looks like superlative television. The breadth of his vision, coupled with Lindelof’s imperative to explore the relationship between nostalgia for the past and destruction in the present, makes it a narrative that vibrates with urgency and insight. Watchmen takes place in a world where cultural wars have turned into real violence and hatred. It allows us to see how deeply ingrained these impulses are and to think about what, if any, might ever be enough to overcome them.

About Sophia Jacob

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