“I ask you, what is democracy? Do you enjoy the same rights as white people, or are you second class citizens? … to carry a gun in the service of America is not an honour but a shame.”
After last week’s densely packed pilot episode, this week it felt like Watchmen was starting to get on with the story proper. Its world established (but not explained), the show can get on with the job of a narrative. And maybe start giving us some exposition as well.
And we started to get exactly that, albeit not very much of it. As I anticipated, it’s following the template set out by Alan Moore’s original comic by parcelling out the exposition in small doses as we go; and in a non-linear, flashback-based way. So here, while the investigation into Police Chief Jud Crawford’s death began, we also learned more of the ominously named ‘White Night’ alluded to last time, which in turn gave hints as to how this world came to be the way it is. We were also presented with what’s sure to be an ongoing mystery, relating directly to the prologue in the 1921 Tulsa riots – who is the mysterious old man in the wheelchair, and how is he connected to events past, present – and future?
We got another prologue here which shed more light on that enigmatic note the young boy found accompanying a baby in the riots’ aftermath – specifically, what it was written on. Not just any piece of paper, but the reverse of a 1918 German propaganda leaflet aimed at black US soldiers during WW1. Clearly no expense has been spared on the show; even this brief flashback was expansively filmed, as a German biplane (echoing the American one that would be strafing the Tulsa streets three years later) dropped the leaflets onto a marching column of black soldiers. The contents of the leaflet – why should black soldiers fight for a country that despises them? – were instantly borne out as a passing white soldier, with the luxury of a horse, spat contemptuously in a young black soldier’s face.
So the theme of racial conflict as a central driver for the plot was enlarged yet again. I knew there had been many (segregated) black regiments in World War 2, but I’d never been aware of it in the earlier global conflict. Then again, I’d also never heard of the Tulsa riots, and thought that last week’s silent serial hero Bass Reeves was fictional (he’s not, and thanks to my friend Matt for pointing that out).
In fact, over 380,000 black soldiers fought for the US in World War 1. You may never have heard of them; chances are, you’ve never seen a picture of them. The fact that I was unaware of this – and of the Tulsa riots, and of Bass Reeves – is indicative of the way black history has been largely ignored by a white, often prejudiced majority keen to write history in its own favour.
Watchmen (the show) has already been accused of being too political, and using this as an excuse to promote some kind of agenda. But the comic was as overtly political as this too (more on that later), and the fact that anyone is objecting to its angry usage of racial conflict as a theme simply shows how much still remains to be done.
It’s clear from the details of the show that the Watchmen world of 2019, under the benign President Robert Redford, is a very liberal, inclusive one (almost to the point of parody, with that detailed series of warnings before a TV broadcast that might offend or trigger anyone). But even here – or perhaps especially here – racial conflict is a hot topic. We’ve already established one set of baddies, in the KKK-esque Seventh Kavalry, clad in Rorschach tribute masks. This week, though, we found that one of the ‘goodies’ might not be as good as we thought he was, when Angela, rifling through her now-deceased boss’ closet, came across a reverently presented set of Klan robes.
It’s perfectly consistent with Moore’s comic to show that there’s no such thing as a ‘good guy’, and maybe Jud’s little shrine to racism has some other explanation. But the sight of an honest to goodness Klan hood instantly counterpointed the parallel with masked vigilantes; and now, masked cops. After all, what is the Klan hood but another kind of mask to hide behind?
That’s the kind of troubling question the comic frequently presented us with, when delving into the heroes’ backstories revealed some very unsavoury character aspects. Are the cops the heroes here? Judging by their knee-jerk reactions to the poor white people in that trailer park, maybe not. Is Angela, in her Sister Night incarnation, a hero? See if you still think so as you watch her beat a helpless suspect bloody and near to death.
In the aftermath of a beloved cop’s death, feelings always run high; and with the tension already established in Tulsa, what we saw in this ep might it look like a tinderbox on the verge of exploding. We finally got some exposition as to why this might be as the ep flashed back to several years ago, and the events of ‘White Night’ – a coordinated, white supremacist attack on everyone in the Tulsa police department. At their family homes. On the stroke of midnight, Christmas Day.
This, it seems, was the origin of the Tulsa PD wearing masks. With those who survived the massacre resigning en masse, from what Jud said in the flashback, it no longer felt safe to be a police officer in Tulsa. Solution? Hide your faces, use a secret identity, then no one can target you like that ever again.
So, maybe it’s only in this town that the cops are masked; we’ve yet to see any evidence of it elsewhere. It does beg the question of how they might have become legally permitted to do so; perhaps that will be explained in later flashbacks. For now, though, we got a bit more insight into the other characters in the Tulsa PD. Looking Glass (a laconic Tim Blake Nelson) speaks in a laid back, gravelly drawl that’s inescapably reminiscent of the original Rorschach – there’s an uncomfortable parallel. And doesn’t his half-pulled up mask look like the image of Rorschach doing the same to eat baked beans?
Red Scare (Andrew Howard) seems permanently angry – and sheds more light on this different world when he defiantly declares, “I’m not a Nazi, I’m a Communist!” Plainly this America is over its commie-hating in a big way.
I like that the show is starting to flesh out its minor characters, and also giving us more background on the already major ones. Aside from the unpalatable revelations about poor dead Jud, we saw more of Angela’s home life in this ep, tied in to the White Night massacre. I’d wondered why her children were white; well, it turns out they’re adopted after their parents (cops, one of whom was Angela’s partner) were murdered that Christmas. This was foregrounded by the appearance of their no-good father (cult actor Jim Beaver, best known as Bobby Singer on Supernatural) on Angela’s porch, demanding to have his day with them. That, or a sizeable cheque.
We may know more about some of the characters, but much of the ep was spent with Angela trying to find out something – anything at all – about the enigmatic old man in the wheelchair. For those of us who grew up in the 80s seeing Louis Gossett Jr as a virile action hero in the likes of Iron Eagle, it’s surprising to see him looking so frail; but he gives an excellent performance as he evades Angela’s questions and drops ominous hints about what’s going on. “There’s a vast, insidious conspiracy centred here in Tulsa,” he attests. It may sound like the rantings of a lunatic, but given the plot of the comic, I’m betting he’s telling the absolute truth.
Angela’s attempts to establish his identity take her to a museum dedicated to preserving the memory of the Tulsa massacre, which handily provides DNA identification to determine whether visitors are descendants of its victims – and therefore entitled to those “Redfordations” that are frequently alluded to. It’s another indication of this world’s more progressive, liberal America; but as in the real world, it’s clear that this vision is pretty violently opposed by plenty of people, as we see from the protest outside. The implication is disturbing – even if America does try to come to a more harmonious co-existence between races, this is positing that there’ll always be some whose discontent gives way to hate.
It wasn’t much of a surprise to find that the old man, who identified himself solely as “Will”, was indeed present at the massacre. After all, he’d already told Angela he was 105 years old. And he has that note. So which was he – the young boy who escaped, or the baby the boy found?
More of a surprise was Angela’s discovery that he’s actually her grandfather. Soap opera twist? Perhaps, but then cast your mind back to the original comic, where one of the key revelations was the identity of one character’s father.
And if you thought that was surprising, it was nothing to the moment when, having been loaded into Angela’s car, “Will” was lifted away by a passing UFO. Car and all. So, are there real aliens in this iteration of Watchmen? Or, as seems likely, something far more complex…
Episode Title Significance
This week’s ep is entitled Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship. It’s a reference to a real painting, the one hanging over Jud Crawford’s fireplace.
Painted in 1834 by George Catlin, its title is actually slightly different in word order – ‘Comanche Feats of Martial Horsemanship’. Is the change in word order significant, or an error? With the attention to detail on this show, I’m guessing the former, but as to why… who knows, yet?
The play’s the thing…
OK, officially we don’t yet know that the enigmatic old codger in the giant mansion is Adrian Veidt. But, as mentioned last time, HBO rather gave the game away by telling us that in the pre-publicity.
His storyline still seems, like the man himself, to exist in isolation from the rest of this world. We still don’t know why, or much about it at all, in keeping with the general style of the show. But it was his segments of the ep that had by far the most references to the original. While Veidt himself (Jeremy Irons devouring the scenery as usual) is the only original character physically present, his odd little vignettes concerned themselves very much with an absent friend – Dr Manhattan.
Ol’ Blue Skin himself may be currently swanning around on the surface of Mars, but it’s clear that he’s also very much on Veidt’s mind. Last time, he told his off-kilter minions that he was writing a play entitled ‘The Watchmaker’s Son’ – a perfect description of the original Dr Jon Osterman, whose unfortunate encounter with an Intrinsic Field Separator turned him into the godlike Dr Manhattan.
This week, we saw that play actually performed. Well, one scene of it anyway, which appeared to be all its author had actually written. But crucially, it was a makeshift re-enactment of that very accident, with loyal minion Mr Philips taking the role of the luckless physicist, who in this low-tech production, appeared to be burned to death. Wait, no, not appeared – actually was burned to death. Only to be replaced by another figure clad in a fencing mask and nothing else but blue paint, in a recreation of Osterman’s resurrection as Dr Manhattan!
It may not have been an entirely faithful recreation – he wasn’t given that name until later, as an ominous reminder of the Manhattan Project. But the entirely visible big blue penis was very much in keeping with the original (though actor Tom Mison has confirmed that it was actually a masked body double). Male full frontal nudity is rare enough in TV (even Game of Thrones) and the original comic only shows the character full frontal once in twelve issues – at this very moment. It’s easy to forget that if you’re used to the movie, where the colourful schlong swings pendulously onscreen every time the character appears.
Speaking of the movie, though, I was surprised to find these sequences referencing that as well as the comic. Veidt’s first appearance in the ep is soundtracked by the final movement of Mozart’s Requiem – the same piece played at the movie’s end as Veidt contemplates what he has done. And the re-enacted resurrection is soundtracked (on the violin) with another classical piece from the movie – Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, played there over Dr Manhattan’s triumph in Vietnam (itself a reference to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now).
If only HBO hadn’t blown the surprise, you probably could have guessed that this was Adrian Veidt from the dialogue! As he irritably prompts his underling onstage, the line about the IFS door is that it’s “as impenetrable as the Gordian Knot”. “Gordian Knot” was the name of a locksmith company in the comic, but crucially, the phrase has its origins in a story concerning Alexander the Great; Veidt’s hero, whose alternate name – Ozymandias – he took as his secret identity.
Just in case you weren’t sure though, the final line of the play, mouthed along with by the author himself, was the final thing Dr Manhattan said to Veidt in both the comic and the movie – “Nothing ever ends”.
Wait, what now?
One last puzzle piece added by the play – as “Dr Manhattan” and the masked fiddle player revealed their faces, it turned out that they were identical to the “Mr Phillips” and “Miss Cruickshanks” we’d already met. As were, it turned out, quite a number of others.
Last time, their odd behaviour had made me wonder if they were actually some kind of robots; but no, the actual burned corpse of the original Mr Phillips looked pretty organic to me. What then? Clones? But Veidt appears to have no access to any technology more modern than the electric light bulb… Another mystery, that will doubtless be addressed as we go on.
American Hero Story
As I theorised last time, it looks like the show-within-a-show will counterpoint the main plot, just as Moore’s comic-within-a-comic Tales from the Black Freighter did. This week, its own pilot ep was preceded by a very lengthy warning parodying the usual “Parental Guidance” we see on shows like American Horror Story and The Walking Dead, taken to ridiculous extremes. Is Damon Lindelof trying to satirise the perception of liberals as easily triggered snowflakes, or does he actually believe that?
Whichever is the case, the show turned out to be as brutally violent as the actual American Horror Story, both satirising that and adding an ironic counterpoint to the public perception of the Minutemen – the comic book’s forerunners of the Watchmen.
Set in 1938 (handily indicated by a newspaper headline about Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds), it showed us a breathtakingly violent takedown of a drugstore robbery by none other than Hooded Justice – the only original character yet seen in this show-within-a-show.
Judging by its opening, depicting the character’s apparent death, he’s going to be the focus of this story. As the comic only hints, his purported identity – German circus strongman Rolf Mueller – was only a ruse. The truth will presumably be revealed as we go on, but in the mean time, his narration sounded, in tone and style, uncannily like the departed Rorschach: “I never felt comfortable in my own skin. So I made a new one.”
Any other cameos?
Angela bumps into an up and coming politico at Jud’s wake – one Senator Joe Keene Jr, charismatically played by James Wolk, who I remember fondly as Mad Men’s Bob Benson.
Why does that name seem familiar? In the original comic, the law that banned masked vigilantes in 1977 was named as ‘The Keene Act’ – presumably this is the son of the original Senator Keene. Wolk’s as good as ever, so I hope we’ll be seeing more of this character.
A slightly weirder cameo is the actual Henry Louis Gates Jr. No fictional figure here – Gates, playing himself, is a real guy, an eminent Professor of African-American Studies at Harvard University. In this world, he’s a junior secretary of the Treasury, and the pre-recorded, virtual host of the Tulsa Massacre museum. His presence adds another layer of depth to the prevailing theme of racial conflict.
Any other references?
Well, I’m glad you asked. Think Watchmen is too political? The original comic has, as one of its large ‘Greek Chorus’ of peripheral characters, a guy at a newsstand in New York City, whose stock in trade appears to be two extreme political hack rags – on the right, the Nazi-ish New Frontiersman, and on the left, the uber-liberal Nova Express. Satirising media bias, both were shown as caricatures, their editors and journalists featuring as the story proper went on.
In 2019, it looks like both titles are still going concerns, as a brief interlude shows another newsstand guy in Tulsa, awaiting deliveries of both – New Frontiersman has turned up on time and has some revealing headlines, while he’s still waiting on Nova Express, much to the disappointment of a little girl who seems to be a regular reader. This little girl seems to be collecting the paper for someone else – “she reads every issue” – and is given great significance. Is this newsstand going to feature as regularly as the one in the original comic?
Oh yeah, and there’s those pesky flying journalists, whose unreliable wings make them easy targets for the angry Tulsa PD. Don’t those mechanical wings look awfully reminiscent of the ones invented in the comic by Byron Lewis, the comic’s original ‘Mothman’ – who ended up committed to a sanitarium as a raving alcoholic?
Well. Shorter, I said. Less depth, I said. Given the splurge of words above, it looks like I was wrong. Yes, this second ep has packed in less detail than the first, to the advantage of the actual storytelling. But it’s still one of the most complex, multi-layered stories I’ve seen in long form TV for quite a while. The only current show that’s this thought-provoking and intelligent (for me, anyway), is Westworld, which grapples with similar cultural and philosophical themes – but with none of the anger that characterises this show’s central theme of racial prejudice.
Nicole Kassell, still in the director’s chair for this second ep, continues to imbue the show with real, cinematic impact, while managing to cleverly parody real shows with the American Hero Story interludes. And, whatever my doubts, Damon Lindelof continues to provide detailed, fascinating storytelling, anchored to interesting characters played by a terrific cast. Gotta admit, I’m hooked now. Even without any knowledge of the original material, this would still be one of the most complex, compelling dramas on genre television. Let’s see how the puzzle unfolds…