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What, Exactly, Is HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ Getting At?

Damon Lindelof’s series is the first extension of Alan Moore’s universe, and in it unexplained mysteries abound

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It’s about as incendiary an image as there is: a white police officer, hung from a tree in a modern-day lynching, with a black man at his feet the prime suspect. It’s also the shot that concludes the pilot episode of Watchmen, the new HBO series extending—not adapting—the world of the iconic ’80s comic (and considerably less iconic 2009 movie). Creator Damon Lindelof’s follow-up to The Leftovers takes all the goodwill that comes with delivering one of the best shows of the decade and promptly zaps it on the third rail of race, power, and law enforcement. As the viewer acclimates to Watchmen’s meticulously crafted version of an alternate modern America, many queries come to mind. First among them: What the hell is this thing getting at?

True to Lindelof’s CV, Watchmen is shaped like a mystery box. Lost’s frenzy of theories infamously backfired on fans and show alike; The Leftovers, with its de facto motto of “let the mystery be,” was an equal and opposite reaction to the genre’s conventions, becoming a sort of mirror image. Watchmen, too, has a deliberately opaque plot designed to provoke questions, and close viewing in search of answers. Who killed the policeman? Who is the elderly man in the wheelchair saying he did? How could he have done it? Also left unexplained are the rules of this world that looks so much like our own, yet so obviously isn’t. Why do the cops here wear masks? Why do members of the Seventh Cavalry, a white supremacist group positioned as a successor to the KKK, dress up like the (deceased) original Watchmen character Rorschach? Where are the surviving members of the first Watchmen ensemble now, and what’s happened in the 30-plus years since we saw them last?

But for all its in-text enigmas, Watchmen is a mystery on a meta level, too. In a lengthy missive posted to his Instagram last year, Lindelof declared, “We have no desire to ‘adapt’ the twelve issues Mr. Moore and Mr. Gibbons created thirty years ago. Those issues are sacred ground and they will not be retread nor recreated nor reproduced nor rebooted.” Lindelof’s mission statement is an effective assurance to fans displeased with Zack Snyder’s decade-old efforts. Yet it also merits some follow-ups: If this Watchmen doesn’t want to reprise the original’s riff on Cold War paranoia and conservative politics, what does it want to do? And why did Lindelof choose this particular narrative universe as the setting in which to do it? In other words: What does a big blue guy on Mars have to do with the 1921 massacre of Tulsa’s famous “Black Wall Street,” where Watchmen sets its cold open before fast-forwarding almost a century to 2019?

The idea of comics as a fungible vehicle for a storyteller’s choice of themes is arguably the underlying tenet of modern popular culture. Over many decades and thousands of issues, an iconic character like Batman can be everything from a camp icon to a foundational antihero. The conditions of modern filmmaking, in which a connection to deep-pocketed IP is the surest path to a green light, have only intensified this trait: Joker is a gritty ’70s drama in the style of Scorsese; Captain America: Civil War is a paranoia thriller with an indestructible shield. Watchmen, however, is different. The source text is a finite object whose original writer, Alan Moore, is famously opposed to adaptations of his work. There’s little history of Doctor Manhattan or the Comedian being reworked to someone else’s ends, and therefore a much higher burden of proof for Lindelof to be one of the first. (Snyder’s feature was mostly criticized for being too faithful a translation, not a blasphemous departure.)

One would think that Watchmen would feel some urgency in justifying its existence, but the show proves unhurried in its efforts to do so. Its first few hours are concerned entirely with Angela Abar (Regina King), a retired Oklahoma police officer who now fights crime under the alias Sister Night. Only through Angela’s specific experience do we get hints at the world-historical fallout from the events of the original Watchmen. (To recap, evil genius Ozymandias engineered world peace by faking an interdimensional squid monster attack on New York City, killing millions and uniting the survivors; the omnipotent Doctor Manhattan killed Rorschach before he could unveil the hoax, though not before Rorschach leaked the story to the underground press.) And only after a few episodes do we learn which pre-existing Watchmen characters figure into this new chapter, or how their stories intersect with Angela’s. They’re treated as dramatic reveals in the show, so I won’t spoil them here.

Watchmen keeps its cards close to its chest for as long as it can. In the meantime, there are plenty of Leftovers parallels for those seeking reasons for optimism, or just a fitting substitute for a show that’s dearly Departed. First and foremost is the oblique, patient world-building, which lets viewers infer this place’s history and bylaws in lieu of spelling them out. In part, this is just good writing; as if to underscore its own subtlety, the only ham-fisted exposition in Watchmen takes place in its show-within-a-show, American Hero Story. (Like Amazon’s The Boys, Watchmen understands any modern exploration of superheroes must reckon with modern superhero culture itself.) But the sporadic drip of information also heightens our sense of the uncanny, keeping the viewer in the same state of wary tension as the characters.

Eventually, we get our bearings. In the Watchmen version of 1985, Richard Nixon was still president, having been elected to a third term after winning the Vietnam War with the aid of Doctor Manhattan. In the Watchmen version of 2019, Vietnam is a state; Angela was born there, and operates a bakery called Milk & Hanoi as cover for her crime fighting. (Its perverse tagline is “let Saigons be Saigons.”) Nixon’s extended right-wing rein has given way to a liberal counterpart in a fictional version of Robert Redford—played by the real Robert Redford!—whose payouts to the victims of historic injustice are derisively known as “Redfordations.” The armed resistance to Redford’s regime includes the Seventh Cavalry and an explosion of violence against emissaries of the state known as the “White Night,” hence cops’ protective masks and superheroes’ pseudonyms. Watchmen’s heroes, Angela included, still don’t have superpowers, but there are touches of magic, or science novel enough to mimic it: memories bottled into pills; phone booths to outer space; a hypnotic interrogation room. Oh, and sporadic downpours of squid remind citizens of the supposed threat that keeps this new order in place.

With newly minted Oscar winner King as its lead, Watchmen has cast overlap with The Leftovers, too. Before Watchmen’s bits of intel come into focus, King’s calm ferocity is our anchor in a sea of disorientation; with support from the likes of Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart, and Tim Blake Nelson, King and her costars are reason enough to wait out Watchmen’s initial withholding. (King also gets to kick some serious ass in the action sequences, a perk that ought not be understated.) The production design, too, is enchanting, even when it isn’t yet clear what its spell is in service of. Unlike Legion, probably Watchmen’s closest peer as a highbrow spin on comic book fever, Watchmen isn’t overtly stylized. Its flashes of imagery are occasional, and all the more indelible for that restraint. A car falls from the sky and we jump; a man wearing a panda head leads a meeting and we do a double take. Watchmen’s aesthetic is neither pointedly unglamorous nor cartoonishly heightened, but somewhere in the dreamlike space between.

Such draws earn some of the patience, and benefit of the doubt, required to follow Watchmen where it wants to take us. Unsurprisingly, Lindelof’s politics are such that Watchmen is not the alt-right fantasia or even clumsy reversal its charged closing image would seem to suggest. But it’s also slow to demonstrate what it plans to do with the loaded weapons at its disposal, both literal and metaphorical; I’ve seen six episodes out of an eventual nine, and while the road map is certainly clearer than when I started, I still have no clue as to Watchmen’s final destination. There’s something exciting about that ambiguity, and refreshing about a show that doesn’t feel the need to frontload its agenda. But even Lindelof, with his trademark candor and self-doubt, admits he can’t predict how this will play. “I honestly don’t know if this is the Watchmen that I wanted to make,” he told Deadline earlier this month. That’s up to us to decide.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Doctor Manhattan’s story hadn’t been reworked.