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Who Are the Heroes of HBO’s ‘Watchmen’?

The premiere episode of Damon Lindelof’s new series sets out to differentiate itself from its source material—and mostly leaves questions rather than answers

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Spoiler warning

In 2015, a list of Texas senator and all-around wet noodle of a person Ted Cruz’s favorite superheroes ran in the print edition of The New York Times Magazine. At number 5, and crucially not at number 500, or some other, lower ranking, was Rorschach. Rorschach! The homicidal, sociopathic, reactionary “detective” from Watchmen that only looks cool, and then only at first. Like Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins’s genre-defying comic of the same name—which my colleague Rob Harvilla dubbed “a $130 million excuse to film the ‘you’re locked in here with me’ scene”—Cruz was wide of the point. You gasp at how well Rorschach’s blot mask pairs with his trenchcoat, and then you grouse about how his dogged commitment to truth rests on his own hopelessly distorted sense of right and wrong. You’re not supposed to like Rorschach. You’re supposed to think about why you like Batman. (He came in at no. 3 on Cruz’s list.)

With just one episode down, it’s impossible to say what Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen is “about,” but it’s clear that he doesn’t like Rorschach. Set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Lindelof’s newest HBO series, which premiered Sunday night, follows the events Moore’s comic and some of the events of Snyder’s film. Dr. Manhattan lives out his days in solitude on Mars and afternoons are darkened by light alien squid showers. The United States has annexed Vietnam. Robert Redford has been president for 30 years. Rorschach’s violent, pessimistic journals have found their way to the saddest, most dismaying corners of the internet and radicalized a large number of white dudes looking to inflict their self-loathing on the rest of the world. (I particularly enjoy the fact that, the first time we meet one of these guys, he’s drumming the steering wheel of his pickup truck to Future’s “Crushed Up” and drinking [pregnant pause] “coke.”)

They’re called the 7th Kalvary—with a K—and just like with real-life white nationalists, it doesn’t really matter why they’re doing what they’re doing. But through the first episode of Watchmen, we don’t know much about what they’re doing, either. We don’t know why a group of them were huddled onto a cattle ranch in the middle of the night. We don’t know what precious cargo the few that burned up in that puddle jumper had hoped to escape with. What we do know about 7th K is that some time ago they carried out “The White Night,” an orchestrated attack on every known member of Tulsa PD. This is why all the beat cops wear yellow surgical masks and lie about their day jobs now. It’s also why Regina King rides around in eye black and a leather nun habit. While the police ostensibly hide their identities out of fear, the sole thing keeping them accountable to the community they serve seems to be the smart-gun technology in each squad car. Weapons can be released only once a situation has been reviewed by a compliance officer back at HQ. When a faulty one leads to an officer being shot, the entire precinct is then armed to the teeth, setting up the climactic firefight at the cattle ranch, but also literalizing another element of chaos that at least the black portion of the audience fears: cowboy cops with “just cause.” The fact that half of Tulsa PD is carrying automatic weapons while dressed like Agents of S.H.I.E.LD. extras is deeply unsettling, yes, but it’s well on its way to being poignant too.

While characters from the original series are set to be slowly revealed over the course of the show—shout-out to Jeremy Irons, who works a treat as Adrian Veidt With Infinite Offshore Money—the fun will be in how Lindelof chooses to corrupt what he’s been given to play with. One of the reasons why Moore’s Watchmen worked so well and ushered in a procession of “gritty” and “real” superhero stories was precisely because it wasn’t like anything that came before it. It collapsed the distance between heroism and vigilantism, and took up a healthy skepticism of superpowered men. If they could punch through brick, what else might they be capable of? And while Moore, Gibons, and Higgins were at it, they also pondered: Why should a comic, like, panel-wise, be laid out a certain way? A faithful adaptation of Watchmen necessitates a dubiety for the characters, which Snyder’s 2009 film didn’t have—and a loving disrespect for the form, which Lindelof seems to have.

“I do feel like the spirit of Alan Moore is a punk rock spirit, a rebellious spirit, and that if you would tell Alan Moore, a teenage Moore in ’85 or ’86, ‘You’re not allowed to do this because Superman’s creator or Swamp Thing’s creator doesn’t want you to do it,’ he would say, ‘F— you, I’m doing it anyway,’” Lindelof said in July. “So I’m channeling the spirit of Alan Moore to tell Alan Moore, ‘F— you, I’m doing it anyway.’”

Lindelof’s first order of business is creating a new point of diversion with modern history. Moore originally dropped superheroes into living memory in 1938 and reimagined a timeline of major world events from there. HBO’s Watchmen opens in 1921, with a punishing depiction of the Black Wall Street massacre. It’s an upsetting scene: Black men, women, and children frantically search for escape on the main thoroughfare, where they’re shot like fish in a barrel by giddy, drunk white men on a sunny afternoon. It’s certainly a choice for a cold open, and, to avoid historical tourism, Watchmen now has the sizable task of refining that trauma into a serviceable point. In the opening scene, a young boy watches a silent film about a black U.S. marshal who nabs a crooked sheriff in front of all the townspeople. At the end of the premiere, Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.) has apparently hoisted the Tulsa police chief (Don Johnson) into a tree. If there is a connection between our nation’s past and Lindelof’s Tulsa—if there is a way for Watchmen to mine deeper meaning from racial violence than it’s fucked up how they do us (black people)—Reeves must be it.

If the death of Judd Crawford means anything narratively, though, it’s that the central conflict of Watchmen isn’t the pitched battle between 7th K and the police that it first appeared to be. The cops are no more the hero of this story than Rorschach was in the original text, and thank goodness for that.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.