NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of, “Watchmen” are present in this review
For decades, DC Comics’ Watchmen has served as one of the most beloved and celebrated graphic novels in history. The Watchmen graphic novel even has the lofty distinction of being the only comic book to appear in Time’s “100 Best Novels” collection, in turn serving as one of the most influential comics to ever grace the stands, throwing the doors open for darker, more violent and more politically-charged storylines in the printed panels, an initiative that has continued into the adult-driven comic book industry of today. Presenting an ultra-violent, gritty and Cold War-ravaged alternate-timeline 1985, Watchmen exists in a world outside of the main DC Universe (though the Watchmen characters have since been incorporated into the mainline DC Universe as of 2017’s Doomsday Clock storyline), where non-powered vigilantes have been outlawed after a violent history that mirrors their real-world development in comic books, and an imminent nuclear holocaust is punctuated by a central mystery involving the murder of one of the Watchmen universe’s most controversial masked heroes, The Comedian.
Despite former rights disputes between DC and co-creator, Alan Moore (who is now refusing to have his name attached to any Watchmen projects that DC puts together, in perpetuity), and the initial belief that Watchmen could never be successfully adapted to a live-action medium, a live-action Watchmen feature film managed to materialize from DC parent, Warner Bros. in 2009, which was later complemented by a DC Comics prequel storyline, Before Watchmen in 2012, along with the aforementioned Watchmen sequel comic, Doomsday Clock, five years later. With interest in adapting and expanding the world of Watchmen thus being heightened, it was seemingly inevitable that this beloved graphic novel would eventually see a small screen adaptation, considering DC’s ever-ambitious and perpetually growing slate of television shows. Now, a whole decade after the Watchmen movie hit theatres, a Watchmen television series has arrived, courtesy of HBO, and showrunner, Damon Lindelof, who previously put together supernatural HBO drama series, The Leftovers.
Despite simply calling itself ‘Watchmen‘, the series also serves as a present-day follow-up to the events of the original graphic novel (not the movie, which had an infamously altered ending that changed the tone of the story, to mixed effect), picking up in an alternate-timeline 2019, where history has once again deviated significantly from the real world. There’s a lot to unpack in the first episode of HBO’s Watchmen for sure, but if nothing else, the show’s world-building is fantastically detailed and promising! Specifically, now that the world is no longer under constant threat of nuclear annihilation, the series picks up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, quite removed from the original graphic novel’s New York setting, where a heavily-outfitted and dangerous white supremacy group called the Seventh Kavalry has served as the biggest menace for many years. The most distinct thing about this group as well is their inspiration from original Watchmen anti-hero, Rorschach, who was killed at the end of the graphic novel by the world’s only powered hero, Dr. Manhattan, and who also published journals related to rhetoric surrounding extreme condemnation of crime and societal failure, journals that have now been misappropriated by the unhinged racists of the Seventh Kavalry, who also wear Rorschach masks.
This immediately creates a pretty unexpected connection to the original Watchmen comic, but so far, these Klu Klux Klan successors are a little hit-or-miss as antagonists. I understand that the Watchmen series is trying to invert political resistance in our real world, namely with a fictional world that actively pays out victims of racial injustice on the word of a decades-elected, hyper-liberal president, along with containing a police industry wherein cops can’t use their locked-out firearms without special approval from bureaucrats, and who must also wear masks to protect their identities, after most of Tulsa’s cops were killed by the Seventh Kavalry during a bloody event known as the, “White Night.” It’s an interesting antagonist idea, though it also demands that audiences take for granted that a white supremacy group could ever become so powerful that wiping out an entire police force is a cakewalk for them. Again, I understand that this is supposed to be an unexpected consequence from the ending of the graphic novel, where one of the titular ‘Watchmen’, Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias unleashed a trans-dimensional alien squid to attack New York and kill millions (this ending was weird, but it definitely made more sense than the ending of the film adaptation, where Dr. Manhattan was framed for the destruction by Ozymandias), thus resulting in the world losing their taste for Cold War-fueled hate and paranoia, but it still doesn’t completely hold up to scrutiny in the narrative, at least not yet.
Fortunately, a better narrative element in this first Watchmen episode is the protagonists, led in a standout turn by Regina King as an uncompromising, super-capable detective, one of the only cops who survived the White Night, Angela Abar, who sports the codename, “Sister Night” when on the job. Angela represents the most extreme polarization imaginable for a masked detective, being a devout family woman with dreams of opening a bakery (though she hasn’t quite managed to, even months later), but also a violent, borderline-amoral masked cop who in turn represents the worst brought out by the frequently vicious vigilantes of this world’s past. Alongside her are other distinct masked cops like Tim Blake Nelson’s Looking Glass, Andrew Howard’s Red Scare and Jessica Camacho’s Pirate Jenny, who are also headed up by Don Johnson’s well-meaning, but professionally capable Tulsa police chief, Judd Crawford. Most of Watchmen’s supporting cast doesn’t get any development at all yet, with almost the entire first episode instead focusing squarely on developing Angela and the Seventh Kavalry, along with laying the narrative foundation for the show’s world at large, but this is likely something that will be remedied in upcoming episodes.
I will say as well that, alongside the incredibly detailed and rich world that this Watchmen series creates, there’s also some surprisingly solid action in this first episode, most of which naturally comes courtesy of Angela. The highlight moment on this note comes during an intense climax, which involves Angela and several other cops storming a cattle ranch, and gunning down Seventh Kavalry members that are stockpiling old lithium batteries to some unknown end. The Kavalry members are all successfully killed, a couple of which even being taken down by former ‘Watchman’, Nite Owl II’s old flying ship, Archie (which now appears to be the property of the Tulsa police for some reason), and it seems like a promising mystery is foreshadowed with the lithium batteries, along with a surprising curveball to end the episode on. After Angela gets called to a remote tree by the Kavalry, she finds Judd having been hung there, along with a mysterious old man being nearby, who formerly hassled her about when her bakery was going to open. The idea that the Kavalry know Angela’s identity is pretty exciting, not to mention logical, since Angela survived the White Night before police had to wear masks, though as much as the twist of Judd’s hanging is pretty cool, killing off the character this early pretty much negates all of his own teased developments off the bat, unless he somehow miraculously survives, despite what the music is telling us.
If I tried to unpack every teased development, every subtle detail and every bit of implied history in this first Watchmen episode, this would become a very, very long review. This fact also sometimes means that Watchmen, despite being a weekly HBO series, is likely going to benefit from having its debut season binged all at once by new viewers in the future, where the sometimes drawn-out, prolonged mysteries of this first episode aren’t as much of an annoyance as they sometimes can be. Overall though, HBO’s Watchmen is incredibly well-produced and performed, and despite its sometimes odd choice of villain faction, the show is presenting an amazing amount of promise out of the gate. Not all of Watchmen’s potential is realized here, especially when the show is heavily banking on viewers watching on for context to most of its storytelling minutia, but this sequel series nonetheless feels true to the politically-charged, hyper-violent style of the graphic novel, while still fleshing these elements out with interesting new ideas, and not merely lingering on surface-level shock value. Even without the actual Watchmen characters actually showing up in the narrative at this point (at least beyond a cameo by a rather Ozymandias-looking Jeremy Irons later in the episode, along with a very distant Dr. Manhattan being glimpsed on a news broadcast), this show definitely feels like an authentic modern evolution of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ excellent graphic novel, one that should hopefully keep getting better as its world and mystery continue to unfold.
- Exceptional cast that's wonderfully headlined by Regina King
- Hyper-detailed and nuanced world that feels true to the graphic novel
- Violent, hard-hitting action that avoids becoming tasteless
- Storytelling has some tedious stretches
- Most characters outside of Angela are currently underdeveloped
- The Seventh Kavalry's power and resources are a little head-scratching