In the months leading up to the premiere of the new HBO series Watchmen, a question hung in the air: Just what kind of show would this be? Creator Damon Lindelof made it clear from the start that it would not be another adaptation of writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’s classic graphic novel, published in 12 chapters between 1986 and 1987, nor would it be set in that novel’s alternate version of the 1980s. With the premiere episode, the picture has gotten a little clearer. Lindelof’s Watchmen is set in the same universe as that of the book, but it primarily takes place in an alternate version of 2019. And while the book and the TV series share some characters and a lot of connective tissue, it tells its own sort of story, one as informed by the politics and anxieties of the present moment as the novel was by the final years of the Cold War.
That doesn’t mean, one episode in, the series hasn’t kept some of its mysteries to itself. This is a Damon Lindelof show, after all. There’s a lot going on in “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” which drops viewers into a strange but strangely familiar America. It left us with a lot of questions, and while we don’t necessarily have all the answers, it’s worth spending some time trying to unpack them before moving on to episode two.
Why does the series open in Tulsa in 1921?
If you’ve never heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, there’s good reason: For decades the event became the subject of a wide-ranging cover-up involving suppressed newspaper back issues and missing police records, an attempt to erase an ugly stain from Oklahoma history. Only in 2001 did the state of Oklahoma establish an investigative commission to get to the bottom of the incident that ravaged the prosperous, predominantly black Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood, concluding that it left as many as 300 residents dead and 8,000 homeless in the span of 18 hours. The short version: a black, teenaged elevator operator was falsely accused of sexual assault, sparking tensions that culminated in white Tulsa residents all but destroying the neighborhood and slaughtering many of its residents — even attacking by plane.
That’s what the opening scene depicts. As for why, it establishes a bit of Tulsa’s history of racial violence, which will play out over the course of the largely Tulsa-set series. And because Lindelof likes to play the long game, it’s probably worth remembering the kid who makes his escape from the riots. Incidentally, the movie he’s watching isn’t real, but its hero, Bass Reeves, is. Born a slave, Reeves became the first black deputy U.S. Marshal to serve west of the Mississippi. Reeves became something of a folk hero over the course of his career and will reportedly be the subject of a biopic helmed by Chloe Zhao.
What’s the deal with the battery-powered cars?
Moore and Gibbons’s Watchmen takes place in a world transformed in ways both great and small by the arrival of Doctor Manhattan. The only truly superpowered character in the book, he came into being when nuclear physicist Jon Osterman accidentally locked himself in a chamber used to test radiation. A being of almost unlimited abilities, he brought a number of scientific innovations into everyday life, including electric cars.
Does that explain why the series takes place in a world with no cell phones that’s seemingly far less dependent on the internet (if the internet as we know it exists at all)?
Maybe? That’s certainly one of Watchmen’s most striking qualities, isn’t it? It’s strange to see a 2019 America in which newsstands continue to thrive and communications take place via landlines and pagers.
So where is Doctor Manhattan now?
On Mars, apparently, based on the glimpse we get of a news story. One of Watchmen’s most memorable chapters involves Doctor Manhattan fleeing Earth for the peace and quiet of the red planet. The novel ends with him planning to explore other, simpler galaxies. But maybe he got homesick?
Why do the policemen wear masks?
To protect their identities. Unsanctioned masked avengers seem to remain verboten in the world of the series, but policing has become such a dangerous job that officers hide their faces and adopt cover stories to keep their identities secret. Additionally, masked vigilantes like Angela (Regina King), who adopts the identity of Sister Night; Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson); and Red Scare (Andrew Howard) seem to serve as a kind of ancillary arm of the police force. The presence of the Russian-accented Red Scare suggests that the peace established in the wake of the apparent transdimensional squid attack at the end of the novel has held, and that while the Soviet Union might remain a communist nation, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. get along well enough despite their differences. The vigilantes’ masks appear to be homemade, some pretty halfheartedly, like Panda’s.
What about the Rorschach masks?
Rorschach doesn’t make it to the end of Moore and Gibbons’s Watchmen, but his journal does. It contains details from his investigation into the Comedian’s murder, an investigation that eventually put him on the trail of Adrian Veidt’s actions prior to the attack on New York. There, the appearance of a squid that seemed to be from another dimension left 3 million dead. Only it wasn’t from another dimension at all; it was a hoax created by billionaire Adrian Veidt in order to force an end to Soviet-American tensions before nuclear war became inevitable. It would seem that Rorschach’s journal has become an article of faith for violent right-wing fringe groups like the Seventh Kavalry, whose rhetoric mashes up phrases borrowed from Rorschach’s journal with language borrowed from the alt-right (“liberal tears”) and whose masks pay tribute to their fallen hero.
Speaking of squids, what’s going on with the scene where the sky turns black and a bunch of squid rain down from the clouds?
Well, that’s a bit of a mystery, isn’t it? Veidt created a phony giant squid, but these little squids seem to be pretty real. They also appear quite commonplace. We see an “Anatomy of a Squid” poster hanging in the classroom where Angela delivers a cooking demonstration, and a city truck dedicated to squid clean-up. So did Veidt’s hoax coincide with an actual phenomenon? Maybe. Another possibility arises when Looking Glass questions a suspect in the Parallax View–inspired interrogation chamber, asking about an apparently common conspiracy theory: “Do you believe that transdimensional attacks are hoaxes staged by the U.S. government?” The Seventh Kavalry might be hateful racists, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong about everything. Perhaps some force — the government? Veidt? Doctor Manhattan? — has made sure peace holds by reminding Earth it could be attacked by squids again.
Robert Redford is president of the United States?
He is! This detail builds on a joke seen in the final pages of Watchmen, which contain speculation that Redford might run for president in 1988, standing against Richard Nixon, then in his fifth term. By all evidence, Redford did not win in ’88 but some later election, and when the kids recite the list of presidents, it includes Ford. (Ford’s not on the “Four Important Presidents” classroom poster. Even in this universe, he’s something of a footnote.)
Some background: In the graphic novel, Nixon has served term after term, his power consolidated by winning the war in Vietnam with some help from Doctor Manhattan. (Vietnam, where Angela grew up, then became the 51st state.) At some point his face was added to Mount Rushmore, but this episode contains suggestions that Nixon’s reputation took a nosedive at some point, in the process becoming a symbol of resistance for those disenfranchised by the Redford administration. Why? President Redford seems to have implemented some form of reparations (“Redfordations,” as one of Angela’s kid’s classmates calls them, leading to a punch in the face). The details, however, remain hazy. Based on what we hear of a radio call-in show, a sizable portion of the population seems to feel that the administration of the “Sundancer-in-Chief” has overstepped its bounds, a feeling that gets tangled up with racial resentment and other grievances.
Watchmen’s doing a bit of a political high-wire act here. The show’s distaste for the Seventh Kavalry and their ilk is obvious, but it also contains some suggestions that a liberal administration might create a whole new set of problems and tensions. Gun control isn’t just the law of the land, it’s become so strict that even the police have to jump through hoops to gain access to their guns, a regulation that we see has fatal consequences right away. Then there’s the racial dynamic. Angela and Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) seem to get along beautifully. They socialize and josh around, but when Judd refers to a production of Oklahoma! with an all-black cast as Black Oklahoma, she gently chides him that that’s not his joke to make. And what’s to be made of the nearly all-black audience for Oklahoma!? Clearly we’re seeing a surface with history and dynamics going on beneath it we can’t quite parse yet.
Why does the Seventh Kavalry want old watch batteries?
Good question! And one currently without an answer, though it certainly works as an extension of the watch imagery found throughout the novel. See also the watch made by the servants of the man in the mansion (Jeremy Irons), who boasts of writing a tragedy called The Watchmaker’s Son, almost certainly a reference to Doctor Manhattan, born Jon Osterman, the son of a New York watchmaker.
What’s the deal with the guy in the mansion?
Okay, here’s where talking about the show gets a little tricky without edging into spoilers (though this one you likely figured out already). Though this episode does not his reveal his identity, the publicity materials leading up to the series’ release confirm that Irons is playing Adrian Veidt, the aforementioned genius-madman who killed millions while ushering in a new era of peace on Earth. What he’s up to, however, remains a mystery.
Okay, how about the reference to his anniversary, the honeycomb cake, and the horseshoe?
The heavily advertised TV series, American Hero Story: Minutemen, seems pretty important, doesn’t it?
Yes it does. The Minutemen were the band of masked vigilantes formed in the late ’30s who fought crime and intrigue until being disbanded after attracting the attention of HUAC in the late ’40s. Their ranks included the Comedian, Captain Metropolis, Hooded Justice, and Dollar Bill. (The lattermost can be glimpsed in the racist ad hanging on the wall when Angela confronts the suicidal Seventh Kavalry member. In the graphic novel, he’s notable mostly for dying after getting his cape trapped in a revolving door.) This appears to be a sensationalized retelling of their story.
What’s with that airship?
That’s no airship, it’s an Owlship! Or, at the least, it’s a ship that uses similar technology to the hovering vehicle used by the second Nite Owl in the graphic novel. Where he is, however, remains unclear.
Who’s the man in the wheelchair played by Louis Gossett Jr.?
That’s a big TBD, but maybe it’s worth reflecting back on how the episode began and considering whether he could have some tie to Tulsa’s history, and to a massacre that’s had aftershocks in their world and ours, no matter how great the effort to make history forget it. (Also, that he’s carrying that note definitely means something.) And bringing the episode full circle back to the opening of the graphic novel, it ends with blood from the hanged Chief Crawford dripping down onto his badge, an echo of the blood on the Comedian’s smiley-face pin and the murder mystery that opened Moore and Gibbons’s book. (The smiley face gets a cameo, too, sort of, in the arrangement of the egg yolks during Angela’s cooking demonstration.)