Watchmen is interested in how we gaze upon the world and the world gazes back. Characters look upon masks the color of quicksilver, a body swaying from a tree, and scenes of untold violence, and are changed by what they see. The series premiere, written by showrunner Damon Lindelof and directed by Nicole Kassell, is also interested in the lenses through which we view our world. The plays that challenge us. The films that enchant us. The television that lulls us.
It’s Tulsa 1921. A young black boy no older than 5 sits alone in a theater watching a Western with rapt attention. The live piano played by his mother carefully charts the ebb and flow of a tale with brief interstitial title cards, tight frame ratio, and broad, physical acting. On the screen, a black hooded figure captures a scoundrel with panache. Then with grand gestures, he reveals himself to be Bass Reeves, one of the first black U.S. Marshals who went on to have a lengthy, famed career working primarily through Oklahoma and Arkansas. “There will be no mob justice today, trust in the law,” the young boy says with giddy reverence, giving voice to a screen that has none.
The relationship between blackness and the screen has always been a fraught one for reasons of representation, industry, and aesthetics. In many ways, film in America has functioned as a tool of white supremacy — sometimes obviously, like 1915’s The Birth of A Nation. But here, in this sparsely inhabited theater, a little black boy finds wonder and hope on the screen. But this cinematic balm is short-lived, as the young boy is swept up in his father’s arms, his mother is handed a gun, and they all barrel forth into the chaos of the massacre besieging this prosperous black enclave.
His parents can’t shield him from the horror of KKK members roaming the streets with vengeance on their minds, of black bodies ripped apart by bullets and set aflame. This, he must bear witness to as well. The young boy is sent along with friends who can’t make room to take the parents. So the mother holds him tight one last time, the father places a letter in his pocket written with a solemn prayer, “Watch over this boy.” “Be strong,” he advises his son. Placed in a box loaded onto a car, the young boy watches from a small bullet hole as dynamite rips through the building housing his parents, and darkness envelopes the screen. The young boy wakes in a field surrounded by dead adults. The only other survivor is a baby he soothes as they head down the road to an uncertain future.
Framing this alternate world with the true incident of the Tulsa race riots is a bold choice that immediately lays bare the concerns of Watchmen the series: racial violence, the long hand of history, power. The road the boy walks fades into its present-day incarnation and we’re beset by another example of racial violence against black people. But the dynamics here are different. This black man is a cop.
In this world — set 30 years after the events of the seismic 1986 comic by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins — cops wear yellow masks on the lower half of their faces to protect their identities, squid falls from the sky with no explanation, Robert Redford has been president for three decades, Dr. Manhattan is still on Mars, and Rorschach has become a symbol for the white-supremacist terrorist organization the Seventh Kavalry. The terrorist the cop pulled over is wearing a Rorschach mask when he shoots the cop in his car, right at the moment his secured police gun is unlocked remotely. The cop barely survives the shooting, but the message is clear: After three years of peace, Seventh Kavalry is making its presence known, and cops are a target.
As the cops of Tulsa, led by Captain Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), watch a video from the Seventh Kavalry, the echoes of the venomous, nihilistic voice of Rorschach’s journals are apparent. “Soon the accumulated black filth will be hosed away and the streets of Tulsa will turn into extended gutters overflowing with liberal tears,” a modulated voice intones from behind a Rorschach mask. “Soon all the whores and race traitors will shout ‘Save us!’ and we will whisper, ‘No.’” Article four, a law concerning the emergency release of cops’s weapons, goes into effect, and there’s the distinct feeling that a fuse has been lit.
Threading together our understanding of this world and its history is Angela Abar (an electrifying Regina King). At first blush, she lives a simple life. She’s in a loving marriage to Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) with three adopted kids. She’s starting her own bakery. She’s a committed mother and wife. But as she talks at career day at her son Topher’s school, that simple mask slips for a moment when she’s asked why she retired from being a detective. She answers honestly: She was attacked and shot on the White Night, an evening when officers in Tulsa were brutally attacked in their homes by members of the Seventh Kavalry. The only thing is, she hasn’t retired. Instead, she’s adopted the moniker of Sister Night.
Violence comes into Angela’s life as certainly as the tide, and she relishes it. Watch how she takes in a suspected Seventh Kavalry member even before Judd orders anyone to round up the usual suspects, or later, when a raid goes awry on one of the terrorist compounds. It isn’t just Angela that finds some sort of comfort and thrill in violence. Fellow detectives Red Scare (Andrew Howard) and Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) do, too. Learning more about the police and their methods muddles the show’s perspective on racial violence in this first episode. How can you critique anti-black racism in America’s history without also taking into account that police have been a tool of such violence?
Watching Looking Glass interrogate the suspected Seventh Kavalry member in “the pod,” it becomes clear that this is just an elaborate polygraph, making its reliability suspect. As bright photographs blink into existence across the walls — of Confederate flags, squid, pictures of people like Harriet Tubman, kitschy ’50s ads, all ending on an image of a Rorschach inkblot — the suspect is asked specific questions meant to bring about physical responses like dilated pupils that will help point to his guilt. “If I defecated on the American flag, how would that make you feel?” Looking Glass asks at one point. Looking Glass says the suspect was “off the charts” in his responses and that he’s lying, which is enough for Angela to give the man a beatdown behind closed doors until blood can be seen flowing out of the room. This leads them to a failed raid on a cattle ranch where Seventh Kavalry members collect lithium batteries to use in a bomb, or at least Angela suspects as much.
Even taking into account my discomfort with Watchmen wanting us to side with cops while critiquing white supremacy, there is an undeniable thrill to witnessing Regina King’s physicality and the great stunt work. Director Nicole Kassell creates many indelible images in this first episode — a police hovercraft dipping through the evening air, a roiling sky the color of forget-me-nots, and squid freckling a windshield. But the images that remain with me most are of Angela in motion. One of the most scintillating moments comes after Angela suits up in her Sister Night attire. The camera follows her from behind until she turns around in the elevator and we’re met with her fierce gaze. So much meaning can be found in her singular walk and gaze, about her dedication to her job and the power she feels behind the mask. With “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” Lindelof has cracked open an intriguing and rich world, but at this point there’s nothing I’m more eager to explore than Angela herself — especially in light of where the episode leaves her.
Angela gets a brief reprieve with a family dinner attended by Judd and his wife, Jane (Frances Fisher). It’s warm and casual, displaying that Judd and Angela are more than just a detective and her captain, they’re friends. But there’s also something ominous to this dinner, despite Judd’s jolly singing after Jane reveals that he played the lead in Oklahoma! in high school. The ticktock noise rising in the background and the overhead shot of the table, which resembles a clock, suggests these golden times are soon to fade. But I didn’t think they’d fade so violently or swiftly.
At the end of the episode Angela, in the middle of having sex with her husband, is rudely interrupted by a mysterious phone call. “Big oak tree out on Rolling Hill, something you need to see there. I know who you are. Don’t wear no goddamn mask.” What she finds there is the old man, Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.), who was outside her bakery earlier, the note “Watch over this boy” in his lap. But what’s most bruising for Angela is overhead: Judd’s body hanging from the tree. A single dollop of blood smears on his shining police badge in the grass, an echo of the comic’s own iconic image. How will witnessing this kind of violence, so close to her home, change Angela? Will she succumb further to violence’s allure, or shun its numbing effects?
Under the Hood
• “Veidt officially declared dead,” a headline reads. But of course, that isn’t true. Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) is alive and well, riding horseback and being tended to by oddly robotic servants in some far-flung château. What does it mean?
• Judd leaves home to see the officer who was shot in the beginning of the episode before he’s brutalized and hanged. So, does this suggest it’s an inside job? How would whoever killed him know his movements well enough to put spikes down on the road to stop his car and force him to go outside?
• One of the things I wondered going into this series was if it would take itself too seriously. But the framing of the show-within-the-show American Hero Story and Judd telling Looking Glass to pull down his mask so he can use it as a mirror demonstrates that this Watchmen has some sense of levity.