Before concluding its knockout first season, Watchmen gave its protagonist, Angela Abar, an opportunity that nobody gets in real life: to literally walk in another person’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.
In its sixth episode, “This Extraordinary Being,” Angela consumes the Nostalgia pills that belong to her grandfather, Will Reeves, granting her access to his memories of serving on the New York City police force circa the 1930s and ’40s. While effectively inhabiting Will’s body and mind, Angela gains new understanding about his perspective on the world, her family history, and what American racism felt like during a previous era. She also learns that he was Hooded Justice, a superhero whom the public has long assumed to be a white man. As witnesses to Angela’s Nostalgia trip, the audience benefits from this new information, too: We are suddenly able to see Will’s past, Angela’s inherited past, and the American past with new clarity, to understand it for what it was rather than what we’ve been conditioned to believe.
What Watchmen achieves in “This Extraordinary Being” and through much of its season is emblematic of what so much popular art has attempted to do throughout the past decade: In television, film, literature, and other media over the past ten years, artists have presented information as though it is gospel, then reframed it in ways that force us to reconsider our assumptions. These cultural works challenged us to realize that there’s always something more to learn from every story, even the ones we think we know.
Many of the decade’s most significant TV shows, films, and books explicitly invited people to look at a subject from another point of view. The Rashomon approach — the idea that, as in the famous Kurosawa film, people will see the same events in divergent, illuminating ways — wound its way through a lot of art in the 2010s. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the 2012 novel followed two years later by the David Fincher movie, dissected a missing person’s case and a marriage by presenting two sides of its story: one from Nick Dunne, the husband suspected of killing his wife, and the other from Amy Dunne, whose voice enters the text after we’ve concluded that she must be dead. Spoiler: She isn’t, and what she says turns the story completely upside down.
That he-said, she-said approach was also employed in Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff and Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, as well as Showtime’s The Affair. Nearly every episode of that drama presented a series of events from one person’s perspective, then followed it with an account of the same moments as laid out by another character, who inevitably saw everything in a different light. In its best seasons, The Affair revealed how easy it is for people to interpret the same information differently, and how often humans see themselves as the heroes in their own stories despite all evidence to the contrary, especially when those humans are people like Noah Solloway. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story does something similar, though it doesn’t delineate its spousal viewpoints as obviously as The Affair does, by exploring the disintegration of a partnership from both sides of the spousal divide. Even Fifty Shades of Grey spawned a spinoff that revisited the romance between Ana and Christian, but this time from Christian’s point of view.
In keeping with the divisiveness of the decade, tales like these often prompted fans to argue about which side was “right.” Over the past couple of weeks, there’s been an ongoing argument online about whether Marriage Story is more sympathetic to Adam Driver’s Charlie, the theater director husband, or Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole, the actress who aligns her goals with his own. But those arguments miss the point: These stories are designed to remind us how to exercise empathy, to listen more closely, and to consider disagreements from all kinds of angles.
Of course, it’s much easier to do that when we’re nestled inside the bubble of a fictional experience. Maybe that’s why fantastical pop culture that flipped our understanding of setting or plot was sometimes easier for people to embrace. (By the way: Several big twists from 2010s shows and movies are about to be ruined. Just know that going in.)
In the first season of The Good Place, when the NBC sitcom revealed that Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason had actually been residing in hell the whole time, it was a thrilling twist precisely because it made us rethink everything in the episodes we had already seen. When Nadia died and regenerated repeatedly in Russian Doll, providing the audience with new, relevant details about her life during each resurrection, it wasn’t maddening that we kept having to readjust our understanding of what was happening. It was exhilarating. The same was true of Edge of Tomorrow, the 2014 film in which Tom Cruise played a military PR guy sent into battle and stuck in a time loop that kept killing him, bringing him back to life, and adding new layers to its action story every time.
So many films and TV shows pulled rugs out from under us in this way. The Lego Movie made us think we were watching an entertaining animated film, until live-action Will Ferrell showed up and made us realize the movie was a much deeper commentary on authoritative control and white male nostalgia. Mr. Robot — which had already tinkered with our sense of what was happening by revealing that Mr. Robot was (1) Elliot’s dad and (2) also his dead dad — messed with us yet again by disclosing that Elliot hadn’t been living at home with his mom, but was actually confined to a mental hospital. The Amazon show Forever started as a relationship dramedy, then turned into the story of a woman trying to recover from her husband’s death, then became an existential comedy set in the afterlife — and that was just in the first three episodes. Jordan Peele’s Get Out turned a black man’s trip to meet his white girlfriend’s family into a sinister horror show. All of these shows and films announced that stories are fluid and can be altered at any time. Because many of them were genre works — sci-fi, animated, fantasy, magical realism, horror — it was more natural for viewers to accept that. The stories existed on a plane that didn’t quite align with reality, so we went along with their insistence that we recalibrate our perceptions.
The same could be said about alternate histories, which merged truth and fiction just enough to convince consumers they were still in fantasy land. Stephen King’s 2011 novel 11.22.63, which inspired the James Franco–led Hulu series, sent its main character back in time to prevent John F. Kennedy’s assassination, an act that sets off a chain reaction and confirms that eliminating one tragedy can’t completely erase the tragic. Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Underground Railroad imagined the pathways used to escape slavery as an actual subterranean railway system, though one that doesn’t make attaining freedom any easier. The Man in the High Castle imagined a dark timeline where the Nazis emerged victorious from World War II, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood imagined a scenario in which the Manson killers were brutally cut down before they could murder Sharon Tate and her friends, and Yesterday imagined how the world would change if Beatlemania never happened.
As provocative as these thought experiments were, the period-accurate work that made us reexamine the past may have done more to shift perceptions in a meaningful way. The great period piece of the decade, Mad Men, was a nostalgia trip that reveled in all the things that tend to make baby-boomers and older generations glorify the ’60s: the beautiful clothes, the groovy music, the idea that “men were still men and women were still women.” Over the course of its seven seasons, the show exposed the toxicity beneath the taffeta and three-piece suits, sending viewers on a nostalgia trip as eye-opening as the Nostalgia pills that Angela Abar swallowed in Watchmen. Mad Men began as a show about a suave man’s man with a secret identity and ended with a shot of that same man with his eyes closed, seemingly checked out of the advertising world he once dominated and handing it off to his female protégé. The most enduring image from the series — well, at least its most enduring GIF — isn’t of Don Draper at all. It’s of Peggy Olson walking out of a bad job, her box packed and a cigarette dangling triumphantly from her lips. It was impossible, at least for me, to think about the ’60s in the same way after Mad Men, because Mad Men allowed us to see more of it truthfully, rather than looking back fondly on the same old stuff.
The Americans did something similar by transporting us to the ’80s and making us care about a pair of Russian spies, the kind of people that Americans raised in the Cold War were trained to think of as the enemy. (Turns out Sting was right: The Russians do love their children, too!) The first season of American Crime Story took a news event that had been covered and rehashed ad nauseam — the O.J. Simpson trial — and, against all odds, made us viewers reexamine the personalities we thought we understood, like Marcia Cross or Robert Kardashian, and rethink the assumptions we made about them in the ’90s.
Perhaps the most celebrated reframed narrative of the decade, the musical Hamilton, told the story of Alexander Hamilton, but used the language of hip-hop and cast actors of color to take the stuffy, old-white-manness out of history and turn it into something bracing and relevant. Hamilton was universally beloved for that. But like Mad Men or The Americans or The People v. O.J. Simpson, it encouraged realignment of perspective that felt safe because it was rooted in looking backward. We could enjoy these stories and metaphorically pat ourselves on the back for understanding the mistakes of the past (which obviously we’re all past that now).
But when pop culture demanded course correction in the present day, things got much dicier. It’s one thing to watch Mad Men and acknowledge that the world was once thoroughly misogynistic, or to see Hamilton and appreciate the idea that Thomas Jefferson could look and rap like Daveed Diggs. It’s a whole other thing to acknowledge that the world is still filled with sexism, racism, and tired white male narratives. Pop culture tried to confront that truth this decade, sometimes successfully and sometimes with major backlash.
Bawdy comedies, which had primarily lived in the male wheelhouse, were largely women’s game thanks to Bridesmaids, Girls’ Trip, Bad Moms, Trainwreck, and a host of other raunch-feminism films. Pixar finally made a movie with a girl as its protagonist — two, actually: Brave and Inside Out — and the decade’s defining film franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, finally produced a hit centered around a woman in Captain Marvel. (It took them 11 years and 21 movies to do it, though.)
There are countless examples of films and TV shows that broke ground by telling stories about people of color, in the realm of comic-book movies (Black Panther, Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse), reboots (Creed, Annie, One Day at a Time), rom-coms (Crazy Rich Asians, Jane the Virgin, Always Be My Maybe), mainstream animated fare (The Book of Life, Coco, Abominable, and many children’s TV programs), Best Picture winners (12 Years a Slave, Moonlight), and, refreshingly, a lot of original television that considered what it’s like to be living in contemporary America (Atlanta, Master of None, Vida, Insecure, Ramy, and others).
But if a property deemed sacrosanct by a hard-core fandom tried to skew too female or nonwhite, the backlash kicked in. Everyone was cool with seeing Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, but when they were cast alongside Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon in an all-female Ghostbusters reboot, the misogynistic outrage got so loud that its trailer became the most hated one on YouTube. The new Star Wars movies, which cast Daisy Ridley as the Jedi-master-in-training alongside John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, and Kelly Marie Tran, riled up the uglier corners of the fan base who complained that Star Wars was trying too hard to be “p.c.” (Well, that was probably one of the nicer things they said.) That response is one of the reasons why we’re still hearing complaints about The Last Jedi, and will hear even more in the weeks after audiences see The Rise of Skywalker.
Ghostbusters and Star Wars did what is, sadly, the most dangerous thing you can do when trying to reframe a story. They dared to reimagine properties that conjure intense feelings of nostalgia — the kind of nostalgia that, as Don Draper once put it, “take us to a place where we ache to go again.” Even when some fans see new works based on the movies they loved as kids, they still expect those new creations to take them back to the same old place.
What’s so great about Watchmen, the ultimate pop cultural reframer of the decade, is that it understands that impulse — it is based on a beloved comic, after all — but insists that we all get over it. When Angela takes those Nostalgia pills, FBI agent Laurie Blake warns her, “You can’t take somebody else’s Nostalgia.” Which is another way of saying: Don’t believe what other people say was so great about back in the day. Back in the day probably wasn’t that great. But the experience of consuming those pills, which were carefully designed to capture the parts of Will’s life that he wanted Angela to see, is actually beneficial. Angela’s view of events is not rose-colored; it’s stark and conveyed, quite literally, in black-and-white. It’s the truth, at least as Will knew it.
Watchmen engages in narrative reframing on every front I’ve just outlined above. It presents characters who offer conflicting interpretations of an event: Angela, for example, has one view of her murdered friend, police chief Judd Crawford, while Will offers another. It toys with aspects of its setting: We don’t know where exactly Adrian Veidt is living until close to the end of the season, and when Doctor Manhattan finally rears his blue head, we have to adjust to the fact that he’s experiencing life in multiple timelines at once. It also has all kinds of fun with alternate history: Riffing on the world established by the original comic, Nixon never resigned and was not impeached, the U.S. won the Vietnam War by using Doctor Manhattan as a weapon of mass destruction, and Robert Redford has served multiple terms in the White House. And it certainly takes a familiar story and uses it to talk about something different — race — while casting a black woman, the great Regina King, as the hero who may inherit even greater powers. It acknowledges the toxicity of white fanboy culture by casting its white supremacist Seventh Kavalry in the image of Rorschach from the original Watchmen, a hero who inspired the kind of people who might be inclined to tweet disturbing things about an all-female Ghostbusters (if there were an actual internet in this alternate version of America).
This Watchmen “remix,” as creator Damon Lindelof calls it, acknowledges the hard work of reframing stories by building an intricate narrative that requires the viewer to pay close attention. Those intimately familiar with the original comic will spend their time trying to figure out how the show’s writers reframed that narrative to make room for the new one. Anyone watching will appreciate how, within what could otherwise be a fantastical sci-fi series about interdimensional squids and blue men on Europa, Watchmen shines a light on the corners of American racial history that have too often been left in shadow, most notably the 1921 Tulsa massacre it depicts in its opening sequence.
Watchmen also ends on a cautiously optimistic note, one that doesn’t say for certain whether this narrative — and by extension, America’s narrative — is ready to be reframed enough to grant power to a woman of color. It does put a foot forward in that direction, though. The last moments of the finale, which aired in the final days of this tumultuous, upside-down decade, essentially ask: Do we live in a world that is ready to reconsider the way it’s always worked? It doesn’t answer, because the answer is up to us.