Ed note: Spoilers for the premiere episode of HBO's Watchmen are below.
From the very first issue of the ground-breaking comic book series, Watchmen has always posed heavy questions: Who killed the Comedian? Who watches the Watchmen? Who are these people, really? What kind of person dons a mask and beats people up at night, anyway? In that regard, the pilot of the Watchmen television series provides plenty of questions of its own: What happened to the heroes we knew and loved before? How did we get to this point? How have the events of the comic’s conclusion further shaped this world? And most immediately, just how did Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) actually die?
Like any other first episode, the pilot to HBO's Watchmen is an introduction to this brave new world that’s all about establishing what’s to come. Writer and showrunner Damon Lindelof’s script, expertly directed by Nicole Kassell, forces you to ask many of the questions posited above, knowing that there might not be answers for a while, or in the parlance of The Leftovers and Lost, may ever. But the biggest question for many going into this premiere was this: Will the show feel like reading an issue of Watchmen? Turns out the answer to that question is a resounding yes.
Before the show was even picked up for a full season, Lindelof spent a lot of time and effort laying the groundwork for what was to come. In an open letter posted to his Instagram in May of 2018, Lindelof promised fans that his adaptation of the material would be a “remix” that would “ask new questions and explore the world through a fresh lens.” The pilot, or “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” is quick to hammer that point home. To wit: After a horrifying and chilling cold open set amongst the Black Wall Street riots of 1921 in Tulsa—an event that to this day is considered "the single worst incident of racial violence in American history"—in which an affluent black neighborhood was razed to the ground by white residents, a Future needle drop brings us back to 2019. Upon entering the modern era, we’re introduced to a world that’s continued on since Adrian Veidt unleashed his plan upon the world. President Robert Redford (!) has annexed Vietnam into the Union, squids rain from the sky, and Rorschach’s iconography has been repurposed by a group of white nationalists calling themselves the Seventh Kavalry. The 7K, we’re told by Don Johnson’s police chief Crawford, has been largely in hiding since the group attacked local cops at their homes, forcing cops to don masks to protect themselves. It’s a world similar to that first seen in the comic book, on edge, inching closer to complete chaos.
But instead of playing with the idea of late Cold War-era paranoia, Lindelof’s version is focused more on ideas that have plagued the core of America since its creation: race and power, racism and fascism. The show’s opening, both in terms of the flashback to the 1921 riots and the brutal murder of a black officer by a 7K member, immediately sets the stakes of what’s to come, while declaring it’s a capital B, bold show that has a lot more on its mind; the capes and masks are just a Trojan Horse for bigger ideas, just as the comic itself was when it was first released all those years ago.
The vessel for the exploration of these themes is that of Regina King’s Angela Abar. The Academy Award-winning actress rejoins Lindelof after working together in the second season of The Leftovers, where the two clearly developed a formidable bond. King’s Angela is our de facto protagonist, a former detective who, after the 7K attack (known as the “White Night") begins to moonlight as the hero Sister Night (in an instantly striking costume that will captivate cosplayers for decades to come). It’s a knowing bit of intentionality that only makes the show’s themes more effective when seen through her eyes. And what eyes they are. King is one of our finest working actors, instantly bringing Angela to life in a fully realized and vibrant way. A lot of that is shown in the show’s impressive set-piece; masterfully plotted and directed by Kassell, we’re shown why Angela is such an effective hero as she moves her way through an open field alongside fellow costumed officers as they hunt down 7K members.
“It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” manages to be a balancing act worthy of Angela’s duality: it gives just enough references to the previously established world of the comic book for those fans to find something to latch onto, while also paving an entirely brand new path forward. It all comes together for a truly jaw-dropping ending. A lynched Judd Crawford hangs nearby what we release is a now much older version of Will Reeves, the small boy we saw during the Tulsa riots, having proven himself to be quite a survivor. That iconography—a hung white man and a black suspect—is quite something to behold.
“Oh, Angela,” Crawford cautiously states towards the end of the pilot, “I’m worried as fuck.” Sure, that easily applies to the impending doom around the 7K’s unknown and dastardly plot, but it could just as easily refer to Lindelof and his anxieties around adapting this specific project with these specific themes. There’s a lot of path to travel, but at the very least, I’m immensely curious to see how the show continues to answer the questions it’s posed so far—and what new ones may arise as we continue along the way. Tick-tock, folks. The clock has officially started.
Odds and Ends:
- I didn’t really have the space for it, but I’m curious to know what’s happening with Jeremy Irons and his older version of Adrian Veidt (although we don’t hear him called that officially, it’s extremely safe to presume that’s what is at play). A newspaper seemingly confirms to the rest of the world that Veidt has officially passed, but the brief interlude to his (presumably) European castle shows that’s far from the case, as he’s celebrating what’s the anniversary of his plan. SPOILER ALERT for those who haven’t read the comic: in order to ease tensions between the United States and the USSR, Veidt unleashes a giant squid in the middle of Times Square that kills thousands and rallies the two nations together under the pretense of a possible impending alien attack. Comics, everybody!
- Of course, Doctor Manhattan is still playing with sandcastles on Mars after his self-imposed exile at the end of the comic.
- If you thought the airplanes in the opening were a bit of a creative license, that’s absolutely not the case. In fact, it was the first time airplanes were used in any sort of bombing in the United States . . . and they were used against their own people.
- There’s a nice bit of symmetry between the black and white film with Bass Reeves as the black marshal and Angela. Oh, and Reeves was just as much of a badass as Angela is—he served as the real-life inspiration for none other than the Lone Ranger.
- I’m a big fan of Tim Blake Nelson and his character of Looking Glass is just my kind of weird.
- In case you didn’t know, that absolutely electric score is by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who previously worked together on the scores for David Fincher’s The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl. It’s their first television series work together and if I don’t get a vinyl release of it at some point I’m going to extraordinary disappointed.
- The episode’s title comes from the Oklahoma! song, “Pore Jud is Daid.”
- A couple of remixed Watchmen comic book references: The Tulsa police seem to have access to a Nite Owl-esque ship, which comes right after we see Angela drinking an owl mug in Crawford’s office; instead of a “The End is Nigh” sign we see a “The Future is Bright!” sign; the iconic blood splatter across Crawford’s badge in homage to the blood splatter on the Comedian button.