You’d be forgiven for glancing at a poster or advert for HBO’s Watchmen and mentally giving the show a hard pass. TV and film are at peak superhero saturation and for many, it seems like comic book adaptations have been done to death, consigned to a casket six feet under. But Damon Lindelof’s reinvention of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel is something entirely new—a breath of fresh air into a tired genre that was all but exhaling its last. Trust me when I say it isn’t a show to be missed.
This isn’t a caped crusader story where the heroes face off against the supervillain in a metropolis-destroying, third act contest over who can punch the hardest. Much like our world, the villains hide in plain sight as suburbanites, police captains and government officials. They wear masks of a different kind: that of the upstanding American citizen, making it near impossible for our lead vigilante detectives to uncover who might have a Klan robe stashed in their closet. When a city does get levelled, it’s by a giant alien squid, courtesy of a flashback sequence that recontextualizes a critical event from Moore’s novel through the lens of trauma—the anniversary is known as 11/2, a clear parallel to 9/11 that makes sense for a shocking occurrence that similarly changed the course of American history.
It’s these clever analogues that help us stay connected to the narrative despite its weird and wonderful setting; rather than distract from our engagement, they enrich the viewing experience. In a timeline where Vietnam became the 51st state, mini cephalopods fall from the sky and an omnipotent cerulean being lives on Mars, it’s helpful to be reminded that the absurdism of Watchmen’s universe isn’t really that far from ours. Cops wear masks, allowing them to escape justice or enforce their own. White supremacists (under the banner of the Seventh Kavalry) idolise an unhinged fascist. Showrunner Damon Lindelof isn’t just telling us about Redford’s America, but Trump’s too, expanding upon the alternate-history setting of the graphic novel in ways that force us to question the political and social landscape of today.
Race is a core theme of Watchmen, something the show makes clear by opening on the Greenwood Massacre of 1921, an act of racial violence by a white mob that attacked and destroyed the Black Wall Street community in Oklahoma. The effects of the incident and of racial injustice ripple throughout the lives of Watchmen’s characters as the storyline cascades across generations. Angela Abar, a black woman employed by the Tulsa P.D. as the badass “nun with a motherfucking gun” Sister Night, finds herself ensnared at the center of a treacherous conspiracy that’s unfolded over decades. Episodes in present day weave beautifully with several set in the 20th century, and although it’s not immediately apparent how the jigsaw pieces fit together, solving the puzzle is a huge part of the fun.
Each installment of the nine-part saga brings new surprises and unexpected scenes, and it’s a joy to watch a show that isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of miniseries storytelling. Jeremy Irons plays the now-aged Machiavellian billionaire Adrian Veidt—aka Ozymandias—and steals every scene he’s in, whether he’s catapulting himself into the stratosphere or creating clones. The style of the show leans heavily towards the visual—one episode in particular is presented in stunning black and white and features elegant long-take camera movements that rival some of the most complex shots in cinema. There’s real craft on display from every department that makes Watchmen a cut above the rest.
Art by Art Editor, Adam Dee.