Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Introducing Watchmen Wednesdays

Introducing Watchmen Wednesdays!

Regina King plays Angela Abar/Sister Night.

After seeing the first two episodes of HBO’s adaption of Watchmen, I’m itching to write about it. First, I’m going to be upfront and say I’m not a huge fan of the comics or the Zack Snyder movie (2009). Of Alan Moore’s work, I preferred V for Vendetta or Swamp Thing for the commentary on environmental issues and governmental power whereas Watchmen felt more so for fans of comic book superheroes, which I still struggle to engage with due issues of social justice, particularly sexism (though with writers like Saladin Ahmed, Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nalo Hopkinson, and so on, comics are becoming more aware of social justice issues for sure). So, when the trailer came out for HBO’s adaption, I was interested but not overly so. I figured I’d give it a few episodes and see. The trailer suggested a strong political undertone—which made sense for Watchmen as a whole—but I worried it wouldn’t go far enough and just be some neo-liberal commentary that pretends to solve racism by the end of the first season.

Not so! Episode one, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” begins with the massacre at Black Wallstreet in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. The opening sequence of scenes depicts the KKK on a killing spree and destroying property. While intense and difficult to watch, the show was quickly praised on Twitter and other media websites (see Leah Schnelback’s wonderful write up for here) for representing a moment in history often forgotten by (white) history books. This sequence sets the tone for the first two episodes in a timeline that has diverged from our present. Instead, Robert Redford is president, Vietnam is a state, reparations are enacted but called Redfordations, and police wear masks.

Sister Knight and Looking Glass walk with yellow-masked police.

 The story revolves around Angela Abar (played by Regina King), a police officer injured during an attack that caused all police to wear masks afterward. Rather than just the yellow bandanna many police wear, Angela becomes Sister Knight, working alongside Looking Glass (also called Wade and played by Tim Blake Nelson) and Red Scare (played by Andrew Howard). With the police at their backs, they work to take down a violent white militia who wear Rorschach masks and go by the Seventh Kavalry. After a black police officer is killed by a Kavalry member, the force is galvanized into taking them out.

The Seventh Kavalry in Rorschach masks.

Now, this storyline is reasonability straightforward—cue the weirdness. Jeremy Irons plays an unnamed character (that is maybe Ozymandias?) with servants that seem awfully android-like. Or maybe clones. Regardless, they do not act fully in tune with human society. Little is revealed of Iron’s character, but we know he is writing a play and one android, Mr. Phillips (played by Tom Mison of Sleepy Hollow fame) gives him a watch as a present.

The episode ends with death of the white police chief, Judd Crawford (Don Johnson). He’s lynched and the person who calls to tell Angela about the chief’s death is an elderly black man in a wheelchair, sitting by the body. As the episode ends, it’s clear this man, Will Reeves (Louis Gosset Jr.), is a survivor of the Tulsa Massacre. 

Episode 2, “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship,” (no, I have no idea what the title means) mainly focuses on three plots: investigating the murder of Chief Crawford, Jeremy Iron’s character and his play, and discovering how Angela is connected to the elderly Will Reeves. While interrogating him, Will tells Angela that the police force has skeletons in the closet, which prompts her to go investigate at the memorial for Chief Crawford, even though he was her longtime friend.

In nicely cinematic moment, Angela enters the Crawford’s bougie house and as she passes through the mourners, it becomes clear she is the only person of color in the room. If the viewer can catch this pointed shot, then what follows next shouldn’t be too surprising: Judd Crawford has a KKK hood with a sheriff’s star in his closet.

Meanwhile, in an effort to stop the cop killings, the police force raid the local Seventh Kalvary hangout at a white trailer park. The scene is a brutal reversal of police violence so often depicted on the news today, whether it’s against BLM protestors or the Hong Kong revolutionaries. Angela hesitates to become involved in the violence until a white guy with a bat attempts to take out her friend Wade/Looking Glass, which prompts her to beat the man bloody.

Jeremy Irons' character with Ms. Crookshanks and Mr. Phillips.

Interspersed between these incidents of police brutality is the weirdness of Jeremy Irons’ character. In his storyline, we see the play he was writing performed by his possibly androids Mr. Phillips and Ms. Crookshanks. The play depicts the creation of Dr. Manhattan’s powers (which has prompted new fan theories that Irons is Dr. Manhattan, who according to the show, is living on Mars). As part of the play, one of the Mr. Phillips clones/androids/who knows is burned alive while Irons’ character yells at Ms. Crookshanks to cry real tears. It’s horrifying in that surreal arthouse kind of way. After Mr. Phillips burns up, another Mr. Phillips—painted blue and, you guessed it, naked—lowers from the ceiling. The sequence ends with little more understanding of Irons’ character, except to blur whether or not he is Ozymandias.

The episode ends on two threads. A documentary that has been discussed throughout the first episode is aired (and watched by some characters). It seems to depict the original “heroes” of the Watchmen comic and their origin stories. The second thread is Will Reeves. Angela is about to turn him in and puts him in her car when a giant magnet attached to a helicopter steals him away (and her car). All we know is that Will doesn’t seem surprised and winks at Angela.

Episode three, "She Was Killed by Space Junk," returns to familiar territory. The episode starts with Laurie Blake (an excellently cast Jean Smart), who now hunts vigilantes for the FBI. Not only that, she's rather good at it. She's sent to Tulsa to investigate the murder of Judd Crawford and teams up with Agent Petey, a former PhD in History turned agent who provides the historical context for the characters since the end of the comic book (or if it's been awhile for the viewer since reading Watchmen). Most of the episode allows for the heroes to be seen through the jaded eyes of Laurie Blake, yet again adding layers of complications, such as police violence portrayed behind the mask, as Blake says: "Do you know how you can tell the difference between a masked cop and a vigilante? Me neither."

Following in the footsteps of introducing Blake's character, Jeremy Irons is revealed to officially be Ozymandias. Yet, as soon as this mystery is cleared up, another is produced: the Game Warden, which Ozymandias calls his adversary.

The episode ends in a call back to episode two, as an SUV falls out of the sky, apparently the same one that Will Reeves escaped in. While a little slower paced than the previous two episodes, the introduction of Blake sets the stage for Alan Moore's creation to become more involved in this latest adaptation. And, Dr. Manhattan continues to be teased--can they get away without actually putting him and his iconic crotch on screen? We'll see.

For the rest of the season, I’ll be providing episode recaps, diving into some theories, and writing about my own ideas (will we get a cameo from Robert Redford?). So far, Watchmen has provided an interesting cultural critique of the violent, nationalist time we are experience, complete with commentary on police brutality and forgotten racially-motivated violence. There’s a lot of our own forgotten history to be explored through this lens.

Posted by Phoebe Wagner, a PhD student reading and writing out of Reno, Nevada.