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What We Learned About the Modern-Day Watchmen Universe From Last Night's Premiere

Damon Lindelof's continuation of the classic comic drops us in the middle of a very unfamiliar America.
  • (Photo: HBO)
    (Photo: HBO)

    Warning: This article contains spoilers from the pilot episode of Watchmen, "It's Summer and We're Running Out of Ice."

    The latest attempt (of many) to bring Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' iconic 1980s comic book series to life, HBO's premiere of Watchmen last night had a lot riding on it. Creator Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) took a different path than his predecessors, choosing to set his series 30-something years after the alternative historical timeline of the comic, in which the very real presence of superheroes (and one big blue hero in particular) change the course of 20th century American history. Could Lindelof thread the delicate needle of advancing the storyline while also remaining true to the original? The good news, for Lindelof and fans alike, is early reaction to the show's premiere is quite positive

    Much like he did in his adaptation of The Leftovers, Lindeloff presents a world in Watchmen where day-to-day life carries on the same as always. People go to work, their kids attend school, they dine with friends, they deal with traffic, they begrudgingly attend community theater. But something huge and central to these people's lives is not the same. In The Leftovers, it was the Sudden Departure, setting the stage for a series-long exploration of grief and a search for purpose and meaning. Watchmen's fundamental difference is a bit less meditative: superheroes are real, Dr. Manhattan is an all-powerful being, and 30 years ago, an interdimensional giant squid monster destroyed New York City.

    This week's pilot episode did an effective job of leading with characters first and letting the world-building seep in from the margins. That meant that performances from the likes of Regina King and Don Johnson got their time to shine, but it also meant that some of the more tantalizing details about the show's universe were harder to pick up. So in case you missed them, here's what we know about the universe of Damon Lindelof's Watchmen after one episode:

    The Alternate History of the Original Watchmen Still Stands. We got a lot of information from Angela Abar's (Regina King) trip to her son Topher's class to talk about her career as an, ahem, baker. For one thing, she mentions that she was born in Saigon a couple years before Vietnam became a state. This is because in Watchmen's alternate timeline, the United States won the Vietnam War, thanks to the intervention of Dr. Manhattan. "The Superman Exists, and He's American" is what the headline says when Jon Osterman revealed himself as the big, blue omnipotent being, and before becoming fully disillusioned with humanity as a whole, he helped the Nixon administration win in Vietnam, which led to Nixon being re-elected twice more (Watergate never came to light, also via superhero intervention). Nixon  was president during the events of the Watchmen comic.

    President Redford? Hanging on the wall of Topher's classroom is a poster of Four Important Presidents: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Nixon, and … Robert Redford? Yes, in Lindelof's Watchmen, the Oscar-winning actor/director and environmentalist is the current occupant of th White House. Perhaps as a liberal reign to counter Nixon's conservative one, Redford's been president for 30 years, and has enacted at least one controversial policy: material compensation for oppressed people which have come to be known as "Redford-ations." Much like the modern-day notion of reparations, they seem to be a point of contention, particularly for certain white people and their children.

    The Masked Cops Perhaps the most significant piece of world-building that's all Lindelof's is the notion that in 2019, the police force — under attack from white-nationalist terrorist groups — wears masks while on duty so that they can't be identified. This appears to date back to an event called White Night, where cops and their families were attacked in their homes. It's also no accident that two of the most significant cops we see in the first episode are black, placing white terrorist groups and the cops in deadly opposition to one another, a piece of historical fiction that the show intends to explore more fully but which could sit uneasily with viewers.

    White Nationalists United Under Rorschach? The particular white-nationalist group we see in the first episode is called the Seventh Cavalry. They seem to be the ones who carried out the White Night attacks, they are newly resurgent after a three-year-period of relative quiet, and, oh yes, they all wear the ink-blotted masks we associate with Rorschach from the Watchmen comic series. Of course, in the comic, Rorscach was one of the "heroes"; the reader followed his investigation into the killer of masked heroes for much of the book. In the end, it was his journal, released posthumously to a tabloid magazine, that got the truth of Ozymandias's giant-squid attack out.

    But Rorschach was also written as a right-wing absolutist with a brutalist view on crime-fighting and a high degree of moral disdain for most of humanity but particularly women, So while there certainly seems to be a degree of these racist groups twisting Rorschach's legacy in order to serve their own purpose, it's not like it's THAT surprising to see right-wing terrorists wearing his mask. Or to see Rorschach's famous words re-fitted for a more overtly racist message, as when the Seventh Cavalry broadcasts "Soon the accumulated black filth will be hosed away and the streets of Tulsa will turn into extended gutters overflowing with liberal tears. Soon all the whores and race-traitors will shout, 'Save us!' and we will whisper 'No!'"

    Joe Keene Jr.? At one point we hear a conservative radio show host sing the praises of a Joe Keene Jr., whose rumored candidacy for President would extend the legacy of his father, Senator Joseph Keene, whose name should sound familiar to Watchmen readers since it was the Keene Act which outlawed masked superheroes in the original book.

    American Hero Story. In the Watchmen book, one of the ways that Moore and Gibbons showed how a world where superheroes were real would feel different is that the comic books in that world weren't about caped crusaders but rather wild fiction about pirates. Superheroes were too real. Maybe 30 years with heroes outlawed has whetted the public appetite for superhero fiction, then, because this episode was full of backgrounds ads for the hot new TV series American Hero Story: Minutemen (so good to see that this alternative America still has limited series to watch). The Minutemen were the superhero collective in the 1930s and '40s that preceded the group of heroes we follow in Watchmen (The Comedian was a part of both groups), though we do learn a lot of their history in the comic as well.

    The Squids. THE SQUIDS! So, yes, at one point the skies suddenly darken and it pours down what initially look like jellyfish (and we got suddenly worried Lindelof had plunged us into a sequel to Will Smith's Seven Pounds), but which turn out to be tiny squids. This downpour is treated like a semi-regular inconvenience. An occasion to hose off your sidewalk, not to run into the deepest, darkest cave and hide away forever. This is clearly a nod to the squid attack at the end of the original Watchmen, and indicates that "transdimensional attacks" (a term used later during a police interrogation that certainly seems appropriate in this context) are a fact of life in the Watchmen universe.

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Watchmen, HBO, Alan Moore, Damon Lindelof, Dave Gibbons, Don Johnson, Regina King