Based on Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel Watchmen
Reviewed by Haley Eazor and Debarati Roy
If you don’t like my story, write your own. Against the whirring sounds of a film projector—on a cinema screen, a silent film chase is afoot. As the perpetrator is caught and brought to the law by the pursuer, the latter is revealed and revered as “The Black Marshall of Oklahoma, Bass Reeves.” “Trust in the law,” he says. The camera moves from screen to audience: a little boy sits in an abandoned theatre, watching intently this alternative mythical narrative. In his witnessing, history is reinscribed: here, Black men are celebrated for their heroism. Yet the camera will not sustain this alternative; sounds of the 1921 Tulsa massacre merge with those of the boy’s mother playing the piano, and as the parents mediate the child’s escape, Watchmen begins in visceral violence. Captured through the eyes of the little boy, this opening witness’s the genesis of a lost generation haunted by a history of racism. Watchmen and its subjects forever wax and wane in debilitating nostalgia in this ever-elusive alternative myth. In a world where violence begets and births violence, Watchmen rewrites the role of vigilantes as inseparable from the nation’s history of institutional violence.
I wanted to meet you and show you what you came from. Damon Lindelof’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel builds on questions of vigilante lawlessness: what happens when watchmen are driven not by heroism, but by fear, desperation, and an attempt to become visible in a society that constantly erases them from history? The show bears witness to the material imports through which racism is perpetuated and institutionalized. Here, the series engages in constant reflexive dialogue with material cinematic form – silent film montage, in its culpable creation of racist stereotypes. The show also mediates Moore’s preoccupation with temporality. Following the hurtling pace of impending disaster that Moore’s panels encapsulate temporally in the graphic novel, the show throws any sense of telos into chaos. Here time is in shards, moving in chaotic spurts, a kaleidoscope constantly whirring in and out of focus. Spaces and landscapes coalesce and intertwine as seamless material remainders of variously embodied pasts, presents, and the blurs in between. In these constantly moving timelines, Lindelof re-introduces Moore’s now-aged, benumbed vigilantes: Ozymandias, isolated ruler of the abandoned planet and human mannequins, condemned to living in endless reruns; Agent Laurie Blake, formerly Silk Spectre, now vigilante hunter for the FBI, perpetually caught in a stale monologue with an absent Dr. Manhattan; and the blue god himself, living as a civilian in self-chosen oblivion. Alongside, Lindelof imagines twenty-first-century counterparts in heroes and nemeses – Angela Abar, Looking Glass, and Lady Trieu.
It’s dangerous to take other people’s nostalgia. In a remythologizing of Moore’s minutemen, Lindelof’s sixth and most revolutionary episode reveals the identity of Hooded Justice as William Reeves – the child from the theatre and Angela’s grandfather. In Ghostly Matters (1997), Avery Gordon defines the ghostly as corporeal, a haunting of “the lives of others and other things within us.” The ghostly is, then, “echoes” and “murmurs” of “the lost” that manifest in material and tactile ways – animate and lively interactions between body, spaces, and matter. Watchmen animates this haunting, in this episode, in replaying Will’s past through Angela, who ingests Will’s nostalgia pills. Reeves’s origin story bleeds, in black and white, into fissures of memories, in technicolor. In these, his mother is still playing the piano. Reminiscent of episode one, these temporal disruptions display the palpable vitality of his ghosts, materially rupturing into his presents. The simultaneity and layering of Will’s past through embodied memories negate neat lines of separation between Will and Angela. After committing his first intentional act of violence as Hooded Justice, Will attempts to escape the gunshots of a store owner by jumping out a window. Mid-air, the camera freezes. Stuck in heroic stance, shards of glass suspended around him, time stops in this moment of almost escape. William and Angela’s bodies switch here, as both inhabit time and space that display, isolate, reflect, and remove agency all at once: a moment of suspension that intimates both the violent past and the violence to come.
Tell me how it ends. In questioning institutions and their lopsided distribution of power and justice, the tone of the show fades slightly in the end with Ozymandias’s arrest by Agent Blake. As the language of police procedurals returns here, this moment undermines the show’s disavowal of “trust in the law,” instead of deferring to structures of government agencies and their institutionalized powers that force us to question: what should justice look like? In the last moments of the show, Angela meets her grandfather at the site of their shared trauma, Dreamland theatre. Here William asks Angela if she felt his emotions as she traversed his memories. She sensed anger, she replies. Will responds with what the show has already set the viewer up to know: what he knew as anger, he now recognizes as fear. Pushing the power complex narrative of Moore’s version, Lindelof asks: what happens to a society built around people who can only inhabit it through a censoring of their identities via masks? Whom do we become when we are not allowed to live out the legacies we are born into? What happens when these legacies are only riddled in violence and loss?