Watchmen is one of those properties that has proven notoriously difficult to adapt to other mediums, so it only seems fitting that it would similarly be difficult to review. Normally, I either review a TV show episode-by-episode, or I review it in chunks, or I review it after the finale ends. For Watchmen, the trick was deciding whether I’d review it three episodes at a time or whether I’d wait until the end of the season and just review the whole thing. As the third episode aired, it became clear that it was going to be impossible to judge this show until the ending was known. Like the graphic novel (written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons), every episode/chapter of the story was clearly building to a climax that would either answer (most of) the questions posed by the story or would completely drop the ball, and the quality of the story would largely be determined by how well it executed its ending (even if individual “chapters” were excellent – episode 6 of the show and the chapter of the comic detailing Manhattan’s past). And, let’s be clear, every episode of the series was extremely good. There was a point to every episode, and they followed a very similar pattern to that of the comic (one episode would be devoted to furthering the plot along, the next would be devoted to exploring one of the key characters’ backgrounds (thus moving the emotional arcs forward) and they’d alternate back and forth like this until the climax. But with this style, it is very important that the landing pay off all of this development in a meaningful and satisfying way. Luckily, that’s exactly what the show managed to do. (Spoilers for all nine episodes of Watchmen follow. You have been warned.)
Set in an alternate history where masked vigilantes are treated as outlaws, WATCHMEN, from executive producer Damon Lindelof (Emmy(R) winner for “Lost”; HBO’s “The Leftovers”) embraces the nostalgia of the original groundbreaking graphic novel of the same name, while attempting to break new ground of its own. Nicole Kassell directs the pilot from a script written by Lindelof. WATCHMEN is produced for HBO by White Rabbit in association with Warner Bros. Television; executive producer/writer, Damon Lindelof; executive producer/director, Nicole Kassell; executive producer, Tom Spezialy; executive producer/director, Stephen Williams; executive producer, Joseph Iberti. Based on the iconic graphic novel co-created and illustrated by Dave Gibbons and published by DC.
With that said, let’s talk about Watchmen. This first (only?) season of Watchmen has proven to be one of the best constructed seasons of TV in a long time. Damon Lindelof, and the rest of the writers, clearly set out to tell a specific story, with a beginning, middle, and end, that had some kind of thesis to it. And every element of every episode built up to the conclusion of the story, and the emphasis of its central thesis. Watchmen, the graphic novel, was about deconstructing superheroes and exploring what makes them tick and why they’re probably not a tool for good. The comic posits the idea that putting on a mask tends to make the person more corrupt and fascist. Absolute power corrupts absolutely and all that jazz. The comic is an ensemble piece about all the different ways these different heroes – that are fairly obvious stand-ins for other, more famous ones – are intensely flawed beings, not worthy of worship; there is no main character in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. In Watchmen, the TV show, the central character is Regina King’s Angela Abar and, here, we see how vigilantism impacts one specific person – and how it has impacted her family generations earlier. Instead of looking at why people put on masks, the TV version of the show looks at why they shouldn’t. The comic explored the idea that masks make you crueler while the TV show took that a step further and explicitly said that you shouldn’t hide your trauma behind a mask, that you can’t heal from your trauma by doing that.
As the series began, it was 35 years after the events of the graphic novel, and the show looked like it was mostly going to ignore those events, choosing to mainly riff off the comic in mostly thematic ways and focus on an entirely new story with no returning characters and only superficial connections to the source material. This approach would have been completely fine; the world of Watchmen is a big one and there is a lot that can be explored within it. Regina King’s Angela Abar made for a very compelling protagonist and the whodunnit (and why) that was being set up in relation to the sudden murder of Don Johnson’s lovable (but ultimately racist) police chief, Judd, was a compelling mystery that reflected the novel while still doing something unique (see the newer element of masked policemen introduced into the show). Joining her was a cast of equally interesting vigilantes – Looking Glass/Wade (Tim Blake Nelson), Pirate Jenny (Jessica Camacho), and Red Scare (Andrew Howard). Of those, Looking Glass would ultimately prove to be the one most explored, alongside King’s Angela, the two of them getting pulled into the orbit of the greater-Watchmen universe. But at first, the show had a good setup and seemed to be going off in its own unique and interesting direction and it was very easy to become invested in what was being done.
But around episode 3, it became clear that the show was not only going to riff off of the graphic novel, but directly address it. Characters like Laurie Blake (Juspeczyk in the comic; played by Jean Smart), Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), Hooded Justice (Louis Gossett Jr.), and Dr. Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) would gradually be introduced into the story as they became important to Angela’s story. The most important of these characters being her grandfather, Will Reeves, who would be revealed as the true identity of the original Hooded Justice – the previously unmasked first vigilante in the Watchmen universe. It’s with this reveal that it becomes clear just what the show is trying to say. All of the heroes in the original graphic novel became who they were in order to heal some past trauma that was inflicted upon them – Rorschach had his childhood abuse, Laurie had all of her issues with her mother and father, Veidt had his narcissism, Manhattan had the trauma of his creation. And all of them ultimately couldn’t overcome their trauma by being vigilantes – Veidt was miserable after his masterplan didn’t result in a new utopia and finds himself imprisoned in a strange prison on one of Jupiter’s moons, Laurie was still miserable and now tracked down vigilantes for a living, even Manhattan couldn’t overcome his own trauma and the way it impacted his worldview (until he met Angela, of course – but more on that shortly). The same was true for the new characters – Wade was traumatized by literally witnessing the events that brought the original novel to a close and Angela was traumatized by her parents being killed in front of her and the event of the White Night (the event which led to the masking of police officers). Past trauma is what connects all of these characters on an emotional level, and it is the thing the show seems most interested in exploring.
The most traumatized of all of these people was Will Reeves/Hooded Justice. Little more than a side character and red herring in the graphic novel, Will Reeves and his legacy that lives on through his granddaughter, Angela, is the centerpiece of the TV show’s story. As a black man who masquerades as a white vigilante, Will Reeves struggles to overcome the trauma he experienced during the Tulsa Massacre, an event depicted in the opening moments of the first episode. Reeves is never able to fully overcome his trauma, and it ends up hardening to a point that makes it even harder to overcome. With this element, the series explores the idea of generational trauma. Angela suffers the echoes of a trauma inflicted upon a man she hasn’t even met prior to the events of this series. His trauma mixes with her own and it creates a vicious cycle that neither of them are able to escape from. Angela receives a brief reprise from it all through her star-crossed romance with Dr. Manhattan, but even that doesn’t keep the trauma for long as she ultimately falls into the same trap her grandfather fell into in the wake of the previously mentioned White Night. It is their storyline that is the emotional focus of the show and it is through them that this idea that hiding behind a mask to escape your trauma doesn’t actually work. We see it in Laurie’s cynicism and Veidt’s insanity and Manhattan’s apathy, but we see it most clearly in the constant pain that Will and Angela feel throughout the series. And it is their trauma that the finale tries to address, putting a nice bow on this theme. Neither of them has escaped their trauma, but perhaps they can find a way to move past it outside of wearing a mask in the wake of this new trauma they have just experienced. This exploration of trauma is the most interesting aspect of the TV series, just as the deconstruction of superheroes was the most interesting element of the graphic novel. The fact that the show really sticks the landing with Will and Angela’s story is a testament to how important this idea was to the writers of the show.
As for the actual “what happens?” of the series? It’s actually a fairly simple plot, much like the plot of the original graphic novel when boiled down to its base elements. The Seventh Kavalry (a group of white supremacists inspired by Rorschach’s ramblings and an older, more insidious KKK-like group, the Cyclops), led by Senator Joe Kean (James Wolk; the son of the senator who outlawed vigilantes in the graphic novel), want to capture Doctor Manhattan, transfer his power into the senator, and use that power to create a utopia for white supremacy. Meanwhile, Lady Trieu (Hong Chau), a trillionaire businesswoman and (unknown to everyone, including, for a while, Veidt) the daughter of Adrian Veidt, wants to capture Dr. Manhattan and take his powers so that she could complete what her father couldn’t and rid the world of nuclear weapons, bringing about a peace the world has never known. Dr. Manhattan, who has been living in disguise as Cal Abar (the husband of Angela), is at the center of both of these plots and he and Angela are the star around which every other character orbits. It is their story – the broken woman and the broken god who make each other better – that unites all of the seemingly disparate threads of the story into some semblance of a satisfying ending. All of the previous episodes, all of the strange events and in-depth backstories have been leading to the moment where these plans are enacted and must be stopped – whether it’s the right thing to do or not. While most of this plot takes a backseat to the emotional and thematic questions that are explored throughout the show, a great deal of care is put into explaining what’s going on and why it’s going on and how it’s going to be resolved in the finale. Most of the loose ends are answered satisfactorily, though some (like the original novel) are left ambiguous, an invitation for the audience to decide for themselves what happens next. It’s an ending that feels wholly satisfying as all of the important questions have been answered and most of the character arcs have been brought to some kind of natural conclusion. It gives us the sense that, while there are other stories to be told, this one has reached its stopping point.
Watchmen has some truly superb acting – some of the best I’ve ever seen in anything about, or related to, superheroes. It may sound like I’m dissing on the performances in other superhero shows and films, but I don’t mean to. It’s just that all of the performances in Watchmen are so grounded in reality (or, in the case of Jeremy Iron’s Ozymandias, so caked in camp) and it’s just so unusual to see this kind of story steeped in such hard realism. That’s not to say that other superhero stories aren’t realistic, but the way Watchmen deals with the internal lives of these heroes is unlike what’s usually seen in superhero media and, as a result, the actors seem to have more to play with. And all of them rise to the occasion. The standout, of course, is Regina King as Angela Abar, a performance that should win King countless awards. In every episode, King perfectly blends the different elements of Angela’s character into something that feels so viscerally real. We all know someone like Angela who has suffered so much, who puts on a brave face and presses on with life. It’s just an incredible performance and it’s so easy to see why she’s the focal point of the series. Tim Blake Nelson’s performance as Wade/Looking Glass falls into a very similar category and he brings the same level of realness to his performance. The two of them are easily the standouts of the first half of the series. Of course, Jeremy Irons and Jean Smart’s performances as Adrian Veidt and Laurie Blake are excellent. The two of them perfectly exhibit how their characters might have evolved over the three decades since they were last seen in the graphic novel. Irons’ Veidt is so enjoyable insane that he often felt like he was in a different show – in the best way! – but he was also able to interact with the rest of the cast in a way that didn’t feel out of place. Smart’s no-nonsense Laurie felt very true to the character’s origins and allowed Smart to bring a bit of comic relief into the more serious scenes. But she was also able to display this intense sense of loneliness as the show explored her backstory. Veteran actors Don Johnson and Louis Gossett Jr., of course, were joys to behold in their respective roles. Gossett Jr. had the meatier role, and he excelled in his portrayal as the elderly Will Reeves, especially as he shared the screen with King. Last, but not least, is Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who had the unenviable task of portraying what was, essentially, two characters. For the first eight episodes, he was very solid, (and purposely non-attention stealing) as Cal Abar, but when the reveal came that he was actually Dr. Manhattan, he had a whole new challenge to pull off: Manhattan is known for his apathy and lack of emotions, so Abdul-Mateen II had to find some way of grounding that character in a reality. And he did so with beauty, making the scenes he shared with Regina King some of the highlights of the entire series. Overall, the cast was just utterly incredible.
Technically, the show is a masterpiece on all levels. From the directing, to the cinematography, to the editing, to the music, everything about Watchmen is impressive. From the very first frames of the first episode, it was clear that the show would have some of the best visuals found on TV. The visuals were every bit as complex and meaningful as the writing, stuffed with easter eggs to the graphic novel and a metric ton of foreshadowing to future narrative reveals. The editing, too, was a sight to behold – notably the transitions between the various present-day storylines and any flashbacks or Veidt-on-Europa adventures. A particular standout, of course, would be the sixth episode; filmed in black-and-white, emulating a single camera shot throughout, it is one of the more creative and visually arresting episodes of TV I’ve seen in a long time, working perfectly alongside the writing to tell the gripping and emotional story of Hooded Justice’s origin. It’s impressive how far the show was able to go with the, presumably, limited budget it would have had as a TV series. Sure, not all of the CGI worked perfectly (most notably, Manhattan’s CGI didn’t always quite land as well as they’d hoped) but it was always going to be difficult to do certain things in this show and it’s admirable how hard they tried to pull off some of this stuff and how well most of it worked. Additionally, I’d be remiss to not mention Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for the show, a score that often felt as if it were a character, itself. It was such a good score; it drew attention to itself in the moments when it needed to, but it mostly acted as a way to perfectly lead viewers through the emotional complexity of the show. Reznor and Ross have proven countless times that they’re excellent at scoring film and TV, and they do so here with a score that might just be the best they’ve done yet.
Overall, it’s amazing that Watchmen worked as well as it did. The show had everything stacked against it: it’s an adaptation/continuation of a famously-difficult-to-adapt literary work; it had an insane amount of pressure and expectation thrown at it; it sought to explore a deeply complex and difficult subject matter in a way that would surely prove provocative to many people, but would hopefully bring a sense of awareness to generational trauma and a voice to those who would benefit from one; and, most of all, it sought to be a good story that wedded a love for what’s come before with a need to explore the new. It was a show that raised a lot of questions and threw a lot of big ideas at the wall, and that’s what made it so enjoyable. It’s such a relief that it managed to stick the landing and didn’t fall apart under its own weight as so many of its were so good. From a writing standpoint, it’s easily one of the best-constructed seasons of TV I’ve seen in a long time. Everything had a purpose and nearly everything got some kind of payoff by the time the credits rolled on the final episode. The cast was incredible, each and every one of them deserving of an award as award season rolls around. It was visually impressive, with some great VFX work, great editing, and a killer score. Everything about the series worked. All of the elements came together to create a show that is unlike anything else being done on TV. It might end up being just as innovative to superhero TV and film as the graphic novel was to the superhero comics industry. If you’re a fan of the graphic novel, I strongly encourage you to watch this show. It is so respectful of the comic and comments on the original story while taking many of its themes and characters in new and exciting directions. It’s everything you’d hope a continuation of Watchmen would be.
4.5 out of 5 wands.