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“Mind the Eggs” — Josh Reviews HBO’s Watchmen Series

December 16th, 2019
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Damon Lindelof’s magnificent nine-episode Watchmen series has exceeded even my highest expectations.  I was blown away by the series premiere, and the eight episodes that followed surpassed even that strong start.  I don’t know what exactly I expected, but Watchmen is far different and far better than I’d hoped.  It’s dazzlingly dark and dense and shocking and heartbreaking.  The series is consistently surprising and original, with each episode filled with memorable imagery and moments.  It is large in scale and contains many wonderful elements of the fantastic and super-heroic.  But this is an adult drama firmly rooted in compelling characters and their stories.  And, like the very best sci-fi/fantasy stories, the series is very much about today’s world, and it has a heck of a lot to say about who we are as a society here in the United States at the end of 2019.  I don’t know what’s next for this show (Mr. Lindelof has questioned, in interviews, whether there will be another season and, if there is, whether he’d be involved), but I will treasure these nine episodes, and I am sure I will rewatch them many more times in the years to come.

There are several key, brilliant decisions that lie at the core of the show’s greatness.  The first is the decision not to do a straight adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal 1985-86 comic book series (the way Zack Snyder’s flawed but underrated film adaptation did).  Rather, the show is set in the world of Watchmen but takes place in 2019, decades after the events of that original story.  This allows the show to be new and original and inventive, rather than just a recreation that would surely suffer in comparison to the near-perfect original source material.  The second key decision, which followed from the first, was to populate the show with mostly new, original characters.  Because it’s set decades after the events of the comic, it makes sense that most of the characters on the show are new ones we’ve never met before.  Here too, this allows the show to be original and inventive.  And it means that when characters from the comic do appear, it’s a pleasurable surprise.  The third and final key creative decision was the choice to, like the original Watchmen, be strongly ABOUT something.  But rather than retreading the comic’s focus (on a deconstruction of super hero comic book tropes and on Cold War fears of mutually assured annihilation), this 2019 Watchmen focuses on racism and the dangers of white supremacy.

There is so much to unpack and discuss.  These nine episodes are rich in plot and character and meaning.  I’m sure I’ll be thinking and talking about this season for a while to come, which is why I love it as much as I do.

It’s tremendously powerful that Mr. Lindelor & co. decided to make this season be squarely about racism.  The series begins with a viscerally horrifying recreation of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and straight through until the ending, the series found one fascinating way after another to explore the open wound in this country of our racial divide.  Episode six, “This Extraordinary Being,” provides a key centerpiece for the story, taking the character of Hooded Justice from the comic (a minor supporting character who had importance as the first costumed vigilante hero in the Watchmen world) and extrapolating a whole new history for the character: as an angry African-American young man whose attempts to do good as a cop are undermined by the horrific racism within the New York Police Department.  Suddenly, the hangman’s noose the Hooded Justice wears around his neck has a whole new meaning.  This was a brilliant, jaw-dropping twist.  It’s a near-perfect recontextualization of an element from the comic book series, using it as a jumping-off-point for this brand new story.  Wow.

(I was certain that episode would be the high-point of the season, but then I got to episode eight, “A God Walks Into Abar,” in which we get a non-linear explanation of what Dr. Manhattan has been up to since the end of the comic book series, and the beautiful love story between Angela and Cal.  It’s a brilliant, tremendously moving episode, one that thrilled me with its extraordinary creativity.  The episode audaciously mimics the brilliant non-linearly-told issue of the comic book series that depicted Manhattan’s origin story.  Just as the series as a whole does, the episode pays homage to Watchmen and rewards those long-time fans paying attention — as someone who remembers from the comic when the last time was that Dr. Manhattan experienced fear, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up in the critical moment when Manhattan referenced that in the episode — while using the Watchmen structure as a jumping-off point for a bold new story.  Damon Lindelof has long acknowledged that “The Constant”, probably the best episode of Lost in my opinion, was inspired by Watchmen.  Watching this episode, that point was made even more clear to me.)

Right from the first episode, it was clear that this show was cleverly inverting the premise of the original comic book series.  In the comic, the masked superheroes had been outlawed; while here in the show, it was the cops who now wore masks.  But as the season progressed, it became clear to me that the show wasn’t actually inverting this aspect of Watchmen’s original premise at all.  In fact, it was exploring it even more deeply.  Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen comic was interested in asking the question: what kind of messed-up people would put on a mask to go fight crime?  In a beautiful piece of parallelism, the 2019 Watchmen asks and answers those same questions, in so many ways.  In the series’ opening sequence, we see a young African American boy take shelter in a theater, watching the adventures of the African-American sheriff who puts on a mask in order to dispense justice.  (“Trust in the law.”)  We see the story of Sister Night and discover why Angela wears a mask; we see the story of the Hooded Justice and discover why he first put on his mask (and discover how the series’ focus on the blight of racism and white supremacy wind up being inextricably linked with the start of the story from the comic); even the domino mask-wearing “Game Warden” trapping Veidt is revealed, in episode eight, to be the victim of trauma.  (Laurie spells this all out quite clearly in episode four, when she says to Angela: “People who wear masks are driven by trauma.  They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered, usually when they were kids.”)

The show repeatedly comes back to the idea that it’s dangerous to live in the past.  We see this literally in episode six, when Angela takes Will’s “Nostalgia” pills and almost dies, trapped in reliving his memories.  More fundamentally to the series as a whole, we see this in the violent racist of the Seventh Cavalry, who want to take America back to an imagined ideal of racial purity and prosperity that never truly existed (a desire shared by far too many dangerous Americans in the real-life 2019).  In this fantastic interview with TV critic Alan Sepinwall, Damon Lindelof spoke about his belief that nostalgia can be toxic.

In the comic book series, each issue had a focus character, and as we moved from issue to issue we were able to dig deeply into the series’ ensemble of characters.  I was delighted to see the show take a similar approach, with each episode having a focus on a specific character, even while the broader stories and character arcs progressed from week to week.  Episode three, “She Was Killed by Space Junk,” focuses on Laurie; episode five, “Little Fear of Lightning,” focuses on Wade; episode six tells Will’s story; episode eight tells Dr. Manhattan’s, etc.  That was very cool.

This was a series jam-packed with mysteries.  Lost’s biggest failure, to me, was its complete failure to satisfactorily answer so many of the mysteries that had been developed over the run of the show.  So, you can imagine that I was a little nervous as to whether this show would be able to stick the landing.  Even after the magnificent and spellbinding eight episode, I still was worried about how much story the show had left to resolve in the ninth and final episode.  I am so pleased by how well that final episode, “See How They Fly,” was able to pull all the many story threads together.  Like the original comic book series, this is a complicated story that is, in many ways, a circle.  I was thrilled and delighted by how well all of the show’s many moving parts fit together in the end.  Appropriately for Watchmen, the show functioned like a perfectly-tuned watch.

(That’s not to say there aren’t a few holes I can poke.  The biggest one, for me, is the idea that super-genius Veidt, whose entire original plan in the comic depended on his plot being kept a complete and absolute secret from the world, wouldn’t notice that one of his Vietnamese employees had fled from Karnak before he killed everyone.  Lady Trieu states that Veidt didn’t notice because this servant was beneath his notice, but that doesn’t make sense for the super-meticulous Veidt.  Speaking of Veidt’s secret, I am also baffled as to why the show depicts him as having recorded a message to President Redford in which he spills the beans on what he did.  Why let the secret out in this way?  Surely Veidt could suspect that the message would eventually get out, which of course is exactly what happened.  I was hoping the show would reveal that this was a part of Veidt’s plan somehow, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case.)

Just like the comic, there are so many subtle layers and connections throughout the storytelling.  I can’t wait to go back and rewatch this series so as to catch more of them.  But on this first viewing, I was delighted that, for example, this circular and non-linear story seemed to continually come back to egg imagery (harkening back, of course, to the classic “chicken and the egg” debate).  When we first meet Angela in her civilian persona, she’s cracking eggs for a cooking demo; Dr. Manhattan creates an egg in his hand when he first meets Angela; the young woman farmer falls and breaks a ton of eggs right before Trieu comes and offers to buy her entire farm; and, of course, there’s the importance of the egg in the finale.  (I loved that the series closed with a cover of The Beatles’ “I am the Walrus” — which, of course, contains the line “I am the eggman”!)

Watching the first episode, I was surprised but thrilled by how different the series was to the original comic, with mostly new characters and new situations.  As the season progressed, Mr. Lindelof and his collaborators showed us that the series could have its cake and eat it too, as they gradually spent more time with some familiar returning Watchmen characters (like Veidt and Laurie), and I was delighted by the series’ many subtle references to the comic.   I loved seeing Veidt catch a bullet in the finale, just like he did in the comic!  I also loved seeing Joe Keene wearing those classic Dr. Manhattan black underpants, as he prepared to ascend to godhood!

The comic was filled with all sorts of clever and interesting puns and references in the background.  It was useful to pay attention to all of the signs and ads and newspaper headlines seen in the panels, and the series also had lots of fun with all of those sorts of details.  (In the finale, for example, the damaged letters in the theatre’s marque now spell out “DR M”.)

I loved the playful and original ways that the opening Watchmen title card appeared in each episode.  (Legion did the same thing, always giving us the show’s title in a new and weird image at the start of every episode.)  I also really loved the fun and weird episode titles, and how they appear on screen in the classic Watchmen font and yellow lettering.

This show was meticulously plotted, but what made it sing was the phenomenal ensemble of actors who brought all of these characters to life.  Let’s start with Regina King, who was stupendous as Angela Abar, the series’ lead.  Ms. King was fierce and grippingly emotional.  We follow most of the events of the show through her eyes, and feel those events’ impact through her heart.  Ms. King is an extraordinary guide for the audience throughout these episodes.  This is staggeringly good work.

Jean Smart plays Laurie Blake; she doesn’t enter the series until the third episode, but she makes a hugely memorable impact when she arrives.  I love Ms. Smart’s interpretation of the character. This is not at all where I’d imagined Laurie would wind up.  It’s pretty sad, actually, as Laurie got probably the happiest ending in the original comic.  But Ms. Smart’s work is terrific.  I love how smart and tough and fearless Laurie is (one of the best aspects of this show is its awesome female characters), and yet Ms. Smart also shows us Laurie’s good humor… and also her heartbreak, and how hollow she is when we meet her in the series.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II was mostly wasted in Aquaman, though he impressed me in a recent Black Mirror episode.  But his work here as Cal Abar was stupendous (and only drives home how badly Aquaman messed up by not using him to his full capacity).  We don’t get too much of Cal until the final episodes, but wow does Mr. Abdul-Mateen II knock it out of the park.  (His final line — as his life literally flashes before his eyes in the finale — is extraordinary.)

Louis Gossett Jr. plays Will, the mysterious elderly man who Angela meets at the end of the first episode.  The truth of who Will is lies at the series’ beating heart, and when the answers come, I found them to be very powerful and satisfying.  Mr. Gossett Jr. is fantastic.  (I am running out of superlatives to use to describe this cast!)  He covers a lot of ground.  He is mysterious and even menacing at times, and also someone who we eventually see has great heart.  I love the gentleness with which Mr. Gossett Jr,. plays his final scene together with Angela in the finale.  “You can’t heal under a mask, Angela,” Will say.  “Wounds need air.”  It’s a touching conclusion to their complicated relationship, while also being a fascinating final statement on Watchmen‘s (both the comic and the series) wrestling with the question of whether masked vigilantes are helpful or harmful.

Jeremy Irons plays Adrian Veidt, and this is probably the trickiest character in the piece for me.  I was very surprised with how the show handled Veidt.  I really need to go back to watch Veidt’s entire storyline again.  First off, to see how it all fits together now that I know what’s happening and how the timeline of those events fit into the rest of the series.  (I love how that all works, by the way!)  It’s interesting to me how the show treats Veidt as more of a villain than I’d expected.  Mr. Irons plays him as pompous and cruel.  In my mind, the original comic did not pass judgment on Veidt’s actions.  (One of the key questions of the comic is the readers’ interpretation of Veidt’s actions.  Had he become the Black Freighter captain, who transformed into a monster while trying to do good and protect his family?  Or were his brutal actions justified in the face of the greater good?)  The show takes a pretty firm position on this (especially at the very end).  I’m not saying I disagree, but I was surprised that the show didn’t leave this a little more up for interpretation, and that Mr. Irons played him so strongly as a villain.

Tim Blake Nelson does some of the best work of his career as Wade Tillman, also known as “Looking Glass.”  It’s a delight to see the always-entertaining Mr. Blake Nelson given such great material to work with.  His spotlight in episode five is one of my favorite episodes of the season.

There are so many other amazing actors in the group.  I loved Don Johnson’s work as Judd Crawford, and I was sad to see him mostly gone after that first episode.  Tom Mison and Sara Vickers were fantastic as the many iterations of Mr. Phillips and Mrs. Crookshanks.  Hong Chau was wonderfully enigmatic as brilliant and scary Lady Trieu.  James Wolk (of “Not Great, Bob!” Mad Men fame) was perfectly smarmy as Joe Keene Junior.  (“It isn’t easy to be a white man in America these days,” Joe Keene says, painting himself as perhaps the series’ scariest and most relevant villain.)  And so many others…

Other thoughts:

* I was bummed that the series didn’t include even a scene with Dan Dreiberg.  I believe he’s the only major surviving character from the comics who didn’t appear.  If there is ever a season two, I’d love to see Dan.

* I love how the series’ early episodes would periodically dip into the fake show-within-a-show about Hooded Justice.  Those sequences were fun, and of course they took on an entirely different spin when we got the true story of Hooded Justice’s origin in episode six.

* As I’d commented above, that magnificent episode six was a highlight of the season for me.  (I loved that this flashback episode began with a Minutemen logo, rather than Watchmen!)  In an episode filled with heartbreaking moments and extraordinary acting, I was also continually impressed with the movie-magic wizardry with which Regina King’s Angela Abar kept dropping in and out of the scenes, as she experienced those memories unfold.  Also: the actor who played young Will, Jovan Adepo, was terrific.  (He was also a standout in the second season of Jack Ryan, which I’ll be reviewing here soon!)

* I loved all of the Superman parallels woven throughout the series.  In the first episode, Will is established as a Superman-like figure: a child spirited-away to safety by his doomed parents.  In episode four, we meet the Clark family (as in, Clark Kent) who, like Jonathan and Martha Kent, are a kindly couple of farmers who are unable to have children of their own, and who adopt a mysterious child who arrives on their doorstep when an object from outer space crashes on their property.  (My assumption, by the way, is that what crashed on their property was the ship carrying Veidt, as revealed in the finale.)

* Speaking of Veidt, I loved learning in the finale that the golden statue of Veidt on Lady Trieu’s property was actually Veidt!  (In episode four, Laurie asks Lady Trieu: “Is that Adrian Veidt?” and Trieu flat-out tells her: “Indeed it is.”  Ha!)

* That Angela wound up, via Dr. Manhattan, putting Will onto the scent of Judd and the Seventh Cavalry in the first place blew my mind when that was revealed in episode eight.  One of the best examples of the series’ circular storytelling.  Another great example: the revelation, in that same episode, of how and when Manhattan fell in love with Angela.

* I was delighted when Angela ran into the theater at the end of the finale — bringing the show right back to where it began, as that was the same theater where young Will took shelter in 1921.  Also — earlier in the finale we see Angela knocked into an Oklahoma! sign, suggesting that this theater is also where she and Judd watched the all-black production of Oklahoma! in the first episode!  And as if that wasn’t enough, as Angela and her family walk through the aftermath of the confrontation in Tulsa’s town square, we hear the song “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” which is from Oklahoma!  That’s amazing.

* One question the show doesn’t answer: how was Will so vibrant at over a hundred years old…?

Are these nine episode the complete Watchmen series, or will the show continue into a season two?  Damon Lindelof has seemed to indicate that he would only be involved with this one season, and HBO hasn’t announced anything more.  On the one hand, this show is so good that I’d love to see it continue.  (I think they could tell a fascinating story about Veidt’s public trial, and the global repercussions of the revelation of what he’d done.)  As Dr. Manhattan said, “nothing ever really ends.”  On the other hand, these nine episodes feel like a perfect and complete story.  I don’t need anything more, and part of me doesn’t want anything more for fear of messing this all up.

Whatever happens in the future, this season represents a true creative triumph for Damon Lindelof and all of his incredible collaborators.  I am impressed.

(If you’d like to read more, might I suggest you check out Alan Sepinwall’s post-finale Q & A with Damon Lindeloff for Rolling Stone.  It’s a great read.  This is a different interview than the one I linked to earlier in my review.  They’re both worth your time, if you’re a fan of the show!)

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