Whew – what a way to start a show. In the annals of great TV pilots, you can bet that Watchmen‘s initial launch will be held up alongside such iconic pilots as those for Lost, The Sopranos, Twin Peaks, Deadwood, and more. So much information is crammed into this opener, and yet it never feels overstuffed. And while there’s an overwhelming amount of world-building, you never get lost in all the details. It’s one of the most exciting hours of TV in recent memory. The big question is: where the hell does Watchmen go from here? Wherever it goes, it’s going to be thrilling to go along with it.
Watch Over This Boy
Watchmen starts in an unexpected place: Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. The first frames we see, though, are from a (fictional) silent movie. Up on the flickering screen a man all in black atop a black horse rides after a man all in white mounted on a white horse. The man in black lassos the man in white right in front of a church, at which point townspeople come spilling out. Through a series of title cards, we learn that the man in white is the town Sheriff and that he’s corrupt. The man in black pulls back his hood to reveal he’s a black man – Bass Reeves, the Black Marshall of Oklahoma. The townsfolk want to lynch the Sheriff, but Bass Reeves won’t have it. “There’ll be no mob justice today,” he declares via title card. “Trust in the law!”
With this seemingly extraneous moment, Watchmen is subtly setting up what’s to come, from themes to plot-points. We just don’t know it yet.
The silent film is being watched by a young African American boy, and he’s hustled out of the theater by his parents – into chaos. Black people are being slaughtered en masse by whites, some of whom are decked out in Klu Klux Klan robes. It’s a scene of brutal, unflinching chaos and slaughter – and it’s all based on reality: the Tulsa Race Riot, in which 100 to 300 African Americans were killed.
Director Nicole Kassell sweeps the camera across this anarchy, relying on shaky hand-held shots to fully convey the nightmarish atmosphere. All of this is aided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross‘ brilliant, disturbing score – get ready to get addicted to this music, folks. It’s one of the best parts of the show.
The young boy is hidden away in a car and given a note by his father: WATCH OVER THIS BOY is all it says. Who is the note for? Why is it so brief? We don’t know, and Watchmen isn’t about to tell us. Not yet, anyway. Because the boy never reaches his destination – a bombing via air destroys the car he was in, killing the driver, and also killing his parents. Only a crying baby is spared, shrieking in the grass. The baby is hoisted up by the boy, wrapped up in a blanket with an American flag pattern. It’s a haunting image – the child holding the infant as Tulsa burns on the horizon.
Can I Take A Look At Your Face?
After the 1921 intro, we’re thrust into the present day – 2019. A 2019 where cell phones don’t seem to exist, nor the internet. It’s the same world from the Watchmen comic – a world that was saved from the brink of nuclear war thanks to a giant alien squid being dropped onto Manhattan, killing millions. In this world, Robert Redford is President – and has been for 30 years.
And in this world, the cops wear masks. A tense traffic stop seems to mimic the silent film opening: a black lawman stopping a white man. The white man driving the car is squirrely, the black cop is tense – half his face hidden in a bright yellow mask. The white driver insists he’s hauling lettuce, but the cop isn’t buying it. He asks to see for himself – at which point the driver asks to see the cop’s face. It’s an intense moment that only escalates, leading to the driver donning a mask modeled after the one worn by the dead vigilante Rorschach, and then shooting up the cop car (with the cop in it).
This burst of violence triggers a propulsive journey in which we meet many of our main characters, primarily Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), the one cop who doesn’t wear a mask, and Detective Angela Abar (Regina King), who claims to be retired from the force but is still very much active – even though she tells people she’s opening a bakery. The bakery is just a front – a building Angela uses as a base of operations. And lurking outside the building is a mysterious wheelchair-bound old man (Louis Gossett Jr.).
While uniformed cops all have the same yellow half-masks, detectives get to create their own fully-fledged superhero-like characters. Angela’s is Sister Night – a persona that has her decked out in a slick jet-black nun outfit, complete with a knife crucifix and some painful rosary beads. We also meet Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), a detective who wears a mirrored face mask.
All of these characters band together to get answers about the shooting of the cop. They believe a white supremacist group known as the Seventh Kavalry is back. And sure enough, the 7K releases a video taking credit for the shooting, and promising more bloodshed to come. Three years ago the 7K attacked several cops – Angela included. The attack, dubbed the White Night, lead to the cops being able to wear masks to protect their identities against future attacks.
After learning of the return of the 7K, Angela rolls into a trailer park known as Nixonville and hauls in a suspected 7K member. “I got a nose for white supremacy, and he smells like bleach,” she tells Judd. An interrogation by Looking Glass in a sensory depravation-like chamber known as the Pod confirms – at least in Looking Glass’ opinion – that the man is indeed a member of the Kavalry, which gives Angela an excuse to beat the shit out of him and learn about a current 7K hide-out at a cattle ranch.
A huge shoot-out ensues at the cattle ranch, giving way to an air battle in which Kavalry members try to escape via plane, but are burned to a crisp via a police airship that looks a heck of a lot like the Owlship, the flying vehicle used by Nite Owl in the Watchmen comic. Angela and the others aren’t able to ascertain what the 7K are up to, but Angela does find a duffel bag full of watch batteries. And not normal batteries, but the “old kind”, she tells Judd – the kin with “synthetic lithium” that were “making people sick.” But just what does the Seventh Kavalry plan to do with that?
It’s Your Anniversary
I hope you’re ready for sudden whip-lash inducing diversions because Watchmen is about to unload a bunch of them on you over the coming weeks. After spending so much time with Angela and company in Tulsa, we suddenly find ourselves in a distinctly European looking landscape. Here, we meet a dapper, snobby, high-class man (Jeremy Irons), who occupies a castle with two servants who constantly refer to him as “Master.”
If you hop onto IMDb or Wikipedia you’ll know exactly who Irons is playing. You might even be able to figure it out for yourself. But since the first episode chooses to keep his identity a secret, I won’t give it away here. Whoever he is, there’s something distinctly off-kilter about his living situation. It’s almost surreal; dreamlike. The two servants proclaim that it’s the man’s anniversary, and proceed to serve him a cake – a cake he clearly doesn’t like the taste of. He’s also presented with a watch as a gift.
What does this all mean? Where are we going with this character?
At this point, I want to make it clear that while Watchmen has plenty of secrets and mysteries up its sleeve, it never feels like a “mystery box” show. The secrecy seems utterly natural to the storytelling process, and not something being forced into the narrative to keep you guessing. It’s organic, and it works like gangbusters.
It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice
The pilot ends with a shocking twist. After a dinner party with Angela, her husband (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and their three children, Judd and his wife (Frances Fisher) go back home, only for Judd to receive a page. (Cell phones might not exist in this world, but pagers do).
The page informs him that the cop shot in the traffic stop has woken up in the hospital, and Jud decides to head over to speak to him. But before he can get there his car runs over a spike strip, flattening all of his tires. And a bright light hits him straight in the face.
Angela, meanwhile, has some lovemaking with Cal interrupted by a phone call. The caller is the mysterious old man in the wheelchair, and he seems to know an awful lot about Angela, including her father’s name, and her secret identity. He demands Angela come and meet him by a big oak tree. “I know who you are, so don’t wear no goddamn mask,” he barks at her.
Angela complies, at which point she discovers – to her horror – Judd’s dead body hanging from a tree. The man in the wheelchair sits below the tree clutching a piece of paper. Scrawled across it: WATCH OVER THIS BOY, confirming that this is the boy we met at the start of the show, all grown-up.
I’ll confess Judd’s death was a huge surprise, primarily because I thought Don Johnson was going to be a major player in the show. To be clear, we haven’t seen the last of him – there are always flashbacks. But bumping him off in the first episode is bold. It’s also upsetting, because Johnson’s performance is wonderful – lively, funny, and warm. We were just getting to know him – and now he’s gone. The episode starts with a fictional character in a movie refusing to hang a man of the law. The real-life lawman wasn’t so lucky.
- The episode’s title is a lyric from a song from the musical Oklahoma! – a musical we catch a scene from early in the episode. The song itself is called “Pore Jud is Daid”, which cleverly foreshadows Judd’s fate long before we see it.
- Speaking of that title, how cool was the title card reveal? We see the letters – in that huge, yellow Watchmen font – hovering in shadow behind the young boy at the start before a camera angle switch reveals them in full. Every episode will do something like this with their titles. It’s neat!
- Everyone is great here, especially Regina King. But I want to single-out Tim Blake Nelson for his deadpan work as Looking Glass. “There was a head of lettuce,” he tells Judd while briefing him on the cop’s shooting. “I believe it was Romaine.” “Were there any croutons?” Judd dryly asks. “Not that I could ascertain,” Looking Glass replies, and Nelson’s line delivery is so pitch-perfect it had me guffawing.
- Yes, we get to see a very brief shot of Dr. Manhattan on Mars.
- Jeremy Irons’ mysterious character tells his servants he’s writing a play – a tragedy in five acts called The Watchmaker’s Son. Jon Osterman, the alter ego of Dr. Manhattan, was a watchmaker’s son.
- Under President Redford, African Americans appear to have finally received some form of Reparations – which Redford-haters have nicknamed “Redfordations.”
- The brief moment where baby squid rain down is a nice way of calling back the alien squid attack. As is Looking Glass’ interrogation question: “Do you believe that transdimensional attacks are hoaxes staged by the U.S. government?”
- The old man in the wheelchair is reading a newspaper with the headline “Veidt Officially Declared Dead.” Vedit is Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, aka the real cause behind that giant alien squid attack so many years ago.
- Judd has a copy of Under the Hood on his desk. Under the Hood is a book in the Watchmen universe written by Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl.
- While superheroes themselves are nowhere to be found in this episode, they do get a shoutout in a TV show called American Hero Story: Minutemen. In the comic, the Minutemen were a group of heroes from the 1940s, consisting of Captain Metropolis, Silk Spectre, Hooded Justice, Nite Owl, Silhouette, Dollar Bill, Mothman, and The Comedian – all of whom appear in animated form for American Hero Story‘s opening credits.
- The drop of blood that falls on Judd’s fallen badge looks exactly like the drop of blood that falls onto the Comedian’s smiley face button in the Watchmen comic.
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