There’s an old episode of The Simpsons, from its ninth season, that I’ve been thinking a lot about this fall. It’s called “Lisa’s Sax”, and is intended as an origin/flashback of sorts dedicated to Lisa’s beloved musical instrument. The episode is largely set in 1990, and one of the pop-culture references intended to root the episode in that year occurs when we see Homer on the couch watching the David Lynch-created TV drama Twin Peaks. We hear a man compliment the “damn fine coffee” in Twin Peaks, before he begins dancing seductively with an anthropomorphized horse. Homer, watching, says to no one in particular, “Brilliant! …I have no idea what’s going on.”
This is the part where I tell you that this preamble is leading into an essay all about the experience of watching Watchmen, the HBO drama developed by Damon Lindelof that is ostensibly an adaptation, or a remix, or a floor wax and a dessert topping, of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel of the same name. I’ve arrived at the new Watchmen with only so much awareness of the source material. In an act I immediately came to regret, I paid money to see the Zack Snyder film based on the graphic novel, which mostly served as a very effective deterrent to me ever wanting to read the graphic novel. (I understand that it’s apparently different, and better, than the film. But still.)
The rest of this article contains spoilers for every episode of Watchmen so far.
Depending on your mileage, you might almost say that my lack of knowledge of Watchmen helps out. The new show isn’t remotely close to a direct adaptation; instead, it serves as something of a spiritual sequel to the Moore/Gibbons text. In Lindelof’s version, the year is still 2019, but almost everything else is different. Robert Redford is President, and has been for nearly 30 years. (His Treasury Secretary is Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a real-life historical figure who makes a cameo appearance in a couple episodes.) The Internet as we know it doesn’t exist in this world, though appointment-viewing television still exists in the form of American Hero Story, which is telling the story of the superheroic Minutemen of the 1940s.
Police in this version of 2019 wear masks and often sport superhero-style nicknames, fighting off violent attacks from a white-supremacist group called the Seventh Kavalry. In Tulsa, where the action has been primarily set, a group of cops led by Sister Night (Regina King) must solve the mysterious murder of their chief (Don Johnson) and grapple with an outside investigation led by FBI Agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), the former Silk Spectre. Oh, and also, Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), better known as Ozymandias, AKA the superheroic character from the graphic novel who brought together the nations of the world by orchestrating a brutal attack in which millions were killed, is alive and well…somewhere and plotting…something with a cadre of cloned servants.
Though I haven’t read the Watchmen series, I remembered the movie well enough to realize immediately that whatever Damon Lindelof was doing in this show, it wasn’t adapting the book. (It’s notable, but not terribly surprising considering his track record and opinion of pop culture, that Alan Moore was firmly against having his name credited in this show. Only Gibbons is acknowledged in the end credits.) The pilot episode begins with a 10-minute prologue set in Tulsa circa 1921, depicting the harrowing and intensely violent Black Wall Street attack, a real-life act of racial hatred, as white people killed black people over the span of a few days. This sequence, like the rest of the series so far, is remarkably staged, tense, eerie, and haunting.
I am, however, at a bit of a loss about what is actually…y’know, going on in this show. I’ve written before at this site about how much I adored Lost, the TV series that gave Lindelof a boost in his career. (He’d worked on other TV shows prior to that genre-bending drama, but Lost was the equivalent of his breakout role.) While I wasn’t swayed by his first HBO drama, The Leftovers, I was compelled to try Watchmen both because of his past work, as well as the incredibly stacked cast. Any show that lets Regina King, with her Sister Night character being as multi-dimensional as befitting such an excellent actress, be a badass is A-OK in my book. Add to that actors like Johnson, Irons, Smart, Tim Blake Nelson, and Louis Gossett, Jr., and I was easily convinced. It also helped that TV critics have been largely quite effusive about the show.
If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own
And if you look at Watchmen as a series of pieces, it’s hard to argue. The episodes so far are handsomely directed, with a distinctive look and sound (the latter thanks to a great score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) that’s both inviting and a totally opposite version of what Snyder did in the 2009 feature. The cast isn’t just impressive on the surface, but they’re delivering performances of striking depth and emotion. Scenes that could easily just be ridiculous end up having an unexpected power to them — for instance, an early conversation between King’s Sister Night and her fellow cop, code-named Looking Glass (Nelson). Looking Glass has a mask that recalls the fallen antihero Rorschach (whose writings have inspired the Seventh Kavalry), yet when he admits his heartbreak at the loss of his police chief, it’s more moving than you might think.
And yet, as the show continues apace through its nine-episode first season, I cannot help but wonder where all this is going. Lindelof has gone on the record as saying that this isn’t just the first season of Watchmen — it will be the only season of the show. (That, of course, could change. Sometimes, HBO is prone to renewing new shows as soon as the first episode has aired. So far, at least, no second-season renewal has been announced.) If that’s the case, for whatever reason, it’s very challenging for me to envision the endgame of this show, both because of where the story has gone, and because of how this show connects to the source.
The third episode, “She Was Killed By Space Junk,” is a good example of how random the storytelling appears to be so far. The previous episode ended with a genuine, inexplicable cliffhanger: Sister Night is bringing her previously unknown grandfather Will (Gossett, Jr.) to the authorities, as he claims to have hanged the Tulsa police chief himself. (Seeing as Will, who we first see as a little boy in the pilot episode’s prologue, being saved by his parents from the Black Wall Street massacre, would have to be over 100 years old in 2019, it seems…hard to imagine how he killed the police chief.) As she gets her grandpa into the car, Sister Night is shocked to see an actual UFO descend from the sky and use a massive magnet to suck the car and her enigmatically smiling grandfather away. It’s a pretty wild ending. You might think, if you haven’t seen the show, that the third episode not only immediately would clarify what the hell happened there, and lets Sister Night (who had ostensibly been the lead of the first two hours) drive the action.
But you probably know where I’m going with this: you would be wrong. Sister Night does appear in “She Was Killed by Space Junk”, but in a supporting capacity. Instead, Laurie Blake (previously not mentioned) appears and we see her perspective of the investigation into the chief’s death. Laurie is the chief focus of the episode, which is technically not the worst thing. Jean Smart is an excellent, deservedly award-winning actress, and she brings a welcome sense of no-bullshit to every one of her scenes. This gambit only works because Smart’s so talented. But it’s vexing, beyond just wanting to know what the hell’s going on, to see Sister Night backgrounded in favor of a character with a long history that’s best appreciated if you know Laurie Blake’s backstory as more than just being in a sex scene scored to “Hallelujah”. (God, the memories of that scene in the Snyder film. Shudder.)
It doesn’t help matters that the other major returning character from the graphic novel has been off in his own world for each episode so far. That would be the aforementioned Adrian Veidt, played to the hilt with flamboyant brio by Irons. It’s only at the end of the third episode that he reveals himself to indeed be Ozymandias, the kind of surprise that feels utterly pointless. (Some critics were all too happy to acknowledge his character’s name in their reviews, but come on: you don’t hire Jeremy Irons to play some random dude on a show like this. He was always going to be playing someone important.) The second episode features a subplot where he stages a play that’s depicting the origin story of the genuinely superpowered Doctor Manhattan, the kind of thing that’s baffling enough before you realize that Veidt is surrounded by helpful clones. Hiding his identity felt like an unnecessary twist (especially since HBO was trying to pretend Irons was playing just the “lord of a country manor”).
Veidt is attempting to send his clones…somewhere to do…something, and is frustrated that they keep failing. (The end of the fourth episode implies that he’s catapulting them in the sky through some kind of portal through which they vanish. This revelation occurs after we see him take cloned fetuses, put them into a machine, and rapidly age them to adults. Because…sure. Why not.) This is one of those places where knowing the broad strokes of the plot of the Moore/Gibbons novel is likely not helping me at all. I know Ozymandias is (or was, at least) a very bad guy, and when you’ve cast Jeremy Irons to play him as an older man, I have to assume he’s still a bad dude. But I don’t grasp what his plan is, and more to the point, no one else in the rest of the show seems aware of the fact that Adrian Veidt is even alive, let alone plotting something. I’m more than happy to watch a mysterious HBO drama where Jeremy Irons meditates while naked and berates servants named Crookshanks. But only if the mystery will have a solution.
The same is frustrating regarding Sister Night’s grandfather Will. As revealed at the end of the fourth episode, Will is in league with the very powerful trillionaire Lady Trieu (Hong Chau), a tech-savvy businesswoman who bought up Veidt’s company after he vanished to…wherever he is now. Will, who we first saw in a wheelchair, shows himself to be perfectly capable of walking around. And he implies that whatever plan he’s setting in motion with Lady Trieu will occur in just three days, and make his granddaughter hate him forever. Lady Trieu points out to Will that he could very easily tell Sister Night what’s going on, but he says she has to “experience” some things for herself.
It was this climactic scene that made me think once again about Lost, but not automatically in a good way. (Will’s ability to walk reminded me, just a wee bit, of how the enigmatic John Locke on Lost was able to walk on the Island after spending years in a wheelchair.) One of the show’s most common criticisms was that it just didn’t answer questions, less because of a creative reason and more because the show’s writers were spinning their wheels. The advantage with Watchmen, of course, is that there’s only nine hours of show to deal with — there’s only so long that Lindelof and his writers can hold off on answering questions. That is, of course, if they’re going to answer questions. Having read enough about The Leftovers (again, I didn’t see the show, to be fair), I am led to believe that show’s principal concept — that 2 percent of the population just vanishes one day, to parts unknown — is never resolved, and we never find out what happened to those departed people.
This, of course, is where talking about Watchmen before its season-ending conclusion feels especially frustrating. What will that conclusion be? What other characters from the Watchmen universe will show up again? Will any of it work? Will there even be a solution? The pieces of this show are often quite compelling, and Damon Lindelof knows how to craft memorable, maddening, exciting drama on a scene-by-scene basis. He’s got a great cast here. I know it’s brilliant, in some way. But I have no idea what’s going on, and my patience is running a bit thin. It’s a good thing that this show only runs nine episodes. That might be my limit on knowing where this whole thing is headed. Tick-tock.
The post What It’s Like to Watch ‘Watchmen’ When You Know Nothing About the Original Comic appeared first on /Film.