Nothing ever ends. Doctor Manhattan said as much to Adrian Veidt, after the latter had dropped a giant psychic squid on New York City, killing over 3 million people. In true fashion for the omniscient, omnipotent, often nude, blue god, he was absolutely right. WATCHMEN SEASON 1 is the adaptation that nobody wanted but everybody needs, building on the themes of the original material, while introducing a cast of compelling new characters and a richly complex narrative that brings the unique Watchmen flavour into the modern day. Not only a worthy follow-up, this is an essential companion piece to the comic book, and proof that things never ending isn’t always so bad. Beware SPOILERS ahead.
After a brief prologue that follows a young boy during the 1921 race riot, WATCHMEN sets up shop in present day Tulsa, or at least, a parallel version of it where cops wear masks to protect their identities from a terrorist group of Rorschach-imitating white supremacists, and every so often it rains baby squids. At the centre of all this weirdness is Angela Abar (Regina King), a police officer who goes by the super-moniker of Sister Night. Across the course of the series, Angela comes up against white supremacist group, the Seventh Kavalry, confronts her own complicated history, and gets tangled up in an intricate plot of racism, control and domination that also draws in several characters from the comic book.
The majority of WATCHMEN SEASON 1 takes place in 2019, 34 years after the giant squid attack, and 98 years after the Tulsa race riot. While these two incidents, one fiction and one history, may seem about as disparate as they come, both are ingrained into the DNA of the story, and both heavily inform the state of the world. The Seventh Kavalry’s very existence is at once a response to the political and sociological history of the Watchmen universe, and a reflection of the racial dynamics present in our version of America today. While the rich tapestry of established mythology underlying the narrative allows for some bitingly poignant social commentary, the “just go with it” attitude of its delivery has the potential to alienate uninitiated viewers, with things like Robert Redford being the president, or the aforementioned squid rain, being pretty hard to just take in stride.
As Angela, Regina King is the emotional core of the series, delivering a powerhouse concoction of vulnerability and strength.
Given that Damon Lindelof’s name is attached to this series, it comes as little surprise that there’s a whole mess of mysteries from the word go – what are the Seventh Kavalry up to? What’s up with Jeremy Irons in the Manor house? Can that old guy really lift 200 pounds? Thankfully, Lindelof has learned a lot since his Lost days, and not only do the above mysteries and others all receive answers during the nine-episode run, but each of them informs and enhances the central story, rather than just existing for the sake of creating mystique. While there are some sequences, particularly in the finale, that swap character-driven finesse for clunky exposition, the narrative as a whole is delivered elegantly and concisely, with only a few loose ends left to tease a second season.
The idea of following up such iconic figures as Rorschach, Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II must have been intimidating, but you’d never know it from the confidence with which this new generation of heroes and villains are written. As Angela, King is the emotional core of the series, delivering a powerhouse concoction of vulnerability and strength in her dual identity of warm and humorous mother/wife, and bone-cracking, ass-kicking super-cop, Sister Night. Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) is initially an enigmatic figure, but proves to be the series’ most tragic character thanks to his traumatising backstory, and Lady Trieu (Hong Chau) is as impish as she is intriguing, with her condescending yet affable air of all-knowing. Finally, while not a main character, the illusive “Lube Man” has stolen the internet’s heart and escaped into a sewer grate, cementing himself as an essential part of this beautifully bizarre world.
Of course, as compelling as the new characters are, it wouldn’t be Watchmen without some of the original crew making appearances. Most ingrained in the story is Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), the retired Silk Spectre II, now a distinguished FBI agent who comes to Tulsa to investigate the Seventh Kavalry threat. A logical evolution of comic Laurie, Smart plays Blake as jaded and burdened, offset by a dark, humourless comedic streak that is very reminiscent of her father. Running parallel to the main narrative, but no less important to the finale, Jeremy Irons turns in a flamboyant, Shakespearean performance as Adrian Veidt. Trapped on a moon of Jupiter with nothing but sycophantic, subservient clones for company, the aged Ozymandias is a mess of narcissism and frustration, full of resentment at not being suitably recognised for saving the world from nuclear war.
Perhaps the biggest surprises of the series, and the most welcome, are the ways in which the narrative incorporates the two most important characters in the Watchmen mythos. The return of Doctor Manhattan, while clearly signposted in the trailers, still manages to be a bombshell, with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II bringing a mournful melancholy to the role, and perfectly encapsulating the weariness of experiencing everything, all at once, always. Even more of a delight is Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.), Angela’s grandfather, who is revealed to be Hooded Justice, the first masked vigilante and a member of the Watchmen’s predecessors, the Minutemen. In arguably the best episode of the series, Reeves’ journey to putting on the hood is charted through a series of flashbacks that offer new perspectives on Hooded Justice, and perfectly distil the overarching themes of race and identity that sit at the very heart of the series.
The remix of graphic novel imagery ensures that WATCHMEN forges its own strong identity, while remaining connected to the original material.
Aside from the legacy characters that do appear, there are many echoes, references and callbacks to the graphic novel that forge a strong connection between this series and the original material. Despite being disintegrated by Doctor Manhattan way back in ’85, Rorschach is everywhere in WATCHMEN: the Seventh Kavlary wear inkblot masks and recite his writings like scripture, and Looking Glass is a clear spiritual successor, with his stature, gruffness, choice of mask and penchant for eating cold beans all bearing strong resemblance to Walter Kovacs. While he is the only living Watchman to not appear in the show, Dan Dreiberg, AKA Nite Owl II, is heavily referenced, with owl motifs appearing in nearly every episode, the most prominent of which being the caged owl that Laurie keeps as a pet (named Who, of course), in reference to Dan’s ongoing incarceration.
Though the graphic novel’s distinct iconography is replicated liberally throughout the series – the egg yolk smiley face, that well-placed spatter of blood on Judd’s sheriff badge, and the urgent ticking that hounds the soundtrack all being prime examples – it’s never relied too heavily upon. Thanks to some fantastic talent behind the camera, particularly Nicole Kassell and Stephen Williams, this remix of graphic novel imagery ensures that WATCHMEN forges its own strong sense of identity, while remaining deeply connected to the original material. This approach leads to the creation of new moments that feel just as iconic to the Watchmen universe as the smiley button, with Looking Glass’ infinitely reflecting interrogation pod, the stark black and white flashbacks of Hooded Justice’s origins, and the biblical yet tranquil beauty of Doctor Manhattan creating life from scratch on Europa being some especially stunning highlights.
Defying all expectations and probabilities, WATCHMEN SEASON 1 doesn’t just live up to the beloved graphic novel, it accentuates and re-frames parts of it, elevating the impact and thematic resonance between the two mediums. It is surprising in all the right places, reverential when it needs to be, and so rich with mythology that it could easily run for many years to come. At the time of writing, a second season has not been announced, and Damon Lindelof has expressed apprehension at the prospect of returning. While there is a lot to be said for knowing when to walk away, the world and characters established in this season are just begging to be explored further, so with any luck, this won’t be the end of the Watchmen for very long.
Verdict: 5/5 Paddles