Watching Watchmen, Episodes 1-5: Rorschach Test Drive

Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen, a sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ tremendously influential 1986 comic of the same name, is a show with a lot on its mind. Race. Class. Vigilantism. Aging. Criminal justice. While its genesis may have been troubled by Moore’s vocal disapproval, the resulting program has had a fascinating first four episodes anchored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s brilliant score and magnetic performances from Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson, Regina King, and Jeremy Irons. Set in an alternate 2019 in central Oklahoma, Watchmen hits the ground running with a ruthlessly ugly depiction of the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 in which Klan, police, and local whites bombed and looted an affluent black neighborhood and killed many of its inhabitants.

From there the show traces the roots of America’s exploitative, mealy-mouthed relationship to its own violent past, zipping back and forth between repulsive racist violence and sad-eyed neoliberal satire without missing a beat. It even delves into cultural misapprehension of the original comic and the thuggish stupidity of Zach Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation with Minutemen, a hyper-violent show-within-a-show where costumed vigilantes leap and kick in slow motion while battering their victims into shapeless mounds of hamburger. Like Moore’s original, the series has social complicity at the forefront of its consciousness, with superhero theatrics functioning as a kind of smokescreen. The people who fight crime in costume are no more immune to the vast gravitational pull of injustice than their real-world counterparts. 

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The season’s first half is intimately concerned with a vision of America through an at first apparently anti-racist lens. A majority-black police force with authorization locks on their guns. Masked detectives, disguised at first to protect their identities from Klan reprisals and later because, well, it’s expedient to shield law enforcement officers from scrutiny, to disconnect state wrongdoing from the human beings who perpetrate it. If the story ended with “and if black people had power they’d be racist against white people” it’d be nothing to write home about, but it pushes through its own distracting straw argument to find uglier, more essential points about white supremacy and the necessity of warfare among the different echelons of the lower classes to the maintenance of the power of the elite.

The lessons Lindelof learned during the three-season run of his last show, The Leftovers, are in full effect here. The listless plot-hopping that saddled Lost, his breakout debut, with an eventually fatal load of unresolved mysteries has been refined into thoughtful focus on different members of the show’s ensemble from week to week, each one snapping new pieces of a large and gratifyingly weird puzzle into place. That show’s throw-stuff-at-the-wall approach to uncanny phenomena has also been reined in, giving images like Sister Night’s (Regina King) family SUV dropping out of a clear night sky to smash into the pavement that much more punch. Its tight focus on human behavior in settings at once bizarre and uncomfortably familiar is, thus far, in the very best tradition of everything science fiction has to offer.

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