Masks, Police Brutality and Race Riots – these were just a few of the defining characteristics of HBO’s 2019 limited series: Watchmen. Inspired by the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons graphic novel of the same name, the superhero drama series quickly became one of the most critically acclaimed series of its time just a few episodes into its run. Now, as the 2020 political climate has changed radically since 2019, many are revisiting what is now looking to be a prophetic drama series, one that foretold how police brutality would be one of the biggest problems in America’s future.
The dystopian TV series was a loose continuation of one of the most critically acclaimed graphic novels of our time, Watchmen. The original novel, which went on to be listed in Time’s List of 100 Best Novels in the English Language, was an alternative history story set in the contemporary 1980s. In the novel, changes in history such as the US winning the Vietnam War and Watergate never being exposed, leads to a slightly different world than ours. One key difference is that masked vigilantes exist in the world established in Watchmen. The book follows the events in the lives of a few “superheroes” – only calling them that seems off, given how they feel too real to be compared to the leather and spandex clad heroes in Marvel movies.
Watchmen’s Real World Connections
The HBO TV series is set in the same world, only 34 years later and follows the lives of new characters as well as ones introduced in the original graphic novel. Created by Damon Lindelof, the 9 episode TV series initially reintroduces us to the Watchmen world through a retired black police officer Angela Abarr (Regina King) who moonlights as a costumed law enforcer Sister Night. In the series, a white supremacist group called The Seventh Kavalry has forced the Tulsa police department into hiding, causing many of them to retire or secretly operate through the use of costumes and masks.
Although the series was quite different in terms of the themes it was tackling, it retained the graphic novel’s bold political nature and grim worldview. The original novel was different from comic books of its time and even now, stands distinct as one of the few times the medium was used to tell stories of heroes that weren’t as sanitized as the ones we are accustomed to seeing. HBO’s series explores that in a far more powerful way, bringing back old characters, with all their scars and flaws, to have a discussion on legacy and what being a “hero” in the real world entails. Most promisingly, it uses the original novel’s disdain for black and white storytelling to instead bring forth characters that are world-weary and understated, fully understanding just how blurry the lines become in the actual world.
Even in the presence of clear cut bad guys such as the white supremacist group, the show continues to leave the viewers guessing as to whom they can trust, combining twists with a layered and moving story. The most pivotal part of the new series is its unflinching look at racial dynamics in America as well as systemic racism that has prevailed in the States for decades. The series begins at the centre of a real-life historical event, the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 when mobs of white men attacked a well functioning black district in Tulsa Oklahoma, culminating in such destruction and tragedy that it has been referred to by historians as “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history”.
Watchmen Is As Fun As It Is Groundbreaking
Prior to this show, there was little awareness about the Tulsa massacre even among the American public. Watchmen’s biggest appeal is that it is as fun to watch as it is thought-provoking. The series examination of how this single act of violence set in motion a race war that would corrode law and order from the inside, whilst threatening the lives of black men and women for generations, is what makes Watchmen more than just a show about caped crusaders. The lead character Angela, played by the always effervescent Regina King is quintessentially cool with her nun’s habit, balaclava and slick moves. However what makes her character interesting to watch is her evolution, as the world around her grows increasingly threatening. There’s a lot going on with the character and Lindelof does a marvellous job of making the character appealing, even if her own no holds barred approach to crime-fighting can be seen as problematic, especially in the context of 2020. Yet, King’s grounded but magnetic performance anchors the series so well that when the show finally starts showing its cards, in the back half of the season, her character grows increasingly more complex and exciting.
Watchmen breaks down the power yielded by the more privileged segments of society and how it has been passed down like a baton for generations, showing a world that feels similar to our own but not quite. Yet, as the death of George Floyd and resurgence of Black Lives Matter movements all around the world have proven, oppression against black people exists even in forces created to protect them. And as easy as it may have seemed, just last year, to dismiss Watchmen as a show about an alternative reality, the truth is that the world it shows is like the one we live in, in all the worst ways.
I do agree that the series takes its sweet time setting up a story worth following. After an efficient pilot, the next two episodes are relatively lowbrow and one does at times feel as if a superhero twist has been interpolated into a sci-fi series just to guarantee greater viewership. However as the show progresses, it becomes increasingly clear the kind of picture Watchmen is trying to paint and through its slow pace, it manages to set up an endgame that feels both organic and earned, as well as epic. Those familiar with the 2009 DC film of the same name may be able to understand the happenings in this series, but the show ultimately rewards the readers of the original novel with surprises galore that they would appreciate more so than a casual viewer of the drama series.
"It just reminds you how much pain our country was built on that we haven't talked about." – @ReginaKing
— Watchmen (@watchmen) June 20, 2020
Back in 2019, when the series premiered to accolades, I was torn over the show’s more centralized focus on America’s law enforcement and race wars. After all, the original novel had been grander in ambition and scope, with its politics meatier. But recent events have proved me wrong. The tragic death of George Floyd and the subsequent scenes of police charging cars into crowds and beating bystanders at protest rallies have made clear that Watchmen foretold the need for a reckoning of the corrupt systems in place. What seemed like a cheap stab at political relevance now resonates as a painful exploration of real-life issues. Television shows and films in the past have attempted to dissect the undercurrent of tension that has existed for some time between White cops in America and the African American diaspora. Watchmen was the first show to foreshadow how close they were at the brink of a cataclysmic war that would define the next year.
Like the graphic novel before it, Watchmen soars due to its ability to present itself through a hybrid of genres, being a sci-fi superhero show in broad strokes but equally registering as a political drama and thriller. It presents characters who act unlike the heroes and villains of superhero movies but more morally corrupt and therefore, more human. Even with super-powered gods and masked vigilantes, what the show is interested in, are discussions of race, power, privilege and corruption.
When the show concluded in 2019, it was hastily added to “Best TV Shows in The Decade” lists by a number of prestigious websites and magazines. Now, in retrospect with its real world parallels more disturbingly similar, that decision makes more sense than ever. Although Watchmen was only created to last a single year, much like the source material it took inspiration from, this television show will no doubt define future works of art for decades to come.
Usama Masood Ahmad is an entertainment writer and research analyst at Global Village Space. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.