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Home » HBO's 'Watchmen' is off to a brilliant start
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HBO's 'Watchmen' is off to a brilliant start

“Why isn’t everybody petrified?”

It’s a question posed by a character, who will remain nameless, a little more than halfway through the first season of Watchmen. The context for that question is the stuff of spoilers, but the scene and episode it’s a part of directly address one of the prevailing themes in the cable network’s latest prestige series: trauma.

Watchmen, the HBO spin on that title, is a story about trauma: the kinds we share and the kinds we suffer alone. It explores the sources of our emotional wounds, and the various ways that living with the burden of psychological scar tissue can shape reality at every level of life and society.

For a show based on a superhero comic and set in an alternate timeline (in which Richard Nixon was important enough to merit a bust on Mount Rushmore), Watchmen engenders a surprising level of resonance.

The opening six episodes (out of nine total) make a few things clear. This story is set 30 years after the events of the mid-’80s comic, but its foundation is built around a new set of characters. It’s not exactly a direct sequel, but it’s not not that, either. The truth is more complicated, and it has an awful lot to do with the giant squid.

For those who never read the comic: Toward the end, a giant and seemingly alien squid materializes right on top of midtown Manhattan, crushing people and buildings alike. It causes millions of deaths and massive destruction, but its sudden, bloody arrival also shocks the world into an era of peace.

Now, 30 years later in alt-2019, people continue to cope with the aftermath of that event. Squids still fall out of the sky occasionally, but only small ones. It’s a weird and deeply unsettling occurrence, but more than that, it’s a constant and recurring reminder to everyone that widespread chaos is only ever an unexpected moment away.

To Watchmen‘s credit, the “squiddening-as-9/11 allegory” layer of story is relegated almost entirely to subtext. It’s eventually made more explicitly clear, but that, like most of the show’s world-building, happens organically as the season unfolds. We in the audience feel that connection to our real world trauma long before the show outright spells it out with shorthand references to the date the squid fell – “11/2” – and alt-timeline pop culture.

Watchmen‘s story is also deeply fixated on race and the lingering trauma of systemic racism in America. Early looks at the show featured cops with their faces hidden behind masks. We quickly learn that’s because of an Oklahoma law that was passed for their protection. The portrayal of a sympathetic and victimized police force has drawn understandable criticism in the midst of a real world socio-political landscape where police brutality and unequal treatment under law are in sharp focus for the mainstream. 

HBO's 'Watchmen' is off to a brilliant start

Image: mark hill / hbo

The premiere episode does little to dispel that concern, I’ll admit. But stick with it. Watchmen has more to say on the subject of cops in the context of racial injustice. The show seems to implicitly appeal for that patience right off the bat, with a brutal (and narratively vital) opening sequence set during the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, an actual event in our real world as well as the fictional timeline.

It’s far from the most difficult of Watchmen moments when all is said and done. But by the time you reach the show’s shocking sixth episode, you’re prepared for what it has to say and how it goes about doing that. Racial trauma is about as personal as it gets for a post-colonial America, and the way it’s drawn here dovetails effortlessly with the Watchmen story we know.

Just like the 9/11 allegory, those of us who are tuned into the suffering of our fellow humans can feel these elements alive in the world before the show spells them out. Watchmen trusts its viewers to settle in for the whole ride and accept that everything will unfold at a pace that’s necessary to tell an effective story. 

This “show rather than tell” approach is critical to Season 1’s creative success, especially with regard to its exploration of trauma. The very fact that we’re both expected and able to feel the real world associations is part of the point. It might be the whole point. Watchmen doesn’t hold your hand or feed into your expectations of what a police state-turned-liberal haven where Robert Redford is president might look like. It plays on our assumptions in surprising ways to help us fill in the blanks. 

There’s a logical makeup to the world that you can piece together on your own if you’re paying close enough attention. A squid fell on NYC and killed a lot of people. It might be exponentially weirder than watching a landmark crumble in a terrorist attack, but living through one helps you understand how daily life might ripple out and change in the aftermath of the other.

Yes, Watchmen‘s alternate reality has been shaped by all together different forces than our own. But it works because of the differences that make this fictional world’s timeline unique, not in spite of them. There are costumed superheroes and fantastical “squidfalls,” but these things exist alongside – and inform, in their own way – all sorts of familiar anxieties and social issues. 

The most surprising thing after six episodes is how much the show comes to feel like a funhouse mirror reflection of our own world. The proportions are all wrong, but the underlying identity is still the same. All while honoring the spirit of where it came from. By the end of the third episode, Watchmen has started to lean in on the original comic with more specificity. And by the end of the sixth, you’re seeing the big picture story really take shape. Familiar faces from the past, along with their deeds and misdeeds, come to matter more and more.

The fixation on trauma never disappears, though. I don’t know yet how Season 1 ends, or how the story will pay off its growing connection to the comics. What I do know is this show has a lot to say about suffering and healing, and how our subconscious feelings and urges play key roles in both of those calculations. Why isn’t everybody petrified?, the show asks. The answer to that, it turns out, lies within.

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