HBO’s Watchmen has finally premiered, and those of you who have never read the comic probably have some questions.
This isn’t a Game of Thrones situation. Where the earlier show started out as a trimmed-down adaptation of existing books, Watchmen is more like a sequel. It follows a new cast of characters in a world that exists 30 years after the events of the comics. Nothing’s changed, only expanded.
That’s all sorts of great if you’re a fan of the source material, but newcomers face a bit of a learning curve. The show’s 2019 world looks a lot like ours, but it differs in some fundamental ways.
I’ve seen most of the season already and am here to fill in the blanks. The idea isn’t to leave you with spoiler-y details that the show will get into further down the line, but rather to give you the context you need so you can better understand what just happened.
If you’ve never read the comics and don’t plan to soon, but you still want to keep up with HBO’s Watchmen, keep reading.
An intro to the world of Watchmen
Richard Nixon’s head on Mount Rushmore? Vietnam is a state? The Watchmen premiere tosses you right in, sparing little time to explain the forces that shaped this alternate timeline version of our world.
First, a few big details you might not have picked up on: There’s no internet, it just doesn’t exist here. The pace of technological development in general is vastly different. Robert Redford is the successor to former President Richard Nixon, who was never taken down by the (undiscovered, in this timeline) Watergate break-in.
Vietnam is a state largely because of a being known as Doctor Manhattan, who singlehandedly ended the Vietnam War. He’s referenced in the premiere via a news report that shows him living on Mars. Doctor Manhattan, née Jon Osterman, was once a human scientist and the son of a watchmaker. He was transformed in a freak accident that left him with superpowers.
Doctor Manhattan is the only being in the Watchmen-verse to possess actual superpowers, but there are other costumed crimefighters in this world. Or there were. Costumed vigilantism started up in the late 1930s, but it’s been outlawed for almost a decade by the time the comics begin, in 1985. So all the costumed crimefighters at the time are either retired, working for the government, or — in at least one case — operating illegally.
The TV ad we see in the premiere for a show called American Hero Story directly references some of the main characters of Watchmen (the comic). In this alt-2019, we’re meant to understand that costumed crimefighting has become the stuff of modern myth.
Rorschach masks and the Seventh Kavalry
The premiere introduces a white supremacist group known as the Seventh Kavalry. We learn that they were responsible for the attack that led to cops shielding their identities behind masks. They’re domestic terrorists, and they also wear masks of their own, with Rorschach Test-style inkblots where their faces should be.
This is a direct reference to one of the more well-known Watchmen comic characters, the costumed vigilante called Rorschach. As far as anyone knows, Rorschach is dead. Doctor Manhattan killed him at the end of the comic as a protective measure, after Rorschach threatened to go public with a disturbing truth.
The particulars of his death and what led to it aren’t relevant at this point. Suffice to say, he was investigating a matter that some felt was better left hidden, and recording it all in his journal. The comic ends with the implication that the journal, which he mailed to a right-wing newspaper prior to his death, was printed for public consumption.
We’re meant to understand that the Seventh Kavalry grew out of his writings, at least in part. Rorschach was never shown to be an overt racist in the comics, though he’s clearly got strong nationalist and far-right sensibilities. So it’s no kind of leap to see how his writings might have resonated with a gang of terror-causing racist thugs.
The scene where a public alarm goes off and millions of small squids rain out of the sky is a frontrunner for the premiere episode’s weirdest moment. The moment is never explained or revisited in that opening hour, but the “squidfall” itself ties directly back to the comic.
Near the end of the original Watchmen, a seemingly alien squid materializes right in the middle of Manhattan. Its arrival causes massive destruction and millions of deaths. The particulars of how it all happened aren’t relevant at this point in the show, but it’s heavily implied that these “transdimensional” squidfalls are some kind of aftershock that connect back to the original event.
Keep watching. An event as strange as “squids raining out of the sky, then melting into goo” isn’t going to be left completely unexplained. But that’s a discussion best left for later.
WTF is Jeremy Irons’ character doing?
The Watchmen premiere introduces Jeremy Irons’ character without actually naming him, though his character’s identity was confirmed long before the show even premiered. If you’d rather remain in the dark until the show names him directly, stop reading here.
I’ll just leave an image here so there’s a bit of visual space between this spoiler warning and the actual spoilers.
OK, here we go. Irons plays a man named Adrian Veidt, a former costumed vigilante who went by the name Ozymandias. It’s not immediately clear where Veidt is when HBO’s Watchmen introduces him; we only know that he seems to live a solitary life in a large castle staffed by some unknown number of servants.
Fans of the comic know there’s more to Veidt’s identity than what I’m sharing here. All I’ll say for now is that he’s a recurring character on the show, and subsequent episodes start to paint a clearer picture of what happened to him after the comics ended. So keep watching.