Watchmen Episode 1, Part 1: The Morality of My Activities Escapes Me

I give up.

I try to lead an ethical life, but all my attempts at consistency end up failing.  I’ve sold my digital soul to a whole host of evil tech giants, my first bite of Apple serving as the gateway drug to Amazon, Google, and (shudder) Facebook. I fly around the world, stomping my carbon footprint on the globe as if it were my own personal doormat. Last week, despite 35 years of committed vegetarianism, I bought a leather jacket, just because it looked nice. 

And now I’m about to praise the hell out of a show that should never have been made. 

You and me both, Jon

You and me both, Jon

Over the course of this blog, I’ve examined other Watchmen-derived works that should never have seen the light of day. But  Doomsday Clock, Before Watchmen, and Snyder’s 2009 film at least had the decency to be artistic failures.  Even though I was violating Alan Moore’s wishes by reading or watching them, dissecting their awfulness made me feel I had virtue on my side.

Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen is a much bigger problem, because it’s outstanding.  But, so far, the secret of its success seems to be how little it relies on the original graphic novel.


In Bloom 

With Harold Bloom dead for barely a week, this seems as good a time as any to consider HBO’s The Watchmen as a case study in the anxiety of influence.  Lindelof takes every chance he gets to remind his interviewers how formative Moore’s and Gibbon’s graphic novel was on his sensibility and artistic development, as well as expressing his own discomfort with taking on the project.  To hear him tell it, the HBO adaptation of Watchmen was his version of Julius Caesar’s crown: the executives offered it to him three times before he finally said yes.  

He didn’t like comics, but I’m bringing him in, anyway

He didn’t like comics, but I’m bringing him in, anyway

Though Lindelof is kinder to Zach Snyder’s film than it deserves, he did have the film adaptation as an example of the perils of slavish fidelity to the original (as well as the ways in which a director’s own sensibility can still drastically change a given scene’s focus or purpose),  Rather than imitate, Lindelof chooses to swerve (this is a Bloomian idea, but without his off-putting classical terminology). [1]. 

And what a swerve!  Not only does he jump thirty-odd years in the future (a rather obvious move, given the passage of time since the book’s first publication), he shifts the action from New York to Tulsa, Oklahoma, includes only one recognizable character in the first episode, and replaces the fear of a near-future nuclear armageddon with a century-old racial trauma whose effects are still felt today.  For new viewers, this levels the playing field, while for readers of Watchmen, it both frustrates and reassures at the same time: frustrates, by signaling that the show is uninterested in providing much “fan service” (unlike Doomsday Clock, which promises to answer that burning question, “Who would win if Superman and Dr. Manhattan got into a fight?”), and reassures, by demonstrating how little Lindelof is interested in simply dissecting a decades-old comic’s still rather exquisite corpse. 

Intentionally or not, Moore’s and Gibbons’ Watchmen recapitulated the Cold War power dynamics that emphasized centrality:  the whole word is in danger, but what really matters is what happens in New York. Even the bit players—the news vendor, the taxi drivers, the gang members—are important simply by virtue of their location in the prime midtown real estate that is fated to serve as ground zero for a cataclysmic turning point in world history.  New York barely survives the apocalypse, while Tulsa is lucky just to hear about it on the evening news.

If New York is Watchmen’s Hamlet, then Tulsa is its Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,  but with one key difference:  failing to see Tulsa as important in its own right is a sign of skewed priorities rather than a recognition of the distorting influence of power.


Previously, on The Leftovers…

One of the few clever things Zach Snyder did in his adaptation of Watchmen was to start the film with a montage of his fictional world’s history, set to the tune of Bob Dylan’s "The Times They Are A Changin’.” By the end of that brief song, viewers had a solid grounding in Watchmen lore.  Lindelof, of course, does something different.

Different for Watchmen, but not necessarily for Lindelof.  Lindelof himself admits that the non-linear structure of Watchmen was an inspiration for the time-jumping in Lost, as well as for the continual shifts from one viewpoint character to another.  He also claims that, in making his “remix” of Watchmen, he wants to follow the original comic’s disruptive spirit rather than imitate its now canonical letter. Just as Moore has a series of tricks that we begin to recognize if we read enough of his comics, Lindelof brings his own narrative devices from series to series.  The first episode of Watchmen  owes at least as much to his The Leftovers as it does to the original comic. [2]

The Leftovers, originally a novel by Tom Perrotta, was also another book that did not exactly cry out for a film or television version. And, like Watchmen, it was a complete story, which Lindelof and Perrotta were only too happy to burn through by the first season’s finale.  Season Two not only shifts the action from New York state to Texas, its opening scene jumps back to cavepeople time, showing the wordless story of a pregnant woman who survives an earthquake and gives birth on her own, onlyto die of a snakebite while protecting her newborn.  Another woman stumbles on her corpse and takes the baby, presumably to raise as her own.

It’s very sad, but at least she didn’t have to wear the Silk Spectre costume

It’s very sad, but at least she didn’t have to wear the Silk Spectre costume

This scene proves to be thematically resonant with the rest of the season (for reasons I’ll get to when I finally get around to writing my Leftovers book).  But it also has a great deal in common with the opening of Watchmen’s premiere.  Set during the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, the first several minutes of the episode follow a Black family as they attempt to escape the slaughter of local African Americans in the business district then known as “Black Wall Street.” The mother and father, knowing that there is no way out for them,  place their little boy in a box on a carriage in the hopes that he, at least, will survive.  Grazed by a bullet, he passes out, and, upon awakening, discovers that everyone else on the carriage is dead.  He hears a crying baby, picks the child up, and walks off to an unknown future.


This scene of abandoned and rescued children has much in common with the aforementioned Leftovers opening, but it also gestures towards Watchmen’s chosen genre:  we are watching a low-tech reenactment of the destruction of Krypton, with a Black Oklahoman Jor-El and Lara placing their son in their equivalent of a getaway rocket.  But baby Kal-El is not just Kryptonian; he is white, and his survival is ensured when he is taken in by a kindly couple in Kansas.  The Black boy is already in the American heartland, and has presumably seen enough of the “kindness of strangers” to last him a lifetime.  Kal-El is every adoptive white American parents’ dream: an unattached Caucasian infant. The boy and the baby could count themselves lucky if they find an orphanage that will take them in.

The Tulsa Riots are a signal that Lindelof’s Watchmen will emphasize race and racism where Moore and Gibbons agonized over nuclear war.  But this particular scene also shows us just how he is going to wed these concerns to the superhero genre in which he is now operating.  The original Watchmen is overwhelmingly white, just like the source material on which it is based, and Superman, the foundational text for the entire genre, is premised on racial invisibility.  Anyone who thinks about Superman’s origin long enough is likely to be struck by the coincidence that Kryptonians look indistinguishable from humans.  But how many would even recognize that “human” here presupposes “white”?  Imagine the scandals that would wrack Smallville if Martha Kent tried to pass off a black baby as her own?


Next time: I finally start talking about the episode itself



[1] Clinamen, anyone?

[2] Doesn’t the imagery project on the screens during Looking Glass’ interrogation of  his suspect look a bit like the opening credits for Seasons 2 and 3 of The Leftovers (particularly the smiling Black military personnel, and the little girl on the swing)? Or have I just been staring at the Rorschach blot for too long?