[This post contains spoilers for Watchmen, both the HBO show and the original comic series (and, by extension, the 2009 movie). It basically presupposes that you’ve read the comic, to be honest, and probably makes more sense if you’ve also seen the show. Which you really should anyway.]
Every so often, I walk away from experiencing some kind of media totally energized. At this sensation’s most pronounced, it feels like my individual atoms are each vibrating like a guitar string tuned too tight, like I may never go to sleep, like I’ve been downing Sudafed with an energy drink. It’s usually a one-time event that prompts this feeling—an unexpectedly good live show, say, or my team winning the World Series—or, at a minimum, after finishing for the first time a piece of content that immediately becomes one of my all-time favorites.
When this happens, I don’t want to talk—or even think—about anything else. I’ll go online and read whatever people are saying about it, I’ll search for unfamiliar podcasts discussing it, I’ll try to find some friend, real-life or online, who shared the experience and wants to discuss. I’ll wonder why anyone anywhere is talking about anything else.
It doesn’t happen that often with TV shows. There’s too much routine there—you know when they’ll air and how long they’ll be and, often, roughly what’s going to happen. But for nine straight weeks, it happened with HBO’s Watchmen.
This show has no right to be as good as it is.
I first read Watchmen—or, more accurately, first started reading Watchmen—at my local Tower Records in the mid-1990s. (It’s always tempting, when writing about Watchmen, to riff on the “Dr. Manhattan perceiving time” motif — It is September 1994, and I am opening a book… — but I’m going to try to resist.)
Tower Records was where I first discovered a lot of the Vertigo and proto-Vertigo comics that defined the end of the 20th century. It was open late and had comfortable chairs in the book section and stocked what was at the time an impressive collection of graphic novels (although it wouldn’t be enough to cover even a tenth of the Image section of a modern bookstore), leaning heavily on the Alan Moore / Grant Morrison / Neil Gaiman stuff that represented the then-cutting-edge of the mainstream.
It’s where I first read Enigma, where I first sampled Hellblazer, and where I first realized that just because Jon J. Muth is a hell of a painter it doesn’t mean that The Mystery Play is worth my time. And, maybe predictably, Watchmen was the one that stood out the most.
I remember reading the first chapter and being immediately taken with the obvious care and intent that went into each panel, each page, each caption. I don’t think I had ever realized that a comic could be that meticulously crafted. It’s impossible to explain what a revelation that was.
There’s a thing that happens with pop culture where anything truly unique and groundbreaking, after enough time passes, becomes so ingrained in its media that it barely registers as background. Like Tom King building a career as one of the most successful, critically-acclaimed writers of mainstream superhero comics by using Watchmen’s tricks and craft on 80+ consecutive issues of Batman.
Reading Watchmen in that Tower Records—when it was already completed and collected, already an acknowledged masterwork, but had not yet been stripped for parts—was probably the closest I’ll ever come to what it must have felt like to buy a brand new Beatles record in 1968, or to have seen Star Wars in 1977.
Since then I’ve read it … god, a hundred times? Seems impossible, but who knows. Some of it has held up great, and some of it shows its age, and some of it is downright problematic. But it remains an undeniable pillar of “grown-up superhero comics,” and it certainly never, ever, EVER needed a sequel.
The TV show supposedly isn’t a sequel, of course. Showrunner Damon Lindelof has called this a “remix,” claimed that the graphic novel is the old testament and the show the new. I get it. Much like me half-heartedly shrugging away some intense moral quandaries in the next paragraph, sometimes you’re gonna do what you’re gonna do and you justify it as best you can. But, real talk? It’s a sequel. And it turns out, it was necessary as hell.
(I understand the people, like our own Jeff Lester, who view it as a moral imperative to not support DC’s exploitation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work. And I don’t have a particularly clever (or even glib) justification for my own decision; it’s just another one of those compromises I’ve unconsciously chosen, like owning an iPhone or eating meat. So I’m basically just ignoring that whole issue here.)
This isn’t the first attempt at a sequel, either. Over in the comics, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank just finished slogging through the quagmire of Doomsday Clock, their somewhat inexplicable, star-crossed attempt to merge Watchmen into the DC Universe. It has, with the best will in the world, not lived up to its predecessor, despite having some of the trappings.
One of the book’s early shocking reveals was that the new Rorschach was — *gasp* — a black man. Based entirely on that reveal, and on knowing how much Johns likes to really mine Alan Moore’s detritus, I looked back at the original Watchmen and deduced Rorschach’s identity. (I emailed Graeme about it at the time, so I even have receipts.) It wasn’t difficult, though, because there is ONLY ONE BLACK CHARACTER with a significant speaking role in Watchmen; since he died, this pretty clearly had to be his kid. (The kid never appears in the original, but the dad drinks out of a World’s Greatest Dad mug, which I assumed would be enough for Johns to extrapolate from.)
This choice is a nice microcosm of Doomsday Clock, managing to really lampshade a deficiency in the original work while abjectly failing to improve it or do anything truly interesting with it. The HBO series approaches things in a different way.
Writing about Rogue One on this site a few years back, I called it “a nearly flawless retcon,” my primary argument being that it manages to deepen and enrich the original work without damaging or changing it in any way. Watchmen is that, but at an even greater degree of difficulty. Rogue One plugged one maybe-plot-hole (the Death Star vulnerability), cleaned up some omega-nerd level questions from Episode IV, and provided broader context for the Rebel Alliance as a whole, using a set of characters explicitly created to deepen the series’ stakes by dying in the movie.
The Watchmen show retroactively removes the graphic novel’s relentless whiteness; it is impossible for me to read Hooded Justice’s intervention in the Comedian’s sexual assault on Silk Spectre in the same way I originally did. All of Hooded Justice’s appearances are drastically changed, as are Captain Metropolis’s motives. ”Giving weight to a ‘moment’ that is, in fact, not a moment at all,” I wrote in that Rogue One piece, “is arguably the most impressive trick a retcon can perform.” It’s doubly true here.
There are also elements of the sequelization that manage to deepen the original. Dr. Manhattan’s continuing journey—and (presumably) third major romance—makes what he experiences in the graphic novel mere first steps rather than a mildly depressing stasis. Adrian Veidt’s post-salvation ennui (which seems inevitable in hindsight—it’s right there in his codename that he’s not going to leave behind the great legacy he plans) renders his “I DID IT!” moment even more ironic. And Laurie taking on and then abandoning her father’s name and persona finally gives Laurie some agency and something to actually do other than sleep with a doughy, boring ex-owl.
I had hoped to get this posted before the ninth and final episode aired, because if there’s one thing Damon Lindelof likes to make clear in interviews, it’s that he believes audiences only care about sticking the landing. When you’re the guy who is viewed as responsible for the much-criticized ending of Lost, and you had made yourself pretty accessible to fans, it’s a reasonable thing to believe. It’s also, in the case of Watchmen, not at all accurate.
The first eight episodes of this season include two all-time great episodes (6 and 8), a couple on the tier just below that (5 and 3), and none that were less than excellent. They could’ve decided not to air the finale, or to have shown a test pattern with a splotch of blood on it for 55 minutes, and the series as a whole would’ve still felt satisfying. The actual content of the ending felt almost incidental to the larger themes of the series (which makes particular sense for Watchmen, since, as the show continually reminds us, one the story’s signature lines is about how nothing ever really ends), but they went ahead and nailed it anyway.
All of which is just a (really, really, really) long preamble to saying that the Watchmen TV show gave me the exact same mixture of feelings—enjoyment and admiration of craft and a general floating sense of awe—as the original graphic novel did all those years ago. It was a show that—again, thorny ethical questions aside—was made by people who clearly knew and loved the original, an impression that has been confirmed by the cavalcade of interviews they’ve done in the wake of the finale.
One comment that jumped out to me was in series writer Jeff Jensen’s conversation with his A Twin Peaks Podcast: A Podcast About Twin Peaks co-host Darren Franich (an overlooked great piece of Watchmen behind-the-scenery), in which Jensen mentioned that he and Lindelof had entered into the project by writing a list of things from the original Watchmen that were essential for their Watchmen TV show. (Full disclosure—I wasn’t taking notes and can’t find the comment scrubbing through the 2+ hour podcast at high speed, so I’m working from very casual memory, but I *think* that’s what he described and where he described it. Maybe it was from Damon Lindelof’s appearance on The Watch podcast. Like I said, I’ve been consuming a LOT of Watchmen content.)
I’ve found myself wondering about that list, and wondering how much of it I could reverse-engineer from watching the episodes and thinking of what I’ve held on to from the graphic novel for the last quarter-century or so. It’s an almost-pointless thought experiment, except that it also provides a solid framework to list a few of the things that helped make this series work so well for me. So, then: my highly speculative list of the things that the Watchmen HBO writers thought essential to carry into their “remix” (but really a sequel).
1) The blood spatter. Iconic. (“What we had in that smiley face badge was really the ultimate cartoon,” Dave Gibbons told Entertainment Weekly back in 2017. “The simplest cartoon. A black and yellow smiley face, with a splash of really realistic blood on it. It was like the real world imposing itself on a cartoon, which is what we were trying to do by treating comic book characters as if they were living in a real world.”)
2) The smiley face. My favorite smiley face in the show is that bowl of eggs, which incorporates a major show-only motif (the eggs) with the original graphic novel’s smiley face, and even includes a bloodspot in one egg to match the original icon. It’s a hell of an image on first viewing and only moreso as the series goes on. My second favorite was so brief that I thought I might have imagined it, but the marks left by the three-pronged spaceship landing struts on Europa sure looked precisely framed to make the essential parts of a smiley.
3) The match cuts across scene transitions. I was amazed how well this device translates to live action. It’s (relatively) easy in a comic because you can draw an image however you need to so that it matches the following panel. It seems to me like it would be much harder in live action, but it works well in this show.
4) Nostalgia. When you’re writing a “remix” (but really a sequel) to a venerated 30 year old text, accusations of nostalgia are built in. So it was fortunate for the writing staff that the original work already featured a cynical in-universe product based on the concept of nostalgia. Turning it into literal toxic nostalgia was even more inspired.
5) The Rorschach mask. This image is so iconic (and, let’s be honest, so visually cool) that you pretty much have to include it. But you also don’t want to play into the more toxic portions of fandom who believe that Rorschach himself is cool. So you give the mask to white supremacists, complete with an in-universe explanation for their adoption of Rorschach’s words and image, and then you further muddy the waters by having them clearly not understand what Rorschach thought he was communicating with the mask. (“Black and white moving. Changing shape … but not mixing. No gray,” Rorschach says, when describing the mask to his prison psychiatrist. The homegrown knock-offs the Seventh Kavalry wears bleed to gray all over the place. Which is its own form of irony, I suppose.)
6) The “I’ll look down and whisper ‘No’” speech. See “Rorschach’s words” in #5 above. The white supremacist rewrite of this speech in Episode #1 was one of the spots where the TV show teetered perilously on the edge of being too on-the-nose, but let’s be honest: “too on-the-nose” might as well be the graphic novel’s tagline. Which reminds me…
7) The way-too-on-the-nose song lyrics to close out each installment. Especially the Oklahoma! lyrics on Episode #1, which (I believe) was the only episode to follow the graphic novel’s direct tying of the chapter titles to the closing quotes. (Also, a mildly interesting note on Oklahoma! and the current cultural moment: I’ve been reading Once Upon A Galaxy: A Journal on the Making of The Empire Strikes Back in preparation for the release of the new movie. In the introduction, author Alan Arnold writes about trying to understand the magnitude of the Star Wars phenomenon when it first came out and, somewhat unexpectedly, he finds understanding by looking back at Oklahoma!’s debut. “Historians of show business now recognize that this folksy American entertainment, which had no stars, was not just a great show but one that broke the many conventions stage musicals had previously adhered to. In its medium, Oklahoma! was a fundamental advance, a fact which no subsequent contender in the field could ignore except at its own risk.” That second sentence could just as well have been written about the Watchmen comic, and now maybe the TV show as well.)
8) The nine installments. It would be easy to think that there should’ve been twelve episodes of Watchmen to mirror the twelve issues of the original comic, but twelve has never been the number that I most associated with the book. That would definitely, unquestioningly be nine—the nine-panel grid, which Gibbons apparently convinced Moore to use, is the absolute foundation of the book, and nine installments of the show feels just about correct.
9) The world going on in the background. There are parts of the world of the Watchmen graphic novel that you can only fully piece together from fragments on the edges of the story—graffiti, posters on walls, newspaper headlines, etc. The creators of the TV show appear to have approached their worldbuilding the same way, which I think is part of why it was so immersive even for people who had never read the book.
It’s appropriate, too, since Lindelof’s Lost was the first show I remember that actually expected viewers to pause and parse every background detail. (Remember the Dharma logo on the shark?) However, I view all of this world-building as completely separate from…
10) The metatextual supplemental content. Another area where Lost borrowed from Watchmen the comic so Watchmen the TV show could run. The supplemental materials (even the goddamned essay about the owls from Chapter 7) were absolutely integral to the experience of reading the original series. I had wondered how (or if) the show might handle this kind of thing, but the solution of using Peteypedia and the freaking soundtrack album was both inspired and an undeniable success. Hopefully they’ll find a way to preserve and package all of that for future consumption when this is just another show in the library of HBO Max or whatever. And even these are separate from…
11) The in-universe media as nested narrative. The pirate story in the original comic works in a number of ways. It fleshes out the world (a public love of pirate comics instead of superhero comics), tells us something about the kind of writer that Veidt kidnaps, serves as an allegory for the story as a whole (IT IS A SHIP MADE OUT OF THE DEAD, DO YOU GET IT YET), and just generally offers an excuse to tell a horror/pirate story in the middle of an otherwise often-staid narrative. The TV show really only nods in this direction—the American Hero Story device was clever but mostly abandoned once it paid off in Chapter 6, and the pirate story trappings on the Veidt side-story play a little oddly in retrospect—but it’s clear that this is an element they wanted to ruh-ruh-remix.
12) A blue collar reddish-head conspiracy theorist who hides behind a full-face mask. This is the element that most feels like a true remix, but it’s an exceptionally clever one. Everything about Looking Glass, from the name to the visual to the origin to Tim Blake Nelson’s performance, is exceptionally well-executed. And the idea that the opposite of Rorschach (whose mask shows nothing except what you project on it) is a mask that just shows you looking back at it is pretty clever. Not sure that “guy pushing up a mask to eat beans from the can” was an absolutely essential carryover, but it certainly made the parallel (“remix”!) overt. Ronch ronch ronch.
And speaking of Looking Glass’s origins….
13) Giant psychic squid attack! In what amounts to a firm rebuke of the Snyder movie’s climactic decision, the show’s depiction of the 11/2 attack really puts a face on Veidt’s victims (THEY ARE LIKE THE RAFT, DID YOU GET THAT?!?), which the comic’s structure does not allow for. (We need to stay in Karnak to hear Veidt monologue, which leads to the iconic “I did it thirty minutes ago” line, and then we mostly cut to the aftermath.)
14) People doing things a certain amount of time ago. The callbacks to this line were getting a little heavy-handed by the end, if I’m being totally honest.
15) Things never ending. This one too.
16) Dr. Manhattan existing in non-linear time. God, Chapter 8 was so good.
17) People hiding their costumes in their closets. I have always been quietly impressed with the slight bend in the coat hanger that Rorschach uses to find the Comedian’s costume, which allows the reader to clearly see the difference in depth. Just a clever bit of visual storytelling.
18) Puppets. Another one of Dr. Manhattan’s famous lines given new meaning and new life in the show.
I could go on—I’m quite sure their list did—but this gives the general idea. The creators here understood Watchmen. They knew what to extrapolate and what to remix and what to sequelize, and what to jettison. It’s a triumph of adaptation and, FINE I’LL SAY IT WITHOUT SCARE QUOTES, remixing.
And I’ve only barely touched on the most effective remixing of all.
The decision to make Watchmen a distinctly black story—built on a true historical atrocity against black Americans, inspired heavily by the (pre-Captain America) writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates, starring some truly exceptional black actors—is beyond inspired. It was necessary. When even Geoff Johns notices that your story is a little too white, that really says something, no matter how badly he screwed up the execution of adding some diversity.
But where Johns clumsily attempts the faintest of half measures, finding the hint of blackness in the comic and attempting to build a legacy character out of it, Lindelof and his writer’s room went bold: they found a space in the narrative that Moore and Gibbons had left deliberately empty, filled it retroactively with a fully-realized black experience, and fundamentally changed the story for the better as a result.
They also—anecdotally, based on reading Twitter—opened up the show to an entire audience that might never have read the comic, and made the comic retroactively better should that audience decide to visit it after the show. The decision even changed the commentary on the show—every major entertainment site found a writer of color to do their recap/commentary pieces on Watchmen, and as a result I’ve found a half-dozen new writers to follow.
I strongly believe that the writers’ room (or some people in it, at least) must have been aware of Moore’s own related criticism of superheroes, which were recently posted (in English) and made the rounds on Twitter despite having originally been published in 2017 (in Portuguese). “I would also remark that save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators),” Moore said, “these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race. In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.”
If the room came up with some of the images and plot elements in this series WITHOUT having previously seen that quote, then they’re even more firmly dialed into Moore’s wavelength.
When the original Harry Potter movie opened, my then-girlfriend-now-wife and I went to an opening night screening. The bored AP reporter doing an on-the-scene piece grabbed me afterward for one of the reaction quotes, so if you were to scour the internet hard enough you’d find me saying something like: “Well, it looked almost exactly like the book, which I guess is the best thing you can say about something like this.”
I was, obviously, 100% wrong. Watchmen points to entirely new way to bring an existing story (and, yes, “IP,” as much as I hate to reduce a book that I loved to marketing jargon) to a new medium, and (despite my ponderous list of echoes above) it involves looking almost nothing like the book, while still somehow being recognizably of the book. I’m not sure if this particular thermodynamic miracle is replicable, but I would much rather see people try than see another slavish imitation like the 2009 movie.
TL;DR: The Watchmen TV show is real good. You should watch it.