It Still Stings: HBO's Prestige Show Watchmen Was Too Much at Once

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It Still Stings: HBO's Prestige Show <i>Watchmen</i> Was Too Much at Once

Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:

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When I first watched HBO’s Watchmen series in 2019, it mesmerized me. It took a beloved and respected graphic novel from the mid-1980s and tried to make it relevant for the late-2010s by addressing themes the original overlooked. When Damon Lindelof adapted this story (by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons) into a limited series television sequel, it was controversial—Alan Moore doesn’t like his work being adapted. Moore believes comics are a legitimate medium all their own, and hasn’t been happy with any of the film versions of his work: From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta, or Zach Snyder’s 2009 Watchmen. Still, the show would go on to captivate audiences, teach people about the Tulsa Greenwood Massacre, and win 11 Daytime Emmys, including Best Actress for Regina King.

But besides being heavily acclaimed, HBO’s celebrated Watchmen series is also a mess.There are unanswered questions, dangling plot threads and disappearing characters, illogical reuse of dialog and symbols, and an arbitrary withholding of information that contributes to greater issues. The show tries to do too much and, upon closer inspection, it does not succeed.

The biggest problem is that it assumes prior knowledge of the graphic novel. Assuming prior knowledge wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t contradicted just as contradicting that prior knowledge wouldn’t matter if the story stood on its own. The story could best stand on its own if it wasn’t reliant on building its plot around a minor character from the original graphic novel (the universe’s original superhero, Hooded Justice) and tying him into a historical event with which he does not need to be associated (the Tulsa Greenwood Massacre) so that the show can brush up against themes it doesn’t know how to tackle but wants to be about, like racism, trauma, and policing. Or it might stand better on its own if it didn’t reuse the same basic story structure as the original and pin the story to the direct involvement of the original central characters. A murder mystery leads to uncovering a violent conspiracy by a billionaire to fix the world (Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, played here by Jeremy Irons, with his antagonistic role supplanted)—to change the ending (the godlike Dr. Manhattan dies but neither villain succeeds).

The more I see of these adaptations that Alan Moore famously doesn’t want made, the more his stance makes sense to me. In the case of V for Vendetta, his criticisms focused on the movie missing the conversation around fascism and anarchy central to the book. In Zach Snyder’s Watchmen film, the ending was changed to make it more believable (in turn undercutting its meaning), as well as pulling out major character development scenes. In the case of the Watchmen TV series, the original ending of the comic book does happen: a crazy billionaire “superhero” manufactures a giant alien brain squid to appear in New York City and kill three million people with a psychic shockwave. However, characters like Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias are much changed from their original appearances, and general information is presented in a scattershot way that requires outside reading.

For example, HBO provided in-universe supplementary material through “Peteypedia,” a fictional FBI database run by and named after a minor supporting character (Dustin Ingram as Agent Petey) who disappears from the show’s third act, but they didn’t advertise it heavily. It was transmedia necessary to understand canon that was mostly found by geeks like me searching Google and Reddit. It worked like the back matter of the comic books, which included excerpts of in-universe memoirs, articles, and interviews to flesh-out the universe, but I only knew about it because my excitement after the premiere sent me to the internet; no one else I know that watched the show, except for the We Watch Podcast, was aware of the site. So even in rewatching, I wondered: how the hell is anyone who isn’t reading the extra stuff making sense of this? And, moreover, how can anyone that hasn’t read the book follow what’s going on?

The show itself is intentionally confusing from the beginning, which initially charmed me because I like surprises. However, subverting expectations is not a virtue all on its own, as HBO might have learned from the reception of the later seasons of Game of Thrones. Moreover, the arbitrary withholding of information from a scene to reveal that information later in a different perspective of that scene feels cheap once it becomes a repeat trick. The show is seven episodes of setup and two episodes of payoff; it’s six episodes of a mystery, and three episodes of a love story. To care about that love story, it helps to have read the comics, but if you’ve read the comics, the love story—like so much of the show—doesn’t make sense.

All the questions that accrue over the course of the plot are answered in different versions of “because we needed that to happen for the plot to happen.” The plot has no outside motivation—it’s a mystery, and the answer to the question of why a character (Don Johnson as Chief Judd Crawford) was murdered is that another character (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Dr. Manhattan) went back in time and asked the murderer (Louis Gossett, Jr. as Will Reeves) why he committed the murder. The plot is motivated by a time travel paradox that requires a godlike character to act with less agency than he did in the book the story is based on, shaping the last decade of his life around a relationship. If you’ve read the book, this may seem odd considering his romantic history and his decisions at the end of the story.

In this narrative, Dr. Manhattan travels to Earth in 2009 to pursue a woman around 40 years his junior (Regina King’s Angela) because in 2019 she’s willing to try to save his life even though he knows it can’t be saved. But the only reason his life is in danger is because they move to Tulsa, and they only do that so they can be together, and they only want to be together because he’s already sure they’ll be in love in 10 years because he experiences time as a flat circle. Everything that happens in the show is a process of a time loop paradox, which Regina King spells out, “Did I start all this? Did I send my grandfather here? Is this my fault?” in the penultimate episode.

Woven around this love story is a conspiracy by U.S. Senator from Oklahoma Joe Keene (James Wolk) who has taken over the White Supremacist cult known as The Seventh Kavalry, using them to attack police, and using legislation that allows cops to hide their faces (and inspires some police detectives to dress up as costumed adventurers) as propellant for a presidential run. He also discovered Dr. Manhattan was in Tulsa and decided to kill him and steal his power. Joe then brings Laurie Blake (formerly Laurie Juszpeczyk, played by Jean Smart) to Tulsa—promising to free her other ex from prison in exchange for helping solve the case of the murdered police chief, but in fact just wanted her in town to watch her former partner die.

Meanwhile, Ozymandias has a daughter he didn’t know about (Hong Chau as Lady Trieu) who is planning to take Dr. Manhattan’s power to make the world a better place, because he didn’t do enough for people with it (which was one of the important narrative points of the book; that he was losing touch with people). And, Trieu knows about Keene and the Seventh Kavalry because Manhattan told Reeves and Reeves told her. So essentially, it ends up being a story about Dr. Manhattan having one last, long fling before he dies, flying in the face of his evolution away from his humanity in the original story.

Because Dr. Manhattan comes back and disguises himself as a Black man, and Hooded Justice is secretly Black according to this story, the creative team got narrative license to tell a story that starts with the Tulsa Greenwood Massacre and ends with some white supremacists dying, and in the middle touches on excesses of police violence but shows no consequences to them. While it’s a storytelling failure that one character tells the police chief “you’re making a mistake” when he decides to go into emergency powers/guns-at-the-ready mode, and then the story proceeds without the police ever facing even narrative consequences for their excesses, it’s certainly realistic. The show sees two Black parents raising white children, but the extent of its exploration is a child starting a fight because a classmate intimated some racism, and their relative showing up on the porch to take money from Angela in exchange for leaving the kids alone. Yet there’s no exploration of how Dr. Manhattan experiences the world differently occupying the body of “Calvin,” because it’s just a mirage, a place for him to disappear into for a while.

There is also an attempt to make trauma a theme, insofar as Angela and Will commit violence in search of justice out of anger at the wrongs they have experienced in the world, and those wrongs include us seeing Will get hung (in first person) as well as seeing the Black Wall Street Massacre (a real historic event that made a second appearance on Black-led HBO in Lovecraft Country). But this amounts to Angela experiencing Will’s memories, with Will telling her that they weren’t angry but afraid, and that’s why they wore masks. So, we end up with a story about how it’s important to work through trauma wherein we never see anyone work through their trauma. There are emotional moments, but not growth or introspection.

Angela is the same at the end as at the beginning; she’s made to understand Will’s motivation through absorbing his memories, but she instigated his action unintentionally. Nothing she has experienced is going to make her stop being a police officer or stop wearing a costume. Here, Watchmen becomes a labyrinthine story that relies on structural tricks for mystery and intense themes for prestige. Regina King, Jean Smart, and Hong Chau each represent different versions of wrestling with a familial legacy, and they’re individually compelling characters.

If a story that doesn’t succeed in nine episodes, it might have worked out better with a few more, but this one would still need further untangling and clarification from the start. It hits a nerve at first, but those last two episodes slowly unraveled the series. In trying to watch it a second time, every dumb reveal hung in the back of my mind, while smaller inconsistencies shone more brightly. Maybe if a story is already a subversion of a genre, further subverting it will needlessly complicate it. By speaking on every issue rather than focusing on just a few, Watchmen took on too much, and ultimately said too little.



Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.

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