We Watch ‘Watchmen’: Season One, Episode One Recap
The highly anticipated HBO series Watchmen premiered Sunday night, and we’re hoping it has a serious case of pilot-itis, because the episode was not promising.
A new story set in modern day, but in the alternate-history timeline set down in the Alan Moore novel of the same name, Watchmen takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This is one of the few facts about the universe that can be gleaned going into the series; otherwise, if you want to know the characters’ names, or any background on what’s going on, here’s hoping you’ve read the advance press on the show, because that’s the only way to find out.
But first, a recap of the episode. It begins with old-timey silent footage of a man in white, on a white horse, being chased down by a black-robed man on a black horse. The black-clad man lassos the white-clad man and deposits him on the lawn of a church, saying that, despite being the sheriff, the man is also a cattle thief. The townsfolk want to lynch him, but the black-robed man–who reveals his face and turns out to be a black vigilante–tells the townsfolk to trust in the process of justice.
Mouthing along with the lines, in a theatre empty except for the pianist, is a little black boy. The pianist is revealed to be his mother, who is crying as she plays; this is Tulsa, 1921, and there are race riots happening outside. The boy’s father enters the theatre, hands a rifle to the mother, and they set out to escape the violence. They end up placing the boy in a truck out of town, where there is no room for any more adults. As the truck leaves, the father tucks a piece of paper into the boy’s pocket. The boy wakes up that night in a field, finding that the truck has overturned and its adult passengers have been shot. He unfolds the paper from his pocket, which turns out to read simply, “WATCH OVER THIS BOY.” He hears a crying baby, and finds the child wrapped in a quilt that bears more than passing resemblance to an American flag. He picks the child up, and they begin walking down the road.
The scene transitions to present day; a white man in a truck is pulled over by a police car. The officer, a black man in a mask, asks to see the driver’s license and registration, and the driver digs in a glove box that also contains what appears to be a dirty cloth. The officer returns to his car and immediately radios the station to note that the truck driver is suspected of being part of “Cavalry,” since he was had “a Rorschach mask,” and the officer requires a station operator to remotely unlock his gun for use. As soon as the officer has his gun in hand, he is shot several times through his windshield. We see now that the driver is indeed wearing a homemade mask reminiscent of that worn by Rorschach, a vigilante character from the novel.
Cut to an all-black production of Oklahoma!. A masked police officer enters and bends down to whisper in the ear of a white man in the audience. The man whispers to his wife, puts on a sheriff’s hat, and follows the officer out of the theatre. We follow him to the hospital, where another police officer, this one wearing a reflective mask, guides him into the room where the injured officer is being cared for. Then we see the man–the chief of police, it is revealed–knock on the officer’s wife’s door to share the news. He gently quizzes her as to whether the officer might have told anyone he was on the police force, and the wife is adamant that they always kept this a secret.
We cut to a woman (our protagonist Angela Abar, though her name won’t be mentioned until 50 minutes into the episode) standing in front of an elementary school class, explaining cooking. She has brought cookies, and explains that she grew up in Vietnam (now a U.S. state) and worked as a police officer there, but has now retired to become a baker. When asked why she retired, she says that she was shot on something called “White Night,” before police officers wore masks. When she mentions owning the bakery, a white student asks, “did Redfordations pay for it?” Another white boy–shortly after revealed to be Angela’s son–is enraged by this question and tackles the boy. On the drive home, Angela’s son tells her he attacked the boy because he was “racist;” those of us who have been following advance press on the show know this is because “Redfordations” refers to slavery reparations given under the administration of Robert Redford, who in this alternate universe has been President for thirty years. The conversation is cut short when a siren goes off, forcing Angela to pull over as a mass of tiny squid rain down from the sky. They treat this as entirely normal and go about their business.
As soon as they arrive home, Angela’s husband hands her a pager with the phrase “little bighorn” on it, indicating that Angela is needed at the police station. We see her walking down a street–a newspaper headline reads, “Veidt Officially Declared Dead,” which will be important later–and entering a closed-up bakery. A black man in a wheelchair asks her whether the bakery is ever going to open, and she says, “in a few months.” The man expresses his suspicion, and he is right to do so; once inside, Angela goes through a locked door to an underground superhero lair, where she suits up in a costume and mask and drives an all-black car out of there. She drives to a trailer park–”fuck Redford,” reads graffiti on one trailer–and kicks down a door. Then she pulls up to the police station.
Inside, there is a meeting in progress. Masked officers are gathered to watch a terrorist video by a group of men in Rorschach masks, calling themselves the “Seventh Cavalry” and promising that ”the streets of Tulsa will turn into extended gutters overflowing with liberal tears.” They misquote Rorschach’s journal (a document that, within the universe, would have been published by a right-wing paper and largely ignored as a fraud by the general populace), then threaten the police and chant “tick tock” to represent a ticking clock. In light of the threat, the chief of police authorizes officers to access their firearms freely for the next twenty-four hours.
Angela meets the chief in his office and tells him, “there’s a guy in my trunk.” She suspects the man has Seventh Cavalry connections because “I got a nose for white supremacy and he smells like bleach.” The prisoner is taken to a pod where he is interrogated by a man in a reflective mask. A variety of emotionally significant images–left- and right-wing historical figures, amber waves of grain, and the like–play in the background during the questioning. Based on the suspect’s involuntary responses, the interrogator determines that he does have knowledge of the whereabouts of the shooter, so Angela locks herself in a room with the suspect and beats the information out of him.
The terrorists, it turns out, are hiding at a cattle ranch, where they are harvesting old watches for lithium batteries. A group of police officers sneak up toward the farmhouse, using the grazing cattle as cover. Something trips an alarm, and the terrorists discover their presence, rushing to a pickup truck where they have a machine gun loaded. A shootout ensues, full of distasteful images of innocent cattle exploding as officers hide behind them. Angela manages to make it into the farmhouse and fights one of the terrorists, only to discover they were equipped with cyanide capsules. Her target kills himself, and the two surviving terrorists escape in a plane. The chief and another officer attempt to pursue in a hovercraft resembling the one flown by Nite Owl in the novel, but they are unsuccessful, and the hovercraft crashes, though both passengers survive.
And now for something completely different: in the English countryside, a man rides a horse toward a castle. We see him hand the horse off to a groom, then we see him in his study, typing, naked, while a maid suggestively rubs his thighs. A valet, also suggestive, offers to dress him, saying it’s his “anniversary.” All of this would be terribly bizarre and mysterious if we didn’t already know, again from advance press, that this man is Adrien Veidt, alias Ozymandias, the utilitarian villain of the novel. The maid and valet offer him a cake, then a gift–a pocket watch that seems to be important to Veidt, for the valet has gone to great lengths to reconstruct it. Veidt tells the two that he is writing a play and wants them to be its stars; the play will be called The Watchmaker’s Son. Given the thematic importance of watches and watchmakers in both the novel and the show so far, this is something to keep an eye on.
At Angela’s house, a dinner party is in process: her family of five with the police chief and his wife. The chief, after sneaking away to do some cocaine, offers the guests a charming rendition of a song from Oklahoma!. Since this is basically pure bonding time with the characters, it’s safe to say something bad is about to happen.
And it does. Answering a call saying that the officer who was shot is awake, the chief drives down a country road toward the hospital and runs over a trap that flattens his tires. He steps out of his truck and sees a blinding flash of light.
At Angela’s house, the phone rings. It’s a mysterious voice asking if she’s Angela Abar, telling her to go to an oak tree on a certain hill, and saying that her identity as a police officer is not secure. When she arrives at the location, she finds the man in the wheelchair from outside her bakery, with the “WATCH OVER THIS BOY” sign in his lap, sitting next to the lynched body of the police chief. The song “Poor Judd is Dead,” also from Oklahoma!, plays, its lyrics echoing the episode title: “it’s summer and we’re runnin’ out of ice.” A drop of blood falls onto the sheriff’s badge, echoing the Comedian’s famous bloodstained smiley face pin from the novel.
There are a lot of echoes in this first episode, both within the structure of the episode itself, and within the larger universe of Watchmen. It is the latter that concerns me the most, because the themes of the novel Watchmen are big, and it is very easy to lose sight of context in one’s eagerness to lay easter eggs for fans. One striking example of this is a shot in the scene where Angela beats up the suspected terrorist; a pool of blood leaks from under the door, a frame ripped directly from a moment in Rorschach’s prison break in the novel. To compare this black, female police officer to the vigilante that inspired the terrorists she’s fighting–while it may seem appropriate, given her unethical behavior in the scene–brings up a whole series of questions that seem counterintuitive to the show’s stated intention.
When I say that antiracism seems to be the show’s stated intention, I refer to the fact that the villains of the piece so far are a group of white supremacist terrorists, and that the heroes are a group of embattled, largely black citizens trying to keep the peace. Except, even an inch below the surface, this intention breaks down. Because pitting cops against white supremacist terrorists, when their interests in the real world are so closely aligned? As we have previously mentioned, this is far less plausible than President Robert Redford. Framing white supremacist terrorism as a natural response to a set of progressive government policies? Yeah, it’s a problem.
And there’s a moment, during the interrogation scene, wherein the police officer asks the suspect whether he believes that “transdimensional attacks” are a government hoax. This refers to the ending of the novel Watchmen, wherein a horrific monster appears in New York and causes a series of psychic events that kill thousands and drive many of those who witnessed them insane. It is revealed that Veidt is behind the creation of the monster, reasoning that an apparent extraterrestrial threat was likely to frighten the governments of the world into cooperating with each other and therefore avert nuclear armageddon. So…these “transdimensional” events really are a conspiracy, though not by the government. Since the terrorist is framed as a kook for even entertaining this notion, the moment raises uncomfortable questions about who, exactly, has access to the truth. And I’m not implying these questions are uncomfortable because we’re all sheeple content to take the blue pill. They’re uncomfortable because they give conspiracy theories far too much credit.
So, we’ll watch the Watchmen. The show has had incredible reviews from critics who have seen the whole season ahead of time, so maybe it just needs a little room to grow. We’ll give it a chance. But we’re on our guard.