HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ Is Great. Here’s What It’s Missing.
As the first season of HBO’s Watchmen hits its final stretch, it’s leaving viewers with more and more questions. Some of those — the ones related to plot and character — we’re confident the show will answer. There are those, however, that we have to answer for ourselves: namely, what cultural work is the show doing, and how well is it succeeding?
Racism is, of course, the show’s theme. Even if that weren’t evident from the way the show frames itself, we’d know because of the sheer mass of bandwidth that’s been spent reiterating this fact. And in some places, the topic is handled deftly. There is a rightful critical consensus on the matter that last week’s episode, which revealed the historical vigilante Hooded Justice to have been a black man all along, was nuanced, well-written, and beautifully made.
For similar reasons, we ourselves praised the previous week’s episode, which detailed an attempt to radicalize a white police officer and draw him into the white supremacist terrorist group that calls itself the Seventh Kavalry. These episodes give complex, nuanced, and empathetic answers to important questions. How do racists create a sense of community around what is ultimately a destructive and regressive impulse? How can a marginalized person fight back against oppression without losing something of themselves? These lines of thought are not only topical; they’re vital to the future of our society.
Still, the scaffolding on which these excellent moments hang is messy. Where in some cases, such as the Hooded Justice reveal, the show both revels in and improves upon the graphic novel that inspired it, at other times this intertextuality fumbles. Ask any viewer not familiar with the graphic novel, and they’ll list a dozen points of confusion that could easily have been put aside with more efficient exposition. Who is Dr. Manhattan? Why does Adrien Veidt matter? What’s so spooky about a “millennium clock”? The book-based answers to these and other questions are dropped into episodes eventually, but much later than they should have been. Waiting two episodes to reveal Veidt’s identity wasn’t clever; it merely distracted viewers from deeper engagement in the premise with its pretensions to mystery.
Of course, these are the sort of affectations we forgive in our entertainment, and the show has been, for the most part, fast-paced and engrossing, with some excellent visual moments. As the show gallops toward its big reveals, it has put aside its coy mystery-box attitude in favor of a stronger and much more watchable plot. Initial objections to the premise — for example, the absurd notion of police officers fighting, rather than abetting, white supremacists — have thinned out as the story has grown in complexity, leaving only one glaring flaw: the space where the show’s protagonist should be.
Angela Abar looks good on paper. She’s a strong, mature, troubled woman, a consummate actor who hides her secret career as a masked police officer from even her own children. She is both tough and kind, a stoic, principled sort of hero. The kind that’s been holding down stories like this for decades, maybe centuries. List it out like that, and it seems natural that the audience would be interested in and sympathetic to her.
And we are, but only by virtue of our curiosity. Emotionally, there is something missing from Angela. It’s hard to pin down. It’s not that she’s not proactive; while it’s true she spends a lot of her time reacting, given the constant hairpin turns of the plot, that’s no surprise. Her quick handling of Will, her determination to search Judd’s house, and her choice to swallow the entire bottle of Nostalgia pills are just a few of the moments in which she makes quick and clever decisions. Again, on paper, nothing is wrong.
I’ve bandied the idea about, and what it seems to come down to is this: a misuse of narrative misdirection. That’s the concept of planting seeds of multiple plotlines so readers or viewers can’t guess which one is going to come to fruition. It can be a delightful tactic. Remember Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? That book uses textbook narrative misdirection to make its twist pay off. The difference, though, is in the perspective. In Azkaban, we know exactly what Harry knows, and so when we discover what’s really going on, Harry is discovering it at the same time. Angela, however? Well, as we just learned, she’s been keeping secrets from us. That’s kind of hard to swallow. After all, if the protagonist can hide herself from us, why should we trust anything we see? It’s not a matter of reliable or unreliable narration, either, given the multiple viewpoints. It’s a matter of convenience to the writers, and it’s insufferable.
Watchmen isn’t as deeply guilty of this as some shows (Lost) that I could mention. But in a narrative this tightly controlled, one that turns on a dime and leans its full weight into every detail, that’s not an excuse. What we have so far is a character we can’t catch up with, a character who is supposed to be the heart of the show but is unreachable.
Aside from a writer’s curiosity, what does this flaw matter? Well, it comes back to the theme. Angela is meant to be the lens through which we comprehend the politics of the story, a grounded individual who stands at the crossroads of complex plots and even more complex sociological ideas. That’s why it’s more important here than in most cases that the protagonist be someone we relate to. But here? She’s just another character we can’t trust.
Thus far, Watchmen has had several moments of excellence, and even at its worst, it has been well worth viewing. We expect the plot to remain exciting and the ideas to remain challenging as the season draws to a close. But how meaningful the show really is, in the long run, will depend on whether it can provide the viewer with a steady vantage point from which to absorb its message.