Set in a not-quite-dystopian 2019 United States, HBO’s superhero drama Watchmen tackles white supremacy with a premise that is simultaneously jarringly familiar and very otherworldly.
From Marvel movies to CW shows, I’m pretty familiar with superhero visual media. But with Watchmen, Damon Lindelof (Lost, Tomorrowland) presents a project that, though based in the world of the iconic limited-run DC comic of the same name, pushes the envelope. Watchmen doesn’t revolve around a caped figure who saves the city from an assortment of costumed villains. The central evil is white supremacy—the bigotry, the violence, the corruption—and the police might be the heroes.
Watchmen’s narrative is haunting: the show’s version of Tulsa, Oklahoma is home to a KKK-like group that’s coming out of the shadows. Their re-emergence is unexpected because in this Tulsa, white supremacy as an organized movement has theoretically been eliminated. At the show’s opening, Lindelof sets the tone and location with a bit of black history: as a young boy watches a movie in an empty theater, the 1921 Black Wall Street Massacre erupts around him and his parents send him away to safety. Next, Watchmen introduces this reality’s 2019 policing practice. Lindelof presents a Tulsa police officer conducting a traffic stop. The viewer watches as a white man listening to Future is pulled over by a black police officer whose face is mostly covered by a yellow mask. Without offering up an explanation, Lindelof establishes that this world's norms are disparate from those of our own. In this Tulsa, police officers hide their faces. This masking is a precaution taken after the White Night, a mass murder of Tulsa police officers that occurred three years earlier. Then, people knew police officers’ names, knew their numbers. Now, in order to keep these protectors of the public safe, their identities aren’t public knowledge.
Regina King (American Crime, If Beale Street Could Talk) stars as former police officer Angela Abar, who now works adjacent to the police as vigilante figure Sister Night. After the White Night, she didn’t give up public service, but she began to fight in a different way. Angela’s life is full of contradictions. She tells a classroom that she retired from police work after being shot on the White Night, but soon after she acts out ruthless justice in the black leather hood of Sister Night. She’s married to a black man, but they have three white children. King seamlessly pivots from a doting mother with love in her eyes to a woman who readily strikes with cold aggression. Angela lives in a town where white supremacy has theoretically been eliminated and day-to-day life is safe for everyone, but police officers wear masks to protect themselves.
As the viewer watches the opening scene, they do not yet know why this Tulsa operates how it does. The recent violent history is revealed later. However, viewers know that the power dynamics between the police and the public they serve are different than those we’re used to. The power dynamics between black people and white people may also be different: this version of the United States has attempted to dismantle institutionalized racism. How successful their attempt was is unclear. In the Watchmen universe, Robert Redford has been president for thirty years. Here, reparations are an actual thing that happened, though they’re called Redfordations. Here, a police officer must ask a dispatcher to unlatch his gun from his squad car. Imagine that—a world where a police officer couldn’t pull his deadly weapon on a whim. Lindelof’s show, carried by Regina King’s arresting performance as Angela and Sister Night, not only hypothesizes about how the United States might right the wrongs of its bloody past, but leans into its surreal genre to illustrate what this country might look like if it did.
Rather than a straight adaptation of the comic’s 1980s-set story, which would be more like a remake of the Zach Snyder’s 2009 movie, Lindelof has done something much harder—and much more interesting. Watchmen is a sequel to the comic’s story, continuing to explore the world of the Watchmen comics’ timeline through a new medium—albeit one with a satisfying parallel to comic books: this new story plays out in an episodic narrative where the story can unfold visually a week at a time.
The second episode’s opening sequence mirrors the first’s, and Lindelof goes even further back: the audience watches as father of the unnamed boy in the theater and other black American soldiers in WWII receive German propaganda urging them to switch sides. The first episode set the stage. The second episode, and even more so the third, begin to get into the comic lore, introducing characters like Dr. Manhattan, whose power over matter warps his perception of time, and Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), known as Laurie Juspeczyk in the comic, an FBI agent on the one hand, but former vigilante on the other, in a shift opposite to Angela’s. The pilot starts out a little slow as the writers get their major world-building out of the way, but the final scene of Episode 1 really kicks off the action and intrigue. Prompted by an ominous phone call, Angela finds her close friend and white police chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) hanging dead from a noose, the show’s first death at the hands of the Seventh Kavalry.
The Seventh Kavalry, the aforementioned KKK-like group, whose K-name invokes an obvious comparison between the real-life terrorist group and Watchmen’s fictional one, seem to have been lying in wait since their White Night massacre. Like the KKK, the Kavalry wear white hoods, though theirs are more like ski masks and boast a spray-painted symbol across the front. The number of masked people in this show is seemingly countless, though different groups are masked for different reasons. The police officers wear masks to keep themselves safe. The vigilantes wear masks to keep others safe. I would argue that the Kavalry wear masks out of fear; if they showed their faces, they would be easy targets for revenge.
If white supremacy operates from a place of fear—self-centered fear for one’s own safety, the safety of those like oneself, and irrational fear of the other—then people acting on white supremacist ideology aren’t actually that powerful at all. Look at Sister Night, who radiates power and operates from a place of strength. She wears a costume, but doesn’t completely mask her face or eyes. She acts with confidence, driven by a desire to protect her home and her family. She can take down a cowardly Kavalry member in a matter of seconds. The fear driving the Seventh Kavalry, contrary to what they might believe, actually robs them of power. Their fear creates an environment where neither those watching (the Kavalry) nor those who are watched (black people and so-called “race traitors”) can live peacefully.
Who exactly, are the watchmen the title references? The Kavalry, the masked police, the vigilantes that work alongside them, or the corruption that lies underneath the surface of the institutions meant to keep the public safe? Viewers who have read the comic have more context for the characters and the setting, but viewers like me who haven’t picked it up yet will still be intrigued and absorbed by the set up. Lindelof skillfully weaves together a story that bridges past and present, drawing parallels like the one between Angela’s Sister Night and the Black Marshal of Oklahoma who administers justice on a movie theater screen. As the season continues, the relevance to the current U.S. political landscape will likely become more salient, and an ultimate hero will surely emerge. A third of the way into the season, the tension lies between Angela and the Seventh Kavalry more than it does between the Seventh Kavalry and the police or the vigilantes, a narrow focus that anchors the viewer as they unpack a complex show with a relatively wide scope.
Lindelof has set up Watchmen to explore questions of hierarchy, equity, social justice, and public safety. To have a show with a white show runner tackle white supremacy might be unexpected, but it’s also invaluable. Lindelof is unpacking his own privilege through a superpower-ed sci-fi lens, and it seems like Watchmen’s first season will successfully merge the political with the fantastical. While watching Watchmen, it’s impossible for me to forget about the way race functions in the real 2019 United States—no escapism here, only provocative questions, albeit seated among the occasional strange costume and baby squids falling from the sky.
Olivia Funderburg studied English and Education Studies at Wellesley College, and now works in children’s publishing in New York City. In her free time, she can be found talking about educational inequality, keeping tabs on Lebron James, and searching bookstore shelves for the next great teen romcom.