I actually don’t think that I’m smart enough to comment really on how good this show actually is, but I’m going to do my best. It could so easily have just been a crappy buy-in to a famous thing that took advantage of HBO being HBO to have Dr. Manhattan’s dick in it and get away with being mediocre, but instead of doing that it was good.
So there’s going to be spoilers for HBO’s adaptation of Watchmen in this review, obviously.
Basically it’s a sequel to the comic set like forty years later or something, where Adrian Veidt’s plan for world peace through transdimensional cephalopods has pretty much worked, except not really because white supremacy still exists and also the police are an intense militarized force that can basically do whatever they want, so both of those things are pretty awful. And this is actually something right away that the show does super well—it’s nice to see the police in America taking white supremacy seriously, but at the same time the level of police violence and the ease with which they override their own rules and just start murdering people is really uncomfortable, and it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. It comes off pretty naturalized in the first few episodes, but then Laurie Blake shows up and is just like ‘what the fuck is all this’ when she sees how brutal and weird it all is. Also, it kind of seems like white supremacy is the only crime that exists, and it’s not clear if that’s legitimately because other crimes don’t or if it’s just that the police is so focused on their warfare mentality with the Seventh Kavalry that they don’t care.
The Kavalry are basically the in-universe KKK with Rorschach masks, who are secretly run by Cyclops, who are also the in-universe KKK but for rich people and also mind control, I guess. It’s actually really cool to see the use of the Rorschach masks to mask a hate group—it reads kind of like a commentary on white dudebros who like Watchmen but don’t get what it’s about (I also didn’t really get what it’s about, but Cyrus explained it to me before I wrote this so I do now), but also as a smart comment on how a hate group is going to take up any symbol that they can twist to support their cause. It’s really cool.
So the show opens with the Tulsa race riots of 1921, which is a cool bit of history that we all like to pretend didn’t happen. It’s all traumatizing and horrible and stuff, and we see a little boy escape with a baby. The main character of the show, and I’m gonna jump ahead a bit, is that boy’s granddaughter Angela, and follows her around as she tries to solve the crime of who murdered her police chief. It turns out to be her grandfather, and we get his whole backstory of being a cop in New York in the 40s and 50s and all the racism that he had to deal with there, which his why he became the first masked vigilante, Hooded Justice, who we never learn much about in the Watchmen comic. Learning his backstory is really intense and sad, and you can totally see why he’d kill a secret KKK police chief in 2019 at the age of a hundred and five. Angela’s a bit pissed about it since he was her friend, and the two of them were the only survivors of a police massacre a few years ago that left her and her husband Cal adopting a bunch of kids that were the kids of one of her other friends.
Meanwhile, there’s an evil trillionaire business lady building a weird clock who’s super obviously evil, but you don’t really know what she’s up to except that she’s in an alliance with Angela’s grandfather, until the end. Also meanwhile, Laurie Blake, the Silk Spectre from the comic, is now an FBI agent who arrests vigilantes, and she’s investigating the murder and all around being the only sensible person in the show, because she’s the only one who wants to find the killer and also is good at her job. And further also meanwhile, Jeremy Irons is being hilarious in a weird English manor house where his clone-servants do everything he asks even when he kills them all the time. He turns out to be Adrian Veidt and it’s a while before we learn what the fuck he’s doing all the way out there.
Then everything blows up all at once, basically. Veidt turns out to be on Europa thanks to Dr. Manhattan. Dr. Manhattan turns out to be Angela’s husband Cal, he posed as a human to be married to her. Rich trillionaire lady turns out to be preparing to steal Dr. Manhattan’s powers because she’s Veidt’s daughter and a crazy narcissist, which the Kavalry are also doing because they’re crazy racists. It all goes to shit and in the end Dr. Manhattan dies, and so do the Kavalry/Cyclops guys and the trillionaire lady. Angela ends up forgiving her grandfather and they all go home together and then Angela (maybe) gets Dr. Manhattan’s powers. The end. Possibly for real, since they’re talking that there might not be a second season, which sucks.
I think the think about this show that stands out is just how well it deals with race and racism. Even in a supposed utopia people are still racists, and there are people who don’t like that they have to give up being in charge of everything, and they’re willing to be violent to make that point. But the answer isn’t really violence, which is shown in how the police handle the whole thing. Except of course that then Dr. Manhattan blows up all the white supremacist heads, and trillionaire lady zaps the rest of them to death with a glam laser, so maybe violence is the answer, in the end. And that’s kind of an uncomfortable feeling, because it shouldn’t be, but what if it is?
A lot of people were on the fence about the ambiguity of the ending, but that kind of seems like the point. Sometimes there isn’t a clear resolution to problems. Sometimes you don’t know if murder really is the solution to racist violence—or if there is a solution at all. Sometimes you don’t know if the main character can walk on water. Sometimes you don’t know if making it rain squid is really going to stop the world from ending. Sometimes you do something and you don’t know if it’s the right thing to do until after, and sometimes you never find out. Sometimes there’s no right thing to do. Sometimes there’s no answer. And we don’t like that, because we like answers, but sometimes there just isn’t a right answer, or an answer at all, and we have to get used to that.
Laurie sort of sums it up in the end when Veidt is defending himself on the grounds that he’s saved the world. She says something like “everyone keeps saying the world’s about to end, but it hasn’t done that yet.” And she’s right. Appeals to the greater good are just excuses after a while. Sometimes you do a shitty thing and you have to own it. It doesn’t matter what your excuse was. The greater good is just an excuse and sometimes you’re just a narcissist for thinking that the ends justify the means.
But then, the show and Angela forgive Will for murder at the same time. So it’s all kind of ambiguous. And I didn’t think I’d like that, but I did, a lot.
There’s so much more to say about this show—I haven’t talked about Laurie nearly enough—but basically, it’s super good, you should watch it. It’s one of those shows that you think about after it’s over, and if that’s not a reason to watch it, I don’t know what is.