With its first two furious episodes, the new Watchmen series on HBO proves that it’s not playing games. The show is not afraid to tackle some very — and I mean very — prevalent issues facing America today, even at the expense of alienating some of its viewers (well, more conservative-leaning viewers, that is). From gun control and police brutality to racism and white supremacy, this show is brave enough to look America’s ugliest pieces right in the eyes and confront them, despite its Rotten Tomatoes audience score and IMDB rating taking ridiculously undeserving hits. (6.8 out of 10? Seriously?)
While it takes a special type of series to get away with this type of “Goldilocks” content, it feels not too hot, not too cold, but just right for an edgy, hyper-violent superhero canon like Watchmen.
This new iteration of Watchmen (set in the present day years after the events of the graphic novel) doesn’t take its time when digging into one of its main topics in the series: race and racial inequality in America. Within minutes of the very first episode of the series we are taken to the Tulsa Race Massacre, which has been considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history. We get a firsthand take of the murders and destruction that took place on that day — with impeccable cinematography and special effects putting us in the midst of it all.
This was admittedly an event not many Americans had heard of before, and it was a powerful way to begin telling these characters’ stories. The event ended up claiming the lives of an estimated 100 to 300 people while costing over $1.5 million in damage to property. In fact, the event was ignored for decades by the Tulsa government, so it makes sense that such a travesty came as shocking to those who tuned in. The writers use this event not only to share a horrific racially charged terror attack, but to also slowly leave breadcrumbs for the character Will within the show. This scene forcefully slaps its audience awake (did you see the planes dropping bombs on fellow citizens?), and it sets the tone for everything to come.
The show itself seems to mirror the reality we live in with its own twist on events. Remember, we’re not far removed from a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that gained international news coverage. So far, we only have small pieces to fully understand the whole picture of racism in this version of America (in the heart of the country, too), but it’s easy to see that racism is flourishing, with evidence left in plain sight.
The term “Redfordations” gets thrown around by white and black people in the show, and we can see graffiti spelling out “fuck Redford” in the white-populated trailer park. From the second episode, we understand that the president in this universe is Robert Redford (yes, the actor, if things weren’t already wild enough in this world), and it appears as though he has successfully implemented a policy for financial reparations. This is one of the main focal points for white anger in the series. We hear children in school making reference to it, as well as the biological parent of our main character’s children.
Redford’s presidency only makes sense if you understand how he claimed this role in the first place. In the Watchmen universe, President Nixon didn’t leave office in 1974. He stays president well into the ‘80s, getting a bust on Mount Rushmore (which you can see in the show), and finally is ousted after decades of leadership. That’s when leftist politics take over, a complete rebuke of Nixon’s totalitarian Republican rule. But every intense rebuke has a rebuke of its own, and enter the “Calvary.”
The main protagonist group who dress as Rorschach and call themselves the “Calvary” are a widely sought-after white supremacy terrorist group in the show. With this unique change of pace, we see an almost Django-esque depiction of white people. They are still holding onto their anger over race from the 1920s (when the Tulsa attacks occurred), and you can see a bit of a modern-day reflection of America — a country that’s still holding onto some of its own anger a few generations removed from the Civil Rights movement.
Police — yet another hot topic in contemporary America — are also fascinatingly different in this show. As much a stark opposition to reality as they are in house vigil antis, police in Watchmen seem to be living in the opposite America than what we have today. In the first episode, we see that officers must protect their identities by wearing face-covering masks while on the job to protect themselves. While not wildly crazy, this point links them to the theme of a superhero having to hide their true identity as though their worst enemy might come out to get them eventually.
We’re shown when this actually happens to Angela Abar after the Cavalry originally found where she lived and executed a coordinated attack. All of the heroes in this series also seem to be a part of the police force, though they do act on their own impulses occasionally. So what we have is the police and their own units, along with a group of stylized heroes, to fill the ranks. When everyone is wearing a mask, especially when they give each character their own unique outer persona, it feels more believable as a takeoff on a comic.
Watchmen takes the concept of the police being everyday superheroes, then mixes this with racism in episode two. They drop this bomb on us by showing Angela searching through Judd Crawford’s closet and finding a KKK uniform. The writers have created a unique environment for the police in this series, then quickly spun our comfort into uncertainty by making it hard to trust any character at this point.
Another interesting part of this world is the level of regulation that has been put into place by President Redford. In contrast to the real world, there is a much stricter policy in place to make sure police don’t even have access to their weapons until given approval by their headquarters. This obviously becomes problematic for the first modern-day police officer we see, who is killed only moments after being granted access to his firearm (which, considering this is a criticism of strict gun control, should please the conservatives who ranked the show so poorly on IMDB). The police force must also hold a meeting to better gauge the threat the Cavalry before gaining access to firearms to use against them. It seems crazy, since it’s so obvious they’re an extremely violent terrorist organization.
Another divide made obvious in Watchmen comes in political leadership. The highly liberal policies we see in the first two episodes were put in place by this country’s President Redford. Racism, murder, and equality are all ripe for policy and reform, and with the swing from an ultra-conservative to an ultra-liberal president, things feel eerily relevant. After all, we’re living in one of the most divided times in American history when it comes to partisan politics. This once again begs the question of how much of a grip this show has on reality.
So far, Watchmen is a frightening look at an America that’s even more extreme than we are now. Will our country become more like the country we see in the show? Only time will tell, and as this incredible new series on HBO continues, it’s going to be fascinating to follow its ongoing commentary.