Watchmen Was Best When It Kept Us From What We Want


One of the marvels of HBO’s extraordinary series Watchmen, which leads the 2020 Emmy nominations with a well-deserved 26, is that despite all of its delights, it repeatedly refuses to give us what we want. This isn’t to say the show is engaged in a kind of Phantom Thread push-pull relationship with its audience. It delivers—narratively, technically, aesthetically, and conceptually—but appears, in retrospect, to be a series built on the tantalizing entertainment tactic of leaving you wanting more. A kind of superhero-fueled narrative burlesque, perhaps.

[Warning: there’s spoilers galore ahead for the entire series, but there’s also a host of unanswered questions. So, maybe you’ll be spoiled or maybe you won’t. Who can say?]

Think, as I have nearly every day for a year, of the show’s final image. In the closing moments of the season—and, if creator Damon Lindelof is to be believed, the series—vigilante ex-cop Angela Abar (the amazing Regina King) begins to suspect that her husband, Dr. Manhattan (an incredible Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), has transferred his powers to her through an egg. Regular superhero stuff. She ingests the egg and then, remembering a moment a day earlier when Dr. Manhattan walked across their pool, she goes to the edge of the water and steps out. The music rises triumphantly and the camera pulls in close on Angela’s foot as it descends slowly to the pool’s surface. But just as skin meets surface, we cut to black. The preceding episodes contained multiple instances that could be considered origin stories or historical revisions, both of the source material and of the American myths that Watchmen played with, but with this final image, the series pulls off one last reveal: It has been one long origin story for a hero we don’t get to see.

Regina King in Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

Or, perhaps not. Perhaps it’s just a story about a woman eating an egg and falling into her pool. We may have our suspicions, but we’ll never know. Many series, including Lindelof’s previous offerings Lost and The Leftovers, ended narrative threads with ellipses instead of periods, to varied success. I suspect that in the case of Watchmen, however, the purposeful vagary is core to the success of the series. In a world of superhero maximalism with more thematic layers than a lasagna, Watchmen uses withholding as narrative strategy. What we’re left with, satisfyingly, is story in the form of an incomplete payment.

When we first meet Abar, she has retired from the Tulsa police force after a white militia called Cyclops murdered most of the force in a night of violence purposefully echoing the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. The remaining police officers have taken to wearing masks to prevent themselves from being identified by the militia, but Abar has publicly separated, pivoting to meting out justice in disguise as the vigilante heroine Sister Night. While it is thrilling to see a Black woman, and King specifically, in such a powerful and provocative role, one which gets more complex with every episode, I was also reminded of the double-edged sword of the phrase, “Black women will save us.” Often invoked around elections as a reflection of the pro-democracy, anti-hate voting patterns of Black women, it can easily grow to represent a cultural catch-all solution, a one-stop shop for all that ails us, most of which should not be laid at the feet of Black women.

And so when we end Watchmen at Angela’s feet, with her on the precipice of gaining more power than anyone else in the universe, it’s easy to think, “Yes, this must be where this was leading. The ultimate act of justice is for a Black woman to ascend and save the world.” Perhaps it is, but not for here. Not for us.

tim black nelson, regina king, watchmen

A scene from HBO’s Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

It’s also easy to fall into the trap of wanting TV to save us. Can, or should, a show save the genre or the season or, in the case of those with weighty issues of moral and national importance on their minds, can it save us part and parcel? Can the television show save our souls? While the best series—and I think Watchmen is among the best limited series ever—can present intriguing ideas and move cultural conversations, at the end of the day, sometimes an egg is just an egg. Though Watchmen engages with our national addiction to flawed narratives, America’s unhealthy relationship with nostalgia, and the thin line between militias and the police, it is ultimately a piece of fiction and not an instruction manual. Though the world presented may look like our world at times, it is through a funhouse mirror. Or, more aptly, a portrait of a society like our own, as seen in the silver surface of a Rorschach mask.

All that said, one of the things that makes Watchmen so great is while it does resist easy answers, and it doesn’t traffic in facile stereotypes, and it consistently reminds the viewer that it is fictional and not a treatise on the world, there is still a sliver of space no bigger than the sewer grate the Silver Man slipped into to ask the question, “But what could it mean for us?”

For me, in the re-watch, that space opens up around the subject of reparations. (Though it could just as easily open up around a dozen other subjects. I haven’t even mentioned the extraordinary Jean Smart; that’s a whole other treatise!) In the second episode, we learn that in this world, the long-serving president, Robert Redford, has instituted a reparations program that offers payments to Black Americans whose ancestors were victims of racial violence. In a feat of bureaucratic fantasy, all one must do is go to a gleaming cultural center and get an automated DNA test to gain access to a determination of funding and a summarized version of one’s family history.

jean smart

Jean Smart as Laurie Blake talks to Regina King’s Sister Night in Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

It’s a smart narrative convention and also an achingly beautiful conceit that lingered in my mind far after the series ended. One of the more brutal tactics of racial oppression is the erasing of history, from destroying paper records to purposefully leaving individuals out of historical narratives to a police officer turning off a body camera at a pivotal moment. When the beginning of a story is an ellipsis, the individual moves through life unmoored, as was the fate that befell Angela and in some ways Lady Trieu (Hong Chau, superb as always). So the potential to unlock one’s narrative is itself a form of reparations. And there are times I think about the project of the series Watchmen as being a study in the efficacy of reparations.

One of the strengths of the series lies in the reparative work it did in the field of narrative—publicizing the Tulsa Massacre, creating a narratively empowered Black woman lead, constantly troubling the American notion of heroism. Watchmen seems aware that it won’t be able to undo what came before it—quite literally, as it uses popular intellectual property to build its world—but that complicates the context in which it exists. And perhaps this is the only reparations that are possible, on the story level and possibly on the national level.

To build a story that reveals itself, in the final moments of its burlesque, to be just the beginning, is both an artistic choice and a theoretical offer. The currency in the incomplete payment of the finale’s cut to black isn’t narrative, but structural. The show’s creators have built a world where things that are wrong in ours are set right, but at the end they run into the hard limit of reality. And instead of saying that explicitly, they let us experience it as Angela’s foot approaches the pool, which is so much more electrifying. Watchmen is a triumph of storytelling that embraces one of the core ideas of burlesque: You can accomplish everything you need to with just a glimpse of ankle.

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