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Watchmen

Watchmen Season 1 Episode One Review: “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice”

HBO’s Watchmen series arrives with an arresting rich, confident premiere.

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As an adaptation/sequel/re-imagining/remix/re-whatever of Watchmen, HBO’s latest prestige series arrives with particularly pernicious expectations – expectations that creator Damon Lindelof and director/executive producer Nicole Kassell have absolutely no interest in fulfilling. Like the seminal graphic novel it is based on, Lindelof and Kassell’s Watchmen is a complex deconstruction of genre and form, its meta-textual underpinnings fueling its powerful ruminations on modern society; using the alternate, Redford-ified world of its source material, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” is a brave, striking first chapter, a beautifully crafted hour driven by terrific performances, layered subtext – and a score that slaps harder than anything else on television.

“It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” is a brave, striking first chapter, a beautifully crafted hour driven by terrific performances, layered subtext – and a score that slaps harder than anything else on television.

Opening on the very real Tulsa riots of 1921 – where Black Wall Street was decimated by racist attacks on black-owned businesses, an appalling slaughter strangely obfuscated from most history books – Watchmen‘s first hour is a carefully arranged set of dominoes spread across American history, mixing the real and fictional much like its source material did (in this world, Nixon is on Mount Rushmore, and Robert Redford’s been president for decades). And by opening on an oft-ignored, absolutely integral part of America’s racist history, Watchmen immediately begins to embody its fascinating deconstruction of good and evil; all the “Redfordations” and 20th century social progress are but a mask on our country’s still-existing systemic racism, one of many moralistic prisms Watchmen explores in its first hour.

After its opening scene, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” jumps to the present, to follow the story of Detective Angela Abar, who works undercover as Sister Night for the Tulsa Police Department. With her comes the unraveling of the show’s existential musings on law and order, on the nature of superheroes, and the power (and danger) of having a secret identity. After a black officer is shot by a member of the white supremacist group The Seventh Kalvary, Angela sets on a semi-vengeful course of “justice” in trying to solve her colleague’s murder – but in a world where the police have ceded their power to white nationalists, her investigation is neither straightforward or successful.

By the end of “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” Angela’s broken any number of laws, from trespassing to kidnapping, shades of gray against the stark black and white costume she adorns when it’s time to fuck up some Nazis – or in this world, Rorschachians (Rorschachsters? Rorschachists?), nationalists who’ve claimed the explosive diary as their Mein Kampf of sorts. Watchmen doesn’t play nearly as coy with this mostly-unnamed group of characters (nor should they; police killing racists don’t have a ton of interesting shades), using them instead as a litmus test for the rest of society; Angela’s anger, her boss Judd’s resigned indifference… Watchmens pilot episode smartly uses the Kavalry’s pseudo-cultism as a mirror for the rest of society, like the Guilty Remnant, on a much larger (but equally white) scale.

It makes for an engrossing pilot, one drenched in overt symbolism – Lindelof’s obsession with black and white contrast is front and center once again – and layered with allegory, using Watchmen‘s twisted reality as a backdrop for subtle ruminations on the essence of identity, and how a mask can complicate, confuse – and ultimately, dangerously mislead – one into thinking themselves a right, just person. It’s telling the most innocuous, lovable character in the first episode – Don Johnson’s Judd – ends up a lynched coke addict by the end of the first hour; you just never can know what a person is capable of when the tables are turned, either for or against them. Maybe Judd was in the Kavalry, maybe he wasn’t: but the power structure he supported certainly let the Kavalry rise again in society, his position of power and influence co-opted by the powers above and around him, in ways he may not even understand.

(Though given all the Oklahoma references, I tend to believe the literal text: after all, Jud was the bad guy in the musical).

That’s what “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” does best, and why it has such massive potential as a series: rich text, matched with equally dimensional characters, set on a societal backdrop packed with allegory, satire, and theological exploration (with the brief image of Dr. Manhattan, we’re reminded this world does have actual gods in them). Though only in its first hour, Watchmen almost immediately cements its place as one of the year’s most fascinating series, the rare Peak TV drama with a distinct point of view, one it is willing to explore to any uncomfortable extreme, no matter how challenging it may be, to audience and creator alike.

Lindelof’s work always contends with the spaces between; between good and evil, between love and hate, mysticism and religion, science and faith – and of course, parent and child, which explains why Silk Spectre is one of three returning characters from the original work. With Watchmen, Lindelof, Kassell, and company are adapting those sensibilities into one of the most lauded, influential works of fiction from the 20th century; and, if the pilot is any sign, they’re stuffing all of those ideas and ruminations into an impressively dense, esoteric dramatic work.

Given all that, one might think “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” is almost unwatchably thick, like each scene is covered in a sheen of thematic molasses (I’d argue The Leftovers first few episodes suffer from this). But it doesn’t, utilizing quietly powerful performances from King, Johnson, and Jeremy Irons (who I assume is playing a still-alive Ozymandias? there’s a lot to unpack with his isolated presence) to drive a surprisingly straightforward script. Yeah, there’s a hailstorm of baby squids, massacre of cattle by way of rail gun, and a brief cameo from the Nite Owl ship, but for the most part, Watchmen plays its cards directly on the table, finding its genius in the way those parts are arranged and presented to what is bound to be a massive audience.

It’s a smart play for the first episode, one that will allow Watchmen more freedom moving forward as it makes its way around the world of costumed and unmasked people in its world (I’m really looking forward to seeing more of Tim Blake Nelson’s Looking Glass, the most visually evocative character in the first episode). The universe of Watchmen is bound to get weirder and more outlandish as its story continues; with such a pitch-perfect first hour, however, that license is deserved, and welcomed.

Other thoughts/observations:

Welcome to Watchmen reviews! I’ll also be appearing on our new Watchmen podcast, hosted by Simon Howell – you can catch the first episode for that later this week.

Did I mention the score slaps? Because man, the score fucking slaps. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross really give this show a definitive sound in its first hour.

There’s an interesting juxtaposition of police abusing their power, and a group dedicated to protecting society, utterly powerless to do so: in this world, the police have to call and get permission to have their guns unlocked from their holsters – there are specific laws and articles written for extended unlocked periods for the entire force.

Tulsa is not the only tragedy alluded to in “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice”; besides the squid rain (a reminder of Ozymandias’ fake alien attack that killed 3 million people and ended the Cold War), Angela talks about how the police started wearing masks after the Kavalry targeted police for killings.

The power of propaganda: lithium batteries are supposed to be cancer-giving, which is why they’ve been removed from society, and being stockpiled by the Kavalry, for unknown reasons.

“There will be no more justice today. Trust in the law.” What an interesting, seemingly contradictory catchphrase for a movie hero.

“Were there any croutons?” Watchmen is devastating, bleak and serious – but it also has small moments of levity like this joke, which help give the series a bit of balance (again, lessons learned from the first episode of The Leftovers, which was all depressing string music, forlorn faces, and packs of murderous dogs. A little light goes a long way, even if the future is not necessarily bright (as the sign seen in this episode suggests).

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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Watchmen Podcast: Breaking Down “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own”

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Watchmen Podcast If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own

With its fourth episode, titled “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own,” HBO’s Watchmen examines questions of legacy and inheritance but also leaves the viewers scratching their heads trying to figure out what the series is all about. There are countless jaw-dropping scenes in the fourth episode, but there are also scenes that have didn’t quite work for us. Needless to say, the episode left us somewhat disappointed this week. Tune in and find out why.

Our Watchmen podcast will see Simon Howell and an assortment of guests tackle the entire series (or at least the first season). In this fourth episode, Simon Howell, Kate Rennebohm and Randy Dankievitch, take a deep dive into “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” and note some of the more astonishing facts of the episode you might have missed.

And for those of you wondering, in order to keep things simple, we’ve decided to upload each episode to the same feed as our other podcast, Before the Internet.

Listen here on iTunes or listen here on Stitcher. 

You can also catch our show on Pocketcast and on Spotify, or simply listen via the player embedded below.

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Watchmen Season 1 Episode Four Review: “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own”

A thick metatextual layer coats an episode of enigmatic introductions and underwhelming mystery building.

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Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

Near the end of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own,” trillionaire Lady Trieu accuses Will Reeves of employing “passive-aggressive exposition” and tells him he’s being “too cute by a half-measure” teasing out his identity to his granddaughter. It is one of many meta moments in a Watchmen episode where Damon Lindelof’s anxieties and fears constantly bleed through the text of dystopian superheroes; and while that certainly makes for fascinating television to dissect and theorize about, it doesn’t exactly make for a neat, satisfying hour of television. In fact, much of it feels like its explicitly doubling down on its most esoteric qualities, drowning out much of its interesting character work and world building, with an ungodly amount of narrative winking and hand gesturing in the place of a coherent, driven plot.

Watchmen‘s density appears to be coming into conflict with its narrative momentum more often than it should, which could prove troublesome in its climactic moments.

It’s not necessarily bad television; but many of the bread crumbs it drops throughout the hour make “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” feel both bloated and empty through most of the episode. Even Lady Trieu, whose introduction is unsurprisingly strange and intriguing, falls victim to this by the end of the hour, becoming the author’s overt mouthpiece in perhaps the most strained exchange of the young series. After a fascinating introduction, where she convinces a couple to sell their house and land by bringing them a test tube baby (one she had made from their DNA), Trieu’s later scenes are a bit more grating, the farther they move away from defining her character, and closer to becoming a sounding board for self-critique.

Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

Lady Trieu’s arc through “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is emblematic of the entire hour: rich subtext obfuscated by an unwieldy amount of foreshadowing and stalling. This is obviously by design – Will establishes we’re three days away from whatever event is coming, and Veidt’s timeline reveals his scenes are three years from the present – but instead of leaning on character and theme to pass the time, the fourth episode of Watchmen doubles down on objects nodding towards what’s to come. An object falling from the sky, a mention of a horseshow Veidt “doesn’t need yet,” the direct mention of nothing being able to take down the Milennium Clock, “save for a direct hit from a nuclear blast”; every object and line in “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is a nod towards what’s to come – which, in retrospect, may make this the most important episode of the series.

But in the present, it just makes the whole affair feel a bit clumsy in its deliberate, straightforward delivery; to borrow from the episode’s symbolism, we never see any of the acorns grow into trees in this hour. We learn facts like Looking Glass is a conspiracy theorist, and Trieu’s daughter is probably some kind of lab creation who has her mother’s memories of Vietnam, and Veidt pull babies out of the water to make his clone servants in a steampunk machine; all enthralling imagery, all stepped in some of the show’s deeper thematic material about identity and purpose – but it feels laborious, and hollow, in the isolated context of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own.”

Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

At some point, all of this will mean something; even the vigilante who lubes himself up to slide through sewer grates will hold some significance in this world, even if it’s only a cheeky side note across this hour. I just wish I felt more emotional purpose to this episode: in those terms, most of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is just inert, a middle-chapter episode that makes no qualms about its position as the episode positioned between the series’ beginning, and the start of its climb to the season’s dramatic apex; but that honesty comes at the cost of everything feeling just a bit trite.

The most interesting parts of “If You Don’t Like My Story” end up being in the margins; details like Angela and Lady’s shared Vietnamese heritage (and language), Will’s fears about what’s to come, and Looking Glass’s questionable living quarters stand out among the episode’s always-lush aesthetics. Even more interesting are the metatextual connotations; Lindelof as “master and not the maker,” the cheeky episode titles and closing conversations, and the synchronicity between timelines, as the episode ends three days from whatever is about to happen on Earth, while Ozymandias’ escape is clearly nearing its own apex (and with each episode suggesting another year interned, suggests he’s three years away from his own release).

Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

It all amounts to a collection of interesting moments, stranded in a forgettable episode unable to mark any important narrative shifts; it’s all intrigue and ominous language, muting the impact of Lady Trieu’s showy introduction. Piles of bloody clone bodies and Will’s pointed disappointment in “betraying” Angela makes for fascinating images and moments, but as a part of Watchmen‘s whole, feels a lot more weightless than what came before it, and what appears to be coming on the horizon.

It’s a small misstep, but an important one: Watchmen‘s density appears to be coming into conflict with its narrative momentum more often than it should, which could prove troublesome in its climactic moments. Tick tock, tick tock, I suppose – hopefully next week’s episode offers a bit more clarity and cohesion than what “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” has to offer.

Other thoughts/observations:

Who would’ve thought Watchmen would challenge Mom for the title of “most engaging, mature female lead characters on the same show”?

Lot to pull from the meaning of the episode’s title: it could hint to characters taking control of their own narratives (Ozymandias reframing his imprisonment as a challenge, Angela learning about her family’s history and grandfather’s mission, Laurie’s legacy running around “yahoos”in her past), or it is a middle finger to Lindelof’s critics. Or it is what Lindelof probably told himself every day that Alan Moore would tell him if they ever got to speak to each other.

Few scenes on TV are more disturbing than watching Veidt casually discarding infants around in the open water. Or making them into very nude adults in his steampunk magic machine.

“So you’re building the eighth wonder of the world?” “No, we’re building the first wonder of the new world.” THAT’S NOT OMINOUS OR ANYTHING.

Senator Keane clearly knows he shouldn’t be naming Angela while she’s in her Sister Night uniform… and yet he keeps doing it. Almost like he’s making a point about it… it is most certainly too clever, by at least a half-measure.

So if Ances-Tree was able to trace the “unknown” Will to his parents, why would the program think the whole family died in the fire? If Will died, he wouldn’t be a grandfather – and since her family tree shows no siblings for him, it would seem natural that he, in fact, did not die in the fire. Not a big thing, but it’s a point of logic that stuck out in the moment.

So either Lady Trieu is trying to kill Dr. Manhattan or create time travel? Those are my best two guesses, as if I have any clue what the fuck is actually going on here.

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Watchmen Podcast: Breaking Down “She Was Killed by Space Junk”

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Watchmen Podcast

After two episodes of intrigue and setup, Watchmen delivers its strongest nod yet to the original comic. “She Was Killed by Space Junk” spends nearly its entire runtime reintroducing us to Laurie Blake a.k.a Silk Spectre while also confirming that Jeremy Irons is indeed Adrian Veidt a.k.a. Ozymandias. “She Was Killed by Space Junk” serves to deepen the mystery, confuse newcomers and raise the stakes. There’s a lot to discuss this week including the giant blue dildo, a plethora of Easter eggs and several fan theories as to what might come next.

Our Watchmen podcast will see Simon Howell and an assortment of guests tackle the entire series (or at least the first season). In this third episode, Simon Howell, Ricky D and Randy Dankievitch, take a deep dive into “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship” and note some of the more astonishing facts of the episode you might have missed.

And for those of you wondering, in order to keep things simple, we’ve decided to upload each episode to the same feed as our other podcast, Before the Internet.

Listen here on iTunes or listen here on Stitcher. 

You can also catch our show on Pocketcast and on Spotify, or simply listen via the player embedded below.

 

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