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… Watchmen‘s 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.
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).
Watchmen Podcast: Breaking Down “She Was Killed by Space Junk”
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.
Watchmen Season 1 Episode Three Review: “She Was Killed by Space Junk”
The surprise return of an integral Watchmen character, ignites another engaging hour of mystery building.
The introduction of FBI agent Laurie Blake is an important demarcation of Watchmen‘s first season: most obviously, it pushes away from Angela as our sole point-of-view character, which offers an immediate change of scale and perspective. But “She Was Killed by Space Junk” is not only an episode of Watchmen following a different character – it almost feels like a different show, one that’s a much more direct sequel to the original graphic novel series. For fans of the book, “She Was Killed by Space Junk” is a particularly fascinating hour of the young series – but for those who haven’t read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work, I wonder how effective this hour can be.
The indelible images of every consequential action in Watchmen continue to gather weight in “She Was Killed by Space Junk” – but without any semblance of release.
After all, Laurie Blake’s history is about as entwined in the original Watchmen as one can be: she’s the daughter of The Comedian and the original Silk Spectre, and former lovers with Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl II. Pushed into the family business of crime fighting by her parents, over time she was known as both The Comedienne and Silk Spectre. She became the latter after ending her long relationship with Dr. Manhattan, who then embarked on his permanent (wink wink) departure to Mars, the last semblances of his humanity gone.
The Laurie we meet in “She Was Killed by Space Junk,” is directly informed by all these life moments; we first see Laurie telling jokes to a Mars-based voicemail, and shooting a vigilante in the bank during a staged bank heist, immediately establishing her as a fulcrum of sorts between Moore’s Watchmen world and Lindelof’s.
In fact, understanding her position as said fulcrum almost requires some fundamental understanding of who her character is; she comes with such weight of history, and acts as such an integral connective point between so many original characters, every action she takes in “She Was Killed by Space Junk” is colored by information from the past. Her decision to join the FBI, her melancholic tone on Dr. Manhattan’s “voicemail”, the incendiary way she refers to thin line between vigilante and masked cop; all of these notes, which may seem strange in their introduction, are integral to truly capturing the gravitas Laurie has when she arrives in Tulsa, long before an SUV was dropped out of the sky next to her, like a brick hurtling down unsuspectingly onto God’s head.
It’s a rather genius integration of one of the book’s more interesting loose threads; but as an introduction to new audiences, Laurie’s past is so buried in the subtext of her actions, it may make for a confounding watch for newcomers. Her position – woman frustrated with the state of things, ponders a time when she shared her life with a quasi-god – is more intriguing to the uninitiated, which might make her a bit of a cipher to understand without the right context.
Thankfully, Smart’s dominating, sneering performance is more than capable of making up the emotional chasm new viewers might have in understanding her character. If it doesn’t, however, “She Was Killed by Space Junk” gives us an extra scene of her and Looking Glass trading barbs, which helps define her character’s (current) ethos and sensabilities in a rather fun way (though her dominating presence is a reminder of how Looking Glass isn’t much more than an idea and a cool mask to this point).
She also neatly ties whatever is happening with Sister Night directly to Laurie, and possibly, Dr. Manhattan: part of her investigation in Tulsa is decoding the clues around Judd’s death – and since she knows where everyone likes to hide their true identities and favorite costumes, she immediately establishes herself as someone of greater import than say, Panda or Red Scare. Her authority is federal; whatever strange experiment the state is running, with their mask-adorned police hedging the boundaries of society’s laws, she doesn’t really give a shit. She’s here to seek out the town’s true sources of power: which is why she spends so much time looking at Senator Kane (who clearly is a Kavalry member; after all, Judd’s wife ran his campaign, as telling a detail as any).
But while she’s looking for sources of power on the ground (other than the Kavalry’s suicide vests, that is), Dr. Manhattan remains the true unseen force of nature: where his presence was merely referenced in previous episodes, the weight of his influence on the world of Watchmen and its characters consumes much of “She Was Killed by Space Junk.” And again, it’s the kind of thing that might feel weighty to audiences, and amorphous to newcomers; regardless, however, his impending return can be felt throughout this hour, culminating in (what I assume is) him dropping a car near Laurie, as a reminder that he has a sense of humor, and she is as fallible as the god whose head was caved in, by a seemingly random throw of a brick.
If there’s a brick floating in the Watchmen air, however, it is not the man who likes flopping his blue dick around in space; by speaking his name and running an experiment to travel through space, Adrian Veidt makes his triumphant, if unhinged, return in “She Was Killed by Space Junk” – where it becomes pretty clear his current situation is one of imprisonment, rather than voluntary detachment from the world. After all, why would he shoot at the foot of the Lone Ranger (shout out to Petey) lurking on the edge of his property, and be experimenting with his “subjects” what very obviously appears to be space travel?
“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” is not just a quote attributed to Lady Trieu at the groundbreaking of the Milennium Clock (which may or may not be a direct reference to the clock Jeff Bezo’s been building in our own world), or a reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s classic poem; it is a harbinger of things to come, as the powers that be in the world of Watchmen consider the passing of time and how it has affected their legacy. Has Angela spent years fighting – and loving – a Klan member? Has Veidt accomplished anything – and is his prison, actually a godsend of focusing (or unhinging) his intelligence? Or more specific to Laurie’s case: can the love of a human being, never fill the void left by the love of a god?
Whatever the people in the world of Watchmen think they’ve built for themselves with their structures, prisons, and identities, the world has a way of warping it: be it the body of Mr. Shadow, or the attempts to give police some sense of protection by giving them masks, the indelible images of every consequential action in Watchmen continue to gather weight in “She Was Killed by Space Junk” – but without any semblance of release. The arrival of Laurie suggests some of that weight is about to be relieved in the next couple hours – but it also suggests a further complexity being added to the narrative of the series, which is beginning to feel the pressures of its many plot lines, subtle mysteries, and growing collection of references to the revered source material.
Thanks to Smart, “She Was Killed by Space Junk” is able to hold onto the thread; but with characters like Lady Trieu and Dr. Manhattan still waiting to make their official entrances, it’s hard to imagine Watchmen adding anything to the pile, without losing something in translation. Admittedly, this series’ has swiftly defied – and exceeded – expectations, but the sudden integration of so much source material begs the question of whether Lindelof and company’s eyes are starting to get larger than their stomachs. Recent evidence suggests otherwise, but only time will tell whether this strange, winding road Watchmen is taking us down will pay off all these threads and ideas in the end.
Boy, that is a long and very straight blue dildo you have there, Laurie.
Fun fact: Kane’s father was the one who wrote the original anti-vigilante laws back in the 70’s. I’m sure that won’t have any importance later in the series.
Is Veidt making suits out of leathered human skin? Because that is definitely what it looks like.
Space Junk? SPACE JUNK.
There’s an interesting theory out there that Hooded Justice and Angela’s grandfather are the same person, which explains the intertwined noose symbolism.
Exploring the Grey Morality of ‘Watchmen’
Like the original, HBO’s Watchmen is as much concerned with the morality of those with power as it is with how they use that power.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal piece of comic literature, Watchmen, is often looked back on and remembered with the sort of reverence reserved for the works of Shakespeare or Mark Twain. It isn’t hard to see why. From its multifaceted characters to its scathing social commentary, Watchmen is truly a one of a kind work, and one that transcends its nature as a comic book even as it accentuates the things worth appreciating about the medium.
However, there is another aspect of the story that makes it tick, so to speak, and that’s the exploration of morality at the heart of the story. Centered around an alternate history where costumed vigilantes began to join the justice system and affect world events in the 1930s, Watchmen is as much concerned with the morality of those with power as it is with how they use that power.
Dr. Manhattan may be the most powerful being in the universe, but his god-like abilities put him at odds with his own humanity. As his powers grow, he finds it increasingly easy to dispatch any living organism with the simple wave of his hand. Further, as his understanding of the building blocks of life grows omniscient, he finds himself unable to see people as people anymore.
Similarly, Ozymandias possesses the intellect and financial wherewithal to study social issues and even affect a certain degree of change. Unfortunately, as The Comedian points out to him in a flashback, the world is going to hell whether he likes it or not. This, of course, leads him to his master plan: a simulated interdimensional alien attack on Earth. It is a hoax that costs millions of lives in order to be effective in uniting the global powers against an external threat, and yet unite the world it seemingly does.
There is one person who has a problem with this though. While all of the remaining Watchmen are horrified by Ozymandias’ plan, only one refuses to accept it. While the others decide that derailing the plan after its already completed would mean that all those lives were for nothing, Rorschach has a simpler way of looking at things. Unwilling to compromise, he lays out his intentions to let the world know the truth and consequences be damned. Manhattan, taking the responsibility onto himself, dispatches him with as much ease as any other organic creature.
Rorschach then, with his bigoted hatred and PTSD-fuelled mental illness, is the only character with enough conviction to stand up for his beliefs even at the cost of his own life. Strangely, the only other character who comes close to doing the same is the even more morally dubious Comedian. Murdered at the outset of the story by Ozymandias in order to keep his plan a secret, The Comedian is one of two main characters to die in Watchmen. It is interesting to note that both characters die for the same reason, even if they are killed by different members of their team.
On a smaller scale, the more idealistic Silk Spectre and Nite Owl flirt with infidelity throughout the story, even at the expense of their teammate and friend, Dr. Manhattan. Though these characters have their own infractions, their abuses of power are nothing compared to the aforementioned characters.
Still, this leads us to the modern Watchmen series. Typical of his careful, in-depth attention to detail, Damen Lindelof’s HBO adaptation, set 30 years after the events of the original story, seems to have grasped these threads as well. A key example is the way law enforcement are portrayed in the series.
Following the events of the White Night, (an all-out assault on law enforcement by the white supremacist terrorist organization, The Seventh Kavalry) all the police of Tulsa, Oklahoma now where masks to hide their identities. Ironically, this anonymity offers them the ability to abuse their power whenever they deem it necessary. Take a key moment in the premiere where Angela Abar/Sister Night abducts a suspect without an arrest warrant, interrogates him without his lawyer, and subsequently beats him to a pulp in order to extract information.
Now most viewers would be hard-pressed to sympathize with a white supremacist who may be working with a domestic terror cell, but the fact remains that this is a flagrant abuse of power, and one only made possible by the anonymous nature of the vigilantes who now work with little oversight as part of the Tulsa police department.
Watchmen‘s grey morality is similarly invoked with the actions of the mysterious Will. The survivor of a horrific racial attack in 1921, Will has lived to the ripe old age of 105 and yet somehow finds the strength to lynch the police chief, Judd Crawford, single-handedly. While Angela is initially dismayed and outraged by the death of her charismatic mentor, the discovery of Klan robes in his office, and some racially charged artwork, leads her down an endless rabbit hole seeking the larger picture behind Will, and why he has done what he’s done.
All of these events appear to be a commentary on the current strife between Black Lives Matter activists and those on the side of law enforcement. Though they are reflected through a sort of funhouse mirror of our own reality, similar to how Moore explored social issues in the original Watchmen, the correlation between the events portrayed and allegations of abuse of power in our own world couldn’t be clearer. It’s a fascinating way of transposing our issues into this alternate reality, and one that still hasn’t lost its flavor for intrigue, even after three decades.
There is also Ozymandias to consider. Almost certainly the mysterious, nameless character portrayed by Jeremy Irons, Ozymandias is seemingly still using science to chase whatever ends he deems necessary. Is he still trying to effect the manner of change he thinks the world needs through his imperfect cloning experiments and overwritten melodramas, or is he simply passing the time in his self-designed moral purgatory as he awaits the justice that may yet visit his door?
Finally, there is Dr. Manhattan. Like Ozymandias, Manhattan seems to have returned to a self-imposed exile. Also similarly, we don’t yet know what effect his existence will have on the story. Will he be faced with the choice of murdering another friend in order to preserve Ozymandias’ conspiracy for peace, or will he use his god-like powers to affect the outcome of the story in another way?
While questions like these will loom large over the remaining 7 episodes of Watchmen, it’s safe to say that there will undoubtedly be further moral quandaries to consider and debate as Lindelof’s take on the story continues to unfold over the remainder of 2019. Certainly, any fan of Moore’s magnum opus wouldn’t have it any other way.
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