At the very outset, I must admit that while the promos had me a little knotty, the pilot episode of HBO’s new vigilante drama – if I am to call it that – based off of Alan Moore’s legendary graphic novel of the same does put some of those inhibitions to rest. The first episode of ‘Watchmen’ is a long winded albeit fruitful exercise in world building, something that is completely warranted if, as showrunner Damon Lindelof put it, one sets out to “defile” something so dear to fans out there.
Named after a line from the ‘Oklahoma’ musical, ‘It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice’, a wonderful, wonderful foreshadowing of events, the first episode is many things at once, and as we delve into the details, you will see why that isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this never-a-dull-moment-pilot. It may be quite too early to say as of now, but the show seems off to a great start and on its way to becoming one of the most acclaimed shows of the year.
From the very first frame on, the show runners want you to know what you are getting into, and whether you are a fan of the original graphic novel (or the 2009 movie of the same name) or not, that this is barely the same universe. Yes, there are plenty of nods to the source material and an easter egg here or there, but this is a retelling- nay- a reinvention, with a very different socio-political lens that it uses to tell its story.
Yet still, it’s not too difficult to observe that like the comic, the show too uses that lens to reflect pertinent issues in a period of time in American society. There is a shift in perspective in nearly every major arc: the protagonists, the villains, the supporters and the disruptors, and while the first episode spends nearly all of its runtime in setting all of that up, a massive task by all means, I can only say that I am excited – maybe too much – to see where it all goes from here on.
The episode begins with a prolonged sequence of the black massacre in 1921 Tulsa, with white supremacists mercilessly beating down, shooting and killing black folk, burning their property to the ground, while a hapless black couple help their child escape to safety, themselves facing a yet uncertain fate. The episode then quickly shifts its focus to the same conflict, restructured and elaborately engineered in the present day. It’s a world that feels sinfully relatable yet uncannily unrelated, only added to by the sky raining squids in the middle of the day.
Contrary to, yet building on the original graphic novel tackling the very root of vigilantism, the desire for vigilante justice in society, and the urge to pick up masks to extract the same, Lindelof and director Nicole Kassell introduce you to a different kind of dystopia altogether, one where everybody dons a mask, either to hide their identities or to protect themselves, with seemingly rare overlaps between the two factions.
Rorschach’s fascistic and nihilistic ideologies have somehow penetrated the minds of white supremacists as gospel, who don homemade Rorschach masks and attack police officers, who then retaliate with their own masks. The most common ones are yellow masks simply to hide their faces, while there are others that elaborately delve into costumes and alter egos – the whole charade. Watch out for a particularly interesting sequence of an interrogation at the half time mark of the episode that has a new masked player, Looking Glass, wearing a full face mask of reflective latex interrogating a likely white supremacist. The two are seated inside a pod-like structure with seemingly unconnected provocative images flashing on bright screens inside, reflecting on his mask, meant to trigger the suspect with Rorschach like patterns. It’s quite easily brilliant, and vastly embodying the one thing I love about reimagined adaptations despite the associated risks.
The series’ current primary focus is detective Angela Abar (Regina King), a black police officer who dons a nun-like costume and a mask, fighting on the side of the law against the Seventh Kavalry, the faction of white supremacist Rorschachs, when a police officer is shot down disrupting a short period of relative peace. The episode escalates as she and her fellow officers move closer to discovering a huge conspiracy that could topple the current situation of unrest to full blown war, or end it before it even begins.
Then there is Jeremy Irons appearing as Adrian Veidt, an older Ozymandias, living his days in isolation while the newspaper in the present day declares him dead. His arc currently seems to have no correlation with or implications on what seems to conspire through the rest of the episode, and this is a mystery I am particularly interested in seeing unfold over the season.
Just as the opening sequence, the closing of the pilot episode too is succinctly wrought in letting the viewer know the kind of “watchmen” we are going to be seeing here: the police badge with a drop of blood is the replacement for the ever famous motif of the yellow smiley badge of the Comedian, and to my relatively simple mind, it is a nod so full of allegories and a well-informed depth, as if another tease just thrown at you to deal with in this new universe where everybody – vigilantes and cops – wears a mask.
There are a lot of questions, and a lot of answers waiting to be unravelled as the series unfolds its nigh meditative story and a rare revisionist take on a centuries old issues of racial tensions and white supremacy at the very heart of America. That done through the lens of its unreally socially aware superhero/vigilante based source material is something that may have just caught my attention like a fly in a venus trap.