HBO’s Watchmen is really, really good


The idea of continuing Watchmen, one of the greatest literary works in comics books and literature alike, is a fraught idea. Whether it’s the idea of pulling the Watchmen into DC comics, Zack Snyder making a movie of the story, or making the undisputably bad people of the comic into action figures and icons, writer Alan Moore hates all of these ideas.

And so it’s with that in mind that I say that I think he’d really dig HBO’s Watchmen show. He’s free to fight me about it. We’re now just past the two-thirds point, and I feel like things are finally lining up just right to make sense of some of what’s happening. Spoilers follow for Watchmen episodes 1-6.

Everyone’s watching the Watchmen

Watchmen is a rare example of a story that seems to really get its source material. This is not a sequel, but a continuation. It treats the original text as sacrosanct, and we’re not even finished with the first episode before we get confirmation that a giant alien squid appeared in New York City. But more importantly, it takes off on the themes and ideas of the original Watchmen and brings them into a modern-day setting. The show is deeply political from the get-go and is willing to look at the original story’s characters as humans rather than icons.

Right away, the show puts Rorschach on blast. The original Rorschach became somewhat of a blueprint for edgy 90s heroes, and even Batman would eventually pull ideas from the Rorschach bin. The character was meant to be a take on what a Batman-style vigilante might feel like in a real-world setting, though. This isolated man was allowed to soak in some truly extreme ideas and be consumed by them.

And of course, there’s the fact that much of the Watchmen comic was from Rorschach’s point of view, while HBO’s Watchmen takes place decades after his death. What happens to his image feels like a perfect transformation because it’s right in his name: Rorschach. What you take from his ideas is what’s already inside you. It makes sense that a group with some extreme ideas, like the Seventh Kavalry, would pick up on Rorschach’s extreme ideas and turn him into their symbol of selfish and uncompromising justice.

What is a mask?

The show also plays with gaps in our knowledge of the comic and with our ideas of comic-book tropes. We’re used to seeing superheroes don black makeup and masks to fight crime, and so many of the original heroes in our world were white. The writers took a second look at the character known as Hooded Justice in the Watchmen comic and used elements of his costume to create a meaningful character rather than an edgy executioner. By taking the noose and hood and putting them on a black man – one wearing white eye makeup to hide his identity – we’re given a chance to reframe early superheroes and why vigilantes with no superpowers would fight crime. Rather than a simple revenge story, it turns into a one-man quest against systemic injustice waged by a man who was born in it and has experienced it every day of his life.

The show also continues to play with the idea of masks and why people wear them. In Watchmen‘s 2019, police in Tulsa, Oklahoma wear masks to protect their identities following a massacre by the Seventh Kavalry. Looking Glass wears his not just to hide his identity as a detective but also because the material of the mask itself acts as a security blanket. He was just outside of ground zero at the first squid attack and lives in deep fear of another.

Masks also come up in both the history of the dead police chief Judd Crawford that kicks off the show and in the origin story of Hooded Justice in the form of the Klan members.  Both Crawford and Senator Keene have picked up the masks of first the Klan and then the Kavalry, both seemingly with the idea of mitigating the damage they do from the inside.

Old made new

And while Watchmen is not dependent on the characters in the seen in the original comic, it does play with them. Laurie Blake, the Silk Specter, has taken her experiences as a masked hero and turned them into a career with the FBI. It wouldn’t be completely wild to say that her time in the Watchmen was pretty traumatic and that it would likely have soured her on the idea of dressing up in a costume to fight crime. Adrian Veidt, meanwhile, has been exiled to one of the many moons in the solar system, presumably by Dr. Manhattan, for executing his squid plan with its million-plus body count. We don’t know the exact circumstances yet, but it’s an intriguing twist for the character.

There are more plot threads than I could possibly talk about in this show in just six hours of television, and yet it feels like none of them are hanging. The writers are actively weaving all the ongoing plots into the story. Unless, somehow, Watchmen completely upends itself in the next three episodes, it feels like we’re watching one of the truly great continuations. I can’t help but think of Twin Peaks: The Return, a show that Twin Peaks fans could never have guessed was coming but that ended up being one of the best shows of its year.

Watchmen is turning into exactly that by doubling down on what made the original Watchmen special without being overly reverent to it but never discarding it. They could’ve another rehash of the original story – a simple adaptation. Instead, HBO’s Watchmen respects the original, questions it, and creates something that feels simultaneously original and yet deeply connected to the comics.