Based or Woke? A Review of Watchmen (2019)
March 24, 2020
“Men’s memories are uncertain and the past that was differs little from the past that was not.”Judge Holden
Humanity is obsessed with the past. On the one hand, people talk constantly about the need to escape it, and on the other hand, deep down lies the realization that they will never outrun it. One can’t be a good victim without remembering the past, and yet there is an urgency to pushing forward into the future. The question becomes how to reconcile the past and the future into a workable present.
This obsession spills over into the media. Never mind that everything is a re-run, re-make or re-tread of old IP. All our stories, the plots themselves, hark back to historical ailments. The trend in publishing is World War Two novels, wringing our hands over the Holocaust. Old fears raise their heads. On screen it began, perhaps, with Inglorious Basterds, but now we have The Man in the High Castle, Operation Finale, and most recently Hunters (yes, it’s really bad). Nazis and racists will never stop being the top choice for bad guys, not since Wolfenstein gave us mecha-Hitler. Since Trumpler-in-Chief came into office, society has grown a distinct case of Aryans-under-the-bed. Our culture is simply picking at a scab over and over again.
Hiding Behind Masks
Into this milieu stepped Damon Lindelof, showrunner for The Leftovers, with his interpretation of Watchmen. From the outset and the trailer it looked as if this would be another woke mess chasing the SJW dollar. Indeed, if all you watched was the first episode you could be forgiven if you thought it would be politically correct cringe throughout. But Lindelof is too smart for that. If you haven’t seen The Leftovers, stop what you’re doing and at least watch the first episode. Without a doubt it will go down as one of the best TV shows of all time. Where the Golden Age of TV supposedly sits during the years of The Sopranos, Lost, Breaking Bad and The Wire, the second decade of the century saw more short run series and miniseries that truly began to utilize the medium of TV. Television became movies broken up into chapters. With Watchmen, Damon confirms that he is a master of the form.
There are similar themes running through Damon’s work. Where The Leftovers delved into the trauma caused by faith or a lack of it under the guise of a supernatural event, Watchmen explores trauma and recurring pain through the lens of the superhero story. Off the back of the brilliantly satirical The Boys, it feels right that there should be another shot at the Watchmen franchise after Snyder’s dubious attempt. Where The Boys parodies the superhero genre as a whole, Watchmen is a satire of heroism itself. Superheroes are something culture returns to again and again, and the worlds where they are not so perfect as we would want are proving to be far more interesting than Marvel’s cinematic universe. Watchmen is about heroes who are more villainous than they appear. And what do heroes and villains alike wear? Masks.
Masks hide things. They hide pain, anger, resentment and more. What Damon tackles in this show is identity, legacy and nostalgia, or the things that act as masks for who we really are. Our main protagonist, Angela Abar, is told by her grandfather, Will Reeves that, ‘You can’t heal under a mask, Angela.’ It turns out to be true for everyone.
The series begins during the Tulsa race riots of 1921 (what seemed like an absurdly dark opening turns out to be a true story) and takes us to modern Tulsa where cops wear masks and superheroes remove theirs. The Seventh Cavalry, white supremacists who wear Rorschach masks, are on the move again, five years after White Night where they systematically killed members of the police force. On the surface it looks like yet another show where the white supremacist racist Nazi KKK are used as a straw men and beaten like another dead horse. But the story of racial violence and conspiracy is only the surface level of what is one of the most accomplished narratives in TV history. The Leftovers was a complexly written narrative, and other short run series have played with techniques of time to great effect such as The Assassination of Gianni Versace, but here with Watchmen Damon takes it to the next level.
You’re never sure-footed while watching the series. Events seem to be taking place at the same time, only for it all to loop around like a Möbius strip. In particular Episode 8 cuts between scenes so that the sensation is one in which the viewer feels like all events are taking place at once. When Angela Abar, our main protagonist (played by Regina King from The Leftovers), realizes the implications of Dr. Manhattan’s loose temporality (he exists in all times at once) the good doctor states that he is confused. Of course he is. Us mere mortals experience time as beginning and end, and when the pieces all present themselves we can work out how they fit together very easily. Not so simple for an omnipresent god. When you finish the series you realize just how imperceptible a job the writers have achieved.
The notion of time is central to the other themes mentioned. Time heals all wounds. Or does it? Nostalgia is a painful pleasure specifically tied to the past. In this world an entrepreneur by the name of Lady Trieu (yes, pronounced ‘true’) creates a drug called Nostalgia. Her wish was for people to revisit painful moments in their life in order to overcome them. In reality they wallowed in these memories, even overdosed on them. The truth is that you do not overcome past trauma by revisiting it, only by revealing your wounds to the elements. ‘People who wear masks are driven by trauma,’ says Laurie Blake, an FBI agent and ex-hero (Silk Spectre II in the comics) who investigates vigilantism, which is now illegal as per the comics, after having removed her own mask. But still, trauma affects her in the guise of her love for Dr. Manhattan. We’re never sure what happened between the two, but we do know that in this world the cops are masked heroes and the heroes are unmasked villains.
Another question that is left unanswered (and Lord knows we need fewer expository tracts in TV shows) is why the racists wear Rorschach masks (apart from the metaphor that you can see whatever you want to see when looking at racist white people)? Lindelof plays with the original comics quite loosely, but to great effect. The Seventh Cavalry take inspiration from the deceased Rorschach’s diary, but it’s been changed. Compare:
“The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”… and I’ll whisper “no.”
“Soon the accumulated black filth will be hosed away and the streets of Tulsa will turn into extended gutters overflowing with liberal tears. Soon all the whores and race traitors will shout ‘Save us!’ and we will whisper, ‘No.’”
It feels like it’s making commentary on those who attended Charlottesville, but nothing is that simple with Lindelof. A corollary to Tulsa in the show is Vietnam where Angela grew up. Her parents were killed by separatists who resented that the country was a new United State after the Vietnam War, and this suffering is what leads to her wish to be a police officer. But what is the difference between protecting your country from foreign invaders and protecting your country from local subterfuge? Why are you really a hero? Just because you’re sad mummy and daddy died? In the case of another police officer called Looking Glass or Mirror Guy or Wade Tillman (played by Tim Blake Nelson) he wears a mask that supposedly reflects psychic energy after he was traumatized by the giant squid alien that killed 3 million people in New York, 1985. These people running around in masks can’t escape their pasts.
That’s the thrust of what Lindelof is getting at. Under the hood, it’s all the same. Black, White, Vietnamese, rich old man, god: we’re all playing pretend. We all have our grievances and fears. Dr. Manhattan, an iconic Watchman, laments that the only reason he went to Vietnam to end the war is because that’s what people wanted. They wanted a hero and he felt obliged. Not that noble, really. In the same episode he wears a Dr. Manhattan mask so he won’t be recognized. These are heroes who have massive identities issues. Who are we to judge?
Look at the internet, look at Twitter. Everyone online is playing a role, some more than others. Some pretend they’re female when they’re male, some pretend they’re racist when they’re bougie and some pretend they’re sophisticated when they’re sophists. All are running from the inner self. You have to don a mask or you’ll get fired, or worse, cancelled. There are elements that will accuse these innocent actors of LARPing. Live action role playing, if you didn’t know. The accusation is that they’re false. By the very definition it can’t be false. If they are acting out their ideals, then it isn’t pretend. You can choose your facts and choose your historical moments to make a point, but that’s a ruse. Anyone can do it. Those who remove their mask end up being the most cruel of all, because they are still playing a pretend role only now with the belief that their vulnerability makes them impervious. Those who think they act for the greater good are the worst of all.
So, society collectively masks itself online. In the last episode Adrian Veidt aka Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons) says that ‘masks make men cruel’. We know this is true. Adrian, the world’s smartest man, acts if he wants utopia, but when he finds it (on Europa, of all places) he grows frustrated, bored. He is the one, it is revealed, that unleashed the giant psychic squid from another dimension under the pretense of averting nuclear holocaust. Literally a too-smart-for-you ploy. He also makes sure that Robert Redford is installed as president in the nineties and who is still in charge in 2019. No one bats an eye at this. He did after all ban guns. Liberals would be quite happy for the term limit to be removed if it was for their guy. It doesn’t matter how virtuous you are, you will revert to your duplicitous nature. Masks come off when we get what we want.
Adrian refuses to believe he did any wrong. He can’t see the truth. The only person in the whole show who is willing to be exactly who she is and to tell it straight is Lady Trieu. She tells Veidt in the final episode that his master plan to save humanity is simply a re-run as he randomly deposits mini squids across the globe to make sure people are worried about the next attack. She, on the other hand, has no qualms taking what she wants. Trieu is obsessed by lineage, saying, ‘Legacy isn’t in land, it’s in blood,’ as she trades a couple’s farm for a child they thought they could never have. We discover that she is the illegitimate daughter of Veidt. We discover too that she wants the best for everyone. Genius and madness run in the blood. Her plan, far better than her father’s, is to take Manhattan’s power for herself to cure the world. We all know how that would end. In an earlier episode, Trieu said, ‘When family’s involved, judgement gets cloudy, feet get cold. Deals get broken.’ It is her father who puts an end to her plans, his last act of goodwill.
It all comes back to Angela in the end though. The mastermind isn’t the white supremacists. It isn’t Lady Trieu or Adrian Veidt or Dr. Manhattan. Each of them have fatal flaws, notions of grandiosity that undo them. It is Will Reeves, Angela Abar’s grandfather, who is the real manipulator. He knows from experience how much damage false imagery can . He was the first superhero, a masked black man who wore white makeup around his eyes. A double mask. Even under a hood he couldn’t reveal who he really was. It is he who plays the others off against each other, using their traumas and hence desires to neutralize all threats. Even Manhattan accepts fate as he sees the future and believes he can do nothing to change it.
Watchmen is not about racism or woke politics. It’s not about righteous justice. It is about moving on from the past, cutting through the Gordian knot of time that holds us in place. It is nuanced and morally grey. There are no good guys or bad guys here, just masks that need to be shed.