The Longest Doomsday

Damon Lindelof, Watchmen 2019–, a still from a TV show on HBO. Season 1, episode 1. Mark Hill/HBO. Regina King as Night Sister.

THE VOICE-OVER EPIGRAPH to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999)—“We may be through with the past, but the past is never through with us”—could also serve for Lost and The Leftovers cocreator Damon Lindelof’s remix of Watchmen, a new HBO series based on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s multigenerational, self-deconstructing superhero comic from the 1980s. It is about the eruption of long-buried secrets, relationships, grudges, and atrocities into the present—a present very different from our own, save for certain recognizable details, artfully exaggerated in the tradition of near-future dystopias. As with the graphic novel, we are dropped into the narrative midway. Significant past events are alluded to, sometimes cryptically; former superheroes are aging or retired; and a post-heyday, precrisis atmosphere prevails—a generalized on-the-brinkness. The brink in the comic was thermonuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union: the nightmare scenario of the Cold War. In Lindelof’s version, it is an impending race war in the immediate area (Tulsa, Oklahoma), if not the whole country, stoked by a terrorist cell of violent white supremacists calling themselves the Seventh Cavalry.

Lindelof and director Nicole Kassell establish the set and setting in the opening sequence of the pilot by depicting the almost unbelievable (but sadly true) Tulsa race massacre of 1921, one of the more egregious American episodes of white-on-black violence in a history saturated with them. Sparked by a depressingly familiar trope of the Jim Crow era (Emmett Till’s case being the most infamous), a gun battle outside the courthouse catalyzed two days of white mobs, Klan members, and later the National Guard literally making war on Tulsa’s prosperous Greenwood district, known nationally at the time as “Black Wall Street.”

Damon Lindelof, Watchmen 2019–, a still from a TV show on HBO. Season 1, episode 1. Mark Hill/HBO.

Biplanes dropped turpentine bombs on buildings and fired rounds from the sky while throngs of racist whites beat and murdered successful African American professionals and their families, vandalizing and burning their property. This event was elided in state schoolrooms and history books for decades, until the Oklahoma legislature formed a committee to study it in 1996. It is one of the few instances of American racial violence that has resulted in anything close to reparations, though the offered compensation—scholarships for affected families, a memorial park—fell far short of remedying the real and symbolic damages to Tulsa’s black community. Kassell’s handling of the scene is bracing and chaotic, a roiling miasma of hatred and violence that orphans and exiles a young boy who will become a pivotal figure in the original generation of Watchmen, known as Minutemen, who were active in the 1930s and ’40s and are sensationally memorialized on a present-day TV show, American Hero Story, within the context of the plot.

As is perhaps clear, the series wears its wokeness on its sleeve. It will surely catch flak from the incels and white supremacists populating online ideological sumps like 4chan. Lindelof is white, yet his Watchmen is largely a black story, focused on Regina King’s character Night Sister and her family, with some parallels to Killmonger’s subplot in Black Panther (2018). His perspective is clearly progressive, though he and his writers occasionally satirize liberal pieties. Following the original comic, in which Richard Nixon abolished term limits and served into the ’80s, Lindelof offers a similarly multiterm Robert Redford—Platonic ideal of the liberal Boomer and emblem of smiley-face politics—as the sitting president. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. plays himself as Treasury secretary, taking DNA samples and dispensing advice to Tulsa’s black citizens on how to claim their reparations via video kiosks in the Greenwood Cultural Center (such reparations are derided as “Redfordations” by racist local whites). The extended litany of trigger warnings for American Hero Story, which takes thirty seconds to name every imaginable offense that might appear in a mid-twentieth-century narrative, is truly absurd.

Damon Lindelof, Watchmen 2019–, a still from a TV show on HBO. Season 1, episode 1. Mark Hill/HBO.

The original Watchmen has its cult, and comic fans are notoriously possessive and picayune about unfaithful adaptations. On a superficial level, Lindelof’s revision appears to be exactly the kind of radical overhaul that tends to draw fanboy ire. Nevertheless, cult members will find plenty of traces from the source narrative throughout the series. Second-generation Watchmen (the protagonists of the graphic novel) the Comedian, Silk Spectre II, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, and Rorschach are either referred to or present as active characters. Among the A-list cast, Jeremy Irons, Don Johnson, and Louis Gossett Jr. subtly echo the ’80s by their very presence (OK, Johnson not so subtly). A revised origin story of first-generation Minuteman Hooded Justice lends new resonance to the noose the character wore as part of his costume. In a meta-squared All the President’s Men (1976) reference, a Tulsan trailer park populated by rednecks is called Nixonville, complete with a huge Nixon statue at its entrance, a monument to the president in the comic (one trailer has graffiti reading “Redford Sucks”).

A word about Rorschach: For a figure who originally functioned as the narrator, goad, and scribe of events in the graphic novel, the character, while uniquely unlikable in the history of fiction, was not overtly coded as a racist. He was misogynist, homophobic, and a generalized misanthrope, but he was primarily a Randian—a merciless vigilante with an uncompromising Manichean worldview—and was created by Moore in tribute to Steve Ditko, the Spider-Man and Dr. Strange artist who embraced Objectivism at the peak of his career, leaving Marvel and creating Rorschach template characters the Question and Mr. A for other publishers, to the dismay of many fans. Rorschach’s revulsion at blending “black” and “white” in his grim moral reasoning provides a loose metaphorical basis for the Seventh Cavalry masks, but if any original Watchmen character is ill-served by the series, it is him.

Lindelof has a reputation as a shaggy-dog screenwriter, primarily from the rambling, anticlimactic Lost and needlessly allusive Alien prequel Prometheus (2012). He is good at coming up with tantalizing concepts and individual scenes, but not so good at tying them together into a satisfying whole. Having viewed the six episodes made available to the press (there are nine total), I remain tantalized. Lindelof and his team weave old and new yarns with skill and sensitivity, honoring and incorporating elements of the source material while spinning an entirely different, almost too relevant tale. We’ll see if it’s merely a crazy quilt. In the meantime, there will be ructions.

Watchmen was released on HBO on October 20.