Comics On TV

HBO’s Watchmen Episode 1 Explained: Squid Storms, Masked Police, and Rorschach's Hijacked Legacy

We break down what Damon Lindelof’s show changed, what stayed the same, and why some fans my take issue with this unsettling world.

by | October 21, 2019 | Comments

After all the puzzlement, wonder, and possible curses, HBO’s Watchmen is finally out in our world. Exquisitely produced and full of the sort of heady content the prestige cable channel favors, it is easy to see how people will be commenting on its cops-vs.-white supremacists A-plot for the next nine weeks.

But as these ideas are only just percolating in the first episode, fans of the original graphic novel have another viewpoint to grapple with: how Watchmen builds on the tangential world of the original 1986 comic book maxiseries by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins. As it is now clear this is a story set in that same world with the potential to become a direct sequel, it is fair to examine how executive producer Damon Lindelof (The Leftovers) and his team used the iconography devised by the comic book’s creative team to put their treatise on race relations in the Watchmen context.

Let’s take a look at what the season premiere revealed about the program’s world so far and how it draws from the comic book to establish its reality.

Points of Departure

Watchmen season 1, Regina King - photo: Mark Hill/HBO

(Photo by Mark Hill/HBO)

Any good piece of fiction set in an alternate reality must address the point in history where its world diverges from our own, as Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, for example, communicates easily. The point at which Watchmen diverges is a little more subtle, as it is not based in a historical event but a movement in fictional storytelling. Considering Moore and his collaborators were working for DC Comics, we’ll use June of 1938 – the publication date of Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1 – as the rough moment at which Watchmen‘s world and our own diverge. If the Watchmen comic book is an examination of a world in which costumed heroes had a real effect on U.S. history, then it is reasonable to assume they first debuted during that pre-war summer.

While the point of departure is not addressed in the episode itself, it is worth making that assumption as the episode’s opening scene – a depiction of the Tulsa Race Riot – takes place in 1921, a good decade and change prior to the arrival of masked crusaders. Opening on that tragedy, and the racial motivations behind it, is very much a statement of intent from Lindelof. The Watchmen comic contains a wide number of themes, but race is only partially addressed. In the television series, it is the foundation of its major plotline. In using a real historical event, in which the most affluent black community in the U.S. at the time was leveled, and setting the series in the same city, Watchmen reminds the audience that both our reality and it share an abiding wound despite very different outcomes for Watchmen‘s World War II and Vietnam War — as well as other conflicts altered thanks to the mere existence of Dr. Manhattan and the other Minute Men.

Since the riot took place prior to our presumed point of departure, the legacy of those events simmer under the other, more fantastical events of the Watchmen world. The program’s opening moments – a silent film detailing the exploits of real life U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves – suggests the world of Watchmen may have other points of departure predating 1938.

Rorschach’s Mask As a Symbol of White Supremacy

Watchmen season 1 teaser trailer 1 screenshot (HBO)

(Photo by HBO)

Back in Watchmen, it is easy to see Rorschach’s journal as a manifesto more aligned with extremist ideologies. Of course, nothing is truly black and white in that story – which is, in many ways, the whole point – so it is doubly interesting to see his iconography so closely related with the Seventh Kavalry, the unambiguous bad guys of the Tulsa storyline. For readers of the original comic, the journey his mask makes following his death could be one of the most interesting elements of the series’ fictional history.

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read Watchmen, the following contains spoilers.

Watchmen season 1, Regina King, Tim Blake Nelson. photo: Mark Hill/HBO

(Photo by Mark Hill/HBO)

In the comic book, Rorschach is the first of the still-active Minute Men to learn of the Comedian’s death, and his investigation brings the others together and eventually leads them to the culprit, Adrian Veidt. But, again, nothing is black and white, so his reasoning for the murder (and the subsequent annihilation of New York) is something most of the characters find they can live with: He intends to scare the world into an age of peace and prosperity. The only one among them who cannot accept murder on this scale as the price of peace is Rorschach himself. And it costs him his life.

That reversal is one of the great literary tricks of the original comic book series. Just about every major character has a moment where they are the protagonist and the antagonist, and, as it happens, a reader can find themselves agreeing with Veidt because this is just a story and it is all quite academic (see also: Thanos’ grim calculus in Avengers: Infinity War). For those readers, Rorschach becomes the bad guy in the story’s final pages and, on some readings, you can even see his acceptance of death as a heroic play to stop himself from spoiling Veidt’s golden age.

We glimpse that world of peace for a page or two before Rorschach’s journal, which he sent to a conservative-leaning magazine called New Frontiersman, seemingly undoes everything Veidt tried to achieve. At least, we hope subsequent episodes will offer concrete details as to why the paradise the heroes agreed to did not stick. But at the moment, we can infer that the magazine published Rorschach’s journal and made Veidt the enemy of the world (note the newspaper reporting Veidt’s death as “confirmed”). It also, presumably, made Rorschach himself something of a hero among New Frontiersman‘s readership and, across the decades, he became a central figure of white separatist movements as he was white himself and espoused a certain type of moral purity often popular among extremists — the very one the Seventh Kavalry quote from his journal in their video to the Tulsa police.

Rorschach would not necessarily have aligned with the Seventh K during his lifetime — though, we admit, he espoused a lot of their ideas — making it a curious legacy for the character. Again, nothing is black and white in the Watchmen comic, but passing decades have a habit of flattening notable people to a handful of key details and the nuance of Rorschach’s life disappears as he becomes part of the Seventh Kavalry’s mythology. The only thing black-and-white about the representation is the character’s mask, which here has transformed into that group’s most powerful symbol.

Squid Storms

Jeremy Irons in Watchmen. photo: Colin Hutton/HBO

(Photo by Colin Hutton/HBO)

The squid looms large in Watchmen history and is the key omission from the 2009 film adaptation. Veidt’s ultimate plan was to unleash an allegedly alien squid on Manhattan, killing all around it and scaring the nations of the world into peace. The creature was the product of the finest minds Veidt could corral – and at least one comic book creator. Until the publication of Rorscach’s journal, the plan worked – as evidenced in the comic’s second-to-last page – but the series introduces unintended consequences, which the book had no interesting in addressing.

Watchmen’s debut episode suggests squid storms occur regularly. Much smaller versions of the original creature rain from the sky and are hazardous enough for cities to invest in warning sirens (a newspaper tells us deaths do sometimes occur during these storms). The way Angela Abar (Regina King) deals with the mess the storm leaves on her car shows they are also an annoyance. It may be the program’s best usage of the time gap between the original comic book series and the modern television show, as time has turned Veidt’s attempted legacy into an occasional moment of inclement weather.

Of course, the Lord of a Country Estate’s (Jeremy Irons) squid-themed anniversary cake suggests Adrian Veidt may have another legacy in the works for the world.

One has to wonder if that new legacy will tempt Dr. Manhattan back from Mars. When we last saw him in the comic book, he was unwilling to tell Veidt if the terror he unleashed on New York was worth it in the end. Instead, Manhattan merely says “Nothing ever ends.” He also mentions leaving Earth’s corner of the universe for some place else, but as the first episode reveals, he may have spent the last few decades making sandcastles on the red planet. Will he finally have an answer to Veidt’s question?

Police-Issue Archies

Watchmen, season 1 Regina King. Andrew Howard. Photo: Mark Hill.

(Photo by Mark Hill)

With all that background world building in place, the first episode of Watchmen devotes most of its run-time to its real premise: in 2019 of the Watchmen world, cops dress like superheroes to protect their identities. Angela is known as Sister Night, a Tulsa PD detective who works with Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), Red Scare (Andrew Howard), and the curiously-named Pirate Jenny (Jessica Camacho). They are all distinctive (though rank-and-file offers remain in customary police blues augmented with Watchmen yellow half-masks), suggesting detectives on the Tulsa police force have a major say in their costumes. It also suggests Red Scare did not put a lot of money or effort into his persona.

But will all the eye-catching looks, it may have been easy to miss the coffee cup Angela drank from while talking to police chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson). It had an owl-design which will tip off any and all Watchmen readers that Dan Dreiberg, aka Night Owl II, may have had something to do with Tulsa’s implementation of masks in law enforcement. When we last see him in the comic book, he is one of the few to seemingly thrive in the paradise Veidt tried to create. Is it possible he survived the tumult after Rorschach’s journal went public to become this world’s version of a tech giant?

RELATED: What Critics Are Saying About Watchmen

The fact the police use a vehicle very similar to his flying Owlship suggests he or his decedents are profiting from the current climate. Although, it may just be evidence of Crawford’s abiding love for all things Nite Owl — he also had a copy of Nite Owl I’s autobiography on his desk.

But should it turn out that Dan supports or supported police departments after 1986, it also reflects one of the major differences between Watchmen’s world and our own: the lack of the internet. Though not a major idea in this first episode, we hope the lack of a near-instantaneous global communication tool factors in as the series progresses.

Or, maybe, the Internet is Veidt’s next attempt at a legacy. Will the Watchmen world be able to handle it?

Watchmen airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.

Watchmen: Season 1 (2019)

Adjusted Score: 105.37%
Critics Consensus: Bold and bristling, Watchmen isn't always easy viewing, but by adding new layers of cultural context and a host of complex characters it expertly builds on its source material to create an impressive identity of its own.
Synopsis: Damon Lindelof (The Leftovers, Lost) creates a modern-day re-imagining of Alan Moore's groundbreaking graphic novel about masked vigilantes.... [More]

Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.

Tag Cloud

Countdown documentary revenge Disney Channel documentaries ESPN aliens free movies directors robots Superheroe Disney streaming service werewolf 21st Century Fox CW Seed Chernobyl LGBT ID Television Academy Pacific Islander Rocketman Exclusive Video Hear Us Out Crunchyroll 20th Century Fox Amazon Prime OneApp zero dark thirty fast and furious films spider-man Lionsgate VICE screenings Pirates Superheroes book American Society of Cinematographers dogs mockumentary TV One Chilling Adventures of Sabrina FX Fantasy kaiju The Walking Dead chucky nature child's play GoT streaming Turner Classic Movies BET Spike TCA 2017 political drama best Logo Academy Awards Mary poppins cults FX on Hulu CBS All Access Comic Book Netflix Funimation festival hist Video Games Infographic christmas movies Music dceu Acorn TV target Paramount Network See It Skip It space theme song razzies Comedy Central twilight Nickelodeon superhero 24 frames Turner psychological thriller Ellie Kemper Rock History 90s disaster TCM Comedy Mystery Masterpiece Lifetime telelvision toronto Country Lucasfilm Rocky Disney+ Disney Plus canceled TV shows halloween italian a nightmare on elm street Food Network 2017 serial killer 2018 GLAAD A&E sag awards strong female leads science fiction Warner Bros. latino sequel Film Festival suspense unscripted diversity prank Action canceled mission: impossible cancelled TV shows Creative Arts Emmys Rom-Com Star Wars 45 TBS Hallmark ABC Family Film miniseries RT21 crime thriller Apple TV Plus slashers CNN Television Critics Association dragons Emmys RT History 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards ratings sequels Biopics travel Hulu Horror Extras Awards Tour Trophy Talk Vudu politics classics doctor who saw WarnerMedia blaxploitation Musicals USA Family kong Disney Plus Trivia richard e. Grant popular Mary Poppins Returns Quiz halloween tv E3 Calendar Sundance TV Marvel Studios Wes Anderson streaming movies pirates of the caribbean football indie Marvel Television Teen Walt Disney Pictures AMC BBC America golden globes Epix marvel cinematic universe based on movie hidden camera SundanceTV PaleyFest Hallmark Christmas movies anthology hispanic know your critic anime indiana jones LGBTQ Red Carpet BBC President what to watch social media Shondaland black Winners Holidays Endgame zombie medical drama Holiday Star Trek Anna Paquin romantic comedy Reality rotten supernatural rt archives children's TV Pop DC Comics APB FOX aapi 2021 cats Legendary adventure Drama zombies franchise Grammys Certified Fresh japanese talk show Crackle reboot Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Discovery Channel San Diego Comic-Con king kong Heroines NBA BAFTA mutant Valentine's Day godzilla Tokyo Olympics award winner dc romance Mudbound spinoff south america obituary TruTV IFC Amazon Studios Alien Bravo Summer true crime HBO CMT stand-up comedy hollywood 99% cops TNT Oscars Classic Film Binge Guide Tomatazos game show Captain marvel Shudder Toys quibi Tarantino TV legend foreign cancelled TV series TV Land Apple ghosts Emmy Nominations toy story YouTube concert teaser japan Best and Worst cartoon Cosplay TCA Winter 2020 71st Emmy Awards Dark Horse Comics Pride Month lord of the rings Britbox ABC breaking bad HBO Go parents Stephen King Ghostbusters Pet Sematary live action Netflix Christmas movies finale VOD discovery singing competition rom-coms joker Sneak Peek name the review independent Reality Competition justice league SXSW technology game of thrones Fox News Interview book adaptation tv talk Trailer blockbuster batman Paramount binge satire blockbusters Fall TV green book casting SDCC trailers El Rey Tubi Winter TV vampires cars PlayStation X-Men elevated horror Comics on TV war E! A24 scorecard Lifetime Christmas movies all-time Character Guide Starz Pop TV cancelled television Spring TV BBC One Columbia Pictures Watching Series Baby Yoda docuseries Song of Ice and Fire Mary Tyler Moore Travel Channel new zealand FXX The Academy universal monsters Opinion crime crossover Pixar harry potter nbcuniversal The Witch Women's History Month scene in color series 007 OWN Thanksgiving Western Sci-Fi facebook comiccon movies superman MCU 2016 adenture TV movies Mindy Kaling Showtime comic books high school comic 72 Emmy Awards Ovation asian-american USA Network Marvel DirecTV Adult Swim NBC jamie lee curtis golden globe awards laika fresh biography french Podcast Amazon Prime Video Arrowverse Amazon Nat Geo cinemax screen actors guild television reviews dramedy Box Office period drama MSNBC Fox Searchlight 4/20 kids Universal festivals international news CBS remakes WGN BET Awards Sony Pictures DGA 2020 Writers Guild of America PBS scary movies NYCC Apple TV+ adaptation psycho Cartoon Network First Look New York Comic Con ViacomCBS worst movies Image Comics Freeform Nominations DC streaming service Premiere Dates transformers critics Musical Christmas Set visit crime drama Brie Larson Cannes Polls and Games versus police drama basketball ITV witnail Martial Arts james bond natural history spanish boxing movie women deadpool Paramount Plus TIFF Photos 1990s venice The Arrangement worst Disney Animation historical drama Sundance DC Universe sitcom TV renewals dark archives TCA Awards emmy awards Black Mirror VH1 Avengers Comic-Con@Home 2021 2015 Broadway HBO Max Esquire video stoner spanish language stop motion Black History Month The Purge australia The CW spain ABC Signature Year in Review sports composers Spectrum Originals jurassic park Sundance Now animated 2019 docudrama YA TLC boxoffice cooking new star wars movies new york monster movies cancelled Super Bowl comedies YouTube Red Tumblr TCA Marathons die hard video on demand Kids & Family Elton John rotten movies we love National Geographic Syfy Awards IFC Films spy thriller YouTube Premium GIFs Schedule 93rd Oscars Election heist movie The Walt Disney Company criterion MTV renewed TV shows olympics thriller First Reviews nfl comics Peacock