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HBO's Watchmen grapples with racism and police brutality in powerful, imperfect ways

By James Grebey
Watchmen HBO Racism Police

HBO's upcoming Watchmen series was always going to be controversial, by virtue of its sheer existence. But, ahead of the premiere, the show is sparking some conversations that are, frankly, more important than how mad Alan Moore is about all this. Damon Lindelof's Watchmen is set three decades after the events of the original comic, and superheroes are no longer dealing with the Cold War. Instead, law enforcement is combating white supremacy. Watchmen is grappling with a sadly relevant set of topics — and a really delicate one too.

Sunday's series premiere begins with a gripping, horrifying scene set during the Tulsa Race Riot, an event that, sadly, will probably have many viewers Googling to find out if it was real or not. In 1921, white Tulsa residents attacked a thriving African-American part of town, known as "Black Wall Street," killing hundreds in fires, by gunfire, and from firebombs dropped from passing biplanes. Then Watchmen jumps to the present, where viewers are introduced to Angela Abar (Regina King), a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who, like all her fellow officers, wears a mask or costume on the job. The police hide their true identities following a deadly, targeted attack from the Rorschach-inspired Seventh Calvary, a white supremacist terror group that's seemingly active once more.

Watchmen: Official Trailer | HBO

From the start, it's clear that Watchmen is going to engage with American racism in a pretty overt way, but the initial framing of the season's presumed conflict — cops versus racists — sparked concerns that Watchmen couldn't or wouldn't handle the full complexity of race in America.

"Watchmen wants to dig into the heart of American racism … by making you like cops," wrote io9's Charles Pulliam-Moore in a review of the first episode, which had an early screening at New York Comic Con. The review is more nuanced than the headline (and later episodes of Watchmen, which comes out only on a weekly basis, are more nuanced as well), but that headline isn't an unfair one. Add to this first impression an earlier story, prompted by an accidental game of telephone following an Entertainment Weekly story that falsely gave the impression that Lindelof "didn't want to moralize" with Watchmen, and the idea of the show earnestly tackling the full scope of American racism seemed dicey.

"May I state for the record: White supremacy is bad," Lindelof tells SYFY WIRE during Watchmen's New York press junket. "Is that moralizing?" He's a little defensive, which is understandable because he never really said that the show would avoid moralizing — those were EW interviewer James Hibbard's words, not Lindelof's.

"I think probably what I was trying to say, if I didn't say it in the first instance," Lindelof clarifies, is that "one of the things that drew me to [the original Watchmen] was that clearly Alan was moralizing about good and evil in the world."

"That said, you take a character like Adrian Veidt, there is moral ambiguity about the choice that he makes," he continues, alluding to the graphic novel's reveal that Veidt, the costumed hero Ozymandias, ended the Cold War by tricking the world into uniting against an extra-dimensional monster of his own making. "Is Adrian Veidt the bad guy because he murdered Edward Blake and 3 million innocent people, or is he the good guy because he saved the world?"

Did It 35 Minutes Ago

"That's the kind of moralizing that I feel is more interesting in the realm of Watchmen, versus something like the Avengers or Justice League, where it's a little bit more, for lack of a better word, black and white. The real world that we live in, the decisions that we make, are much messier," Lindelof explains, later making a direct connection between the slippery slope of policing and vigilantism.

It's not that Lindelof is saying his Watchmen won't call a bad thing bad, it's that it acknowledges that things aren't always that clean-cut. And, crucially, as the show unfolds, the theme seems to be less that there are "very fine people on both sides" and more that there might not be any very fine people.

Still, from just the first episode — and frankly for the majority of the six advance episodes HBO offered to critics — the audiences' sympathies are mostly meant to be on the side of the law. That starts to change, though. There are dark secrets in seemingly upstanding police officers' closets, we see police brutality and enhanced interrogation (with mixed results), and if you're still watching by Episode 6, prepare for a stunner.

"The provenance of the title Watchmen is this idea of 'Who watches the watchmen, and what is a watchman, and who are the people that we appoint to have authority over our society? Are they worthy of our trust?'" Lindelof says. "The answer is, um, not entirely. Sort of? Or, to put a finer point on it, depends what you look like."

Watchmen Police

These are familiar themes for Regina King, who won major awards playing the mother of a victim of police violence and misconduct in both the Netflix series Seven Seconds and the film If Beale Street Could Talk. As Angela Abar (aka Sister Night), King is on the other side, playing a police officer. King, who previously worked with Lindelof on The Leftovers, is very aware of how Watchmen uses its alternate reality to "actually touch on things that are happening now, or how things that have happened to us got us to where we are in this universe we're in."

That said, she tells SYFY WIRE that playing a cop — even one who does encounter racism in unwanted, unexpected ways, as Angela does — was "a bit of a relief."

"It's telling another story that does involve law enforcement, but from a totally different lens," King says of Watchmen compared to Seven Seconds. "So, as while they both could be called dark, I still felt it was a relief to not be the grieving mom."

Watchmen Sister Night

The internet was never invented in the world of the Watchmen TV show, so there's no 8chan or other online pits for resentment and white nationalist views to gestate and grow violent. And Donald Trump isn't president in Watchmen. Instead, the liberal actor Robert Redford is commander in chief and doing his best FDR impression, serving for far longer than two terms and passing a number of progressive bills, including one that gives reparations to victims of the Tulsa Race Riot. Despite (or more likely because of) that, there's still lots of racial unrest and resentment in the world. The racists in the Seventh Cavalry — who come pretty close to directly quoting the 14 words — are coming from a familiar place, one that was actually foreshadowed in Moore's original comic.

"I was just thinking about when Rorschach was talking about 'the elites and the liberals,'" Jean Smart, who plays Laurie Blake, the former Silk Spectre, tells SYFY WIRE. "I had never even heard people use that term 'elites' until towards the end of Obama's administration. And you suddenly realized that there are a lot of people in this country who I think have now found their voice, unfortunately.

"They were tired of being made to feel bad about being a sexist, or tired of feeling bad about being racist, or tired of feeling bad about not being very educated," she continues. "And now it's a matter of pride."

Those people exist in Watchmen, and though the show lightly examines where they're coming from, it doesn't excuse them, which seems important. As one character says in a later episode following a racist revelation about another character, "He's a white man in Oklahoma. What did you expect?"

For Tim Blake Nelson, who plays the mirror-masked cop Looking Glass, the line hits close to home, as Nelson is from Tulsa.

"When I grew up, there was just overt racism everywhere," he tells SYFY WIRE. "I don't look at my state now and say I come from a state of racist [white people]. I don't feel that way at all. I love Oklahoma and I love being from there. But there were aspects of that around me growing up."

Looking Glass Watchmen

There is still overt racism in America, and there's also a deeply damaging amount of institutional racism — like, say, in the justice system, where black Americans are disproportionately killed by police and imprisoned by courts. Watchmen is trying to explore one of the darkest and most integral aspects of American society while also telling an exciting noir-superhero story. That's a tall order.

Superheroes can be a nifty metaphor, exaggerating and simplifying complex themes as needed in order to make them accessible. Only problem is, sometimes those complex themes get exaggerated and simplified. Smart, Nelson, and Lindelof mean well. The writers' room, which is fairly diverse, means well. As the series goes on, it better and more fully explores the intricacies of its chosen topic. Whether that's enough is certainly a worthwhile debate. Perhaps, by the season finale, viewers will be able to say if Watchmen did right in the end.

Although, of course, "nothing ever ends."

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.