Regina King plays Sister Night in HBO's Watchmen.

Watchmen Redux

Dept. of Radical Revisionist Histories


In his introduction to the 2013 collected edition of Watchmen, Dave Gibbons writes of his and Alan Moore’s breathtaking work of staggering genius, that “for all its breadth and detail, actual and implied, Watchmen is finite, as closed and complete as a varnished oil painting or, perhaps, a delicate clock mechanism.”

The original twelve issues, first serialised in 1986, is a deluge of words and pictures and ideas, across some three hundred and forty or so pages, that have, over the last three decades given rise to a sprawling and unending conversation. The comic, which begins with a superhero murder mystery, quickly evolves into a series of mediations that mirror the cultural mood of the 1980s. Watchmen, for better or for worse, speaks to the zeitgeist of a tense and troubling time in the history of America, and it does so, successfully avoiding the clichés of that Billy Joel song, while at the same time holding true to it’s refrain: “We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning, we didn’t start the fire, no we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.”

Gibbons is right. His and Moore’s work is absolute. It is finished in every sense of the word. Which goes some way to explain the shortcomings of Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation. The problem there was that Snyder didn’t make any real decisions. There were no actual choices as to what should be kept in and what should be left out. There was no attempt at interpretation, or even at translation. His effort wasn’t at all interested in determining what impact, if any, those stories had, 23 years after they were first published. Snyder’s Watchmen was a piece of work so fanatically faithful to the source material that it failed to tell us anything new.

Regina King stars in HBO's Watchmen.

Which brings us to now, more than a decade later, and Damon Lindelof’s nine episode take on comicdom’s most seminal work. Some have called it an adaptation. Others, a remix. But the series, which takes place 30 years after the original, in the same, familiar, fucked-up world, is very much a sequel. Lindelof knew that to attempt a remake would be both thankless and pointless. And so he created something entirely new.

Which is something he doesn’t quite get enough credit for. Yes, this Watchmen is “based” on that Watchmen, but it is almost completely different. It is something all on its own. Finite. Closed. Complete. So much so that it doesn’t matter one bit if you’ve never read the comic or seen the movie.

Jeremy Irons is Ozymandias in HBO's Watchmen.

Watchmen, the comic, was too much a product of its time. One that began by interrogating, and then satirising, our preoccupation with superheroes, before ending with an absurdist tragedy in which a plumed billionaire genius averts a nuclear war by unifying the United States and the U.S.S.R. against an imaginary alien-squid invasion.

Contained within those two broad strokes were other stories that spoke to the fears and apprehensions of the Cold War. There is Rorschach’s nihilist morality, the Comedian’s ignoble patriotism, as well as the corruption, hubris, and war-mongering that goes hand-in-hand with authoritarianism. (In Moore’s version of reality, Nixon is serving his fifth consecutive term as President.) There was also the incredibly baroque Tales of the Black Freighter, a story which ran parallel to Ozymandias’ own (the aforementioned plumed billionaire genius), that comic within a comic which created its own mythology and spoke to the fallibility of man.


In HBO’s Watchmen, Vietnam is still the 51st state, Robert Redford is the president, and a cult of Rorschach worshipping rednecks have crawled out from the underbelly of private American discourse to terrorise the populace at large. All of the original comic’s concerns are replaced with one, big, overarching question. How much of who we are is a mask?

If racism is ingrained, and the descent into fascism is but one crisis away, how can we trust that society, as we know it, is built on more than just a fragile foundation of accepted couths and norms?

Jean Smart is Laurie Blake in HBO's Watchmen.

In Lindelof’s future, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Only the ones doing the watching and policing are now forced to adopt secret identities, cover their faces, and hide their jobs even from their family members. The relationship between the police and the public is a fraught one. Even in the inverse. Black or white, it is the badge that taints you.

Damon Lindelof (like Alan Moore before him) does what all great writers do. They read the room, recognise the defining spirit of the time – often before anyone else – and channel that, by way of allegory, into something that enlightens us about who we are at any particular moment. What seems like prescience, even divine knowledge, is in fact an understanding that’s rooted in a keen awareness of how the world works.

And it is demonstrated by just how relevant these nine episodes have become. In speaking to systemic racism, authoritarianism, police brutality, and even the deep state, Lindelof’s Watchmen has become something of a defining treatise on Donald Trump’s America. It even seeks to explain how the most liberal democracies can quickly and easily descend into totalitarianism.

Policemen in masks? Familiar? Damon Lindelof's got your number.

Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen is great. These are nine episodes that honour Moore and Gibbons’ work by straying from it. By reshaping it to suit our present day fantasies. By picking up loose threads and stitching them together so cleverly that it would be impossible to read it in any other way. (See: Episode 6, “This Extraordinary Being,” which is, hands down, the best episode of television in 2019.)

It may be different, but it does stay true to the modus operandi of the original. First, by using the myths and legends we’ve created to help us better understand ourselves to challenge the purpose of those very myths and legends. And then by going further, questioning their creation, as well as their role as arbiters of our individual stories.

Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen will leave you reeling with its ambition. It’ll leave you giddy by how well it pulls off everything it sets out to do. It is radical. It is audacious. It is the kind of revisionist history we need to feed our current condition.

Watchmen received a total of 26 nominations for the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards, which were announced in Los Angeles on 28 July.

You can watch all 9 episodes of Watchmen on HBO Go. And you really, really should.

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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