Watchmen Series Review: Beautifully chaotic and utterly compelling
This spin-off series to the Watchmen of the 1980's, tackles race and policing in a context that is both in keeping with the theme of the comics as well as the current times
When I first watched Snyder's Watchmen a decade ago, what really struck me and left a deep impact on me long after the credits rolled, was this mask of Rorschach. The character — my first tryst with an antihero — was supremely compelling, but it was that mask that really grabbed my imagination. It was an ever-changing inkblot based on how the man behind the mask felt at any point of time and those inkblots were part of a deeper psychological test. After I read the graphic novel created by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins, I realised how different the novel and movie were, and it took this new Watchmen series to once again show us the importance of masks, and even more so that particular mask.
Cast: Regina King, Jeremy Irons, Tim Blake Nelson, Jean Smart
Creator: Damon Lindelof
Set in 2019, the TV series takes place in the world of the original Watchmen graphic novel. Robert Redford, who had just announced he was looking at a possible run for Presidency in the comic, has now been president of the USA for 27 years. Called Redfordations, the president has announced reparations to the black community across the country. White people live in ghettos, one of which has a humongous cheery Nixon statue flush with the V sign. Race tensions are at a high and a group calling itself the Seventh Kavalry, has declared war on police and police brutality.
In a country where the 1977 Keen Act has effectively outlawed vigilantes and masked heroes, the entire police force wears yellow hoodies and a small section of the police officers wear masks — all to fight off such fringe outfits seeking anarchy. One of the officers called Looking Glass who wears a mask that is so silvery that a couple of officers use it as a mirror. Yet as the episodes (six of a total nine were made available to us for this review) wear on, you see how this little detail plays in exposing who these officers really are. Add to this, Glass is also a human lie-detector — so his mask offers his eyes, which seek out the truth from the person sitting in front of him, a cover too. To play such a complicated character, with and without his mask, you need an actor of some gravitas and Tim Blake Nelson, who has had a tremendous couple of years, provides exactly that. His southern drawl takes some getting used to, but he hooks you so much that you can be forgiven for thinking he is a primary character.
The actual character upon whom this show is anchored is Angela Eibar (played by Academy and Emmy Award-winner Regina King). She is a black woman who, after suffering a grievous injury as part of the Kavalry's attack, retires from the police force only to realise her dreams of protecting the law of the land as a masked cop called Sister Night. To Sister Night, the mask is as much physical as it is metaphorical — she only paints her eyelids black while wearing a nun costume. Yet the devil is in the details as she provides and seeks salvation throughout.
Alan Moore will probably never watch this show (he has famously disassociated himself from all Watchmen adaptations) yet he would be proud to see that the spirit of his graphic novel is alive and well here. The show pits black people, who form the powerful police, against the white people, who are relatively powerless. This juxtaposition, while seemingly naive at the start, truly attains its end as the show proceeds. What happens when a subservient class attains affluence and gets recognition are firmly shown, established, and then torn asunder. At a time when no superhero movie has ever gone beyond the surface, the writing in this weekly show is going to unmask quite a lot of solutions for what they are actually — band-aids on long festering wounds.
Damon Lindelof, when he created and ran Lost, showed he's a master at balancing longer world-building with character-driven episodic pieces. In Jeremy Irons, he has an actor who is entirely compelling you every time he is onscreen. In Jean Smart, he has another top draw actor who provides the Moore-esque sardonic wit and nihilism required for the Watchmen world. But both these characters are also a link to the older Watchmen, and it is this that shows how much of a fan Lindelof is, first and foremost. He builds upon the lore, stays true to the character development over years, and then he provides a huge 'What if?' twist to the whole plotline that will make you go, "Oh snap!"
Not since The True Detective has HBO provided a compelling new series like this. The writing is likely to mask the muted visuals and the ornate music that just are about perfectly spooky. But this is quite a lavish production. Be it 1959, 1985, or 2019, Tulsa, New York, or even the planet Jupiter, the visuals are always perfect and the editing is so seamless, it provides the smoothest of transitions between some character-enhancing scenes.
Oscar Wilde once said, "Give a person a mask and he will tell you the truth!" In a world where truth is constantly under attack, and perception is all that separates truths and lies, Alan Moore first tore it all up and served us Watchmen — a rigorous look at idolatory. Lindelof's sequel has Jean Smart's character asking Regina King, "You know how you can tell the difference between a masked cop and a vigilante?" and when King replies, "No," Smart says, "Me either." That is the joke The Comedian once made us aware of. Lest we forget, lest history repeat itself, it is a good reminder for us all to think of the masks which people, who claim to be custodians of different things, wear. For who, indeed, watches the Watchmen?
(Watchmen is running episodically on Hotstar and Star World on Mondays)