HBO’s Watchmen tells stories about America’s racist past in America’s racist present

How do you update Watchmen for 2019?

That might sound like a question with an obvious answer: You just do Watchmen. After all, the graphic novel, which has been consistently in print since its 12-volume run ended in 1987, is pretty terrific, and a TV miniseries version could restore much of the material that had been cut for time in Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation.

A miniseries might also restore at least some of the more cutting subtext that Snyder’s version appeared to misunderstand entirely. When the characters in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s comic commit acts of ultra-violence, the comic doesn’t really present those actions as anything worth celebrating. At best, they’re a grim necessity. At worst, violence is the product of damaged minds.

But the larger issue with updating Watchmen today is that it now reads as a very deliberate period piece. The comic book is set in a world where President Richard Nixon is in his fifth term and threats of nuclear war with the Soviet Union have escalated substantially. It’s a funhouse mirror of the world Moore and Gibbons saw in the 1980s, where Nixon might have been disgraced, but his political philosophy had won the day; a time when nuclear catastrophe seemed inevitable.

But we’re here in 2019, where the long hangover we’re dealing with are the neoliberal economic philosophies of the ’80s, ’90s, and ‘00s, and where the most pressing concern worldwide is the returning specter of nationalism (and explicitly white nationalism in many nations). How do you update Watchmen to be about that?

“What, in 2019, is the equivalent of the nuclear standoff between the Russians and the United States?” series creator Damon Lindelof asked about the original Watchmen’s central question at the 2019 Television Critics Association press tour in July. His answer: “It just felt like it was undeniably race and policing in America.”

The world of Watchmen takes big chances with both the world of the comic and the world we live in now

Regina King and Damon Lindelof behind the scenes of Watchmen.
Damon Lindelof and Regina King discuss Watchmen on its set.
HBO

Let’s start with this: Watchmen writer Alan Moore vehemently opposes adaptations of his work, despite the fact that his work is so good (and so cinematic) that Hollywood has been trying to adapt it basically since he started publishing. Moore’s name is connected nowhere to this HBO adaptation.

Moore’s refusal to participate in adaptations mostly stems from his distaste for essentially anything that reeks of commercialism or selling out. But he also makes an aesthetic argument: Comics are comics, not proving grounds for cinematic ideas. Comics freeze action into discrete moments of time. They create individual panels that allow slightly more contemplation than a movie or TV show, which is always moving. Thus, something that can read as horrific or even unacceptable on the page is far too easy to flatten into something superficially awesome onscreen. (See: Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Watchmen.)

Thus, there’s a very real danger that any creative team trying to take Watchmen and make it about racially motivated violence and the world we live in today would accidentally tell a story that glanced off of those issues in the most superficial manner possible. And for as much as I trust Lindelof with thematically tricky material, he’s still a middle-aged white guy. He could do all the reading and research in the world about structural racism but easily still miss the mark.

“For someone who spends way too much of his time talking, I had to adjust and do a listening posture, which was not easy,” Lindelof told me in an in-person interview shortly before the show’s debut.

Part of his approach, he said, was to build a writers’ room that had only three white men in it, which then forced him to understand just how much white men had been his “tribe” to that point. It required listening to the show’s cast (filled with black actors like Regina King and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). And he learned from there that listening is only half the battle.

“You can’t turn to a black writer and say, ‘Are all black people going to be okay with this idea?’ You can’t turn to a woman and say, ‘Are all women going to be okay with this idea?’” he says. “In order for an idea to live in the writers’ room, we all had to say, ‘That’s a cool story idea.’ And then you can start to have the conversation of ‘Is this idea problematic?’ Then you have to unpack the idea of problematic and whether or not problematic is a bad thing all of the time.”

To be clear: There are going to be plenty of people who will read all of Lindelof’s assurances above and think this is still not his story to tell. I don’t agree — I think this is a terrific TV series — but I also don’t think they’re wrong, if that makes sense.

We’re in an era when figuring out who is allowed to tell which stories is a constantly shifting target. But one thing seems clear to me: Lindelof got to make Watchmen because he’s Damon Lindelof, of Lost and The Leftovers fame. That privilege reflects a Hollywood system that has over-rewarded straight, white, cis men over the years, but it also means that, occasionally, the creators with the most power can use that power to open the door for stories that might not be told otherwise.

Nicole Kassell, who had worked with Lindelof on The Leftovers, directed the show’s first two episodes and established its visual style. She, too, is white, and points to Watchmen as part of an ongoing conversation in the country right now — if you’re a powerful white person and want to help people of color in a system designed to dehumanize them, well, how do you do that without making it all about you? She says that question and others like it were asked frequently on set.

“‘What are we doing?’” the team asked, Kassell told me. “‘Are we safe doing this? Is it okay to do this? Are we the ones who can do this?’ I thought of the quote: ‘If you have a megaphone, you have to use it.’ And Damon’s at a moment in his career where he’s got a megaphone.”

“I openly acknowledge that one of the things that I love most about the original Watchmen was it was yucky, and it made me feel yucky. But I loved it,” Lindelof said. “It’s okay if people feel yucky watching Watchmen, but it’s not okay if they feel like we’re exploiting the systemic pain forced on people of color throughout time for our cool HBO show. So where’s that line? Hopefully we ended up on the right side of it, but we had to be willing to end up on the wrong side of it, knowing that in the pursuit of something authentic, we might be making something dangerous.”

How the cast made an impact on this new and updated Watchmen

Louis Gossett, Jr., and Nicole Kassell behind the scenes of Watchmen
Louis Gossett, Jr., and Nicole Kassell check the script on the set of Watchmen.
HBO

It’s one thing to come up with the scenario for Watchmen. It’s another to star in it, to be right there on screen living out its scenarios. But in a TV environment, the regular cast members routinely have substantial input on the characters they play. And that was especially true for Regina King and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who play Angela and Cal Abar, the series’ central two characters.

“I don’t think it’s very dissimilar at all,” Abdul-Mateen tells me when I ask how the world of the show differs from the real world. “Cal is a black man in a world that looks very much like America. He would definitely go through the same struggles. He would have been discriminated against. He would’ve felt prejudice. He would have a feeling of double consciousness, always watching his own behavior and being careful.”

King, who has had a long career full of terrific work without ever getting to play anyone quite like the ass-kicking character she plays here, worked with Lindelof on The Leftovers and leaped at the chance to work with him again. But she points to times when the show’s black actors did have to step in to explain particular things that some of the white creative staff hadn’t known about.

“Louis Gossett, Jr.’s, character is supposed to be really old, and the first time around, they did his makeup, and then they wanted him to be even older. And Lou was like, ‘I’m black. We don’t age like that,’” King recalls. “Lou still does not look as old as they’ve made him, but they did pull it back [in the end].”

But even if some of the detail work had to be adjusted on the fly, King felt the show got the big things right on the page, especially when it comes to her role as a black woman who’s also a police officer — a fraught intersection for any actor but especially on a show examining racist policing via a genre lens.

“[I wondered], am I playing this right, being a police officer in America where policing is such a fucked up thing?” King says. “But the story itself addresses the history of being black in America and how things have changed and how they have not changed. … I never felt like, are black people going to see this and say, ‘What the fuck, Regina?’”

King says the crew paid attention throughout filming to how America’s racist history informs a present where racism is sometimes more veiled and sometimes much, much less veiled, as is true in our reality and Watchmen’s reality, even in a storyline that might not otherwise have been intended as racial commentary: Angela’s search for answers about her mysterious family tree. (This would not be a Damon Lindelof show without father issues.)

“[Black Americans] don’t know a lot of our history. It was taken away from us,” King says. “In our story, it’s a metaphor for how we’re disconnected from our history. We don’t even know how to get to it. It was taken away from us, and we don’t even know where to begin to find it.”

Will all of this work as a straightforward superhero story or as a larger commentary on American race relations? Only time and audience reactions will tell. For my money, this major gamble has paid off. But I’m not going to be surprised if other viewers feel differently. And regardless, King says, it was worth it just to tell this particular story at this point in time.

“I don’t think that that was by mistake that we start with an orphan [her character],” King says. “So much of this country was built by black people, but yet in a lot of regards, we’re orphans because we don’t know where we’ve come from. There’s a metaphor in there for the history of the real America.”

Watchmen debuts Sunday, October 20, at 9 pm Eastern on HBO.