Watchmen episode 1 plunges straight through the funhouse mirror into another 2019

Regina King stars as Angela Abar in Watchmen.Sister Night is ready for action in the first episode of Watchmen. | HBO

Here’s what’s different and what’s the same about the HBO show’s new world. Also: Oklahoma!

Watchmen’s series premiere, officially titled “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” is a slick piece of television. The episode skillfully blends real-world fears — the specter of white nationalism is invoked more than once — with the comic book trappings of the show’s source material. The Nite Owl ship from the comic (well, probably not the Nite Owl ship, but a lookalike) makes a brief appearance. And people talk about how Doctor Manhattan lives on Mars.

Yet if you’ve never read the comic, you’ll be able to follow along just fine. And even if you have read the comic, the events of this first episode take place well before and after the story told in print. The show pulls off the difficult feat of telling a story that stands on its own, while being informed by another story entirely. (Weirdly, it also helps if you’ve seen the musical Oklahoma!, whose story is woven in more thoroughly than you might expect.)

I (Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff) have read the book a few times and have seen Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation of it once, and it was nice to realize I could just settle into the new TV show and enjoy myself without studying Wikipedia to figure out what was going on.

But I’ve already talked a lot about how I feel about Watchmen in my official review. And I’m so curious to know what other people think. So this week I’m joined by Vox associate culture editor Allegra Frank to talk about the series premiere.

You can watch the new series whether or not you’ve read the original comic or seen the 2009 film

Three black residents of Tulsa try to flee ahead of the horrors coming.HBO
The first season of Watchmen opens with a horrifying flashback to the Tulsa massacre of 1921.

Emily: Allegra, I gotta start in the most obvious place: How familiar are you with Watchmen, and how did you feel about the pilot on a basic level of “I liked it!” or “I didn’t like it!”? Also, how do you feel about the musical Oklahoma!? The answer will be very important.

Allegra: Despite being a pretty big fan of graphic novels, my knowledge of Watchmen doesn’t extend far beyond “the big-deal comic with the extremely naked blue guy that briefly scandalized me as a preteen.” The same goes for Oklahoma!, except sub out “extremely naked blue guy” for “extremely catchy theme song about a state I have similarly minimal knowledge of.”

But I don’t think my lack of familiarity with Watchmen had any bearing on my enjoyment of the pilot. What I watched was a fascinatingly twisted timeline, a version of 2019 America that still harbors resentment toward the turbulent politics of the 1970s. It left me wanting to know more about how the show’s 2019 differs from our real-world version — up to and including how superheroes exist within it.

What gripped me the most, I think, was very pointedly unrelated to the comic book. I loved the little details that grounded the show’s world, that have nothing to do with superheroes or superpowers or what have you. I’m not a huge fan of supers, I have to admit, so that the show began by throwing it way back to a time of lynchings and racist attacks was fascinating. I didn’t like seeing the little black boy separated from his family and left to care for a newly orphaned baby on his own … but I love a good story about racial power dynamics, and Watchmen offers that in spades in the pilot.

What about you?

Emily: You are in for a treat if you’re not much of a fan of supers, because Watchmen is mostly about regular-ass humans who train themselves to be crime-fighting machines because they’re broken inside (and also a godlike blue man who lives on Mars). It’s a story less about power and more about our desire to believe that power is being wielded responsibly.

I’m speaking about the comic here, but I could also be speaking about this TV show, which begins in literal 1921 and tells the story of the Tulsa massacre, when white citizens killed dozens of residents of the city’s Black Wall Street district and wounded even more, razing property to the ground as they went. We see only brief snippets of this horrible moment in American history in the show itself, but its reverberations are felt in the show’s main timeline — an alternate 2019.

It’s what’s different in that alternate 2019 that has caused some of the gripes about this pilot (which was first screened for TV critics this summer, and then debuted publicly at New York Comic-Con in early October). Watchmen takes place in a world where white supremacist types are killing cops, rather than infiltrating their ranks in insidious ways.

It’s a world where Robert Redford has been president for nearly 30 years and instituted the sort of blandly neoliberal stopgap measures you’d expect a well-meaning rich white liberal to institute. (Reparations — presumably for the descendants of the victims of the Tulsa massacre — are here dubbed “Redfordations,” an idea I love and hate in equal measure, because I know that’s exactly what it would be called.)

And it’s a world where we’re expected to believe, at least initially, that the only people we can trust are the cops, a loaded topic in our 2019.

Here is where I think an understanding of the graphic novel helps, at least a little bit. In the comic, the people who put on masks to fight crime have been deeply wounded on a psychological level. They might be good people in some way. They might even have noble motivations. But using vigilante justice to try to fix their broken society inherently dismantled any society built on the notion that “justice” means a system of checks and balances where no one person can decide your ultimate fate.

The fact that police officers within the show’s universe have become masked heroes is Watchmen’s clearest indication, to me, that it is telling a story where the systems meant to protect us have been irreparably broken. It’s always been true that any one person could ultimately decide your fate if they’re holding a weapon and vested with power by society. But in this iteration of Watchmen, they also have the power of anonymity, which grants them a terrifying kind of authority that can’t be challenged.

There are elements of the show that complicate what I’m talking about, like how police have to get permission to use their weapons. But they fall under a broader umbrella of Watchmen’s examination of unintended consequences, the ways that laws made at a distance from the people they’re meant to protect sometimes just end up being hassles that others find ways to circumvent.

That all sounds heady for a show where a bunch of cows are machine-gunned in its series premiere (RIP to the cows), but that’s what I like about this episode: I come away with new things to consider every time I watch it (and I’m on my third viewing). What did you think of the show’s engagement with larger political ideas? Did you think it was smuggling in any notions that are unintentionally wrongheaded?

What can the musical Oklahoma! tell us about what this Watchmen is up to?

The cops tell Judd that something bad has happened.HBO
Judd gets some bad news while at a performance of Oklahoma!: He has to hear all of Emily VanDerWerff’s opinions about Oklahoma!

Allegra: It is all super heady stuff! But I, for the most part, appreciate that headiness. I like that Watchmen dares to balance not-unfamiliar contemporary politics with the superhero fantasy.

The notion of power is a core theme of Watchmen, the show and (to my understanding!) the original comic too. And it’s something that reflects where we’re at now, politically. Not to suggest that HBO’s Watchmen is one of those on-the-nose Trump-era allegories, but: The show’s vision of 2019 America has a movie star in the White House, many years longer than is appropriate. Prejudice is felt even by young of citizens — when Regina King’s character, Angela, reveals to her child’s school class that she grew up in Vietnam, a tension breaks throughout the room among the predominantly white students. Where did her allegiances lie, their eyes ask? In 2019, real or fictional, kids are inevitably raised to choose sides within our polarized political systems.

I do have to wonder if the racist iconography here is a little … strong. The episode very notably ends with a white man, the Tulsa police chief, lynched and hanging from a tree. A black man is seated below him on the ground, and we recognize him as the adult version of the little boy from the opening sequence, who was separated his parents in the Tulsa massacre. I have yet to see episode two, so I’m not sure what to make of this reveal quite yet. But that is one heck of a strong image to cap the first episode of a show created by a white man, based on the work of white men. I don’t want the racial dynamics to be played for shock; I want black people to not just be suffering, or implicated in suffering.

Which is why I’m so glad that Regina King is the lead character. She is always fantastic in everything she does, and she toes a striking line here with aplomb. That a black woman is our chief hero feels like a crucial grounding point for this version of Watchmen. Emily, are you just as obsessed with badass Regina King as I am?

Emily: Ohhhhhhhhh, my God am I happy to have her here. She’s one of our finest actors, and she’s never had the chance to play anything like this. Her mere presence keeps a lot of the show’s more loaded racial imagery from flying off the rails for me, and I love that Angela’s marriage to Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is such a good, sexy, and strong one while letting her be the more active partner in the relationship. It’s like her character subverts 15 different tropes at once.

King and creator Damon Lindelof worked together before on the second season of The Leftovers, where she played a woman whose life slowly tilted further and further off its axis. She turned in a titanic piece of TV acting in that season, but Watchmen gives her something just as rich to dig in to.

In particular, her relationship with Don Johnson’s character, Judd, offers some rich material to chew on. It’s clear there’s a vaguely paternal vibe there, one that is superficially supportive and loving but which feels as if it’s likely to have whole layers to pull apart. (Okay, I’ve watched ahead; there are definitely layers to pull apart. But this premiere definitely sets up that Angela and Judd have a History, it’s fair to say.)

But there’s also a fun layer of metatextuality at play in Judd’s name, one that reminds me of the comic’s winking way with references to culture and literature. (This is also pretty Lost-ian. That show was super fond of using names to signify certain things. See also: John Locke.) Judd, but minus the second D, is the name of the character who is traditionally the villain in productions of Oklahoma!, a hulking brute of a man who can’t seem to understand that the show’s heroine would rather be with the good-hearted cowboy Curly.

Now, if you read the raw text of Oklahoma!, there’s a lot more going on there. (I’ve written about that here.) But if you are a fan of the musical as it’s traditionally performed — and the brief glimpse we get of Tulsa’s all-black cast version of the show suggests it’s pretty traditionally performed — then you’ll understand what Watchmen is getting at. Judd might have played Curly in his own production of the show, but his name was Judd. We can’t separate good-hearted Curly from potentially violent and horrible Jud because they’re two sides of the same American coin. This country has acted many times to preserve white, patriarchal power structures in the name of preserving a particular image of itself. The divide between “Curly” and “Jud(d)” is no different.

We’ve been talking for quite a bit, and yet we haven’t touched on just how fucking weird this show is. To bring us home, Allegra, were there any elements of this episode that made you say, “Wait, what the hell?”

Allegra: Thank you for giving me that Oklahoma! context that I never knew before.

I want to say that the repeated Oklahoma! references struck me as a bit odd, but they didn’t — for various reasons, including the one you just elucidated for me. I think what I found stranger instead were the subtler changes in the show’s 2019. There’s a President Nixon-themed trailer park, honoring the man with a very different meaning to Watchmen world than in ours. I’m also curious about Angela’s three white children, and what the story is behind that racial dynamic.

Why do cops have to ask for permission to use their weapons? Why are children reticent about a Vietnam-born ex-cop? Why does the dude in the panda mask wear a panda mask? I want to know all the reasons behind the odd changes in this version of 2019, and I’m not convinced I’ll ever get them. But they are a big part of what I like about Watchmen so far, and why I’m eager to jump back in.