The Time-Bomb Tension and Thrilling Surreality of HBO’s “Watchmen”

On Television

The Time-Bomb Tension and Thrilling Surreality of HBO’s “Watchmen”

In “Watchmen,” Regina King gives a performance so subtle and muscular as to exhaust all superlatives.Photograph by Mark Hill / HBO

Idig the distinct Ralph Ellison vibes emanated by “Watchmen” (HBO), Damon Lindelof’s adaptation of the great comic series written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons. Settling new territory in the source material’s alternative-history vision of our fallen world, the show is largely set in a warped version of contemporary Tulsa, Oklahoma. Regina King stars as Angela Abar, also known as Sister Knight, a black lady cop with a big job to do dressing up and fighting bad guys. Foremost, she has to shepherd the series’ reckoning with America’s history of slaughter and pillage.

“Watchmen”—and King’s performance—brings Ellison to mind not just because he was a native Oklahoman and an excellent illuminator of unsettling quests for power on this continent but also because of the density and intensity of his vision. The show’s lucid action scenes and perpetual time-bomb tension share a thrilling surreality—a hyperreal vision of how race plays across structures and lives—with Ellison’s “Cadillac Flambé” and his big, posthumous thing “Three Days Before the Shooting . . .” (forbiddingly baggy at more than a thousand pages). They all share a way of facing history with a broken mirror. This might sound a bit far-fetched, but the show, among its disorienting provocations, definitely places itself in conversation with the American canon and issues of black heritage. The sheriff in this town (Don Johnson) is first seen in the audience and an all-black staging of “Oklahoma!,” in an episode titled, after Richard Rodgers, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice.” This alternate universe—a place where Richard Nixon won great glory and many multiple terms, and the republic is now led by Robert Redford—imagines, at one point, that Henry Louis Gates is the Secretary of the Treasury and available to help with a DNA test at a video kiosk. Gates plays himself. “If you like, you can call me Skip,” he says.

This is absurd, and that’s half the point. Thematically, Abar’s missions include avenging, in some cosmological sense, the Tulsa race riots of 1921—the Black Wall Street massacre, in which white mobs stormed and shot up and firebombed a bastion of black wealth. The historical scene engages the show’s themes: power and justice, aggressive oppression and superheroic resistance. Credit for this, and many other crackerjack sequences that follow, goes to the cinematographer Chris Seager, who translates the panel-by-panel perspective of Gibbons’s work onto the screen with a clarity that rebukes the hectic mayhem of so many big-screen superhero flicks. The images the series offers, the tableaux, are ideas in themselves. Get a load of how masks reframe identities and personae, as when one of the good guys, Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), sheaths his noggin in a kind of eyeless Mylar alien skin while interrogating a suspected white supremacist. The interrogator’s head reflects evocative pop images of love and hate that flash across the walls of the room, like some kind of Ludovico-technique video installation.

This is the place in a review where I am supposed to give a linear synopsis of the series, but I’m not sure how much good that would do you, given the show’s commitment to the alinear, the elliptical, and the askew. Six episodes into a series of nine, I’m not even sure what would count as a spoiler, because I don’t know where things are going, or what kind of necklace you get by stringing together the beads of these ace performances and provocative concepts. There are moments in which “Watchmen” recalls Lindelof’s “The Leftovers,” in its moving evocation of catastrophic mood, as well as in its attention to the dynamics of the nuclear family and the dysfunctions of the society for which that family is the basis. (Also, there are moments when it recalls Lindelof’s “Lost,” when I did not care to understand what was going on.)

Striding through Tulsa in her superhero costume, the hem of her cape swishing in her wake, King gives a performance so subtle and muscular as to exhaust all superlatives. Elsewhere, Jeremy Irons opulently dwells, clad in the robes of as Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt, attended by two body servants who share a palpable excitement for his spectral creepiness. It would be unthinkable not to hang around long enough to see if there’s a showdown between King and Irons on an anti-escapist thriller about the colossal wreck that been made of Indian territory. “Watchmen” is to the superhero genre what a revisionist Western is to a basic cowboy myth, with John Wayne in the saddle of the national identity. It’s good enough to warrant repeat viewing. Is it coherent enough to withstand it?

  • Troy Patterson is a staff writer at The New Yorker.Read more »

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