1585 Words on Watchmen (2019)
6 min read

1585 Words on Watchmen (2019)

Found and lost families, archives, history, storytelling, and a moment for Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner

The appeal of intricately patterned art — one reason complex art feels more elevated than simple art, even though they’re both hard to make in different ways — is that part of something usually seems better than all of it. I noticed this about Watchmen (2019),  because I saw the last three episodes of the series last December and caught up with the first six this week. The last three felt dizzying, limitless; so did the first five; by the time I watched the sixth — the most iconic of all, “This Extraordinary Being” — I realized with a start that the show was just a show, and its awareness of those limits is part of what makes it a masterpiece.

I owe the root of this reading to Grace Lavery, but Watchmen is both a response and a riposte to Alan Moore and the things he chose to imagine about America. He set the book in the United States, presumably because America is the home of Superman, and Moore was in the eighties a talent so titanic that he felt he could understand anything. It’s easy to fake a reasonable knowledge of the United States; our pop culture is ubiquitous, and it’s all too eager to talk to you. But we’re a complex country, and our theme is lying to ourselves — the way the Vulcans’ theme is logic and the Klingons’ is formalized violence. That culture is a bright light, and it’s meant to dazzle. You need to be profoundly aware of this to tell an American story, and perhaps Moore was not.

This brings me back to my initial theme. A complex work keeps you from seeing all of it at once. It encourages connection, which is to say that it encourages distraction. You’re never just thinking of the moment you’re watching. You’re thinking of the ways it all connects, and the side stories that those connections imply. You’re always a little dissociated, and with dissociation comes an oracular feeling.  This is part of why, if you’re going to watch something very complex and very meaningful, you owe it to yourself to watch it all. Drink it to the dregs, so you can see the craft — so you don’t mistake something very good at evoking limitless possibility for actual limitless possibility, which is something only gods can do.

Here are several fragments of insight about Watchmen (2019). They will all spoil both the book and the series, but we have other things to worry about today.

Adrian Veidt’s storyline is the most marvelous piss-take on The Prisoner — the best reaction to The Prisoner that I’ve ever seen. In both series, an impossibly privileged man — tall and blond and white, privy to enormous secrets of state, capable of looking good in any outfit, imprisoned in a place of mouthwatering beauty which sees to all of his needs before he can imagine them — is in rebellion against his state of privilege and comfort.

What could this man want that he’s not been provided? In Number 6’s case, I’ve always felt that it’s something to read (surely there are books in the Village, but I don’t remember seeing any). And privacy, of course. In Veidt’s case, the desire is for struggle and challenge. The Village isn’t enough; he wants a brand-new Number 2 (and one of the good ones, mind — he won’t settle for less than Leo McKern).

Watchmen juxtaposes Veidt against a dozen other characters whose struggles and challenges are less voluntary. Angela is a Black woman living in a racist country; Lady Trieu, for all her wealth and genius, is a Vietnamese woman living under colonialism; Looking Glass carries his burdens of religious and psychic trauma; Laurie Blake’s doing the best of anyone, except that she’s lost everyone she’s ever loved.

Veidt’s privilege is absent along one memorable axis, of course. As in the book and the Snyder film, he’s all but stated to be gay and deeply closeted (ask me my theory about Number 6 and I’ll tell you the same thing, but that’s another essay for another time). I don’t know quite what to say about that, except that Veidt, à la Roy Cohn in Angels in America, appears to consider himself too rich and powerful to be queer; also, I don’t think the show cares very much to engage with queer identity at all, which I suppose is its right. Perhaps it’s just as well, given how poorly the book handles queerness. There’s some Buffalo Bill stuff going on with Rorschach that I’d prefer not to examine. Sometimes it’s fine not to go too hard with a theme you know you won’t handle well.

There’s one exception to Watchmen’s disengagement from its heroes’ queerness, and that’s its overruling preoccupation with unorthodox family. There are no straightforwardly nuclear families in this most anti-nuclear of stories. Every family is broken up, or lovingly adoptive, or else they’re a solo person, a single unit.

Still, family is central to the story. We watch the knitting-together of the Reeves-Abar family, over multiple generations of trauma and a thousand near-misses of potential closeness; we see the complicated and somewhat intellectualized, but profound, bond between Angela and her adopted children. Then we have the Veidt-Trieu family, who are all fucking supervillains and regard each other with a 1:1 mixture of hatred and pride, which are by far their favorite emotions.

Sometimes there are biological connections in these chosen families, but those aren’t portrayed as important for their own sake. Instead, they’re all about the recognition of similarity, even with someone you’ve never met. Angela is very much like her grandfather, Will Reeves; Lady Trieu is very much like both her father, Adrian Veidt, and her mother, Bian. Their reactions to this are very different. Multiple episodes of horror and despair and love have to play across Regina King’s incredible face before she reconciles her heart with Will, while Trieu seems fine with being a megalomaniac from a line of megalomaniacs; she just wants to rub their faces in the fact that she’s the best at it. A friend once told me of the real fear they felt at meeting their biological parent for the first time, and seeing themselves explained completely, as if their personality were written out in a book. This neutral fear of self, and the corresponding joy of discovering one is not alone, are central to Watchmen’s vision of family.

All the main families in Watchmen are happy in the end. Angela’s beloved husband dies, but he and she become one flesh through supernatural means. Veidt kills his daughter, but like I said, that’s kind of their thing. Some narcissists just want children who will validate them, and the Veidt-Trieus validate each other quite powerfully in the only way they can understand.

  1. Watchmen is a profoundly archival show. Angela learns the truth about Will’s identity through genealogical research, augmented by a movingly well-funded and high-tech Black archives and museum. She also cannot bring herself to destroy one piece of evidence when covering up Will’s murder of Judd: a hundred-year-old piece of ephemera which is all he has left of his parents. Laurie’s parodic Dr. Manhattan sex toy, Adrian’s crown and watch, Hooded Justice’s noose, Judd’s Klan robe: artifacts matter on this show, and again and again, people preserve them past the time of their original use. This is what archiving is. Obviously, some of these artifacts have uglier meanings than others, but what’s important is that they’re preserved, and we learn something from them about what these people value.

Watchmen centers Black characters — something Moore’s book, to put it mildly, did not do. The most prominent Black character in Moore’s Watchmen is Rorschach’s psychiatrist, whose absurd job is to be taught, by a white man, about the violence underlying American culture. It’s a great book and a vital one, but Moore’s treatment of this character is tokenistic and minor. The series seeks to make up for this, and I think (albeit as a white viewer who isn’t wholly qualified to judge) that it succeeds.

It also interrogates its own decisions and methods surrounding this, most prominently in the first episode, which features two Black actors playing Western heroes — in a 1920s silent film and a 2019 all-Black production of Oklahoma!, respectively. Both productions are presented overtly as fictions which don’t have any independent power to change society. The film about Bass Reeves is interrupted by a Klan massacre, and Oklahoma! is attended by Judd and his wife, who are the Klan. At the same time, both fictions adapt true stories — Reeves was a real person, and an all-Black Old West town was a common phenomenon in Oklahoma. Together, the film and the musical seem to say: I may look revisionist if you haven’t done some basic research, but I’m telling the story of America.

Watchmen leans towards cynicism in its portrayal of storytelling. Again, it does not present the act of storytelling as inherently powerful, or even as inherently morally good. But it does present it as worth doing, and even vital. You can tell these things are true by the real violence that the show’s racists inflict when someone points out a story that they don’t like.

Watchmen’s delineation of the precise limits of storytelling through this diptych — its full recognition that it is just a show — shows a humility and moral seriousness before history that I treasure. It has that rarest of traits in American media: it knows exactly what it’s doing.