MCC Home Video Scorecard #18: Temporarily Free HBO Presents “Watchmen”

Sister Night!

Sister Night and the tea. Your move, Baby Yoda.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: the recurring feature that’s more like a newsletter in which I’ve jotted down capsule-sized notes about Stuff I Recently Watched at home. Plan A for Thanksgiving weekend had been a combination of reading, writing, and watching. One of those three won out thanks to a confluence of unrelated factors, all involving TVs and streaming media.

Anne and I are old-fashioned cable subscribers, but I cut all premium channels from our lineup over a decade ago for (mostly) cost-cutting reasons. A few times per year, our provider will allow limited access to one or more of those high-falutin’ deluxe stations for the space of an entire weekend, a taste of what we’ve been missing to lure us into throwing more monthly money at them because only they have the cure for TV FOMO. For me those free weekends represent surprise binge opportunities, an indulgence that staves off any temptation of permanent signup. For this past holiday weekend they granted us free HBO from Thursday through Monday. I could’ve picked up where I left off on the previous “Watch-a-Thon” and continued my dive into Flight of the Conchords…but I decided to go with something a bit more current, much harsher and a lot less melodic.

I was 14 when the original Watchmen maxiseries launched, 15 when it finished, and a few years older still when I more or less declared its sum The Best Book I’ve Ever Read for much of my adult life. I’ve long held in my mind that I needed no sequels, remakes, or brand extensions. After years of attempts to translate the intrinsically comics-based narrative into another medium it was never meant for, Zack Snyder finally saw one through to completion and enabled Hollywood to get that long-held wish out of its system. No film version would ever fully succeed in grasping or simulating all its complexities, but Snyder’s take offered more inspired choices than expected — oblique satire of other superhero films, Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach, the alt-history opening credits, and a bit more. Between that and DC Comics’ own unnecessary “Before Watchmen” prequels, I hoped we were done with the Watchmen nostalgia machine.

Then along came HBO and writer Damon Lindelof, mastermind of such projects as Lost, The Leftovers, the not-great Prometheus, and a well-drawn Marvel miniseries in which the Hulk ripped Wolverine into halves. Rather than re-adapting a book whose film version underperformed (cf. HBO’s His Dark Materials), Lindelof and crew concocted a nine-episode sequel set decades after the events of the graphic novel — disregarding Snyder’s alterations, extrapolating further developments after the original consequences, and daring to add new characters. I skimmed a few online reviews, saw intriguing glimmers of the new direction, and admittedly got curious. I still wasn’t interested in paying extra to watch more Watchmen, but for free? Sure, why not.

Decades after the super-intelligent Ozymandias ended the Cold War by uniting Earth with a hoax involving a genetically engineered psychic space squid and the murder of three million New Yorkers, free-roaming superheroes are still illegal under the Keene Act, though Senator Keene’s son (Mad Men‘s James Wolk, still a disarming charmer) is now in politics, and acts a mite friendlier. Once his several terms came to an end, Richard Nixon finally relinquished the Presidency to Robert Redford (Sir Not Appearing in This Show), who’s been POTUS since 1992. Laurie Juspeczyk, the erstwhile Silk Spectre (Legion‘s Jean Smart, having waaay more fun here) now works for the FBI as a hero hunter and uses her dad’s last name. The genocidal Ozymandias (stately Jeremy Irons) lives in a faraway castle accompanied only by his intellect, his routine, his clone servants (including multiples of Sleepy Hollow star Tom Mison), and a series of increasingly absurd pastimes and projects. Doctor Manhattan continues hiding from tedious humanity, but America remains permeated with the advancements and alterations that his godlike superpowers wrought. (Rorschach is still vapor. Nite-Owl is written out in a single line of dialogue.)

In this strange near-future, the focus shifts from NYC to Tulsa, Oklahoma, from the Minutemen and their original successors to a new roster of properly deputized adventurers. The ongoing war between the police and local white supremacists has escalated to such violent heights that the chief of police (’80s stud Don Johnson) requires the entire force to wear masks that conceal their identities and protect their loved ones. All those comic-book superheroes who feared revealing their secret identities had it easy back in their day; with today’s internet and its copious online research materials and tools, digging up dirt on opponents is easier than ever. So the good guys cover their faces with bandannas the same yellow shade as the Comedian’s smiley-face button; the bad guys co-opt Rorschach’s inkblot facade using cheap materials they probably shoplifted from Hobby Lobby.

Rorschachs!

The closed-captioning can’t decide if they’re called the Seventh Kavalry or the Seventh Kalvary. There’s definitely a K.

Fortunately for Tulsa they have a few specialists on their side. Leading the charge is Academy Award Winner Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) as Sister Night, a former cop turned no-nonsense bruiser whose story in episode 7 reveals she has one of the best name-origins ever. Her cohorts have names like the Red Scare and Pirate Jenny (Jessica Camacho, a.k.a. Gypsy from The Flash), but her most competent ally is scene-stealer Tim Blake Nelson (last seen ruling The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) as Looking Glass, a scruffy survivalist in a reflective mask whose stilted manners and creepy, hyper-analytical approach to interrogation veer unnervingly toward blatant Rorschach Junior territory. Thankfully Nelson fully owns the performance and steers clear of Walter Kovacs’ full-tilt, rabid-dog paranoia. So far, anyway.

Other familiar faces along for the ride include Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman, Black Mirror), curiously cast as Sister Night’s Concerned Husband; Frances Fisher (Titanic) as Don Johnson’s Concerned Wife; Louis Gossett, Jr., as a hundred-year-old man with a wheelchair and a big jar of exposition; and Jake McDorman (Jeff the reincarnated lover from What We Do in the Shadows) in flashbacks as the old-school Captain Metropolis. Fleeting moments are reserved for other folks from the worlds of The Sopranos, Oz, Supernatural, and The Hunger Games.

These, then, are our heroes, villains, and ostensible bystanders of today. Once again the world is deadlocked on the brink of a seemingly imminent catastrophe, but the original hot-button topic of the Cold War has been smartly supplanted by ripped-from-the-headlines, nigh-irreconcilable race war. Tulsa reverberates a century later as ground zero of the Black Wall Street Massacre of 1921, a horrifying event I definitely never learned about in school, horrifyingly reenacted in episode 1 for us ignorant outsiders. Given the Midwest has been a battleground in elections and in political discussions — frequently caught between rival coastal journalists combing America’s Heartland for their contrarian human-interest pieces — it’s an apt setting for some unconventional dismantling of preconceptions and forms. This time the target doesn’t seem to be merely superheroes. Episode 6 in particular, a visually daring digression into the secret origin of Hooded Justice, takes the groundwork of preceding episodes and builds on a central thesis regarding the uses and implications of masks worn both in societal interactions and in front of our families.

But the more things change, the more they don’t. Once again there’s a key murder, a deepening mystery, flashbacks alternating with plot movements, layered symbols and Easter eggs that mean more later on, dour moods a-plenty, mirrored scene transitions, obscure quotes used as installment titles, squids that don’t belong, a secret plan to save the world through potentially monstrous means (I’m guessing), and numerous other callbacks to the groundbreaking creation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. A lot of imagination and brainstorming effort was put into differentiating the new Watchmen from the old, but they’ve laid down a pattern so close to identical that if you step back far enough, the two works are like halves of a Rorschach mask.

Looking Glass!

Evildoers gaze upon Tim Blake Nelson and despair.

Seven episodes in, the developments and shenanigans are frequently bewildering, but the show explains much as it goes along, doling out answers to questions great and small to keep the viewer mollified and hooked while portions of the Big Picture stay occluded a bit longer. At the heart of it all, a device called the Millennium Clock looms large. We’re told by its inventor, the trillionaire genius Lady Trieu (Hong Chau), that “it tells time!” We suspect it’ll do more. We know she has a plan, a way with science, and a bevy of more underlings than she cares to admit. As I hit “Publish” on this entry, the figurative nuclear bombshell at the end of episode 7 promises tougher times, rougher shocks, and longer flashbacks dead ahead.

I’m not wild about the pervasive F-bombs or abundant HBO selling points that one grim detective character refers to as “sex stuff”. The morose atmosphere, likewise carried over from its print predecessor, feels more oppressive and off-putting in live-action than it ever was in print. (Well, except Rorschach’s origin. Reading that issue at age 14 ruined me for days.) I’m also currently coping with superhero burnout that’s had me curtailing my TV and comics-collecting habits, and not exactly yearning to wallow in more superhero deconstruction, which isn’t a rare gem in my worlds. And yet…I’m curious to know how the rest of the puzzle will work out, where the pieces will fall, what the remaining enigmas add up to, and, assuming plans were built upon a solid foundation, What It All Means Inna Final Analysis.

Regular HBO viewers will know closure (or Lindelof’s version of it, for what that’s worth) long before I will. My free HBO weekend ended days ago, which means I won’t get to see this Sunday’s episode or next week’s season finale until my cable provider’s next HBO Watch-A-Thon. I mean, I could pay a couple of one-time charges to see those last two online as soon as they’re available…but nah. I’m still not interested in shelling out extra cash to feed DC’s addiction to revivals.

Besides, the way I see it, this is my way of replicating one of the most memorable aspects of the original Watchmen reading experience: the long wait for those concluding chapters. The original twelve-issue maxiseries’ monthly publishing schedule went wonky after issue #9 or so, resulting in staggered release dates and more anxious anticipation of The End. Modern readers who experienced it in trade paperback form missed out on that irksome inconvenience. Reliving trivial, seemingly pointless aspects like that are my kind of nostalgia.

(Postscript: once I caught up on Watchmen, my antidote to its grim-and-gritty veneer lay mere pixels away: a very different sort of grittiness via the phenomenal Bill Hader in season 2 of HBO’s Barry, another series about people with dark secrets hiding behind masks of their own creation, trying to define their own narratives, and often resorting to cover-ups, lies, and graphic violence. It’s deeply tragic yet frequently funnier. I like to think Edward Blake would’ve been a huge fan.)

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