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Watchmen 1.1 Review – ‘It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice’

October 21, 2019 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
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Watchmen 1.1 Review – ‘It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice’  

[Warning: spoilers abound for those who have not seen Sunday’s season premiere of Watchmen.]

HBO is a network at a crossroads: a crossroads called “How do we find another Game of Thrones-style hit?” The premium cable network has perhaps been the most successful channel at staving off viewer erosion from the rise of streaming services, largely thanks to its now-dead fantasy juggernaut. Game of Thrones powered many people toward HBO Go and HBO Now, but it’s in the rear view mirror and while there are no small number of solid to great shows on the network, it’s a lot harder to justify spending $15 a month on one channel – even one with Succession and Westworld — when you consider what’s coming on Disney+ for all of $6.99 a month.

Luckily, HBO is a network that isn’t afraid to swing for the fences. Which, of course, brings us to why you’re all here: Watchmen. Damon Lindelof is making the boldest of possible choices when it comes to comic book adaptations: creating an original sequel to one of the most beloved, acclaimed graphic novels of all time. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is an extremely risky proposition. DC Comics learned that when it announced its Before Watchmen series. Fans of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons original swear by it and considering how hostile Moore is to adaptations of his works, a sequel series is practically like jabbing the bear (the bear being Moore’s fans) with an iron poker.

And let’s be clear: there is absolutely no doubt that there will be people unhappy with Watchmen. There are, in the first episode alone, a dozen or more things for people to rage at. But with all due respect to those who take issue with the very concept of this series existing, Lindelof deserves a ton of credit here, at least if the premiere episode is anything like what’s coming. The first hour presents itself as a series that doesn’t just rehash what we know from Moore and Gibbons’ work, but instead becomes its own story right away that feels very authentic to the world of the Minutemen.

Watchmen Seventh Kalvary

In advancing the storyline of Watchmen to the current era – September of 2019, specifically – Lindelof starts by going to the past. Our first images from the episode are of a silent film about Bass Reeves, “The Black Marshal of Oklahoma.” We get a few moments of a young black boy watching the film before we learn with horrifying clarity what they really are: The Black Wall Street Massacre of Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921.

Both Bass Reeves and the Black Wall Street Massacre are real things; Reeves was the first black deputy U.S. marshal to operate west of the Mississippi, and the Black Wall Street Massacre was the truly repugnant act of white residents perpetuating violence on the wealthiest black community in the United States at the time. Putting these elements almost side-by-side, Lindelof reinforces Watchmen’s setting as the place Alan Moore laid out. It’s very easy to see Bass Reves and the Massacre – a symbol of equality on the screen at the same time that black people are being targeted en masse on their own businesses and homes based on flimsy pretenses – as a precursor to the media propaganda machine as seen in Watchmen’s 1980s. And, to be frank, it’s not hard to see that as a reflection, heightened though it may be, of our own world.

Moving to the modern era brings us to a melding of Watchmen’s costumed crime-fighting dystopia with the deeply polarized climate of the real 2019. In the past 30 years since Adrian Veidt unleashed his giant squid-monster to kill millions and put an end to the Cold War, the spirit of Rorschach has lived on. His mask has become the symbol of the new white supremacy, now known as the Seventh Kalvary. I imagine this is going to piss some people off; Rorschach is perhaps the most popular character in the series. But it also fits with the themes of Watchmen’s world quite effectively. We can argue until the end of time over whether Rorschach was racist or not. There’s plenty of people on both side of that debate, and it hasn’t been solved in thirty-plus years. But either way, it fits in Moore’s Watchmen because it’s an example of how symbols become distorted and twisted into dark visions of what they once were.

Watchmen Night Sister

Of course, that’s not the only thing in “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” that portrays the dystopia of the source material, by a long shot. In 2019, the police have taken to wearing masks to hide their identities out of fear of reprisal from citizens that no longer trust or respect their authority. Patrol officers wear a standard yellow mask; detectives go with personalized looks. This brings us to Sister Night, Looking Glass, and Red Scare.

The premiere clearly sets up the initial conflict that blows the plot open in the Tulsa Police vs. 7K, as the Seventh Kalvary is known in short. The 7K’s twisted melding of Rorschach’s ideology with KKK beliefs has them fighting back against a police force that seems to be pretty heavy on African Americans. It’s an interesting juxtaposition here. The 7K are racist ideologues and committing acts of terror; on the other hand, the police are employing fascist tactics that make some of the acts on The Shield look tame by comparison. Much like Moore’s world where Rorschach’s absolutism and misanthropy and Jon’s disassociation aren’t much better than Veidt’s plots, the police are the lesser of two evils – and that’s only because we’re being presented with them as the “good guys” for now.

This is the kind of story that can turn people off quickly, and that’s why it’s such a bold choice for HBO to tell this in a nine-episode series. It’s hard for people to watch a film like Joker, which is just two hours of unredeemable characters. Nine hours of it is a big ask for viewers, and you must have a lot of faith in your story. Fortunately, the way forward is moderately clear by the end of the episode when we find Chief Judd Crawford, out to visit his wounded officer in the hospital, lynched and hung from a tree. While the hints are there that Will Reeves (the young boy from 1921, all grown up) planned this out, it’s a big much to think he actually could lift 200 pounds the way he asked earlier in the episode. Moore Watchmen based its plot around a central murder mystery in The Comedian, and it’s clear that HBO’s Watchmen will be doing the same with Judd’s murder.

Watchmen Adrian Veidt

Less clear in terms of his role in the narrative at this point is Jeffrey Irons’ character, who we are to assume is Adrian Veidt. It’s important to note that we don’t officially know that Irons’ “Lord of a Country Estate,” as the synopsis describes him, is Ozymandias at this point. A newspaper shows that Veidt is supposedly dead, and the elderly man does not have a name. But come on, folks. Every piece of information has basically clued us into who this character is, right down to Lindelof’s Instagram post showing the New York Comic Con panel ad listing Irons as “Probably Who You Think He Is.”

Now, this is Lindelof, so I wouldn’t put it past him to be pulling a fast one on us. But for now, I’m assuming that he’s our old mass murderer in the name of peace. Either way, Veidt’s scenes basically portray him as a recluse celebrating an “anniversary” with his charming but strangely and suspiciously inept loyal servants. He receives a restored watch as a gift from his servants, Mr. Phillips and Ms. Crookshanks. He also says he’s writing a play, The Watchmaker’s Son, a “tragedy in five acts.”

What does all that mean? It’s difficult to tell at this point. Including Veidt in this story clearly has significance. He’s the central mastermind in the graphic novel and the closest thing it has to a primary antagonist; which means he’s not just the kind of character you throw an extended subplot without a good reason. We simply don’t know enough yet to see what that reason is. Still, Irons is great in his few scenes here, as are Tom Mison and Sara Vickers as Phillips and Crookshanks. It’s a nice diversion from the main plot this episode that will surely lead to something more.

Watchmen Angela Cal

While I’ve been praising Lindelof’s script here, it’s important to note how easily it would have all fallen apart without the other elements coming together. The words as I imagine on the page lack a certain level of subtlety; for Christ’s sake, the episode title comes from “Pore Jud is Daid,” a song from Oklahoma in which the hero tries to convince another character who eventually becomes the villain to hang himself. And yes, Don Johnson’s character is named Judd. I’m just saying, a lot of this is very on the nose. In addition, some of the textual callbacks to the original story feel a bit shoehorned.

But when the screenplay stumbles it’s fine, because everything else is there to pick up the slack. The performances all hit home nicely, for one thing. Regina King has been putting up stellar performances for years now, whether on American Crime, Seven Seconds, or in If Beale Street Could Talk. She’s very capable of shouldering the weight of the lead role, who is already a multi-faceted character. We see her family life and her life as a police officer, and it’s easy to connect these two very disparate personas. Don Johnson oozes his usual charm as the doomed Captain Crawford (yes he’s dead, but we’ll see a lot more of him), and Tim Blake Nelson is off to a great start as Looking Glass, who has the creepiest and visually stunning mask on the show so far.

Meanwhile, Nicole Kassell, the person behind the camera, brings it all together quite well. She directs the action effectively; we buy Sister Night as a legit badass, and the shootout at the 7K hideout is very well-done. I also can’t say enough good things about the score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which feels both modern and fitting with the Watchmen motif.

It’s still early on, to be clear, and there are plenty of places that Lindelof could steer this show off a cliff. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time he’s done so with something that had a promising set-up. Lost, Prometheus, and Tomorrowland, I’m looking at all of you. But right now, I’m on board with what he’s selling us. At least it only has to keep it together for nine episodes right now. Even the guy who made Cowboys & Aliens can stay the course for that long…right?

Watchmen Judd Crawford

Some Final Thoughts:

• Welcome to 411’s coverage of Watchmen! I’m looking forward to everyone who is mad about how it’s not like the graphic novel arguing with everyone who’s mad it’s too much like the graphic novel in themes, cross-shouting with the arguments about it being too political or not political enough. (I say that with love and good-natured ribbing. But also, well, it’s the internet.)

• Angela gets a lot of good lines, but I think my favorite exchange was from her and Judd: “Black Oklahoma was delightful.” “You are not allowed to call it that.” It was played with just the right amount of humor to work.

• On that note: “Nobody hates Oklahoma!” Bullshit. Saying this as a big musical theater fan – I really hate that musical.

• For those curious, Lindelof has previously said that in 2019 in the Watchmen world, cell phones and the internet are banned. So, there’s no “just Google it!” plot holes to have to try and pretend don’t exist, at least.

• Okay, I’m not gonna lie; I would 100% watch American Hero Story: Minutemen. Ryan Murphy, make a deal with HBO, it’s a license to print money!

• Squid rain from the sky is one thing I didn’t expect to see, but also kind of appreciated.

• Next week, we dive into the mystery as Angela interrogates Will Reeves. So that should be interesting.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Watchmen gets off to a strong start with "It's Summer and We're Running Out of Ice," establishing thematic ties to the source material while forging its own path. This is an inherently political story, much like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel, and that will be a turn off for some. But for those that can get past the show's fairly complex tackling of hot-button topics in America, there's a very interesting story here that promises to unfold over the next eight issues.