Everything you need to read or watch if you’re obsessed with HBO’s ‘Watchmen’
The Undefeated supplement to ‘Watchmen,’ Vol. 1
Welcome to Volume I of The Undefeated’s supplement to HBO’s Watchmen!
This show is so dense with influences and references that go beyond typical comic book Easter eggs. It piqued my curiosity in a way that I haven’t experienced since spending seven seasons obsessing over every aspect of Mad Men. The shows have more in common than might seem obvious. They’re both interested in looking at the world through a lens that invites the viewer to rethink how we define heroes and what gets shuffled to the shadows created by said heroes’ spotlight.
In the case of Watchmen, a story about the nature and morality of vigilantism turns out to be a startlingly apt vehicle for considering race, racism, inherited trauma, and how we metabolize the past. Is it fondly, with nostalgia? What happens when we revisit history with an eye not on the conquerors, but the conquered? What changes? Watchmen’s story is built upon a foundation of histories that are rarely taught in American public schools with much depth, if they’re mentioned at all, namely the histories of terrorism visited upon indigenous people and black people in the U.S.
With Mad Men, Matthew Weiner offered a fresh view of the Sixties, one that seemed to center a deeply flawed antihero in Don Draper, who was playing an ad man and living a life that wasn’t really his own. But Mad Men was also a masterful study of how white women navigated their lives through a decade of social change and evolving gender roles and how the men around them cope or don’t.
Like Mad Men, Watchmen has tripped my inner Hermione Granger switch. The result is a compendium of recommended media to accompany the first five episodes of the show. (I’ll be back in a few weeks with Volume II, which will cover episodes six through nine and will be published after the finale airs.)
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
The original graphic novel to which showrunner Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen kinda sorta functions as a sequel. Lindelof has described the series as an “extrapolation” of Moore’s source material. Rather than make a straight-ahead adaptation, which is basically what Zack Snyder did with his film, Lindelof has remixed the comic while staying true to the questioning spirit and challenging themes of one of the best graphic novels ever written. I don’t think it’s necessary to read the comic to understand the series, which is deliberately obfuscatory, but it’s a pleasure in its own right.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown
& An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Two crucial texts for those who want to gain more of an understanding of the history of the Americas’ indigenous peoples beyond what’s taught in K-12 before Thanksgiving break. Watchmen is directly and atmospherically referencing a history most of us know little about. If you weren’t able to see The Thanksgiving Play, Larissa FastHorse’s hilarious and horrifying send-up of American ignorance and liberal good intentions about our indigenous brethren and sistren, these two books are a great place to start.
The Burning: Massacre, Destruction and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Tim Madigan
& Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Scott Ellsworth
You’ll see below that I’ve included links to the Washington Post’s Retropolis pieces on the Tulsa Race Massacre. The Burning was one of the books Watchmen writers read to prepare to construct the series. Like Bury My Heart and An Indigenous Peoples’ History, these offer deep dives into a little known chapter of American history. Tulsa, Oklahoma, was heavily populated by African Americans after the Civil War, and Scott Ellsworth’s book provides details about interracial violence that predated the race massacre and almost certainly informed it. Ellsworth’s is a quick, straight-ahead read, while Tim Madigan has constructed a moving work of historical narrative nonfiction.
Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves by Art T. Burton
In this biography, Art T. Burton begins by breaking down the folklore of Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. marshal to work west of the Mississippi, and provides the facts that fed it as well. In his first chapter, he lays out a convincing argument for why Reeves was likely the inspiration for the fictional Lone Ranger. Reeves also provides a crucial fulcrum for understanding the social dynamics between whites, indigenous people, and black people in Oklahoma. Here’s a tasty nugget, given the reference to Pale Horse in episode five: “In another interesting similarity to the Lone Ranger, Reeves may have ridden a white horse during one period of his career.”
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter
A short novel about a newswoman named Miranda and a soldier named Adam set set during the flu epidemic of 1918. Miranda gets sick but recovers, only to learn that Adam has also gotten sick, probably from tending to her, and has died. This is a standout narrative about surviving when everyone around you is dying, which is exactly what happened to Wade Tillman, a Tulsa police detective.
The Lonesome Dove series by Larry McMurtry
Larry McMurty’s epic Western series begins with Lonesome Dove (1985), the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about retired Texas Rangers driving their cattle from Texas to Montana in the last days of the Wild West. He followed it with Streets of Laredo (1993), Dead Man’s Walk (1995), and concluded the series with Comanche Moon (1997). Here’s the order if you’d rather read them chronologically:
Dead Man’s Walk, Comanche Moon, Lonesome Dove, Streets of Laredo
Even though they’re set in Texas, and about the Texas Rangers, McMurty’s Lonesome Dove series is highly influential in constructing how we see and think about the West historically. They’re helpful for context on the pop culture construction of the West that Lindelof and Watchmen are deconstructing.
FILM AND TV
The Singing Hill (1941)
The Singing Hill starred yet another figure who was instrumental in creating the archetype of the American cowboy: Gene Autry. The film features the “The Last Round-up,” the song that Angela Abar sings at Chief Crawford’s funeral.
Pale Rider (1985)
Pale Rider, the 1985 film that Clint Eastwood both directed and starred in has something in common with The Singing Hill: They’re about fighting greed and treachery. Another classic Western that provides context on the cultural work that Watchmen is implicitly critiquing.
Unforgiven won the Oscar for best picture in 1992 in the real world, the third Western to do so. In the alt-America of Watchmen, a fictional movie called Pale Horse, directed by Steven Spielberg, took the award. Pale Horse was about the interdimensional squid attack of 1985, which resulted in the deaths of 3 million people in and around New York, with survivors suffering from psychosis and trauma. Unforgiven is about a retired outlaw who agrees to take one more job hunting down two cowboys after one of them attacks a prostitute for making fun of his penis.
The Lone Ranger (1949-1956)
The Lone Ranger television series that aired from 1949-1956 also provided the basis for the 1956 feature film. Both starred Clayton Moore (who was most certainly white) as the Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto.
The Lone Ranger is foundational in the canon of onscreen westerns, how Hollywood shapes our opinions about law enforcement, and how we define who’s a good guy and who’s a bad one. A real black man, Bass Reeves, may have served as the inspiration for the character who lives in multiple film and TV adaptations. That same man is the hero Watchmen’s Will Reeves reveres so much that he adopts his last name and occupation. Remember how I recommended the Lonesome Dove series even though it’s about the Texas Rangers? The same goes for the Lone Ranger, who is the only survivor when a group of six rangers is ambushed and killed.
Oklahoma! — Rodgers & Hammerstein
Watchmen is set in Tulsa, and contains thematic references to Oklahoma!, which is both a celebration and romanticization of the old West, or a condemnation of its violence and norms, depending on which version you’re watching. Lindelof isn’t shy about clueing his audience to the many texts from which he’s inspired. His dead police chief, Judd Crawford, shares a name with the villain of Oklahoma!, Jud Fry. Before his death, Chief Crawford reveals that he played Curly, the ostensible hero, in his high school production of Oklahoma! FBI special agent Laurie Blake, the woman now occupying Crawford’s office and running the investigation of the Seventh Kavalry, shares a name with Oklahoma!’s female protagonist. In the revival of Oklahoma!, Laurey is caught in romantic binary: Jud and Curly are her options, and neither is really much of a prize. And yet one is supposedly good, the other bad. It certainly looks as though Laurie Blake is caught in a similar conundrum regarding the morality of law enforcement and vigilantism, and is finding herself pulled by both forces.
South Pacific — Rodgers & Hammerstein
Episode five of Watchmen features the most famous song from the romance (“Some Enchanted Evening”) South Pacific, about an American nurse who falls in love with a Frenchman while stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. The U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry regiment was once led by Gen. George Armstrong Custer, a major figure in the American Indian wars. Even after his death and defeat at Little Bighorn, the 7th Cavalry (yes, the one that inspired the name of the show’s Seventh Kavalry) remained. It eventually folded into the Army’s 1st Cavalry regiment, which is the one deployed to the South Pacific during World War II. Another tidy coincidence — South Pacific is about a white woman overcoming her racism and embracing love.
The Threepenny Opera — Bertolt Brecht
Why is there a Tulsa police officer nicknamed Pirate Jenny and where on earth did she get the name? The song “Pirate Jenny” comes from the Bertolt Brecht show The Threepenny Opera. Over at Bustle, Gretchen Smail has a terrific rundown of the musical, the character, and what both have to do with the Pirate Jenny of Watchmen. Writes Smail: “She’s an encapsulation of both righteous indignation and the danger of going too far in pursuit of justice,” which is the major theme of Watchmen.
As renditions go, I’m partial to the overtly creepy, threatening aura of revenge Nina Simone lends to hers.
ONLINE FEATURES AND EXPLAINERS
HBO has a weekly dossier, Peteypedia, which accompanies each episode. Its helpful background information comes straight from former history professor turned FBI agent Dale Petey. If you’re going to learn background on the actual Watchmen, having an academic on hand who wrote his doctoral dissertation on them is not a bad place to start.
Why do the costumes of the Tulsa police department higher-ups look so homemade? They’re supposed to. If you’re obsessed with understanding how Sister Night’s hood never seems to slump, this article from Variety’s Danielle Turchiano is the one for you.
The giant blue phallus
I would recommend reading everything that Meghan O’Keefe has written about Watchmen for Decider. Her write-ups are quick and filled with helpful information, including insights directly from Lindelof. However, if you must limit yourself, O’Keefe’s piece on Laurie’s Dr. Manhattan vibrator, which appears in episode three, can’t be beat.
Watchmen can be awfully confusing (deliberately so — the confusion is part of the fun) for those who have not read the Alan Moore graphic novel. And if you don’t have time to obsess over it, Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos makes things easier with this helpful rundown.
The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921
For online information about the Tulsa Race Massacre, consult the work of DeNeen L. Brown, who’s written multiple articles about the event for The Washington Post’s Retropolis vertical. The legacy of the massacre continues to unfold, with authorities now searching for trenches in Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery — likely evidence of mass graves.
Race and power in the Watchmen writers’ room
Emily Todd VanDerWerff of Vox answers one of the most intriguing questions about the creation of a Watchmen series that is asking big questions about the nature of race and power in America, how we see the past, and how that affects the present.
So how did Lindelof pull it off? Writes VanDerWerff:
Part of his approach, he said, was to build a writers’ room that had only three white men in it, which then forced him to understand just how much white men had been his “tribe” to that point. It required listening to the show’s cast (filled with black actors like Regina King and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). And he learned from there that listening is only half the battle.
“You can’t turn to a black writer and say, ‘Are all black people going to be okay with this idea?’ You can’t turn to a woman and say, ‘Are all women going to be okay with this idea?’ ” he says. “In order for an idea to live in the writers’ room, we all had to say, ‘That’s a cool story idea.’ And then you can start to have the conversation of ‘Is this idea problematic?’ Then you have to unpack the idea of problematic and whether or not problematic is a bad thing all of the time.”