When it comes to Watchmen’s commentary on race, it’s best (and probably generous) to look at episode 1 being a sort of opening thesis statement and episode 6 being a wonderfully executed conclusion. What’s offered between and after are somewhat muddled and uninspired supportive bodies with redeeming performances, but you’d have to ignore them as a whole to declare the series’ anti-racism messaging a success.
Where episode 1 and its recreation of the Tulsa Massacre was an explosive, unflinching confrontation of this country’s past, episode 6, devoted to Angela Abar (Regina King) experiencing the memories of her grandfather William Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.) during his time as a cop and his origin story of becoming the masked hero and unintended inspiration of the Minutemen ‘Hooded Justice’, was a quieter but no less powerful exploration of how racism informs, shapes and harms the identity and relationships of Black people living in America.
It distinctly depicts the experience of Black people wedged between overt racism like that of the villainous underworld white supremacist outfit called Cyclops, and the “soft bigotry” offered by liberal white allies like Mr. Metropolis, who, while more than happy to relish William with praise and sexual fetishization, still responded with dismissal and patronization when William expressed his concerns about the Black people of Harlem being targeted by Cyclops’ scheme. But it’s such a stark contrast with the rest of the series, where the overall statement on race in the US can be ultimately summed up as: “Racism is bad and at times violent,” that it makes the subsequent episodes look haphazard and neglectful.
The problem Watchmen ran into is that, while it did not shy away from confronting the atrocities of racist violence in the past, it seemed absolutely disinterested in accurately depicting it in the present —especially considering how much of said violence is enacted by present day law enforcement.
As for the “copaganda” aspect of the show, showrunner and creator Damon Lindelof seemed less than willing to explore that reality when he responded to criticisms of his redemptive and sympathetic depiction of police, explaining that he views police brutality as a problem caused by a minority of bad players that aren’t representative of the whole.
“At the end of these nine episodes, are you going to feel that the police are racist? No. You’re going to feel like some are, and you’re going to feel like some aren’t,” declared Lindelof. And after watching the whole series before coming to a conclusion about its commentary on police violence as instructed by Lindelof, despite concerns of its use of cop-friendly tropes, I can safely say the show largely achieves this objective.
From the thankless efforts of law enforcement met with boos from pro-vigilante supporters, and anti-weapons ban protestors who even show up at a cop’s funeral, the lore of the intrepid, embattled, hard-boiled law enforcement officer and FBI agents endures.
While Tulsa PD views white supremacists as enemy combatants, that’s not the same as them wanting to defeat the structure of white supremacy. The Seventh Kavalry was an immediate threat to their safety, and there is no depiction of them targeting that same violence to the non-white, non-cop residents of Tulsa.
That inconsistency is even more glaring when a young William is seen discussing with his future wife that he could be viewed as traitorous to Black people for becoming a Black police officer, considering their violent and oppressive presence in Black communities. Angela never wrestles with that conflict, and, in fact, never discusses race with other Black people.
Despite being Sister Night— a take no prisoners masked vigilante who bloodies white supremacists in trailer parks— her personal and professional circle is ostensibly absent of other Black people and she is still demonstratively sympathetic to racist white characters. Whether it was the little white boy who assumed she was a beneficiary of Redfordations in episode one; her former police chief and friend Judd Crawford; or her baffling concern for the senator and leader of the white supremacist group, Joe Keene, when she pleaded for him to not harm himself in pursuit of Dr. Manhattan’s power.
Intentionally or not, Lindelof, in his disinterest in examining the systemic harms of present day law enforcement and a racist criminal justice system, renders the show’s star anti-racist vigilante virtually apolitical. “Trust in the law,” William Reeves recites to Angela (the words from his idol Bass Reeves) in the finale. Despite the show never displaying when the law earned this reverence or protected oppressed communities, and even while they toiled to combat white supremacist hate groups, the only people they are seen saving are…white.
The shadowy white supremacist group Cyclops, (rebranded as Seventh Kavalry in the present day) was ultimately reduced to cartoonish villains by episode 9 whose only notable moment in a more recent history of orchestrated violence was The White Night, an event referenced in passing throughout the series but never depicted, where the targets of the Seventh Kavalry’s massacre were exclusively cops. Their animus toward non-white people is naked when reviewed in the past but whispered and unconvincing in the present. Sure, it was amusing and familiar to hear Senator Keene gripe about how hard it was to be a white man in present day America and lamenting the government taking their firearms. And it was reassuring to see the series move past depicting poor white people as the only culprits of white supremacy by depicting its wealthy leaders. But when the only people shown under the boot of law enforcement are in fact presumably poor (I mean, they did wear flannels) and white, it ultimately gives some credibility to their gripe.
The Tulsa police department is entirely focused on targeting white supremacists in flannel shirts and the only Black and non-white people of significance who exist in the present day Tulsa community seem to be cops and their families. In the absence of Black communities in Watchmen’s Tulsa, the conspicuously less white police department employ the same tactics and abuses of power typically reserved for Black people, like profiling and violent, illegal interrogations.
Because of this, stakes did not seem high in thwarting Cyclops’ plot, which was an uncharacteristically vague and fuzzy scheme to kidnap and destroy Dr. Manhattan and imbue their leading member, Keene, with his powers (was he going to genocide non-white people or what?). Their reduced merit as a credible threat became even more apparent when Lady Trieu— the biotech trillionaire who inherited her ambition from her Vietnamese immigrant mother, Bian, and her megalomaniac tendencies from her father, famed hero and mass murderer Ozymandius— emerged as the more dangerous villain. She too attempted to absorb Dr. Manhattan’s power and be the savior of humanity that he refused to be.
While Trieu is a character added to the show but not found in the novels, her motivations are pretty one note, amounting to little more than rampant narcissism and unrelenting ambition. Watchmen’s characterizations of Asian people ranged a problematic gamut of resentful unsympathetic Vietnamese terrorists; a cruel headmistress of an orphanage; merciless cops; a cold and calculating brilliant supervillain; and her mother, who for some reason thought the best route of revenge against her narcissistic boss was artificially inseminating herself with his sperm without his consent (and what the hell was he going to do with those sperm samples??)
Whether it was the constraints of a nine-episode series or lack of vision, the pattern of undercooked motivations of its characters and various loose ends and plot holes runs throughout much of the series. For example, the relationship between Angela and her husband was rife with chemistry and endearing partnership while he was Cal, but that suddenly came to a puzzling halt when it was revealed that Cal was in fact Dr. Manhattan in human form. Dr. Manhattan, both in the comics and movie, pretended to go to Mars in part because he became distant from humanity and exhausted by the unending needs and demands of irrational human sentimentality. Curiously, everyone takes Dr. Manhattan’s indifference to the fate and suffering of the world to task but his wife, Angela, despite being a woman whose life was dedicated to righting wrongs and pursuing justice. It could be because she wanted to hold onto the little joy her life afforded her, but the absence of inner conflict that would come with loving the God-man who is in large part the beginning of the chain reactions of her life’s most formative traumas is pretty conspicuous. Why and when did his apathy change so he could pursue Angela? When did he abandon Laurie as his only connection to humanity?
And for all of Watchmen’s bold confrontation of white supremacist violence in the past, Dr. Manhattan’s role in aiding colonization of Vietnam by single-handedly winning the war for Nixon is sheepishly brazed, where the Vietnamese people oddly worship him as a deity despite him causing numerous deaths of Vietnamese people and erosion of their sovereignty and culture while also being integral in turning Vietnam into a US territory. The only moment of scrutiny comes when Angela recalls that victory being responsible for the rage of the men whose resentment inspired the anti-US bombing that killed her parents. Similarly while Watchmen’s plot depends heavily on the Tulsa massacre, the community itself is more of a prop than a character. We never see how the history of the massacre still informs the reality of Tulsa’s Black community in the present. The city itself is reduced to a soundstage of shops and a museum where Black descendants of those killed can establish lineage, a hollow prop upon which the Kavalry and the cops engage in battle and nothing else.
There are areas where Watchmen sticks the landing, most notably is when it illustrates responses to trauma, and the role our literal and figurative masks play in our coping with it. This was well executed in Looking Glass’ character development and brilliantly played by Tim Blake Nelson. Arguably, all the plot holes and loose threads (and God knows there are many) are obscured with brilliant performances of Regina King, Jean Smart, Jeremy Irons, and Louis Gossett Jr. It’s beautifully shot and cleverly cashes in on the desires of its fans.
Nothing encapsulates this cunning more than the ending, where Angela remembers a cryptic clue left to her by Dr. Manhattan before he met his untimely death. He has stored his God like powers in the eggs that lay smashed on their kitchen floor (apparently his powers are super transferable). Recalling this, she consumes the raw egg, and walks out to the pool, where she is seen taking off her socks and placing her foot on the water to see if she can walk on it in the God like manner of her departed love. For the shows more ardent fans, this premise is an exciting affirmation, a Black woman becoming a God, possibly doing with that power what should have been done.
And, for some of us, it’s an uncomfortable but oft employed trope that assures its viewers to fear not the chaos of this violent world; Black women, strong, battle-tested, rife with loss and trauma, will save us.