DECEMBER 31, 2019
Should we be surprised that Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen made Lady Trieu the bad guy? That a character named after Bà Triệu, a legendary third-century nationalist hero who resisted the Chinese occupation of Vietnam, must in the end be stopped by the combined efforts of two white men associated with the genocidal destruction of multiple civilian populations (the Manhattan Project, the bombing of Vietnam itself, and the squid-fall of New York)? Should we be surprised that a show which began with an airplane dropping bombs on Tulsa provides narrative closure by thwarting Trieu’s evil plans with “a gatling gun from the heavens” fired at Tulsa? (The gatling gun, briefly used in the American Civil War, and extensively used in colonial subjugation.) How did Lady Trieu, would-be avenger of colonial-violence-from-the-heavens, become the victim of yet another righteous iteration of death from the skies?
If you’re even asking these questions, it might be because you know who the real villain is. It might be that you read the original comics and recognized what they were suggesting about America, and about what having God and masked vigilantes on its side would produce: imperial expansion and conquest under an unimpeached Nixonian presidency. In our world, of course — un-blessed by the existence of superheroes — Nixon’s reign was ended by imperial overreach and executive hubris, precedents were established on the limitations of American imperial ambition and presidential corruption, and the Cold War eventually ground to a halt. But in the American superpower made by the existence of superheroes — as imagined by Dave Gibbons and some other guy who has washed his hands of the entire enterprise — a single blue line connects the KKK to the bombing of Vietnam and to the inevitability of nuclear holocaust. In the Watchmen comic, to put it simply, you know who the world’s main villain is: America.
In 2017, Alan Moore called superheroes “tremendously embarrassing and not a little worrying,” and described the “franchised übermenschen” and “white supremacist dreams of the master race” that he once created to “cowardice compensators, perhaps a bit like the handgun on the nightstand.” When he suggested “D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie,” he crystallized something that the Watchmen comic books were also very clear on, but which seems to have confused the HBO version: it was a good thing that the United States lost the war in Vietnam, that Nixon’s presidency was ended, and that Superman isn’t on our side. In America, “vigilante justice” has always meant white people rolling back the social revolutions of reconstruction and the civil rights era (and decolonization) and Making America Great Again by imposing order on the wretched of the earth. For the origin of our superhero monomyth to be Thomas Dixon’s vision of racist counterrevolution in The Clansmen — which by inspiring D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation actually helped re-birth the literal Ku Klux Klan — isn’t just a zesty bit of contrarianism from cranky old Uncle Alan. Aligning the fantasy of vigilante justice with the explosion of white supremacy that powered lynch law, Jim Crow, and anti-immigrant violence across the 20th century also works surprisingly well as a critique of the nationalism that has powered this country’s post-9/11 “adventurism”: from “the spirit of 9/12” and the ticking-timebomb scenario to the broad notion of America as victim, and therefore justified in standing its ground, the comic offers a deep and scorching critique of the entire enterprise.
In the original comic, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, to put it bluntly, did not suggest that the original superhero is the Black victim of white supremacist violence; “Hooded Justice” is the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a white supremacist state, libidinal violence utterly typical of white men of their era. When, in the comic, Hooded Justice is heard “openly expressing approval of Hitler’s Third Reich, and Captain Metropolis has gone on record as making statements about black and Hispanic Americans that have been viewed as both racially prejudiced and inflammatory,” we should recognize the banal, unsurprising racism of the kind of white man who longs for the crime-fighting function of police but eschews the social constraints of democratic law. It’s not really a problem to be solved; they are what they seem to be.
You do have to admire the skill and audacity with which Damon Lindelof constructs an alternate account of the superhero, and does so almost totally within the constraints of the original comic canon. From the character’s sympathies for Germany to his costume to his sexuality to his disappearance, Lindelof takes all the facts as given in the comics — which lead fairly dispositively to one reading of the character — and produces a radically different story out of it. Instead of the sexual thrill of violence, sanctioned by its legitimacy against criminals and other non-persons — and in the name of public order — the man under the hood is an idealist whose trust in the law and devotion to the work of crime-fighting is rooted in a combination of trauma, nostalgia, and the lies told to him by films. It also tells the story of his disillusionment, of how he took off the hood.
But has America taken off the hood? Has HBO? From the beginning, the most unsettling thing about Lindelof’s Watchmen has been its trust in the law, from its cop protagonist on down: after an opening sequence emphasizing how police are made vulnerable by nonsensical legalistic constraints — that could have been scripted by the Fraternal Order of the Police — Detective Abar proceeds to unmask a white supremacist conspiracy by beating up the usual suspects until they give her the (correct) information. But, of course, that was just the opening episode, the setup for episode after episode of reversal and reveal; that couldn’t be where the show would land, right? When I read Noah Berlatsky’s argument (after episode six) that “Watchmen still can’t imagine justice, hooded or otherwise, separate from policing,” I trusted in the show to prove him wrong.
I’m not sure it has. Most Americans do trust in the law, in no small part because an awful lot of Americans are white. Damon Lindelof is white, as are most of the show’s production staff, and as an enthusiastic fundraiser for Kamala Harris, maybe it’s anything but surprising that he ends the show where he does, with a cop being deified (after utopians of all stripes are repudiated) and the FBI arrest of a murderous narcissist. Are we seeing a fantasy scenario of a prosecutor in chief winning the primary and then defeating and hauling Trump off to jail? It would be a disservice to claim that this is all the show turns out to be, but the show certainly was written at a moment when Lindelof seemed to have been hoping for this electoral outcome. But it’s still distressing to discover that finger-breaking torture is portrayed as effective policework in the last episode as well, that saving the world turns out to be indistinguishable from raining death from the heavens, that a superpower is faulted for not doing more (rather than for not doing less), that genius is passed down genetically, and that reparations seem to produce little more than resentful white people (and shame for the Black people who take it). And while giving superpowers to a Black, female cop turns out to be the limit to the show’s utopian imagination — even as the show’s real villain turns out to be a woman of color proposing to end world hunger and destroy nuclear weapons — isn’t surprising, it was still disappointing.
I’ve been thinking about why it’s disappointing. In the ’80s, it could seem plausible to “solve” the looming threat of nuclear war by creating the worldwide fear of an alien invader, “a force so dreadful it must be repelled, all enmities aside,” as Veidt declares. But this elegant twist — by which the savior of mankind is also a supervillain who kills millions of people, and gets away with it — was an elegant genre subversion because the antihero really was novel and subversive in the mid-’80s. By making the original Superman a Hitler-sympathizing vigilante literally clothed in KKK iconography, Moore and Gibbons were demonstrating the genre’s disavowed logic, and what Moore says so explicitly in that 2017 interview is pretty easy to find in the comic itself. There’s literally a comic within the comic, in which a shipwrecked sailor tries to save his family and town from pirates and ends up killing his family and town and then joining the pirates, all to hammer the point home: to save humanity from a nuclear holocaust, Veidt kills three million people; because he calculates the inevitability of The Event, he intervenes to bring it about; to be the hero, he becomes the villain. Since 1985, this once-novel idea has been absurdly generative and influential to the point of cliché: from the Watchmen-esque “The Killing Joke” through the Nolan Batman movie through the MCU up to Thanos, the superantihero has been at the heart of the modern post-9/11 revival of the superhero movie. What if the villain is the hero? What if the hero is the villain? “You know how you can tell the difference between a superhero and supervillain?” the comic asked, and then answers, “Me neither!”
It is not, however, particularly realistic. When the super-genius Veidt calculates “the mathematics of the situation,” he is able to deduce the inevitability of nuclear-powered conflict and the inevitable death of the earth unless he intervenes, and so, he intervenes. But without 1985’s version of the ticking-time-bomb scenario — in which it really is inevitable that humanity will destroy itself through its Manichaean countdown to an inevitable nuclear war — Veidt’s solution to the Gordian knot is actually just wrong. So it’s worth noting that in 2019, we are without that inevitability as narrative crutch. The Cold War didn’t end in a nuclear holocaust, so it clearly wasn’t inevitable; meanwhile, climate change will destroy what we now call civilization in a matter of decades, a doom we can know with a much firmer epistemological foundation. Veidt’s predictions were fears made into a parody of science and the doomsday clock was a metaphor; today, the science on climate change is the unanimous consensus across the scientific community, and the endpoint is a modeling problem: how soon, how fast, how high.
You may say “OK, but why are you talking about reality? And why are you talking about climate change when the show is about race?
Well! In the Watchmen timeline, the cold war never ended and Dr. Manhattan has gifted us with an endless supply of Tesla batteries. But if the comic was interesting because it wasn’t about reality — because it depicts an alternate timeline through-a-glass-darkly — Lindelof’s remix very ostentatiously is. Because the Tulsa massacre really happened, and because it’s been a suppressed historical event — such that even calling it a “race riot,” as insurance companies did to avoid paying for damages, is to collude in that ongoing suppression of historical memory — the show’s decision to open with it is also a demand that we admit what happened, a truth-claim made about our real world. Lindelof might have only first learned about Tulsa from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” but his Watchmen stands beside it and other acts of liberal, restorative history, like The 1619 Project, as a demand that we revise our historical understanding of America to place Black people at the center. In this way, when the show reveals the original Watchmen-verse superhero, “Hooded Justice,” to have been a queer Black victim of the Tulsa massacre — whose mask is also the closet — what the show is doing is anything but satire or genre subversion; it is making a claim on American idealism. Like the 1619 project, it goes back to the founding moment of the superpower — a story usually told as a glorious white birth — and tells it, instead, as the story of Black suffering, resistance, and resilience.
The odd thing is that if the 1619 Project revises The Glorious Myth of the Founding, Watchmen (2019) is revising Watchmen (1986). Instead of pulling down statues of slaveholding statesmen and excavating the cemetery at Monticello, Lindelof’s Watchmen is far less skeptical of power than was the romantically anarchist Moore’s. His comic suggested that power was fundamentally dangerous and untrustworthy, and “Who will watch the Watchmen?” is, in the comic, both unanswered and unanswerable. The show has an answer, it would appear from the ending: the right kind of person can be the right kind of cop, and the right kind of cop — endowed with superpowers — might be just what America needs.
This isn’t surprising; why was it disappointing?
We tend to predictably do the same things we’ve always done. If you’ve read me before, you shouldn’t be surprised when I complain about how the show imagines climate change or wrongly diverges from history. As my long-suffering editor has observed — roasting me so hard that I couldn’t help but be flattered to be so seen — this is exactly the sort of thing I always write. But when people do what you expect them to do, what they’ve done before, you can’t really be surprised.
You can, however, be disappointed when people don’t exceed those expectations, if you’ve seen evidence that they could. And what’s disappointing about HBO’s Watchmen is that it has, within it, a much smarter and more radical show than it ultimately lets itself become. I’ve been so focused on explaining my criticisms of the show, in fact, that I’ve given lamentably short shrift to everything that’s amazing about what they did, starting with the audacity of putting the backlash to reconstruction on screen at all and ending with some truly scintillating cinematography. But it’s because that part of the show was good enough that I’d want to forget how they ruined it with the end; I’d like to stick a hunk of metal into my prefrontal cortex and read the first seven episodes as a single unit, without knowledge of Dr. Manhattan (and the show’s bad reading of Things Fall Apart as For Whom the Bell Tolls); I’d like to read it, instead, as the story of Angela and her grandfather and the unsolvable problem of being a Black police officer in America, the way it almost is. We have to flood the last two episodes with tachyons, of course — those last two episodes in which Angela and her grandfather stand around and watch other people do things — but if you pretend you don’t know what will happen after episode seven, you can imagine a different ending flowing out of it, climaxing a narrative arc of recognition, disavowal, and abolition.
You can, for example, read Hooded Justice through Frantz Fanon. We can read his initial turn to vigilante justice through the psychoanalysis of Black Skin, White Masks in the ’50s — in which the victims of colonial violence hysterically replicate the scenes of their own violations — and in his eventual discovery that he has very literally become his own enemy; when he sees himself in the mirror, and mirrored in his own son, he sees his mask as a symptom and he finds liberation in taking it off. This isn’t a reach; this reading is remarkably on the nose with what we see on the screen. But Fanon also didn’t stop with analysis: after his time as a therapist in France, he joined the Front de Libération Nationale in North Africa when the Algerian revolution began. In work that would culminate in Wretched of the Earth, he discovered global solidarity against white supremacy. This is the Fanon that would have illuminated the Angela and Lady Trieu team-up that doesn’t happen: instead of Lindelof’s apparently straight-faced version of Douglas Adams’s joke about who deserves power, Fanon worked to distinguish the violence that replicates trauma from the violence that liberates from it, and did so from a position of basically rejecting the world as presently constituted.
The Fanonian Watchmen is there, but buried deep. By quoting from the The Internationale, Fanon’s title gives to the Wretched of the Earth the implied imperative to “Stand up,” but Lindelof’s Watchmen submerges any revolutionary consciousness under things like the cartoonish “Red Scare” character. The only masses in the show are white supremacists. Still, if you look for it, you can find in the story of Angela and her grandfather the discovery that America’s problem is not hidden conspiracies to be revealed but the open secret of American white supremacy; if you want, you can trace out the show as it might otherwise have been, in which two granddaughters of American massacres team up to create a better world from the ashes of what was done to their families.
What’s strange about the show we actually got, in other words — the thing that makes it disappointing — is that it came so close. Two granddaughters are artificially made to recall the holocaust of their fore-parents: Bian’s artificially implanted memory evokes My Lai and other American massacres of Vietnamese people (“I was in a village, men came and burned it, and then made us walk. I was walking for so long, mom, my feet still hurt”) yet it’s so precisely what Angela’s grandparents might recall of Tulsa in 1921 that the coincidence can’t just be a coincidence. Yet instead of pressing this analogy into the space of solidarity, only one of these horrific experiences is shown to us in vivid, gruesome detail. The Vietnamese holocaust is always secondhand, overheard, the “murderer” scrawled across a mural of Dr. Manhattan. And because we do not see the terror of his victims, nor are we with them when they die, the parallels remain latent. Instead of reminding us that The Bomb really was dropped on Asian cities — and that every nightmare of what could happen if the Cold War exploded is patterned after massacres that really did happen across the world for the two centuries prior — the show retreats into making New York City the only civilian population whose experience of terrorism is given depth and psychological nuance.
Why? Where does what Leslie Lee calls this show’s “startling lack of imagination about how to address race in a world of superheroes” come from?
One answer is that there were no Vietnamese writers. If it was important that two-thirds of the show’s writers were Black, the lack of Vietnamese writers only underscores the point. The show makes Dr. Manhattan into a rather uncomplicated Good Guy — saving the day at the end, a martyr, and a Basically Good Dude who takes care of the kids — but a Vietnamese writer might have suggested that “mistakes were made, the past is the past” isn’t much of a reckoning with his body count. Such a person might have insisted on connecting the planes bombing Tulsa in the first scene of the show to the American bombing of southeast Asia, and on the parallel between Angela and Lady Trieu that such a connection implies. Why would the granddaughter of Tulsa ally herself with Dr. Manhattan — and all he represents — rather than with Lady Trieu, and all that she does?
Put differently, while the show’s disinterest in Lady Trieu’s backstory has been criticized as a lack — Viet Thanh Nguyen laments the absence of a Vietnamese version of episode six and Alyssa Rosenberg suggests that a Vietnamese season two would fill these gaps — I find myself unsatisfied with the racial fatalism of this approach. It’s to Damon Lindelof’s credit that when he decided to make the show about race, he recognized the need to work with writers whose lived wisdom could help him see past his blind spots; it’s also to his credit that he didn’t turn his racial limitation into an excuse not to try, as he explained to David Remnick. That white people find it awkward to talk about race is the very opposite from an excuse from having to do so (and having to do so well).
But could “a Vietnamese voice” be inserted into this show? Would it be compatible with the default nationalism that structures and frames nearly everything that we read, view, consume, and produce in general, and definitely frames how this particular show is written? One way to call for more diverse writers and stories is to think about why they couldn’t have been there in the first place. We should never be surprised when attentive narrative care gets lavished on American victims leaving the victims of American empire — if they dare to act out — to be demonized or caricatured as cartoonish terrorists. We should be anything but surprised that Vietnam — where uniformed Americans dropped bombs on Vietnamese villagers — is most viscerally presented in the show as the place where a Vietnamese terrorist kills Angela’s (uniformed) parents with a bomb because an entire culture industry has taught us to remember that war as a site of American suffering. And we should be anything but surprised when Angela’s memory of her parents’ death is abruptly interspersed with scenes from the Tulsa massacre. The analogy drawn in that moment — and the solidarity the show uses it to evoke — is not between the wretched of the earth but between Americans and other Americans, and an insistence on that form of solidarity as the relevant one. To say that it could have been different only underscores the stakes in insisting that it not be.
And so, we know why this is where the show ultimately ends, why it treats the trauma of the squidfall on New York with such care and delicacy: it reminds us of a story about a particular American “us,” the victims of 9/11. Instead of the “chickens coming home to roost” reading we might get from the comics, Lindelof’s version draws from comforting nationalist fables, in which the NYPD were made into “first responders” (rather than the racial-profiling, broken-windows vigilante force of the gentrification that made Giuliani’s New York City “great again” for its real estate developers). The 9/11 ticking timebomb scenario makes it correct to torture suspects for information, a tactic that — in this show, perversely — always seems to work when it’s done by the good guys.
The problem, in other words, is that the show ultimately can’t give up its good guys, or let them grow out of the bad guys they might otherwise discover themselves to have been. Angela Abar is a protagonist who was a colonial police officer in Vietnam and become a police officer in Tulsa, a conquered but unpacified territory of the United States at the turn of the 20th century. What was it like to police a conquered but unpacified Vietnam at her turn of the 21st, and how might that story have resonated with the story of the people who were living in the Oklahoma territory before it became a state in 1907? Screenwriter Frantz Fanon might have known what to do with such material.
Instead, while the show bends over backwards to disconnect Angela Abar from any sense of Black community beyond a VHS cassette she imprints on as a child — growing up in Vietnam without her parents, she marries a white man in blackface and adopts the children of her white co-workers on an apparently majority-white police force — the show never quite explores what she DOES with her discovered connections, once she’s digested them. How does what she learns about where she’s from and who her people are — and about the life of Hooded Justice — make her reflect on the person that her experience in Vietnam shaped her to be? Is she, to put it bluntly, still a cop at the end?
It’s unclear. In the first episode, we see Angela beat information out of a suspect she’s profiled and in the last episode we see her, again, break fingers for information. We’ve seen her aspire to be a police officer in Vietnam after a pair of colonial police officers execute a (visibly tortured) suspect — on the unbelievably flimsy evidence of a child’s say so — turning her family’s suffering at the hands of nationalist terrorists into a lifelong vocation of law and order. We’ve seen revenge become eros, her desire to listen to the death of a terrorist seamlessly merging with her desire to fuck the Manhattan Project, a love she eventually proves, inspires, and avenges when she takes on the Seventh Kavalry with a machine gun. She marries the show’s godlike instantiation of Henry Kissinger’s wildest fantasies of American omnipotence — a man whose name evokes Hiroshima and Nagasaki and whose career includes the equally genocidal destruction of southeast Asia — but if there’s any reason beyond “because that’s the way it happened,” I can’t figure it out.
On some level, the pointlessness of Angela’s shootout in the last episode must be the answer: while they zap him anyway, it’s the thing he has predicted will make him have always loved her. But if it makes Cal love Angela precisely because it accomplishes nothing (except for revenging his death before the fact), it might be a clue as to why causation is such a problem to be solved in this show: if chickens and eggs are simultaneous, then we don’t have to ask whether revenge only perpetuates the foundational trauma. If there’s no such thing as causation, then we never have to ask whether chickens come home to roost.
Critiquing this show for being insufficiently Fanonian is probably as boring as complaining that Lindelof Doesn’t Understand Teh Comics. But the ending is disappointing because Angela didn’t have to eat that fucking egg. In our world, environmental justice is central to black liberation, because it’s central to everything. But in the Watchmen timeline, where there’s no climate change, its place as the continuing, unsolvable, and existential threat to the world — the thing that might make the earth die — has been taken by the nuclear weaponry created by the Manhattan project. At the end of the show, Angela has in her hand the last and only remnant of the comic’s most potent symbol of American genocidal potency. She could have smashed it, a culmination of all that she’s learned about being absorbed into a power structure; she could have learned the lesson of Hooded Justice’s distrust of the law and said no. The show could even have ended a few seconds earlier, before she’d walked to the swimming pool and becomes the vessel for that egg; in that moment, standing in front of the refrigerator, I can see her now: she has a choice.