Tick Tock: The Timeliness of Watchmen

By Jorge CotteNovember 25, 2019

Tick Tock: The Timeliness of Watchmen
[The essay below focuses, in particular, on the sixth episode of HBO's Watchmen, entitled, "This Extraordinary Being." As such, it's got lots of spoilers for episodes one through six. Catch up!]

When Will Reeves finally assumes the costume and becomes Hooded Justice in “This Extraordinary Being,” written by Damon Lindelof and Cord Jefferson, he knows where he's headed. A black hood and a noose round his neck are the identifiable features of the first real masked adventurer; many would follow him into that arena — if not quite in his footsteps. Other aspiring heroes, adorned in masks and colorful capes, are camera-ready and perpetually posing, but Reeves is chasing a conspiracy that's not as sexy as spandex. He’s after police officers who wear white robes and pointed hoods.

The year seems to be 1938 or 1939 in Queens, New York. Approximately 80 years and 1,400 miles from where we meet Angela in the pilot of Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen. She, as we’ve learned since then, is Will’s granddaughter. She's also a detective who wears a costume (hers a black leather hood and coat that flares behind her as she struts, rosary dangling from her belt, a nice touch for the “NUN WITH A MOTHERF*&*ING GUN”); but, at this point, she has been arrested for covering up Will’s involvement in the death of a police chief.

Angela swallows a mouthful of pills she took from her grandfather before they can be confiscated. The drug is called “Nostalgia,” originally for patients suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's but sold more broadly before the psychological side effects became widely known. The drug was too effective, too accurate to its purpose, and could lead to dependency (or worse) among users who found the past a better place to live. The capsules contain memories — specifically, Will Reeves's history.

When she enters his memories (she swallows them, literally, but really, they swallow her), Angela bridges the present and these pasts. The experience bombards the frame. A snare drum roll rises in volume; the camera’s edges blur; Agent Laurie Blake calls out to her, but Angela can’t respond. A drummer appears next to Angela in the jail cell; he’s in black and white. Blake’s voice changes pitch rapidly, and the camera moves to an extreme close-up of Angela’s face, looking in all directions, unable to focus. A woman playing the piano appears behind Blake, we might recognize her from Tulsa 1921. When Angela finally collapses, she awakes in place of Will, in police uniform, at some kind of ceremony. Time travel, it turns out, is harrowing business.

Along with the monochromatic palate, continuous takes become the predominant style of the episode. Tracking shots follow Will on his patrols and float around his interactions. Unlike André Bazin’s dream of a long take with deep focus that would return freedom of attention to viewers, the camera, in Gregory Middleton’s hands and under Stephen Williams’s direction, is immersive and demanding. Its attachment to Will builds a dreamlike momentum to his subjectivity, spanning years and city blocks in moments. Tracking shots present his origin story in a stream of linearity, one thing leading to the next in front of our eyes.

In this context, “every edit is an awakening,” an interruption, a force acting upon continuity. In most cases, the cuts are book-ended by returns to an extended “home” shot. Even when not strictly continuous, clever, invisible cuts are facilitated by extreme close-ups, whip pans, and camera flashes that convey a sense of “perceptual unity.” In foregrounding duration and history, the episode questions the coherence of time which gives form to so many heroic narratives.

But, as this show teaches, we leap back before we can go forward.


Lindelof’s Watchmen begins by dropping viewers into a thawing war between police and a Klan reboot called the Seventh Kalvary, a white supremacist, terrorist gang remade in the image of Rorschach, a masked vigilante whose vitriolic narration introduces readers to the world of Watchmen in the 1986 comic book. In Angela’s Tulsa, everyone protects their own identity: the cops with yellow masks, and the Kalvary with white masks covered in black splotches. The cops remind us of the graphic design of the original comic, and the Kalvary remind us of its most notorious character.

The detectives, also masked, take on more vibrant garb. Abar goes by Sister Night, adorned with the latest in Catholic BDSM accessories. She is accompanied by Looking Glass, slouching shoulders and a mask of reflective material that supposedly protects against psychic attacks; Red Scare, a large, brutal man in Soviet discotheque attire; and Pirate Jenny, in buccaneer chic. Following vigilantism’s proscription and prosecution, only state-sanctioned crusaders are allowed to inherit the Minutemen’s colorful legacy.

That’s not the only legacy that lives on in Watchmen, an adaptation that appropriates an impulse and inheritance to masked avenging. D.W. Griffith’s adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman resonates in the skeletons of this show, not only because of its “aesthetic legacy” and refraction of the twisted histories of Reconstruction era America, but because it supplied an iconic image: a masked hero, “his cape fluttering… emblem centered on his chest.” As Alan Moore and others have suggested, it’s not a stretch to identify Birth of the Nation as “the first American superhero movie,” an inflection point and crystallization for a specifically white supremacist and American mythical hero.   

In the show’s contemporary, officers of the law protect their identities because the other gang of whiteness made martyrs of a previous generation of cops while they slept off their Christmas Eve stupor. The threat of war, looming over the station, ushered in a new world of impunity and anonymity for police.

The State’s monopoly on violence, then, appropriates even costuming. This should be of no surprise to readers of the comic or to those who note how easily US institutions subsumed slave patrolling and (retroactively, at least) civil rights movement alike. Kara Keeling identifies chronological time as key to securing the State’s authority under a narrative of progress, the idea of “one true past that has led to one true present that will lead to one true, if indeterminate, future.” Progress allows for the plantation-settlement to sit on the same track as a black US President in a story that justifies and reinforces the State’s legitimacy. The temporal form of self-satisfaction buttresses institutional racism.

Watchmen seems to know this, even if viewers might doubt it initially. While the first episode appears to position police and racism as enemies and polar opposites, this dichotomy is quickly ruptured. Will Reeves’s story is a hidden history, running parallel to a whitewashed dream of ethical vigilantism. His memories complete the reversal, positioning heroism as condemnation of policing, a reaction to the impossibility of justice within the system.

Consider what the show portrays as the story’s original sin. It’s not the atomic bomb or an alien squid attack.

Watchmen begins with a staging of the racist attack, ensuing massacre, and destruction of Greenwood, Tulsa, OK in 1921. Black people are depicted suffering, dying, burning at the hands of white folks officially sanctioned by the state. This is true. Public officials armed and aided the white mob, and the Oklahoma National Guard provided back up. There was no prosecution or accountability for anyone involved. It’s an under-acknowledged cornerstone of American history. But its representation is treacherous ground, even for the vigilant.

The show and its creators have a responsibility — not just to black people, in general, but to the black Oklahomans who were dispossessed, invaded, and murdered with impunity by deputized whites. To begin a show like this is to incur a debt.

The turn to visuality, to photo, cinema, and image, is inextricable from racialization and the circulation of black suffering and black death for “white scopic pleasure.” Griffith's seminal and virulently racist 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, was a rousing success that resuscitated investment in the Klan at the same time as it was singularly influential in developing the language of filmmaking. From the late 19th through the early-mid 20th century, blackface minstrelsy was a vital form of public performance that bridged the distance between stage and screen, and instrumental in the construction and updating of “racial regimes.” Griffith imbedded the “invisible empire” into the very structure of “invisible editing.”

And then there’s the spectacle of lynching which, as David Marriott explains, is tied to the “technological moment which gives us the Kodak” and, with it, the mass production and dissemination of photographs. The photo became a “keepsake, a memento mori” and a “grotesque family album” that punctuated the lynching drama by preserving it. This “appetite for document, devouring by the eye” is ritualistic and climactic. It prolongs the scene and repeats the injury.

Patrice Douglass and Frank B. Wilderson III, among others, have identified the proliferation and circulation of lynching photos as the prototypical viral video. Which is to say, before people were retweeting gifs and videos of black folks being killed to “raise awareness,” they were doing it to say, “wish you were here.” Douglass quotes Marriott: “More than an aid to memory (though it is that too), the [image] is a part of the process, another form of racist slur which can travel through time to do its work.” So, the question, as Watchmen thrusts viewers into Greenwood-become-embers, what are we watching for? And, is there a form of staging that resists the devouring gaze, that stops time?

The images of Tulsa 1921 indeed travel through time. Will’s traumatic memories puncture the surface of his dreamlike narrative through the late 1930s and 1940s. As Will and June “toast” the former’s initiation into the police force, the camera circles their table in a continuous shot, pushing in for close-ups. Not at all defensively, Angela-as-Will responds to June’s concern, “I’m not angry.” Images flash on the screen, their beige tone immediately marking their difference from the nightclub setting where the pair chats: young Will in a movie theater shot upright after artillery rattles the building; his father carrying him; a WWI-style fighter plane firing at civilians from the sky. The camera continues its movement, pulling back to capture Will and June in the frame. Behind them, a white man in a white robe pushes a woman in pink to the ground and shoots her with a shotgun. Another image flashes on the screen of Will’s father clutching the young boy to his shoulder.

The camera leaves the table and follows Will’s eyeline to a woman playing piano in the corner of the room. It’s an apparition in color — Will’s memory of his mother playing piano as he watches Trust in the Law, the silent film that opens the first episode. We never see her visage, only from behind, as a young Will would have seen her every time he watched the movie. As the camera floats across, it pushes in until only woman and piano eclipse the frame. When the movement sails past her, revealing more of the frame, the setting has changed to the city streets as Will patrols. His mother’s an insistent presence, her fingers still dancing on keys as he walks by, and the camera turns to follow.

This scene and its transition, just over two minutes, feature four distinct moments in which the past claims the screen. In two of them, the memories flash as rapid splices before returning us to the continuous “home” take. The other two are arguably more novel. Instead of a typical flashback, they are apparitions that sprout in a shot that still identifies as late-1930s New York. The continuous takes are not ruptured. Instead, the phantasmatic images are embedded in the setting. They are the precipitation of a traumatic intensity that resists time’s rules.

The apparitions make impossible the pretense of an unmediated history and contradict the suggestion, through continuous shots, of direct access to truthful memory. They making present a past-that’s-not-past. A “phantasmatic history of a never happened that keeps happening.”

Temporality, the ticking clock, history as mediated text(s), and structures of linearity are content and form in the original comic. The show doesn’t merely reproduce these questions but uses race to crack them open. Along with Marriott and Keeling, I think of Michelle Wright’s critique of a Newtonian “linear time” as “progress narrative” that organizes so much of Western knowledge production, and John Murillo III’s path-breaking work on untime (unethical time) and Blackness as untimely, as “time crisis.” To take seriously the impossibility of justice and representation, the possibility of alternative histories that produce unprecedented futures, the problem must be considered one of time.

The United States of Watchmen is, in notable ways, more progressive than ours. In their Tulsa, cops have to request the release of their weapons before having access, “Redfordations” are paid (to qualifying descendants), and government institutions have memorialized murder and destruction of Greenwood. Everyone drives electric. Even better: the racists all wear masks, and all live in the same part of town — a white trash ghetto called Nixonville.

But this is just racism in a nicer, yellower mask. Cops get their guns easily early on, and Redfordations are merely tax reliefs for survivors of 50 discrete incidents, implying their isolation and exceptionalism. The progressiveness of Watchmen’s Tulsa is fiction. It obscures the scope of antiblackness by relegating it to the past. It can’t face the paradox of memorializing “the everyday,” what “is still ongoing.”

The episode begins with the "fictional” Hooded Justice from Minutemen, the show-within-a-show. These asides mimic the “historical” texts of the original comic, such as the Black Freighter comic-within-a-comic and the excerpts from Hollis Mason’s memoirs. They expand the edges of the world. Minutemen is a self-consciously pulpy depiction of the advent of masked adventurers as introduced in Moore and Gibbons’s comic book. (The self-serious tone and sexualized, slo-mo violence call to mind Zack Snyder.)

Viewed in hindsight, with Will’s memories in mind, the Hooded Justice of the popular imagination is a bizarre, bleached version of the real thing. What they got right: HJ is a badass, he is angry, and he does beat up cops. What they missed: heroism as a manifestation of black anger, as violence that erupts in the wake of justice’s impossibility, as a (non)sensical reaction to a world barred outside sense.

As Will gathers evidence in his folder (clippings of media coverage of burgeoning racism, Nazi rallies, Klan activity), as he uncovers plans and blueprints, witnesses the after-effects of nefarious mesmerism, his team of supposed heroes can’t be bothered. Will is alone in his witnessing. This is not because the Cyclops is a fantastical conspiracy theory, but because it’s true. The conspiracy is white supremacy and its banality. The conspiracy is that every instance of spectacle, every newspaper headline, only further camouflages racism’s superficiality. That there’s no deeper meaning, only its (re)articulations.

There’s an image that sticks with me. It comes before Will becomes Hooded Justice and just before he is nearly lynched. Narratively, this follows after he is forced to face the reality that despite his uniform and badge he is, like Sidney Poitier’s Mr. Tibbs, “unauthorized… a cop, alas… with no jurisdiction.” Full of righteous anger but with no place to store it, the precinct spits him out onto the streets of the city. But trouble is not done with him yet.

A cop car pulls up alongside Will and tracks him as faithfully as the camera. Will is kept just out of focus as the officers offer to buy him a drink. They’re the cops who foiled Will’s attempt to arrest a racist arsonist, and who will soon hang Will from a tree. Will rebuffs their invitations and they begin to drive off, apparently appeased. But the sigh of relief gets stuck in Will’s throat.

As the squad car passes through the frame, the rear reveals two bodies dragged by ropes tied to the bumper. Their coloration implies that they are another apparition, like the Klansmen in the nightclub, Will’s mother and the piano, or a fighter plane flying over the streets of New York City, and the image recalls one of the last things young Will saw as he looked out of a bullet hole in the box that carted him from Greenwood and saved his life. But the bodies are visible from a different angle than the one Will saw, and strikingly, one of them leaves behind a streak of blood, something absent in the dusty ground of the original scene. A streak of blood implies a contact that wasn’t there, a friction of past-on-present, of past making itself present, an apparition in the flesh. It’s a history that still drags and puts pressure on the ground, leaving its mark and making new marks. The past is not done, not settled, still here.


LARB Contributor

Jorge Cotte is a writer living in Chicago. His work has appeared in The New Inquiry, Complex, and Remezcla. When not writing, he is cooking, binging, and tweeting.


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