President Robert Redford? Squid rain? Your questions about the Watchmen premiere, answered.
If Sunday night's premiere of Watchmen left you wondering what on Earth a "squidfall" is — well, welcome to the club.
Based on the beloved comic by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colorist John Higgins, HBO's Watchmen is set three decades after the events in the book. But apart from the stories' shared history, that's about all you need to know going in; showrunner Damon Lindelof's adaptation has famously been disavowed by Moore.
Still, while you don't need to have read the comic or seen the 2009 movie to keep up with this adaptation, fans of Moore's work and newcomers alike are bound to have plenty of questions about last night's episode. Here are 15 that the Watchmen pilot raised, as well as some tentative predictions for the season ahead.
1. Am I supposed to have understood ... any of that?
Not really, but that's okay! Showrunner Damon Lindelof, of Lost and The Leftovers acclaim, has something of a reputation for totally destabilizing audiences. Get comfortable with your confusion; the first season of Watchmen is slow to give you the answers you're looking for (like, is Doctor Manhattan still living on Mars?!).
2. Okay, but what was up with that cold open?
If it weren't for the Watchmen title card at the beginning of the pilot, you might have thought you put on the wrong show (another of Lindelof's favorite tricks). The episode begins with a silent movie about Bass Reeves, "the black marshal of Oklahoma." In the film, Reeves lassos a corrupt sheriff, explaining to onlookers that the man sworn to protect them has been stealing their cattle. When the townspeople respond by calling for the sheriff to be lynched, Reeves intervenes: "There will be no mob justice today," he says. "Trust in the law."
It is a chilling table-setter for a series that jumps feet-first into themes of race, resentment, and the gray areas of justice; outside the theater where the movie is playing, Tulsa is in flames. It is 1921, and a racist white mob has descended on the city's Greenwood District, known also as the "Black Wall Street" for its affluent African-American population. Over two days, as many as 300 black people would be murdered by the mob in what is known today as the Tulsa race riot.
3. When exactly does Watchmen take place, then?
Flashbacks aside, the show is set in 2019, although it doesn't look anything like our 2019. The Watchmen comic explored an alternative history of the United States during the Cold War; the Watchmen TV show is functionally its sequel, set some three decades after the events in the book. Some events are shared between our universes — the Tulsa massacre, for one — while other events, like the Vietnam War, differ entirely.
4. Yeah, what was that part about Vietnam being a state now?
In the Watchmen comic, the United States wins the Vietnam War with the help of a blue superhuman called Doctor Manhattan, and Richard Nixon remains president into the mid-1980s, with the Watergate scandal never having come to light (at one point in the Watchmen pilot, you can hear children reciting the presidents, with the succession going from Nixon straight to Bush). In the Watchmen universe, Vietnam becomes a U.S. state in 1985; Angela (Regina King) says she was born outside of Saigon "a couple years before" the nation became a state.
5. What are 'Redfordations'?
Angela is clearly disturbed when one of the children in Topher's class asks her if she bought her bakery with "Redfordations." That's not a mispronunciation of "reparations;" rather, it's a portmanteau with the name Redford, after America's current president, Robert Redford.
Lindelof has said in interviews he was inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates' Atlantic essay, "The Case for Reparations." In Watchmen, President Redford has passed the Victims of Racial Violence Act, which gives a lifetime tax exemption to victims or descendants of victims of American racial injustice. (Hold your horses on this one; the concept is further explained in the show's second episode).
6. Wait, back up. President Robert Redford? As in the actor?
Yep. In Watchmen, Redford has been president for 28 years — Nixon abolished term limits — and made many liberal reforms that are increasingly resented, particularly by whites. When Tulsa Police Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) is driving in one scene, he listens to a radio program where a caller dismisses Redford as an inauthentic cowboy and slams him as the "Sundancer-in-Chief."
Redford's presidency isn't quite as random as it sounds. At the very end of the Watchmen comic, newspaper reporters discuss the viability of Redford's '88 election bid. "Who wants a cowboy actor in the White House?" one of the reporters snips — ironic, of course, seeing as our timeline ended up with President Ronald Reagan.
— Borys Kit (@Borys_Kit) October 15, 2019
7. Are Angela and Cal's kids adopted?
Angela and Cal's children are white; the kids' biological parents were killed during the White Night, when masked vigilantes murdered police officers and forced law enforcement officials to begin wearing masks to protect their identities.
8. Why did it rain squid?
At one point, Angela has to pull over the car during what looks like a rain of squid. It is ... exactly that.
In the Watchmen comic, a hero-turned-villain named Adrian Veidt averts a nuclear World War by dropping a genetically-modified squid monster on Manhattan, killing thousands. His plan, however monstrous, works; Russia and the U.S. stop fighting and unite against what they believe to be an alien invasion.
The squidfalls in HBO's Watchmen seem to be a sort of aftershock of Veidt's squidmageddon.
9. Is the 7th Cavalry a reference to something?
The 7th Cavalry is a white nationalist group that subscribes to the beliefs of Rorschach, the anti-hero protagonist at the center of the comic book. The group's name appears to be a reference to the cavalry headed by Lieutenant Colonel George Custer (who notably died in the Battle of Little Bighorn, which is the Tulsa police force's code name for a police shooting). The 7th Cavalry also participated in other major battles, including in the Vietnam War.
10. What happened in the pod? Does Looking Glass have superpowers?
One of the most intriguing parts of Watchmen's first episode is when the detective Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) interrogates a suspected 7th Cavalry member in something called "the pod." While Glass' reflective face mask is definitely creepy, this doesn't seem to be some form of hypnosis — rather, think of it more as a really fancy lie detector test. As Glass interrogates the suspect, triggering images play in the room, like KKK photographs, Confederate flags, and the Rorschach symbol. During the interrogation, the suspect's eyes can be seen twitching; afterwards, Glass debriefs his colleagues, citing the suspect's dilated pupils as proof he was reacting to the imagery, and therefor is a member of the 7th Cavalry.
It would be my guess that Doctor Manhattan continues to be the only Watchmen-universe character with actual superpowers; Glass is just a very intuitive detective.
11. Are the watch batteries significant?
During the firefight in the cow pasture, we see 7th Cavalry members hurry to hide they've been collecting watch batteries from now-illegal watches. Later, Angela identifies the batteries as "the old kind — synthetic lithium, the ones that were making people sick." Judd replies, "Oh, I get it, the Cavalry's going to make a cancer bomb."
While that sounds scary all on its own, cancer was also a major part of the original Watchmen comic. In it, Veidt had arranged for associates of Doctor Manhattan to get cancer in order to make people afraid of him. Could the 7th Cavalry be working on a similar tool?
12. Who is that mysterious guy who rides on a white horse?
At the Watchmen New York ComicCon panel, the cast and crew playfully refused to say who actor Jeremy Irons is in the TV show, referring to him as "Probably Who You Think He Is." And while Irons appears in the first episode, his identity remains a not-so-mysterious mystery. While I won't spoil it for anyone who wants to remain in the dark, this would be my guess.
13. Is there anything that people who've read the comic would notice that people who haven't won't?
There are many fun Easter eggs in Watchmen for fans of the comic. One is the owl mug that Angela drinks out of, a likely reference to the vigilante Nite Owl. Another is the visual motif of the yellow smiley face, which is formed when Angela is demonstrating how to make moon cakes.
Perhaps the most fun, though, is the close up on Judd's sheriff's badge at the end of the episode. In addition to visually mirroring the sheriff's badge close-up in the silent film that starts the pilot, Judd's badge is splattered with a familiar streak of blood.
14. Wasn't Rorschach supposed to be the good guy?
Back in 2015, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) listed Rorschach as one of his five favorite superheroes, alongside the likes of Spider-Man, Batman, and Iron Man. In fact, many over the years have misunderstood Rorschach to be a good guy. He isn't.
"Rorschach is a man who gives plenty of lip service to living by a morally unassailable, black and white code, but who nevertheless picks and chooses much of what he considers to be right and wrong entirely according to his own personal prejudices," explains Polygon. "Possibly, Rorschach does this to a delusional extent." The character was written by Moore in part as a critique of the concept of extrajudicial superheroes like Batman. The television show takes that idea a step further, drawing parallels between masked vigilantes, who act outside the law in the service of their perceived sense of justice, and the KKK. In the warning words of Reeves that open the show: There will be no mob justice today; trust in the law.
Of course, Rorschach's objectivism has remained alluring to many, including the TV series' radical 7th Cavalry group, which takes him up as their martyr. "I have people come up to me in the street saying, 'I am Rorschach! That is my story!'" Moore has even said. "And I'll be thinking, 'Yeah, great, can you just keep away from me and never come anywhere near me again for as long as I live?'"