Picking up where the previous episode left off, the second outing for Watchmen slams on the breaks to bring us a slower, more introspective episode than the first: while Angela “Sister Night” Abar investigates the death of her police chief, we are taken back to the so-called “White Night”, when the Seventh Cavalry carried out a simultaneous assault on the homes of police officers in a racially motivated massacre. The flashback in question is not your typical tragic backstory, however, but instead helps to develop the main theme of the episode: dealing with trauma.
The episode gives us a number of examples as to how one might move on from suffering: Angela copes with the loss of her partner, killed during the White Night, by taking in his children. Even as her chief holds her hand and tells her its okay to cry, Angela pushes down her grief, puts on a mask, and starts knocking seven bells out of the thugs who made her this way. Later, Angela’s adopted son, Topher, barely blinks upon hearing of the chief’s death. “Cops die,” he says, numb to it all, while Red Scare and Looking Glass cope with their loss by tearing down a shanty town of white supremacists. Ozymandias deals with his demons, whatever they may be, by isolating himself, forcing his servants to act out the birth of Dr. Manhattan, full frontal blue nudity and all. (Maybe it’s time to put the old guy in a home?). Meanwhile, President Redford wants to help the African-American population recover using reparations, afforded to those who can provide DNA evidence that their ancestors suffered from slavery, hate-crime or systematic racism.
What creator Lindelof and cowriter Nick Cuse are doing here is interesting. The original Watchman comics didn’t outright ignore or avoid social issues – touching on issues of gender, sexuality and mental health – but for the most part it does stick to its own themes, exploring power, accountability, morality, etc. Rather than rehash these, Lindelof uses Watchmen’s alternate timeline to explore how racism might manifest in a so-called “post-racial” world. Redford, for his part, seems to be doing a pretty good job of dismantling the systematic racism deeply embedded in American society. An ethnically diverse police force combined with financial reparations for the victims of slavery and hate crime are both well-targeted attempts at chipping away racism on a systematic level, rather than an individualistic one.
And yet, that individualistic level remains. Racism hasn’t gone away, even after attacking the institutions that perpetuate it; it has, however, become more subtle, more insidious. Rather than shouting “White power!” from the rooftops, these new racists ask “but when’s White History Month?”; they harp on about “positive discrimination”; they picket black history museums; they refer to reparations as “Redfordations”, mocking them, looking upon them with envy and suspicion.
Even a world with a mostly black police force has the African-Americans as the ones living in fear, targeted by white criminals. Lindelof uses this subtext to help the audience identify police officers as the good guys – no easy feat in such a racially conscious show. In any other show, we’d see cops hiding behind masks as something to be feared, hated even. In Watchmen, we sympathize instead.
While the episode is mostly devoted to developing the characters and their backstories, both of which were left pretty thin in the first episode, the plot here takes enough twist and turns to keep the pace from dragging. There’s also a healthy shot of fun at Zack Snyder’s expense; we get our first proper look at in-universe TV series “American Hero Story: Minutemen”, and it feels eerily similar to the 2009 movie adaptation, with its gratuitous slow-mo, portentous voiceover, and graphic ultraviolence. Your mileage may vary depending on how much you like the movie. (I love it, personally, but its not exactly above ridicule.)
Again I have to praise Reznor and Ross’ tense, distorted score, particularly in the opening scene, for which cinematographers Andrij Parekh and Gregory Middleton also deserve praise. The out of focus camera and the brilliant use of mirrors help us focus on Lindelof and Cuse’s sharp, almost lyrical dialogue as Angela interrogates a suspect.
Watchmen’s second episode lacks the fan-pleasing Easter Eggs and pulpy worldbuilding of its first, but greatly builds on it in terms of character, theme and social commentary. It still doesn’t seem sure what it wants to be just yet, but Lindelof and co. have got me excited to find out.
Watchmen continues on Monday 28th October, 9pm, on Sky Atlantic.