“It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice”
October 21, 2019
Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. As his weeping mother plays the accompanying piano, a small African-American boy enjoys a silent film in which a white man on a horse is pursued by a man in a black cloak and hood. Black Man lassos White Man and drags him to a church where its white parishioners come out and demand to know what is happening. Black Man reveals that he’s caught their cattle thief: WHITE MAN (who also happens to be the town sheriff), and Black Man reveals himself to be Bass Reeves, the Black Marshall of Oklahoma. When the white parishioners demand that the thief be lynched, Black Marshall refuses: “NOPE! Today, we’re going to TRUST IN THE LAW!”
Meanwhile, outside, anything but the law is taking place. The young boy’s father bursts into the theater, hands his shotgun to his wife and takes the small boy into his arms. The family makes their way through the streets during the VERY TRUE AND VERY REAL AND VERY HORRIFYING Tulsa Race Riot — ducking behind cars as bullets whiz by, white men drag and beat and shoot black folks trying to get away, and a plane strafes the entire scene. Eventually, they arrive at a garage where, Small Boy’s parents are told there isn’t enough room for them in their friend’s truck, so they place their child in a box in the truck with a note tucked into his jacket: “WATCH OVER THIS BOY.”
As they drive out of town, Small Boy peers out of a hole made by a passing bullet, to see two bodies being dragged behind a car … and the garage his parents where he last saw his parents explode.
But Small Boy’s trauma isn’t over yet! That night he awakens in a field outside of town, the friends of his parents dead beside their crashed truck. But he’s not the only survivor: he hears a baby cry nearby, and, wrapping her in an American flag, he carries her to safety as Tulsa burns behind him in the distance.
WELL, GOD DAMN, DAMON LINDELOF. THAT’S ONE WAY TO START A SHOW.
Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2019. Almost 100 years after the Tulsa Race Riot, a police officer — a black police officer — pulls over a white guy in a pickup truck. After asking what Truck Driver is hauling (lettuce), the officer asks if he can take a look, only to have Truck Driver sass back if he can have a look at the officer’s face. See, because in this Watchmen universe, the police wear yellow masks over the lower half of their faces. The police officer is NOT AMUSED and demands Truck Driver’s license and registration, which he retrieves from the glovebox, only to have a Rorschach mask slip out.
The officer, now freaked out, returns to his car to request that someone named “Panda” release because in this Watchmen universe, police officers have to jump through a bunch of bureaucratic hoops before they are allowed to wave a gun around. But by the time he finally has permission and his gun is released from its holster, Truck Driver has put on that Rorschach mask and shot our police officer friend through his windshield, tossing a head of lettuce onto his chest for laffs.
Elsewhere in Tulsa, Police Captain Judd Crawford and his wife are enjoying an all-black performance of the musical Oklahoma when he’s alerted to the shooting. Judd hurries to the officer’s bedside — because somehow the officer is still alive, despite taking a ton of heavy fire to the chest but OK — where he is briefed by Looking Glass, his chief interrogator who wears a very shiny mask. Looking Glass asks if Judd wants to send in “Red and Night” but Judd waves him off, instructing Looking Glass to let them sleep.
.Judd then swings by the officer’s home to let his wife know that there has been a shooting but that her husband is alive, and will be moved into the department’s private medical facility at the precinct as soon as he is out of surgery. Judd then just makes sure that her husband hadn’t told anyone that he was on the force, before coming up with a cover story for his shooting: he was carjacked on his way to night school. Judd finally assures the wife that her husband is going to make it (while knowing that she is probably REALLY FUCKING FURIOUS with him right at that moment) because Judd = Good Guy.
The next day, our heroine, Angela Abar is talking eggs, protein, walls and Vietnamese baking to her son’s class on Career Day.
Turns out, Angela was born in Vietnam a couple of years before it became our 51st state, which is where she learned how to make these “mooncakes.” When she grew up, she became a police officer, and she was one of the cops who was attacked on “White Night.” Back then, Angela explains, police officers didn’t wear masks, so the attackers knew who she was and where she lived and they came to her house and shot her. After, she decided to become a baker: less chance of getting shot.
And that’s when one of the little shits in Angela’s son’s class asks if she paid for her bakery through “Redforations” — which we will learn are reparations that President Robert Redford implemented — prompting her son, Topher, to lunge for the kid.
On the drive home, Topher explains that he punched the kid for being a racist. But before they can discuss it further, Angela is forced to pull the car over to sit out an emergency squid storm.
It’s only when she returns home and her husband gives Angela her pager that apparently had been going off all day that Angela sees she has received a LITTLE BIGHORN warning. Angela leaves the kids with her husband and rushes over to her not-yet-opened bakery: Milk and Hanoi.
But before she goes inside, an elderly African-American man in a wheelchair (reading a newspaper with the headline: “VEIDT DECLARED DEAD”) is waiting for her, asking when the bakery is going to open. She distractedly tells him in a couple of months, and he assures her that he’ll wait. As she goes inside, he asks, “Think I could lift 200 pounds?” And she replies sarcastically, “Sure you could.”
In the back of the as-of-yet unopened bakery, behind a security door, Angela changes into her alter-ego: Sister Night, a bad-ass crime-fighting nun.
Sister Night drives straight over to Nixonville, a trailer park filled with white trash, kicks in a particular trailer door, and drags a guy into the trunk of her car. Sister Night then drives straight to the police precinct where the police make way for her as she strides inside.
There, Captain Judd is showing the department a video they’ve received from a Rorschach-mask-wearing group of white nationalists that call themselves the Seventh Kalvary, in which they threaten to kill more cops and “hose away” the “black filth” into the “gutters overflowing with liberal tears.” And then they end the whole thing with a sassy “TICK TOCK, TICK TOCK, TICK TOCK.”
Captain Judd points out the obvious: the Seventh Kalvary is back and shooting cops, so he needs to invoke Article 4 so that cops can have their guns back. This Panda guy, he thinks this is a terrible idea and tries to read out the bylaws regarding releasing guns, but he’s overruled by some VERY NERVOUS COPS WHO WOULD LIKE TO HAVE THEIR GUNS, PLEASE AND THANK YOU. Captain Judd promises Panda that if he’s making a mistake, it’s his funeral.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Sister Night waits for Judd in his office where after bitching about not hearing about the cop shooting until this afternoon, she informs him that she’s got a guy in her trunk — she went ahead and rounded up one of the usual suspects.
Usual Suspect is taken to the interrogation pod, where the guy with the shiny mask, Looking Glass, grills him while images of all sorts of things — the moon landing, African-American soldiers, Mr. Rushmore with Nixon’s face on it, Rorschach masks, plays on screens all around them.
After, Looking Glass reports to Captain Judd, Sister Night and a Russian guy named Red Scare that he’s certain Usual Suspect is a member of the Seventh Kalvary based on his pupil responses, but that Usual Suspect ain’t talking.
So Sister Night takes Usual Suspect into a side room and beats the ever-living shit out of him. You know, just using good, upstanding police tactics.
And when she emerges from the room, she has an address for the shooter: Cattle Ranch. WELP, THAT SHOULD NARROW IT DOWN. IN OKLAHOMA.
But apparently, it does, because soon Sister Night, Red and a bunch of cops are crawling through a field full of cows, planning on raiding a trailer, where inside, a bunch of racist assholes is taking apart watches to collect their lithium batteries. Above the cops on the ground are Captain Judd and Pirate Jenny (another masked cop) in Archie the Owlship, monitoring the situation.
However, the Kalvary assholes are alerted that there is someone on the property through an alarm system, and they split up: some go out to a pickup truck that is rigged up with a mounted machine gun while two others take the batteries and head to a small plane. The machine gun assholes machine gun, turning the poor cows into hamburger and taking out a few police officers in the process, while the plane assholes escape.
Eventually, Sister Night manages to kill one man in the truck and chases the other — who happens to be Truck Driver — into the trailer. There, after having his ass kicked by a badass fighting nun …
… Truck Driver takes a cyanide pill and dies before they can get anything out of him.
Meanwhile, in the air, Captain Judd and Pirate Jenny chase down the plane, eventually setting it on fire with the Owlship’s flame-thrower. In the process, Archie comes crashing down to Earth, but NO WORRIES, everyone is OK.
We take a quick break overseas somewhere, where Jeremy Irons is a very fancy man who lives on a very fancy estate where his very fancy servants serve him a very fancy cake to celebrate his “anniversary.”
After cake, Very Fancy Butler presents to Jeremy Irons a gift: a watch he had made based on Jeremy Irons’ own drawings. Jeremy Irons, he is moved and, handing Very Fancy Butler and Very Fancy Maid glasses of champagne announces that he’s been writing a play — a tragedy in five acts — and he wants them to be in the leading roles. It’s called “The Watchmaker’s Son.”
Back in Tulsa, Judd and his wife Jane have dinner with Angela, her husband and their three children where Judd reveals that not only had he played the lead in Oklahoma once, but he has a lovely singing voice.
After dinner, as Judd and Jane are preparing to leave, Angela tells Judd that she found a duffle bag full of lithium batteries in the plane — the kind of batteries that make people sick. They wonder what the Kalvary was up to: a cancer bomb? Maybe? Who knows? Probably nothing to worry about: just the end of the world, lol.
Back at the Crawford home, as American Hero Story: Minutemen plays in the background, Judd takes a call with the governor before being alerted that the police officer who was shot has woken up. Judd puts on his uniform and promises his wife he’ll have one of his officers take him to the hospital.
Buuuuuuuuut … He drives himself. Alone.
And so that’s why when his truck drives over a spike strip and blows out his tires, I was yelling “GET BACK IN YOUR CAR AND DRIVE ON YOUR RIMS, GODDAMMIT.”
Instead, Judd is blinded by a sudden flash of bright white light.
Meanwhile, Angela and her husband Cal’s sexytimes in their closet (?) are interrupted by a phone call: a man asking if she is Angela Abar? Is her father Marcus Abar? When she replies in the affirmative, the voice directs her to the “big oak tree on Rowland Hill,” adding that he knows who she is, so she needn’t bother wearing a goddamned mask.
Alarmed, Angela grabs her headboard rifle before pulling the fireplace handgun to give to Cal, instructing him to keep an eye out: if anyone pulls up, shoot them before they get to the porch.
Angela then arrives at the big oak tree where she is greeted by a bright white light in her face. When she cocks the gun and demands it be turned off, it is, and it takes her eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. But when they do, what she sees is the old man in the wheelchair from earlier holding the “WATCH OVER THIS BOY” note, sitting beneath the lynched body of Chief Judd Crawford.
H’oh boy. So here’s the thing about this series and this episode in particular: you don’t have to have read the original Watchmen comic series or seen the (embarrassing) Zack Snyder film adaptation to be able to appreciate this series set in the Watchmen universe … but I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t help. A lot.
NOW LISTEN TO ME. I am not a Watchmen superfan by any measure. I’ve read the graphic novel, I’ve seen the movie, but I’m not an obsessive, unlike Damon Lindelof.
Side note: My first TV blogging love was, as most of you know, Lost. And I came to that love through the show and through a Lost fan board, The Fuselage, where Lost fans would share theories and do other nerdy Lost things. On this board was one poster, Doctor Suds, who was completely consumed with the theory that everything on Lost could be explained by The Watchmen — if I’m not mistaken, he believed everything about the island would turn out to be a big government conspiracy of some sort or there was someone manipulating everything to some vast government end or something (but I could be wrong about that, it’s been a while). Suds’ reasoning, even though nothing on the show actually lined up with The Watchmen, was that he was friends with Damon Lindelof’s father and he knew that Lindelof had been obsessed with The Watchmen since he was a kid. As it turns out, this was entirely true, and not, as I had assumed, the insane ramblings of a nutcase on the internet. Because: internet.
ANYWAY. The point is, I’ve read The Watchmen (and seen the not-great movie), but like I said, I’m not an obsessive. As such, I’m only prepared to give those of you who are not as familiar with the story the five-minute version. Those of you who are obsessives, feel free to scream at me about how wrong I am in the comments.
The Watchmen takes place in an alternate version of the 1980s United States, one where superheroes are real (but they don’t have superpowers — except for one guy, but we’ll get to him in a second) but they’ve been outlawed. The U.S. was successful in Vietnam, Nixon’s Watergate scandal was never exposed, and, in fact, he’s still President. Shit is still SUPER TENSE between the United States and the Soviet Union and nuclear war is all but inevitable.
Right, so, a former superhero, a guy named The Comedian (don’t worry about him too much — but he’s where The Watchmen‘s iconic smiley face with blood on it comes from), he ends up dead, and his fellow superhero, Rorschach, who refused to retire from superheroing, he begins investigating.
Stuff happens, and eventually, Rorschach and a few other of our superhero friends learn that The Comedian was killed by another former superhero, this asshole named Ozymandias when The Comedian learned of Ozymandias’ plan to avert nuclear war. Ozymandias’ plan — which he put into motion before Roscharch and the others could stop him? He created a giant, genetically modified psychic squid that he teleported to New York City, where, upon arrival, it exploded and killed half the population of the city. YOU KNOW, LIKE YOU DO. The world, believing they were under an alien attack from another dimension, put aside their plans to kill one another with nuclear weapons to focus on this new squid threat.
So the other superheroes are like, “Well, your plan killed a bunch of innocent people but it worked, so I guess we’ll just let the world believe it was attacked by an alien squid from another dimension and never tell anyone that it was a manmade plot by a narcissistic asshole.” The only superhero that doesn’t agree to go along with this story is Rorschach who is all, “NOPE, THIS IS BULLSHIT, I DON’T COMPROMISE WITH THE TRUTH, AND I’M GOING TO EXPOSE ALL OF IT.”
So Doc Manhattan, the only superhero with actual superpowers (which he received after a nuclear accident — it’s a whole thing) he kills Rorschach before fucking off forever to Mars. But! Rorschach, he had been documenting this whole thing in his journals and as the comic ends, the journals are being received at The New Frontiersman, a conservative publication.
OK SO. Again, what I detailed is just a sketch of the background material we’re working with. The Watchmen is a lot deeper and more interesting and it’s own entire alternate history that is too deep to get into in a single blog post, so I hope to continue adding pieces as we go along, but I hope you get the general idea.
HBO, understanding the value of world-building, has also released information online about The Watchmen universe. Tor.com has done a nice roundup of the four documents released so far, which include an FBI memo entitled: “The Computer and You”; an article about Bass Reeves, the Black Marshall in the silent film; the “Veidt Declared Dead” newspaper article shown briefly in the show; and an FBI memo on … DUN DUN DUN! … Rorschach’s journals.
I urge you to go to the Tor site to read all the information gathered, but some helpful information in terms of understanding this episode:
- After the squid attack, computers and cell phones were banned, as people thought the technology had somehow opened a multi-dimensional portal for the squid to come through: hence, the use of pagers.
- The squid shower is thought to be somehow related to the giant psychic squid attack.
- Bass Reeves, who is an actual historical figure, in this universe was one of the first masked superheroes and his alter-ego was The Black Marshall.
- Ozymandias, whose real name was Adrian Veidt, is thought to be dead by authorities in New York, Vietnam, and Antarctica after a seven-year-search. (He’s not dead, he’s Jeremy Irons.)
- The New Frontiersman (which is owned by Roger Ailes in this universe) did publish Rorschach’s journals. Most people considered it to be conspiratorial nonsense, but a bunch of white nationalist terrorists considered it an “object of fascination.”
- Laurie Blake, who is a superhero I didn’t talk about above, but who was known as Silk Specter II (and whom we will discuss more later) is now an FBI agent (and will be portrayed on the show by one amazing Jean Smart. Whoops, spoiler alert, guys).
- Elvis was still alive in the 90s.
OK SO. Because I’ve thrown a lot of information at you already, I’m going to try to keep this (relatively) brief. Let’s start at the beginning — the title: “Watchmen.”
I guess I should mention that the original band of superheroes in The Watchmen universe — sort of their “Justice League” if you will — were called The Minutemen. (They were the subjects of the TV show American Hero Story in this episode.) While their “heroism” was tolerated, it was never officially sanctioned by the government back in the 40s when they were formed. But then when Doc Manhattan came along, the government made vigilantism legal so that he could singlehandedly handle crime issues with his sooperpowers.
This, in turn, leads to the superheroes having sanctioned vigilante powers (which Rorschach, in particular, took too far, killing criminals whenever he saw fit). Eventually, the police became pissed that they were being undermined by superheroes, and in the 70s, they went on strike on the East Coast. Around this same time, graffiti started appearing reading, “Who watches the watchmen?” because unchecked vigilantism didn’t actually go over well with folks. This, in turn, led to the Keene Act which outlawed superheroes as mentioned above.
But that Latin phrase that the police chant at each other after their meeting: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Nos custodimus! That’s: “Who watches the watchmen? We watch!” — a direct reference to the graffiti during the police strike. (It’s also a Latin phrase from the Roman poet Juvenal, basically questioning authority and power.)
RIGHT. SO. Look at how many “watch” references we have in the episode: the note given to the small boy in the beginning reading, “WATCH OVER THIS BOY;” the use of the threatening “TICK TOCK, TICK TOCK” by the Seventh Kalvary and their plan for the watch batteries; the watch gifted to Jeremy Irons; and his play, “The Watchmaker’s Son.”
So, we’ve got this double meaning to the word “watch” — to keep guard over or to look at, but also a watch is a timepiece. Unsurprisingly, the meanings are related: “Military sense of ‘military guard, sentinel’ is from late 14c. General sense of ‘careful observation, watchfulness, vigilance’ is from late 14c.; to keep watch is from late 14c. Meaning ‘period of time in which a division of a ship’s crew remains on deck’ is from 1580s. The meaning ‘small timepiece’ is from 1580s, developing from that of ‘a clock to wake up sleepers.'”
So let’s begin with this question of time: it’s an important driver in the original Watchmen series. The metaphorical Doomsday Clock which represents how close we are to nuclear annihilation, it clicks ever closer to midnight as the series goes on, pressuring Ozymandias to make his fateful decision. And interestingly, in this series, watches are literal causes of death, a source for cancer (or at least they are believed to be), and the passage of time itself is used as a threat. TICK TOCK, TICK TOCK, TICK TOCK.
But the deepest connection between the original Watchmen series and this new one seems to be this question of vigilantism, power, policing, and justice. To watch someone, to guard someone is to protect them — the police can’t do their jobs if they can’t observe the public and see what the bad guys are up to. But on the other hand, to watch or guard over someone gives the watcher great power over the observed; to guard is to contain or restrain, to control. It’s a delicate balance to protect without taking away the freedoms of the protected, a balance that this comic series and this program is clearly exploring and questioning, especially when it comes to this question of racial power dynamics.
Thousands of words have already been written by people much more eloquent than myself about the issue of race that Lindelof and his writers are tackling in this series. It’s a tightrope walk and hopefully this white man will be able to pull it off without pissing everyone off.
But I can’t help but be impressed just by this first episode in how the show is exploring these potentially volatile and third-rail topics of racism, racial resentment, revenge and the use of power, and doing so in a nuanced, multi-faceted way. First of all, just the act of using the Tulsa Race Riots as the origin point for this particular story, and thereby educating most viewers that this is a part of history that ACTUALLY HAPPENED that we have not ever grappled with as a nation, much less atoned for, that is enormous, and it is important, and it feels like a challenge to all viewers.
And what I find most thrilling about beginning from this place is that the writers aren’t using it as some sort of liberal cudgel to preach that all African-American people are good and all white people are bad, but instead to explain why deep racial tensions still exist — both in this universe and our own — a century after the fact.
For instance, Angela Abar as Sister Night — though she may be play-acting as a nun, she is no saint. In fact, she is not even what we can consider a by-the-book cop or hero: it’s not due process that she’s not giving Usual Suspect in that back room. In fact, what is interesting is that though the Seventh Kalvary don the Rorschach masks and are the ones who identify with the original Rorschach’s harsh black-and-white, no-compromise view of the world, it’s Sister Night herself who seems to have taken on his legacy of taking crime-fighting into her own hands. In fact, it’s Angela who, in explaining her recipe to the children of her son’s class, emphasizes the importance of keeping walls up, of separation — this is not a woman who is interested in exploring the gray areas of life.
And it’s no coincidence that Looking Glass’ mirror mask is its own sort of Rorschach mask. Both sides of this fight see the world through Rorscharch’s black-and-white perspective, they just disagree on which side is the “good” one. Though they may technically be police officers, and though their motto might be the anti-superhero “Who watches the watchmen?” there is no real discernable difference between the masked superheroes of the past and the policeman of today. They are all vigilantes, eeking out justice as they see fit.
That is not to say that the Seventh Kalvary are some kind of heroes or anti-heroes, don’t get me wrong. These guys are fuckers. The big question, though, is what is the correct response to terrorism, to people who have no ability to see others as fully human? How do you respond to people who only understand — and worse, respect — a language of violence? Is violence, is vigilantism ever justified or does it just perpetuate a cycle of never-ending violence, the pendulum swinging back and forth between the two sides, black and white, indefinitely?
Because it does go both directions, and I believe it’s the only way to understand that haunting final shot: the white chief of police, hung high in a tree, an old black man beneath him — a reversal of all the historical lynchings that are scarred in this nation’s soul (despite whatever our ignorant president would like to believe). The “WATCH OVER THIS BOY” note in the man’s hands strongly suggests that this is the same little boy from the opening scene — a child who had been watching a movie about a black marshall/superhero delivering justice to a white cop/secret criminal — only to be thrust out into the real world, a world where there is no actual justice, a world where innocent people are slaughtered for the color of their skin, a world where punishment is never delivered, or even suggested.
All I can assume is that the old black man, he, like Bass Reeves in the silent film, knew that the real villain was the white man who was supposed to be the hero: he knew that Judd was actually working with the Seventh Kalvary in some capacity. Except unlike Bass Reeves, the old black man, having seen first hand what good “trusting in the law” does for you, he, like the Minutemen, like Doc Manhattan, like Rorschach, like Sister Night, he, somehow, took justice in his own hands.
So who is watching the Watchmen? He was, apparently.
Watchmen airs on HBO on Sundays at 8/9 p.m.