The illicit power that masks and anonymity offer their wearers is a subject that Watchmen returns to again and again.HBO

HBO’s Watchmen is the strangest show to come to TV in a minute: the kind of fictional world where FBI agents carry locked briefcases that contain giant blue dildos, police interrogations incorporate Grant Wood’s American Gothic, and a brazen set piece of a shoot-out between superheroes and white supremacists relies heavily (and explosively) on cows. Damon Lindelof’s new series, a long-anticipated “remix” of the cult 1980s graphic-novel series, is sublime and absurd. It’s a symphony in which the loudest note in every bar is proudly out of key. The plane it portrays, an alternative-history America in 2019, is at once disturbingly peculiar and unmistakably our own.

In this mirror version of reality, a superstar liberal president has managed to pass both a reparations bill and a gun-control bill, twin policies that have inflamed societal tensions past a breaking point. Cops now tend to be the victims of police-involved shootings, as a result of restrictions on their use of deadly force. After a wave of synchronized attacks on members of the police force in Tulsa, Oklahoma, officers cover their faces with yellow masks, making them look oddly like emoji. Midway through the first episode, as the Tulsa cops gather for an emergency confab wearing a variety of bizarre outfits to conceal their identities—red balaclavas, leather cloaks, even a tatty panda costume—it dawned on me. Watchmen is set in a world where there is no internet. But Watchmen itself is the internet. It’s a fictionalized manifestation of the things life online has begotten: polarization, anonymity, doxxing, red-pilling, weaponized nostalgia, conspiracy theories. The supposed imposition of cultural orthodoxy. A sense of victimization that’s twisted into racist resentment.

The original Watchmen—created by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins—used the comic-book form to winkingly deconstruct the very concept of superheroes. Set in an alternative history in 1985, in which Richard Nixon is still president and the United States won the Vietnam War, it presented a world where masked crusaders were as real and as innately flawed as people—because most of them were ordinary people. The adventures of its “heroes” (the anarchic Rorschach, the grandiose Ozymandias, the actually superpowered Doctor Manhattan) played out against the backdrop of an America stalking toward an apocalyptic conflict with the Soviet Union.

Lindelof, the creator of Lost and The Leftovers, has confessed that he agonized over whether to take on the task of adapting Watchmen. While he’d been a fan of the source material since he was a child, as he wrote in an impassioned Instagram manifesto more than a year ago, he was well aware that Moore, its original writer, was fundamentally opposed to adaptations of the story outside of the medium in which it was born. Lindelof’s compromise was that he would leave the story of Watchmen be, while using it as a jumping-off point for a story set several decades later in the same universe. “The tone will be fresh and nasty and electric and absurd,” he wrote. Most crucial of all was that it “be contemporary.”

What Lindelof didn’t mention in his letter was the most striking thing he’s done with Watchmen, which is reorient this canonical story around a century of American racism. The first episode of Watchmen begins with a depiction of the 1921 Tulsa massacre (in which a prosperous black community was decimated by racist mob attacks) and ends with a body hanging from a tree. Rorschach is no longer a hero but the motif of a white-supremacist terrorist movement whose members wear ghostly white masks adorned with amorphous inkblots. Their goal, they state in a video released to the police, is to turn the streets of Tulsa “into gutters overflowing with liberal tears.” They call themselves the Seventh Kavalry. As the camera pans out on the mask-wearing member who’s speaking, it reveals that he’s not wearing a full-body costume, but an ordinary plaid shirt.

The illicit power that masks and anonymity offer their wearers is a subject that Watchmen returns to again and again. Without the burden of having their real selves exposed, the characters can be insulated from the consequences of the things they do and the ideas they espouse. The central character in the new series is Angela Abar (played magnificently by Regina King), a former cop who “retired” from the force after the White Night, a synchronized Kavalry attack on Tulsa police and their families that killed Angela’s partner and his wife. After that event, police were allowed to cover their faces to disguise their identity. Angela, going a beat further, started moonlighting as a hero called Sister Night, supporting the cops as a costumed vigilante while keeping her real identity secret to protect her family. Her motives are sincere, the show suggests, but they’re not simple. “People who wear masks are driven by trauma,” the Watchmen member turned FBI agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) tells her. “They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered.”

Like its source material, Watchmen leaps back and forth through time and space. And like The Leftovers, which imagines a post-Rapture world, it dedicates entire episodes to the biography and point of view of a single character: Angela, Laurie, the cop turned putative superhero Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson). There are extravagant, surreal interludes featuring the Watchmen character Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias, who’s entertaining himself amid what seems to be exile by playing God with his servants. There are flashbacks to 1985, when Veidt engineered the release of a gargantuan extra-dimensional squid onto Manhattan, killing millions of people but preventing the end of the world. Watchmen also explores how the trauma of such an unprecedented event might reverberate through the generations that survived it.

The most pivotal element of the series, though, is the conflict between Angela and her fellow vigilantes and the Seventh Kavalry. On the one side is a faction using anonymity to terrorize; on the other are individuals who feel compelled to position themselves as defenders of the universe. With regard to history, Lindelof’s intentions seem simple: The original Watchmen series, he told The New York Times, was rooted in fear about nuclear annihilation, because that was the most pressing concern of that era. Now the big cultural anxiety of the moment is an overdue reckoning with white supremacy. Lindelof’s Watchmen reimagines hooded Klansmen as the original supervillains, and it doesn’t have to stretch to do so. The historical moments he re-creates are horrifically violent and wrenching to watch. And their meaning is indisputable.

But when it comes to other contemporary flash points, Watchmen is harder to interpret. The show’s depiction of a black policeman being killed by a white driver during a traffic stop, its glib treatment of things such as trigger warnings and cultural appropriation—these are scenes whose messaging can feel muddled. Almost as often as the show thoughtfully parses the legacy of racism, it digs at what it sees as liberal overreach. Watchmen is audacious enough to imagine sweeping legislation that tries to right historical injustices. It also portrays the ways in which such attempts at reconciliation force Americans even farther apart. “I think we’re going to need a thicker skin,” Jeremy Irons’s Veidt says in one scene, and though he’s being literal, the moment feels a lot like an omen.

When Watchmen is at its most humane, its most imaginative (as it is in the sixth episode, “This Extraordinary Being”), it feels like superlative television. The breadth of its vision, coupled with Lindelof’s imperative to poke at the relationship between nostalgia for the past and destruction in the present, make for storytelling that vibrates with urgency and insight. Watchmen takes place in a world where the culture wars have mutated into real violence and hate. It allows us to see how deeply rooted those impulses are, and to think about what, if anything, might ever be enough to defeat them.

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