Which came first—the chicken or the egg? It’s an age-old brainteaser that can’t induce anything but groans, since it’s a question with no answer. It’s a koan. A paradox. This riddle also happens to be a recurring motif of Watchmen, the 2019 HBO series based on Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s cult DC-Comic-cum-graphic novel that was first published in 1986. The unanswerable query is a metaphor of sorts for the series’ central thematic question: Do we, the people, make history, or does history make us? You might argue that this inquiry and the chicken-egg motif do not exactly align—that is, if you assume that time is linear and thus has some definitive beginning. But when you add clairvoyance and time travel to the mix, everything becomes . . . relative.
Watchmen does, however, have an unequivocal inciting incident as its source—the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. The series begins with a vivid depiction of this historical event in Oklahoma, set off after an angry mob of white residents descended upon the Tulsa County Courthouse, where a young black man who had allegedly assaulted a white woman was being held. Fearful that the young man would be lynched, bands of black residents also turned up at the courthouse, with arms. After a tense standoff, gunfire and violence spiraled out into the entire Greenwood District of Tulsa—then home to a wealthy and predominantly black business district Booker T. Washington named “Negro Wall Street.” Within a span of about 16 hours, approximately 300 people were killed and 10,000 black residents were left homeless.
The Greenwood District is a crime scene to which Watchmen’s characters continue to return, chief among them the series’ lead protagonist, Angela Abar, a Tulsa police officer (played by Regina King) whose African American ancestors were either killed or displaced in the massacre. The site is physical and psychological in its dimensions, the source of a magnetic pull that keeps drawing Angela back to unearth the roots of her city’s present-day terror. Angela’s immediate adversary is the 7th Cavalry, a white nationalist militia group waging a race war in Tulsa. Just as the cavalry is the modern-day incarnation of the Massacre-era Ku Klux Klan, Angela’s own fear and rage is so analogous to that of her ancestors as to appear inherited—a sort of epigenetic transfer of trauma that infuses Angela with history without her conscious awareness.
Yet while Watchmen illustrates how we all embody the past without even having to remember it, the series also captures how it is impossible to understand the present—much less envision a viable future—without fully understanding and reckoning with the past. Angela has a visceral encounter with her family’s history: she experiences a kind of time travel induced by a drug that unlocks ancestral memories, blurring her present-day reality with Tulsa’s violent racist history, and her own identity with that of her forebears. Angela’s “trip” recalls the etymological ambiguity of the word sati, a Buddhist term often translated as “mindfulness” and popularized as awareness of the present moment. The same word, however, can also mean “memory,” implying that there is something indistinguishable between remembering and being mindful of the present. Perhaps simply to be is also, necessarily, to remember. To remember what, exactly, is Watchmen’s core plot engine and its mystery.
The obvious answer is the dangerous consequence of failing to reckon with America’s bloody racist history. The 7th Calvary is an apt fictional villain to serve this purpose, especially given that the FBI only recently elevated white supremacist terrorism to the same threat level as ISIS. In Watchmen, the cavalry marauds in skintight hoods called Rorschach Masks, and their primary attack on law enforcement in a deadly event called the White Night prompts city officials to require police to wear masks of their own, for self-protection. Masks, in Watchmen, play yet another motif, with a thematic utility that extends beyond obscuring physical identity. “People who wear masks are driven by trauma,” says FBI agent Laurie Blake, played by Jean Smart. “[They are] obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered, usually when they were kids. Ergo the masks; they hide the pain.” Masks in Watchmen are shields, deflecting detection and thus scrutiny. They are a safe room within which to lock away vulnerability and fear.
Masks, however, not only hide pain; they also make hubris possible, as illustrated by the numerous vigilantes that also appear repeatedly in Watchmen. Tulsa locals, from civilians to city officials, wear masks both literal and figurative as they assume unauthorized power in order to “save the world.” The various characters all have their sense of utopia, an ideal world they desire to rescue or, in most cases, engineer. Whether they represent state-sanctioned white supremacy, a sustainable environment, permanent nuclear détente, or simply a law-abiding state of relative peace, each of Watchmen’s characters seeks to be the architects of history, not merely the inheritors of a past that keeps reproducing itself through their trauma. In this way, Watchmen both lauds and knowingly lampoons the exceptionally American archetype of the superhero, who takes history into her own hands in order to redirect it in her image. Next to the celebrity, the superhero represents the closest being this secular state comes to recognizing as a god.
This fascinating series explores the aforementioned themes with such otherworldly elements as transdimensional squid and inhabitable moons of Jupiter, while managing to portray an obsessive conspiracy theorist’s netherworld complete with mind control, human cloning, weather manipulation, and orchestrated mass-terror events. All these science-fictional details, however, make the deeper questions about humans’ sociopsychological power all the more resonant. Watchmen represents a far-fetched yet all-too-familiar doomsday narrative that leaves us with a poignant lesson: if the superheroes we strive to be are to have any hope of saving our individual and collective futures, we’ll first have to reckon with the histories that delivered us to our present crisis.
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