You know, I thought I was more or less done with recapping. I certainly wasn’t going to take on a big project. But then Damon Lindelof made a Watchmen TV show and all this time, people have been asking if I’m back and I haven’t had a good answer. But yeah, I’m thinking I’m back. Time for “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice”.
We open in Tulsa, 1921. Right off, let me just say that race is a big component of the pilot and probably the series. So I wouldn’t ordinarily make a point of noting the ethnicity of a character, in most cases it seems significant. Here, a young African-American child is sitting alone in a movie theater watching a silent movie while a woman who we’ll find out is his mother plays the piano for the score. It’s a film about a hooded hero taking down a crooked sheriff. The hero turns out to be Bass Reeves, a real person who was the first black deputy marshal in the west. And then we hear sirens and gunshots. An African-American man scoops up the boy while the woman loads a shotgun.
In the streets, it’s chaos. This is a real thing – it’s called the Black Wall Street Massacre. This was the wealthiest black community in the country and a racist mob attacked, burned down the businesses, and killed people. It’s horrifying.
The family runs through the streets to get to a garage. There’s a group of black residents loading up a car to escape and the boy’s parents put him in a wooden trunk in the back so he can get to safety. His father quickly scrawls a note before the car leaves. Bullets pierce the trunk almost immediately but miss the boy. He looks out the holes just in time to see something explode before everything goes dark. He wakes up at night in a field amid the wreckage of the car. He finds only corpses before pulling out his note and reading “Watch Over This Boy”. As he walks away, he hears a baby crying. The boy picks up the baby and carries him along as he walks into the title card:
“It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice”
And then it’s the present on another dark road. A dirtbag in a truck gets pulled over and the cop is a black man who pulls a yellow mask up over his face. It’s what you call “Watchmen Yellow” – it invokes the smiley face logo. The cop is overly formal and by the book and the dirtbag is acting fairly squirrelly. He demands to see the cop’s face and apologizes when that doesn’t go over. When the guy goes for his license and registration, we see an interesting bit of cloth that means something to the cop. And to people familiar with Watchmen.
The cop takes the paperwork back to his car and radios the station. He needs to have his gun activated and he’s irritated that “Panda” is the one on duty. Panda makes him answer several question before he activates his gun, which is a really cool idea, by the way. The cop confirms that the guy had a Rorschach mask and is a high level threat. But as soon as he removes it from the cradle, the dirtbag guns him down. He tosses a paper bag full of lettuce into the car before driving off.
Cut to a performance of Oklahoma! with an all-black cast. It looks like a community theater production and in the audience is Don Johnson. Officially “Judd Crawford”, but come on. A yellow-masked cop comes down the aisle to get him and Judd leaves with a few whispered words to his wife. (Frances Fisher!) Judd arrives at the hospital where the injured cop is in critical condition. Waiting for him is a guy (Tim Blake Nelson) wearing a reflective mask. This episode isn’t great about introducing characters, so I’ll just tell you that his name is Looking Glass. Glass confirms that they’ve got roadblocks up but they figure the suspect is in hiding. He offers to call in “Red and Knight”, and we’ll meet them soon enough. It’s clear that the Rorschachs are a problem but they’ve been quiet for a while.
Looking Glass: “There was a head of lettuce in Sutton’s car. Shooter musta tossed it in. I believe it was romaine.”
Crawford: (pause) “Were there any croutons?”
Looking Glass: “Not that I could ascertain.”
HA! Judd uses Glass’ shiny mask to straighten his tie and I’m already sold on this show. Later, Judd goes to Sutton’s house to tell his wife what happened. We learn here that members of the police force aren’t allowed to tell people that they’re police. We’ll get more details later, but for now Judd has to invent a story that Roberta can tell when people want to know what happened to her husband. He’s very careful to use present tense when talking about Sutton.
Cut to a classroom. We see a livestream of a glowing blue figure making and destroying what appears to be a literal sand castle. A chyron on the stream identifies this as footage of Dr. Manhattan on Mars. Addressing the class is a black woman named Angela Abar (Regina King, who we’ll talk about later). She’s teaching a lesson about eggs that seems relevant and for a second the eggs make a smiley face. There’s a teacher in the room, so she seems to be there for a cooking demonstration. She brought some treats for Vietnam – she was born there before it became the 51st state. She moved to Tulsa and became a cop, and when pressed, she explains that she was attacked on the White Night, the event that changed things so cops wear masks now. But because “bad guys” knew who she was, they went to her house and gunned her down. The teacher asks her to dial it back, so she tells them she opened a bakery. A mean kid asks if “Redfordations” paid for it, and that’s clearly an offensive term. Contextually, it’s a portmanteau of “Redford” and “reparations”, but we don’t have a lot of specifics. Angela’s son, a boy named Topher, attacks the kid and then we cut to the two of them driving home.
We learn here that “Redfordations” is a racist term and then what sounds like an air raid siren goes off, irritating Angela. She pulls over and for a few seconds, tiny squids pour from the sky. Once the seafood storm passes, she cleans off the windshield and they can get back on the road. Back at home, her husband Cal and daughter Emma are cleaning up the squid. It seems noteworthy in the context of this show that both of their kids are white. (They have another daughter we’ll see later who’s also white.) No sooner does Angela get home than she gets a page – cell phones don’t seem to exist in this world. It says “Little Bighorn”, and that means something to her.
A blimp broadcasts an announcement, but it’s just an ad for American Hero Story, an upcoming TV event about the Minutemen. (The post-war costumed heroes – they were actually called the Watchmen in the movie, which was incorrect.) We see a Tulsa Sun headline that reads “Veidt Officially Declared Dead”. More later. Angela unlocks her bakery, which hasn’t opened for business yet. A man in a wheelchair (Louis Gossett Jr.) asks her when she’s opening and if she thinks he can lift 200 pounds. Behind a security door in the bakery is her… hero stuff. She puts on a black costume that includes a badge and drives away in an all-black car. She’s Sister Knight, one of the two heroes Looking Glass referenced earlier. She drives to a trailer park that’s adorned with anti-Redford graffiti, and breaks down a door. Sister Knight punches out a dude and then we see her in the parking garage at the police station. She head up in an elevator and shows up for a gathering of cops and masked heroes watching a video from the Seventh Kavalry – a whole gang of white supremacists in Rorschach masks. They’re making vague threats in language that emulates the original – Soon, all the whores and race traitors will shout ‘save us’ and we will whisper ‘no’. There’s also a reference to “liberal tears”, which is very funny in this context. The leader threatens to kill anybody who gets in their way and then they all start to chant “Tick Tock”.
Once the video is over, Crawford addresses the group. The Kavalry was gone for three years, but they’re back. He directs everybody to head to Nixonville and start bringing people in until somebody talks. Panda has to activate their weapons – he’s the guy who took to long to buzz in Sutton and it’s clear nobody likes him. He is also wearing a panda head. Oh, there’s another masked hero named “Red Scare”, who has a Russian accent that may or may not be real.
Angela waits in Crawford’s office to confront him and wants to know why she wasn’t notified about the shooting earlier. She jokes that he’s mad because her sitter bailed and she and her husband couldn’t join him for “Black Oklahoma!” Hee! Also, she says he’s not allowed to call it “Black Oklahoma!” HA! And then she says there’s a guy in her trunk. Crawford directs her to put him in the pod. Which is a weird circular enclosure where all of the walls are screens. The guy is sitting there in the middle when Looking Glass comes in. He reminds the guy that terrorists don’t get to call their lawyer.
Glass asks questions while the walls show images. Neil Armstrong, the Buddhist monk on fire, a wheat field, the confederate flag, a giant squid. Some questions are basic, some are weird. (I should also note that this particular guy is not the one who shot Sutton – he’s just a known dirtbag.) We see here that Nixon’s face is on Mount Rushmore, which I enjoyed. The guy denies everything. There’s some talk of transdimensional attacks which may or may not be hoaxes. Looking Glass ends the session, leaves the pod, and reports that the guy is lying. He’ll just need some motivation. So Sister Knight drags him to another room and beats him until blood comes out from under the door. Which is not OK but then you have to reckon with the rush of a fantasy world where it’s a white supremacist who’s getting that kind of treatment. She comes back with the information that they’re gathering at a cattle ranch.
Sister Knight, Red Scare, and a group of armed cops move on the ranch. Crawford is monitoring them from… somewhere. We see the Kavalry guys and they appear to be removing watch batteries. A proximity alarm goes off and the Kavalry starts to pack up. We see Crawford again in some sort of high-tech setting with a masked woman. I point it out because this coming reveal made me very happy. The Kavalry turns on floodlights and one of them fires a truck-mounted machine gun. The attack tears apart some unfortunate cows and a couple of the cops get hit. The other Kavalry members run for a small plane. Finally, the gunner has to reload and Sister Knight moves in to take him out. Their fight leads back into the house and it’s awesome. She gets the upper hand but he bites down on a cyanide pill so they’re not getting. As he dies, Knight notices a vintage framed ad for a bank on the wall, featuring the hero Dollar Bill.
The surviving Kavalry guys take flight but Crawford is ready for them – he and the masked women are in a small version of Nite Owl’s Owlship! And I love Nite Owl and that dumb ship, but it’s also based on Blue Beetle’s Bug, and Blue Beetle is my guy. We’ll talk about him at some point. They blast the plane out of the sky but some of the debris hits and takes the Owlship down. Crawford and the woman (who may be named Pirate Jenny according to IMDB) both make it out in one piece. Well, one piece each.
And then, we head to an English countryside. A man on a horse rides to a castle. A servant welcomes Jeremy Irons home. And there’s somebody we all assumed Irons is playing, but he’s not specifically identified yet. More on that later as well. Like, later in this article. I’m not making you wait for long!
Than a naked Jeremy Irons sits at a desk, typing. A maid named Miss Crookshanks washes him and a butler named Phillips offers him clothes – it’s his anniversary, you see. A fully clothed Jeremy Irons then sits at the head of a long table and they present him what looks like a fancy cake. It’s yellow and purple and Phillips offers him a horseshoe to cut the cake. Jeremy points out his mistake but uses it anyway. He takes one bite and they remove the cake, next presenting him with a fancy pocketwatch. Phillips talks about how he had to either fix it or make it – it’s not entirely clear. Jeremy Irons then tells them he’s writing a five act play – when it’s done, he wants his servants to play the leading roles. And he’s going to call that play The Watchmaker’s Son.
The Abar and Crawford families have dinner together – here’s where we learn that the President is Robert Redford. Crawford leaves the room to snort a line and Angela knows what’s up. Then we find out that Angela lied about the sitter and she and Cal were never going to go see Oklahoma! Everybody encourages Judd to sing after learning about his musical theater background and he breaks out a bit of “People Will Say We’re in Love”. Other than the weird cocaine moment, this is a fun and sweet scene, made ominous by the audible ticking of a clock. The top down view of the table seems to be deliberately invoking something, but I’m not great at spotting visual references.
Outside, Angela and Judd talk about the raid and the oddness of the watch batteries. We learn that they were the old kind of synthetic lithium batteries that made people sick and Crawford suggests they were building a “cancer bomb”. They know something’s going to happen soon. Judd makes a reference to the end of the world before he and his wife leave. And then an ominous voice talks about the ticking clock as we segue into a promo for American Hero Story. We see nameplates and silhouettes of Captain Metropolis, The Comedian, Moth Man, Dollar Bill, Silk Spectre, and Nite Owl before we see a full shot of Hooded Justice. Pan out to show this is on the TV in the Crawford home, where Judd is debriefing the Governor over the (landline) phone. He admits they’re afraid of reprisal but he thinks it’s a win. His wife, Jane, mentions the cocaine use and then he gets a page – Charlie Sutton woke up. Judd changes into his uniform to go see him. He drives off and we hear some talk radio and learn that Robert Redford has been President for thirty years before something blows out Judd’s tire. He skids to a stop and gets out, spotting a spike strip in the road. A strobe flashes in his face and we cut to Angela and Cal having sex.
They’re interrupted by a phone call. Somebody with a Southern accent calls for Angela. He makes vague threats that indicate he knows she’s a vigilante and gives her an address. She gives a gun to Cal and then heads out. When she gets there, she sees Lou Gossett Jr. under a tree, still in his wheelchair. And hanging dead from the branch above him is Judd Crawford. Oh, and Lou has the “Watch Over This Boy” note in his hand. We end on a shot of Judd’s badge laying in the grass.
Holy smokes, guys, this is a show.
**I’ll probably start wildly speculating next time but I barely have my feet under me. So instead, let me do some quick annotations starting from the beginning.
As I noted, the Black Wall Street Massacre and Bass Reeves are both real. The film isn’t, but it’s notable that Reeves’ initial appearance invokes Hooded Justice of the Minutemen. The boy escaping Tulsa seems to be a deliberate reference to Superman’s origin – watch his parents realize there’s only room for one in the cart and then he leaves behind the flaming wreckage of his home. The baby he finds after is another invocation of Kal-El. It seems possible that one of these boys grows up to be Lou Gossett, but that would make him 98 years old at a minimum. (Gossett is 83.) According to IMDB his character’s name is “Will Reeves”, so he’s set up as either a descendant of Bass Reeves or maybe the boy named the baby or even himself after his hero.
I thought the episode title referred to ICE, but the title is actually a line from a song in Oklahoma! (played at the end of the episode), “Pore Jud is Daid” or “Poor Judd is Dead”. So if you know musical theater, you might have known Don Johnson wouldn’t be long for this world.
Rorschach is, obviously, one of the main characters from the original Watchmen. He was a paranoid conspiracy nut and while he wasn’t explicitly a racist, it’s not a stretch for white supremacists to adopt him as their symbol. I feel like there’s something in the way Rorschach’s mask patterns would shift but these knockoffs are fixed. Is it a symbol of their resistance to learn and change?
It’s not totally clear what the White Night and “Redfordations” are, but we can get a little sense of it. Also, there’s that reference to Vietnam becoming a state – there was a single reference to that in the original comic, so good job on that. I don’t know why tiny squids fall from the sky, but this makes it clear that this is a follow-up to the comic, not the movie. (In the comic, Veidt creates a squid monster to turn back the clock on nuclear war. In the movie, he makes Dr. Manhattan the villain.) I also don’t know what to make of the Dr. Manhattan stream. We see him create and destroy and it seems like he hasn’t really moved on in thirty-plus years, but I imagine we’ll learn a lot more about that later.
Looking Glass is awesome.
The watch batteries have something to do with Dr. Manhattan – I know there was the idea that his radiation was harmful to the people around him and I think he developed lithium batteries in the comic but I’m not clear on whether he created the ones that cause cancer or not. There’s a little more on this online, but we’ll get to that in a bit. And yes, that’s a small version of the Owlship which should be noted again. Apparently Nite Owl turned over his technology at some point. And that bank ad is interesting – it prominently features a black customer and Dollar Bill appears to be black. It’s a weird thing for white supremacists to display, and in the comics, Bill was white. (He was a superhero sponsored by a bank who died when his cape got caught in a revolving door.) I saw some art online of an African-American Bill, but I don’t know where that’s from. It’s professionally lettered and more cartoonish than the usual Watchmen style, so it might be a gag strip from one of the bad follow-ups. Luckily, Angela looked at that ad long enough that we’ll probably come back to it.
So, Jeremy Irons. It’s been suggesting that he’s playing Adrian Veidt – Ozymandias. But he’s not specifically identified and we see a headline stating that Viedt was declared dead. And at a panel event at NYCC (I think), all of the other actors were identified with their role and Irons was “Probably who you think he is”. The yellow and purple colors of the cake match Ozymandias’ costume, and the butler especially seemed a little bit off. Veidt was a geneticist, is it possible that he made people? And if so, Dr. Manhattan specifically intended to create life and he’s still apparently farting around making and destroying castles on Mars. And of course, the title of the play The Watchmaker’s Son is a reference to Dr. Manhattan. But I’m so reluctant to commit to him actually being Veidt.
On the American Hero Story ad, the only hero who appears is Hooded Justice. The others all appear as line drawings. And Justice appears to be seated at the head of the table, when it should be the team leader, Captain Metropolis. I think Hooded Justice has become more prominent in peoples minds and we’ll actually see a reason for that.
And then Damon Lindelof did what he almost did in LOST. Cast a big name as the male lead and then kill him off in the pilot. It was nicely foreshadowed with the episode title, but for everybody other than theater nerds, that was a shock. And I can’t guess what Will Reeves was doing there or even who Will Reeves is. Give me another episode and I’ll be better at speculating.
Just a note – I mentioned there’s some online material about technology in this world (no cell phones, no internet) and some missing history. I’m going to try to cover that in a Watchmen Mini next week. I’m going to try and discuss related material in between recaps, or maybe just talk about things from the comics. Or I’ll do it once and stop. You never know with me.
With all that said, there’s something I want to talk about because just the existence of this show is controversial. Watchmen writer Alan Moore notoriously hates any attempts to adapt his work and he has serious issues with DC, specifically in regards to Watchmen. He feels that DC hasn’t lived up to their agreement – part of that is that the rights to the series would revert to Moore and co-creator Dave Gibbons after it went out of print for a year. But then it turned into a massive success and a seminal work that’ll be in print forever.
And for the most part, I’ve found DC’s recent attempts to exploit the property to be pretty gross. A series of Before Watchmen minis were almost entirely bad and the current Doomsday Clock which is, well, Superman vs. Dr. Manhattan, is ill-considered and poorly-executed. But for people to claim making the TV series is unethical, man, I just can’t buy into that.
Here’s the thing, Alan Moore’s career has been largely based on iterating on other people’s creations. He made his name with a dark take on a character for children (Marvelman, later Miracleman) and showed up in America to declare that everything you knew about Swamp Thing is wrong. He did the erotic series Lost Girls which is really just a highbrow treatment of female characters from children’s literature (You know, like Alice and Dorothy) having sex. And League of Extraordinary Gentleman is entirely a pastiche of other people’s creations, often used in a way that those creator’s wouldn’t have approved. (Like the villain of the series turning out to be a monstrous Harry Potter who shoots lightning out of his penis.)
Even Watchmen was originally written for the characters DC had recently acquired from the defunct publisher Charlton. It was only changed when editorial decided they wanted to keep those characters in play in the mainline DC Universe, and so Blue Beetle became Nite Owl and Peacemaker became the Comedian. And if they hadn’t made him file the serial numbers off of Captain Atom and the Question, there wouldn’t even be talk of any rights reverting. Did DC treat him ethically? No. Has Moore treated the creators of the characters he’s either rebooted or homaged ethically? Also no.
What Lindelof is doing is not unlike what Moore did for much of his career. He’s using established IP to tell a story about something bad at the heart of our society. In terms of the comics, I don’t like that Batman knows the Comedian now and I think DC has diminished the original with a lot of what they’ve done, but they’re playing by the same rules that Moore is. I’m pretty well established as a Damon Lindelof fan, but I don’t think he’s done anything wrong by making this series. The man is iterating on a world and characters created by somebody else, just like Alan Moore. Angry fans should save their fury for Doomsday Clock.
OK, that’s enough of me. More next week!