In the months after its last episode aired in December 2019, reviewers and cultural critics hailed HBO’s Watchmen as a TV series strangely ahead of its time. “The Eerie Prescience of HBO’s Watchmen,” proclaims the title of one article. “From Masks to Racial Tragedy, the Uncanny Prescience of ‘Watchmen,’” declares another. With a story that orbits the politics of mask-wearing, police brutality, white supremacy, and racialized terror, Watchmen indeed appears—as most prophets do in retrospect—uncanny and eerie. It is a show about 2020 from before 2020. So deft is it in its diagnosis of contemporary US political life that Watchmen seems, in hindsight, to have anticipated all the bloody hemorrhaging that was to come.
And it says something about 2020 that this hemorrhaging hasn’t stopped, really.
It says something about 2020 that a limited-run TV series, which concluded principal photography in 2018, keeps finding fresh opportunities to be relevant.
Indeed, it says something about 2020—and, not to put too fine a point on it, about white people in 2020—that for the second time in as many months I’ve found the most unsubtle of reasons to write about white supremacy and so-called militias.
After all, an unequivocal condemnation of white supremacy is the least, the absolute fucking least, we should expect of our elected leaders. And while I’d be tempted to dismiss the spectacular failure of the “Wolverine Watchmen” to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor and put her on “trial” for tyranny as a piss-poor, half-assed, half-baked rip-off of the premise for some two-bit YA dystopian novel, I can’t. I can’t because it’s a scary indication of where this country is—of where, in fact, it’s been, as many Black people and indigenous people would probably be quick to point out.
Watchmen itself would be quick to point that out, too. A sequel to Alan Moore’s 1986–87 comic book of the same title, which details an alternate history of the Vietnam era, the TV series imagines an alternate history for the present. According to that history, belated reparations were made for the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, during which white people rampaged through “Black Wall Street,” destroying Black property and lives. As a result of these reparations, Black wealth is now ascendant in Tulsa. As a result of these reparations, white people are now incensed.
“YOU GOT A SORRY NOW YOU WANT A HANDOUT?!” reads the sign of a white protester picketing outside a museum dedicated to victims of the massacre.
And it gets uglier. With white resentment on the rise, the KKK is also resurgent, albeit reorganized under the banner of the Seventh Kavalry. A masked terrorist organization that draws inspiration from a major character in Moore’s comic, the Seventh Kavalry does not just target Black people in Watchmen. It also targets—and has targeted, with considerable success—Tulsa police. Forced underground to protect themselves and their families, cops don the mask, too, adopting pseudo-superhero identities such as Sister Night, the alias of the show’s protagonist, Angela Abara. In this way, Watchmen, which riffs on superhero and police-procedural genres, would seem to set up a pretty standard opposition. Cop vs. criminal. Superhero vs. supervillain.
Good guy vs. bad guy.
Only it’s not that simple. Of course it’s not that simple; this is a show about 2020. And as a show about 2020, Watchmen introduces these binaries only to challenge them. Yes, the cops wage war against masked terrorists. But rendered anonymous by their own masks, and thus unaccountable to the communities they police, the cops terrorize people too. And, yes! The police do stand up against the overt white supremacy of the Kavalry. But that doesn’t mean that some among their number aren’t white supremacists themselves. There’s an ambivalent similarity between these two parties, and by dramatizing that similarity, Watchmen suggests a specific origin for the Seventh Kavalry’s discontents. The Kavalry, the show argues, hates the police not because the two groups differ fundamentally in any particular belief or practice. Rather, the Kavalry hates the police as the police. In other words, it hates the police because police, in their essential function, defend property, and because defending property in Watchmen’s version of Tulsa, Oklahoma, means defending—and, by defending, legitimizing—a redistribution of wealth from white people to Black families.
Law and order, as they say.
You got a sorry. Now you want a handout?
Correction: law and order, but only certain laws and certain orders.
It’s no coincidence that instead of condemning white supremacy during the debate, President Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” Nor is it a coincidence that the Wolverine Watchmen planned to kill police officers during their attempted kidnapping of the governor. Both outcomes are anticipated by the arguments that HBO’s Watchmen ultimately makes: That support for the thin blue line is and always has been conditional on what the thin blue line defends. That law and order is and never has been neutral. And that a constitution of quite another kind supersedes the Constitution so many venerate, and that violating the capital-C Constitution might sometimes be necessary to preserve this first constitution.
For Watchmen, white supremacy is the US’s inviolable ur-constitution. Given the contemporary resurgence of reactionary white nationalism and vigilantism in US civic life, it’s hard to dispute that claim.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.