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Major spoilers below for the big series premiere of HBO's Watchmen, so be sure to watch before reading on.
Perhaps it's no surprise or shock that Lost and The Leftovers vet Damon Lindelof delivered a shock-filled opening episode for his modernized take on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' stellar comic Watchmen. From the horrifying opening sequence in 1921 to Jeremy Irons' mysterious blonde man to Judd's jaw-dropping death at the episode's end, the Watchmen TV show was a surprisingly incredible (and darkly comedic) revival of a classic work of fiction.
Ahead of Watchmen's premiere airing on HBO, I had the pleasure to speak with its director Nicole Kassell, who also serves as an executive producer for Season 1. While Kassell obviously couldn't go into extremely detailed explanations about where things were going, we talked about quite a few of the episode's biggest moments and Watchmen connections. Let's start off with arguably the biggest twist.
Judd Crawford's Death And Don Johnson's Fake Corpse
Watchmen casting Don Johnson was, to me, one of the sweetest picks that could have been made for the show, even if he's admittedly a golden egg in a sea of other golden eggs like Regina King and Lou Gossett Jr. So while I half-suspected Johnson's Sheriff Judd Crawford might get unveiled to be a villain at some point during the season, considering his own excitement, I definitely didn't expect for the first episode to end with his body swinging from a tree.
During my conversation with EP Nicole Kassell, I asked how Judd's death would play into the rest of Watchmen's first season, and here's what she told me:
Well, it's obviously the driving mystery. It's the inciting incident for the rest of the series. That is the hook. It's gonna be a really fascinating journey to see how both Angela and Sister Night processes it, and reacts, and how are they gonna solve this mystery? What I love about it is there's always an unexpected reaction in this world that's equally truthful, and that's what astonishes me with Damon's writing. You'll read something, and it will shock you, but then 100% be truthful to that character.
Of the various relationships set up during Watchmen's premiere, Don Johnson's Judd and Regina King's Angela Abar (Sister Night) appear to be much closer than most, not accounting for romantic relationships. (Tim Blake Nelson's Looking Glass, to counter, appears to be the same amount of standoffish with everyone.) Anyone who can call out their boss' coke-nose on the sly is a trusted compadre. So if Nicole Kassell is talking about expecting the unexpected, Angela may stumble onto some precious information that Judd did not trust her with.
That arc, for everyone familiar with the Watchmen comics, matches up with The Comedian's death in the first issue, which is then investigated by Rorschach, who discovers a lot more about Eddie Blake's life. How far will those parallels go? The only way to find out is devoting an hour a week to the mystery.
For viewers who were disturbed by the final sequence at the tree, know that you weren't alone, and the scene was particularly off-putting for the crew as well. When I asked about how creepy Don Johnson's fake corpse was, she said:
It was as frightening as it is on screen. It was awful. It was really awful. But thank God we were using a fake corpse. Even the thought of attempting it not that way is even more disturbing. That was really tough. It was just...even if it's not real, looking at it [is still terrible]. Regina didn't want to see it. It triggers everyone, and we had to treat that as sensitively as [the 1921 sequence]. You know, there were no jokes, no clowning around. It was horrible.
Clearly, keeping such a visually unappealing death within Watchmen's premiere speaks to its overall importance as is. Damon Lindelof knows a thing or two about brutal onscreen deaths, with The Leftovers' stoning scene as the most grueling one to date. For as disturbing as the death was, though, I have to say the final shot of the blood on the star bounced me back into a slightly more gleeful mode while going back over everything else that went down.
Doctor Manhattan's Appearance
Part of the Watchmen TV show's marketing visuals nodded to Rorschach's mask, Jeremy Irons' potential existence as Adrian "Ozymandias" Veidt, and Jean Smart's impending introduction as the presumed former Silk Spectre, Laurie Blake. But without much said about the big blue galoot himself, Doctor Manhattan's presence within the show remained an unknown variable until he showed up on a news broadcast, imploding a castle-like structure on Mars.
Expectedly, Doctor Manhattan didn't come up again in the episode, and it's not known when he'll show up again. I asked Nicole Kassell about being able to introduce such a huge element like Doctor Manhattan in the very first episode, and here's how she explained it:
I think, in terms of setting the world of 2019, we talked about if the source book is our actual American history, what does that mean the world looks like now? We have a new flag, because Vietnam became a state. The dirigibles are flying overhead. There's no climate crisis because we've been environmentally conscious for 30 years. Cars are electric, and there's very little plastic. And Doctor Manhattan is still on Mars. And every once in a while, a satellite goes by and people like to tune in. It's still a news feature, and there's toys inspired by him.
It was awesome to witness all of those other elements being employed and highlighted throughout Watchmen's opening episode, especially the ad-covered dirigible. But of all the clear and present comic book elements on display, seeing Doctor Manhattan's choppy satellite footage made me the most giddy. I cannot wait to see how this show's writers handle the character's dehumanized detachment.
Many viewers probably noticed that Doctor Manhattan's castle structure on Mars looked quite a bit like the Earthbound castle that Jeremy Irons' currently unidentified character resides in with his doting servants. When I asked Nicole Kassell about whether the buildings' lookalike nature was intentional, she got bemusedly coy with her answer.
Oh maybe. I mean, we want those connections for sure. I love that you're drawing them.
Not even the sky is the limit for where that avenue of speculation could go. Has Doctor Manhattan just been obsessing over maybe-Veidt's chaotic squid plot for all these years? How does he know about maybe-Veidt's current living situation? Will the blue other-being end up paying that Earthly castle a visit one day?
1921 Tulsa And American Hero Story
Watchmen's opening sequence, set during the tragically heinous 1921 race riots in Tulsa, was a completely unpredictable place to start this follow-up tale, and its implications have yet to be fully realized. Filled with KKK-involved violence and murder, the cold open was the most chilling segment of the episode, partially because it was unclear where any of it was going.
Understandably, that scene stuck out to Nicole Kassell as being a memorable section of the production shoot, even if it wasn't exactly a pleasant experience in all the ways.
I'd say there are so many scenes. 1921. The Tulsa massacre was harrowing and horrific, and I'm immensely proud of it. I don't ever want to do that again, but I think it's so important to put stories out there that are true that we don't know about.
One of the reasons why the opening stands out so starkly from the rest of the episode is its kinetic energy, which isn't something that Watchmen's carefully patterned panels and pages connote very often. And to that end, Nicole Kassell said that the 2019 timeline is where the crew made the direct effort to create more comic-centric visuals. In her words:
The world of our 2019 is its own aesthetic, and that's the [one timeframe] I'd say, from episode to episode, we did have a visual language that was very important. It was very composed frames, and it was very inspired by the source. Obscuring the frame, finding vertical format within a horizontal, match-cutting, or finding very dramatic transitions. All to pay homage to the source, because the source is so incredibly cinematic.
Speaking of paying homage to the source material, Damon Lindelof introduced a very intriguing way for TV's Watchmen to delve into the lore's history, in the form of the faux anthology TV seres American Hero Story, clearly a winking reference to Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's horror-minded series. The teases that were shown during the pilot make it look like this might be a semi-realized project-within-a-project, similar to the supplemental material in the back of each Watchmen issue, such as the Under the Hood excerpts and the Veidt interview.
Nicole Kassell, who also directed the second episode, told me she absolutely had fun putting the American Hero Story stuff together. When I asked if viewers can expect to see more of Watchmen's history showing up in that form, she told me:
You'll have to see. But you know Damon's work. It's always unexpected. I'd say every single episode is its own thing, yet part of the whole. And, you know, we had other directors that did exquisite work. The series as a whole is a fabulous ride.
With only nine episodes in this first season – which could very well be its only season without Damon Lindelof having any regrets – there are a lot of expectations already building for what might be coming in the future for Regina King's Angela and everyone else involved with this revisionist drama. If only I had another planet to zip off to so I could store some of these expectations.
Watchmen airs Sunday nights on HBO at 10:00 p.m. ET.