One of the ways in which the original Watchmen deconstructed the superhero genre was by grafting the antics of costumed lunatics onto the real-world background of the Cold War and the very real possibility all life on earth would be destroyed – then had its superheroes blow this more serious issue apart. Despite foregrounding the similarly serious issue of racial prejudice from minute one, the final episode of HBO’s TV adaptation of Watchmen, ‘See How They Fly’, chooses to basically ignore this during its eleventh-hour climax.
It does, admittedly, touch on this during the cold open, when Ozymandias – always somewhat Hitlerlich, even when Jeremy Irons gives him a ridiculous mid-Atlantic burr – has his casual dismissal of his Vietnamese live-in servants backfire on him. This is the closest the show has, and likely will, ever get to seriously engaging with the masses, and specifically with the way Vietnamese people are treated after America annexed them, as opposed than its cast of superman named characters.
(And, as I predicted, it does so only in a way which turns out to relate to Lady Trieu.)
And even this is undercut. It relies on Ozymandias dismissing his servants as – well, as servants, on him taking no particular notice of them. Then, after twenty years elsewhere with a different set of servants who actually are indistinguishable from one another, it turns out he can still recognise them at a glance. This needn’t be impossible coming from a guy billed as ‘the smartest man alive’, but it’s done entirely so Lady Trieu can score points off him, so it feels somewhat artificial.
This leads onto another salient point. This adaptation has, from the off, been dogged by the kind of people who talk about ‘political correctness gone mad’ with a straight face. So I’m curious as to what they’d make of one of the major plot twists of ‘See How They Fly’ being a Vietnamese woman seeking revenge on the white man who cracks the whip hand over her by – is this right? – by knocking herself up with his kid. And then the kid grows up a super-genius by dint of this heritage, that’s right, in the Watchmen universe intelligence is directly heritable, chew on that for a moment. Much like my discussion about the previous episode’s use of what could be considered blackface, whatever you might think about this, it’s not exactly woke.
To drop what will be a mild spoiler, for those who are following the clues, this also betrays the adaptation’s hesitancy in stepping away from the sturdy crutch of the original comics. Throughout, a few too many familiar faces have found themselves converging on Tulsa, Oklahoma. There were at least reasons for that – but there’s no good reason that in their wake, pretty much all the newer characters had to be sidelined (Tim Blake Nelson’s Looking Glass finds himself repurposed as, essentially, a paperweight). Nor that they should have the climax revolving entirely around the way Dr. Manhattan was injected back into the narrative, only to debase the Dr. himself by having him witter out lines from the comic, divorced of context.
This last is a particularly insidious way of passing off shameless plays on nostalgia as something fresh. South Park satirised this tendency with its ‘member berries’, which weren’t nearly as graphic as you might expect from the foul-mouthed cartoon, but rather berries who loved to declare stuff like “‘member the ’80s? ‘member Star Wars?” – this, of course, roughly coincided with the release of The Force Awakens, Disney’s slapdash remake of A New Hope.
If I’d wanted to be flippant, I could have peppered my reviews of the entire show with these. ‘member Rorschach? ‘member the squid? ‘member the ending on a note of genuine moral ambiguity? One of these things is not like the others. Again, mild spoiler territory, ‘See How They Fly’ does not end on a note of genuine moral ambiguity. It does end on a note of ambiguity, but unfortunately it’s the same one as Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception. Ooh, ‘member Inception? (Sorry.)
The issue here seems to be that the show has mistaken moral ambiguity for moral confusion. Having established that the kind of person you want having Godlike powers is definitely not the kind of person you want being a God, using this as nothing less than a shorthand for villainy, it again proceeds to undercut itself by having our protagonist jump on that train as well.
This shouldn’t be a huge surprise, though, since the show’s demonstrated that it doesn’t really care to address issues of genuine moral ambiguity. The fact Rorschach was right all along, even when Looking Glass was shown proof, was met with barely a shrug. The Rorschach-imitating hate group, despite apparently having grassroots support, was dealt with once and for all by wiping out a group of wealthy white people. Hence its longstanding issues with race – it’s simply unable to go beyond the level of ‘white people are racist, black people are victims’.
Am I bringing both barrels out here? Well, possibly. What doesn’t help with the air of confusion, though, is the sheer number of spinning plates it’s having to hastily resolve in ‘See How They Fly’, a lot of which end up curtailed well before their time. Lady Trieu’s whole arc, for instance, seems particularly half-formed and abortive, as though most of the important parts took place off-screen.
You can blame this on the nine-episode structure (like the pages of the comics! Get it? Get it?) if you like, but there again, the creators chose to do it that way, and if they couldn’t tailor it for that they have nobody else to blame. They didn’t have to, for instance, keep throwing in new ones, the most egregious surely being the surprise wheeling-out of Dr. Manhattan with two episodes to go.
Watchmen (the comic) was at its core a bit of a whodunit – it opened on the scene of a murder and the bulk of its narrative was driven by puzzling out who was responsible. The show, by contrast, had the man who committed its equivalent murder give himself up almost immediately. This is certainly a remix of the comics – as the show always billed itself – and could have produced an interesting change in dynamic. Instead it ended up being almost entirely tangential. This is probably a fair summary of the show as a whole: episodes from the comics being jumbled up, and then, to everyone’s surprise, no longer hanging together particularly well.
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