There’s an old sketch from Monkey Dust where a marketing company identifies the problem with the fire brigade is that they’re a reactive organisation rather than a proactive organisation. This leads to them being rebranded as ‘Icarus’, which ends up more like a cinema concession stand on wheels. Fine – but what does this have to do with Watchmen, or with Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship?
It’s like this: even Watchmen creator Alan Moore himself didn’t expect Rorschach to pick up the fandom he did. Curiously, he’d expected readers would identify more with Nite Owl. Given that Nite Owl’s a fat, impotent man with a basement chock-full of superhero memorabilia, this comes off as, at best, patronising.
But this wasn’t just because Moore had accidentally drawn the ire of the nerds. Rorschach was a hardline objectivist and conspiracy nut, the kind of guy that anyone to the left of Augusto Pinochet would call ‘reactionary’, yet ironically, for the greater part of the comics he was the only proactive one present. For all his flaws, and they were many and glaring, he started actively investigating what was going on, he led the narrative around all the other superheros – he accidentally slid into the role of protagonist for want of anyone else.
(Not to mention the comic starts with his narration.)
A great many works of fiction fall victim to the same trap as the fire brigade, where the good guys are essentially reactive forces, waiting around for the bad guys to do something and only then springing into action in response. And the Watchmen TV series has so far largely been one of these. Regina King’s Angela/Sister Night may occasionally knock the hell out of someone with flamboyant martial acts, but this doesn’t stop her being a reactive figure. Most of the time, the formula goes like this: other people do stuff, she responds to it. Apart from the spin-kicks, she comes off a bit Arthur Dent, wandering through a hostile and absurd world.
The one exception to this in ‘Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship’ – and this is a bit of a stretch, because it’s prompted by an oblique suggestion from one of the people she’s already reacting to – involves her poking around a cupboard and finding a distinctive costume in a hidden compartment. For those who didn’t read the comics, this is quite literally taking a page from Rorschach’s book.
Now, this is more faithful to the show’s stated aim as ‘remix’ of the comics than any amount of throwaway background references – it parallels a sequence from the original, but in a whole new situation. Unfortunately, the exact kind of costume discovered will probably prompt, if anything, a laugh – partially because it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense in context, and partially because it’s one of those kinds of costumes which have, interpreted through many cultural lenses over the years, become a byword for absurdity. It’s rather like how the clown suit has gone the opposite way, and become an icon of terror.
If this is an intentional parallel to the original, though, it seems odd to give it to Angela, since elsewhere the show’s leant into the popular interpretation that only the most awful bigots could see anything redeeming in Rorschach’s actions or worldview. There was a lot of similar charges laid against the recent film Joker, even though that, when it came down to it, was about society’s outcasts striking back rather than any particular stripe of prejudice. True to form, the 7th Cavalry seem to draw their recruits from Nixontown – a squalid trailer park which, so far, we’ve only seen in the context of being raided and brutalised by the police.
In my review of last week’s episode, I argued that the heroes here – working arm in arm with the police – weren’t depicted as flawed, which went against the grain of any kind of adaptation of Watchmen. The police brutality would seem to be the obvious counterargument to this, but that isn’t a flaw unique to those who dress up in elaborate spandex to beat up criminals, that’s just a standard police flaw.
More than that, though, they’ve been depicted, in both last week’s episode and ‘Martial Feats…’, as basically correct to resort to brutality. The denizens of Nixontown aren’t humanised in any way, and the Seventh Cavalry really are the kind of implacable, ruthless enemy against whom such tactics are – if not quite justified, then at least understandable. Certainly by the standards of many of fiction’s great hero-cops, anyway. Dirty Harry wouldn’t have blinked at the kind of stuff they’re getting up to, and if anything would complain their guns are too small.
It’s this, if anything, that suggests there’s depths yet to be revealed here. The Seventh Cavalry have sufficient resources and planning to make it quite clear they’re not being run out of a trailer park, and must have a patron of some sort. Hey, who’s that guy who looks like Jeremy Irons and who’s knocking about in a castle going slightly mad? What’s his plan again?
But the fact I’ve been talking about the police (who, like the fire brigade, are a reactive emergency service) for a good three paragraphs makes something else quite clear – so far Watchmen has turned out to be, more than it is a superhero show, a cop show. It’s an interesting take on the genre, it depicts the culture of policing in a distinctly different world from ours, in circumstances in which the bond has gone beyond the Thin Blue Line and become practically familial, an aspect which ‘Martial Feats…’ does a lot to explain. But nonetheless, there are, or should be, differences between the superhero and the policeman, even when they work in tandem.
It should be said, superheroes and policemen working together is a more common trope than you might think. There’s inevitably tension between the law and the vigilantes, but just as often, there’s an unspoken understanding. The obvious example is Batman’s hand-in-glove relationship with Commissioner Gordon, but until you reach the level of a guy like The Punisher, most costumed heroes tend, once they’ve captured the baddy, to turn them over to the forces of law and order. Even Rorschach himself did that before his psychotic break.
And yet Angela/Sister Night does not. When, in ‘Martial Feats…’, it becomes remotely personal, she drags the apparent perp off somewhere isolated to work on him herself. This doesn’t mean torture, she’s not that kind of rogue cop yet, but between that and Dirty Harry stomping a guy’s bullet wound to get him to talk, there’s only a difference of degree. So if there’s one candidate to truly follow in Rorschach’s footsteps, it’s her – and that might not be a bad thing for the show.
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Watchmen's probably going somewhere with this. Almost certainly. It's just not too sure where yet.
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