(Warning: Contains spoilers.)
At the end of the first episode, it really looked like HBO’s Watchmen had tried to tackle the problem of modern racism and whiffed it.
In fact they hadn’t whiffed anything — by the end of the season, HBO’s Watchmen had become a compelling and nuanced examination of racism, white supremacy and the reaction against it. But that wasn’t at all clear at the end of the series premiere.
The problem was that groups such as the white supremacist Seventh Kavalry are reactive — they don’t exist in a vacuum and the violent racism they carry out requires some major social or economic pressure to be a driving force. The season premiere did not provide anything of the sort. Instead, it appeared as though the showrunners had just transplanted an ultra-violent version of the modern alt-right into the show without any regard for the actual setting and the world that Adrien Veidt had created (in which the world had been unified against the prospect of extra-dimensional invaders).
By the third episode, it was clear that Watchmen was tackling the subject matter correctly. The show revealed that President Robert Redford had pushed through a law exempting people of colour from paying taxes whose families had been victims of racial violence in certain parts of the country. This in turn created a separate, legally privileged class based on (by all appearances) the colour of their skin.
And with that, Watchmen had a major social pressure that would make the Seventh Kavalry a realistic reaction. There was a sense of unfairness that could radicalize people, particularly those in underprivileged areas.
But if HBO’s Watchmen had only made their Seventh Kavalry a racist villain that the protagonists had to fight, the show would have been compelling, but not as thought-provoking. It would have presented a parallel of sorts to the rise of the modern alt-right from the 2008 financial crisis but failed to say anything meaningful about it. But Watchmen didn’t stop there, and what they added made their exploration sublime.
In the world of Watchmen, the police arrayed against the Seventh Kavalry are also extremists. Angela Abar, aka Sister Night, tells her children that the world is only black and white. She also violates a suspect’s civil rights and tortures him in the series premiere. Abar is representative of the police as a whole — they engage in racial profiling, launch a raid against an underprivileged white community in a trailer park called Nixonville, and consider anybody believing in the foundational American principle of legal equality (“Do you believe that all Americans should pay taxes?”) to be a potential terrorist.
This theme of racist violence resulting in escalating extremism also plays out in the story of Angela’s grandfather, Will Reeves — the original Hooded Justice. Reeves loses his faith in the law after being almost lynched by his fellow officers for attempting to prevent violence against people of colour. To make matters worse, he discovers that several officers are members of Cyclops — a secret white supremacist organization dedicated to wiping out the black community. Reeves becomes a masked vigilante to mete out the justice that he could never achieve as a police officer, inspiring the entire vigilante movement and in the process setting the events of the graphic novel and HBO series in motion.
The impact of racism on how people face the world is also played out. Most of the modern-day characters are defined by the colour of their skin before anything else (merely being a white man living in Oklahoma is enough to be pegged as a probable racist). In the past, Hooded Justice has to wear eye makeup so that he can pretend to be a white man under his mask. The racism is so pervasive that the public or his fellow Minutemen discovering that Reeves has had a homosexual relationship with Captain Metropolis would be less damning and dangerous than if they discovered he was black. Even in the Minutemen, Reeves’ battle against Cyclops gets pushed to the side in favour of more traditional supervillains — nobody who isn’t black cares about protecting black people.
But what makes Watchmen’s exploration of racism truly exceptional is the way in which it rejects its own premise by the end of the final episode. Having set up the Seventh Kavalry and the Tulsa police pushing each other to further and greater extremes, the series reveals the bombshell that the entire situation is artificial — the only reason it was able to escalate was because the Cyclops conspiracy was controlling both sides. By the end of the show even the Seventh Kavalry appears to have abandoned the idea of a race war by itself as a non-starter — they’d rather steal Doctor Manhattan’s powers and turn one of their leaders into a blue god.
Once its picture is complete, Watchmen has rejected the idea that extreme or violent racism must lead to an escalation on the other side — one can fight white supremacy without also becoming a monster. It gives the final word on the subject to the old Will Reeves — the man whose story begins in the middle of the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 and was the first to put on a mask to seek justice outside the law — who points out that when it comes to racism and justice, healing is more important than revenge…and both cannot happen at once.
As Reeves says about what he felt the first time he put on a mask, “But it wasn’t [anger]. It was fear and hurt. You can’t heal under a mask, Angela. Wounds need air.”