Wednesday, July 15, 2020
July 15, 2020: AmericanStudying Watchmen: Rorschach and Looking Glass
[Along with Bosch, another acclaimed show I’ve finally had a chance to check out during lockdown is HBO’s Watchmen, and it lived up to the hype. Among its many strengths, I’d emphasize in particular its remarkable depth when it comes to American history, and this week will focus on five sides to those themes and threads. Leading up to a special weekend post sharing student perspectives on both the show and its graphic novel source material!]
[NB. SPOILERS will abound all week—go check the show out and then come back to read these posts and share your thoughts!]
On how both the new show and a new central character challenge a fan favorite.
I don’t tend to quote myself in this space, but since this post builds directly on a somewhat tangential line from the final paragraph of yesterday’s post, I thought I’d start there: “many Watchmen readers are apparently big fans of the character Rorschach, who is at best a reactionary sociopath if not also a blatant white supremacist.” As is often the case, there are layers beyond what I could capture in that one line, so I should add: the first time I read Watchmen, as an early 20-something, I was certainly also drawn to Rorschach, a unique and compelling character with a striking voice, a tragic backstory, and a dogged determination never to give up on the quest for justice (as he sees it) even when he is literally alone in that pursuit (“Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon”). The problem lies in that parenthetical phrase “as he sees it”—Rorschach’s perspective on his society and his fellow Americans (and humans) is not just profoundly judgmental and pessimistic (although yes on both counts), but also full of reactionary prejudice and hatred that, the more I’ve read and thought about it (having taught the graphic novel five times across the last 13 years), seem to me to mark him as a white supremacist (or at least a sympathetic fellow traveler to that cause).
In HBO’s Watchmen’s first sequence set in the 2019 present (following the 1921 Tulsa-set opening), the show takes an immediate and striking stance on the central image associated with that established and often beloved character. An African American cop (still in Tulsa) stops a suspicious white motorist, sees what he calls a “Rorschach mask” in the driver’s glove compartment, and while he’s waiting for authorization to release his firearm for use (the show’s alternate America has a very different relationship to guns than ours) the motorist puts on that mask (which indeed closely resembles Rorschach’s from the graphic novel) and guns the police officer down in cold blood. We quickly learn that the show’s chief villains, a white supremacist domestic terrorist group known as the 7th Cavalry, consistently wear those Rorschach masks, a statement that at least from their perspective they have taken up the legacy of that famous member of the 1980s Watchmen. Since (SPOILER, if a less time-sensitive one than most of this week’s) Rorschach himself was killed at the end of the graphic novel, the show is not able to offer us a clear vision of how he might have seen these white supremacist terrorists, but their embrace of him is a striking commentary nonetheless.
While Rorschach doesn’t appear in the new series, however, it does feature a new character who bears a significant resemblance to him: Tim Blake Nelson’s Wade Tillman/Looking Glass, a suspicious and paranoid loner who is revealed to have a tragic backstory that has led him to his role as a superhero wearing a mask that reflects those around him. Moreover (SPOILERS again, this time for the show) Wade is eventually recruited by the 7th Cavalry, who tell him the truth about the infamous Alien Squid attack that Oxymandias unleashed on New York at the end of the graphic novel; that truth confirms the worst of Wade’s paranoia (“Is anything true?,” he asks Regina King’s Angela) and seems primed to turn him into another cynical, pessimistic vigilante like the original Rorschach. Yet that transformation does not occur—over the show’s final two episodes Wade continues to fight alongside characters like Angela and against the 7th Cavalry, in the process ironically donning a Rorschach mask (taken from a terrorist he has killed) in order to infiltrate their ranks. While those choices and actions are of course about the character of Wade Tillman, they also read to this WatchmenStudier as another direct and crucial challenge to the ultimately less heroic character and perspective of Rorschach.
Next WatchmenStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other takes on the show you’d share?