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Friday, July 17, 2020

July 17, 2020: AmericanStudying Watchmen: White Supremacy and America

[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 one overarching choice this AmericanStudier loves, and one I’m still thinking about.
I’ve written a good deal in this space about some excellent TV shows that have addressed the topic of race in America, both because they are some of my favorites and because that remains a frustratingly short list (I haven’t yet had a chance to see the adaptation of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, but that seems likely to join the list when I do). Obviously the job of a TV drama is not first and foremost to portray themes (not at the expense of engaging its audience through story, character, etc., anyway), and neither am I suggesting that any one show should have to bear the weight of all our collective histories. Let’s just say that I really appreciate when a great cultural work in any medium can also engage with those histories, and so I really, really appreciated all the ways that HBO’s Watchmen did so (without losing an ounce of engaging artistic and storytelling greatness). I’ve traced many of those ways across this week’s posts and subjects, and wanted in this final post of mine to go a bit further, thinking about two overarching twists of the show’s plotlines [one last time, SPOILERS!] and how they depict the even broader and more fundamental idea of white supremacy’s tendrils throughout American culture and society.
The first such twist begins to unfold relatively early in the show’s nine episodes, but nonetheless represents a bold and game-changing choice. At the end of episode one, one of the show’s apparent central characters (and lead actors), Don Johnson’s police chief Judd Crawford, is murdered; as his friend and fellow officer Angela Abar (Regina King) investigates, she quickly realizes that Judd was not all that he seemed, and indeed was not on the side of justice. Ultimately she and we learn that Judd was a former KKK member turned leader of the white supremacist 7th Cavalry, working alongside another undercover domestic terrorist (Senator and presidential candidate Joe Keene [James Wolk]) to keep both the political and legal systems beholden to white supremacy. Which means that two of the show’s three most powerful characters are white supremacist domestic terrorists, a bracing and vital reminder that throughout American history (as was the case in the lynching epidemic) it was not just angry mobs, but also and especially society’s most powerful and elite, who maintained white supremacy’s violent, hierarchical hold on the nation.
But Judd and Joe turn out to be only secondary villains to Watchmen’s most villainous character, and the show’s most powerful individual: Hong Chau’s Vietnamese American genius, entrepreneur, and megalomaniac Lady Trieu. That Lady Trieu is opposed to the 7th Cavalry and the source of their ultimate destruction means that she is in no way part of that white supremacist power structure, but that’s the part about which I have mixed feelings: I understand the need for multiple twists, particularly when it comes to villains who are revealed relatively early in a show’s arc, and certainly Trieu’s villainous plan is (as with most of the best villains) both understandable and even sympathetic yet deeply disturbing and horrific. But this particular twist and villain not only make the white supremacists seem significantly less dangerous (indeed, their entire plan has been just a distraction from the true evil), but even positions them as primary (or at least the initial) targets of the real danger (one from precisely the kind of figure against whom they have directed their xenophobic prejudice). Again, shows aren’t political manifestos, and Watchmen is about a lot more than just race or America—but this particular choice seems to me to frustratingly undercut some of the choices and themes that make this show so unique and important.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other takes on the show you’d share?

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