Television

Watchmen Was a Family Saga, Not Just a Superhero Story

Think One Hundred Years of Solitude, not just heroes and masks.

Regina King and Louis Gossett Jr. stare at each other across auditorium seating in this still from Watchmen.
Regina King and Louis Gossett Jr. in Watchmen.
Mark Hill/HBO

Even in the era of Peak TV, when networks are ostensibly desperate to distinguish their shows from the rest of the stockpile, entire genres have gone neglected—a reality illuminated by HBO’s Watchmen, which concluded its first and possibly only season on Sunday. Created by Damon Lindelof, the supernatural drama is a loose adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ landmark 1987 comic book series that not only elevates the superhero genre by marrying it to a fairly sophisticated counterhistory of postwar America, but also offers audiences fatigued by or indifferent to caped crusading a thematically and emotionally rich drama that looks and feels different from pretty much the entire rest of television.

That’s because Watchmen, which stars Regina King as a masked officer named Sister Night in an alt-U.S. that won the Vietnam War with the help of a blue giant, is the rare series to attempt a multigenerational saga of a family caught in the sweep of history. It’s the closest Peak TV has come to tackling that storied genre, and it’s arguably the best thing about an already wonderfully inventive and uniquely resonant show.

Perhaps Watchmen just beat others to the punch. Two of the most famous exemplars of the multigenerational genre—Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits—are currently being developed by Netflix and Hulu, respectively. (García Márquez refused to sell the film rights to his most well-known novel during his lifetime, while Allende saw an English-language movie version of her debut novel starring Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, and Glenn Close open to negative reviews and bomb at the box office in the mid ’90s.) Among more recent works, Min Jin Lee’s award-collecting 2017 epic Pachinko, about several generations of a Korean family displaced by Japanese occupation and World War II, is in development at Apple TV+.

But Watchmen’s multigenerational tale is also notable for the show’s own twists on the genre.
The series dives deep into Angela’s family history—a history that she doesn’t know after being born in Saigon, far away from her extended relatives, and orphaned at the age of 10, when her parents became the casualties of an anti-American freedom fighter who sets off a suicide bomb. The rootless Angela seeks to fill in her family tree after her grandfather, who survived the 1921 Tulsa massacre that kicks off the series, hangs her police captain, whom she learns soon after was a Klansman. (On the show, the Klan goes by several names throughout history, including Cyclops and the Seventh Kavalry.) In contrast to the novels above, the intricately plotted puzzle-box nature of Watchmen’s time-skipping first season allows much of Angela and her family’s centurylong back story to unfold in nonchronological fashion—a narrative choice that spotlights alternate generations’ seesawing approaches toward fighting for justice through punches and kicks, as well as the parallels between Angela and her grandfather Will, aka the masked crimefighter Hooded Justice.

Watchmen’s remarkable sixth episode, “This Extraordinary Being,” is where the Abar–Reeves history shines most. Angela has downed a bottle of her grandfather’s Nostalgia—pills containing memories of his most formative experiences—and we see her experience many of the most painful moments of Will’s life, with Angela occasionally taking his place in flashbacks to emphasize their parallel lives. Multigenerational sagas lend themselves to explorations of how historical events affect the lives of individuals, and so we learn how grandfather and granddaughter, previously unknown to each other, have been united in doing battle against the hydra-like scourge of violent white supremacy. (Angela also learns a crucial bit of history: that the plague Will wanted to combat was so pervasive that he, as an actual Kal-El rescued by his parents from his destroyed hometown, had to pose as a white man to be accepted as a white hat.)

But it’s also possible to see how Angela is better equipped to fight than Will ever was: She has a spouse who supports her midnight runs (unlike Will’s wife, who ultimately leaves the superhero and takes their son, Angela’s father, with her), and of course, a nuclear option in her ability to summon the most powerful being in the universe.

So novel and haunting is Watchmen’s multigenerational storyline, in fact, that the show can’t help deflating a bit in its final three episodes, when the focus shifts from Angela’s family to her romance with Doctor Manhattan, the aforementioned azure colossus, reduced to actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s mere 6’3” height. (To be fair, part of that deflation might also have to do with the iffyness of Dr. Manhattan as a life-partner choice.) It doesn’t help that, after displaying such righteous anger at the pain Angela and her ancestors have suffered, Watchmen fails to condemn America’s colonizing of Vietnam with the same force (most likely because doing so would necessitate framing Doctor Manhattan as a war criminal).

The parentage of Hong Chau’s villainous Lady Trieu is revealed in the finale—she is the artificially inseminated child of the messianic genius Adrian Veidt and one of his disgruntled employees—but that, too, feels rushed and more a matter of plot convenience than organic character development. It’s a missed opportunity, but it hardly takes away from the hopes and tragedies of Angela Abar and Will Reeves, who between them have spent nearly a century fighting for a better future, even as the clock kept ticking.