DC FanDome: How ‘Watchmen’ Explores the Issues of Corrupt Power and Systemic Racism

“When the police masked [in the events of the show], it raised the question of accountability, because at some point, [it becomes a question of] who’s the good guy/who’s the bad guy” — Christal Henry, Supervising Producer of Watchmen (2019)

This quote, which kicked off the most fascinating panel/segment in the DC FanDome for Watchmen: Unmasked, embodies more than just what was going on in the narrative of the show. It’s a quote that fully embodies what we’re seeing in our society today. When you replace the metaphor of a mask with a badge, we understand that Watchmen is, as the graphic novel was too, an absolute reflection of the sins of society told through the lenses of both the empowered and the powerless. And therein is why Watchmen is perhaps one of the best television events in the past decade.

“If you are wearing a mask or a costume you can behave in a way which is not the traditional way you behave. And so it can unlock parts of your personality that are repressed. And what are the parts of our personality that we repress? We repress anger, we repress rage, we repress catharsis,” said showrunner and developer Damon Lindeloff. “The mask is a way of containing all those things, and a way of releasing all those things.”

“The pilot opens with the Tulsa Massacre,” continued Henry. “For some, they never healed from that. In this country, at least when I was growing up, I didn’t hear about it until I was well into adulthood… and it was one of the bloodiest massacres on American soil… 300 Black people were slain in the street and I didn’t even know about it.” This completely showcases the bold, unflinching nature of the series. Kicking off with this significant event brings to mainstream light an event that should never have been forgotten or swept under the rug, but was because of the systemic racism that plagues our society. By starting the series with this scene, it sets up what the show is trying to do quite overtly; Watchmen understands that we’re not living in a time where a show can afford to be subtle, and the issues plaguing our society today have created an urgency for themes that need to be shouted aloud for Americans to get the message.

Cord Jefferson, Executive Story Editor of the show, added, “When we came into the room, it was very clear from Damon’s vision of the show that he wanted to address one of the more pressing concerns of America right now — racial tensions and racism that we’re seeing bubbling up that people convinced themselves don’t exist anymore. But that we see all the time now.”

“Here in our world, ironically, the son of the man who put vigilantes out of business [in the original Wathcmen series] has passed a law that allows cops to wear masks in order to do their jobs and fight crime,” said Jeff Jensen, Story Editor for the show.

“The state has appropriated that power for themselves, and it feels somehow much scarier when it’s not about vigilantes anymore. When the state becomes the vigilantes,” stated Lila Byock, Supervising Producer for the show.

“You have a group of people in America saying they want things to go back to the way they were. And their nostalgia is actually a form of racism in disguise,” continued Lindeloff. “To put it more specifically, it’s White Supremacy.”

“When you meet the Calvery, that’s the first thing that comes to mind when you see what’s happening in our world [the show’s world], that’s also happening in the real world,” stated series star Regina King (Angela Abar/Sister Night).

“We’re in fear of our lives now,” said Henry. “What is it going to be like when the police are wearing masks… We’re very sensitive and very aware of the racial violence, of the police violence, of the brutality against communities of color and people of color. The systemic oppression that people of color experience every single moment of their existence.”

“We have [on the show] a parallel universe in which the police stands in direct opposition to this White supremacy group,” stated Jefferson. “Which is actually different from what people expect in the real United States of America, in that for a very long time, in many places in America, the machinations of White supremacy and the machinations of the police force were going hand-in-hand.”

On how the show continues the legacy of the original comic, the producers and Lindeloff spoke about the character of Rorschach, and how the series continues the cynicism of the character, but also how characters like the Seventh Calvary have taken Rorschach’s journal and perverted/misinterpreted the ideas from it to meet their needs. Given that members of that Calvary on the show included Senator Keen Jr. (played by James Wolk) and Tulsa Police Chief, Judd Crawford (played by Don Johnson), it’s easy to see what the series is saying about people of power and manipulation of the system to suit their own personal agendas, including racist beliefs.

On the subject of the creation of Angela Abar, the show’s protagonist, and what she represents to the series, the crew had this to say:

“What I was interested in, in the original text, was who are these people who dress up in these ridiculous costumes, and go out and fight crime in the streets,” continued Byock. “And it’s interesting to think about in the new world we’re creating for Watchmen, who is Angela Abar? She can only fully express herself when she’s in her Sister Night costume.”

“So when we started takling about Angela, we thought, ‘how does Angela see the world? What does she think about crime or culture in the United States?’ And we started to think that it might be interesting if she saw things in a very black-and-white way,” said Lindeloff. “This is a callback to the orignal Rorschach, who doesn’t really see things in shades of grey. So it made sense that her in costume would be black and white.”

“Being a Black policewoman in Tulsa, and the challenges you face, especially when you’re in a situation when you’re policing your own community,” began Henry, “I’ve policed my own community, so just taking those experiences and trying to bring them into the room, to add some authenticity to the story, it helped me get in Angela’s head because I know what a policewoman is thinking.”

“As you start to peel back the onion of who Angela is, you see that she’s been running away, and running into something always in her life. So it’s Sister Night that helps her to deal with that and also helps her to hide behind that so that she doesn’t have to deal with the past,” said King.

“The original Watchmen was set in a very amoral world,” continued Byock. “There was not a lot of clear right or wrong. And I think that’s where we find ourselves today. There is not a clear right and wrong anymore. We’re all sort of grasping for a true north. And I don’t think our series represents a clear right and wrong, a clear moral and immoral. The world is inherently amoral and none of our characters have the answers.”

Watchmen is about power. Anyone that seeks out power seeks out empowerment. Even for noble causes, even to address problems that need to be solved in our world, most likely they will not handle that power well. They will be corrupted by that means of empowerment that gives them agency, that allows them to even do good things in our world,” stated Jensen.

“What the original text asks of you, and what our show asks of you is to always be skeptical of those in authority,” said Jefferson. “And to understand that people in authority very oftentimes have more insidious reasons for wanting that authority, for wanting that power. Yes we want watchmen, but who watches the watchmen? We should be skeptical of all watchmen in society.”

Watchmen is out now on Blu-Ray and is available to stream on HBO Max.

Thank you DC FanDome for publishing this amazing, important gem of a panel!