Season 1, Episode 1 – “It’s Summer, And We’re Running Out of Ice”
Written by Damon Lindeloff
Directed by Nicole Kassell
That opening is not an alternative history, an invention of the mind of Damon Lindeloff, or some parallel history that made up the backstory of the Watchmen universe. The Tulsa Massacre of 1921 was real, down the plane flying overhead and dropping explosives on the black people that populated the neighborhood of the Greenwood District. This place was known as “Black Wall Street” due to the financial success black people had experienced there, allowed to open their own businesses and create a community that empowered each other. If “separate but equal” would be the law of the land, then the residents of Greenwood would go their own, rejected by their country.
It started when Dick Rowland was working his shoeshine stand on a hot summer day and got permission to enter the Drexel building in white-dominated downtown Tulsa. He just wanted a drink of water and a chance to cool down. Sarah Page was a young woman, two years Rowland’s junior, who operated the elevator in the Drexel. What happened next is obscured by time, and the memories of the dead, Rowland ran from the elevator, and Page screamed, in what order we’re not sure, but Page never pressed charges. The Tulsa authorities did.
Yellow journalists added to the furor publishing any half-cocked testimony from people who weren’t even present, and by the end of the week, the city was abuzz. Rowland raped that poor white girl. The community that knew Rowland didn’t believe the stories and at high risk to themselves, Greenwood protected their own. An argument at the courthouse led to a white lynch mob member pulling a gun, shots were fired, and hell was unleashed.
The white mob marched into Greenwood, held back for a brief time at the railroad tracks that drew a stark divide between the white and black communities. By the end of that day, 35 city blocks were burned to the ground, and at least 300 black residents (men, women, and children) were murdered. Some reports are that a dozen or more planes were circling overhead and bombing the people of Greenwood with turpentine bombs and nitroglycerin. This is the first account of an American city being attacked from the air. By its own residents. Focused solely on a black neighborhood.
We don’t see the horror when the show starts; instead, we’re watching a silent film from the Watchmen universe. There’s a masked gunfighter who captures a scoundrel and reveals himself as a black lawman. In the audience is a young black boy, no older than five years. He knows this movie and recites the lines before they appear on the screen. His mother plays the piano, soundtracking the picture. She is upset, and we quickly learn why when they have to rush from the theater to safety. Their community is under siege.
But what happens next is a brilliant subversion of a classic superhero trope. The boy’s mother and father see there is no room in their friends’ car for themselves, but they can stow their son away in the trunk that’s latched to the back of the vehicle. This is a retelling of the Superman origin story with a painful American twist, and it resonates powerfully. The boy wakes up, blood on his forehead, and finds the car was overturned, his parents’ friends shot in the head. They lie in a field, night has come, and fires from Greenwood provide the only light. The sole survivor aside from the boy is a baby girl, whom he comforts, picks up, and walks off into the night with.
The rest of the episode takes place in the 2019 of the Watchmen universe. Readers of the original graphic novel know that Nixon used The Comedian to put an end to Watergate before it started. This resulted in that crooked president remaining power at least until the mid-1980s. In the present, the office of the executive is held by actor & activist Robert Redford. Life has taken a markedly left-wing turn with the slur “Redford-rations” being used for the national reparation being given out to the descendants of slaves. But just because the President has moved in a more progressive direction doesn’t mean all the people have. The masked vigilante Rorshach has gained popularity in his death, becoming the inspiration of a fascist group called The Seventh Cavalry.
These neo-nazis aren’t the only one sporting masks. The police force of Tulsa is now masked & anonymous, each member has a fictionalized cover to account for their work. Most police simply wear a bright yellow face covering, but detectives have superhero styled names. Our main character is Angela Abar, aka Sister Knight, styling herself like a nun complete with a rosary she uses to choke out suspects to break them. Alongside her is Red Scare, a Russian transplant, and Looking Glass, a man whose reflective silver mask represents his ability to get into the minds of his targets. Leading them all is the charismatic and notably unmasked Chief of Police Judd Crawford.
You might notice that nothing you would expect to see from Watchmen is present in the main story. The events of the graphic novel still resonate in the periphery. A news report has rover footage of Dr. Manhattan still in a self-imposed exile on Mars. There’s media hype for American Hero Story, which purports to be a dramatization of the Minutemen’s history. The police are using a ship that looks suspiciously like Nite Owl’s Archimedes vessel. Most prominently is a brief scene we get with Adrian Veidt, formerly known as Ozymandius, who, according to a briefly glimpsed newspaper headline, is considered dead. He’s living in a large manor somewhere far from Tulsa and waited on by a staff I suspect might be inventions of his own.
This is the opening chapter of a larger story, and it’s clear Damon Lindeloff and company are ambitiously expanding on the influential comic book. I think this was a brilliant move rather than try to adapt and stretch out the original story. There is a lot to build on thematically and critically with the foundation Alan Moore built, moving beyond the city limits of NYC and allowing us to see what other corners of this world look like. I applaud the decision, to begin with, one of the most harrowing and shamefully forgotten moments in this country’s history. It signals that Watchmen, the series will be tackling big essential questions and wrestling with the issues of our reality through the lens of another.