In The Leftovers, a man named Kevin Garvey travels to the underworld, searching for meaning in an impossible place. What does it mean to be alive after a global event has rocked the world to its core? How do you go on when you realize–finally, fatally–that the universe is full of inexplicable phenomena, a total lack of reason? Lindelof has been probing at these thoughts even before The Leftovers, with his first big series, Lost. Both shows explored similar themes of survival, love, death; our role in this celestial clump of matter. Attempting to articulate the unimaginable, and using humor and pop culture references to weight these fictional worlds—not so dissimilar from our own—in something recognizable. Both arrived at a similar place in the end: accepting that existence isn’t about the answers, but the questions themselves.
But Lindelof’s new series, HBO’s Watchmen, is a different beast entirely. Instead of posturing existential what-ifs, the show concerns itself with the here and now: “Why did this happen?” and, “How did we get here?” and, “How do we fix this?” It’s a more direct approach to storytelling, one that orients us in a familiar alternate reality, where race relations are a boiling pot without a lid, police must shroud their faces in secrecy to avoid targeted violence, and where the facade of global unity masks the rot around the edges. It’s not our America, but it is our America. Lindelof borrows moments from our history (like the massacre on Black Wall Street, which opens the first episode), but keeps us at a distance. In the world of Watchmen, Robert Redford has been president for 30 years, the sky rains baby squids, and masked vigilantes perform detective work. It’s reality as much as it’s surreality; discernible but foreign.
The alternate reality setting creates a sandbox of sorts for Lindelof, where he can build structures, knock them down, and examine the rubble. The story is set 30 years after the events of Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name. It’s 2019, and we open in Tulsa, Oklahoma; urban, but not a metropolis. A police officer is shot by a white supremacist, setting off a chain of events that lead us to Regina King’s Angela Abar. She’s a retired police officer, who lives out a secret life as a masked detective called Sister Night.
The police officer was injured by a member of the Seventh Kavalry, a terrorist organization who wear hoods inspired by Rorschach, the “protagonist” of Moore’s comic who’s now the face of white nationalism. Sister Night and her fellow vigilantes try to track down the Kavalry, and not for the first time. Like a stubborn virus, they keep coming back, with inkblot faces instead of sharp white hoods. The layers of this conflict aren’t entirely clear after just the pilot, but the seeds are planted. This is a rudderless, ugly world, where Rorschach’s moral absolutism—black and white, good and bad—was something like foresight. How can Sister Night save the world? Is it even worth saving?
In a past life, Lindelof might have spent an entire series leading us to this impossible, endless fight against corruptibility. But with Watchmen, he opens the series at its natural end. He’s doing something different here. Posing questions that might lead us down several divergent paths. It doesn’t feel rooted in amorphous tectonics, like Lost and The Leftovers. It feels like a place where things could happen that evoke real change. Where characters might learn to stop asking questions and to start asking the right ones.
It’s too early to say how successful Lindelof’s endeavor will be, or if this observation is even the point. But the pilot reeks of maturation. With Lost, the camera zoomed around an impressively large island, an insurmountable gulp of land where mysteries would later turn to rot. In The Leftovers, sad music revealed a desolate world, drenched in white fabric—the remnants of a fallen society that could never be repaired, and would learn to live in ruin. But Watchmen is sharp angles, dark colors, pulsating momentum. It’s an artery instead of a cloud. Eager to crack some eggs and get to work. Reparations need to be made, or vanquished, and Watchmen is Lindelof showing how hungry he is after decades of no dessert.
Whatever the show morphs into, whatever pattern appears on its Rorschach canvas, we’ll be watching.
Featured Image: HBO