How Watchmen Explores the Toxicity of Nostalgia and the Fallibility of Memory

TV Features Watchmen
How Watchmen Explores the Toxicity of Nostalgia and the Fallibility of Memory

HBO’s Watchmen is comic book television on steroids. Not content to simply tell stories of costumed heroes who make friends, find love and save the world, this update of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ iconic original 12-issue story wants to grapple with big, messy ideas and potentially unsolvable problems. This isn’t a story where a weekly adventure can be wrapped up in a neat bow, complete with a catch phrase. Instead, this is a superhero tale that tackles complex issues of race and racism in America, confronts the book’s problematic depiction of women head on, and provides additional—sometimes horrific, often mind-blowing—context for events from the original story.

It is, generally, the most ambitious superhero series that’s ever been on television.

Smarter and more capable writers than myself have tackled the way Watchmen has interrogated issues of race this season, particularly about the decision to make the comic series’ original vigilante, Hooded Justice, a black man. But in doing so, Watchmen leans even further into one of its most oft-repeated themes: The idea that memory is a living thing, something that we must grapple with each day to determine not just the veracity and worth of the stories we tell about ourselves, but how the things that have happened to us shape the people we become. These are the origin stories this Watchmen seems most interesting in telling. How does memory—of who we were, who we might have once become—shape the people we are, right now?

In the season’s sixth episode, “This Extraordinary Being,” Angela is nearly poisoned to death by taking a concentrated dose of her grandfather’s memories, in the form of pills that are literally called Nostalgia. Maybe this moment is just extremely on the nose, but it seems obvious that Watchmen wants to explore very specific ideas of memory—and its inherent dangers. Our memories inform who we are, and we must all come to terms with the things that have happened to us in different ways. But what happens when those memories paralyze us, or lock us into unhealthy ways of being? And what is nostalgia, if not weaponized memory, a way to collectively privilege some types of remembrance above others and to decide what versions of history ought to be declared true?

By challenging the accepted myth of Hooded Justice—a character originally presumed to be white in both Watchmen’s world and the pages of Moore’s original comic—the show explores the dangers inherent in communal memory that becomes de facto. Of course, the most foundational figure in the world of costumed adventuring had to be a handsome white guy with Cheyenne Jackson’s chiseled jaw, rather than an angry black man seeking the justice he and those like him had so long been denied. Collectively, America appears to have decided that’s the way things are and ought to be.

The idea that the first superhero was obviously a white man, the misconception that the 1950s are any sort of reflection of when America was “great”—these “histories” are dangerous, precisely because they so often sideline and exclude those who aren’t white, male, or otherwise in the center of mainstream society. If this realization makes us uncomfortable, it’s because it’s supposed to.

After all, the existence of Watchmen the show is almost entirely predicated on our memory of the comic that comes before it, both within the world of the series and outside of it. As we remember Moore’s original comic series, it’s easy to focus solely on the ways it was a truly groundbreaking superhero story and not how it essentially erased issues of race from its narrative—or frequently embraced misogynist and sexist tropes. The willingness of HBO’s series to critically confront and deconstruct the more problematic elements of its own legacy is both admirable and necessary.

That this Watchmen sets two complex women (and one a woman of color) at the center of its story certainly feels like an important step forward. But so does its insistence on breaking the hold that nostalgia has on us, even when it comes to the original work upon which the series is based. Fetishizing the idea of things is just as dangerous and harmful as refusing to look at the past and accept what really happened. Nostalgia, after all, can often look a lot like denial. And personal remembrances become institutional memory awfully quickly. Watchmen, apparently, really wants us to realize how harmful those things have the potential to be, in both our everyday lives and our culture at large.

Like her grandfather before her, Angela Abar seeks justice by wearing a hood. But she’s hardly the only character forced to confront the personal trauma inherent in the memories we carry around with us every day, or wrestle with their own understanding of what makes them who they are.

To that end, former vigilante turned FBI agent Laurie Blake has built her entire life in response to the legacy of her Minutemen parents—for both good and ill. Her father’s attempt to rape her mother is the trauma that underpins much of her understanding of herself, and Watchmen has yet to explain the specifics of how the woman formerly known Laurie Juspeczyk made enough peace with that legacy to take her father’s name. But given the ways that Laurie’s identity still seems to circle around a nostalgic fascination with her own past, it makes a certain kind of sense. From her decision to essentially change sides and work to take down the very costumed vigilantes who do what she herself once did as Silk Spectre, to her obvious lingering emotional attachment to Dr. Manhattan, Laurie is, in many ways, still defined by the idea of who she once was. (Don’t believe me? Look at the art in her apartment.)

The idea of memory as a toxic force isn’t just restricted to characters from the original Watchmen series, however. New addition Wade Tillman is just as trapped by his past as Laurie or Adrian Veidt, the latter of whom, after all, still views himself as a hero rather than a monster.

Elsewhere, Looking Glass’ memories of the 11/2 squid attack—both in terms of his personal experience and his understanding of what that event meant in the world at large—are so powerful and pervasive that he can’t let go of them, even when presented with evidence that they aren’t as he understood them to be. Moreover, he doesn’t want to let go of them, and makes a deliberate choice not to, in the moment he fetches his new extra-dimensional alarm from the garbage. Ostensibly, he knows it’s a protection against a threat that doesn’t exist. But he remembers fearing it, and that’s enough reason to take action. Or not, as the case may be.

The world of Watchmen is full of characters whose origins are murky and mysterious, and whose understanding of themselves is largely based on ideas that may or may not be actually true. In this universe memory can be—and often is—a type of trauma all its own. Much like another famous prestige television drama, Mad Men, once described it, nostalgia is “pain from an old wound.” Now, admittedly, Don Draper’s Greek translation is more than a little messy here, but the sentiment is valid. To heal old wounds, to get better, we have to confront the pain of all kinds that makes us who we are. And that means the way we’ve chosen to remember ourselves, too. When we look backward, let us be clear about what we’re seeing, and remember things as they are, rather than how we believe them to be.

Watchmen airs Sunday nights on HBO.

Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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