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HBO’s Watchmen pulled off a twist that Game of Thrones stopped being able to do

The premiere ends on a shocking note

Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) and Sister Night (Regina King) on the move.
All bets are off in HBO’s Watchmen.
Mark Hill/HBO

If the first episode is anything to go by, the rumors are true: HBO’s Watchmen is remarkable. The series, from creator Damon Lindelof, isn’t just a thoughtful continuation and interrogation of the graphic novel. By the end, it pulls off the kind of shocking twist that’s been dulled down on TV for some time.

Ned Stark’s death on Game of Thrones felt like a bomb going off in the TV landscape. The axing of arguably the main character on the show felt inconceivable — it wasn’t just a monumental shift in our impression of the nature of the story but a clear sign that no character on the show was safe. The rules had changed.

As the show progressed, however, Thrones backtracked on the implicit promise. There was one more major shock in the form of the Red Wedding, but then, (relatively) free from the constraints of what George R. R. Martin had written, the show settled into a groove, signaling any impending disasters and all but assuring that fan favorites would make it out of the show alive.

What happened on Watchmen was a Ned Stark moment all over again.

[Ed. note: Spoilers for Watchmen season 1, episode 1, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” follow.]

Masked police officer Sister Night (Regina King) stares down an unknown character.
Introducing Sister Night (Regina King).
Mark Hill/HBO

Watchmen, now airing on HBO, isn’t following an existing story in anything but a technical sense, as it picks up after the events of the graphic novel. Boasting an almost entirely new cast of characters, the series doesn’t have to worry about fan favoritism, either — we’ve just met all of these characters, the biggest distinctions we can make are who’s a main character and who isn’t.

Which makes it all the more flabbergasting that the premiere ends with the death of Chief Judd (Don Johnson), who is, until that moment, positioned as one of the show’s major players. He’s not necessarily gone from the show in an act of stunt casting (there are always flashbacks, and this is a show from the writer of Lost), but a major player has been removed from the board. The episode seems to position him as Angela’s (Regina King) partner — he’s the character that she’s closest to, and a worthy match for her in terms of charisma and immediate appeal — so his death is a significant blow.

It’s not a shock delivered to ensure the audience knows the show will be shocking — see: Bran’s fall from the tower at the end of Game of Thrones’ first episode — but a clear indicator that this superhero story isn’t playing by stereotypical superhero rules. That Watchmen is playing by a different rulebook is clear from its very opening scene, which takes place during the Tulsa race riot. Still, Judd’s death cements the point. One of our supposed heroes is dead.

Judd’s death also has the effect of making it clear just how human these superheroes are. As in the original graphic novels, nobody really has superpowers — high intellect, maybe, but any actual powers are reserved for the larger universe and the now absent Dr. Manhattan. These characters can be ambushed and killed, just like anyone else; the fact that they’re the main characters of this story isn’t a shield (and the amount of time that has passed since the events of the graphic novel mean there’s no shield for the characters we recognize, either).

There’s a parallelism between Judd’s demise and the Comedian’s death in the beginning of Alan Moore’s original comic. The infamous crash-through-the-window is the first thing to happen in the graphic novel, but the Comedian is still mostly a mystery when we first meet him, whereas the opening hour of Watchmen takes the time to get to know Judd. We expect Judd to stick around; the Comedian’s introduction isn’t a shock so much as a clean set-up to the larger mystery.

The sucker punch that Watchmen pulls off is an impressive one, immediately establishing the show as one set to be the cherry on top of HBO’s banner year of post-Thrones programming (Succession, Euphoria, Chernobyl, The Righteous Gemstones, the upcoming His Dark Materials, the list goes on). Poor Judd is dead, but Watchmen is only beginning.

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