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Sister Night and Red Scare stand in front of police tape with three police people in yellow masks standing behind them Mark Hill/HBO

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The Watchmen premiere questions the past

There’s lots to chew on in Damon Lindelof’s provocative episode 1

HBO’s Watchmen opens with a familiar image: a man in black chasing a man in white.

The classic pulp image comes in the form of a silent movie, but it’s right in line with the superhero iconography that fueled the original Watchmen comic. But writer Damon Lindelof wants to make it clear that his Watchmen series will subvert expectations: The man in white — the town sheriff — is the dastardly villain plaguing the town. The other man is a famed black U.S. marshal sent to take him down. He tells a crowd of scared townspeople, “There will be no mob justice today. TRUST IN THE LAW.”

In Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the tension between mob justice and the law comes from the existence of superheroes, costumed adventurers operating without an explicit license from the state. You might expect a vigilante figure to again be the center of a Watchmen property, but in the series premiere “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” the focus is squarely on the police. Though the marshal insists that the people trust in the law, and the young black boy in the audience at the theater giddily shouts out his dialogue, that trust is immediately betrayed by events surrounding the theater: the Tulsa race riots of 1921.

Lindelof chooses to open his series with an extended historical sequence focusing on a very real atrocity, and director Nicole Kassell sells the hell out of the riot. Here, there are Klansmen openly walking the streets, murdering people in a way that is far scarier than any supervillain’s plot. There are low-flying planes dropping bombs. Everything is burning. The boy from the theater gets smuggled out of the city, clutching a piece of paper labeled “WATCH OVER THIS BOY.”

a young black man holds a younger boy in his arms as his parents back up a car during the tulsa riots of 1921 Mark Hill/HBO

A good chunk of Watchmen’s first episode is spent complicating our understanding of the police in this world, to, at best, mixed results. The first scene set in the present, 30 years after the events of the comic, finds a white man listening to Future, cruising down a dark road, only to be stopped by a cop. Just a few minutes in, Watchmen dives into the visual language of this kind of scene — the cop car is shot entirely from a low angle, rolling slowly into frame like a predator.

The framing of this scene evokes a real, historically concrete menace, an image that is increasingly part of our pop culture grammar: a white cop pulling over a black man, with the full power of the state behind him. Except that this cop is black, and framed as a looming presence from behind his bright yellow mask. And he gets shot by the person he’s pulled over, a member of the Rorschach-inspired white supremacist gang the Seventh Cavalry.

For most of the episode, we get to know the officers of the Tulsa police force as they respond to the shooting. There’s Looking Glass, a master interrogator played with crusty dispassion by Tim Blake Nelson; there’s Red Scare, a faux-Soviet bruiser who appears to have been ported in from a Guy Ritchie movie; and there’s our protagonist Sister Night, an extraordinarily competent mom played by Regina King. One of the first things we learn about Sister Night, aka Angela Abar, is that she was a victim of the White Night, a targeted massacre of law enforcement led by the Seventh Cavalry.

We don’t see much of the rest of the country — the only time we cut away from Tulsa, it’s to a lush, idyllic country estate that wouldn’t be out of place in a British costume drama. It belongs to an older man played by Jeremy Irons, who goes unnamed but is obviously Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias. (Blessedly, in the runup to the series premiere HBO referred to Irons’ character as “Probably Who You Think He Is.”) Veidt is attended to be a group of odd servants who try to cut cake with a horseshoe, getting his thighs massaged in the nude. It’s extremely weird and seemingly out of place, but for now it’s worth it for Irons calling the cake “the bee’s knees.”

All of the Tulsa characters are, thankfully, easier to latch onto, if a little too inclined to resort to police brutality. (Angela brutalizes the Seventh Cavalry man she picks up from his trailer.) And the cops help introduce us to Watchmen’s future: a nightmare version of post-Cold War liberal utopia. A racist boy asks Angela if “Redfordations,” reparations masterminded by President Robert Redford, paid for her bakery, leading Angela’s son Topher to viciously, righteously attack him. Looking Glass’ interrogation aid is a giant pod that essentially functions as a giant unconscious bias test. And there’s no internet, which helps explain why the Seventh Cavalry hasn’t successfully identified everyone working for the Tulsa Police Department.

a masked police officer walks from his parked car with flashlight in hand Mark Hill/HBO

Everything comes to a head at a cattle ranch, where the Seventh Cavalry is holed up tossing watch batteries into a bucket. The police storm the ranch, leading to a firefight between a vehicle-mounted machine gun, another plane, and the police’s Owlship. In the way she frames the carnage, Kassell visually ties this battle to Watchmen’s depiction of the Tulsa riot, which could, in theory, be interesting: how do we weigh the satisfaction of a white supremacist being beat up with the horror of police brutality? These are interesting questions, but at least in this episode, Watchmen doesn’t quite have the right answers. It’s theoretically ambitious, but ultimately a bit incoherent.

Thankfully, there’s Tulsa Police Chief Crawford. Don Johnson plays Crawford as a slick, charismatic enigma — at a family dinner, he goes out of his way to tell Angela and her husband Calvin that he had a great time at “black Oklahoma!” Later, he sings “People Will Say We’re In Love” to the children. And he sneaks off to do a bump of cocaine, just to make it easier to hang out with the kids. He’s a mystifying, human character, who bites the dust almost immediately. (We should have guessed: The episode title “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out Of Ice” is a reference to the song “Pore Jud Is Dead” from Oklahoma!)

When Angela arrives on the scene of Crawford’s murder, she sees an older man sitting in a wheelchair, carrying an old piece of paper marked “WATCH OVER THIS BOY.” The historical legacy of the riot is bound up in this aging survivor, who has muscled his way into a superhero story with a murder — a murder punctuated with the iconic Watchmen blood splatter hitting Crawford’s sheriff’s badge.

Where the Watchmen comic largely depicted the thick miasma of an uncertain present, the HBO series seems poised to dig into the way the past is never really past. Angela has a good life — baked goods, adorable children, a ridiculously hot husband — but if there’s one note King nails in this first episode, it’s that Angela is hard and brittle. She’s angry, but competent, and single-minded in her pursuit of justice. It’s a fascinating, violent, potentially lethal combination.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.