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Yellow-masked police officers in Watchmen.

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Breaking down the reference-filled Watchmen trailer

Everything from the Rorschach militia to the new (old) Ozymandias

Yellow-masked police officers in Watchmen.
| HBO

It’s safe to say that the most anticipated HBO series this year — that isn’t ending — is Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen, based on the DC Comics series of the same name, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons.

And that might lead you to think that we already know quite a bit about the upcoming show, which premieres sometime this fall, but HBO’s Watchmen is not a direct adaptation of the comic. And so today’s first full teaser is full of hints and glimpses. Join us as we try to distill fact from the vapor of nuance.

The first shots of the trailer are the most heavy with Watchmen symbolism, a series of reverse zooms on a group of (predominantly, if not entirely, white) men in homemade Rorschach masks, seeming to give a manifesto of sorts. The cross in the background is ringed by the first line of Psalm 65: “Praise waiteth for Thee, O God, in Zion.”

“We are no one, we are everyone, and we are invisible,” says the one in the center. Over the course of the teaser, the masked men chant “tick tock” over and over again, increasing in speed and volume.

HBO’s Watchmen series takes place in the same alternate history as the Watchmen graphic novel, but it is set in the present day, rather than 1985. It seems that in 2019, Rorschach, the troubled, violent, and inflexible vigilante of Watchmen, has gained quite a following.

“We have no desire to ‘adapt’ the twelve issues Mr. Moore and Mr. Gibbons created thirty years ago,” Lindelof wrote in an Instagram post explaining his choice to adapt the series, “Those issues are sacred ground and they will not be retread nor recreated nor reproduced nor rebooted. They will, however, be remixed. Because the bass lines in those familiar tracks are just too good and we’d be fools not to sample them. Those original twelve issues are our Old Testament. When the New Testament came along, it did not erase what came before it.”

Lindelof has indicated that he’d like to take the characters and setting of Watchmen and reinterpret them in a similar way to how Moore and Gibbons built their comic on the bones of other superhero concepts from DC, Marvel, and Charlton Comics. And that includes bringing those characters and concepts into a modern context. Perhaps an uncomfortably modern context.

Before becoming a superhero, Dr. Manhattan was Jonathan Osterman. His father was a watchmaker, and Jon intended to follow in his footsteps. War, however, threw a wrench into that plan — after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, his father pushed him into the study of nuclear physics, instead.

There’s very little link left between Dr. Manhattan and his former self, but his fixation on time remains a constant. He sees time — and all events within it — as predetermined. That is, right up until the concluding events of the comic, in which he recognizes that the unpredictability of humans (or rather, of love and such human “miracles”) renders his idea of predetermination moot.

There’s no good way of telling whose hands those are, but the constant focus on time (and the repeated idea of inevitability) feels like a shout-out to the big blue boy. The visible clocks and watches are also all set close to five minutes to midnight, as per the setting of the Doomsday Clock that serves as a constant timekeeper for the events of the comic.

In the Watchmen setting, masked adventurers grew so unpopular in post-war America that by 1977 they were outlawed, unless they were government agents. Among the most vocal anti-costumed crime fighter protestors were police officers, who objected to the way masked vigilantes were allowed to gain fame, keep their privacy and freedom, and yet still take the law into their own hands. The movement took Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — Who watches the watchmen? — as a rallying cry, and the US government eventually responded by outlawing the “watchmen.”

However, in Watchmen’s alternate present, all police officers appear to wear masks, hiding their faces under yellow cowls. It could be that in the absence of masked crimefighters, American police have adopted the very tactic that gave them such ability to act with impunity. Which, of course, just brings us right back around to the question Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Why are the masks yellow? This could somehow be a reference to the Comedian’s smiley face button, one of the most iconic images in Watchmen, but since it was never particularly significant within the story of the comic itself, there could very well be another explanation.

Hey, it’s the Washington Monument! It’s got a walkway around it. Do we know why? Nope. But, if we’re galaxy-braining, it’ll make the Monument look like the symbol on Dr. Manhattan’s forehead from a bird’s-eye view.

The casting breakdown of Regina King’s character, Angela Abraham, reads: “Fiercely intelligent, unapologetically independent. Her style is inspired by Pam Grier and Angela Davis, and her wry humor and wit stand out. Hard to pin down as she wears many masks, Mother [sic], wife and cop. She grew up religious but has abandoned spirituality for pragmatism. She’s somewhat guarded, and fiercely protective of those she loves.”

The big question is just how those protective instincts manifest, as her outfit would seem to indicate that she herself is a superhero — she wears black face paint, as well as a mask and a black hood — but her costume includes her police badge, as well. It’s a mix of symbols that brings further complications to the way the entire police force seems to be leaning into superhero imagery.

The way that Angela is framed while looking at her costume also suggests a certain amount of subterfuge — vigilante or superhero work seems to be a necessity, but not Angela’s first choice as to how to get justice.

Though his mask obscures his features, it’s probably safe to guess that the man in the silver mask is Looking Glass, played by Tim Blake Nelson. His character description reads as such: “A good looking cop, the native Oklahoman isn’t simple as his rural accent makes him appear to be. A top interrogator and behavioral scientist, he may also be a bit of a sociopath.”

The part was actually expanded for Nelson; Lindelof beefed up the role after Nelson was initially approached, so we’re likely to be seeing more of him as the series goes on — possibly even a character-focused episode. “Damon writes in a peculiar way, in which, even though you’re a part of the main cast, he will do a deep dive with your character in one episode,” Nelson has said, also revealing that one of the episodes may not feature any of the main cast at all. “In the episode we shot before we took the break, I worked every day and was pretty much in every scene. In this next episode, I don’t appear at all, nor do any of the main cast members, except for one and she’s just in there barely. I can’t give any details.”

For any other Buster Scruggs devotees (me), one last detail: Though Looking Glass’ mask is sleek, the character will be sporting a beard for at least part of the show.

The notes as to Looking Glass’ interrogation skills are on full display in the trailer as well, as he’s seen talking to a man (reflected in his mask) while projecting images of soldiers, cowboys, mushroom clouds, and the moon landing behind him.

The big reveal at the end of the original Watchmen is that former superhero Ozymandias is in fact the villain of the story. In order to keep humanity from destroying itself through nuclear war, he fakes an alien invasion upon New York that wipes out half of the city’s population, and unleashes a wave of psychic energy that shattered the minds of thousands of people and gave millions more a lifetime of nightmares.

This shot of an amusement park filled with corpses seems like it might be a flashback to that moment. If, instead, it’s set during the events of the show, we may be in store for much more chaos than expected.

One of the biggest ties between the comic and the upcoming TV series is the presence of Ozymandias, or Adrian Veidt. The passage of time between the two is clearest in how much he’s aged — he’s still a relatively young man in the comic, but is portrayed by the 70-year-old Jeremy Irons in the TV show.

A genius, and one of only two superheroes ever to reveal their alter egos (the other being the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason), Veidt seems to have become something of a recluse since summoning a giant alien to fake an act of terrorism. In the trailer, he’s seen hiding out in a giant castle in the countryside and meditating on tables.

That said, he’s still not entirely out of the game. Ozymandias still seems to have some mischief up his sleeve, as per this shot of him setting off what appears to be an explosion.

Veidt believed that a credible and terrifying outside threat would cause humanity to band together in peace to combat it, and Watchmen’s original epilogue shows every sign that his plan worked — except for the comic’s very last scene, which shows Rorschach’s journal being uncovered by the staff of a far-right newspaper.

Watchmen’s finale asks the reader to ponder whether world peace is worth a mass murder, psychic terrorism, and a massive lie. The discovery of Rorschach’s journal adds a jolt of uncertainty about the future of the setting — and asks whether it would be a tragedy or a triumph for all that death, trauma, and falsehood to have been for nothing.

That a movement seems to have grown up around Rorschach in HBO’s Watchmen may indicate that the contents of his journal were spread around — in which case Adrian Veidt might have a lot of explaining to do.

The trailer also includes some choice shots of Don Johnson as Chief Judd Crawford, whose breakdown describes him as possessing “a certain amount of vulnerability and rage” beneath an “easy-going exterior.”

That pretty much hits the nail on the head as far as Johnson’s appeal goes, as best showcased by the trailer’s final moments, in which he jokes about the end of the world and echoes the “tick-tock” heard through most of the footage with a knowing wink. Is he in on what’s going on with the Rorschach militia? Is it possible Crawford’s a bad guy?

The flag that Ozymandias rides by on horseback seems to be a shout-out to Tales of the Black Freighter, Watchmen’s comic-within-a-comic. In the world of Watchmen, superhero comics never really caught on, and the American comics industry was instead dominated by pirate adventure stories. Moore and Gibbons created a particularly gruesome and ghastly one — in the style of EC Comics, home of Tales from the Crypt — to be pictured in scenes of Watchmen.

If HBO’s series really wants to get that Watchmen tribute right, it’ll have a TV show within a TV show that can be viewed as a metaphor for more than one of the series’ character arcs.

It’s not yet clear exactly who Hong Chau is supposed to be, but her all-white garb and bowl cut give off a faintly otherworldly vibe, particularly when posed next to a resolutely normal-looking family.

Those round windows up there are pretty reminiscent of Nite Owl’s Owlship from Watchmen, but ... it’s pretty obscured and when the lights come out the other side of the trees, they’re just a bus. So who knows!

Though it’s hard to tell due to the mask, this may be our first look at Pirate Jenny (Adelaide Clemens). The clues as to the identity of this masked figure (who, incidentally, is named after the song that inspired Tales of the Black Freighter) lie in her character breakdown: “An androgynous and lustful bisexual cop, Jenny is an anarchist at heart.”

Her outfit here isn’t particularly androgynous, but she’s wielding a gun that fits with the police’s color scheme, in an outfit that could easily be described as anarchic.