How ‘Watchmen’ Pulled Off One of the Best TV Seasons of the Decade

The first time Damon Lindelof realized that “Watchmen” — his adaptation/remix/continuation of the groundbreaking 1986 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons — might actually be a hit was after the pilot debuted at New York Comic Con in October. In the following panel, the 46-year-old writer-producer could tell the audience was connecting with his radical approach: Setting the show in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2019 as if the events in the graphic novel chronicling the lives of several costumed vigilantes really happened in 1985, and updating its themes from the Cold War and nuclear annihilation to focus explicitly on race and white supremacy.

The relief Lindelof felt, however, was short lived.

“I was intensely afraid that they would watch the second episode and start hating it,” he tells Variety.

That has not happened. “Watchmen” is a true word-of-mouth sensation, drawing an average of 7.1 million viewers per episode across all linear and streaming platforms, and wide critical acclaim that has boosted the profiles of many of the filmmakers who’ve worked on it. “Calls are coming that I have not had in a long time,” says Nicole Kassell, who directed three episodes of the show, including its pilot. “It’s a breath of fresh air.”

“Watchmen” has even landed on several Top 10 lists for the year, despite the fact that the show’s finale, “See How They Fly,” won’t air until Sunday night.

Whether that’s a season or a series finale remains an oddly vexing mystery. HBO has not officially renewed the show yet, and Lindelof has been deliberately coy when discussing its future. He (mostly) remained so when talking with Variety, but he and some of his collaborators — executive producers and episode directors Kassell and Stephen Williams, and star Regina King — were more than happy to discuss the painstaking work that went into crafting one of the very best seasons of TV in this soon-to-conclude decade. (Warning: This story will contain many spoilers for all nine episodes of “Watchmen.”)

They Knew Where the Show Was Going From the Start — Just Not Quite How It’d Get There

Kassell shot the pilot for “Watchmen,” written by Lindelof, in May and June of 2018, before HBO picked up the rest of the series. But even at that point in the process, Lindelof had already assembled his writers room, and his team knew in basic but clear terms where the season would ultimately land.

“The whole series was calibrated and calculated and planned and plotted out from a very, very early stage,” says Williams.

“What I’ve learned over time is you need to know the answers to the mysteries,” says Lindelof. “If you don’t know those, you’re lost. Every time you come to an intersection, you won’t know whether to turn left or right.”

They knew from the start, for example, that Hooded Justice — a crucial figure in the graphic novel, who inspires two generations of costumed crime fighters — would turn out to be Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.), a black man, and the absent grandfather of the show’s central character, Angela Abar (King). And they knew that Angela’s husband, Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), was really the omniscient, all-powerful Dr. Manhattan. They just didn’t know quite when in the course of the show those facts would be revealed to the other characters (and the audience).

Similarly, Lindelof wanted to remain open to discovery as he watched the actors embody their roles and the story come to life on its own.

“The clarity of what the themes were, and the way that the characters were going to interrelate with one another, didn’t come until much later [after the pilot],” he says. “If you’re constantly worried about the future, you’re going to be devastated when things don’t go according to plan, because lots of things didn’t go according to plan.”

There was one element to the finale that Lindelof says he did know about from very early on — so much so that he was willing to tease it before the episode airs.

“There has to be a scene between Angela and Will, between granddaughter and grandfather,” he says. Will’s arrival in Tulsa — and his decision to force Angela’s boss, Tulsa police chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), to hang himself — is what launches the entire season. “There needs to be a scene where he explains why he came back and why he did what he did and what the purpose behind it all was, and so we knew that’s going to be in the finale, and everything was going to be in service of giving that scene maximum emotional resonance.”

Updating The Original “Watchmen” Characters Got Really Complicated

In Episode 3, “She Was Killed By Space Junk,” we learn that the original “Watchmen” character known as Laurie Juspeczyk, aka Laurie Jupiter, is now an FBI agent hired to hunt costume vigilantes. When the writers were working on the episode, Jean Smart had not yet been cast in the role. Instead, they were thinking about a different actor — or, at least, one of her definitive roles.

“I think that the only actor that we ever discussed [for Laurie], other than Jean, was Sigourney Weaver in ‘Working Girl,’ as sort of like an archetype for the character of Laurie, the way that we were envisioning her now,” says Lindelof. “But we weren’t, like, ‘Oh it’s gotta be Sigourney Weaver.’ And once the script was done we went to Jean, and thank god she said yes, and then we were off to the races.”

Smart “did a lot of homework about the source material and the character,” says Williams, who directed the episode. “The most important thing that I did was stay out of the way.”

At least Smart knew who she was playing. When Abdul-Mateen was cast as Cal in the pilot, he wasn’t told that he was really playing Dr. Manhattan. “We just really focused in on his personality,” says Kassell. “And, you know, behind the scenes, honing that character with Damon, we made sure that it would be true to the DNA of Dr. Manhattan.”

Abdul-Mateen’s ignorance makes some sense, since Cal doesn’t know he’s actually Dr. Manhattan. Cal’s wife Angela, however, does know, but King was also kept in the dark during the pilot. It wasn’t until she was shooting Episode 2 — and had read the scripts for Episodes 3 and 4 — that King began to question exactly what was going on with her character’s husband.

“I was asking all of these questions,” she says. “It didn’t make any sense, some of the things I was saying to Laurie. I just needed more clarity, and when [Damon] told me it was like, Ohhhhhhhhhh!” She laughs. “I guess the questions that I was asking Damon let him know that was very important that I needed to know that, because that could have easily been the wrong performance.”

The biggest risk with the original “Watchmen” characters, surprisingly, seems to have been the character of Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons). In the novel, Veidt looms as a supremely confident super-genius who is capable of killing millions of people in order to save humanity from nuclear armageddon. Irons’ approach to the older version of Veidt, however, proved to be much broader.

“His read on this character is borderline, you know, Python-esque,” says Lindelof. “It was a huge risk that Jeremy was taking, and we were following him there.”

The writers also chose to strand Veidt on Jupiter’s moon of Europa for the entire run of the show up to this point, which Lindelof promises will pay off in the finale. All of Irons’ scenes on Europa are set in a bucolic utopia created by Dr. Manhattan. For the pilot, Irons’ scenes were shot on a greenscreen stage, but the production found a castle in Wales for the actual location. The only snag: In order to capture the beatific, unchanging weather for the location, they had to shoot all of Irons’ scenes for the entire season in one big gulp.

“That was all written, basically like 80 pages of Veidt material, before we went into production in Episode 2 in Atlanta,” says Lindelof. “I wouldn’t say it backed us into a corner as much as committed us to a narrative path that we could not aberrate from. We did not reshoot any of Jeremy’s material. Everything that we shot is on screen, is going to air.”

Making Hooded Justice a Black Man Was the Scariest Risk of the Show

Lindelof read “Watchmen” as a young teenager when it first debuted as a series of individual issues over the course of 1986. Moore’s story also launches with the death of a major character, the Comedian, and for the first few issues, it seemed to Lindelof like a prime suspect was the mysterious Hooded Justice, who never removed his hood nor revealed his true identity to most of his costumed colleagues.

As the “Watchmen” novel unfolded, however, Hooded Justice turned out to be a red herring in the Comedian’s death, and the character faded into the background. “But I never forgot about him,” Lindelof says. “I think about that character all the time. There’s nothing more engaging than an unanswered mystery.”

So when Lindelof finally agreed to consider HBO’s multiple entreaties to consider making a “Watchmen” TV series — an act he knew to be of enormous hubris, especially given Moore’s steadfast displeasure at any attempt to adapt his work — he thought, why not lean into that?

“What would be the most offensive thing to do, like what’s the greatest act of hubris?” Lindelof says. “I will answer the mystery that was unanswered, which is who is Hooded Justice? Why would he never show his face? What was he hiding?”

At the same time, Lindelof was deep into reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing about race in America, including the real life massacre in 1921 of the African-American neighborhood in Tulsa known as Black Wall Street — which, to Lindelof, evoked the destruction of Krypton that orphans Superman and sends him into superheroism.

The two ideas collided, and suddenly Lindelof realized, what if Hooded Justice never showed his face because he was a black man in America?

“It scared me at first,” he says. “But I couldn’t shake it.”

For fans of the comics, Lindelof’s idea about Hooded Justice’s true identity is a lighting strike of a revelation.

“I certainly did not anticipate nor expect that when I started on the show,” says Williams, who directed the episode that revealed Hooded Justice’s identity, “This Extraordinary Being.” “I remember sitting in [Damon’s] office, and he told me the entire story of the origin of Hooded Justice, and that he was in fact a black man. And I experienced the wonder and thrill of that epiphany. It just seemed like tumblers falling into place.”

Indeed, Hooded Justice’s origin story on HBO’s “Watchmen” feels so obvious in retrospect — his costume includes a conspicuous noose hanging around his neck, for crying out loud — that it can feel a bit like Lindelof crawled inside Moore’s brain. Except to Lindelof.

“I know for a fact if you were to ask Alan Moore if he intended for Hooded Justice to be a black man, he would say, ‘No, that was not my intention,’” Lindelof says. “But maybe it was, subconsciously. I don’t know.”

Making “This Extraordinary Being” Required Some Extraordinary Filmmaking

Hooded Justice’s identity was ultimately revealed in Episode 6, written by Cord Jefferson and Lindelof, after Angela takes an entire bottle of Nostalgia pills containing all of her grandfather’s memories at the end of Episode 5. To best capture the subjective nature of living another person’s memories, Williams decided he needed to shoot just about every scene in one take, with Angela at times replacing her grandfather (played by “The Leftovers” castmate Jovan Adepo) within certain scenes.

To pull off that kind of bravura filmmaking on a TV show’s production schedule, however, Williams took advantage of a production hiatus after Episode 5, and shot the entire episode with stand-in actors on the locations used in the episode, and then edited it all together. “So that by the time we actually went into production with our cast, we had a solid visual template that we were using as the basis for actually executing the episode for real,” he says.

While Williams says he didn’t really seek out Lindelof or HBO’s blessing to pre-shoot the episode, Lindelof says he was aware of Williams’ decision to do it, and why it was necessary.

“It required a certain degree in evangelism on Stephen’s part, convincing the 250 people around him that this was not only possible but with something worthy of getting excited about,” he says.

One person who didn’t take any convincing: King. “My understanding of the process as a director, it allowed Stephen to be able to communicate what his plan was very easily,” she says. “It was not a long meeting. I was like, ‘Oh, okay. So you’re gonna need me all day.’ And he was immediately like, ‘Oh, thank God. You know. You get it.’”

“His confidence left no room for doubt,” Lindelof says of Williams’ approach. “And I’m not gonna lie to you: I had a lot of doubt about that episode.”

It wasn’t just that the episode asked for a great deal of complicated filmmaking, either. “If ever there was an episode of television that I’ve been involved in where if anything went wrong it could have been not just a bad episode TV, but culturally harmful, it was that one,” he says.

When asked about Lindelof’s worries about the racial themes of the episode — and the show at large — King says she didn’t share them.

“It’s different for me because, one, I’m a black woman, and two, everything that I approach, I approach it like it has to be rooted in truth for me to be able to feel like I can perform it,” she says. “The big concerns that Damon had, I never really had that, because what needed to be done was happening in the script, and the places where it needed to be tweaked, I can tweak those things from my own experience.”

King also credits Lindelof’s determination to employ people of color as writers and directors — both Williams and Jefferson are black — that would, she says, “challenge him and make sure that his feet were held to the fire.”

“The story was told, although this is a fictional world, with authenticity, and that the voices that are in the characters, the voices that are in this space, are coming from people who actually know this experience,” she says. “He was very responsible that way.”

Lindelof’s anxieties about “This Extraordinary Being” were ultimately assuaged once he visited production in Atlanta. “I’m almost never able to feel any real joy, and it’s certainly very difficult for me to feel confidence in my work. That’s the way that I’m wired,” he says. “But for those two days, watching Stephen direct that episode, I was like, I don’t know if it’s going to be an amazing episode of TV yet, but what I’m watching happen here is a miracle.”

No, HBO’s “Watchmen” TV Show Is Not Throwing Shade At Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” Movie

The “Watchmen” graphic novel contains a comic-within-the-comic called “Tales of the Black Freighter” that serves as an aesthetic and thematic counterpoint to the main story. Similarly, HBO’s “Watchmen” has a show-within-the-show called “American Hero Story” that purports to tell the story of Hooded Justice, as played by Cheyenne Jackson — who is, to be clear, not black, underlining “Watchmen’s” themes of racial appropriation and historical erasure.

Some people have also pointed out that the use of hyper-stylized violence in “American Hero Story” — including slow motion cinematography and aggressive sound effects — throws some shade at the particular filmmaking style director Zack Snyder employed in his 2009 movie adaptation of “Watchmen.”

Not true, says Lindelof.

“I will always take responsibility for when I’m winking or insulting or trolling,” he says. “There was no intentionality on my part to make fun of or take a shot at or troll Zack Snyder’s ‘Watchmen’ movie. I have a tremendous amount of affection for for Zack’s movie and for Zack himself. And I feel like if anything, the challenge of doing ‘Watchmen’ as a straight-up adaptation in the body of a three-hour movie is near impossible, and he did about as good of a job as anyone can.”

Kassell was similarly horrified to learn that anyone thought she was actively satirizing Snyder’s “Watchmen.” For one, she deliberately chose not to watch it. “I fully admire him as a filmmaker so to hear that it could even be used as a negative comment feels terrible,” she says.

For her, the aesthetic approach to “American Hero Story” was all about differentiating that show from the “Watchmen” show, much like “Tales of the Black Freighter” is drawn in a totally different style from the “Watchmen” graphic novel.

“What I was wanting to do with those [‘American Hero Story’ scenes] is like, This is the version we could make, and we are very concretely not making that version. We’re grounding our story in a much more real kind of naturalism,” she says.

Lindelof also points out that while the “American Hero Story” title does deliberately evoke Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” anthology series, he’s also not intending to knock that show, either.

“It was all in good fun,” he says.

Good Luck Getting Anyone To Reveal If The Show Will Return

With the finale looming, the question of whether this season of “Watchmen” is one-and-done, or the first chapter of a larger story, has yet to be resolved. And asking the people who worked on it if they want it to return brings no more clarity.

“[It’s] a question so above my pay grade that I would not even know how to begin to venture an answer,” says Williams.

“I’m still kind of recuperating from production,” says Kassell. “I just think it’s gonna take time to say what Season 2 would be.”

“Absolutely!” says King.

Lindelof has been definitive that just as the “Watchmen” novel tells a contained story, so should this season. “Most comic book stories just go on and on and on and on,” he says. “‘Watchmen’ didn’t, and that’s what made it special. And so we designed this story to end.”

But listening to Lindelof talk further about the finale doesn’t exactly inspire visions of finality. “I certainly don’t feel like the season ends on a cliffhanger,” he says. “Although, I guess it’s possible that others might perceive it as such. I would be really interested in debating them.”

What Damon is more clear on is that he still does not personally see himself making more “Watchmen” after this season.

“I am deeply, profoundly appreciative for how well received the season has been up until now, and I don’t want to feel like I’m ungrateful, but I still don’t have any inclination whatsoever to continue the story,” he says. “And that is largely and almost exclusively based on the fact that I don’t have an idea. If I’m going to be involved in any more ‘Watchmen,’ I should be able to answer the questions, why, and why now, and the answers to those questions shouldn’t be, ‘Well because that’s what you do, because the first one was good.’”

He chuckles. “I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a second season of ‘Watchmen,’ and I’m not even saying that that season shouldn’t feature some of the characters in this season of ‘Watchmen.’ I just don’t know what it should be.”

It appears we’ll all just have to wait. Tick tock, tick tock.

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