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‘Watchmen’ Boss Damon Lindelof on Building an Alternate America

In the fourth season of PBS’ “Finding Your Roots,” musician Questlove learns his ancestors came over to America on the very last slave ship in 1860. Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., who hosts the show shows him the ship manifest and tells him about the settlement in which they lived, and the musician begins to cry, telling the host the he finally feels like he knows who he is. This idea of inherited pain and trauma from generations prior was an idea that sat with writer and producer Damon Lindelof and ended up informing his new HBO adaptation of “Watchmen” just as much as the original 1980s graphic novel of the same name did.

“As a white person, I can’t relate to the experience of being forced to come over to this country against my will,” Lindelof tells Variety, “but when you hear those stories, you have a sense of self.”

Lindelof is part Ashkenazi Jewish, on his mother’s side, with his own ancestors emigrating from Eastern Europe. Millions died during that journey, but he notes the ones who didn’t “resulted in me.” With “Watchmen,” he wanted to merge the idea of someone needing to learn about their origins with the superhero genre — a genre he notes is already full of traumatic backstories.

“The questions we wanted to explore were, why aren’t there any conversations about race happening in the superhero genre outside of ‘Black Panther’? Why does Don Cheadle have to cover every single part of his skin, and so does Black Panther, when all the white superheroes, we get to see their faces?” says Lindelof. “And most importantly, in an entire century of superhero storytelling, what happened to the Black superheroes? Did any of them make a go of it and because of racism they were pushed to the side? Because that is what would have happened in real life.”

Enter Angela Abar (Regina King).

Angela is a wife, mother and cop-turned-bakery owner by day who moonlights as the masked Sister Night to help bring down the Calvary, a recently-resurfaced white suprematist organization.

“Traditionally, superheroes don’t have families; they don’t get married and they don’t have kids because what a drag. Captain America can’t go be Captain America if he has kids he has to worry about,” Lindelof says. “So that was another interesting idea if you’re doing a quote-unquote real-world treatment of costumed adventuring. We fall in love with people, we get married, we have children. In Angela’s circumstance, she didn’t choose to have these kids, but now she’s got them. So this idea of a human identity having a code switch and being torn between, and liberated, by the mask — you get to be different people — that’s an appeal for all of us.”

Angela’s arc will be more than just keeping her family safe and dealing with pushback from the fact that she and her Black husband (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) have white children in a racially-charged world. She will also be on a journey to discover some of her own family history, which has roots in the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.

“The show is very heavily interested in the same thing the original ‘Watchmen’ was, which is trauma and the idea that we’re working out pain — usually early childhood pain — by virtue of this thing we’re calling crime-fighting, but which is really just an excuse to work out our s—,” Lindelof says.

Decades after the real-life 1921 Tulsa massacre, in which a mob of white residents viciously attacked Black residents of the city’s Greenwood district, Johnnie Cochran was a part of a legal team that represented descendants and victims. They won their first case, but they were not able to take it all the way up to the Supreme Court. In creating an alternate version of America for “Watchmen,” Lindelof wanted to explore what would happen if the Supreme Court did hear the case — and then ruled in their favor.

“I can read all of the Ta-Nehisi Coates in the world, but I don’t know what it’s like to move through the world as a person of color, and so I rely on the opinions of people of color to make this story as authentic as possible,” Lindelof says of breaking such a story in his writers’ room. “We had to accept that it would be triggering in some instances, but we wanted to explore it nonetheless. The point was not to provoke, but we have to acknowledge that we are dealing with provocative material.”

Certain elements of the world of “Watchmen” the series, Lindelof admits, were “inherited” from the world previously set up in the graphic novel. This includes the idea that presidential term limits were abolished. In the graphic novel, Richard Nixon was serving his fourth term as the American president. Set years later, America’s president in Lindelof’s “Watchmen” is the actor Robert Redford, who has been in the Oval Office for almost three decades.

“All the best science fiction storytelling is a parable of the world that we’re living in now: You want it to feel timely,” Lindelof says. Although the show strives to handle complicated racial and political issues with “delicacy and sensitivity,” he explains, “part of that is not shying away from these issues [but rather] leaning into them.”

In Lindelof’s “Watchmen,” Redford was elected in 1992 and is responsible for reparations (colloquially referred to as “Redfordations” in the show) for those descents of victims of the Tulsa massacre. Additionally, Vietnam is a state, squid storms are annoying — but not disastrous — acts of weather, superheroes and vigilantes are outlaws, the police force is allowed to wear masks but not unlock their weapons without special permissions, and cell phones and Wifi do not exist.

In order to build the rules of the world and the show’s bible, Lindelof shares that a dozen of his staff members spent “about 10 weeks” working out the chain reaction of the alternate history that would have occurred between the state of politics in 1986 in the original graphic novel and today. “This was to the point where we had to build an entirely fictitious Supreme Court,” he reveals. “If Redford is elected in ’92, then what was Nixon’s Supreme Court, and what’s Redford’s, and if we’re eventually solving for this thing called the Victims of Racial Violence Act that passes some form of reparations, how did that get passed?”

Lindelof acknowledges that the alternate America in the “Watchmen” graphic novel was already dense, preferring to compare it to a freeway at rush hour: It technically has many on-ramps, but which is the one to use? He purposely filled his writers’ room with a few people who only had a “cursory knowledge” of the source material to use as a barometer for what pieces of the story may not make sense without context of the original story. This was because Lindelof wanted to imagine two people watching the show: “one of whom had an encyclopedic knowledge of the preexisting ‘Watchmen’ and the other of whom knew almost nothing about it,” he explains. “And in the first hour the pilot ends and the person who knows nothing turns to the person who knows everything about ‘Watchmen’ and says, ‘Am I supposed to know what just happened?’ And the person who has an encyclopedic knowledge goes, ‘I don’t know.’ But now they’re at least in it together.”

The character of Angela was also created as an original character for a similar reason: She is the audience’s proxy. “This is her story, so if she doesn’t care about [something that happened in the graphic novel], we’re not supposed to,” Lindelof says. Similarly, “if she’s riding in a car in the fourth episode with Jean Smart’s character, who’s a legacy character, she’s asking the questions that we want the audience to be asking.”

A fan of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ version of the story, Lindelof says when he first read the 12 issues of “Watchmen,” he felt like he had been “dropped on my head into the middle of this world and there were all sorts of things that I felt like I was supposed to know but didn’t know.” That kind of storytelling, he acknowledges, requires patience, but he prefers to let it wash over the audience than to spoon-feed or hit them over the head by over-explaining something.

Still, for those viewers who feel they do need or want more understanding of the world around Angela’s character, Lindelof has an answer: “We’re actually going to be putting out materials post-episode that are in-world materials — interviews and documents and transcripts that show our work,” he shares. “There’s this character named Agent Petey, who is introduced in the third episode, and he has all of these files that he’s been keeping that we will begin to disclose to the public.” Additionally, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who are responsible for the score of the show, have put together something musical to offer the audience a deeper dive into the technology of the world of “Watchmen.”

“We went out of our way to allow the audience to understand that this is not our America. I didn’t want people to feel like they had to do a tremendous amount of homework to understand this. But, for those people who are willing to take the red pill and go all the way in, we’re going to make it available to them,” Lindelof says.

“Watchmen” premieres Oct. 20 on HBO.

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