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Damon Lindelof’s ‘Watchmen’ Journey Is Over, but the Show’s Legacy Is Very Much Alive

Photographs by Dan Doperalski

Damon Lindelof admits he’s a little wary when celebrities use fashion to promote a cause. But when the Television Academy told nominees that there was no dress code for this year’s Emmy Awards, he knew he had to do something.

That’s why, as “Watchmen” won the Emmy on Sunday night for limited series (as well as a writing nod and acting awards for stars Regina King and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), Lindelof’s T-shirt proclaimed, “Remember Tulsa ’21.”

The HBO show opens with a depiction of the 1921 Tulsa massacre — the real-life tragedy in which the city’s vibrant Greenwood District (also known as “Black Wall Street”) was destroyed. He and his writers used that event to examine the history of systemic racism in America, and the resulting trauma that’s been passed down from generation to generation.

Damon Lindelof Variety Emmys Cover

Lindelof printed up the shirt and others — he passed them out at his COVID-compliant Emmy party — because he had asked writer Cord Jefferson to give the acceptance speech if the two of them won the Emmy for outstanding writing for a limited series or movie. That way, in case “Watchmen” didn’t win the limited series Emmy, Lindelof would still get his message out.

“This part of our history was erased, and it’s not [like] now everybody knows about it,” says Lindelof, who warns that cultural forces could very well bury it again. “You can feel the writing in the sand and the tide coming in.”

That became even more evident recently when President Trump revealed plans for a “1776 Commission” to float what he deems “patriotic education,” which is clearly a reaction to The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project” and its effort to re-incorporate African Americans into the narrative of U.S. history.

“I’m telling you right now, the very idea of reparations or HR 40 [the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act] or all those things have a target on their back if the 1776 Commission exists,” Lindelof says. “It’s literally erasure, so the opposite of an erasure is write it in ink. And so I’m not done talking about Tulsa ’21. It was never my story to tell … but I basically thought, if there’s a way that we can use our platform during the Emmys to talk about Tulsa again, I’m going to take that opportunity.”

The passion that Lindelof applied to his version of “Watchmen” is fitting, given his affection for the original graphic novel, which he once called “the greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced.” Created in the mid-1980s by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, “Watchmen” was a late-Cold War story meant to dissect the idea of the superhero and vigilantism. Lindelof’s take is a sequel of sorts, revisiting those characters with an entirely new tale. He was inspired by the idea of Greenwood as a version of Krypton (Superman’s home planet, destroyed after he is born), while Jefferson suggested that it made sense that the vigilante at the heart of the show — “Hooded Justice” — be African American. Louis Gossett Jr. and Jovan Adepo were both Emmy-nominated for playing the character, aka Will Reeves, at different ages.

Jefferson and Lindelof won the limited series writing Emmy on Sunday for the episode that showcased the character of Hooded Justice, “This Extraordinary Being.” Says Lindelof: “It was the boldest piece of retcon as it related to the original ‘Watchmen.’ This was the moment where the show revealed itself: ‘We’re going to do something that we know was outside the original author’s intention, and it’s all about racial injustice in particular, but we’re also trying to make a case for vigilantism.’”

Damon Lindelof Watchmen-Emmy Win Variety Cover Story

“Watchmen” ended its limited series run on HBO in December — but its impact has extended far beyond, and felt all the more germane in a year where a long-overdue national reckoning has been underway.

“I think people of color have been wanting to have this conversation and been shouting from the rooftops to have this conversation for decades, if not centuries,” Lindelof says. “I just keep returning back to something that Yahya said. We were getting asked, ‘How do you feel about how prescient the show was?’ And Yahya was like, ‘I think the show maybe came along about 40 years too late.’”

Given the subject matter he wanted to tackle, Lindelof set out to build a more inclusive writers’ room, while knowing that as a middle-aged white man he would make some mistakes along the way. “As someone who’s been talking about these issues now at least in the context of ‘Watchmen,’ in that room for two years, I said the wrong thing constantly. And thank God I was in a space where the other writers could say, ‘You just said the wrong thing.’”

Having led “Lost” (with Carlton Cuse) and then “The Leftovers,” Lindelof admits he had to adjust the way he operated as a showrunner on “Watchmen.”

“I think that there are these words, like ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion,’ that again, have the best intentionality behind them, but at the end of the day, if the writers’ room was just me and seven writers of color, but I don’t listen to them, that’s not inclusion,” he says.

“Oftentimes I was just programmed to say, ‘I’m the showrunner and this is my room, and I’m going to either say thumbs-up or thumbs-down.’ But the ‘Watchmen’ room didn’t work that way. As I was beginning to lose control and power, I was like, ‘I don’t like this feeling.’ And so the first six to 10 weeks of ‘Watchmen’ were rough on all of us. And then we started trusting one another, everybody. And instead of saying that I was going to listen, I actually started listening.”

Says Ryan Lipscomb, a member of that team: “Being able to watch Damon create TV, the way he would sit and lead the room, pretty much operating like a point guard, making sure every writer was involved and every writer had a stake in weaving the tapestry, was incredible to watch.”

The bond among the “Watchmen” writers that formed out of that experience remains. Lindelof and his team continue to communicate every day via a text chain. There was the hurt in January, when the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards mostly ignored the show, to the surprise of many. There was the celebration when “Watchmen” scored 26 Emmy nominations this year, the most of any program.

And when the main ceremony approached, there was no doubt that they would gather as a team — for the first time in person since the Writers Guild awards in February. The idea for a party came after Lindelof decided he didn’t want to receive any awards for “Watchmen” alone.

“I was like, there’s no situation that feels right to me where I’m accepting a limited series Emmy by myself, even in the midst of a pandemic,” he says. “It’s so non-reflective of the way that the show was made.”

The nominated stars, including King, Abdul-Mateen, Gossett Jr., Adepo, Jeremy Irons and Jean Smart, were scattered around the globe, however. Then it was suggested that Lindelof and Jefferson do it together because of their writing nomination. But all the writers were in L.A., and it made sense to finally get them back in the same room — after the proper protocols and safety measures were addressed, of course.

Emmys Emmy Statue Placeholder

“I reached out to them and said, ‘If we all tested and bubbled and self-quarantined before the Emmys, would you guys want to come over? We’d be outside the entire time,’” Lindelof recalls. “And they all said yes.”

Lindelof’s wife, Heidi, ordered a red carpet to roll outside the house, and as Emmy night approached … the nerves increased. “I didn’t really sleep on Saturday and Sunday,” Lindelof says. “I was anxious and doing that dance between this shouldn’t matter at all, it does matter, how am I supposed to feel about this? And then, are we doing the right thing? Is this too many people? Is this unsafe? All that stuff.”

When 3 p.m. rolled around, an engineer dispatched by the Emmy production team came by to set up Lindelof’s camera. The ceremony began, and by the time King won the lead actress in a limited series Emmy, Lindelof says he felt a wave of calm.

“I haven’t been in this position,” he says. “Even when ‘Lost’ won 15 years ago, it was not the favorite. And so the idea of having gone through the past month where people are saying, ‘I think you’re going to win,’ it both feels really good because they’re expressing confidence in you and it’s terrifying because now there’s just an expectation.”

Lindelof cheers the limited series Emmy for “Watchmen” as a win for everyone who worked on the show, but the writing honor he shares with Jefferson is extra sweet. He had been nominated five times, without a victory, for writing on “Lost.” “The writing Emmy was the Holy Grail,” he says.

When he won the drama series Emmy for “Lost” in 2005, 22-episode seasons were still the norm (a standard that the show ultimately helped break), and Lindelof recalls not having even a moment to savor it.

“There was no time to reflect back on Season 1,” he says. “By the time the Emmys happened, we had already done like seven or eight episodes of Season 2, and that was a runaway train. I didn’t know how to stop it. And so I think that I felt much more out of control. I was doing everything that I could to hold on.

“It took us two years to make nine episodes of ‘Watchmen,’ and in that same period of time we made almost 50 episodes of ‘Lost,’” Lindelof marvels. “I honestly don’t know how it was done. This isn’t even me saying, ‘Were any of those episodes any good?’ Just the fact that they exist is crazy to me.”

But the reality that Lindelof and his team had two years to craft “Watchmen” is also a testament to HBO, which celebrated on Sunday night with a dominant 30 Emmys, including 11 for “Watchmen.” HBO programming president Casey Bloys says he put full faith in Lindelof, even as the writer’s plans grew more audacious.

“If Damon showed interest in almost anything, I would be interested in it,” Bloys says. “I think he has a very special voice, and experience in television, and he’s always looking to do something ambitious. And in this case, a little bit scary. And so I really trust him.”

Taking a moment the day after his win, Lindelof allows it to sink in, the fact that he pulled off a reinvention of the graphic novel he loves so much: “‘Watchmen,’ the burden, the challenge, the ‘how dare you,’ the defiance of doing it, to know that I’m going to have an Emmy with the word ‘Watchmen’ written on it, it does feel like, ‘OK, this show now gets to be part of the legacy of this [comic] that means everything to me.’ That part I never could have had with ‘Lost.’”

It’s been 10 years since “Lost” went off the air, and Lindelof is still immensely proud of the show and its lasting impact on pop culture — including new audiences discovering it via streaming. But he also regrets openly sharing his disappointment that some fans famously didn’t like the series’ ending, as he feels he ultimately added to the negative stigma attached to it.

“I didn’t invent the narrative that the finale was empirically bad, but I amplified it,” he says. “The fact that people feel the need to say to me, ‘Hey, I actually kind of liked the way that it ended.’ Or the expectation some people have that ‘I have to know going in that the ending is going to be disappointing.’ The fact that I told people what to think about ‘Lost’ is a big regret that I have.”

Lindelof conquered some of those demons with his follow-up series, HBO’s “The Leftovers,” which ended its three-season run to near universal critical acclaim.

“I don’t think we could have nailed it if ‘Lost’ hadn’t happened,” Lindelof says. “What attracted me to Tom [Perrotta’s] book was that it was so unapologetic about saying this is not about answering questions. It was so liberating that you didn’t even have to know in order to tell the story. I learned that from Tom. But I wouldn’t have been feeling that way had ‘Lost’ not ended the way that it did. The sheer energy of ‘I know you want to know, but I’m not telling.’ I didn’t even know you could do that.”

The other lesson Lindelof learned from “The Leftovers,” and going into “Watchmen,” is that it’s OK to work with the same talent again — in this case, King, who appreciates the return engagement.

“I believe because of our experience together on ‘The Leftovers,’ he trusted I would approach Angela Abar with the same care he and the writing team took while crafting ‘Watchmen,’” King says. “The trust was mutual. When reciprocity is at the core of a partnership, the respect and friendship can last a lifetime. Damon is that partner.”

Lindelof admits that saying after “Lost” he didn’t want to work with the same talent more than once was “stupid.” “Now I’m going to break it all the time,” he says, “because I’d get to work with Carrie Coon again, or Justin Theroux, or Ann Dowd, or Matthew Fox. Regina really proved me wrong on that one.”

He just won’t be working with any of them on another “Watchmen.” Lindelof is holding strong to his desire to be one and done with the franchise, and is turning his attention to other things, such as guiding a new generation of voices.

“This was the story that I wanted to tell, but it could be much more expansive than this,” he says. “Not that I see myself as Willy Wonka, but it’s time to bring some other kids into the factory. I couldn’t imagine a greater focus for me than to throw open the doors to the factory and say, ‘I will show you around and tell you what I learned here, but you’ve got to bring the ingredients that you want to mix up here and make your own candy.’”