Understanding The World of Watchmen Through Complex Trauma

October 31, 2019

Watchmen: Episode One – “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice”
By Chris Gearing and Dr. Sylvia Gearing

Pull down your mirrored faces and fire up your Tulsa PD Owlship because it’s time to talk about psychology and Watchmen! A brief spoiler warning – we discuss every minute of episode one of the new series. We may also introduce ideas and themes that will be explored in future episodes of the series, and some of the events discussed are of a violent or upsetting nature. You’ve been warned. Now, get in the pod.

Tulsa, Oklahoma has not been a safe place for a long time. The scars of violence both old and new can be traced back at least 100 years to the opening scene of the TV series depicting the Black Wall Street Massacre of 1921. Even though the action immediately jumps to present day, the massacre leaves an indelible mark, and the racial tensions in Tulsa are obviously still present and raging to this day. It seems that the city never reestablished a true sense of safety after the Black Wall Street Massacre or even after the subsequent extreme events of the next 100 years as depicted in the comic series. The successive traumas in this version of America and Tulsa seem to further dysregulate its citizens and change the face of America. On a countrywide and local level, every single person is experiencing trauma and dysregulation in some form whether it’s from the constant threat of nuclear war in the original comic series, the ongoing squid rain and “Dimensional Incursion Events” in the new series, regular threats and attacks from the Seventh Kavalry terrorist organization in Tulsa, and more. Even one of these events is enough to traumatize someone, let alone all of them within about a century in one small town in Oklahoma. However, all of Watchmen’s main characters in Tulsa (at least in the opening episode) display significant symptoms of complex trauma in their beliefs and actions in the show.

For the police force of Tulsa, everything changed on the White Night. It’s the inciting incident that lead the entire Tulsa PD to wear masks in public, hide their identities, and reinvigorate a new wave of masked heroes functioning as pseudo-detectives for the police force. Even the administrative office worker “Panda” wears an oversized panda mask that could be from an old high school mascot costume. Everyone and everything is hidden behind a mask.

Angela Abar (Regina King) changes her whole life after she is shot during the attack – “retiring” from the police force to “open a bakery,” but it’s only a cover for her to adopt her new identity as masked hero Sister Knight in the newly reformed Tulsa PD. When in her masked form, she is quick to anger, prone to extreme violence, and has absolutely zero remorse for her actions. Her boss and close friend, Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), regularly displays reckless behavior by being the only police man who does not protect his identity, uses recreational drugs, and displays his cavalier cowboy attitude when he endangers himself and Pirate Jenny with a foolish maneuver to shoot down the plane full of bad guys. Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), another masked hero / detective, talks like a robot and shows zero emotion the entire episode, but he uses his uncanny ability to read and interrogate criminals to discover new and useful information.

Every character is showing signs of severe trauma from their experiences both in recent and olden times. They exhibit an inability to self-regulate and their behavior manifests as dissociation or emotional numbness, self-destructive and reckless behaviors, acting extremely guarded or hypervigilant, overly aggressive and angry with others, pervasiveness hopelessness and negative thinking, avoidance of sources of stress, difficulty maintaining intimate relationships, detachment from family and friends, and more.

When an individual experiences severe or complex trauma, they go through a process of redefining themselves from the ground up. Trauma violates many of the things that make us who we are – our sense of safety, our trust in others and our environment, our belief that life is predictable, how we direct our energy every day, etc. Severe trauma causes us to rethink our safety in the world (how do I protect myself?), to redirect and redistribute our energy everyday (how can I prevent danger?), and to develop new strategies (how do I survive if I’m in danger again?). All of our attention and energy goes to surviving the traumatizing event or preparing for the next one. The common symptoms of PTSD (e.g., hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts, dissociation, emotional numbness, etc.) are the internal and external signs of the brain redirecting its energy to new tasks that focus on predictability and safety. We become less attentive to our internal thoughts and beliefs over time as our brain shifts exclusively to survival mode. We may even become less sensitive to our bodies and physical sensations as well, particularly in cases of physical or sexual abuse or regular bodily harm.

For those on the front lines who experience violence daily, numbed physical sensations can be useful to make them better warriors or less fearful of bodily injury. For instance, Angela / Sister Knight charges into battle at the cattle farm even in the face of machine gun fire, and she fist fights one of the Seventh Kavalry members once she loses her gun in the ensuing scuffle. However, a couple Kavalry members abscond in a plane hidden behind the stash house. Just like the ending of “Oklahoma!,” the white hat cowboy stops the bad guy as Judd shoots the terrorists’ plane out of the sky with a risky move. His ship crashes to the Earth below, flipping end over end, and the dust settles and smoke rises as the fight is over. Happily none of the good guys are injured, and everyone heads home to celebrate the victory.

But this is Watchmen.

If you know anything about the series, you know that nothing is as it seems and there are no pure “good guys / bad guys.” This was all too easy. In fact, something seems off with Judd as he takes a quick bump of cocaine during dinner with Angela’s family and kids. Looks like the Chief of Police has a drug problem which he cannot help but indulge in around children. However, he soon recovers by belting out a charming rendition of “People Will Say We’re In Love” giving each dinner guest individual attention. The writers have even hidden Judd’s duality in a small detail of the scene – it’s revealed that he played Curly in a high school production of “Oklahoma!” (the purely good protagonist of the play), but he shares a first name with Jud Fry (the dangerous and violent antagonist of “Oklahoma!”). It seems like Judd is far more complex than his white hat cowboy outfit might have you believe at first. We soon see him lie to his wife about where he is going before once again changing into his Police Chief uniform (more on uniforms and outfits later) and leaving his house alone, no escort or guards.

We next see Judd hanging from a tree in the middle of a field hanged to death, and at his feet is the old man we’ve seen glimpses of earlier in the episode. He says his name is Will (Louis Gossett Jr.), and he strung up the Chief of Police. He clutches a piece of paper confirming that he is the boy from the opening Black Wall Street Massacre scene. Will has grown into an old man who is connected to the murder of Tulsa’s Chief of Police, Judd Crawford. In a darker recreation of the opening fake film “Trust In The Law!” in the 1921 movie house, the (possibly) corrupt white sheriff / police chief has been caught and strung up by a black outsider with some connection to a higher authority. Will has his own history of tragedy and trauma as we saw in the opening scene, and it will likely help explain why he hurt friendly ole’ Judd (from what we know so far).

Viewing the first episode of Watchmen through the lens of trauma helps us understand many of the actions of our band of masked heroes. If this is any indication, trauma will likely be a central focus for the entire series and help explain many of the themes and ideas already introduced in the first episode – shifting identities, cycles of violence, how history repeats itself, emotional decision making, shifting moral priorities, and much more. As the series reminds us, history and trauma will centrally influence the events of the show because “nothing ever really ends.”

Please make sure to check back each week as we continue to explore the themes and events of HBO’s Watchmen.

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