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HBO’s Watchmen is using Easter eggs to signal that it isn’t like the comic

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When you stare into the reference, it also stares into you

Easter eggs are a way for the people behind legacy films or television shows to demonstrate their love of and fidelity to its source material. When showrunners, writers, and directors stick a glancing reference to Luke Cage’s yellow shirt from his 1970s comics in the gritty 2016 Netflix series, it’s a way of nodding to the fans, of saying “We’re fans too, and we can be trusted with your beloved properties.”

That seems to be the intention behind the omnipresent Easter eggs in HBO’s new Watchmen series, helmed by Lost and The Leftovers co-creator Damon Lindelof. The visual, narrative, and thematic references to the original Alan Moore / Dave Gibbons comic are obsessive and ubiquitous. But they don’t show that the series is keeping the faith. The Easter eggs inadvertently highlight how different HBO’s Watchmen is from the comic. A Watchmen packed with Easter eggs doesn’t show how faithful Lindelof and crew are to the original. It shows the ways they’re striking out on their own.

As a sequel set in the same world as the original comic, the Watchmen series broadly references the original in plot and world-building. The white supremacist group the Seventh Cavalry has adopted Rorschach inkblot masks, inspired by the one worn by Watchmen’s vigilante hero. They quote from his journal, altering the text to make the fascist and racist subtext more explicit. Robert Redford, whose presidential campaign was just getting started at the end of the Watchmen comic, has been president in the series for some 30 years. There’s a miniseries event on TV about the 1940s superhero group the Minutemen, and it plays in the background of many scenes, reiterating, elaborating on, or parodying events from the comic.

Photo: Mark Hill/HBO

But there are also a lot of gratuitous visual nods to the original series. These don’t contribute to consistent world-building; they simply wave to fans. Some of the most blatant ones in the pilot episode include:

  • Masked detective Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) rolls his mask up over his mouth when he eats, in an image that recalls Rorschach rolling his mask up to eat beans in the comic.
  • Chief of police Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) tells Looking Glass, “Pull your face down,” again recalling the original Rorschach, who referred to his mask as his face.
  • Seventh Cavalry members are shown disassembling watches as part of a mysterious terrorism plot. The exposed gears recall the broken watch gears that, through a series of accidents, led Jon Osterman to become Dr. Manhattan.
  • One of the Seventh Cavalry members swallows a poison pill. Angela / Sister Night (Regina King) yells “Spit it out! Spit it out!” It’s a direct reference to a similar scene in the Watchmen comic, where Adrian Veidt wrestles an assassin with a poison pill.
  • Angela walks past a man carrying a sign that reads “The Future Is Bright.” It recalls a sign Rorschach carried in his secret identity which said, “The End Is Nigh.”
  • The last image of the first episode is of Judd’s badge, marked with a single slanted drop of blood, referencing the signature Watchmen image of the Comedian’s smiley-face button, similarly marked with blood.
  • In a scene where Angela teaches cooking to an elementary school class, there’s a shot up through the bottom of a glass bowl. Her dropped egg yolks form a smiley face, again recalling the Comedian button. This is (no doubt intentionally) an Easter egg literally made of eggs.
Photo: HBO

And those are only some of the references in the first episode. As the series continues (the first six episodes were provided to critics), there are many, many more, particularly paralleling the comic’s obsessive imagery around clock faces with the hands nearing midnight.

These Easter eggs aren’t thematically or even really visually integrated into the series. The egg-yolk smile doesn’t mean anything in the context of the show except, “Hey, fans of the original Watchmen! Here’s a smiley face!” It’s a fun wink, but that’s a radically different approach to image repetition than Moore’s careful, obsessive parallels in the comic.

The most famous example of Moore and Gibbons’ use of visual motifs is the Comedian’s smiley-face button, stained with blood. The first image of the first issue is of the button lying in the gutter. The last image of the last issue is of a man wearing a smiley-face shirt stained with a splotch of ketchup so it matches the opening image. The Watchmen graphic novel starts and ends in the same place. It’s a perfect closed system — a smiley-faced, bloody loop with no escape.

Image: DC Comics

Watchmen the comic is remorselessly self-contained. Dave Gibbons’ nine-panel-per-page grid sometimes shifts, as two, three, or four panels fuse into one, but it never opens up. Ominous recurring or parallel images — a nuclear hazard sign, the inkblots on Rorschach’s mask, a butterfly in a frozen wasteland — appear and reappear, not as random in-jokes, but as signposts in Moore’s narrative maze. They’re a reminder that readers can’t get out. Watchmen is meant to put readers in the blue skin of Dr. Manhattan, who sees all time at once, and so is hopelessly frozen in his own destiny. He sees himself as locked in the grid of what he has done and will do. Superhero stories are usually about how remarkable individuals can transform the world. Watchmen is about how even heroes (and in Dr. Manhattan’s case, even god-like beings) can be stuck in the boxes the world creates for them.

And even though the comic’s conclusion points to a more peaceful future, it’s hard to see things really improving in its world, or even continuing. Watchmen is a complete and circular story, set in a grim world where inevitable cataclysm is eternally approaching. That uniquely airless sense of sadness and melancholy is one of its primary draws.

A Watchmen sequel was, by definition, never going to reproduce that sense of a world that couldn’t support a sequel. The television show is a looser, messier, more seat-of-the-pants affair than the comic, jumping from a recreation of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre to police drama to domestic sit-com in a helter-skelter scramble of genre tropes. That’s part of what gives the series the sense of hope and open possibilities that isn’t much evident in the comic, with its slow, measured tread toward doom.

In Watchmen the series, Lindelof and company constantly let viewers know they’re riffing on a past product. That neatly fits the world of the show, which is dedicated to riffing and improvisation, too. President Robert Redford and Tulsa’s leadership are trying to get out of the grid of racism by introducing new policies and new ideas — most notably, reparations and an acknowledgement of racist history. The original Watchmen was a story about a world with no options. The new series is about how people can maybe get from nowhere to somewhere, if they have some imagination and an awareness of where they come from. And that theme is drawn more clearly in upcoming episodes.

Lindelof doesn’t drop a yolky smile in his show’s pilot to signal that he’s serving up the same meal Alan Moore offered. He’s showing us that he has an entirely new shell for this story. The TV show keeps nudging fans to remember the original comic so it can show off how it’s trying to go somewhere else. It’s a constant reminder that the show isn’t as thoroughly thought-through and self-contained as the source material. But we already have the Watchmen comic for that. The TV series breaks a few eggs to see what kind of omelet comes out.