“I have to be able to answer the question: ‘What’s the idea for the second season?’ I don’t think I’m interested in, nor do I think the audience is interested in, ‘Let’s just do more of the same,’” Lindelof told Josh Wigler of the Hollywood Reporter. “Because then it wouldn’t be ‘Watchmen.’ It requires a new idea. Maybe that idea is going to come from someone else. I would welcome that, one hundred percent.”
Here’s one for him, or for anyone else who might be interested in pursuing it: If there is a second season of “Watchmen,” it should be about Vietnam, the aftermath of its conquest by the godlike superhero Dr. Manhattan, and its absorption into the United States as the 51st state. That would certainly be different from the stories that have been told in the “Watchmen” universe before, in which Vietnam is a sideshow or a backdrop. And it would be a fitting expression of the big idea of the stellar first season of the HBO adaptation: that there’s so much we can gain when we confront the ugliest chapters of our history and place the stories of marginalized people at the center of the American narrative.
When plans for a “Watchmen” show were announced, it initially seemed like HBO was resurrecting yet another piece of intellectual property, albeit a relatively highbrow one. But Lindelof’s show immediately distinguished itself with an opening recreation of the 1921 Black Wall Street massacre in Tulsa. And it continued on to shake up the racial history of the superhero genre by showing itself to be, as Victor Luckerson put it in the New Yorker, “about black people who have the ability to mold history in ways their ancestors could not.” Among those shifters of history are police officer and masked adventurer Angela Abar (an outstanding Regina King); her grandfather, foundational superhero Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.); and Angela’s husband (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who turns out to be Dr. Manhattan disguised as a non-superpowered black man.
As gratifying as it is to see those characters win at least some measure of acknowledgement for their roles in shaping this alternate history, there was something about “Watchmen” that nagged at me throughout the show’s run, and that I could only articulate after the finale was over. For all the series is dedicated to moving black Americans from the margins to the center, “Watchmen” doesn’t eliminate the margins altogether. Rather, Vietnam and Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American people end up occupying that vacated space, but largely in service of other people’s stories.
Angela, for example, was born and orphaned in Saigon, but “Watchmen” only explores her relationship to Vietnamese culture in reference to bakery she runs as a cover for her real work as a cop. The lingering tensions between Vietnamese people who fought on the opposite side of the conflict are only expressed in the suicide bombing that kills Angela’s parents. In the finale, we learn that the trillionaire inventor Lady Trieu (Hong Chau) is the daughter of a Vietnamese domestic worker employed by the masked adventurer Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons), though we never learn anything more about the older woman. Though Lady Trieu is named for the Vietnamese woman who fought against a 3rd century occupation — a reference the show makes explicit in the finale — her motivations turn out to be oddly generic for a show that’s fascinated by the historically specific.
And this isn’t even to mention the show’s disengagement with what could have been a central tension: that Angela, who has inherited the trauma of a genocidal massacre, is married to a man who carried out destruction on a similar scale, and to a similar multigenerational effect, in Vietnam.
In a way, the juxtaposition between the attention “Watchmen” pays to the lingering traumas of the Tulsa massacre and the series’ comparatively cursory treatment of Vietnam and Vietnamese people only reinforces the point the show is trying to make. There is so much history that many of us never knew or have chosen not to see. Excavating one story or elevating one set of voices is never the end: It only serves to show us that there is more out there for us to learn. Thanks in part to historians like Fredrik Logevall and filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the perspectives of Vietnamese people who fought on both sides of the Vietnam War are more accessible to English-speaking people than ever before.
This isn’t about forcing a false choice. The survivors and descendants of the Tulsa massacre deserved the story “Watchmen” told this season. But if “Watchmen” is to continue, and to continue shaking up our sense of the past, the survivors and descendants of Vietnamese combatants in the American war in Vietnam deserve their own beautifully drawn alternate history, too.