Removed from the Watchmen universe and dropped into an edgy and dark contemporary context where racialized realities are front and center, HBO’s “Watchmen” shatters neo-liberal logics of political progression by refusing to elide the circular, messy, and deeply affective nature of memory and history. From the first moment of the series, the viewer is denied the normal nostalgia often afforded to fans of comic book remakes. Here, there is a new nostalgia at work.
Elsewhere, I have articulated what I call critical nostalgia, a concept that holds in productive tension both a longing for a sense of past-home and an understanding that the memory of that very past-home may be fraught with oppression, brutality, and loss. Additionally, “Critical nostalgia entails an inclination toward return and toward community, thus requiring three actions: (1) a return to that which was executed or inhabited previously; (2) a (re)performance of that which was and now is executed or inhabited; and (3) a communal exchange between bodies, which are connected in some way (14). This phenomenon hovers over much of the Watchmen series but it is perhaps best illustrated in the fifth and sixth episodes of the first season.
In the fifth episode of HBO’s “Watchmen,” the audience is introduced to a drug called Nostalgia, which, taken in pill form, initiates memories belonging to the person the drug was prescribed to. In the world of the series, this controlled substance is now banned and viewed as dangerous and illegal. The main character, Angela Abar, knowing this, yet eager to solve mysteries of the past, downs an entire bottle of Nostalgia pills belonging to her estranged 100-year-old grandfather and is transferred into a bevy of racial injustice memories from her grandfather’s life in Tulsa after the massacre of 1921. The subsequent sixth episode is a cautionary tale about what revelations happen when one is exposed to a history and memory that is not one’s own. What happens if you ingest someone else’s nostalgia?
Through the vehicle of these episodes and the through-concept of critical nostalgia, one is able to grapple with the ways in which memory and history (of massacre, of family, of Blackness in Tulsa and by extension the US) is represented in our current sociopolitical climate. For example, Donald Trump held a re-election campaign rally in Tulsa on June 20, 2020, after meeting fierce opposition from anti-racist advocates affronted by the campaign selecting the site of a massacre of Black Americans and by the originally scheduled date, June 19, Juneteenth, a date celebrating the liberation of Black people from slavery in the US.
Like the series, the US negotiates the push and pull of Black memory and history as juxtaposed to a contentious present marked by racial unrest. After the release of the series, Joy Hofmeister, State Superintendent, vowed to add the Tulsa Race Massacre into Oklahoma curriculum. The show represents Black histories and memories not as normal nostalgia to be blindly yearned for, but as critical nostalgia, to be remembered, claimed, addressed. The series presents such nostalgia as cyclical and volatile all while stressing the importance of reclamation and redress in forms such as reparations, memorialization, and moral reckoning. In many ways Watchmen does what the Nostalgia pills do—boldly exposes the television viewer to memories and histories that have been suppressed, rewritten, and untold. What will we do now that we have swallowed the pills?
Jade C. Huell (2020): Toward critical nostalgia: performing African-American
genealogical memory, Text and Performance Quarterly, DOI: 10.1080/10462937.2020.1776380