New Nostalgia in “Watchmen”

Curator's Note

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


Jade, first off, thank you so much for the insightful post!  Your concept of "critical nostalgia" is readymade for Watchmen, as I believe you have shown here.  The comment you make upfront about this series denying the kind of comfortable nostalgia that most comics adaptations provide made me think about Zack Snyder's Watchmen (2009) as the stereotype for that model; an exact recreation of the source material with little to no added analysis or insight.  As you have argued, the HBO show purposefully and aggressively subverts that generalized form of fannish nostalgia in favor of a "(re)performance" of the source material that manages to critique and revise its omission of racial discourse.

Since I work with phenomenology often, I am really curious if you could elaborate on your third criteria for critical nostalgia ("a communal exchange between bodies") in relation to how episode six depicts Will and Angela's bodies merging through the Nostalgia-driven memories.  This struck me as a beautifully succinct visual representation of generational trauma when I first saw it, but I'd be interested to hear if you have any thoughts on it in relation to your concept.

Jayson, thanks for your interest and inquiry! I'd love to talk a little more about that third criteria. Some interesting background is that the term nostalgia has undergone a steady transformation in usage since its coinage and its etymology is actually linked to "the body," as the term originally referred to a medical diagnosis of what we might call homesickness now and was said to cause physical symptoms. My inclusion of the third criteria dealing with a communal exchange between bodies seeks in part to reclaim the bodily form of nostalgia as linked to its affective registers. As you suggest, Will and Angela have a particularly intricate communal relationship that is felt through the pain and postures of racial memory as it merges in the spacetime of Will's remembrances. Yes, I too see the their psychic and physical merging as a clear representation of generational trauma. Additionally, I see that very trauma being actively reclaimed (longed for and attained) by Angela through the willful downing of the pills, the reperformance of Will's memories (an extrodinary act of memory-work), and finally Angela's mental and bodily struggle, ultimately surviving the violence of her (and her grandfather's) past-home.

Fascinating!  Thank you so much for providing that background, Jade!  Pointing out that Angela “actively” locates the residue of this trauma in her body feels so important, since her initial distrust of Will and affection towards Judd suggest a disacknowledgement of its ripples into the present.  Her journey really seems to encapsulate your idea of critical nostalgia, as the discovery of her ancestry (in Will) comes with an awakening of the pain attached to that past.  Thanks again!

Hi Jade, I want to second Jayson’s comment regarding your insightful post. I too am interested in the politics of nostalgia and appreciate your pointing us towards your recent TPQ publication (congratulations by the way! I look forward to reading it!). My question is similar to the one raised through your conversation with Jayson. In essence, your third component of critical nostalgia emphasizes the “communal exchange between bodies, which are connected some way.” I think this is an important point, and my question is in relation to the work in production and reception studies, which is to say there seems to be at minimum 4 bodies involved in this nostalgic production and reception: the producer/director/writer(s), the character/actors (Angela and Will), and the viewer(s). Your analysis focuses most on the internal relationship between Angela and Will (portrayed by the excellent Regina King and Louis Gossett Jr.): how does your analysis transform (if at all) if we account for the communal exchange between the additional bodies of the producer/director/writer(s) and viewer(s)? (I know you point towards this with your discussion of Joy Hofmeister, but I'd be curious to hear more). To be clear, I appreciated your compelling analysis and am intrigued by your notion of critical nostalgia, I am just curious as to how the exchange between bodies which may not be communal or which may be unevenly connected affects how particular bodies are returned to that which was excuted or inhabited previously and the types of (re)performances of that which was and now is executed or inhabited. (I ask because again you have offered a compelling framework for thinking through nostalgia, and it is one I’d like to think with and through in my own research, so thank you in advance!).

Thank you for this complex and evocative question. My first thought is that we'd need to think about the myriad possibilities that the word communal might suggest including a sharing between similar and dissimilar groups or communities. Yes, you are right to point out that there is a web of bodily, cultural, and memory entanglements at play. It seems to me that in some ways the audience is encouraged through the eye of the directors and writers and producers to experience memory through the body of Angela Abar. As a Black woman from the South, I'd imagine that experience is much different for me than it would be for other viewers of the same narrative. This is where it gets interesting for me. While the story may produce critical nostalgia for some, it may not do so for others, but rather produce new knowledges or exposures, or even new trauma. What Watchmen does is present the opporunity for a pleathora of memory sensations and sentiments including critical nostlagia as related to Black experience. It is my observation that there are very few approaches in our media atmosphere that open up rather than forclose that possibility. 

Hi Jade. I agree that your ideas around critical nostalgia are so thoughtful and meaningful. I make space in my own research to discuss the usefulness of history and the exposure of its truths, particularly our racial truths in our entertainment. This "inclination toward return and toward community" is such a powerful one to grapple with when in context of current events and our need to know and move about "in knowing. The final question is research worthy - what will we do now? 


Thank you for your reply. I love the phrase you use, "move about in knowing." I believe you are on to something. There is power in naming and reclaiming space and time. I wonder if the events unfolding around us are beginning to address the question of what will we do now? We will march, we will protest, we will call out the injustices. For a myriad of reasons Black oppression is now at the top of the US media environment. However, it often feels like the the injustices are only amplified rather than grappled with. There is a lot of surface going on. What is clear to me in Watchmen (and in LoveCraft Country, btw) is a sentiment that the past matters, it matters a lot, and that brushing the surface, cleaning it up for broadcast is not enough. Behind the question of what will we do now is also what did they do then, why, how, and are we ready to face it?

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