October 15, 2018, HBO revealed the first official image for its television adaptation of Watchmen. The image featured an African American police officer wearing a yellow mask alongside the caption: “Who Watches the Watchmen?” Taken from the Roman poet Juvenal’s Satires (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?), the phrase is core to Watchmen. In its popular interpretation, the expression is understood as commenting on the dangers of authority: “Who can prevent the powerful from abusing their power?”
This piece reinterprets the phrase through an affective lens to ask what —and for whom— pleasures come from watching the watchmen. This reinterpretation matters, for the original formulation presumes a Benthamite panopticon-like context wherein watching serves as a constraint on power: to be watched is to behave. The power dynamics and systemic discrimination embedded in this belief are perhaps better captured in this interpretation’s variant: “if you are innocent, then you have nothing to hide.”
But if innocence is that which does not deviate from the law—and we know that the law is raced, classed, gendered, and sexed—then what pleasure comes from watching? Watching is not an inherently benevolent act, nor check on power, but the right—and normative pleasure—to view. This raises the question: what pleasure comes from watching the watchmen, when that watchman looks like you?
Indeed, though the show was praised for its centering of race and racism, the true hero of the series is Adrian Veidt. Just like in 1985 (the original comic’s setting), Veidt once again saves the world from the apocalypse; except this time, the apocalypse is the prospect of a wealthy, biracial Vietnamese-white woman (Lady Trieu) obtaining the power of godhood. As Veidt explains, “Anyone who seeks to attain the power of a god must be prevented at all costs from attaining it.”
Veidt should know, for as Jeff Jensen, story editor for HBO’s Watchmen states, “his whole motivation for taking out Lady Trieu isn’t to sort of stop her from becoming a super person and inflicting her will on society. It’s just that there can be no one greater than Adrian Veidt.” The difference is that, though Veidt himself is an egotistical, economic and intellectual elitist, he is white, and hence all right. And that is the lesson of watching the watchmen.