'Watchmen': All the References to Historical Events, Political Figures and Pop Culture Highlights
By Stacy Lambe
Update: HBO is making the Peabody Award-winning series available to stream for free from Friday, June 19 to Sunday, June 21 on HBO.com and free On Demand. The network is also airing a marathon on HBO and HBO Latino starting at 1:00 p.m. ET/PT on Friday, June 19. The series is also available to watch on HBO Max.
Watchmen, Damon Lindelof’s TV adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel starring Regina King, Jean Smart and Hong Chau, has no shortage of real-world references. Taking place over 30 years after the events of the graphic novel, the HBO series continues to expand the alternate timeline that parallels America’s ongoing 200-year-plus history. While Moore and Gibbons tackled the Cold War with Russia, the Richard Nixon presidency and Vietnam War, Lindelof takes on the racial divide in the United States and recent controversies surrounding law enforcement. Like what unfolded on the page, the series blurs the lines between fiction and reality with explorations, forgotten history and nods to current events and pop culture that appear or unfold differently in Watchmen’s universe.
Here’s an ongoing list of all the historical events, political figures and pop culture references featured in the series. Warning: some spoilers below.
American Crime Story [first referenced in season 1, episode 1]: Executive produced by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, ACS is a companion FX anthology series to American Horror Story, chronicling various true events that shaped the American landscape -- often with a lens of hindsight -- from the trial of O.J. Simpson to the assassination of Gianni Versace.
In the series, a version of ACS exists as American Hero Story. It’s essentially a show-within-a-show reenacting some of the events of Moore and Gibbons’ graphic novel, which told the backstory of the Minutemen, a group of superheroes from the 1940s. More specifically, AHS focuses on the mysterious Hooded Justice, whose identity was never revealed. Each episode continues the narrative through snippets watched by the show’s main characters.
According to Paste, which features a detailed account about the purpose of AHS within the series, “Lindelof didn’t tell Murphy about the reference in advance, calling it ‘an elbow to the ribs’ rather than a full parody of those shows. This is because not only does Lindelof ‘love [Murphy] as a person, and I think as a TV writer, and producer, he’s amazing,’ but American Hero Story is quite deliberately inspired by American Crime Story, but meant to be cheesier.”
Bass Reeves [first referenced in season 1, episode 1]: Born into slavery, Reeves eventually became the first black deputy US Marshal to serve west of the Mississippi River a decade after the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Assigned to a district of Arkansas, he also covered the Indian Territory. According to the Norman Transcript, he was revered for bringing in some of the most dangerous criminals, being a marksman and having superior detective skills, and making over 3,000 arrests.
On the show, a hooded Reeves (portrayed by Jamal Akakpo) appears in the opening scene of Trust in the Law!, a film playing to a nearly empty Tulsa theater as the Race Riot of 1921 unfolds outside. The scene depicts Reeves chasing down a white man, whom he ultimately arrests after it’s revealed that he is a “scoundrel” while Reeves is a member of the law -- and the real hero of the story.
According to a file on Peteypedia -- an HBO website containing the personal files of agent Dale Petey (played by Dustin Ingram) -- “[t]he symbolism suggests a story about good and evil we’ve seen countless times, a narrative that was already a cliché to the film’s first audience in the early days of nickelodeons and movie palaces. The white hat is our hero, the black hat is our villain. Quickly, though, expectations are subverted. The man in white is a corrupt sheriff, and the hooded figure lassoing him off his high horse is someone even more surprising, a black man with a badge.” The symbolism is a theme that is carried throughout the premiere, especially when it comes to Regina King’s character, Det. Angela Abar aka Sister Night.
Devo [first referenced in season 1, episode 3]: Similarly to the premiere, the title of episode three is a song lyric. This time, “She Was Killed by Space Junk,” is from the 1978 Devo song, “Space Junk.” Devo is significant here because it’s a band that appears in Silk Spectre II’s record collection in the graphic novel and comes up one night when she’s hanging out with the Nite Owl.
On the show, Laurie Blake (an older version of Silk Spectre played by Jean Smart) asks her home assistant to play one of their albums, presumably Q. Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, which features “Space Junk.” The lyric specifically comes back into play by the end of the episode, when Laurie finishes telling her version of a “brick joke” and is nearly crushed by Angela Abar’s car, which drops from the sky just outside the phone booth she was in.
Elephants [first referenced in season 1, episode 7]: Following her overdose of Nostalgia, Angela is offered treatment by Lady Trieu. In a process to remove her grandfather’s memories from overtaking her own, Angela is hooked up to an elephant, who seems to be on the receiving end of her detox.
While there’s no real explanation for the animal, it’s hard not to think of the common phrase, “an elephant never forgets.” The mammal seems to have more direct connection to Trieu than anything else. In addition to the Vietnamese Joan of Arc famously riding an elephant into battle, another Peteypedia entry reveals that her mother, Bian My, wrote a memoir called Pachyderm Mom, which is a reference to elephants. And then there’s the fact that Trieu’s daughter is actually a clone of her mother and is undergoing her own Nostalgia treatment as she slowly gains all her memories. As for any direct connection to Angela, she is seen passing over VHS tapes of Trunky and Tusky -- two kids movies about elephants -- when looking for a copy of Sister Night during a childhood flashback.
For Whom the Bell Tolls [first referenced in season 1, episode 7]: As previously mentioned, this series enjoys peppering in literary references and episode seven is no different. Near the end, Cal seen reading the 1940 Ernest Hemingway novel about a young American volunteer who becomes attached to a Republican guerrilla force during the Spanish Civil War and as a dynamiter, he’s assigned to blow up a bridge during an attack in Segovia. (Notably, the late-1930s conflict is considered to be the dress rehearsal for World War II with Nazis getting involved.)
In fact, this is not the first time we’ve seen Angela’s husband read something that provides an allegory for the series -- which always have always seeming been in reference to Angela’s ongoing story. But this time, it could also be applied to Cal’s since the series has been dropping Easter eggs about his true identity as Dr. Manhattan. But given Angela’s childhood in Saigon, where her parents were killed in a surprise bombing during an attack on VVN day, the day that Manhattan ended the Vietnam War, it’s hard to ignore the continued parallels with Angela’s own life.
The Fountainhead [first referenced in season 1, episode 6]: Considering the Watchmen series was created by Lindelof, it comes as no surprise that it’s packed with literary references. Here, Lady Trieu is seen reading the Ayn Rand novel about an individualistic architect designing modernist buildings who refuses to compromise with an establishment unwilling to innovate while she waits for Angela to come out of her coma induced by the Nostalgia pills she’s taken.
Girl in Red from Schindler’s List [first referenced in season 1, episode 5]: Much like the careers of Robert Redford and author John Grisham (see below), the show imagines what director Steven Spielberg’s career might have looked like in this alternate timeline. Instead of making Schindler’s List with the iconic scene of the little girl in a red coat bursting through the black-and-white photography, he’s made the 1993 film about the events of 11/2 -- Pale Horse, which “won like a gazillion Oscars” -- also with an iconic scene of a girl in red walking through the destruction around Madison Square Garden after the squid attack.
Going a little deeper into what this means for Spielberg’s career, Vultureimagines what kind of impact the squid would have had on him and Hollywood: “Released in December 1985, The Color Purple would likely have remained unaffected. That film established that Spielberg could make serious movies about adult themes after a career that had mostly consisted of action and science-fiction blockbusters (that were often home to adult themes, but that’s another issue). Would he still have made the 1987 film Empire of the Sun? Probably. It seems like the sort of weighty, meaningful film that could find root in the post-squid environment… In our world, Spielberg didn’t release a film in 1992, but 1993 was his golden year, the one in which he released both the runaway hit Jurassic Park and the acclaimed Schindler’s List. Maybe in the Watchmen universe, that year got fast-tracked, though dinosaurs might seem a little quaint to survivors of the squid attack.”
Henry Louis Gates Jr. [first referenced in season 1, episode 2]: A longtime literary critic, teacher and historian, Gates is the most prominent voices on race. He currently serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University and has authored The Signifying Monkey. Gates also hosts the PBS docuseries Finding Your Roots, which explores the genealogy and ancestry of its celebrity guests.
In the second episode of Watchmen, Gates makes a cameo as the Treasury Secretary under President Redford. Appearing in hologram form at a kiosk in the Greenwood Center for Cultural Heritage, he guides Angela through the process of getting her DNA processed to find out if she is related to the victims of the Tulsa Massacre and eligible for reparations.
J. Edgar Hoover [first referenced in season 1, episode 6]: Once again, the show is playing with the perceptions of reality -- and the question of when its alternate timeline first starts -- with the mention of Hoover, who was the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from 1935 to 1972. Prior to that, he was appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation, the FBI's predecessor. Ultimately, he served under eight presidents, with the last one being Richard Nixon. While he has left behind an expansive legacy, his sexuality is something that’s still questioned until this day. Rumors about him being gay started in the 1940s, with many people believing that he and his longtime assistant director, Clyde Tolson, were lovers. Hoover also reportedly kept a secret stash of pornographic materials confiscated by the FBI, which he held onto for personal and/or blackmail purposes.
Both of those stories are referenced on American Hero Story (see below for more on the series-within-a-series), when two cops are interrogating Hooded Justice (played here by Cheyenne Jackson). In an attempt to get him to reveal his identity and to turn on his fellow Minutemen, they say that Captain Metropolis is cheating on him with the FBI director and attempting to blackmail him with photos of them in bed together.
John Grisham [first referenced in season 1, episode 3]: This is more of an Easter egg than a significant reference, but the author known for his many legal thrillers -- A Time to Kill, The Client, The Pelican Brief -- appears in a newspaper headline that reads, “GRISHAM TO RETIRE FROM THE SUPREME COURT.”
Similar to Henry Louis Gates Jr. appearing as treasury secretary and Robert Redford as president, Grisham seems to have been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court alongside G. Gordon Liddy and Bill Buckley in this alternate timeline. But it’s also worth noting that before Grisham became famous for his novels, he practiced law for a decade and even was a Member of the Mississippi House of Representatives from the 7th district from 1984 to 1990.
Lady Trieu (aka the Vietnamese Joan of Arc) [first referenced in season 1, episode 4]: After several references to Hong Chau’s character, Lady Trieu finally emerges -- first, to deliver a baby in exchange for a family farm, and then later, when Angela and Laurie visit her at the gigantic Millennium Clock she’s erecting outside of town. A trillionaire from Vietnam, she bought Adrian Veidt's company soon after his disappearance and has since embarked on creating the “first wonder of the new world.”
It should also be noted that the show’s Lady Trieu shares the same name with the third-century Vietnamese warrior who rebelled against the Chinese occupation at the time. According to historian Trần Trọng Kim, Trieu eventually “went to the mountain. She was a strong, brave and smart person. On the mountain, she gathered a band of 1,000 followers.” She’s quoted as saying, “I only want to ride the wind and walk the waves, slay the big whales of the Eastern sea, clean up frontiers, and save the people from drowning.”
While Trieu’s intentions on the show -- especially with the clock -- remain unknown, her presence on the show very much echoes that of Ozymandias’ in the graphic novel. “This person isn't a good person or a bad person,” Chau explained to The Hollywood Reporter. “That's how I approach the character. I don't think about her as being good or bad. She does have a very lofty goal: save the world. You either have to be a fool or a force of nature. During the course of the show, you will see both of those things.”
Nazi Propaganda [first referenced in season 1, episode 2]: Opening with another flashback, audiences see Nazis dropping leaflets over a troop of African-American soldiers suggesting that they’ve done nothing wrong to black people in Germany. “Have they ever done you any harm?” the sheet reads before listing out various lies. The leaflet, we learn, is the same one that was pinned to a young boy during the Tulsa Massacre in the premiere and is the paper that falls from the sky after Will is whisked away from Angela by a mysterious plane.
Just like the Tulsa Massacre, the flashback is something that happened but is rarely discussed in detail. While racist themselves, that didn’t stop the Nazis from trying to exploit racial tensions among U.S. forces during World War II. “Creating wedges between people had been a Nazi strategy since the party’s inception,” writes Steven Luckert, senior program curator at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. “The Nazis exploited people of African descent in their propaganda for political and military purposes. They were bogeymen, used as props to garner votes and later to incite Germans in ‘defense’ of racial purity and their homeland.”
Luckert continues by writing, “It is difficult to know what impact, if any, these fliers had on African-American soldiers, especially in late 1944, when Germany was nearing defeat.” And according to the show, it had little effect on at least one soldier, though it did nothing to hide America’s own racial divide.
Nazi Rally at Madison Square Garden [first referenced in season 1, episode 6]: During Will Reeves’ flashbacks to his early days as Hooded Justice while living in New York City, he gathers newspaper clippings that he’s been collecting into a folder. One of them includes a headline mentioning 22,000 Nazis gathered at Madison Square Garden, Watchmen’s second direct reference to the German political party after another flashback showed Reeves’ father serving in the U.S. Army during World War I when they rained propaganda down over African-American troops (see below for more).
In a previously forgotten moment in history, the German American Bund organized a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Taking place on Feb. 20, 1939, more than 20,000 people attended, and Fritz Julius Kuhn was a featured speaker. The unprecedented event was revisited 78 years later in the documentary, A Night at the Garden, which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short. The film was released online in 2017, the same year a white supremacist and neo-Nazi rally was held in Charlottesville, Virginia, leading to violence and the death of one protester.
Robert Redford [first referenced in season 1, episode 1]: A longtime screen actor, Redford has earned two Academy Awards and starred in films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men. In addition to acting, he’s also set himself apart as a successful director and founder of the Sundance Film Festival. Honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Redford is also known as the Godfather of Indie Film and a longtime supporter of the environment, LGBTQ rights and the arts.
On the show, Redford is the current president of the United States, having taken office after defeating Richard Nixon. While never appearing in person, his likeness and presidency is inescapable, from posters of Redford in the classroom to remarks about his left-leaning policies, which include strict gun control and reparations (regarded negatively as “Redfordations”) for African-American citizens, and the emergence of Nixonvilles -- trailer parks populated by poor white people -- following Nixon’s departure from the White House. He’s even referred to as “Sundancer in Chief” at one point. Redford also maintains Nixon’s abolishment of term limits.
In another file found on Peteypedia, more details about Redford’s connection to the Watchmen have emerged, including the fact that Adrian Veidt “was the biggest contributor to the Democratic Party during the late 80s and early 90s, leading the way in financing the ‘blue wave’ that ended 24 consecutive years of conservative rule in 1992.”
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! [first referenced in season 1, episode 1]: Debuting on Broadway in 1943, Oklahoma! is a hit musical about a farm girl who is wooed by two opposing suitors, the earnest cowboy Curly and the sinister farmhand Jud. Widely received as “a beautiful and delightful show” at the time, a celebrated and Tony Award-winning 2019 Broadway revival stripped the production of its showy style to reveal a dark story about love lost and the bleak life of the frontier. This version “elicit[s] the shadows from within the play’s sunshine.”
Soon after the premiere jumps back to present day -- which is September 2019 -- Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) is watching a local production of the musical. The title song is being performed onstage by a cast of African-American actors as viewers meet the head of the Tulsa, Oklahoma, police, whose character parallels the two suitors. First he is introduced as “a cowboy through and through” who later performs a rendition of “People Will Say We’re in Love” during a dinner party with his family. Yet, he later ends up dead -- just like the show’s antagonist with whom he shares the same name -- as the song, “Pore Jud is Daid,” plays at the end of the episode. (For even more on the importance of the musical in the first episode, listen to “Breaking Down the Season Premiere of Watchmen” by The Watch podcast.)
“We are delighted by Damon Lindelof’s thoughtful and clever integration of the music, themes and stories that Rodgers & Hammerstein put to paper decades ago,” a representative at the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization told ET in a statement. “When the production came to us with this request, we were happy to approve the idea of these characters and music and lyrics being incorporated with the narrative of this well-respected franchise. Bringing new meaning to ‘it’s summer and we’re running out of ice,’ actors portraying Jud in productions all over the world will be thinking of Watchmen.”
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) [first referenced in season 1, episode 6]: After a riot breaks out at a Harlem movie theater, Reeves is called in to help get things back in order. Noticeably, on the marquee outside the theater, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is listed as the film showing that evening. While many Watchmen fans are likely familiar with Ben Stiller’s take on the film, the original starring Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo came out in 1947. The film, which is now considered a classic, tells the story of an inconsequential guy who gets caught up in a real-life adventure that seems unbelievable to him. Soon, Walter is forced to hide his double life from his family and friends, while also finding the courage to stand up to those who have constantly pushed him around.
Sept. 11 (“9/11”) [first referenced in season 1, episode 5]: There’s no question that the squid attack in New York City is the Watchmen’s version of 9/11. While the graphic novel was first published in 1986, long before the real-life tragic events in 2001, Lindelof’s show comes 18 years after -- and there’s no escaping allusions to that here with the phrasing of “11/2” in the style of “9/11” and even how New York City attempts to bounce back after Americans become fearful of visiting a terrorist target. The ad the tourism board creates in order to remind visitors of what’s great about the city even features a cameo by New York actor Michael Imperioli, who likes his squid “with lemon and a bit of marinara.” While it’s unclear if The Sopranos is something that exists in this universe, Broadway has taken a darker turn with the Oppenheimer musical about Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb.
Seventh Cavalry and Little Bighorn [first referenced in season 1, episode 1]: Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, the armored cavalry is most famous for its participation in the American Indian Wars, including Battle of Little Bighorn. Also known as Custer’s Last Stand, the battle devastated the cavalry, which resulted in Custer’s death and the annihilation of five of the 7th Cavalry’s 12 companies.
Interestingly, the 7th Cavalry was nicknamed the "Garryowen," an Irish tune dating back to the 1600s referring to the “Garden of Owen.” According to the 1st Cavalry Division Association, “Owen’s garden was soon to become as famous for scenes of strife as it was for mirth and humor; and broken arms, legs and heads became a staple article of manufacture in the neighborhood… [The young men] sometimes suffered their genius to soar as high as the breaking of a street lamp, and even resorting to the physical violence of a watchman.”
On the show, the "Seventh Kavalry" refers to the group of extremists and vigilantes -- not very dissimilar to the Ku Klux Klan -- which has re-emerged years after the White Night assault on the police with a new goal of domestic terrorism. They, too, wear masks -- homemade versions of the one Rorschach wore in the original graphic novel. After one of the members attacks a police officer during a routine traffic stop, the Tulsa detectives are alerted by pager with the code words, “Little Bighorn.”
Superman [first referenced in season 1, episode 4]: Thanks to the introduction of Lady Trieu, audiences were also treated to a retelling of Superman’s origin story. The episode opens with a local farming couple, the Clarks, who are presented with the baby they always wanted when Trieu comes knocking on their door one evening. In exchange for the one thing they always wanted -- and $5 million -- she wants their family farm.
In addition to explaining that Dr. Manhattan (originally Jon Osterman) was often compared to Superman, Cinemablend points out that “Martha Kent's maiden name was Clark, and JON-athan Kent was the Earthbound father of one Clark Kent.”
Things Fall Apart [first referenced in season 1, episode 4]: Just like the previous episodes, the show pulled its title from an existing piece of work. This time, “If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own” is a quote from Chinua Achebe’s celebrated 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart. In addition to appearing as the show’s title, the novel is also being read by Angela’s husband, Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), when she returns home to find him on the couch and attempts to spoil for him by revealing that the main character hangs himself in the end.
The book depicts the life of a local Nigerian wrestler, Okonkwo, whose life, family and culture are forever altered by the British colonialism and the introduction of Christianity. By the end, Okonkwo hangs himself to avoid going to colonial court, forever tarnishing his reputation among his people. Aside from Okonkwo’s death, which can be compared to Judd’s demise at the beginning of the season -- which was decidedly not a suicide -- his conflicted feelings over his past parallels Angela’s own experiences dealing with her life after the White Night and the revelation that the mysterious Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.) is her grandfather.
Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (or Black Wall Street Massacre) [first referenced in season 1, episode 1]: Largely ignored in American history classes, the events of 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, “was one of the worst outbreaks of racial violence in American history: a horrific spree of murder, arson and looting inflicted by white residents upon the prosperous African-American community of Greenwood, followed by a shameless cover-up.” The New York Timesput together an extensive syllabus featuring “a collection of eyewitness accounts, official reports and subsequent reporting and commentary on the destruction of the thriving district once known as ‘Black Wall Street.’”
Opening with a scene of Trust in the Law!, the premiere eventually reveals that the film is playing in a near-empty theater as the massacre unfolds on the streets. Soon, an African-American boy and his mother run outside to witness the violence and destruction firsthand as they try to navigate their way to safety. While his parents are unable to save themselves, the boy is rescued by being hidden in a crate on an automobile that manages to get out of town.
According to Vulture, which goes deep inside the recreation of the horrifying event, “[T]his scene is key to establishing the reality of Watchmen’s Tulsa setting, where, in the present day, there is a reparations program for descendants of the murdered and displaced victims of the massacre. Championed by President Robert Redford, the so-called 'Redfordations' incur backlash from a Rorschach-inspired racist militia called the Seventh Kavalry; one of Watchmen’s central mysteries arises from an investigation into Kavalry sympathies within the police force. But where Watchmen’s present day eschews neat one-to-one analogies with the real world, its Tulsa sequence is intended as a direct reflection of American history.” It effectively outlines the basis for the series, which will continue to reveal connections between 1921 and 2019 throughout the season.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea [first referenced in season 1, episode 5]: Like the previous four episodes, five continues the tradition of pulling its title from an existing song or novel. Here, “Little Fear of Lightning,” is a reference to Jules Verne’s 1870 science fiction classic about the hunt for a squid-like sea monster attacking ships in the Pacific Ocean. (The full quote reads, “If there were no thunder, men would have little fear of lightning.”) Syfy wisely points out that the episode title and reference sets up the “discovery later in the episode that the inter-dimensional squid isn’t real, meaning he shouldn’t really have a reason to ‘fear lightning.’”
Later, when Wade Tillman (Tim Blake Nelson) is leading an emotional support group for survivors and others living in the wake of 11/2, there’s another nod to the book in the form of “Friends of Nemo.” This is a reference to the character, Captain Nemo, and not the Pixar film, Finding Nemo, which likely doesn’t even exist in this universe.