Hugging History: Sense and Memory in HBO’s Watchmen

*This post is part of our online forum organized by Ahmad Greene-Hayes on HBO’s hit series Watchmen. 

In episode 2 “Martial Feats of Commanche Horsemanship,” Angela Abar, also known by her alias “Sister Night,” meets a masked Tulsa police force at the scene of Chief Judd Crawford’s murder. As the team reckons with the loss of their leader and questions the line of succession, Angela urges the group to remove Chief Crawford’s body from the noose which still holds him suspended above his police badge and shoe. As they surround him, Angela positions herself at his back, holding him from behind. At this moment we, the audience, experience a pause before she begins letting him down, where Angela gets lost in her own thoughts, the feel of his body provoking a memory. We’re then maneuvered to a flashback of Angela dancing with her husband, Calvin (also Jon and Dr. Manhattan), on Christmas Eve some years prior, which later is revealed as the night when the Tulsa police force experienced a mass, coordinated attack by white supremacist organization, the Calvary. On this night, the “white night,” Angela was critically injured and hospitalized. When she finally came to, Chief Crawford was at her bedside. 

Come episode’s end, Angela returns to her bakery, Milk and Hanoi, to find a previously restrained William Reeves making eggs at the stove. After testing his DNA at the Greenwood Center for Cultural Heritage, Angela receives a call confirming that Will is, in fact, her biological grandfather to which Will responds that his presence is motivated by a need to “meet you and show you what you came from.” Angela places Will under arrest, then wheels him to her SUV. As she lifts him out of his chair, we experience another pause, reminiscent of her interaction with Chief Crawford’s body earlier, but with no flashbacks, no additional memory attached. While a poignant and complicated moment of intimacy between long lost relatives, there is no extra-biological connection. At least not yet. 

Bookended by these two moments, episode two prompted me to look for instances where sense, memory, and history converged over the course of the series. The characters’ engagement with their sensoria, the affirmation of sound, touch, sight, smell, and taste as alternative ways of knowing, learning, and remembering is constantly put up against a warring narrative promoting DNA, blood, mind, and race as the only quantifiable mechanisms capable of indeterminately proving lineage. Seeing Angela hold Crawford’s lifeless body and experience a trauma-inflicted memory of him, though they have no blood relation, and watching soon after as Angela holds Will in a similar embrace, a man to whom her DNA is 99.94% matched, and remember nothing, matters not only for the story’s narrative arc, but for how we do history and recognize legacy. Watchmen weaves together a forming pedagogical canon which encourages us to both challenge modern ideals of knowledge production linked to possession and mastery and to embrace mnemonic material which can’t always be chronologically quantified, but can offer a different lens into human interaction and experience.1

Narratives which normalize the senses as a way of knowing alongside and on equal footing with traditionally recognized analytical methods call to me as someone interested and invested in memory and materiality’s interplay. As a scholar of Africana religions focused on the construction of musical techniques which effect atmospheres and impact how people engage space, time, and each other, I am very much compelled by what and how people feel, in what makes them respond to certain situations and sensory stimuli. My work deep dives into conjuring traditions which provide a roadmap of sensory material engagement and activation amongst African diasporic peoples, while illustrating and problematizing the ways that histories of enchantment and mesmerism render subordinated peoples as easily manipulated and credulous.2 

Watchmen’s potential to lead us, for lack of a more appropriate term, out of the tunnel into the marvelous light, by beautifully illustrating the dynamic relationship between history, memory, and sensory perception is exciting. While the series provides several examples of biologically-founded sources of connection like episode two’s DNA confirmation between Angela and Will, episode 4’s baby negotiation between Lady Trieu and the Clarks out of whose discarded material she offers them “a legacy” in exchange for their land, and episode nine’s plot point regarding Lady Trieu’s mother, Bian My, artificially inseminating herself with Ozymandias’s (also Master and Adrian Veidt) sperm to create “the smartest woman in the world,” there are equal or more illustrations of Angela forming connection and establishing lineage through sensory means. 

In episodes two and nine, history, memory, and legacy are tied to ingested material when Will appeals to Angela to let him have his pills because “they help me get my memory” and when Angela consumes Dr. Manhattan’s egg as a way of (possibly) gaining his powers. Angela overdoses on Will’s nostalgia pills in episode six, propelling her on a journey through his life experiences which she lives and feels as her own. “Now you know everything, my origin story,” Will says in the season finale, “when I put it on, you felt what I felt.” While Lady Trieu can’t understand why Will would want Angela to experience his memories “passively,” Will tells her that Angela would not believe him if he told her. She needed to feel his anger, hurt, and fear in order to truly understand her history, where she comes from. This justification shows history as something that isn’t only biologically inherited, read, or felt, but also lived and performed. 

Watchmen exposes us to the many ways that people can experience and know history, showing us how these additional tools can be used to level a playing field which perpetuates oppression and violence by rendering some histories as more valuable than others based on access to traditional materials, archives, and resources. Through Angela’s sensorial engagement, we are given permission to creatively interpret and redefine our own means of connection. “I’m in every moment when we’re together all at one,” says Dr. Manhattan to Angela as his body is torn asunder by Lady Trieu’s millennium clock. Watchmen illustrates how our senses give us the ability to not only learn history, but also get “in” the moments which intimately link us through time, space, and dimension. 

  1. See Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings, Alexandra Vazquez’s Listening in Detail, Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother.
  2. See Yvonne Chireau’s Black Magic, Jason A. Josephson Storm’s The Myth of Disenchantment and Emily Ogden’s Credulity, all of which are frameworks mobilized in Watchmen.
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Ambre Dromgoole

Ambre Dromgoole is a PhD student at Yale in African American Studies and Religious Studies. Dromgoole graduated from Oberlin College & Conservatory in 2015 with a B.A. in Musical Studies and Religion. She then obtained an M.A. in Religion from Yale Divinity School and Institute of Sacred Music with a concentration in Black Religion and the Arts. Ambre is interested in the convergence of Black religion and popular culture, focusing on the emergence of sonic spirituality and various musical genres from women in the Black Holiness-Pentecostal tradition.