Watchmen, Damon Lindelof’s TV adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel, 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 -- updated with each new episode -- of all the historical events, political figures and pop culture references featured in the series. Warning: some spoilers below.
Episode 4: “If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Watchmen airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.