HBO’s upcoming drama Watchmen, debuting October 20th, is at once a huge deviation from the 1986 comic book that inspired it and a faithful sequel. It takes place 34 years after the events of the comic, many of its characters are brand new — as is its thematic focus on race relations and white supremacy — and its references to the original story by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons can be scant and oblique. Yet the show very much exists in the world established by that story, and treats everything from the comic as if it happened, even if the history isn’t always explained.
For those curious about the show who either have never read the comic — nor seen Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie, which faithfully retold most of its plot — or don’t remember it well, here are key things to know going in about Watchmen‘s alternate reality.
A band of costumed heroes used to exist.
In the late Thirties, this world saw a boom in masked vigilante types, starting with the mysterious and imposing Hooded Justice, and eventually leading to enough heroes in and around New York to form their own team, known as the Minutemen. Their adventures were more publicity stunts than anything else, and there were ugly intra-squad incidents, like when Edward Blake, a.k.a. the Comedian, tried to rape Sally Jupiter, a.k.a. Silk Spectre, before Hooded Justice intervened.
In the Sixties, a new generation of heroes came along — including a new Silk Spectre (Sally’s daughter Laurie), smartest man in the world Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt, the gadget-wielding Nite Owl (real name Dan Dreiberg), the intense and brutal Rorschach (Walter Kovacs to his friends, if he had any), and the omnipotent Dr. Manhattan (more on him in a minute). There was a brief attempt to form a new team called the Crimebusters, combining the newbies with the remaining Minutemen, but it died before the first meeting was over.
They mostly don’t anymore.
By 1977, masked heroes had grown so unpopular that the Keene Act, named for Senator Joe Keene, outlawed their existence. Most retired, but the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan went on working for the government, while Rorschach continued to operate outside the law.
There is only one actual superhero.
While the other characters get by with their fists or the odd gizmo, Dr. Manhattan — a physicist (and watchmaker’s son) born Jon Osterman, before an accident with an “intrinsic field subtractor” tore him apart at the atomic level and put him back together in a glowing blue form — is so powerful as to be indistinguishable from God. His presence is responsible for most of the big divergences between our world and the Watchmen world, from technological advances — like the airship that Nite Owl pilots — to changes in geopolitical history. Speaking of which…
Nixon won Vietnam. And many more terms in office.
Dr. Manhattan single-handedly defeated the Viet Cong, and, along with some dirty work by the Comedian (who, it’s implied, murdered Woodward and Bernstein), made Richard Nixon so popular and invulnerable that the 22nd Amendment was repealed, leaving Tricky Dick still in the White House as of 1985 — and the nation on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
The Comedian’s death was violent — and his life was complicated.
Though the comic bounces around in time, its proper story begins with the murder of Edward Blake, and the way that Rorschach’s investigation of it starts to bring the other heroes out of retirement. Along the way, Laurie — who has been dating Dr. Manhattan for years, but leaves him for the more emotionally available Dan Dreiberg — is stunned to realize that Blake is her biological father, not from the attempted rape, but a consensual relationship he later had with her mother.
A giant alien squid saved the world.
Veidt is revealed as Blake’s killer, as well as the mastermind of a plot to avert nuclear armageddon by faking an alien attack on New York, in the form of a giant fake squid that is teleported into midtown Manhattan. The squid’s arrival kills three million people and scares the entire world into banding together against this apparent threat from another dimension. (The biggest deviation between the comic and the Snyder movie comes here, as Snyder ditched the squid in favor of Veidt figuring out a way to make it look like Dr. Manhattan attacked humanity.)
The truth might get out.
In the aftermath of Veidt’s global hoax, Dr. Manhattan (who has already started spending more time on Mars than Earth, and is planning to leave our planet for good) murders Rorschach to stop the obsessive vigilante from revealing the truth of the scheme and ruining this chance for peace. But the series ends with one of Rorschach’s journals — which includes his assertion that Veidt murdered Blake — in the hands of a staffer at his favorite right-wing magazine.