Last year, HBO released one of its best series to date. Damon Lindelof’s vision for the Watchmen universe is more dystopian than even the one portrayed by Alan Moore in the original graphic novel, and it has the narrative layers to match that darkness. The show has many fun visual Easter eggs and references to the comic, but it spends almost as much time referencing the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!
The show’s opening moments establish the setting of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in a flashback to 1921, the year of the infamous Tulsa race riot. From there, we are transported into a modern-day dystopia unlike any seen in popular culture up to this point. Traces of the old America still exist, and one of its greatest bastions is the show’s sheriff character Judd Crawford, played brilliantly by a charismatic and wily Don Johnson. It should be noted that Judd shares a name with the musical’s villain, Jud Fry.
In first episode, Crawford attends an all-black production of Oklahoma!. Later, it’s revealed at the dinner table that Crawford had played the character of Curly in his high school production of Oklahoma!, and he sings the song “People Will Say We’re In Love.” The episode’s title (“It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice”) is also a reference to the song “Pore Jud is Daid.” That same song can be heard in the premiere’s closing moments. In the finale, another song from the musical is used. “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'” plays as Angela and her family emerge from the theater (where a marquis for Oklahoma! can be seen), looking out on the destruction that has come down upon Tulsa.
The musical Oklahoma! itself returned to the spotlight last year not only because of Watchmen, but because of a Tony-winning Broadway revival with some interesting parallels to Watchmen‘s thematic focus. Darker, sexier and biting in its commentary on American justice, Daniel Fish’s Okhlahoma! revival stuck to the script of the original word-for-word, but came with a new ending violent enough to match the horrifying real-world violence experienced by characters in Watchmen.
Just as the revival of Oklahoma! dives further into the dark sexual themes present (but not explored) in its original corresponding work, Watchmen does the same when it comes to the original graphic novel’s themes of vigilante justice and the toll it can take on real people. Regina King’s brilliant turn as Angela Abar/Sister Night is just as powerfully-provocative as any masked vigilante put on screen, and just as deadly. Her relationship with her husband Calvin offsets this deadly demeanor and gives the audience consistent glimpses at her more sensual side.
No doubt this and the relationship between Curly and Laurey in the Oklahoma! revival share more than a few similarities. The sexual actions of these characters inform the audience of their inner state of being, and informs the future actions of the characters themselves in their respective stories. Angela’s fierce protection of her husband causes her to take drastic action more than once in Watchmen, and the same can be said of Laurey and Curly in Oklahoma! Both of these stories lead their respective couples down bloody paths, and these paths both end in tragedy of some kind.
HBO’s Watchmen will live on forever as perhaps one of the network’s very best limited series, up there with classics like The Sopranos and The Wire, as well as recent critical smashes like Chernobyl. Damon Lindelof outdid himself with his mystery-box style of storytelling this time around, and the layers of this show will continue to be peeled back for years to come. The show’s intricate connection to the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is another one of those layers.
References and easter eggs pertaining to the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical can be found throughout the hit HBO limited series.