*Warning: Spoilers for all aired episodes of HBO's Watchmen ahead.
Rather than being a straight adaptation of the famed graphic novel, HBO’s Watchmen explores what the world looks like 30-plus years after the events of the comics, which took place in 1985. That story ended (err, spoilers?) with the Cold War at an end due to the efforts of former masked vigilante Ozymandias, a.k.a. Adrian Veidt, who engineered a fake alien attack to bring the rival powers to a state of peace.
But the world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, as evidenced by the dead bodies that keep piling up in Watchmen-the-show. And just because HBO’s Watchmen takes place decades after the graphic novel doesn’t mean we don’t get a lot of references to the very things Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon wrote about.
1. The Comedian’s Button
One of Watchmen’s most famous motifs is the yellow smiley face, based on the button that the Comedian—whose death begins the graphic novel—was wearing when he died. The button is echoed in the shape Angela Abar (Regina King) makes out of eggs when she’s cooking in episode 1.
2. The Comedian’s Blood
At the end of episode 1, there's another reference to the Comedian's death. The drop of blood on Judd Crawford’s fallen badge exactly matches the drop of blood on the Comedian’s button. A drop of blood can also be seen in one of the egg yolks.
3. The 51st State
In Watchmen’s pilot episode, Angela mentions that she’s from the state of Vietnam. The Vietnam War gets relatively sizable placement in Watchmen-the-comic, where the superpowered Dr. Manhatttan—working for Uncle Sam—is able to definitively win the war for the United States. Subsequently, it becomes the 51st state.
4. Tricky Dick
Episodes 1 and 2 venture into Nixonville, a trailer park that serves as a hotbed of Seventh Kavalry members. The place is ornamented with a life-sized statue of Richard Nixon. In the comics, the United States’s victory in Vietnam meant Nixon’s continued popularity. He got the 22nd Amendment (capping a president’s service at two terms) repealed and remained president at least through the end of 1985. A scene in the pilot shows that Nixon’s face is on Mount Rushmore.
5. The Sundance Kid
In the comics, it’s stated that Robert Redford might soon be running for president, taking Ronald Reagan’s place as the Watchmen universe’s actor-turned-POTUS. In HBO’s Watchmen, set in 2019, it’s established that Redford has indeed been president for multiple decades.
6. Adrian Veidt, Dead?
At the end of the Watchmen graphic novel, former masked vigilante Adrian Veidt has succeeded in his plan to preempt World War III by, er, attacking New York City with a giant squid that everyone assumes is from another dimension. The U.S. and the USSR subsequently calm it down with all the Cold War stuff, as an extra-dimensional attack is kind of a bigger deal. However, Rorschach’s journal detailing his investigation and subsequent discovery of Veidt’s shadiness has been sent to the conspiracy-minded, right-wing paper The New Frontiersman, leaving the door open for the possibility—which is confirmed in the show—that some people may come to believe the squid attack was engineered. All that may be why Veidt (likely, but not confirmed, to be Jeremy Irons’s character) has faked his own death and gone into hiding, as hinted at by the newspaper headline seen briefly in the show’s pilot.
7. New Frontiersman and Nova Express
We see the New Frontiersman in episode 2, where it’s peddling conspiracies (true ones) about the squid rain. Also being sold by the news vendor early in the episode is the Nova Express, another newspaper from Watchmen. It’s the New Frontiersman’s ideological opposite and more respected counterpart.
8. A Familiar Salesman
The newspaper salesman in episode 2 is dressed awfully like the newspaper salesman from Watchmen, an oft-seen side character who’s a fan of conspiracy theories and gabbing (two things he shares with his HBO counterpart) and was killed in Veidt’s squid attack.
9. Electric Cars
Electric cars exist in our world, but they’re not inexpensive enough that the farmer/cop killer (and electric car driver) from the Watchmen pilot is likely to be able to afford one. In the graphic novel, that’s explained: Dr. Manhattan can synthesize the lithium required to produce the necessary batteries, meaning that even in 1985 electric cars are in high use in the Watchmen universe.
10. The Dr. Manhattan Cancer Connection
Speaking of lithium: In the pilot episode, the Seventh Kalvary is revealed to have some sort of sinister plan in motion involving old watch batteries. These particular watch batteries were banned prior to the time the show takes place because they’re made of “synthetic lithium,” which is thought to give people cancer. In the graphic novel, part of Adrian Veidt’s plan is making people think that proximity to Dr. Manhattan gives people cancer; clearly, that’s not a fear that entirely went away. Watches are a recurring motif in the graphic novel and show alike.
11. Manhattan on Mars
When Judd Crawford informs the wife of the murdered cop of her husband’s death in the pilot, on the TV in her house there’s a livestream of Dr. Manhattan playing around on Mars, where he’s presumably been since the end of the comics. (The elaborate sandcastle he’s building resembles both Veidt’s manor and the structure being built out of magnetic toys by Topher Abar in episode 2.)
Another bit of technology made possible by Dr. Manhattan is airships, which can be seen serving as a sort of airborne billboard for the upcoming show American Hero Story: Minutemen. The Tulsa police department makes use of a different sort of airship that looks remarkably similar to that used by Nite Owl in the comics.
13. Owl Goggles
The police department’s airship isn’t the only bit of Nite Owl-inspired tech from the HBO show. The goggles Angela uses in episode 2 are also remarkably similar to the ones the second Nite Owl uses, though his don’t have X-ray capabilities. (But hey, it was the '80s.)
14. American Hero Story: Minutemen
In addition to being a riff on Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story franchise (not part of the Watchmen universe, at least as far as we know), American Hero Story: Minutemen references the “Minutemen,” the first group of masked vigilantes. They were in operation throughout the 1940s before disbanding. In the pilot, we see a commercial for that same show. Several characters watch it in episode 2.
15. Hooded Justice
One of the founding members of the Minutemen was Hooded Justice, who in the world of Watchmen opted to retire instead of reveal his true identity to the House Un-American Activities Committee. His outfit—a giant cloak and hood paired with a noose—is similar to the outfit worn by Bass Reeves in the silent film from the first scene of HBO’s Watchmen. (Reeves switches out the noose for a lasso.) We see more of Hooded Justice in the bit of American Hero Story we see in episode 2; there, it goes into the theory that Hooded Justice was a circus strongman named Rolf Müller. In the prequel spinoff Before Watchmen, this theory is explained to be incorrect.
16. Dollar Bill
Another member of the Minutemen was Dollar Bill, notable for being the only superhero in the employ of a private organization. (National Bank, in his case.) A National Bank poster featuring Dollar Bill can be seen in the Seventh Kalvary cattle ranch base attacked by the Tulsa police in the pilot.
17. The Moth
In episode 2, we get a reference to Minuteman The Moth, one of the few original masked superheroes still alive during the Watchmen comic. (We don’t see him, but it’s referenced several times that he’s in an asylum somewhere.) In HBO’s Watchmen, journalists who get around on motorized wings are called “Moths.”
In the pilot episode, Judd Crawford tells cop Looking Glass to “go ahead, pull your face”—meaning his mask—“down.” The mask has a similar silhouette to Rorschach’s mask, which he also refers to as his “face.” During the scene where Looking Glass interrogates the Seventh Kalvary member during the Pod scene, reflections make his mask look even more like Rorschach’s.
When Angela goes to her son Topher’s career day, you can see a poster in the classroom explaining the “Anatomy of a Squid.” That’s a callback to the Veidt-engineered “alien” squid attack, which most people in the world of HBO’s Watchmen clearly still believe in. In the show, there’s also the occasional “squid rain,” presumably engineered by the government in order to keep up the ruse.
20. “The Future is Bright”
Early in the pilot episode, you can see a man holding a sign saying “The Future is Bright.” That’s the inverted version of the sign Rorschach carries around Manhattan when not wearing his mask. That one reads “The End is Nigh.”
Another fearful-turned-optimistic image can be seen in episode 2, where Angela and Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) watch a clock as it counts down the minutes to Christmas. The clock is an exact replica of the Doomsday Clock from the comics, gradually tracking humankind’s journey toward nuclear annihilation. A clock with the same design is seen on Madison Square Garden after the squid attack, covered in blood and surrounded by corpses. The same clock face can be seen in the background in the episode 2 scene where Adrian Veidt’s servants perform his play. Veidt’s pocket watch and the timer from the episode 2 scene in Angela’s bakery where she interrogates Will for the second time have a similar design. All clocks read a few minutes to midnight.
22. The Watchmaker’s Son
The aforementioned play, written by Veidt, depicts the origin story of Dr. Manhattan. In the Gila Flats Test Base in the 1950s, a scientist named Jon Ostermen goes into the Intrinsic Field Subtractor to retrieve the watch he repaired for his girlfriend, Janey Slater. The Subtractor is turned on, and Osterman becomes Dr. Manhattan. The name of the play is The Watchmaker’s Son, and Dr. Manhattan’s father was a watchmaker. The play ends with Osterman saying “Nothing ends. Nothing ever ends,” which is one word away from Dr. Manhattan’s final words in Watchmen.
23. Poison Pill
When the Tulsa cops go after the Seventh Kalvary, one of them manages to kill himself with a poison pill before Angela can take him in. This echoes a scene from the Watchmen comics, where Adrian Veidt’s wannabe assassin kills himself in the same method. (It’s later revealed that Veidt both hired the assassin and force-fed him the pill in order to convince Rorschach that the Comedian’s killer is someone with a grudge against masked heroes.)
24. From Russia with Love
In the Watchmen comic, soon after Adrian’s attack on Manhattan—which ends the Cold War—New York starts to love all thing Russian, as evidenced by a couple of posters and storefronts (“Burgers ’n’ Borscht”). This dovetails nicely with the alter ego of one of Angela’s fellow cops, who wears a bright red and yellow tracksuit, has a Russian accent, says he’s a Communist, and goes by the nickname Red Scare.
25. “Who Watches the Watchmen?”
The Tulsa police department’s motto is “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?,” Latin for “Who watches the Watchmen?” In the comics, that’s a slogan used by the superhero-hating public, which riots after the police go on strike to to get the vigilantes outlawed.
26. Have a Drink
Judd Crawford’s office at police HQ, as seen in the pilot, has two Easter Eggs. One is a mug in the shape of an owl, a clear nod to the two superheroes known as Nite Owl. (One from the Minutemen, one from the Watchmen.)
27. Under the Hood
The other Easter egg courtesy of Crawford: A copy of Under the Hood, a memoir written by Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl. Chapters of his book were included in the text of Watchmen.
Angela’s passcode for her lair is “1985,” the year in which the Watchmen comics take place.
On Adrian Veidt’s desk, there’s a glass doodad that looks awfully similar to a bottle of Nostalgia perfume, one of the many products made by Adrian Veidt’s corporation.
30. The Pale Horse
In the first and second episode, Adrian Veidt rides up to his country manor on a white horse. The phrase Pale Horse is quite prominent near the end of Watchmen. A band with that same name is playing at Madison Square Garden the night of the squid attack. Everyone who was listening to them dies.
31. Ancient Obsession
The name of Veidt’s horse is Bucephalus, taken from the name of Alexander the Great’s horse. In the comics, Veidt is obsessed with Alexander the Great, going so far as to replicate his journey through the Mediterranean and Northeast Africa. Veidt’s obsession with Alexander the Great is again seen a bit later in the episode, when the play he wrote includes the line “as impenetrable as the Gordian knot itself.” The impossible-to-untangle Gordian knot, which Alexander the Great famously cut through with a sword, is used by Veidt as a metaphor for his own plan to stop the Cold War by faking an extradimensional attack.
During the pilot, as Veidt chats with his servants, a cover of Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” can be briefly heard. That song plays a role in the comics; its lyrics are juxtaposed with a scene where the second Nite Owl and the second Silk Spectre get physical in the former’s ship.
33. To-may-to, To-mah-to
At Adrian Veidt’s estate, tomatoes grow on trees. An explanation: Veidt’s interest in genetic engineering, also evidenced in his fleet of clone servants. (In the comics, Veidt hasn’t gotten to humans yet, but he does have a genetically engineered Lynx named Bubastis.)
34. Senator Joe Keene
Late in the Watchmen pilot, as Judd Crawford drives off to meet his grim fate, we hear someone on the radio talking about ex-senator Joe Keene (“a real cowboy, unlike our current Sundancer-in-Chief”) and his son, Joe Junior (also a Senator). The latter appears in person in the second episode and will reportedly continue as a supporting character throughout the season. The first Senator Keene introduced the Keene Act, which made being a masked vigilante illegal.
35. More Nite Owl, Anyone?
The final scene of Watchmen’s pilot reveals that Judd Crawford has been killed by an elderly man who was seen as a child escaping the Tulsa Race Massacre at the beginning of the episode. You might need subtitles on to notice it, but as Angela discovers her boss’s body, an owl is hooting in the background.
36. Psychic Powers
In Watchmen’s second episode, Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.) jokes that he killed Judd Crawford using “psychic powers.” It’s not true, but it’s also not impossible. In the world of Watchmen, psychic powers are actually real. Adrian Veidt used them (or, rather, the stolen brain of someone with them) to pull off his squid plot.
37. Black and Yellow
The Tulsa police department’s color scheme—black uniforms, canary yellow masks, and batons—matches the color scheme of Watchmen’s cover, where the yellow is from the Comedian’s aforementioned smiley face button.
38. Manhattan Powers
In episode 2, Will name-checks three of Dr. Manhattan’s powers from the comics: He can grow, he can make copies of himself, and he can change the color of his skin.
39. Happy Halloween
In one particularly gutting scene from the graphic novel, the first Nite Owl—by now an old man and completely minding his business—is murdered by people who confuse him for his successor. His body is found by a trio of trick-or-treaters: a ghost, a pirate, and a devil. There are also a trio of trick-or-treaters in episode two: Cal and two of his and Angela’s kids. They are a ghost, a pirate, and (wait for it) an owl.
40. Plenty o’ Pirates
There might be a lot of owl stuff in Watchmen so far, but let’s not ignore the pirates. There’s the aforementioned Halloween costume. In the background of that scene, you can see what appears to be a LEGO sculpture of a pirate ship being attacked by a giant squid. (Of course.) One of the Tulsa detectives is named “Pirate Jenny.” There’s a connection to the graphic novel: One of Watchmen’s subplots, excised from the 2009 movie, involves a pirate ship called the Black Freighter. In one of the in-universe essays that accompanies each issue of Watchmen, the popularity of pirate comics is explored. It turns out that one of the writers was hired by Veidt to help with the whole squid thing.
41. Silhouette Lovers
Early in episode 2, Angela drives by a painted silhouette of two lovers kissing. This is the same silhouette as one given prominent placement in the comics’ pages. One of the Minutemen was also named the Silhouette, but we don’t know much about her.