It’s a little daunting to follow the alt-history of Watchmen. The original comic was a complex political text that built a whole alternate United States history. Now, Damon Lindelof’s HBO show adds 30 more years of fictional political and social events for viewers to catch up on.
One of the biggest huh? moments comes 20 minutes into the first episode, when Angela talks to her son, Topher’s class about why she traded busting up crime for baking mooncakes. At one point, a particularly snotty kid raises his hands and asks, “Did Redfordations pay for it? Your bakery—did you pay for it with Redfordations?” When Angela and Topher are on the car ride home, we learn that Redfordations is a racist slur—but that’s about all we learn on the subject.
Thankfully, Lindelof and co. didn’t leave us hanging on that one for too long. Their idea of Redfordations is filled out a little bit more in Episode Two. Angela visits a museum called the Greenwood Center for Cultural Heritage—which seems dedicated to remembering the devastation from the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. (Side note: there is a real museum in Tulsa, OK called the Greenwood Cultural Center, which shares the same mission). She approaches a kiosk, where she’s greeted by a recording of United States Treasury Secretary Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (!)
As Angela goes through the process of getting Will’s DNA tested, the video shows images from the Race Riot, and Gates, Jr. says, “On behalf of the entire United States government, President Redford offers his sincerest condolences for the trauma you or your family may have suffered.” When Angela returns home, there’s a mysterious stranger (to the viewers at home, not her) on the doorstep. He agrees to leave when Angela writes him a check. The stranger quips, “Must be satisfied putting those Redfordations to work.”
In one of the last scenes of the episode, the museum calls Angela, tells her she’s Will’s granddaughter, and says, “Congratulations, you are eligible to be a beneficiary of the Victims of Racial Violence Act.” With this last bit of info, it’s fairly clear what happens in Watchmen’s version of American history. In this timeline, President Redford offers reparations to the descendants of racial injustice in the country, and calls it the Victims of Racial Violence Act. Especially considering the dialed-up racial tensions portrayed in Watchmen, “Redfordations” becomes a racial slur, and a major political issue.
What’s interesting is that the idea of reparations for descendants of slaves in the United States isn’t an idea unique to Watchmen, whose alt-history is never too far off from reality. America has a long history of attempting reparations for victims of injustice—notably, to mixed results in an attempt at justice for Japanese-Americans and Native Americans. More recently, in June, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held a congressional hearing on reparations, which was seen as a step toward a vote on HR 40, which calls for the examination of “slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.”
It’s even an issue that’s come up in the 2020 Democratic primary debates. Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Julián Castro have all spoken to the importance of some form of restitution. At one point, Marianne Williamson proposed setting aside up to $500 billion for a reparations program.
You can bet Watchmen will further unpack the consequences of the Victims of Racial Violence Act—and how it may have further divided an already-broken country.