- There have been a ton of pirate references in the earlygoings of HBO’s Watchmen. What gives?
- Pirates even had a major presence in the original graphic novel.
- It eventually comes back to a comic within a comic.
In the third episode of Watchmen, Jeremy Irons’ Adrian Veidt rides his horse past a black flag that’s been strung across a sickle, emblazoned with a familiar-looking skull and crossbones. Later, he receives a letter sent by the mysterious Game Warden who’d fired a warning shot at him, its wax seal imprinted with that same ominous skull. We’ve seen several such references to pirates—or pirate regalia, anyway. The same episode reintroduces us to Pirate Jenny, played by Jessica Camacho, who was last seen piloting that owl-shaped ship in the premiere. And in a background Easter egg, we see that Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) and her sidekick Agent Petey (Dustin Ingram) have checked themselves into the Black Freighter Inn & Suites, an unusual motel name that’s only slightly less enticing than “Econo Lodge.” These references are subtle, but like everything else about the show, they’re clearly deliberate. If you’re coming in cold to the Watchmen universe, you’d be well within your rights for asking what the hell is up with all the pirates.
As with so many other things about the HBO series, this is a deliberate callback to the comics—specifically, a comic within the comics. The Black Freighter Inn takes its name from Tales of the Black Freighter, a comic in the dark vein of Tales from the Crypt that’s very popular in the Watchmen world. In an insert appended to Watchmen No. 5, a mock introduction to a book called the Treasure Island Treasury of Comics, we learn how pirate comics dominated the 20th century, with Tales from the Crypt publisher EC Comics ruling the marketplace with titles like Piracy and Buccaneers. That is, until National Comics (the proto-DC Comics) introduced Tales of the Black Freighter in 1960. An anthology series, Black Freighter is comprised of twisty, self-contained tales told by men who have gathered in a tavern—“utterly unprincipled and worthless creatures capable of almost any act of treachery” who begin recounting their stories while a mysterious sea captain sits nearby, listening silently. Seemingly impressed by their scurrilous deeds, the captain invites them aboard his own ship, the titular Black Freighter, which is soon revealed to be a doomed, Flying Dutchman-style vessel that traps their souls at sea for all eternity.
Throughout Watchmen, one of the fringe characters, a teenager named Bernie, is seen reading Tales of the Black Freighter while he hangs out behind a newsstand (much to the annoyance of its owner). The specific story Bernie is so engrossed in, Marooned, is a particularly horrific one: It’s the bloody account of a young sailor whose ship is destroyed by the Black Freighter, killing his shipmates and leaving him for dead. Convinced that the Freighter is now heading toward his hometown, the desperate mariner builds a makeshift raft by lashing together the bloated bodies of his fallen crew, then sails their rotting corpses across treacherous, shark-filled waters, feasting on raw seagulls as he descends into near-madness. By the time he finally returns home, he’s whipped himself into a vengeful lunacy, believing the town to be already controlled by the Black Freighter he’s come to regard as evil incarnate. In his frenzy, he kills an innocent couple he believes to be conspiring with the pirates, then mistakenly butchers his own wife. Stunned by his reprehensible acts, he realizes to his horror that the Black Freighter wasn’t coming for his village after all. It was coming for him.
In interviews, Watchmen co-creator Alan Moore has said that Tales of the Black Freighter grew out of a conversation he had with his partner Dave Gibbons as they were trying to flesh out their fictional world. Superheroes already walked the streets, they realized, so folks probably wouldn’t be reading about them in comics. At Gibbons’ suggestion, they decided everyone might be into pirates instead. Moore, a fan of playwright Bertolt Brecht, took the name from the Brecht and Kurt Weill musical The Threepenny Opera and its tune “Pirate Jenny,” sung by a maid who imagines pirates coming ashore to slaughter the townspeople who’d oppressed her. “Pirate Jenny” has since become a standard, covered by the likes of Nick Cave and Nina Simone, whose version was included in the soundtrack for Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie in 2009. And of course, it gave Camacho’s TV character her name.
While it began as a mere background detail, Black Freighter grew to become an important counter-narrative in the Watchmen comic, offering meta-textual commentary throughout on the characters’ actions and feelings, as well as elucidating the general ambience of paranoia and apocalyptic dread. Eventually, it also overlapped with the main story, as it’s revealed that Black Freighter writer Max Shea was among those conscripted by Veidt/Ozymandias to design the alien squid he drops on Manhattan, the apocalyptic event he fakes to stave off a real one. Ultimately, in Bernie’s estimation, Tales of the Black Freighter doesn’t “make any sense.” But placed within the context of the larger Watchmen story, it’s a poignant allegory for Veidt’s corruption, his own fear of a looming, manifest evil similarly driving him to murder the very people he meant to protect.
So, what does this have to do with the TV show? Thus far, all the pirate stuff has been little more than a recurring motif, a wink to fans who have read the book (and who love throwing around words like “meta-textual”). Still, by the end of the original book, the comic drew an overt parallel between Veidt and the demented mariner: Veidt, before setting off his murderous squid-bomb, mused aloud that he’d been “Troubled by dreams lately, of swimming towards a hideous…” before abruptly cutting himself off. It seems that Veidt realizes, if only subconsciously, the utter awfulness of the act he’s committing and the punishment he deserves. As the sailor lamented in Black Freighter’s final panels, while guiltily surrendering to the dreadful ship: “I was a horror: amongst horrors I must dwell.”
Could the pirate flag on Veidt’s property be a clue that he, too, has been condemned, forced to sail heedlessly on inside a similarly ghostly prison, surrounded by the phantom undead that are his servant clones? If so, does this mean that whoever created that prison has read Tales of the Black Freighter, maybe recognized the parallels to Veidt’s story, and thought it would be a cleverly symbolic way to taunt him? Or do they, like the comics-reading kids in Watchmen, just think pirates are kind of cool? We’ll surely know more in the coming weeks— and Bernie’s protests aside, we’re guessing it will end up being more significant than at first it might appear.