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‘Watchmen’: Don Johnson Weaponizes Charisma, and He’s So Good, It’s Scary

How to fall for an actor in under an hour, and then wonder if it was a huge mistake.

Watchmen Don Johnson Episode 1

Don Johnson in “Watchmen”

Mark HIll / HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “Watchmen” Episode 1, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice.”]

For everyone who’s known about Don Johnson’s remarkable charisma since the ’80s, let me apologize. I missed the boat with “Miami Vice” and never sunk my teeth into “Nash Bridges.” (Are there gnash/Nash puns in the CBS police procedural? I wouldn’t know, but a boy can dream.)

But his fairly limited time on screen in the “Watchmen” premiere is a masterclass in charm, magnetism, or whatever mystical onscreen attribute boils down to instant likability. Much of it is Johnson’s prudent performance as Tulsa Police Chief Judd Crawford. Some of it is savvy writing, all the way up through the captain’s last-minute death. But the combination of both equate to one fact and another more troubling — and more important — afterthought: Judd was a beloved man, and it’s easy to see why. But should he be?

There are many reasons the audience is meant to like Judd — his friendship with Angela Abar (Regina King) chief among them. Their in-office back-and-forth over “Oklahoma” as well as their shared family dinner later enforces their relationship goes beyond a working one. He’s seen both sides of Angela’s mask and, since he doesn’t wear one, it’s easy to presume she knows him just as well. When the one person (Angela) you feel like you can trust in a strange new world trusts someone else (Judd), you trust them, too.

Judd’s inherent trust in Angela — shown when she hauls in a suspect before he even asks her to — further illustrates this shared bond between characters and audience, but the chief’s solo moments are just as enticing. Take his visit to Roberta Sutton (Zsane Jhe), the wife of the police officer shot by a Seventh Kavalry member. For a difficult conversation, Judd leans in close to Roberta, speaking at a calm, level voice, and when it inevitably gets contentious, he holds his tone: “Yeah, I know what you’re thinking,” Judd says to the frustrated Roberta. “‘Fuck me and the horse I rode in on.'” “He liked you,” she says. And without missing a beat, Judd replies, “No, he likes me.”

It’s a cheeky remark with a hopeful tilt: Judd emphasizes the present tense to remind Roberta her husband, Charlie (Donald Watkins), is still alive, even hinting that he’ll stay that way. But it also not-so-subtly builds bridges. If Charlie likes Judd, she should, too. We all should. Look at this good ol’ boy police chief, delivering the hard news in person, listening to Roberta’s worries, and soothing them with a dash of charm. That Johnson doesn’t overdo it with the charm, flashing a big smile or even breaking from his respectful demeanor, speaks well of the actor’s insight, as well as any guidance given by director Nicole Kassell.

Watchmen Don Johnson Frances Fisher

Don Johnson and Frances Fisher in “Watchmen”

Van Redin / HBO

By the time Judd breaks into a rendition of “People Will Say We’re in Love” at the dinner table, everyone watching is right there with Angela, Cal (Yahya Abdul Mateen II), and Jane (Frances Fisher): We’re all putty in Judd’s hands. Of course, that moment (if not sooner) is when you should realize he’s probably going to die. If his comment to the troops earlier didn’t do it — “It’s my funeral” — then a charisma overload via “Oklahoma!” should settle his fate. (For those unversed in “Oklahoma!”, the musical’s Jud character also dies.) By the time the chief dons his uniform one more time and hits the road solo, it’s pretty clear he won’t be coming home — and that’s OK. Having the audience beg the TV gods to spare their new favorite father figure only makes the painful final shot all the more affecting.

But should we be mourning the loss of Judd, or just Johnson’s surefire Emmy-nominated turn? Given the way in which the character died, as well as “Watchmen’s” general de-mystifying themes, it’s safe to say no one is as good as they seem — or, better put, no one is as purely perfect as they would be in another show about heroes. Even Angela takes the law into her own hands. Sure, we’re OK with it because the guy she’s beating bloody is a white supremacist, but she’s still operating outside her rights.

Judd, too, went off-book when he blew that airplane out of the sky and snorted a load of cocaine during family dinner. How Kassell frames that shot in particular — with the camera a safe distance from Judd just as Judd is a safe distance from the party — hints that he’s keeping something from everyone else. Throw in the opening film-within-a-film — where the (real) Bass Reeves arrests the local sheriff, describing him as a “scoundrel” who stole the town’s cattle — and there’s reason to believe ol’ Judd has plenty more to share, even after he’s dead.

What that is, exactly, remains unclear, but what’s already evident is that “Watchmen” has found a way to weaponize charisma; that the response to Johnson’s magnetic turn, both instinctual and provoked, is designed to be upended in one way or another. Likability is a mirage. Judd may not be wearing a physical mask, but his Southern charm could produce the very same effect: What’s he hiding behind all that affability? And what does this alt-reality character say about the real-world, where plenty of beloved public figures are revealed to be someone else once they duck behind closed doors?

“Watchmen” has its eye honed on what other American hero stories ignore, so to introduce Judd as a universally beloved figure with very minor vices only emphasizes the idea that we haven’t seen the full picture yet. For now, let’s praise the work and wait on the man — there’s a lot more sleuthing to be done.

“Watchmen” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. 

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