On the morning of Sunday, November 26, 2019, writer and podcaster Gabriel Urbina posed a question to Twitter: "What was the single best episode of television of the decade?" There were a lot of suggestions in the more than 4,500 comments, and most of them were—to my way of thinking—entirely plausible contenders. (My own off-the-cuff answer—Mad Men's "The Suitcase"—was an obvious and popular choice, but it was impossible to scroll through the thread and not be tempted by others: Breaking Bad's "Ozymandias," Black Mirror's "San Junipero," Game of Thrones' "The Rains of Castamere," Community's "Remedial Chaos Theory," Atlanta's "Teddy Perkins," Hannibal's "Mizumono," The Leftovers' "The Most Powerful Man in the World," and many others seemed almost equally likely answers to an absurdly and delightfully unanswerable question.
And then, that same evening, the sixth episode of Watchmen aired, reminding us all that the decade wasn't over yet. I do not know if "This Extraordinary Being" is the best single TV episode of the 2010s, but I am certain that it is an instant classic of the art form, and one that will be studied, discussed, and unpacked for years to come. Written by Damon Lindelof and Cord Jefferson, and directed by Stephen Williams, "This Extraordinary Being" is television firing on all cylinders, powerfully marrying form and function in complex ways that interrogate all of Watchmen's important obsessions: white supremacy, police brutality, black rage and transgenerational trauma, the white-washing of history, and the dangerous complicity of American pop-culture—including, but not limited to, superhero stories—in all of these shameful legacies.
Settle in, folks: This one is going to take a while, and, though I'll inevitably fail, I want to try to do it—if you'll pardon the pun—justice.
"Hooded Justice: It all started with you."— from American Hero Story
"This Extraordinary Being" opens with a treatment of what superhero stories have become. All season, Watchmen has been showing us scenes from American Hero Story, a gaudy and sensationalistic TV show retelling the stories of the original Minutemen. These segments are satiric, obviously, and it's interesting that Lindelof and his team have chosen to satirize not the Disneyfied confections of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the "darker, grittier" tradition that grew—as we've already discussed—out of books like Watchmen and its imitators. American Hero Story is rife with kinky sex and gratuitous, glamorized violence, the sort of supposedly "mature" treatment of superheroes that passes itself off as deep and profound but really serves only as titillation for comic fans who have grown older without ever really growing up. (The style of the American Hero Story segments bears more than a passing resemblance to Zack Snyder's tone-deaf Watchmen film from 2009, but the clever casting of American Horror Story regular Cheyenne Jackson as "Hooded Justice" also confirms—if we had any doubts before—that this is what Ryan Murphy has found to do with himself in the alternate reality of Watchmen.)
It was the American Hero Story sequence in Episode Two, "Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship," that first led me predict what is confirmed in this episode: that, just as Bass Reeves' story was whitewashed into the legend of the Lone Ranger, it was actually a black man, Will Reeves (played as a young man by Jovan Adepo), who inspired the entire masked vigilante phenomenon. (And yes, I am intensely relieved that at least one of my many, reckless predictions turned out to be on the money.)
American Hero Story is sensationalistic trash, but it seems to have gotten a surprising amount right. For example, it acknowledges that, despite the rumors, circus-strongman Rolf Muller was not Hooded Justice. "I'm not ready to tell you who I really am," the fictionalized Hooded Justice narrates in "Martial Feats." "If I did, you wouldn't watch until the end." And then there's this narration, which Hooded Justice provides in that same episode:
"Who am I? When I was little, every time I looked in the mirror, I saw a stranger staring back at me. And he was very, very angry. What could I do with all this anger? Hot, vibrating electricity, with no place to ground it. If he couldn't release his rage, maybe I could help him hide it. I never felt comfortable in my own skin, so I made a new one. And when I slipped it on, he and I became one. His anger became mine, as did his thirst for justice. So, who am I? If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn't be wearing a fucking mask."
(Foreshadowing both the revelations and the structure of "This Extraordinary Being," that speech in "Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship" only begins on the face of "Hooded Justice." The scene immediately cuts to the face of Angela Abar, and the monologue continues in voice-over as she drives to Judd Crawford's house, where she will discover the Klan robe in his closet.)
What was missing from the American Hero Story sequence was any explanation for that monologue, any motivation for Hooded Justice's rage and his discomfort in his own skin. What was missing—but still peeking through the whitewashed narrative, like palimpsestic text—was the truth that Hooded Justice was black. That truth peeks through the scene this week, as well: Knowing what we know now, the tension of a black man interrogated by—and forced to reveal himself to—two racist white federal agents informs the scene, as much as the homophobia that is already there.
Even the subtext of the FBI's COINTELPRO program of covert surveillance on domestic activists and civil rights groups is on point here: As scholar Jared Leighton writes, "exposure of gay and lesbian activists in the Black freedom struggle served as a tactic typical of the FBI's attempts to discredit and sow division within and among civil rights and Black Power groups." The intersectionality of government oppression against the black community and the LGBTQ+ community—using the two against each other—informs this scene from within.
Again, all that is missing is the final key to the mystery, which makes us understand not only Hooded Justice's story but the entire phenomenon of masked vigilantes: the black face behind the mask.
"Who wants to be in the present when you can live in the past?" — Laurie
The central conceit behind "This Extraordinary Being" is absolutely brilliant, both as a storytelling device and as a metaphor for Watchmen's deconstruction of American history. For it all centers on nostalgia.
At the end of last episode, Angela swallowed all of her grandfather's mysterious pills, which turned out to be Nostalgia: a drug developed by the Trieu corporation, in which people's memories are harvested and concentrated into pill form, enabling them to relive the moments of their lives. After all, Laurie says, "Who wants to be in the present when you can live in the past?"
It is true that America, in general, is obsessed with nostalgia: We are obsessed with narratives of "the good old days" and "simpler times." We tend to romanticize almost all the bygone eras of our history, and project onto them illusions of prosperity, and innocence, and purer values that we have since somehow lost.
But that "we" is deceptive, isn't it? It is significant that it is Laurie—a white woman—who invokes the romance of the past, because the attraction of the past is not the same for everyone. The eras white Americans tend to romanticize were, obviously, not idyllic for people who were not white: In fact, there is no era in all of American history in which America was a "great" nation for people of color. It was white people who, in 2016, elected a president who promised to "Make America Great Again," and in doing so they either chose to ignore, or chose to embrace, the barely-concealed true meaning of that message: To make America great again for white people. To restore America to the openly white supremacist state that it was always designed and intended to be. Nostalgia, as Laurie warns, can drive a person—or a country—insane.
"This Extraordinary Being" recognizes that nostalgia—like the drug that bears its name—is poisonous. "You're not supposed to take someone else's Nostalgia," Laurie explains. "That's very, very bad." And in fact Will's memories are a place no one would choose to live: It is easy to imagine that any modern person—and particularly any white person—could be driven mad by them. To experience those memories firsthand would be an unbearable assault on their self-image, their grasp of history, their entire understanding of the country they live in and the very reality that they perceive.
(And of course this, in a very diluted form, is what this episode provides everyone who watches it. It places us, for example, in the point of view of a man literally being lynched, allowing us to feel a tiny fraction of that abject terror, humiliation, and rage. In a very small way, this has been what Watchmen has tried to do all along, by showcasing carefully suppressed injustices like the Tulsa massacre.)
Which is to say that, to some extent, the Nostalgia drug is a metaphor for art itself: It is "a machine that generates empathy," as Roger Ebert said of cinema. But one of the central subjects of "This Extraordinary Being"—and of Watchmen in general—is the two-sided nature of that machine, and the insidious conspiracy of nostalgia itself.
"You're not supposed to take someone else's Nostalgia," Laurie says. But if we consider the role of popular culture in American life, as "This Extraordinary Being" charges us to do, we realize that people of color in this country have been consuming white people's poisonous "nostalgia" from the beginning. Through white-washed literature and comic books and text books and movies, the narrative of white supremacy has been delivered to people of color for hundreds of years, feeding them lies about a great nation, feeding them alternative histories, feeding them fantasies about a land of freedom and opportunity that stood in stark, maddening contrast to all their actual experiences and every evidence of their senses. The "Cyclops" plot Will uncovers is—as we'll discuss—just a pulp-fiction metaphor for this real conspiracy, which is far more vast, and far more insidious, than anything dreamt up in a comic book.
Angela's experience here is different. She is not taking "someone else's nostalgia" here; in fact, this may be the first time in her life that she has not done so. Watchmen has already telegraphed its interest in the idea of "transgenerational trauma," the theory that the trauma experienced by one generation is passed down to that generation's descendants. A member of Wade's support group spoke about the idea last week, and elsewhere Watchmen has found ways to literalize this idea. (The Nostalgia drug is one such device, and we also saw indications that Lady Trieu was feeding memories to her daughter intravenously.)
But whether we believe transgenerational trauma is literally true on a genetic level—or just see it as a intergenerational psychological or sociological phenomenon—is ultimately unimportant compared to the larger point: That every person of color in this country continues to bear the traumas of America's white supremacist history. So Will's experiences are Angela's experiences, to a very real extent: That legacy is a part of her, and it has shaped her. Taking the pills, then, and living Will's memories, is not reprogramming her mind so much as deprogramming it: accessing her ancestral truths, and rejecting the lies—the phony "nostalgia"—that she has been fed her entire life. It is a process of what (as we discussed a few episodes ago) Chinua Achebe called "re-storying": cutting through the insidious narratives of the colonizers and oppressors and countering them with the more authentic truth of the dispossessed.
This has been one of Watchmen's missions from the beginning, and countering the dominant narrative of "superheroes" is just one aspect of a much larger purpose.
"…these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race." — Alan Moore
One of the things that is so brilliant about Watchmen's reimagining of its world's first masked vigilante is how much goddamned sense it makes. Of course Hooded Justice was black: This revelation, though surely never intended by Moore and Gibbons, nonetheless tracks with nearly every canonical aspect of the character they designed: the lynching imagery of his costume, the fact that he never removes his hood, et cetera. (Even the most damning fact Hollis Mason reported in his memoir Under the Hood—that Hooded Justice expressed admiration for Germany, prior to Pearl Harbor—is somewhat explained by the WWI-era German propaganda letter Will's father passed down.) Lindelof and his team have cleverly seized upon a few loose threads of Moore and Gibbons' novel and—without tearing out anything—used them to weave a person of color into the essential fabric of Watchmen's world.
But what's really remarkable is how much sense this revelation makes in the larger context of superheroes in general. In an interview with Frazier Tharpe at Complex this week, Cord Jefferson, the co-writer of this episode, discusses how Will Reeves becoming Hooded Justice seems so much more logical than someone like Bruce Wayne becoming Batman:
"Once I started thinking about this episode, the more that I understood what a good idea it was and in some ways, obvious idea, that of course, the first superhero is a person of color […] The idea that a white, male, billionaire needs to look for justice outside of the law, is crazy, right? The idea that Bruce Wayne would ever need to take to the streets in order to get justice is silly. Because Bruce Wayne could buy the courts if he wanted to. He could buy judges, because billionaires in America get to pretty much do whatever they want to do. So, it made sense to me that the first superhero was going to be somebody who couldn't find justice via the traditional means, who couldn't find justice in the courts, who couldn't find justice in the police, needs to put on a hood and a cape and take to the streets, because that's the only way that he'd be able to get justice."
(Besides, as my wife likes to point out, black people did everything white people take credit for first, and better. So it makes complete sense that the first superhero would be black.)
All of this has been reflected throughout Watchmen from the beginning. Even the original novel—though it did not even attempt to deal with race in the same way that Lindelof's Watchmen does—acknowledged the white privilege, and even white supremacist attitudes, of its dilettante superheroes. (For example, I mentioned last week how, in the book, Captain Metropolis—a character we meet on-screen this week, played by Jake McDorman—thought "riots" and "black unrest" were two of the problems his all-white super-team could be combating.)
So some of this was in Alan Moore's mind when he wrote the original Watchmen. In a 2017 interview with Brazil's Folha de São Paulo, which recently resurfaced, Moore discusses how "the impact of superheroes on popular culture is both tremendously embarrassing and not a little worrying":
"I would also remark that, save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators), these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race. In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915) as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks."
The argument is pretty inescapable, and we can trace it right back to the beginning of the superhero phenomenon. Though growing out of the pulp-fiction tradition with forerunners like The Phantom, The Shadow, and Doc Savage, the superhero era properly began with the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1, in 1938. Will encounters this issue, fresh off the printing press, in "This Extraordinary Being," so—if you'll allow me a short digression—I'd like to delve into this seminal comic a little.
The story that introduces Superman is, itself, fairly innocuous, even moderately progressive. Superman is a champion of the downtrodden, and commits several good deeds over the 13 pages of his first appearance, including stopping the execution of a woman wrongfully accused of murder, and stopping a man from viciously beating his wife. His final mission in this issue, however, is more interesting and politically loaded: Superman stops a slick lobbyist who is bribing a corrupt senator in order to get America "embroiled in Europe." It's a curious note for Superman-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—the children of Jewish immigrants—to have struck, allying their hero with the racist "America First" movement that opposed U.S. intervention in the Second World War.
It becomes less surprising, however, if we remember Siegel and Shuster were doing work-for-hire, because much of the rest of the anthology-styled Action Comics #1 is staggeringly racist, and full of supremacist white-savior stories. Some are only incidentally racist. (For example, in the first appearance of "Zatara the Magician"—a blatant ripoff of Lee Falk's Mandrake the Magician, one of the proto-superheroes—Zatara has a dark-skinned Indian sidekick/servant named Tong, who calls him "Master.") But others seem to exist only to be racist. In "South Sea Strategy" by Captain Frank Thomas, our "hero" Captain Bret Coleman—aided by his painfully caricatured black servant "Cottonball"—rescues a white missionary named Newton, who tells them how the natives of the island "suddenly went mad and overran the whole island, killing and plundering as they went." In the concluding chapter, published in Action Comics #2, Coleman and Cottonball have to rescue Newton's innocent white daughter from these "savages":
"There they are," said Bret. "That means those bloodthirsty natives have started another one of their murderous parties!"
"Yo' done spoke de truth, Cap'n Bret," replied Cottonball, and Coleman thought he detected the chattering of the negro's teeth. "When dose boys has parties dey sho' do get nasty!"
"They're brutal savages, and to think they have Newton's daughter!" Coleman clenched his fist and the lines around his mouth hardened…
Another story in Action Comics #1, by Fred Guardineer, features the white Golden Age character "Pep Morgan," a star-athlete and all-around adventurer. In this particular installment, Pep is the light heavyweight champion of the world, but his title is threatened by a black aboriginal fighter named Boomerang, referred to as "The Wild Bushman." The Bushman has been battling his way up the ranks, knocking out white boxer after white boxer, until blonde-haired, blue-eyed Pep not only knocks him out, but proves that The Wild Bushman was cheating all along. (Boomerang had been knocking his opponents out with a hypodermic needle concealed in his glove.) It's worth noting that Action Comics #1 was published about a year after Joe Louis became the first black heavyweight champion of the world—defeating James "Pride of the Irish" Braddock—and a month before Louis's second fight with Hitler's Aryan poster-boy Mac Schmeling. If this story isn't a "white supremacist dream of the master race," I'll eat the next $3 million copy of Action Comics #1 that comes my way.
It is no major revelation, of course, to discover that American pop-culture of any era—let alone that of the late 1930s—is incredibly racist. We can locate these same narrative tropes throughout literature, film, and television from any decade. Margaret Mitchell's beloved bedrock work of white supremacist propaganda Gone with the Wind, for example, published just two years before Action Comics #1, presented the Klan (which counted Rhett Butler among its members) as exactly the sort of masked vigilante heroes Moore describes: saving white women from rape by black savages, and supported by "happy slaves" very much like Cottonball and Tong. (The Oscar-winning movie—still the most successful film in American history—was more insidious still: It removed the word "Klan" but kept the essence of the narrative the same.) This is the sort of poisonous American "nostalgia" that all of us—black and white—have been consuming all along.
(And we do not need to go so far back. Nearly 40 years later, we can certainly recognize echoes of Pep Morgan's "great white hope" story in Sylvester Stallone's Oscar-winning Rocky and its sequels.)
These are, of course, just a few examples of an almost endless stream of white fantasies that continue in American popular culture today—*cough* Green Book *cough*—and I mention them here only because I think reckoning with how white supremacy pervades the dominant narratives of American popular culture is important in grappling with the counter-narrative Watchmen is offering, and absolutely vital as we grapple with this episode in particular.
"I thought they only said that in the pictures." — Fred
For "the vast and insidious conspiracy at play" in "This Extraordinary Being" is exactly this: It is—literally, in the plot of the episode—the uncovering of how American popular culture is used as an agent of American white supremacy.
One of the things that makes this episode a masterpiece is its flawless marriage of form and function. The decision to film the bulk of the episode in black and white—brilliantly directed by Williams, with gorgeous high-contrast cinematography by Gregory Middleton—is not simply an easy stylistic device to indicate flashback: It's an evocation of the pulp-fiction, noir roots of the superhero story, and the cinematic legacy that shaped, and was shaped by, 20th century America. It is no coincidence that Will Reeves' earliest and most important memory is of watching a movie: Trust in the Law, the story of Bass Reeves, the Black Marshal of Oklahoma.
(The film is fictional, but—as we've already discussed—Bass Reeves was very real. So, too, was the extraordinary man Watchmen names as the film's director, Oscar Micheaux, one of the pioneers of black cinema in the United States. The child of former slaves, Micheaux wrote, produced, and directed 44 films between 1919 and 1948, including the first black films ever shown to white audiences. Micheaux's 1920 film Within Our Gates is considered a direct counter-narrative to the racism of D.W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, and thus I think he can be considered—like Chinua Achebe—one of the patron saints of Watchmen.)
Watchmen recognizes how pop culture shapes our perceptions, our self-image and our understanding of our place in the world. Trust in the Law showed young Will Reeves that a black man could be a hero, and even taught him that a black man could fight back against the evil of corrupt white lawmen. The movies shaped Will's concept of justice, and his naive faith in what could be achieved within the law in America. ("Stop in the name of the law!" Will shouts, when he sees the white man Fred [Glenn Fleshler] burning down a Jewish delicatessen. "I thought they only said that in the pictures," Fred laughs.)
But—long before Will discovers the insidious conspiracy concerning movies—his wife June (Danielle Deadwyler) points out the way that even Micheaux's film bolsters the pervasive lies of the dominant white paradigm. Trust in the Law ends with Bass Reeves rejecting vigilante justice, and with the white townsfolk cheering him. June points out that this was a falsely optimistic note, completely out of sync with the reality of being black in white America:
June: "What color were those townsfolk?"
June: "Tell me, what happened to the Dreamland Theater, where you watched that picture over and over while your mama played the piano? What'd the Klan, and the fine white citizens of Tulsa do?"
Will: "Burned it down."
June: "You ain't gonna get justice with a badge, Will Reeves. You gonna get it with that hood. And if you want to stay a hero, townsfolk gonna need to think one of their owns under it."
And so of course the "insidious conspiracy" at the root of "This Extraordinary Being" concerns movies. The "Cyclops" conspiracy involves the Klan literally hypnotizing black audiences into becoming criminals and savages—turning them murderously against each other—with movies. It's a perfect pulp-fiction, comic-book toned metaphor for the ways in which American popular culture has demonized and dehumanized black Americans, undermining their own power, unity, and self-worth. For a hundred years—since The Birth of a Nation—the movies have been presenting black Americans as criminals and savages at worst, and as happy slaves at best, all while telling them to be patient, to turn the other cheek, to "trust in the law." June helps Will reject that false narrative, and accept what his experiences in the police force have already taught him: that there is no justice in the law, because the law was designed to serve and protect white people. If he seeks justice, he must do so outside of the white man's law.
"You can't take it off. You can't ever take it off." — June
Interestingly, June opens Will's eyes to this truth while painting those eyes white. Beyond its function as a disguise, this makeup becomes another complexly layered metaphor. First, obviously, it is a symbol of how, for most of the history of American popular culture, the black man could never be the hero. (We've already noted how both Bass Reeves and Will Reeves had their stories white-washed, their legends transformed into those of white men. It's also worth noting that it was more than thirty years after the publication of Action Comics #1 that the first African-American superhero, The Falcon, was introduced.) The white makeup allows Will to "pass," to move in the white world without encountering the systemic oppression he has labored under all his life.
But I think the metaphor of the makeup is more than that. It is an appropriation of privilege, a reclamation of power that white people have reserved for themselves. And, perhaps, it is a lens to see through? To find justice, to see the truth, Will must look at the world through white eyes. Rather like the sunglasses in John Carpenter's They Live, the white makeup enables Will to see through all the subtle and subliminal lies of the narratives white America has fed to black America through these decades of insidious narratives.
And, as this scene fades, the white makeup is contrasted with the black makeup Will's daughter Angela Abar wears in the modern day: A member of the Tulsa Police Force, working as an agent for the Klan-robe owning Judd Crawford, Angela has previously not seen through the lies, but now she is getting the chance to see the world the way her grandfather saw it.
But the metaphor becomes even more complicated by the end of the episode. Up until this point, Will has used his disguise—as a white man, and as Hooded Justice —as a way to unleash his anger and fight for justice. But then he uncovers the Cyclops conspiracy, and discovers that his supposed partner (and lover) Captain Metropolis has no interest in helping the black community. We have seen hints of this earlier in the episode: At the Minuteman press conference, Will starts to talk about the Cyclops conspiracy, but Nelson cuts him off, and changes the narrative to a silly comic book one about a super villain with a solar ray weapon. Will's white allies can not, or will not, see what he sees about the world around them: They are more comfortable with the silly pop-culture narratives, and categorically refuse to look too closely at the real injustices of America. (Worse than that, Captain Metropolis demonstrates his willingness to exploit white fears for monetary gain, revealing the openly racist "Dollar Bill" bank poster we glimpsed in the Seventh Kavalry hideout in Episode One.)
Outside the warehouse, Will calls Captain Metropolis for backup, but Nelson calls the conspiracy "ridiculous," and refuses to involve the other heroes. "This sort of thing isn't really the Minutemen's cup of tea," he says. "I'm afraid you'll have to solve black unrest all on your own." (Dismissing Will's concerns, he is, however, willing to have Will stop by for a booty call later in the evening. He is happy to use Will's body for pleasure, as he was happy to use Will's symbolic presence in the Minutemen, but he does not care—or even want to hear—about Will's concerns. As an indictment of the limitations and failures of white allyship, it's pretty on the nose.)
Will tried to find justice through the all-white police force, and quickly realized the futility of that. Then he tried to find it with the all-white Minutemen, and now realizes the futility of that. He has reached the limits of what seeing through white eyes can show him. He has reached the limits of the white power he could appropriate, and given up on white justice.
(There is a very nice touch here that picks up on the Superman myth: This moment of Will's transformation occurs in a phone booth. Just as Clark Kent used phone booths to change into Superman, so Will uses one to change into the next phase of his masked life. Despite his costume, he's been mild-mannered Clark Kent until now: Now, he's a Superman.)
And so he crosses a line: Wearing the hood, but without the white makeup, and over his normal police uniform, he storms the warehouse where the Cyclops conspiracy is headquartered, and straight-up murders Fred and all of the other white conspirators before burning the building to the ground. He's not looking at the world through white eyes anymore: Now his perspective is entirely—unapologetically—black.
When he returns home, Will is horrified to discover his son Marcus (Jaiden Bostic) putting on the white eyes he himself has just rejected: He does not want his son to have to learn, the way he did, the futility of attempting to find acceptance within white supremacist systems. June, however, is horrified in turn at what Will has become. "You never should have done this," she says. "I thought it would help you get rid of this thing you have, but it didn't get rid of it, it just fed it."
This "thing" he has is anger. ("You are an angry, angry man, Will Reeves," she tells him, earlier in the episode.) And she's right, as he admits before becoming Hooded Justice. ("Okay, I'm angry," he says, the noose from his near-lynching still around his neck.) But how could he not be angry? It is to the credit of Lindelof and Jefferson—and the stellar performances of Adepo and Deadwyler—that I find myself unable to decide who is right in this argument. They each represent a different approach of dealing with the injustices of white America.
June tried to help Will mediate his rage, to channel it towards a form of justice, as she has done with her own anger. Like Superman's girlfriend Lois Lane, June is a journalist, working for the New York Amsterdam News, one of the oldest and most important black-owned newspapers in the country. So she, too, is a crusader for justice, working apart from white power structures but beside them, providing a black narrative to counter the white ones. (Do we imagine for a moment that she does not have her own rage, her own frustrations, her own resentment at the compromises she has had to make and the limitations of her power?) She could work for a black-owned newspaper, but Will could not join a black-owned police force, and so she tried—by inventing the superhero—to give him another outlet for his anger.
But Will's attempts have taught him only to embrace the raw anger instead. He has given up on his futile efforts to work with white people, and his thin hope that they will ever change. He has given up on the hope—seeded by Trust in the Law—that white people will ever cheer or support him. He has given up working within white systems, and he has given up, if you will, the attempt to be white, because there's no path to justice there. Now, he will work against white people. We can say he has been "radicalized," and we might even say that—in the eyes of white America, at least—he's chosen to be super-villain. The decision costs him his wife and child—June is unwilling to embrace such a position in white America herself, let alone to let her child do so—but I still don't know that Will is wrong.
We see Will's appropriation of super-villain methods in action, and they are more effective than his attempt to utilize super-hero methods ever were. He leaves the warehouse having stolen one of the hypnotic Cyclops projectors. It's another mission-statement scene for Watchmen: He has literally seized the power to control the narrative, and weaponized it. No longer willing to let white people tell him who he is, now he will show them who they are, as he does with Judd—in the modern day—at the end of the episode.
"You don't understand, I'm trying to fucking help you people," Judd protests. "You don't know me, old man." But Will does know him: He has seen Judd's kind everywhere, for all 105 years of his life. Will knows what it means that Judd keeps Klan robes in his closet as part of his "legacy." (Not surprisingly, it means the same thing it means when modern day Southerners defend their Confederate flags and Civil War monuments as a precious part of their heritage.) He knows what it means when a man like Judd presents himself as "trying to help you people." He knows that—as Laurie said a couple of episodes ago—men with secret compartments in their closets tend to think of themselves as the good guys, but they're not.
Judd is one of the white cops who burned down Greenwood and slaughtered hundreds of its residents. Judd is the white cop who pretends to be offended at the use of the word "spook," but is actually part of the conspiracy to keep black Americans in their place. Judd is Fred, offering Will a free steak in the same breath that he calls him a "jigaboo." Judd is Captain Metropolis, who exploits the friendship of a black man for appearances' sake while steadfastly refusing to be a true ally. Judd is J. Edgar Hoover, who once said—in a chilling quote that tells us almost everything we need to know about law enforcement in America—"Justice is merely incidental to law and order. Law and order is what covers the whole picture."
Judd is the corrupt white sheriff Bass Reeves captured, whom the townsfolk encouraged him to string up. "There will be no mob justice today," Bass Reeves said. "Trust in the law." But the century Will Reeves has lived, since first seeing that well-intentioned movie, has taught him to reconsider that trust, and to recognize the insidious conspiracy inherent in its lesson. Now Will is controlling the story, and he's had 100 years of reasons to make him reconsider how the movie should end.
Just like with the memory pills, it's 100 years of experiences Will is feeding Judd through his movie projector, a century of truths to counter all the lies Judd has told and told himself. It is not surprising that the experience turns out to be fatal.
You're not supposed to take someone else's Nostalgia.
"This extraordinary being…"
Finally, let's end this week where I usually begin: with the title of the episode.
The obvious reference is to Under the Hood, the memoir of Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, as excerpted in the first issue of the original Watchmen comic:
A supermarket stick-up had been prevented thanks to the intervention of "A tall man, built like a wrestler, who wore a black hood and cape and also wore a noose around his neck." This extraordinary being had crashed in through the window of the supermarket while the robbery was in progress and attacked the men responsible with such intensity and savagery that those not disabled immediately were only too willing to drop their guns and surrender. Connecting this incidence of masked intervention with its predecessor [the prevention of a mugging a week earlier], the papers ran the story under a headline that read simply "Hooded Justice." The first masked adventurer outside comic books had been given his name."
But "this extraordinary being" is not an unusual phrase, and so we shouldn't be surprised to find it elsewhere. It turns up also—appropriately enough—in Larry Tye's book Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero, as Tye identifies the Biblical hero Samson as one of Superman's literary ancestors:
The Philistines managed to capture this extraordinary being, gouging out his eyes and bringing him to their shrine in shackles to dance before them, humiliated. But in an act of self-sacrifice and backbone that would set a yardstick for every super-being who came after, Samson brought the enemy's temple crashing down around them as he proclaimed, "Let me die with the Philistines!"
Intended or not, it is hard not to think of this passage, as we watch Will burn down his enemy's temple. Will does not lose his life in this act, as Samson, did, but it turns out to be a tremendous act of "self-sacrifice and backbone": He loses his ideals, and he loses his family, and he does—to a certain extent—cast his lot in with the Philistines.
The iteration of the phrase I like, however—though I doubt it was intended by Lindelof and Jefferson—comes from Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831). Describing the appearance of the unloved hunchback Quasimodo riding atop the ringing bells of Notre Dame, Hugo writes: "The presence of this extraordinary being caused, as it were, a breath of life to circulate throughout the entire cathedral."
And, for me, it is the end of this same paragraph that resonates powerfully with the story of Will Reeves, and the complicated place he occupies in the America of Watchmen:
And all this came from Quasimodo. Egypt would have taken him for the god of this temple; the Middle Ages believed him to be its demon: he was in fact its soul.
God and demon, hero and villain, man and superman, Will Reeves' final role in the story is yet to be determined. But if we look closely we might—with guilt, sadness, and fear—recognize in him the soul of the American century.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- There was far too much to unpack in this episode than I could manage if I wanted to get this post up before another (equally densely packed) episode descends. So I'm aware that—in a shameful failure of intersectionality—I focused on the racial aspects, and gave short shrift to the gay text and subtext. I'll try to circle back to this in later episodes, if possible, because I think the fact that America's first superhero was both black and gay is important. (There are plenty of moments in this episode where I could have spent more time. The conversation Nelson and Will have in bed is a masterpiece of double entendre, where many things they say could apply to either Will's race or his sexuality. ("When did you know?" Will asks him. And a few moments later Nelson says the other heroes must never know, because they're not as "tolerant" as he is.) I think there's a lot of dialogue in June and Will's conversation that works this way as well, such as June suggesting that she thought he'd work this "thing" out of his system if she gave him time. And obviously, Will's horror at finding his son in front of the mirror, putting on makeup and fancy dress, is a potentially loaded scene from this perspective.
- I absolutely adore the framing of shots in this episode. There are several shots that evoke the panels of a comic book, such as this one:
- And I love how the colored inserts work in Will's memories. Will did not provide Angela with the direct memories of the burning of Tulsa, or anything before he joined the police force. So the moments when we see color are memories within memories, moments when Angela is reliving Will reliving (or imagining) moments from his past, like the absolutely gorgeous shot below. (These are also, arguably, moments that represent a time before Will saw the world in black and white.)
- The man who pins Will's badge on—and warns him to "Beware the Cyclops"—is another overlooked black lawman from American history: Samuel J. Battle (Philly Plowden), the first black police officer in New York City.
- Some important information is given in this week's Peteypedia: First of all, Angela was apparently narrating everything she was experiencing, so Laurie, Petey, and the entire FBI now know the entire story. A gossipy, unreliable article on Lady Trieu provides some background information on her, including my theory that the Comedian might have been her father (so that's probably not true). And, finally, we get to read the last will and testament of Nelson Gardner (Captain Metropolis), who had a late-life change of heart and left everything to Will Reeves. "I have come to see that my attitudes and ambitions were those of a naif swirling in the self-imposed blindness of a bygone era, and that the only true peace I found in those years was in his companionship," Nelson writes. "Tell him that I was wrong when I said 'we should avoid political situations' and that he was right when he mocked us…I now see that everything we did back then was a political act…Tell Mr. Reeves that much of my wealth was derived from my association with him, and appropriation of him, and so he deserves it…[H]e was the only one amongst us fighting true evil, and tell him that I don't for a second believe that someone like him ever quits that good fight, and I feel a sense of responsibility to support it, in all the ways I did not when we were friends." According to Petey, the contents of Nelson's will were communicated to Will in 1975, at the movie theater in Harlem where he (and his hypnotic projector?) worked.
- I rarely comment on it, but the music in this episode, as usual, was excellent. Most of the tunes are real songs from the era, by groups like the Ink Spots. (Ink Spots…Rorschach…Get it? No, maybe not…) But the song "The Way It Used to Be" is an original Trent Reznor written for this episode. "I'm a part of everything you do, and I am always watching you…" it goes.
- Also—since I don't really "review" things—I should probably mention here that Watchmen is the best show on television right now, by a country mile. I can't believe there are only three episodes left, and I'm torn between wanting Lindelof and Co. to stick to their guns and end it after one season, and wanting them to give me more, more, more.