Somehow, Watchmen keeps getting better, which should be impossible given this show’s high standard from the jump. But building off last week’s stellar episode, the latest Watchmen, “This Extraordinary Being”, ups the ante again, giving us an episode full of answers, yes, but also the strongest thematic entry into Watchmen yet. Directed by Stephen Williams, “This Extraordinary Being” takes place almost entirely inside the drug-induced memories of Will Reeves, played as a young man by Jovan Adepo, and is shot as a series of long takes. The filmmaking is outrageously good, the camera swinging around in a way that suggests the lapsing and layering nature of memory—this episode reminds me a lot of Castle Rock’s Alzheimer’s episode, “The Queen”—but it also, at times, puts the viewer in the place of the protagonist, eliminating the traditional cinematic middle man. In other shots, the camera “stands” where Angela, the outside spectator to Will’s memories, would be standing in typical blocking for a traditional three-camera setup. The camerawork in this episode is not a gimmick, a directorial “look what I can do”. It is absolutely essential to the storytelling.
This episode delivers a lot of answers, beginning with yes, Will Reeves is Hooded Justice, the first superhero. History remembers him as white because he painted his eyes white under his hood, so that the community he protected wouldn’t fear him as a black man in 1938 New York. It’s an inversion of Angela blacking her eyes under her own mask, something the episode makes explicit. History also contains rumors about his sexuality, something the “American Hero Story” show officially canonizes, but yes, Will is also a gay man, and he had a clandestine affair with his fellow Minuteman, Nelson Gardner, AKA Captain Metropolis (James McDorman). This episode, written by Damon Lindelof and Cord Jefferson, acknowledges that Will cannot live openly as a gay man—he marries June (Danielle Deadwyler), whom he rescued as a baby after the Tulsa riot—but it does not make Will’s sexuality a source of angst. It’s simply a part of him he knows he must protect, his most closely held secret identity.
But it is something that is used against him, as Nelson Gardner forces Will into a second closet, making him hide his race from the other Minutemen, as he must hide his sexuality from everyone. This leaves Will at the mercy of Nelson, if he doesn’t support Will’s investigation into a conspiracy within the police ranks, then there is literally nowhere for Will to turn. And guess what? Nelson doesn’t support him, which makes Will, already a vigilante, become a sort of double-vigilante even as he’s living multiple secret identities. Watchmen conflates the oppression and disenfranchisement of the black and LGBTQ communities, and blows up the idea that progress for one is progress for all. Even as progress IS being made for the black community—Will is welcomed into the NYPD by Lt. Samuel Battle, the real first black police officer in New York City—the LGBTQ community remains out of sight, totally unrepresented and with no hero emerging to protect them.
Through Will, we see the layering of black trauma throughout history, something made literal by the way his memories fragment and collate. The episode is black and white, but colorized elements appear, representing older memories intruding into the “current” memory playing out for Angela. Usually, the colorized element is from the Tulsa riot, a trauma Will has never reconciled, and an injustice he sees playing out as a cop in New York City. One brutal image connects the bodies he saw dragged through a street as a child to a patrol car of white policemen—a searing indictment of the traumas inflicted by the police on the black community. In fact, “This Extraordinary Being” pulls no punches, offering an equally devastating critique of superheroes when Nelson refuses to help Will confront the conspiracy. “You’ll have to solve black unrest yourself,” he says, almost jovially, and hangs up.
Superhero stories are almost always a little bit fascist, for the way superheroes usually uphold a broken system built on supremacy and oppression. (The Captain America movies attempt to overcome this by constantly having Cap destroy/abandon the official offices that “control” him. He is, though, still a white guy upholding American exceptionalism, which is built on white supremacist ideals.) In the end, the team Nelson promised never materializes. Nelson and the Minutemen only wanted Hooded Justice, the first superhero, to legitimize their crimefighting group, an echo of white America claiming black excellence when it’s convenient but doing nothing to support the black community.
If Watchmen ended right here, it would, thematically, be totally justified. It’s touching on issues that have no resolution, so it would almost be fitting to leave the show open-ended, with no real answers. But Watchmen knows its themes from its plots, and while its themes may not resolve, it does still have a plot to wrap up, and I don’t expect Watchmen to have a “final answer”, something that ties everything up in a nice, neat bow. We may never know if Judd really was a secret racist, or if he kept his grandfather’s Klan robe out of some sense of shame. (“I’m trying to help you people” is not the most encouraging “not a racist” sign.) But for a show that is so critical of superhero stories, Watchmen is doing what the best superhero stories do: It’s building a myth of good people who are, in some way, totally outmatched by the problem they face, rightfully critical of how these myths get co-opted by fascistic structures but who keep fighting even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. The question is how much hope does Watchmen have that good people can win?
Gregory Middleton, director of photography for this episode, had his work cut out for him, and the end result is BEAUTIFUL.
Series stunt coordinator Justin Riemer and Dave Macomber, fight coordinator for the episode, put together some brutal, ugly, realistic fights for Hooded Justice. It’s a delightful contrast to the polished fight in the “American Hero Story” episode at the beginning of the episode.
What is it with this show and lettuce? First the Seventh Kavalry guy chucks lettuce at the black cop he killed, now Hooded Justice is throwing white supremacists into the lettuce stand at grocery stores. Why LETTUCE?
Attached - Regina King at the AMAs last night.