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Watchmen dives into the past in an episode unlike any other in TV history

The show uncovers the history of one mysterious superhero in an episode that explores American racism.

A person wearing a hood and a cape and a rope noose as a necktie sits at an interrogation table begin questioned by two conventionally suited men.
Cheyenne Jackson in Watchmen.

I’ve never seen a TV episode quite like “This Extraordinary Being.” And I’ve seen a lot of TV over the years.

It darts and weaves through American history, real and imagined, to create a portrait of a country that never once lives up to its ideals, while cruelly displaying those ideals on the horizon, a beacon of what could be true if not for the forces of racism, hatred, and greed. It’s also a gigantic attempt to fill in one of the single biggest pieces of Watchmen lore from the original comic, with its own clever answer to a big question about a secret identity. And it’s an integral part of this season’s narrative, recentering on Angela Abar’s quest to untangle the conspiracy surrounding Judd’s murder after a couple of weeks in which the story has drifted away from her.

The episode is, in a word, terrific, and I (Vox critic-at-large Emily VanDerWerff) had a glorious time delving into its many secrets and hidden depths. The ways in which it blends the past and present together feel vital and fresh to me in a way these sorts of “flashbacks filling in a big chunk of backstory” episodes rarely do, perhaps because it is so thoroughly tapped into Watchmen’s larger theme of how the past and present are rarely as separate as we’d like them to be.

But mostly, “This Extraordinary Being” is just a really dark and frustrated superhero tale. It made me wonder if Damon Lindelof read the quote from Alan Moore that’s been making the rounds — in which Moore points to the notoriously racist and KKK-celebrating 1917 film Birth of a Nation as the “first” superhero film — and thought to himself, “Huh, I wonder if that’s the show?” But it’s also an episode where Lindelof steps back a bit and lets his collaborators, co-writer Cord Jefferson and director Stephen Williams, tell a story rich with humanity, love, and dread.

I loved it! But how did my colleagues feel? To answer that question, I consulted Vox associate culture editor Allegra Frank and senior culture correspondent Alex Abad-Santos to discuss all things “This Extraordinary Being.”

This episode offers Watchmen’s most forthright storytelling yet about American racism — including a sequence many viewers may find too hard to watch

Regina King in Watchmen

Emily: I think I can honestly say that when I heard HBO and Damon Lindelof were developing Watchmen as a TV series, I never once thought, “I bet we will see the attempted lynching of a black man from the black man’s literal point of view.” But that’s what happens in one of this episode’s most emotionally wrenching — and likely most controversial — sequences. Even before Watchmen’s debut, every time a critic (usually a white critic, I should note) said they weren’t sure the show had properly underscored the horrible power of some of its images, I knew exactly which sequence they were talking about.

But there’s no real way around this idea, because it’s so central to Will’s story, and Will is so central to Angela’s evolving understanding of the world in which she lives. And if you’ve gotta depict a lynching, I think it’s best that you literally place your viewers inside the head of the person being lynched, to remove what dispassion might result from a more removed perspective. This is what it feels like to know your life is about to end. It’s horrifying because it should be.

I have so much more to say about this, but I’d love to hear from both of you about how you think “The Extraordinary Being” reveals the scar tissue of this very recent era in American history. Allegra, I was struck by the episode’s implied belief that nostalgia for the past is almost a position of privilege. What did you think of that? And Alex, how do you feel about how this story dovetails with the original comic’s portrayal of Hooded Justice?

Allegra: I’ve often reckoned with the notion of nostalgia as a wholly positive experience — the word by definition suggests otherwise. To yearn for a past that can never be recaptured is a hauntingly futile pursuit. And that’s the aspect of nostalgia that Watchmen leans into here, specifically because it’s the past of someone who was abused by America’s long history of systemic racism.

The episode’s interest in deconstructing the reality of nostalgia to reveal it as a position of privilege was probably the only way such a plot device could work. In a moment of defiance, Angela takes Will’s nostalgia pills — which, already, the fact that old memories can be made available in pill form sounds like a privileged expense — and is sent into a horrific, mind-melding trip through her grandfather’s past. Will’s nostalgia “meds” do not provide any comfort, only knowledge of the hardships of mid-20th-century black American life.

Will’s life was particularly hard, from the disturbing lynching attempt by his white peers on the police force to how he’s treated by his white superhero colleagues in the Minutemen. There is no pleasant wistfulness to any of these memories. Watchmen’s increasing meditations on race have already explored how racial superiority complexes benefit those who believe in them. This episode, in the moments seen through Will’s eyes, did that most concretely. And it succeeded by really establishing the privilege that white people had over Will, and other black people, socioeconomically — which then, on a larger level, discolored his nostalgia.

With that said, I think Watchmen leaned a bit harder than was tolerable for me on just how dark life was for Will, even if it contextualized who he is in the show’s contemporary storyline. The ultimate idea that America may not actually be ready to believe in a black superhero is fundamental to the series, especially in Angela’s story. Did we need for that concept to be born out of an upsetting beatdown and near-lynching of a black police officer in postwar America? I’m not sure. I sometimes have to wonder if Watchmen delights in this sort of extreme violence for extreme violence’s sake, even if there are meaningful ramifications.

The legacy of Hooded Justice, America’s first black superhero

Alex: In the original comic, we learn very, very little about Hooded Justice. His most notable appearance is in Sally Jupiter’s flashback. Sally is Laurie Blake’s mother and the original Silk Spectre, and she recalls the time when the Comedian very nearly raped her. He would have if Hooded Justice had not been there to stop him:

Hooded Justice saving Sally Jupiter

Notice that the Comedian (who goes on to actually have a consensual relationship with Sally and turns out to be Laurie’s father — whew, comics are complicated) implies that Hooded Justice is into rough sex (“this is what you like, huh?”). Later in the book, it’s implied that Hooded Justice gay. And the series has now nodded to this multiple times, with police officers mocking Hooded Justice’s sexuality on American Hero Story, Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis having sex on American Hero Story, and the actual Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis having sex in this episode.

But I think the most successful element of “The Extraordinary Being” is how it leaned into the circumstances of Hooded Justice’s disappearance.

In the comic, his disappearance is chalked up to McCarthyism in the 1950s; it’s assumed that, instead of dealing with the government witch hunt, Hooded Justice simply retires. Rolf Müller, a circus strongman, is suspected to be Hooded Justice, but it’s never confirmed. He’s the only hero whose true identity isn’t revealed by the end of the comic.

The television show suggests a more vexing scenario: What if Hooded Justice retired because America couldn’t handle that one of the first superheroes (in the comic, it’s established that he was the first), a symbol of all that is good, was actually a black man?

Will was terrorized even though he was a cop and carried a badge, and from this experience he knows that even though he’s capable of so much good, people still wouldn’t accept him. In order to preserve Hooded Justice’s legacy, then, Will couldn’t ever reveal his true identity.

Angela now has to reckon with the knowledge that she wears a badge just like her grandfather did, and the terrifying feeling that maybe society hasn’t progressed since the days of Hooded Justice.

Emily: What’s fascinating about this episode’s approach to the idea of nostalgia as a poison and Will’s specific experiences as an antidote (because his experience of the past recalibrates our thoughts about said past) is that it’s also an episode about Angela. Even though we’re getting Will’s backstory, it’s Angela who’s directly experiencing it. Witnessing Will’s past from his own point of view has the same effect on her as it does the audience — discombobulation, followed by a kind of profound sorrow.

But this also allows Watchmen to create an episode almost completely untethered from its own reality — notice how the title flips from Watchmen to Minutemen at the start, to signify we’re going back to the dawn of this franchise’s chronology — while nevertheless checking in on the present timeline via Laurie intruding on the flashback at particularly strange moments. That structure serves to increase the hallucinatory quality of the episode. All of this really happened; none of it is really happening.

It also allows the episode to question the function of the flashback as a storytelling device, something that Lindelof, in particular, has a lot of experience with. Flashbacks are often constructed as “the truth,” and the flashback in this episode is definitely that. But it’s also a truth that nobody else knew until Angela found it out, which calls into question everything else we might know about the past. A flashback, by necessity, is usually filtered through one person’s point-of-view (and that’s especially true on Lindelof shows). Switch up the person telling the story, and you’ll see something entirely different.

Thus, “The Extraordinary Being” simultaneously does something completely new with the flashback format by blending the perspectives of two different people into the same experience. But it also captures the intense need to make somebody see something. We tell stories because we hope they will bring us closer to the people we talk to, help them see our truths and our deepest selves. But we also have to know that an experience that resonates for me cannot resonate for you in quite the same way. That’s why we have storytelling and art in the first place.

There’s also a particular resonance in this episode with the trans experience. Angela is, after all, experiencing this entire story while in the shoes of a man. He’s a man who’s related to her, yes, but it’s also an experience that apparently seems to throw her. At several points, Laurie pops in to say, in essence, that we’re not meant to live some other person’s life, and I couldn’t help but nod and think, no, we’re not.

But the only way to the core of the Judd Crawford mystery, for Angela at least, is by digging through the junk that accumulates in any one life. That’s why, I think, the episode focuses so much on trauma and not on happier moments in Will’s life (though we do get to see loving moments between Will and his wife and between him and Captain Metropolis, fleeting though they may be). The memories Angela sees firsthand are a message in a bottle, tossed to a granddaughter he maybe just found out about. “This is what happened to me,” it reads. “Make sure it doesn’t happen to anybody else.”

And I haven’t even touched on the end of the episode, when Will really does kill Judd by aiming that hypno ray at him and directing Judd to hang himself. (I love how this tragic story concludes with a literal hypno ray, perhaps the most Watchmen detail imaginable.) We’re doomed to keep repeating these cycles unless we can break them. But breaking them involves pain and suffering and struggle for those who have power, not just those without. And good luck making that happen, even with a hypno ray.

Alex, you mentioned before we started our official chat that you were taken with how this episode used the point of view of Will’s wife, to drill even further into this discussion. What stood out to you?

It’s time to find out who Angela can actually trust

Laurie tries to get Angela to drop all this nostalgia nonsense.
It doesn’t seem all that likely Laurie is one of them.

Alex: Will’s wife June occupies very little of the episode, but I think she represents a cogent voice of reason. She’s worried about him joining the police force because of the trauma he experienced in the past. She knows that Trust in the Law, the movie he watched as a child, isn’t reality, because she knows white people will never trust black ones. She knows Will won’t be accepted as a superhero if people know he’s black, and has him paint his face to hide his skin color.

“If you’re going to stay a hero, then the townsfolk are going to need to think that one of their own is under [your hood],” she tells him.

June is the realist counter to Will’s optimism. We don’t know much about her, but we know she’s seen enough of this world to know that a black superhero or vigilante won’t survive in it. And she’s not wrong. I mean, look at our own reality and how Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, was treated and the racist attacks he faced when he was elected in 2008.

It is fascinating that, as Emily mentioned, Angela experiences Will’s memories through her point of view, as a warning of sorts. I wonder, in the context of knowing his memories, how much guilt and anger Angela felt on June’s behalf.

I can’t even begin to think of the mind-scramble it would be to experience Will cheating on June and his kinky sexual relationship (with masks on) with Captain Metropolis, while dealing with her own relationship with Judd and uniforms and so on. Add to that the layer of hurt and anguish of watching him emotionally abandon her grandmother, causing her to leave him.

And how do you think the events of Watchmen’s past reconcile with the present, Allegra? How does the past, and what Angela knows, inform her present? What can or can’t she take away from it all?

Allegra: I think confronting her family history head-on will spur Angela to take action where it’s needed today, in 2019. Angela has been avoiding the truth about Judd since episode two, when she first stumbled upon Judd’s hidden KKK hood, suggesting a connection to the white supremacist Seventh Kavalry. She hasn’t wanted to admit that she loved and cared for someone involved in disempowering her and destroying the city she protects.

Her reluctance is understandable. But now, so is Will’s motivation to kill Judd in such a gruesome and loaded way. It came from the years of abuse he suffered at white hands, and his awareness that in Tulsa’s political underbelly, there are strong racist forces at play. He vows to get payback by picking them off. It’s necessary context for a society that has hardly evolved as much as it seems to believe.

Now Angela cannot ignore the multiple signs that she has misplaced her trust, that she is in just as much danger today as she was years ago, when she was first hurt in the line of duty as an unmasked police officer. Sister Night doesn’t necessarily have to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and start lynching racists, but now that her consciousness has become tangled with his, it would not surprise me to see her moral code tip in that direction. Her past and her present are now inextricably connected.

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