Watchmen recap: The secret history of superheroes
Welcome to EW’s weekly recap of HBO’s Watchmen. Each week, EW’s resident comic book obsessives Chancellor Agard and Christian Holub will be breaking down the loaded drama.
In The Leftovers‘ second season, Damon Lindelof sent the show’s protagonist Kevin (Justin Theroux) on a mind-blowing, trippy, and metaphysical trip to a purgatory-like hotel in the episode “International Assassin.” Tonight on Watchmen, Lindelof and co-writer Cord Jefferson do something very similar and even more impressive and ambitious in “This Extraordinary Being.” Picking up right after Angela downed the Nostalgia pills, the visually stunning episode follows the comatose detective as she travels through her grandfather’s memories and learns about the secret history of superheroes in this world. Let’s dive into this awe-inspiring installment:
Christian: What. An. Episode. Last week, Chance, you got to celebrate being right about the fact that there was more to the superhero/cop alliance on this show than met the eye. Now, this episode gave me the chance to relish having correctly predicted something as well.
Told mostly in black-and-white, “This Extraordinary Being” confirms that Will Reeves was the real Hooded Justice all along (I knew they would’ve been the same age!). This whole time, Angela has been the heir to the legacy of the original superhero, and she didn’t even know it. As we’ve heard before from Laurie’s research, Will moved to New York City after the Tulsa massacre and became a cop — one of the only black cops on the force, in fact, which inspired another black cop to warn him “beware the cyclops” at his induction ceremony. Will soon realizes that this “cyclops” refers to a faction of white cops who double as KKK members and use a single eye as their symbol. When Will tries to arrest one of their friends for firebombing a Jewish deli, they hang him from a tree, cutting him down just before he would have died. A fake execution, like something out of Dostoevsky.
One of the things that really interested me about this episode was its conception of supervillains. There are barely any villains in the original Watchmen. Sure, Ozymandias is the ostensible villain of the comic, complete with his mad scientist monster creation and mass murder, but he can also be a hero depending on how you look at the story. But even beyond that ambiguity, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons made clear that there were never as many costumed villains as there were heroes; Moloch the Mystic is the only one we actually meet. But aren’t the KKK, with their costumes and masks basically supervillains? Admittedly, the show’s KKK characters take it a step further with their literal mind-control plot, but I love the idea that the first superhero was created as a response to the supervillains of the KKK who had put themselves above the regular law.
It’s an especially interesting conceit given the 2017 Moore interview that circulated on Twitter this week, in which he made the spicy claim that perhaps Birth of a Nation was the first superhero movie, which would make superheroes an outgrowth of white supremacist mythology. This episode makes precisely the opposite claim, that superheroes were created to beat the supervillains of white supremacy (one thinks of Captain America, the hero of two Jewish creators, punching Adolf Hitler on the cover of his first comic).
There’s a lot more to talk about here; it feels like my brain is on fire. Chance, what did you think of the contrast between the Minutemen TV show (which we’ve been repeatedly warned was “garbage”) and the reality of Will’s life?
Chancellor: I think that contrast is actually related to your last point. It’s easy to forget superheroes like Captain America and Superman were created by minorities (often Jewish) in response to the villains of the 20th century. As time goes on and the medium spreads, though, those ideas get lost as superheroes get co-opted for other purposes. “This Extraordinary Being” gets at this idea.
When Will and his wife June create Hooded Justice, they decide to paint the area around Will’s eyes white so that people believe Hooded Justice is a white man. “If you’re going to stay a hero, townsfolk are going to need to think one of them is under [the hood],” says June. This is their way of making his mission to take down the racist KKK more palatable to the public. In fact, this decision reminded me of two superheroes. First, there’s Wonder Woman. Inspired by the two women in his life, Wonder Woman co-creator William Moulton Marston used that comic to sneakily spread his then-radical ideas about feminism, pacifism, and bondage. Second, there’s the X-Men. The fact that Will has to hide who he truly is from a world that he’s trying to save reminded me of how the X-Men were constantly trying to save a world that hated them and would love to exterminate them.
Through his exploits as Hooded Justice, Will ends up inspiring others to take up their own masks and eventually the New Minutemen are created. Captain Metropolis invites Will to join, and Will agrees because he’s eager to gain allies against the racist conspiracy in the city. Unfortunately, that’s not actually what happens because Metropolis and the other vigilantes don’t care about Will’s noble cause. Instead, the Minutemen co-opt what Will created to fight supervillains like Moloch, ignoring the real bad guys who are causing even more harm. Similarly, superhero comics did stray from their nobler and more political beginnings and became overtaken by big battles, time travel, and end-of-the-world events.
What I loved about this episode is how it does feel like its steeped in history and plays with several archetypal origin stories. In our recap of the premiere, I noted the similarities between Will and Superman’s origin stories, which this episode confirms was intentional by flashing between the pages of Action Comics #1 and Will escaping Tulsa. But “This Extraordinary Being” also tips its hat to Batman’s origin when Will stops a couple from being mugged in an alley right after he was almost lynched. Will’s one-man assault and headshot spree on the KKK’s warehouse — in which he wears his police uniform and not the Hooded Justice costume — also reminded me of the Punisher.
One of the reasons there’s so much to dig into in this episode, though, is because of the filmmaking. Christian, did you find any of the visuals to be particularly thought-provoking or awe-inspiring?
Christian: As far as filmmaking goes, I would say the most interesting visual element of this episode is the constant switch in perspective between Will and Angela as the person experiencing these memories. Laurie warns at the beginning of this episode that you’re not supposed to take someone else’s Nostalgia pills, which reminded me of the recent X-Men comic House of X’s very specific rules about not putting one mutant’s mind in another mutant’s body. Apparently taking all of her grandfather’s memory pills at once puts Angela into a coma (Laurie and others occasionally break the action to check in with her over the course of her trip) but I’d say it’s a fair trade given how much she learns about the secret history of superheroes in the process.
The fact that Angela is actively undergoing these memories prevents “This Extraordinary Being” from feeling like any old TV flashback episode. Angela is as shocked by these events as Will was when he experienced them, reminding us that past events can feel as new and present as ever to someone learning about them for the first time. It’s yet another opportunity for us viewers to experience time the way Doctor Manhattan does, where the past, present, and future are all happening and intertwining at once.
As the story goes on, this duality between Angela and Will becomes even more powerful, climaxing in the death of Judd Crawford. At last we see that Will wasn’t lying when he said he killed the chief of police; he just obscured some of the details. On his last mission as Hooded Justice, Will stole the KKK’s mesmerizing mind control camera. Over the years, he’s adapted it for his own use, shrinking the machine down from a mammoth old movie projector to the size of a flashlight. This is how a 100-year-old man killed an active duty police chief: By shining the flashlight in his eyes and forcing him to obey his every command. Except now that Angela’s experiencing these memories, she is the one killing her friend. King’s expressions are brutal as she undergoes this uniquely nightmarish experience. At the same time, things have changed since she first learned of Judd’s death; she’s found the KKK robe in his closet, even if she doesn’t yet know (as we now do, thanks to Looking Glass) that Judd was one of the leaders of the Seventh Kavalry. I love Will’s line to Judd about the KKK robe right before making him hang himself: “If you’re so proud of your legacy, why hide it?”
But as satisfying as it may be to hear that line, the episode is clear that Will’s use of violence against his racist tormentors is not entirely a positive thing. When he kills the deli firebomber and the rest of the Cyclops organization in their meat warehouse, director Stephen Williams films it to look like a first-person shooter game or a mass shooting (neither of which are far removed from the Punisher, as you noted). The result of this massacre is the ruination of the Reeves family, and I’m reminded of “Moving Beyond Pain,” bell hooks’ critique of Beyoncé’s Lemonade: “Female violence is no more liberatory than male violence…Violence does not create positive change.” The same idea could carry over to black-on-white violence. Sure, the racists are dead, but what toll has that taken?
Will’s horror at coming home that night to find his son dressing up like him is one of the most arresting scenes in the episode. On the one hand, we’re learning that Sister Night is the heir to the legacy of Hooded Justice, the first superhero and her grandfather. On the other hand, we also learn that Hooded Justice never wanted anyone to take after him, much less his own descendants. Even if superheroes started as a way to combat white supremacy, maybe they weren’t supposed to last forever.
Then again, white supremacists have sure managed to stick around, haven’t they? On top of a Twilight Zone homage, the black-and-white coloring of this episode evoked the Rorschach masks worn by the Seventh Kavalry. Contrary to their simplistic racial worldview, this episode is all about uncovering history’s blurred lines and mysteries. Chance, you correctly noted that Hooded Justice was the creation not just of Will but also his wife June. What do you make of June being the figure to ultimately pull Angela out of her N-hole?
Chancellor: It’s not surprising Angela developed some emotional connection with June while stuck in Will’s memories because of how they both view him. When Angela broke into the cultural center a few episodes ago and saw her family tree, she said to the holographic representation of Will, “Wherever you are, leave me the f— alone.” As we saw in the episode, June had a similar and even more visceral interaction with Will many years before. However, it appears as though they eventually did reunite because an older version of her is here in his memories. Perhaps, this is foreshadowing the fact that Angela has come around to her grandfather.
Tales from the Black Freighter:
- It’s completely understandable why this week’s episode didn’t feature a Veidt-aside, but imagine how ridiculous and weird it would’ve been if they’d found a way to cut to whatever he’s up to!
- As Agent Petey has been saying all season-long, American Hero Story gets a lot wrong, and this episode confirms that. The one thing it is correct about, though, is Will’s romantic history with Captain Metropolis.
- “Oh, hi there,” Lady Trieu says dryly to Angela as soon as she wakes up, clearly somewhat bored by it all.
Watchmen (TV series)