A sunset the color of sherbet was melting across the sky. Or was it darker, molted like a bruise? I want to get this right. I want to document the way the last rays of light dappled the pear and fig trees on the slice of land I call home in Loreauville, Louisiana, when I was there a few weeks ago. I want to chart the musical register of the bugs that hung in the air. I want to discuss the weight of sunlight there. I want to document all its raw splendor for one day, due to global warming and factors I can’t foresee, that land will slip from my grasp. But right now, I can trap its beauty in amber on the page.
For black American folks, inheritance is a slippery thing given all that slavery and its modern remnants have stripped from us. I can’t chart my family tree with precision, but I have this land. In a similar sort of way, inheritance is what makes the world-building of this stunning Watchmen episode — “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship,” directed by Nicole Kassell and co-written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse — so rich and tantalizing. It gives black people in Tulsa and beyond something concrete to hold on to. (Which is part of why the reparations given by President Redford have attracted such pushback and sneering comments from white characters.) Episode two is ultimately about different forms of inheritance. It’s the inheritance of family, which for Angela becomes quite complicated thanks to Louis Gossett Jr.’s Will. It’s the inheritance of a piece of paper, from the words of a German commander, to a black soldier on the battlefield, to his son as a child then as an old man sitting alongside the body of Judd Crawford hanging from that tree. But there’s also what comes when violence is inherited and meted out.
In the premiere episode, Angela told a mostly sanitized version to Topher’s class about the White Night, an evening in which Tulsa police were systematically targeted by Seventh Kavalry, which led to the police being able to hide their identities with masks. In “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship,” we see what happened that night from Angela’s perspective. With a masterful cut from Angela in her Sister Night garb cradling Judd’s hanging body to her slow dancing in Cal’s arms on Christmas Eve, we’re plunged into the past. The lights are twinkling the color of warm Champagne. “Santa Baby” sung with that trademark minxy grace by Eartha Kitt croons in the background. The presents are wrapped carefully under the tree. The children are asleep as the sleek, elegant clock ticks closer to midnight.
Angela and Cal’s sexy flirtations (I truly love their relationship) stop suddenly when a loud thump rings out in the house. For the first time, Angela shows fear. “There’s somebody in our house,” she whispers. What follows is a scene defined by its precise tension. A Seventh Kavalry member breaks down the front door, shotgun drawn. With a fluid motion, Angela pushes Cal down, slides across the floor, and unplugs the Christmas lights sending the home into a hushed darkness. Angela is resourceful. Throwing something from the fireplace at the intruder. Scurrying across the floor into the kitchen and grabbing a knife. Hiding near the island counter, waiting for the right moment. Then, with cunning, stabbing the Seventh Kavalry member. But she’s not fast enough for the second intruder, who shoots her in the gut. Her face streaked with blood, the last word she says as she hazily witnesses the man looming above her is her husband’s name. The scene’s direction by Kassell is exemplary; alongside the stunt choreography by Justin Riemer, editing by Henk Van Eeghen, and cinematography by Gregory Middleton, it’s a truly rapturous piece of filmmaking.
When Angela wakes — utilizing another of the episode’s many POV shots — she sees Judd in hospital scrubs, his arm in a sling. He cues her into the devastation. Forty homes attacked, all belonging to police officers. Her partner is dead (and we learn she adopted his kids by the mention of Topher). Who isn’t dead is leaving the force. Angela’s first emotional response isn’t sadness but a flare-up of anger; she’s a heatseeking missile in search of vengeance. Here violence isn’t just felt but inherited, passed down to transform all those in its wake. It replicates itself, affecting people and places. Is it not violence that has rewritten the rules of Tulsa and the police? Is it not inherited violence that compels these cops to unleash their brutality, almost as a warped way of grieving what has been lost because of said violence?
Last week, I noted a tension within the show between its aims to critique the insidious nature of white supremacy in this country and its adherence to having cops as our lens into this world. It’s hard to imagine the police as we know it being righteous combatants of white supremacy when the force has instead been an arm of this problem. This week, Watchmen hammers home the issues of the police with regards to white supremacy and the violence they so easily unleash due to hiding behind a mask without much accountability. It’s complicated and tricky to parse, to the point of feeling a bit muddled due to the racial politics of these dynamics. After all, we’ve primarily seen the cops going after terrorist white supremacist cells that conjure zero sympathy. As Danielle Butler wrote for Shadow and Act, “This is one of Watchmen’s more glaring contradictions. It is a show that boldly dives headfirst into a critique of white supremacy only to use common tropes to impugn the usual suspects of racism and engender sympathy for an occupation that largely functions to enforce it.”
For the record, in the present day, Angela is reticent toward giving into anger, unlike the other detectives eager for a target. She returns to the scene of Judd’s hanging, but of course must pretend everything is new to her. That’s when she decides not to arrest Will. At least not yet. But Judd’s murder has stirred something in Angela. Grief is a tricky beast that sneaks up on you, unraveling your understanding of the world and your place in it. Craving vengeance of their own, the cops descend upon Nixonville — a poor enclave known for Seventh Kavalry activity with a large statue of President Nixon at its entrance — and chaos erupts. Red Scare especially relishes the onslaught. People are dragged from their homes, punched, electrocuted, beaten before being handcuffed away. Dogs barking add to the cacophony. All the while, Angela surveys the scene, hesitant perhaps as she voiced her belief over how unnecessary this raid is. But her grief has put her on edge. When a man lunges for Looking Glass, Angela erupts with violence in kind. With swift elegance she takes the man down, pummeling his face bloody until he’s unconscious before running off to cool down in her car.
Just as Watchmen thoroughly established the friendship between Angela and Judd, it destabilizes our understanding of him. At a get-together in Judd’s honor, Angela does something unexpected while talking to his widow: She faints. For a moment I bought it. But it’s really a ruse to get into Judd’s closet — sparked by Will’s mention that he had skeletons in the closet — where she finds a secret compartment. Inside is a white KKK robe and hood, which Angela meets with shock. At one point in the episode, Angela tells Topher about Judd’s death, noting that she and her son share an outlook that the world isn’t all lollipops and rainbows, but black and white. The revelation about Judd renders the world in frustrating shades of gray. Who really was this man? If he was a Seventh Kavalry member, does that mean someone else killed him? Were those robes planted in his closet for Angela to find? Or do they reveal an essential truth about the police force and its own ties to white supremacy?
Angela brings some of these questions to Will, who has proven to be a man too slick to pin down. But she is slick too: After getting his DNA from a coffee mug, she takes it to the Greenwood Museum for Cultural Heritage, an interactive place bearing witness to the Tulsa’s dynamic black community and its history that I hope we see more of. Angela learns in the process that Will is her grandfather, which only adds to her questions and puts their spiky dynamic in a new light. What’s so fascinating about this revelation is how it puts into sharp relief the importance of history — familial and otherwise — to this series. Will says he came to Angela to show her where she came from, yet he seems more content to speak in riddles and vague hints than to elucidate the history that unites them. But before Angela can parse over this inheritance, she decides to arrest Will and bring him into the police station. His paltry answers are no longer enough and she needs to make good on her bluff. Will’s warning that he has friends in “high places” turns out to be quite literal, as an aircraft with a giant magnet picks up Angela’s car with Will sitting inside, then disappears into the night sky.
Alongside a prickly conversation about inheritance, Watchmen continues to explore the literal and figurative ways we see the world, which is underscored by the episode’s plentiful POV shots (most notably from the perspective of Judd’s corpse being enclosed in a body bag, and from Angela’s perspective after being shot on the White Night). It also does so with American Hero Story, a show within the show that unites a disparate audience: Topher and Cal; Looking Glass, who apparently wears his mask at home even when eating dinner; and Rorschach mask wearing Seventh Kavalry members building a bomb vest. American Hero Story essentially adapts (or at least takes inspiration from) the autobiography of Hollis Mason, the first Nite Owl, as it charts the story of the vigilante Hooded Justice who brutally stopped a grocery store robbery.
Here’s an excerpt from Mason’s autobiography, as it appeared interspersed through the Watchmen comic:
“Reportage on this second instance was more detailed. 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 crashes in through the window of the supermarket while the robbery was in progress and attacked the man 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 papers ran the story under a headline that read simply ‘Hooded Justice.’”
American Hero Story is instructive toward how this world works and sees itself, like how we see a governmental warning before the program with precise language about the depiction of “POC and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.” But there’s also something a touch tongue in cheek about it, given the gravel voiced narration and the archness of the violence displayed (the slow motion, the gratuity). “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,” Hooded Justice says in voice over we hear as Angela drives to the event honoring Judd. “So, who am I? If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be wearing a fucking mask.” Angela is a woman who seems to know exactly who she is. She’s fiercely in control — which is evident in the supremely self-assured and sharply graceful physicality of Regina King. But how in control can a person be in a world of such chaos and slippery distinctions?
Under the Hood
• The Château Chronicles of Adrian Veidt continue this week with the revelation that his servants are actually clones. This comes to light during a rendition of his play The Watchmaker’s Son about Jon Osterman’s transformation into Dr. Manhattan. I’m honestly unsure where this is going, but there is an air of claustrophobia to these scenes that suggest things aren’t as idyllic as they seem.
• Red Scare screaming, “I’m not a Nazi, I’m a communist!” at the reporters who tried to get onto the scene with a pair of mechanical wings made me laugh.
• Since that comment about Dr. Manhattan being unable to look like a normal person got repeated twice with such a ring of importance, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was proven wrong or complicated by season’s end.
• That American flag that we briefly see on Angela’s porch has such an intriguing design (a change due to Vietnam becoming a state), with a circle of 51 stars in the middle. I want to get a closer look at all the details of this world-building.