Every TV series has to tell viewers what sort of show they’re watching. Sometimes this doesn’t take long; there’s not much of a learning curve to a traditional sitcom or police procedural. With more complex, ambitious shows, it takes a little longer. Imagine the puzzlement of early viewers who tuned into Buffy the Vampire Slayer expecting either a horror show or a comedy only to find a puzzling, vibrant hybrid of the two.
Then there are shows that change the rules as they go along. In bare description, Watchmen is a follow-up to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s classic graphic novel set in an alternate universe in which masked vigilantes and superpowered beings (one at least) exist. But it’s also a show intent on redefining itself as it reveals new aspects of its world every week. As with the opener, the second episode provided more questions than answers. Here’s what “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship” had us pondering.
A note before getting started: Perhaps taking its cues from the backmatter in the graphic novel, HBO released some supplementary reading after the premiere aired last week. A memo from FBI Special Agent Dale Petey of the Anti-Vigilante Task Force/Research Unit, it’s officially a caution against declaring dead the missing Adrian Veidt (who we know to be responsible for the 11/2 squid attack on New York). A headline in last week’s episode confirms that Petey’s plea proved unsuccessful, but the memo still reveals a lot about what happened to Rorschach’s journal, what became of Silk Spectre and Nite Owl, and other details of the Watchmen world. It’s definitely worth a read if you’re curious about the lore of the show, and might shed some light on upcoming episodes as well.
Why does this episode open during World War I?
We’re slowly filling in the backstory of Will, the boy saved from the 1921 Tulsa Massacre that his parents did not survive (a story that, as ScreenCrush writer Matt Singer observed, neatly parallels Superman’s origin story). In 2019, Will is now a 105-year-old man in a wheelchair played by Louis Gossett Jr. (There’s no need to be coy about any other possible identity after the second episode.) This week, we learn that his “Please look after this boy” note is written on the back of a piece of German propaganda dropped on a battalion of black soldiers and picked up by Will’s father while serving in World War I.
It’s based on actual propaganda used by the Germans during the war that were created to diminish the morale of black soldiers, but also made tough-to-dispute observations about inequality in the U.S., like “Can you get a seat in a theater where white people sit? Or can you even ride in the South in the same streetcar with white people?” It clearly struck a nerve with Will’s father, who had to suffer humiliations like a white soldier spitting on him, even while doing what he was supposed to feel was his patriotic duty. (It’s tempting to make a connection between Fraulein Mueller, the flyer’s translator, and Rolf Müller, the murdered circus strongman believed by some to be the mysterious Hooded Justice, the first masked vigilante in the Watchmen universe. However, their names are spelled differently — which doesn’t entirely rule out a connection, of course.)
What kind of coffeemaker does Angela use in her bakery?
It looks cool, doesn’t it? It seems to be powered by some kind of technology that exists in the Watchmen world but not in ours. (See also: Topher’s floating magnet toy later in this episode.) As with the electric cars, most technical innovations that exist in the world of the series but not in ours can be traced to Doctor Manhattan’s disruptive presence, as can tech we possess that the Watchmen characters do not, like cellphones and most other wireless devices more advanced than pagers. (Most but not all: See the “moths,” referenced below, and the seemingly Nite Owl–derived goggles Angela wears when exploring Crawford’s house.)
Why does Angela dress like a nun for her alter ego, Sister Night?
The bakery scene raises several questions we can’t answer yet, including why Angela latched onto this theme for her crimefighting identity. It’s notable that she feels compelled to put on her costume before interrogating Will. That’s something that Sister Night does that Angela Abar doesn’t.
Other mysteries: What are those pills Will says he uses for “memory”? If the mere mention didn’t spotlight them, the way the camera lingers on them would. When Will says, “Long time since I’ve been home,” does he mean Tulsa? Has he not returned since the massacre? And, if not, what has alerted him to the “vast and insidious conspiracy at play” in the city?
Why does Angela take Will away from the crime scene?
That’s the biggest question of all. By episode’s end, Angela has learned that Will is her grandfather, but she didn’t know that when she found him sitting next to Crawford’s swinging body. Everything we learned about Angela in the first episode suggested she was dedicated to upholding the law, so why did she whisk Will away for private interrogation, fake learning about Crawford’s death hours after she found the body, and continue hiding Will until she learned his true identity? She ends the episode attempting to arrest him, only to have the belated arrest undone by a flying object that lifts her car into the sky with him inside. Why the delay? It can’t just be intuition, right?
What is the New Frontiersman?
Moore and Gibbons’s Watchmen spends more than a little time hanging out at a Times Square newsstand where a talkative vendor interacts with a wide variety of customers and passersby, including a kid reading a pirate comic and Rorschach’s alter ego. The series has an analog in a downtown Tulsa newsstand staffed by a chatty skeptic who doesn’t take headlines at face value, whether they appear on The New Frontiersman or Nova Express.
He appears to be even more conspiracy-minded than The New Frontiersman, the right-wing tabloid that Rorschach entrusted with his journal. After being published in the paper, the journal became an article of faith for those questioning the official story behind the squid attack, believing, as Rorschach knew, that it was faked. Here the vendor suggests Redford and his “Libstapo” are creating the squid storms, while the New Frontiersman headline (“Global Squidfalls Baffle Scientists”) takes them at face value. Not that he’s on board with Redford’s opponent Joe Keene (James Wolk), whom we’ll meet later in the episode. Presumably the scion of John Keene, the senator behind the Keene Act, which outlawed costumed crimefighters, Joe’s on the other side of the political spectrum. Another publication carried by the newsstand, Nova Express is, at least in the timeframe of the graphic novel, published by Veidt. (A related question with no answer yet: Who is the girl picking up the papers?)
Why does Looking Glass leave his mask on even when he eats?
Maybe he’s still crying? Maybe he’s paying homage to Rorschach, who ate with his mask on at several points in the graphic novel? If nothing else, it allows the episode — directed, like the premiere, by Nicole Kassell — to draw visual parallels between the Seventh Kavalry’s Rorschach masks, Looking Glass, Sister Night, and the masked police officers. Often the strongest ties between the HBO series and the graphic novel come through stylistic touches, like cuts that use graphic matches to connect the actions of two characters and narration of one event used as commentary on another, as when the purple American Hero Story voice over plays as Angela drives to Crawford’s home.
What’s the deal with the winged journalists?
The “fucking moths,” as Red Scare calls them, appear to be using technology invented by the Minutemen-era superhero Mothman to spy on the police.
Speaking of Red Scare, is he really a communist or just saying that for effect?
Unclear, but he doesn’t seem like much of a joker, so it’s quite possible that he’s a transplant from the still-vital-in-2019 Soviet Union serving alongside the Tulsa police.
What’s in the big package Angela bought Cal for Christmas?
We might never learn, but the flashback does fill in a lot of blanks by depicting the White Night, an organized Seventh Kavalry attack on the Tulsa police that killed many, discouraged the rest to resign, and led those who later entered the service to wear masks and adopt secret identities.
We also learn that this event cemented Angela’s bond with Crawford, the first face she saw when she woke up after the attack. (Of course, what we learn of Crawford later in the episode casts that relationship in a very different light.) Among those lost in the incident: Angela’s partner Doyle, whose three children she and Cal adopt, which explains why Angela and Cal’s kids don’t look like their parents.
They do look a bit like the man who shows up to spend time with them, presumably their grandfather, only to go away when Angela pays him off as he grumbles about “Redfordations” (more on that below). He’s obviously a jerk, but it’s best not to write him off just as a jerk. Note the way the episode cuts to him grumpily sitting beneath an American flag as the voice over carries over from the previous scene, still expressing noble sentiments about how reparations will help everyone have a better future. President Redford’s intentions may be noble. His ideas might be even be correct and well implemented. But he hasn’t swayed everyone to his way of thinking, and the series appears intent on acknowledging that such a future will have its discontents.
The flashback also leaves some other questions unanswered: How does Angela escape when a man in a Rorschach mask appears to have her at point-blank range as she passes out? And how does Cal survive?
What’s the deal with the protesters?
Speaking of discontents, Angela encounters a handful of protesters outside the Greenwood Center for Cultural Heritage, the centerpiece of the again-thriving neighborhood once known as Black Wall Street that served as the site of the Tulsa Massacre. They seem particularly irked by “Redfordations,” the reparations program implemented by President Redford. Angela’s visit, and a later reference to the Victims of Racial Violence Act, sheds light on how they work: Rather than reparations for slavery (though those might exist in this universe as well), they seem to be tied to specific instances of injustice. Anyone whose DNA reveals them to be descended from those victimized in the Tulsa Massacre is eligible (and, conveniently, can test their DNA at the Greenwood Center and, presumably, at similar centers elsewhere). If that doesn’t seem like a solid plan, take it up with Treasury Secretary Henry Louis Gates, Jr. You can even call him “Skip,” if you like.
What’s the deal with the American flag?
The American flag now has a circular field of stars in the middle. It’s not clear exactly how many stars it includes, but we know that Vietnam became the 51st state. Did the U.S. expansion continue elsewhere?
Why would the residents of Nixonville mount such a cartoonish image of Richard Nixon outside their park?
It does seem kind of ignoble, doesn’t it? Then again, the Nixonville residents seem to exist in a perpetual state of nose-thumbing at the new status quo, and such a cartoonish image fits that attitude. The Nixonville raid also helps flesh out what we know about the police. Angela is not on board with the Red Scare-led escalation of violence. She behaves as if she’s seen this kind of excessive force before and knows it goes nowhere. (That said, she also confirms she’s a not-to-be-messed-with badass when one of the Nixonvillers comes for her.)
Can Doctor Manhattan pretend to be human?
He never did in the graphic novel, but does that mean he can’t? He can seemingly do just about anything else. Hmm, it seems like the Watchmen equivalent of the omnipotence paradox: “Can God create a weight so heavy that even God can’t lift it?”
What happened to Angela’s parents?
A fleeting reference suggests something bad happened to them, perhaps even something similar to the White Night attack and perhaps back in Saigon. But we don’t yet know.
Is anyone not tuned into American Hero Story?
It seems extremely popular: Cal and Topher watch it (despite the extensive FCC warning), as do Looking Glass and the Seventh Kavalry (who appear to be up to no good). The Petey memo references an earlier season that depicts Rorschach with “a withering deconstruction of pathology.” Based on what we see of this season, focusing on the first-wave heroes of the Minutemen, the show presents a less-than-heroic version of the costumed vigilantes of yore filled with audience-satisfying scenes of graphic violence.
This season of American Hero Story also promises to reveal the identity of Hooded Justice, who narrates, but not until the end. We learn immediately that, at least in the world of American Hero Story, that he’s not Rolf Müller, whom we see getting fished out of Boston Harbor. So who is he? And does American Hero Story get it right, or is it just telling the story it needs to tell to satisfy viewers cravings for tales of vigilante violence without encouraging anyone else to follow in its characters’ example?
Senator Keene seems significant, doesn’t he?
He does! And we learn that Crawford’s wife, Jane (Frances Fisher), used to work for him. Was there a split? If so, they seem friendly enough. And what does all this have to do with the Ku Klux Klan robe Angela finds in a hidden compartment behind Crawford’s closet (just like the hidden compartment hiding the Comedian’s costume in the graphic novel, another parallel to the source material)? That discovery may turn out to be at the heart of the show. We’ve been worried about who killed Crawford and why, but Angela now has to confront a deeper mystery: How could a man she loved like family, and who seemed to love her back, give this hateful uniform such a loving, if hidden, showcase? Was their friendship all a front? A means to an end? Something messier still? More questions: To what point in the past does the the robe belong? Was it Crawford’s grandfather’s? His father’s? His? And does this connect him to the Seventh Kavalry?
Meanwhile, Veidt is hanging out with a bunch of … clones? Identical twins?
At present, everything going on in and around Veidt’s castle would seem like it belongs to another show, if it weren’t for the strong ties to the graphic novel. In this episode, Veidt’s identical-looking servants, who meet his every need no matter how testy he gets or how strange (and even fatal) his requests, reenact Doctor Manhattan’s origin story. The poor, unfortunate Phillips even sacrifices himself in the process. But not to worry: Veidt has spares. This is the strangest element of a show that’s not afraid to be strange and, at the moment, it’s tough to figure out what’s going on or how it fits into the bigger picture, though worth noting that Veidt’s servants might be an escalation of the same interest in genetics that created Bubastis, the peculiar cat that served as Veidt’s companion (until he killed her).
What’s the significance of the episode name?
The title “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship” is a slight variation on “Comanche Feats of Martial Horsemanship,” the name of an 1834 painting by George Catlin, an artist and writer known for his depictions of Native American life. In our world, it hangs in the Smithsonian. In the Watchmen world, it hangs in Crawford’s house where the camera slowly pans in on the image of a horse before cutting to a horseback Veidt (another graphic match). Its ties to this episode feel a little elusive, though it’s notable that a series so concerned with the difficulty of finding equality and justice in the shadow of a violent past would reference Native Americans, who’ve rarely enjoyed the benefits promised by the country’s founding ideals. Not that they didn’t sometimes fight back: As the painting suggests, the Comanche were known and feared for the deadliness of their mounted attacks. The image provides a reminder that history is filled with spilled blood and unfinished business.