lingering questions

9 Big Questions From This Week’s Watchmen

Photo: HBO

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen tells the story of a group of costume-wearing characters (and one godlike being) trying to solve a mystery as a nuclear apocalypse looms in 1985. But nested within that story is a tale that spans a swath of the 20th century, from the late-’30s introduction of masked vigilantes — or “costumed adventurers,” to use Nelson Gardner’s term this episode — through the dark days of the 1970s that led to said vigilantes being told to join up with the Nixon-led U.S. government or get off the streets. We see most of it in glimpses, but flashbacks and supplementary material supply a lot of information about the first wave of costumed adventurers, the colorful heroes who came together to fight crime collectively as the Minutemen (then disbanded after getting swept up in anti-Communist paranoia).

In fact, Moore and Gibbons provide enough information that the sixth episode of HBO’s Watchmen has to slalom around the established bits of continuity to retrofit Will Reeves into the identity Hooded Justice, the first costumed adventurer, a sideline Will took up after encountering racism and a far-reaching conspiracy while working as a New York policeman. That’s this episode’s biggest revelation, but it’s hardly the only big revelation. Among other things, we learn Will wasn’t lying about killing Crawford and how he did it, putting the inciting mystery of the series to bed. Sort of. The questions of why kill Crawford (other than for what he represents), why kill him now, and what his death has to do with whatever it is Lady Trieu is planning remains unanswered. So do, well, a lot of other questions. But let’s see what we can answer about “This Extraordinary Being.”

How about the title. Is that significant?

Probably. But finding a specific reference for “this extraordinary being” is slippery. The phrase does crop up in a relevant context in Larry Tye’s 2012 book Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, describing Samson, which Tye posits as an obvious influence on Superman: “The Philistines managed to capture this extraordinary being, gouging out his eyes and bringing him to their shrine in shackles to dance before them, humiliated.” That does sound a bit like what Will goes through this episode, but the connection feels thin.

Does the revelation that Will was Hooded Justice square with the continuity of the graphic novel?

It does … but it takes some bending to make it work. In the graphic novel, we never learn the identity of Hooded Justice. In his memoir, Hollis Mason, the first Nite Owl, speculates that he was Rolf Müller, a circus strongman of German origin found murdered some time after the dissolution of the Minutemen. That’s seemingly the version being dramatized on the snippets of American Hero Story that open the episode, which depict Hooded Justice taking out some sleazy FBI agents trying to blackmail him into retrieving compromising photos of J. Edgar Hoover, a very James Ellroy-like development.

But since we know so little about Hooded Justice beyond this speculation, it’s not that hard to squeeze Will into the costume. It does require some selective omissions from the graphic novel, however. Mason remembers Hooded Justice offering some approving sentiments of Hitler, and it makes sense for the first hero to emerge in the Watchmen universe to harbor fascist sentiments, since Moore has expressed discomfort that superheroes are themselves expressions of a fascist impulse. That’s, of course, not what Will believes. He spends the episode fighting fascists. (But it’s not like Damon Lindelof’s continuation of Watchmen fails to make connections between masked vigilantes and fascism elsewhere in the series.) Also elided: an episode in which Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis hypocritically vortex to cast out Minutemen member The Silhouette when she’s outed as a lesbian. (You can glimpse her, fuzzily, in the background of the press conference.)

Beyond that, however, Will fits pretty snugly into the established history. As in the novel, Hooded Justice emerges after the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics No. 1. His first adventures find him rescuing a couple from a mugging incident inside a grocery store, only here that becomes part of Hooded Justice’s fight with a Klan member named Fred, whom he meets burning down a Jewish deli and who escapes justice thanks to the fascist-sympathisizing cops associated with Cyclops, a New York branch of the Klan. (They even have a hand gesture that marks them as members.) And a little whiteface around the eyes hides his racial identity. Voilà: The past gets a slight revision and the connection between Tulsa — where Will admired a movie depicting Marshal Bass Reeves as a masked hero and learned firsthand how white hate could destroy black achievement — and New York — where masked vigilantes first appeared — grows tighter.

Is Nostalgia in the graphic novel?

Sort of. It’s the name of a perfume marketed by Veidt via images from bygone days. This drug is new, but its history seems to parallel that of opioids in the 21st century. It was introduced for one application but became a crisis through misuse and addiction, because who doesn’t want to escape into the past? (For an example of its advertising materials, visit Peteypedia.) Another problem: You’re definitely not supposed to escape into someone else’s past. Angela tries it, refuses treatment for it, and seems to be on the verge of dying from it at one point. It’s no doubt significant that she doesn’t wake up in a hospital, but in the home of Lady Trieu, whose company produced it and who seems to know ways to draw her back from her semi-vegetative state as she relives her grandfather’s life. That’s a trippy idea that produces some jarring moments, as young Will is played alternately by Jovan Adepo (The Leftovers) and Regina King, sometimes in the same shot. (There’s one moment when it appears to be King’s eyes behind the hood but Adepo’s face when it’s removed.) That shifting between actors, the black-and-white cinematography, the occasional intrusion of Tulsa memories, and Stephen Williams’ fluid direction help create a dreamlike state that lasts throughout the episode.

Why does Superman get such a prominent mention?

As mentioned above, that Hooded Justice appears after Superman’s debut — presumably taking some inspiration from the Kryptonian — is taken from the graphic novel. Here it also serves as a reminder that Will’s story echoes that of Superman’s, as first pointed out by ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer. Beyond being sent away by his parents from a collapsing world, he falls for a reporter, June (Danielle Deadwyler). Other details muddy up the connection, however. June is a fellow Tulsa exile, the girl Will finds after being sent away by his parents. (And she’s wrapped in an American flag, much like some versions of the Superman story have him found wrapped in what will become his cape.) Then there’s the matter of Will’s bisexuality, which leads to an affair with Minutemen founder Nelson Gardner. That’s not a part of any typical Superman story, nor is Lois leaving Superman with their child in tow.

Reeves’s superhero origin also echoes that of The Spirit, the protagonist of Will Eisner’s innovative comic of the same name. Originally a policeman named Denny Colt, he’s left for dead after an attack by enemies but returns to fight crime wearing a disguise. That’s not exactly what happens to Will in this episode — his enemies know he’s not dead — but it’s not that far off from it, either.

There weren’t really Nazis in New York, were there?

There were, actually. 1933 saw the formation of the New York-based organization called Friends of Nazi Germany, which later gave way to the German American Bund, whose activities included a 1939 rally that packed Madison Square Garden. The Klan had a presence, too. In 1927, a reported 1,000 Klansmen paraded through Queens, leading to fights and arrests. Among those arrested? Fred Trump, father to a future president. And the name of the fascist grocer who locks horns with Will, played by veteran character actor Glenn Fleshler? It’s Fred. Fleshler even resembles the elder Trump a bit in this episode. A coincidence? Is anything a coincidence on this show? (Speaking of which, romaine lettuce is the first victim of Hooded Justice’s raid on the fascist grocery store.)

Is the music significant this week?

When isn’t it? Most notably, the soundtrack sets key moments to songs buy The Ink Spots, the great vocal group that had a string of hits between 1939 and the early ’50s, almost exactly the time period covered this episode. “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” comes in as Will stakes out the grocery, “Whispering Grass (Don’t Tell the Trees)” plays as Will and Nelson have a rendezvous, and “We Three” accompanies the moments after June tells Will she’s having their baby. Another notable moment: Eartha Kitt crooning “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” as Will/Angela watches the warehouse burn from beneath the hood. And over the credits you’ll hear Witch, the premier act of Zambia’s 1970s Zamrock movement, singing “Living in the Past,” a thematically appropriate (and awesome) choice.

What other blanks get filled in?

We learn a lot about Angela in an episode largely dedicated to her grandfather. June fled New York for Tulsa with Angela’s father, Marcus. At some point however, presumably during the war, Marcus moved to Vietnam, leading to Angela’s birth in Saigon in 1976. We otherwise don’t know that much about Angela’s parents, but it’s possible we’ll learn more. Young Marcus putting on some make-up and telling his father “I’m like you” seems significant. Is Angela a third-generation costumed adventurer? Also worth noting: The older woman Angela sees who says, “She does look like you” and “I’m going to take you home now, honey” would mostly likely seem to be Angela’s grandmother, but the credits list her simply as “Old Woman.”

What’s going on with Veidt this episode?

Nothing that we see. It’s probably pretty weird, though, whatever it is.

Why did Will kill Crawford?

That’s the question now that we know who killed Crawford, isn’t it? Obviously, having a grandfather in the Tulsa Klan would make him a likely participant in the 1921 massacre, but why single out Crawford? And how, for that matter, did Will know about the Klan uniform in the first place? The more we learn, the more the mystery deepens.

9 Big Questions From This Week’s Watchmen