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Watchmen Beautifully Wrestles With Toxic Nostalgia

Angela Abar (Regina King) looking directly at the past on Watchmen.
Angela Abar (Regina King) looking directly at the past. Photo: HBO

“Nostalgia is toxic.”

Damon Lindelof, the creator of HBO’s Watchmen, told me he wrote those words in a notebook when he first started thinking about adapting the famed comic for television. That idea has served as subtext in much of the series so far, but in Sunday’s episode, “This Extraordinary Being,” it leaps to the foreground as outright text, in all caps and bold font.

The episode picks up where the previous installment left off, with Regina King’s Angela Abar having quite literally overdosed on Nostalgia, an illegal drug given to her by her grandfather, Will Reeves. The result is an hour-long head trip into two heads simultaneously: Angela’s, as she feels the effects of the drug, and Will’s, as his life as a police officer and the masked vigilante Hooded Justice is depicted in detail. But “This Extraordinary Being” doesn’t simply illuminate Will’s backstory. It also serves as a commentary on the ways in which history regularly gets whitewashed and sanitized in American culture, and how nostalgia — the sense that things were better back in the day, which is usually only true if you happen to be a straight, white, Christian man — makes it that much harder for social progress to happen.

And yes, all that is relevant to the Current Climate™ in terms of its politics (“Make America Great Again” is toxic nostalgia’s official catchphrase) and its pop culture. Watchmen is, after all, a series that has sparked a backlash among some fans of the comic, who see Lindelof’s version as inferior to the one created by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins in 1986. That sort of response has become a standard feature of modern fandom, where a stubborn reverence for what came first makes it nearly impossible for some people to even consider new interpretations of beloved artistic works. Lindelof had all of these things on his mind when co-writing this episode with Cord Jefferson. “The meta notion of saying nostalgia is toxic whilst waxing on that very nostalgia in relation to that very original text was not lost on me,” he told me in an email.

Lovers of that original text will certainly recognize the name Nostalgia. It appears in the Watchmen comic as a brand of perfume, created by Adrian Veidt to capitalize on the human tendency to glorify the past. (“Where is the essence that was so divine?” asks one advertisement for the fragrance.) The HBO Watchmen version of Nostalgia is, instead, a prescription drug. As explained by the show and this advertisement posted on Peteypedia, it is supposed to treat dementia, anxiety, and psychological trauma. Each pill, manufactured by the company owned by Lady Trieu (Hong Chau), contains one to five memories harvested from the patient it’s intended to help. But as Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) tells Angela right before she falls into a coma: “You’re not supposed to take someone else’s Nostalgia.”

That advice comes too late to be heeded. Angela has swallowed a whole bottle of pills that do not belong to her, which means that Will’s memories start flying through her brain, often overlapping or colliding with one another. Visually, “This Extraordinary Being” does an absolutely elegant job of capturing this mental short circuitry, switching to black-and-white to capture Will’s experience as an adult in New York City and turning to a more sepia tone when the action flashes back to his childhood in Tulsa.

Sometimes Will is rendered as a young man, played by Jovan Adepo. Other times Angela becomes a stand-in for Will, altering our perspective on who is participating in and witnessing this personal history. As directed by Stephen Williams, it’s an incredibly subtle, effective way to convey the connection between grandfather and granddaughter, as well as how our perception of an event can shift simply by altering the position of the lens that captures it. Even the casting here is inspired: Adepo played King’s son on The Leftovers, a previous Lindelof project, so it feels right to immediately see the two of them as kin, albeit in a different context, because our memories of that other show signal that it makes sense.

Every element of craft in this episode — direction, writing, costume and make-up, music — speaks directly to that toxic-nostalgia theme. The portrait of Will’s life during the 1930s and 1940s, when he’s a young man married to June (Danielle Deadwyler) and trying to enforce the law as the only black cop in an extremely racist New York City police force, plays like an old movie from that era. If you turned on Turner Classic Movies and found a film from this general time period — the sort of film that might make older white folks start talking about the good ’ol days — it might even look similar.

The difference, of course, is that almost all Hollywood pictures from that era weren’t told from a black man’s perspective. This approach is Watchmen’s way of reminding us that pop culture rarely captures the experiences of people like Will Reeves. Case in point: Fred, the racist, anti-Semitic shop owner portrayed by Glenn Fleshler, says wryly in one scene that he wants to get home in time for Amos ’n’ Andy, a radio show awash in racial clichés that focused on two black men famously portrayed by two white ones. Another case in point, per the opening sequence of the episode: The fact that American Hero Story, the modern day show-within-the-show about the world’s first masked vigilantes, depicts Hooded Justice as a white man.

By essentially making a classic movie that tells a black man’s story about generational trauma, this episode is doing what the series as a whole is doing: It’s taking a known narrative, the Watchmen comic, and altering it in a way that makes race absolutely central to the story.

Even the music choices in “This Extraordinary Being” cleverly highlight how the episode’s intentions intersect with the comic world. A trio of jazz standards by the all-black group the Ink Spots appear on the soundtrack. (Ink spots … like a Rorschach test.) One of those songs, “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” was famously used in commercials from the 1980s, the same decade that gave us Watchmen. Those commercials happened to be for a perfume: not Nostalgia, but Chanel No. 5. The song “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” also makes an appearance, as performed by Eartha Kitt, a black woman who put on a mask on television herself, in her role as Catwoman on the ’60s series Batman. But the song was originally written for a Broadway show called Roberta. Actress Fay Templeton, who played Roberta in the original production, was briefly married to William “Billy” West, a fellow performer known for appearing in … wait for it … minstrel shows.

There are layers and layers to dissect in this episode. But maybe the most essential takeaway is this: Even in the alternate history of Watchmen, the central history of the black experience is the same. Black people are still marginalized, traumatized, and victimized by white supremacists.

We watch as Will, in his dual roles as a police officer and a member of the Minutemen, tries to dismantle a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan that’s using mesmerism to make black people attack one another. But he can’t get any support, not from his police colleagues or even Minutemen founder Captain Metropolis (Jake McDorman), who thinks Will is trafficking in conspiracy theories. After becoming Will’s secret lover and promising to back him up in his efforts, the white supposed savior eventually tells him: “I’m afraid you’re going to have to solve black unrest all on your own.” Which, as Hooded Justice, is what Will commits to doing.

When you imagine taking a pill called Nostalgia, you assume it’s going to bring back warm memories. In Angela’s case, it doesn’t, seemingly by design. If you remember back in episode four, Will and Lady Trieu have a conversation about using Nostalgia to fill in the blanks for Angela about her grandfather’s past. “If you want her to know who you are, just tell her,” Trieu suggests. But Will is adamant that she has to take the pills. “She has to experience things herself,” he says. That’s the other point that “This Extraordinary Being” is making: To fully understand trauma and injustice, you have to walk in the shoes of the people who lived it. Angela is no stranger to either trauma or injustice, but gulping down those pills is the best way for her to truly feel the way it felt to be her grandfather all those decades ago. She’s sliding directly into his shoes.

All of this made me think of a famous line from Mad Men, another show that, in its way, examined toxic nostalgia. In its first-season finale, Don Draper declares that, “In Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means the pain from an old wound.” For Will, nostalgia and Nostalgia is just that: pain from an old wound that won’t heal, pain that he needs his granddaughter to understand.

The message of this rich, beautifully executed, thought-provoking episode, then, isn’t that people should never be nostalgic. It’s that they should look backward with clearer and more critical eyes. There are more sides to every story, even the ones that you think you know.

Watchmen Beautifully Wrestles With Toxic Nostalgia