One of my earliest memories is of my father strangling my mother. I can remember sunlight streaming in through the screen door of our small home. I can remember my mother squirming on the floor. But I can never quite make out his particulars. Instead, he’s a shadow smeared across the early years of my life, then a yawning absence. So much of my earlier life was about exorcising the remnants of him. But lately I’ve come to wonder about what can’t be so easily hidden away. What have I inherited from this man, this stranger? A certain rhythm to my steps? His skin tone? The gnawing loneliness inside of me? The prickling anger I’ve so often fashioned into a cudgel I turn against myself?
“This Extraordinary Being,” directed by Stephen Williams and written by Damon Lindelof and Cord Jefferson, inspires such imaginings. It’s a singular episode of television that asks us to consider the nature of inheritance and the ways trauma is etched upon a family, passed down through generations. As Angela experiences her grandfather’s memories after taking a lethal dose of Nostalgia, we bear witness to various reckonings that stare directly at the frightening face of American history, as well as a bold reimagining one of Watchmen’s most mysterious figures.
It starts with a whisper. Reality warps at the edges of Angela’s vision. Will’s mother plays on that fateful piano; it will become a motif throughout the episode, as we see her playing in places she’d never be, like the edge of a sidewalk or in an open field. Then Angela falls into Will’s past, which is rendered in practically aglow black-and-white cinematography. It’s 1938, New York City. A young Will Reeves — played by When They See Us’ Jovan Adepo, who alternates with Regina King in the role, sometimes within the same shot — is a graduating police cadet, the only black man among his ranks. But portent blooms on the horizon: The white officer passes him up, and instead it is Lt. Sam Battle, a real life figure and the first black police officer in New York City, who pins the badge on Will’s chest, offering the ominous warning, “Beware of the cyclops.” In the audience among the other reporters is June — his future wife and mother of his child, and, we learn later, the baby he found in the field in Tulsa all those years ago — played with sparkling, witty energy by Danielle Deadwyler. The decision to render the past in black and white, with occasional pops of color, is more than just a way to differentiate between time periods. It heightens the mood, which becomes dreamlike and poignant. It makes the juxtapositions that much sharper. Each color holds connotations, too. As James Snead wrote in White Screens/Black Images, “‘Whiteness’ and ‘Blackness’ lie perpetually at the intersection of power and metaphor.”
Braided throughout the episode are flashes from the Tulsa Massacre. At one pivotal point about halfway through the episode, June asks Will about Trust in the Law, the film he watched obsessively as a young boy, of which we saw a glimpse in the premiere. Soon June and Will are in silhouette as the film plays behind them and Will recounts the Bass Reeves tale. Trust in the Law has greatly shaped Will’s understanding of the world and its order. He believes that wearing a badge can not only do good for the world, but also help him find the justice he’s been craving since he was a child. But alongside this desire for justice is a deep well of anger, which June recognizes. It’s Angela whose face appears in the moment at the bar to say, “I am not angry,” with a kind of calm that belies just how angry both she and Will are. This is a part of her inheritance.
Any illusions of order or justice through the law are quickly dashed for Will when he takes into the precinct a man named Fred who set fire to a Jewish Delicatessen. A group of white officers take Fred off of Will’s hands. Soon afterward, Fred is outside, jauntily mocking Will and his lack of power. Will protests to the desk sergeant, even bringing up the cyclops symbol the cops exchange. Later, as he’s walking home, that same group of officers led by Officer Bourquin (Jordan Salloum) menacingly ask Will to join them for beers. When the car pulls away, the dead bodies of black folk are being dragged behind, leaving a garrish streak of red in their wake and mirroring a memory of Will’s from the Tulsa Massacre. For Will, the past is always present.
But Will isn’t safe. Turning the corner, the officers spill from their car to beat Will with batons and kicks and fists. The sharp sound design and haunting song heighten the brutality of this moment. We’re plunged into Will’s point of view as he’s being dragged toward a mammoth tree. The scene is gothic in its constitution. We see through Will’s eyes when the hood goes over his head. We see through Will’s eyes when he’s being strung up the tree. We see through Will’s eyes when the lights flicker and bleed before he’s cut down — and then it is Angela who appears, face bloodied, body shaking with tears. (Even though she only pops up in certain crucial moments, like here, King’s performance is provocative and mesmerizing.) Portraying this lynching through POV shots is a brutal way to make audiences bear witness to the horrors of racism, though it brings up questions I haven’t been able to fully answer yet — namely, what responsibility do writers and filmmakers bear when handling the spectacle of anti-black violence? Perhaps the answer lies in empathy, in showing the full and ragged and glorious humanity of black people while also being honest about the traumatic racism they’ve suffered.
Stumbling through an alley after his lynching, Will comes across a mugging. He quickly rips holes into the hood he’s still carrying between his hands and rushes headlong into the violence, pummeling the criminals with endless fury. The jazz score erupts alongside him, and Hooded Justice is born. He isn’t the white man that American Hero Story: Minutemen imagines him to be, but a black man who has taken the symbols of his oppression and refashioned them out of anger and a quest for justice. The noose around his neck loses its totemic meaning when you believe Hooded Justice to be white. This is a genius turn — taking the first superhero in Watchmen history and reworking him with a rich history that challenges our understanding of heroism. June asks Will why he put the hood back on. He can’t articulate why, but it’s clear: He couldn’t find justice with the badge and he needed an outlet for all his anger. As June says, “You ain’t going to get justice with a badge, Will Reeves, you’ll get it with that hood.” But to do this, June smartly assumes that the world will need to think there’s a white man under the hood. So, Will paints around his eyes in white — meaning he essentially wears two masks, each with its own price.
One of the most fascinating aspects of “This Extraordinary Being” is how it weaves together a host of various texts — the Bass Reeves film, the Tulsa Massacre memories, American Hero Story with its arch styling, and Action Comics #1, which we see Will/Angela reading briefly as the show aligns him with the Superman mythos. American Hero Story: Minutemen has cropped up throughout the show, used to cue people into the history of Hooded Justice. Episode six cleverly subverts what we’ve seen before in a number of ways, but I was especially struck by the inversion of the grocery-store robbery scene. After tracking down the cyclops members, who are unsurprisingly a part of the KKK, and beating them unconscious, Will bursts through a door to find himself in Fred’s grocery store. When Fred turns a shotgun on him, Will crashes through the window. Time slows to a halt as glass glitters around Will. But it’s Angela’s eyes we see behind the mask as Laurie and Cal futilely try bring her back to the land of the living.
Will’s reputation as Hooded Justice grows until one day Nelson Gardner, a.k.a. Captain Metropolis, visits his home. Nelson wrongly believes Will is just the cop supplying Hooded Justice information, not Hooded Justice himself. This earns a hearty laugh from June. Nelson wants Hooded Justice to join the Minutemen, since he’s the hero that inspired the group to come together. There are two brief moments — a look that passes between them during their handshake and when Nelson slides over his card talking about “true companionship” — that hint at the sexual and romantic relationship that forms between Nelson and Will. But it’s also a relationship shaped by Nelson’s own racism. “Some of them aren’t as tolerant as I am,” Nelson says about the rest of the group after advising Will to keep his makeup and costume on at all times around them. There’s also the crucial scene of Will joining the Minutemen during what amounts to a press visit. Nelson cuts Will off when he tries to speak about the insidious reach of the KKK. A reporter asks Will, “How do you respond to rumors that your strength is supernatural?,” which has an added sting given the stereotypes about black bodies. It’s the kind of thing they’d say to a black man, they just don’t know one is under that hood. The schism between Nelson and Will becomes more evident when the latter finally asks for help with taking down the KKK in New York City.
At the Capitol Theater, as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was meant to be playing (putting us in 1947), a riot has broken out. A cop sneers that this is what happens when you put “animals in the same cage.” Will rushes into the theater to find out what happened and approaches a woman named Lorna (Marissa Chanel Hampton), who tells him there was a flicker before a voice in her head told her to attack the black people around her. Will puts her words together with the mesmerism book he saw at the KKK hideout earlier in the episode to realize they’re hypnotizing black people using projectors in order to cause riots.
If Watchmen the comic was about the history of superhero comics themselves and what it means to be a reader of such, it makes sense the show would consider what it means to be a viewer of film and TV. There have been numerous scenes of characters watching things and being affected by it on some level. For Will there is an intriguing symmetry to the splendor he found with Trust in the Law and the corruption of the filmgoing experience during the scene at the Capitol Theater. This heightens the fraught relationship black people have with film itself — a medium often pointedly used in order to denigrate black folks rather than show the splendor of what it means to be black, although there are numerous examples of beauty, too.
Will tries to get Nelson and the other Minutemen’s help, but Nelson scoffs at the suggestion that the KKK is mesmerizing black audiences. He tries to get him to come over so they can talk about it, making it evident Nelson sees him as a plaything rather a person he truly respects. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to solve black unrest all on your own,” Nelson says condescendingly.
Perhaps it’s this final indignity that triggers Will to kill Fred when he appears outside the phone booth, laughing at his own racist language. Afterwards, Will goes into Fred’s warehouse to find the means of production for the mesmerism projectors. He kills every KKK member inside, including Officer Bourquin, whom he strangles with one of the cords used to record the subliminal messages. Then he burns the warehouse to the ground, lugging a projector home.
But Will’s rage hasn’t been exorcised. When he comes home to see his young son, Marcus, painting his face with the white makeup and wearing the Hooded Justice outfit, his anger rises as he reckons with the effects of his crimefighting on his young son. It’s an inheritance he doesn’t want to give, a burden no one else should shoulder. His reaction leads June to end their relationship: “I thought it would help get rid of this thing you have,” she says about his life as Hooded Justice. “But it didn’t get rid of it. It just fed it.” She takes Marcus to return to Tulsa without Will.
The episode then hurtles closer to the present, with the older Will using a flashlight equipped with the same mesmerism device of the project to lull Judd into submission and eventually hang himself. Memories then collapse onto one another — flickering images of Bass Reeves, the Minutemen, and Will’s mother — until an older June breaks through, seemingly addressing Angela, not Will: “She does look like you. I’m going to take you home now, honey.” (I assume this to be a memory of Angela’s, not Will’s.) Then Angela awakens, gasping, at Trieu Industries, with a new understanding of the person Will (and by extension she) is. And with this tremendous episode, Watchmen has given us a new understanding of how, more than anything else, it is a series preoccupied by trauma — how it’s formed, how it’s inherited, and how it’s endured.