This Watchmen review contains spoilers.
Watchmen Episode 6
Watchmen’s “This Extraordinary Being” is a technically imperfect episode of television.
It bears the weight of condensing one man’s life story and the national conspiracy he uncovered into one hour. The sci-fi concept at the center may be a little much. Yes, even in a show that features a lake full of Doctor Manhattan babies, and squid rain, mesmerism might be bridge too far. Or as one Nelson Gardner puts it “So the Klan is using mind control? Do you have any idea how ridiculous that sounds?”
Even some of the dialogue is far too expository and well below the standards of Lindelof and company’s usual work. “You need to hide under that hood because you can’t stand to see what you’ve become,” June Reeves needlessly tells her husband and the audience near the episode’s conclusion.
Ultimately, however, none of that matters. Because what “This Extraordinary Being” does for the Watchmen and superhero mythos is nothing short of…well, extraordinary.
Before Watchmen really got rolling and started standing on its own two weird blue feet, a lot of the dialogue around it revolved around how necessary it was. Nothing that this Watchmen could ever do would make it feel truly necessary in the massive shadow of its progenitor. It could be good, it could be great, it could be transcendent even, but even then it might not be necessary. That’s where “This Extraordinary Being” comes in. The reveal that Will Reeves, survivor of the Tulsa massacre and Angela Abar’s grandfather, is the masked vigilante known as Hooded Justice is the closest that this Watchmen will ever get to feeling completely and utterly necessary.
The revelation, though likely predictable to some, is still utterly staggering. Take a step back for a moment to consider what Watchmen has done. It’s taken the first ever superhero in one of comic book superherodom’s most important canon’s and revealed him to be a black American with a uniquely American origin story worthy of Krypton, itself.
The reveal of Will Reeves as Hooded Justice works on every possible level. The idea that the Tulsa massacre, a Bass Reeves silent film, and Action Comics #1 is the precisely correct equation to create the world’s first masked hero is marvelous. And seeing it happen in practice is somehow even more satisfying. The rope and hood that Hooded Justice donned was always dripping with clear symbolism…it just wasn’t clear to what. The fact that the hood and rope come from the very night Will Reeves was nearly lynched by his own police brethren fits so neatly into the hero’s identity and style that it’s a wonder no one thought to do it before.
The bearded elephant in the room, of course, is that no one thought to do it before because Watchmen’s co-creator didn’t want them to do it before. The man whose name is legally barred from being associated with this endeavor told the story he wanted to tell and wished for it to be told no more. That story included the identity of Hooded Justice deliberately being lost to the ages, perhaps as a subtle commentary on the fungibility of history or merely as just a mystery to engage fans after the story concludes. Like just about every aspect of Watchmen, the events of episode 6 lead to a moralizing self-tango of “well I know Alan didn’t want this but…this seems like the coolest possible application of the material.” No moment yet carries a stronger sense of that bargaining that this Will reveal. It just works, full stop. And now we have to confront our feelings about that.
Of course, part of the reason it resonates so strongly is because the emotional beats are pure. Thanks to a script from Damon Lindelof and Cord Jefferson, and the occasional involvement of Regina King as Angela Abar on a Nostalgia trip, what could have been a staid lesson on superhero history is instead dynamic and alive. “This Extraordinary Being” does an excellent job at both framing the story as part of Angela’s experience and also letting Will’s story speak for itself. Angela’s hallucination beginning with a police drummer rattling away immediately gives the episode a kinetic drive. Then, as Angela’s world recedes, we’re thrust full on into Will’s.
There are a lot of cool narrative and visual devices to remind us that what we’re seeing is a memory and carries all the jumbled nonsense therein. For starters the episode is in black and white (did you know that roughly 12 percent of the population reports dreaming in black and white?). Even beyond that, however, there are creative and at times disturbing little flourishes. Will’s mom plays the “Trust in the Law” music on her piano throughout the streets of Manhattan. Planes from the Tulsa massacre roar overhead when it’s brought up. In one instance, the police car that Will’s peers drive drags the mangled bodies of human beings behind it, like in Tulsa. Will exits the police precinct right out into the street. “Trust in the Law” projects itself on the wall as Will talks about it…giving some more screentime to my personal favorite Watchmen character: “little yokel Bass Reeves fan holding piglet.”
The effects along with a couple of Angela interludes (“You’re not moving but your eyes are wide open. It’s kind of fucking creepy, Angela,” Laurie says) go a long way towards livening up what could be a simple flashback episode and also contextualizing why it remains important.
Really, the nuts and bolts of Will’s story are quite simple when broken down to their component parts: justifiably angry man finds the right venue for his justifiable anger. And in the process kills some bad guys, of course. Will joins the NYPD and quickly discovers that he won’t be treated like the rest of the officers. The police chief won’t even shake his hand at graduation. Instead the only black superior at the department does and delivers a warning of “beware the Cyclops.”
The Cyclops, as best as we can now understand it, is the vast and insidious conspiracy that the older Will Reeves alluded to. Many powerful people within important institutions collude and use their influence to degrade, humiliate, and kill black Americans. So, you know: America. Will first dons the hood of justice when his fellow officers stage a mock lynching after he arrests someone he “shouldn’t.” The rest of it plays out as a greatest hits of the Hooded Justice story, albeit in a less stylized manner than American Hero Story (and with far fewer shots of Nelson Gardner’s impossibly juicy butt).
Hooded Justice has a fight in a grocery store (thought the legend later leaves out that it’s a front for the Klan), joins the Minutemen, takes up with Captain Metropolis, and changes the very history of the world simply by putting on a mask. But what the stories leave out, however, is that vast conspiracy. The Klan, as Cap Nelson so succinctly summarizes, is using mesmerism to terrorize the black residents of Harlem and maybe beyond. And Hooded Justice is the only one who cares. Again because, you know: America.
For as brilliant as Watchmen’s middle portion has been, with a stellar run of episodes three through five, some of the excitement of the original Tulsa setup was lost as the show reintroduced important pieces and characters of Watchmen lore. “This Extraordinary Being” brings the focus back to watch appears to be the show’s biggest, most important theme: racism as America’s original sin.
I rewatched the series first episode last week and was surprised at how emotional the opening scene left me, now that the initial shock at the episode’s narrative boldness and commitment to realistic violence had subsided a little. The sight of a young Will Reeves, wearing his little jacket, and holding a baby as he gazes back on the smoldering embers of the world he just lost is utterly devastating.
I suspect “This Extraordinary Being” will make the next rewatch of that scene even sadder. Will does get his revenge. He kills Fred, countless Klansmen, and even Judd Crawford in the present day with mesmerism technology. But no amount of righteous revenge can undo that one day in Oklahoma, or keep his family from running away from the man he became. The Superman exists and he’s African-American. Yet Krypton remains just as dead.