Watchmen is one of this fall's most consistently rewarding shows. A fascinating and all too timely spiritual sequel to the iconic graphic novel, it achieves what few comic book adaptations do by expanding and improving upon the original. While Alan Moore's Watchmen will always be the gold standard for many a comic nerd, Damon Lindelof's HBO series feels just as urgent, dense, and compelling.
The sixth episode of the season, "This Extraordinary Being," finds Angela Abar (national treasure Regina King) taking a pill-induced trip down memory lane—but it's not paved with her memories. Without getting too deep into the show's vibrant weeds, Angela's estranged grandfather (Louis Gossett Jr.) gives her some Nostalgia pills that transport her to his past. Before Angela can process how she feels about drugging herself with some creepy old man's history, she (long story short) ends up swallowing the whole bottle. Next thing you know, she's in a hallucinatory state, literally stepping into her grandfather's shoes.
Not only do we get some highly stylized gender-bending with King wearing the hell out of some fine 1930s haberdashery, but we also get the real history of the world's first masked crimefighter, Hooded Justice. In the show within the show, the very Ryan Murphy–esque American Hero Story, Hooded Justice is a closeted homosexual having a torrid affair with fellow vigilante Captain Metropolis. And in a very Ryan Murphy–esque twist, he's played by Cheyenne Jackson.
Hooded Justice was always assumed to be white, just as all heroes are assumed to be white. Just look at how long it took Marvel to come out with Black Panther, and how shocked—shocked I tell you—everyone was when it was a hit. But Angela's grandfather, Will Reeves (played in flashback by Jovan Adepo), learned early on in life that heroes could be black, as exemplified by Bass Reeves in the (fictional) silent film that opens the season.
This fake film, however, is interrupted by the very real Tulsa Massacre, during which aggrieved white folks destroyed the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, killing between 100 and 300 people and injuring thousands of others. The world of Lindelof's Watchmen hinges on this incident—descendants of the massacre's victims are eligible for reparations from the government, which are derided as Redfordations—named after the longest-serving president in history, Oscar winner Robert Redford. These reparations infuriate Tulsa's white populace, who respond in the way aggrieved white people have always responded—violence—and form the white supremacist group the Seventh Kavalry.
Young Will Reeves escapes the massacre, but is still deeply scarred by it. He grows up to become a police officer, but racism has burrowed so deep into the fabric of society, that he's essentially a token with little respect and no power. When his fellow officers threaten him by attempting to lynch him, Reeves decides to take justice into his own hands, adopting the alter ego of Hooded Justice, wearing the rope that his attackers had used against him. And just as Angela would do decades later, he paints his face. But while she paints her face black under her hood, Reeves paints his face white, knowing fully well that a black vigilante fighting crime would end up dead before being hailed a hero.
Enter Nelson Gardner, a.k.a. Captain Metropolis (Jake McDorman). Inspired by Hooded Justice, other masked heroes have started springing up, joining forces as The New Minutemen. Gardner seeks out Hooded Justice to lend some legitimacy to their enterprise. Not only does he recognize the man behind the hood, Gardner also recognizes in Reeves a kindred spirit.
Wow. Turns out American Hero Story got a few things right about Hooded Justice.
So the first superhero was a black bisexual man, whom history whitewashes because that's what history tends to do. Or at least those who record history. Gardner, adopting his "I'm one of the good ones" tone, advises Reeves to stay in the closet as a black man around the other Minutemen.
Reeves initially thinks that he's found a group of like-minded individuals to help him take down the KKK and its secret shadow organization, Cyclops—but he soon realizes that the issues of black folk don't concern The New Minutemen.
As a black queer man, Will Reeves has submitted his body to a white man only to find that the intimacy he shares with him doesn't change the dynamics of the world they both inhabit but experience quite differently. Captain Metropolis only has to wear one mask, but Hooded Justice must wear two, even among those who are, purportedly, like him. It's a kind of duality that's familiar to many black people living in America, particularly black queer people—the mask never really comes off. There's always a layer between you and everything else, keeping you safe, hidden, sane.
Until it's not there anymore. Will ends up fucking losing it, taking on Cyclops, killing its leaders, and burning their whole operation down to the ground. It's an act of rage but also of incredible catharsis. Because Angela wasn't the only one experiencing all the shit Will went through in his quest for justice. We the viewers experienced it too. By the end I was happy to see those Nazis burn up in flames, for them to finally face condemnation. Very fine people indeed.
Too often we conflate timeliness with quality, as if just because something speaks to the moment it's a worthy form of art or entertainment, regardless of its artistic merit or value. And then there's the question of what is actually being said. Watchmen works on so many levels because it manages to say so much about race in America—about generational trauma caused by racial terrorism, about the intertwining histories of the Klan and police violence towards black communities, about what justice (and reparations) can look like for African Americans. But the best part is that it says it all so damn well.