HBO's "Watchmen" trolls history and heroic whiteness in the most extraordinary episode yet

Damon Lindelof's take on history meets up with that of the comic books' to tell a true American hero origin story

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 25, 2019 11:06AM (EST)

Watchmen (Mark Hill/HBO)
Watchmen (Mark Hill/HBO)

This article goes into extensive detail about the sixth episode of HBO's "Watchmen." If you haven't seen it and do not want to be spoiled, stop reading right now.

"Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go." – James Baldwin

"I would also remark that save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators) these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race. In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith's 'Birth of a Nation' as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks."-- Alan Moore, from a 2017 interview published in Folha de São Paulo (and re-posted on

"This Extraordinary Being," the sixth hour of HBO's "Watchmen," is one of those episodes created to launch a thousand think pieces — this being one of them — along with a few college papers and maybe even a couple of grad school dissertations. You might have read these words as dismissive snickering or sarcasm. The intended sentiment is in fact the opposite.

There aren't many episodes of television that nail their multiple roles as exposition, cultural critique, and social commentary on the roles race, class and power play in systemic justice in one single resolute sweep. "This Extraordinary Being" does all of this by asserting a mindblower reveal that balances the potential of angering fanboys with challenging long-held assumptions about who is given permission to not merely to play the hero, but be viewed as a hero.

It is that last point, I think, that makes this "Watchmen" tick of the clock a purposefully different experience for viewers of color and black viewers in particular. Above all, it eloquently acknowledges and even (to a point) exonerates the power of black rage in a way I've never seen before on television.

This episode,  written by series creator Damon Lindelof and Cord Jefferson, addresses a couple of nagging questions that have been pulling at viewers watching this season so far. But its boldest move is to answer the biggest unsolved mystery of Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbons' "Watchmen" comics: the true identity of the Minutemen hero called Hooded Justice.

Seizing that liberty without the blessing of Moore may turn off a few zealots insistently clinging to some false notion of "canon," although Lindelof and his writers have been slyly swiping at that strange religion throughout this season.

It also helps that Lindelof and Jefferson honor what traits the comic book's readers know about Hooded Justice, aligning their story with details described in the comic books.

Hooded Justice, distinguished by his dark executioner's cowl and heavy rope binding his wrists and fashioned into a noose around his neck, is said to be the costumed hero who inspired all the others. He's such a giant among the caped legends of old that his exploits inform the A-plot of "American Hero Story," the hit television drama of "Watchmen's" 2019 alt-United States.

In that TV show within our TV show, Hooded Justice is depicted as a white man and the secret lover of Minutemen team member Captain Metropolis. What distinguishes Hooded Justice from the rest of the heroes, however, is that nobody ever finds out his true name. Nevertheless, "American Hero Story" presumes he is a white man (played in "American Hero Story" by Cheyenne Jackson) because heroes are white.

But Lindelof and Jefferson turn that supposition on its head in telling the origin story of Will Reeves (Jovan Adepo as a young man, Lou Gossett Jr. in 2019) by way of a near-death psychedelic trip embarked upon by Angela Abar (Regina King). Cornered by her new boss, special agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), Angela  swallows a full bottle of her grandfather Will's memories, which have been captured in capsules of an illegal drug called Nostalgia.

As Laurie explains, Nostalgia is now illegal, but was once used to treat dementia and manufactured by a company owned by trillionaire Lady Trieu (Hong Chau). A chip was used to harvest memories from a patient's brain and convert them into pills to ease memory loss symptoms and enable the elderly to relive happy pages from their past.

Swallowing other people's Nostalgia pills is dangerous in small amounts, Laurie warns, and Angela has gulped a lethal amount of Will's memories. (This is an ironic detail in itself, since the erasure of Will's past and Angela's ignorance of his role in her life, one in which she wears a superhero's mask and badge, has nearly killed her already.)

Succumbing to the Nostalgia, Angela tumbles through her grandfather's memories, even experiencing them as him starting with Will's 1938 graduation from the New York City police academy. The white superior officer officiating the ceremony refuses to pin his badge on him. He leaves that task to his black colleague, fittingly named Lieutenant Battle. As Battle does so, he whispers a cryptic warning in Will's ear, "Beware the Cyclops."

Soon afterward, Will finds out what he means: While walking his beat one evening a white man named Fred (Glenn Fleshler) nonchalantly tossed a Molotov cocktail through the window of a Jewish deli. When Will arrests the arsonist, the man taunts him, treating Will's badge as if it's meaningless.

Fred isn't wrong. When they get back to the precinct, another white officer takes custody of the perpetrator from Will, touching his forehead with his hand shaped in the white power "O.K." sign.

The next day, Fred is back on the streets.

The next night, three of Will's false brothers in blue ambush him as he's walking home.

They beat him, throw a hood over his head, drag him out to a tree and hang him by the neck until he's nearly dead. They cut him down at the last possible moment as a warning, leaving him gasping, bloody, and shaking on the ground.

Director Stephen Williams places the audience inside Will's point of view as he's strung up, a brilliant and savage move meant to generate nausea and maximum empathy.  It is one thing to see a man hang,  and altogether another to vicariously experience the fear and gasping panic and insult of it firsthand.

I imagine that this may have been too much for some viewers to take, especially people who are rightly sensitive to the exploitative acts of violence against black bodies used purely for the sake of entertainment. But Williams' cinematic choice personalizes Will's pain and the pain of lynching victims generally.

As Will is stumbling home in shock, his cut bonds still around his wrists and the lynching noose encircling his neck, he encounters a white couple being violently assaulted. In that decisive moment, Will throws on the hood, charges into the fray, and beats the thugs senseless, saving the couple. They tell the story to a local newspaper that writes up the incident with florid enthusiasm.

Will reads the news article at home with his wife June (Danielle Deadwyler), an understanding, passionate journalist who before this incident, points out to Will how angry he is and that, given that he remembers watching his parents' murder, he is entitled to his anger. She compels him to use the hood that was employed in his near murder to get the justice he is otherwise denied, with the addition of skin-lightening makeup around his eyes so that nobody will notice his blackness.

And this is the story of how a black man, Will Reeves, becomes Hooded Justice, the first superhero.

Rather, this is the simplest explanation. Telling the full story has taken most of the first half of this season. But returning to Lindelof's guiding intention of "trolling the idea of the white savior," as he put it, making Will Reeves Hooded Justice is multi-layered rebellious act.

First, it points out the poisonous effect of the entertainment industry's decades of whitewashing.

Moore addresses this head on in a 2017 interview that began recirculating a week or two ago, in which he specifically indicts the theatrical superhero franchise trend:

Primarily, mass-market superhero movies seem to be abetting an audience who do not wish to relinquish their grip on (a) their relatively reassuring childhoods, or (b) the relatively reassuring 20th century. The continuing popularity of these movies to me suggests some kind of deliberate, self-imposed state of emotional arrest, combined with a numbing condition of cultural stasis that can be witnessed in comics, movies, popular music and, indeed, right across the cultural spectrum.

But the movie industry in general is a major offender, and this stasis to which Moore refers has gripped Hollywood since the very beginning.  Decades of the studio system's exclusion and marginalization of minorities from its stories abets the rewriting of history to not only emphasize whiteness but lionize it.

Through Hollywood, we came accept that the heroes of the old West were mostly white and that white Americans were the main or the sole fighters in every war our country has been involved in.

Recently an LA Times story made headlines by disclosing that a producer once considered casting Julia Roberts in the role of Harriet Tubman. That would be unbelievable, if Angelina Jolie hadn't played Daniel Pearl's multiracial wife Marianne in the 2007 biopic "A Mighty Heart" or Emma stone hadn't played an Asian Hawaiian woman in 2015's "Aloha."

The second layer concerns the inciting event in "This Extraordinary Being" as a natural outgrowth of intergenerational trauma, the theory that significant acts of violence in a person's life and their resulting psychological effects can alter one's DNA and potentially be passed down to future generations.

The worlds of DC and Marvel are full of characters who are born from trauma or inherit the superhero's mantle from fathers, mothers, and mentors. (This episode abounds with references to Superman and, indeed, his origin story and Will's begin similarly, with the loss of his parents and the destruction of his home world.) Laurie Blake herself is a retired superhero who assumed the title of Silk Spectre from her mother. But Angela never knew her grandfather Will until they crossed paths in 2019. Yet somehow she followed in his path to become a cop and more than this, a masked superhero.

In a simplistic comic book world this would be explained in a word: fate. After all, Angela is a black member of law enforcement in a town where white supremacists hunted down and killed many cops in a coordinated attack.

But "Watchmen" links Will and Angela by a DNA test and explain Angela's history by placing her grandfather memories, taken from his brain, inside of her head. That feels like a clear nod at epigenetic transmission of trauma, and the role such transference plays in these heroes' stories.

That the scene that opens "Watchmen" recreates one of the most violent, shameful acts of terror in American history, or that Will lives through it, are not accidents. Nor is it purely an act of creative license for the writers to have included a scene of Will's father, marching with his segregated black troops in World War I, being spat upon by white soldiers.

Even if Tulsa's Black Wall Street hadn't burned in 1921 there is a real probability that Will Reeves might have become Hooded Justice anyway. He was a small boy at the time of the massacre, and inside his parent's movie theater watching his favorite silent film "Trust in the Law."

The movie's climactic moment features a dark-cloaked hero chasing a villain in white on horseback, finally toppling him from his horse in front of a church. The townsfolk, all of them white, pour out of the church to see what's going on – the man being chased is their sheriff, also a white man. The hooded figure tells them that he's been stealing their cattle.

And when they ask who he is, he throws off his disguise and reveals himself to be…Bass Reeves, the black Marshal of Oklahoma. He puffs out his chest and points at his badge. At this the grateful townsfolk cheer, relieved.

They tell the black marshal of Oklahoma to string up the evildoer. But Bass refuses: "There will be no mob justice today," reads the text. "Trust in the law." And only moments after those words play across the movie theater's screen in 1921, a mob levels Will's neighborhood and murders his parents. No law came to protect or save them.

Despite this, although Will has lived through this horror and all the misrepresentations of history, he still believes in that mythical version of justice until three fellow cops, those Cyclops that Battle warns him about, nearly strangle the life out of him.

This is where Will's superpower kicks in, a force that isn't supernatural at all – it's simple, pure absolute rage long stifled but ready, at last, to burst from his fists. The violent criminals he comes across merely give him somewhere to place it.

Lindelof  says that Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me" inspires this "Watchmen," but a person can't fully comprehend Coates' message without also reading the work that planted seeds in Coates, James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time." More specifically, take a look at "My Dungeon Shook," the letter to his nephew that opens it.

Yes, Will's climactic act of heroic vigilantism involves him burning down a Harlem warehouse where the Klan is manufacturing mesmerizing films meant to incite black people to mass violence. But that's not what I'm talking about. Instead, I see parallels between the indignities Will experiences and this passage that Baldwin wrote:

This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that, for the heart of the matter is here, and the root of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. . . . You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. . . .  I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying, "You exaggerate." They do not know Harlem, and I do. So do you. Take no one's word for anything, including mine — but trust your experience.

"Watchmen" strikes this home when Nelson Gardner, aka Captain Metropolis (Jake McDorman), stops by Will's apartment and invites him to join the Minutemen. Why fight alone, he asks, when together they could have true companionship? Within this exchange Nelson, a very wealthy and confident white man, insinuates exactly what he means by companionship.

The apartment visit is followed by a brief sex scene between Nelson and Will, the only onscreen confirmation of the intimate part of their relationship. (Again, this matches up with the comic's profile of Captain Metropolis and Hooded Justice.)

While that scene itself is sure to inspire a lot of questions, the nature of Will's sexuality is less important than the encounter's transactional appearance, at least from Will's side of things.

Cyclops is a network of Ku Klux Klan members who have infiltrated New York's police force. A scene before Will and Nelson's hotel coupling shows Hooded Justice taking on multiple Klansmen cops in a grocery's storage area (owned by Fleshler's character); he bests them and finds information about the mesmerism plot, but barely makes it out alive. Why fight alone?

Because, he soon discovers, he has no other choice. Following a queasy press appearance that doubles as a bank promotion (including a poster with a picture of a white cop arresting a black man rendered in racist caricature), Will finds the warehouse where the Klan is manufacturing their hypnosis films.  But when he calls Nelson to saddle up the rest of the team, Nelson refuses to believe him.

"So, this is your vast and insidious conspiracy? Will-iam," Nelson replies, his voice oozing melodic condescension, "you of all people should know the residents of Harlem cause riots all on their own. . . . The Klan is using mind control? Do you have any idea how ridiculous that sounds?"

Then, finally, Nelson abandons Will. "I'm afraid you're going to have to solve black unrest all on your own," he says. (Remember Baldwin: "I hear them saying, 'You exaggerate.'")

You'd be excused, then, for giving Will a pass for murdering the Klansmen in his midst when he was a young man, and coercing Don Johnson's Sheriff Judd Crawford into hanging himself in 2019.

For this is what superheroes do; this is, in fact, the purpose for which their creators designed them.  Batman knows the law cannot entirely be trusted, so he works outside it, employing every extreme tactic short of killing.

Superman knows the law is capable only to point, and when it's not enough, he swoops in. Hooded Justice is the result of an environment that refuses to afford equal protection under the law to black citizens. His very survival depends on him becoming that balancing force.

He's the inheritance of a town and a nation that's in denial about its legacy of racial strife and the resultant disparity and unrest, a man fortified not by magic or gamma rays, but precisely directed rage.

The messages espoused in the first and favorite movies a child watches sink in deeply, and this is the case with Will Reeves. In a just and equitable world, Will could have grown up to be Bass Reeves, a lawman respected by all regardless of his skin color.

But "Trust in the Law," pure fiction, fools Will into trusting that earning a policeman's uniform and a badge will gain him the respect denied to him and other black people.

After all, at his police academy graduation the white man who refuses to touch Will tells him and his fellow cadets, "The uniform a man wears changes him. Makes sure yours changes you for the better."

Will's rage does not change him for the better – in fact it consumes him, destroys his marriage and cuts him out of Angela's family tree. But it also births the legacy of masked heroes; as Nelson says, it legitimizes their whole operation.

Comic book fans long assumed Hooded Justice looked a certain way under that mask. To know the history of this America, and that of "Watchmen," is to know that such a hero could not be anyone else but a survivor of one brutality after another, from his childhood onward. Will Reeves should have been a marshal. Instead he was forced to become justice, because the law would never be there for him. His is a most American superhero origin story . . . and the ultimate white savior troll.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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