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Watchmen embraces its noir roots and Black trauma

Regina King
Photo: Mark Hill (HBO)
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For 80 years, spandex crusaders have managed to thrive in popular culture, their tone reflecting the youth counterculture combined with a heavy dose of capitalism. Batman ’66, for example, thrived on psychedelic pop. Batman ’89, on the other hand, preferred a highly sexualized, dark, and gritty punk/pop feel. In all that time, across movies, video games, comic books, and television shows, nothing touched me like tonight’s episode of Watchmen.

The caped crusader swings from one rooftop to another. An oversized moon behind him briefly illuminates his silhouette before he disappears into the darkness. A crack of thunder and he re-emerges on top of a gargoyle looking down at his city. This is my first memory. I’m sitting on my father’s lap watching Batman: The Animated Series. My little brother and my mother tuck in on the opposite end of the couch. I love Batman, but I feel far away from Bruce Wayne. Gotham doesn’t understand Batman, and therefore they fear him. No matter how much good he puts into the world, he’s still a pariah. He’s a hero, so he doesn’t stop trying to protect the people. He chooses to do what is right. At that time, Batman was the superhero that best represented me.

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The gods of the new world came in the shape of superheroes. America’s early legends Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, and John Henry each developed a power beyond the capability of a normal man. They used their powers to better the nation. They fed the hungry, cleared forests for settlements, and helped to build the railroad that connected this great mass of land. Even before the capes and cowls, the United States thrived on superheroes. An old interview with Alan Moore, half of the creative team behind the Watchmen comic series, recently resurfaced in which he articulated that Birth Of A Nation was the first superhero movie. Watchmen TV series creator Damon Lindelof took that critique and morphed it to shape the opening of his series. D.W. Griffith’s ode to the south, and ultimately a wonderful propaganda tool for the Ku Klux Klan, cemented itself as iconic with a historic box office draw and innovative special effects. If this is the first superhero movie, it says a lot about who Americans idolized, and how willingly the country overlooks disgusting, violent, oppression as long as it’s attached to something shiny and new.

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Trust In The Law gave a five-year-old Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.) a dream; a sheriff, with a gold star pinned to his chest, beloved by the community he sought to protect. The opening scene of “This Extraordinary Being” is a snippet from the in-show television series American Hero Story: Minutemen, featuring a white Hooded Justice sitting across from two wisecracking FBI detectives. Here, Lindelof and co-writer Cord Jefferson visually explore how arbiters twist history to fit a white power narrative. Director Stephen Williams lingers on Hooded Justice’s hands, wrapped in rope-like handcuffs, unmoving and in plain sight of the officers. Black children train early on how to behave in front of the police. One of the officers begins the interrogation with compliments. “You’re true Americans, all of yous. But you, Hooded Justice, you most of all. Because like I said, you were the first.” Part of being a hero demands the guy in the mask eventually wins. In many ways, not being the best superhero broke The Comedian. In her debut episode, Laurie also struggled with being the last of her group, after having felt overlooked. History says HJ must have been white because any other race would have been labeled a terrorist. Our Black hero chose to be invisible for exactly that reason.

But this hero also lives at an intersection. The opening scene addresses the rumors of HJ’s sexuality. “Help us settle a bet,” one of the officers pleads. “What the story with that noose around your neck?” Jerry, the other officer, think it’s sex stuff. “See, we know what you do. And who you do,” the other officer proclaims as he pounds the air with his fist. In the same way that Black names and faces disappear from history’s ledger, so do queer people and the struggles they endure. Talking to government law enforcers as a gay person in J. Edgar Hoover’s America meant gambling with one’s life. It wasn’t just mockery or fear of abuse, but the distinct pain and fear that accompanies carrying a secret. It’s overwhelming. It hurts everyone surrounding William. It’s rumored to have hurt Hoover. Every aspect of his private life could become fuel for his public destruction. Now, we are in the mind of a gay Black man in the late 1930s.

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One of the main themes of this new Watchmen, highlighted in last week’s episode, centers on transgenerational trauma. The theory goes, post-traumatic stress disorder mechanisms get handed down through surviving generations. Cut to Angela (Regina King), under arrest, betrayed by her colleague and friend, attempting to figure out her next steps. She does not sit. Trapped in a jail cell, she begins to show signs of a panic attack—heavy breathing, sweating, and unfocused eyes—as Laurie (Jean Smart), rattles off her offenses. The latest problem: Angela swallowed all of her grandfather’s Nostalgia pills. In describing how the pills will implant memories in Angela’s brain, Laurie says, “Who would want to live in the present, when they can live in the past.” Most Black Americans, I thought to myself. A drum roll and the same piano that scored every important moment of Will’s youth sends Angela crashing back into the past.

Cheyenne Jackson
Photo: Mark Hill (HBO)
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The first memory takes her to Will’s induction ceremony, where we meet young William (Jovan Adepo).“The uniform a man wears changes him. Make sure yours changes you for the better,” the captain says to the new graduates. “Protect the law and uphold the badge,” like “liberty and justice for all,” holds exclusions. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross slow their score down. The anticipation of the crowning achievement seems to follow the pace of Will’s heartbeat. Then, the music stops for the briefest moment as the white officer shoots Will a look of disgust before passing him entirely. Instead, Lt. Samuel Battle, the first Black policeman in New York City, welcomed Will to the force. I still get goosebumps seeing real-life heroes next to the badass fake heroes of Watchmen.

From the ceremony, Angela travels to a bar with the woman who cheered Will. June was the baby thrown from the car in episode one. Now, she works for the New York Amsterdam News. This paper, founded for Black Americans in 1909, still runs today. Together, June (Danielle Deadwyler) and Will have built a beautiful life for themselves, but Will hasn’t outrun his trauma. She’s quick to call him on it, too. “They gave you a gun and a stick. That’s what I’m worried about. Because you are an angry, angry man, William Reeves.” A hollow, drum-like sound echoes across the scene spelling doom. Reeves denies his anger because he’s achieved his dream. He gets to be the man on the horse, saving the day.

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Earlier, Will wondered aloud if June thought he’d become a Tom after accepting the position. For Black people, being the first comes with a lot of doubt. Integrating means more than just diversifying for white people. It means being the only voice in the room. It means having drinks poured on your head. It means everyone doubting your intelligence, your capability, your authority, and your right to be in the room. It’s not an honor to be first. It’s a responsibility; it often hurts a lot more than a win should.

It’s why the Fatty Arbuckle lookalike, a.k.a. Fred (Glenn Fleshler), knew he could throw a molotov cocktail into a Jewish Delicatessen and never suffer consequences. “Who are you going to believe, me or him?” Fred makes this statement proudly, in the middle of a police station knowing despite the uniform, his word would matter over William’s word. The officers gently reprimand Fred in front of Reeves, before letting him sneak out the back. By not booking his catch, Will receives a demotion in rank, as the white officers smile in his face. It’s supposed to feel like a win, but he knows it’s a loss, even before he sees Fred free on the streets.

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Enter, Superman. Suddenly, Reeves sees himself, like I saw myself in Batman. “It’s about a baby,” the news stand attendant tells William. “His father puts him in a rocketship just before his planet explodes.” This triggers an automatic response to Reeves; own daring escape. He may not want to live in the past, but it’s certainly catching up to him. The well meaning white officer begs Reeves to forget what he saw. The warning Lt. Battle gave him rings in his ears. “Beware the cyclops.” With a gentle nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, day turns to night as a cozy apartment turn on their lights to fight the darkness. William became a cop to find justice for the little boy who saw too much. He won’t forget Fred. How could he? So, the cops punish him, hoping the pain will keep his mouth shut. This scene plays egregiously knowing what survivors of trauma go through.

In Anatomy Of A Lynching, author James R. McGovern details how an entire community of African Americans stopped talking about the horrific murder of Claude Neal. Decades after the event that saw Claude castrated, stabbed, burned, hung, and eventually displayed on the court steps to assuage an angry mob, many could only shake their heads and weep when his name came up. Mr. Neal was in police custody before they allowed a mob to kidnap and torture him to death. No one was found guilty of the crime. As William turns down the sinister offer for beer and a ride home, the police cruiser takes off, revealing the same mutilated bodies he witnessed dragged behind a truck as a child.

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They take him out to a tree in the middle of a park. When they cut him from the limb, we see Angela fall to the ground struggling to breathe, and traumatized by what she’s just endured. I think back to the stories my father told me. He’s six, and he’s being arrested for walking down the road outside his family’s farm. He’s 12, and an officer shoves a gun in his face saying, “I could kill anyone of you niggers.” My younger brother is five, and a neighborhood mother goes into conniptions when she observes her little boy playing with the only Black kid on the block. Our trauma runs on a never-ending loop of shame and dehumanization.

Completely in shock, William walks home, the noose still around his neck, when he hears a call for help. He, like his ancestors before him and the descendants that came after, transformed the tools that nearly killed him into a shield. The bag that covered his face, he now wears like a mask. The noose becomes a terrifying symbol. His anger no longer repressed, becomes a justified rage. Adepo swings his body like a real street brawler, leaning into every punch, struggling to stay on his feet. It’s messy, but he gets the job done, and receives the thanks and acknowledgment he idolized in his favorite movie.

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“Okay, I’m angry,” William finally admits. But a new obsession forms in between those words, because now he can do something about that anger. I think it says a lot about how we process pain, that June goes to work the following day. Later that evening, she tries to quell expectations of praise. Life is not like the movies. “You ain’t gonna get justice with no badge. You’re going to get it with that hood.” She understands he needs to do something. She does her best to keep him safe, painting his eyes white so people will not be afraid. “If you want to stay a hero, town folks gonna need to think one of their own is under it.” His transformation to Hooded Justice is complete.

Jean Smart (left), Regina King (right)
Photo: Mark Hill (HBO)
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Now, we’re at the place that started everything. Hooded Justice emerges from the shadows to stop a robbery at a local deli, or so the story went. William, deep undercover, discovers a conspiracy to hypnotize Black Americans into committing violent crimes in hopes of dwindling their numbers. Bursting from the back and into the front of the store, Will discovers Fred carries a huge shot gun, and dives out the window as Fred pulls the trigger. Back in the world of the conscious, Laurie gives Angela a shot of adrenaline to wake her from the coma. Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) comes to try and talk Angela out of the past. He reminds her of the facts that define her life. She cries as she slips back into William’s memories. Angela’s mission cannot be thwarted. She’s too close to understanding where she came from.

So far, the struggle to be Black in America has taken the center stage, but sexual desire makes a powerful entrance with Nelson Gardner (Jake McDorman). June must sense trouble immediately because she refuses to leave that table. It’s an official invitation into the Minutemen. June sits out of focus at the back of the frame. Her opinion, given freely and I would argue correctly, quickly falls to the wayside, as the men get amped up on the possibility of justice and the excitement of lust. (Honestly, Deadwyler is so great here. I demand we see more of her soon.) When someone sees what you’ve skillfully hidden from the rest of the world, and invites your truth into the light a feeling of possibility floods the senses. “Why fight alone when you can have true companionship?” Gardner whispers this devil’s promise without a second thought. At this moment, he believes those words to be true. He can’t know how much William needs a team behind him; to be supported emotionally and physically. Gardner doesn’t know the unquenched thirst for justice lingering in Will. His ignorance makes him a dangerous companion for the vulnerable Will.

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They consummate the relationship. Lindelof and Jefferson do some tongue in cheek dialogue here. “When did you know,” William asks Nelson. “That I was...Hooded Justice?” Though his queer identity must be kept a secret, William doesn’t seem ashamed of it. June, who must know, doesn’t make him out to be a pariah. There’s something liberating about the fact that his gayness doesn’t make him feel small or out of place. It’s simply something he knows others will not accept, and he plays his cards accordingly. Moments later, he’s shamed for the color of his skin by his new lover. “What (the Minutemen) can’t know is your secret. You’ll have to stay covered up. Wear the makeup and the hood.” This arrives on the same breath that pleads for William to join the team in the first place. “You legitimize the whole operation.” Then, those dreaded words, “They’re not as tolerant as me.”

It’s coded language for “I’m not racist, but my friends hate you.” Similar phrases include “You’re not black, black,” or “You’re a credit to your race.” My least favorite of these phrases, “You’re so articulate,” foams from the mouths of those who delight in Black excellence because they believe it’ll encourage “uppity negroes” into well-behaved citizens. These are the negotiations most Black Americans manage internally when entering conversations with white individuals, particularly those with great power. “How am I being used? Does my appearance here hurt my community? Are the words being said to me, genuine? Can these promises be kept? Should I leave this opportunity on the table, and attempt to forge my own way?” In the final moments of the scene, Nelson takes possession of William when he says, “It’s a shame the others can never see how beautiful you are.” It’s a small way of keeping Will to himself.

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June’s trying to be understanding. Her love for the boy who saved her has not yet found a limit. “I’m your team,” she explains when William comes to Nelson’s defense. She has Will recite the story of how he found her. She makes him promise to never make her cry again. A foolish promise to request or give, even if done out of pure love. More reading between the lines suggests June’s okay with the extramarital affair so long as it does not impact their home life. Then she drops the bomb that she’s pregnant. Again, a new transformation begins. Now, Will will fight for his son.

A second induction, this time to the Minutemen, comes with more journalists on his side, but no less racism. Which strikes as bizarre, given that only two people in the room know of his true identity. A reporter asks Will if he has superhuman strength. “I’m just a man,” he responds in his best white voice. “I believe there’s a vast and insidious conspiracy,” William says for the first time. Just as he’s about to present the evidence to the world, his boyfriend shoots him down. Once again, he’s a pawn, a good public image with zero real power. How can he fight for his son, himself, or the little boy he was under these conditions? His legacy threatened, realization dawns on William as Nelson reveals the racist poster Angela sneered at in episode two.

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Time goes by, and life moves on. William seems lost until a disaster leads him back to his beginning. Bodies litter the ground as cops beat victims at random. Violent clashes between white and black breakout in front of a movie house. Brave as ever, William strolls inside, ready to bring justice to an unjust situation. There he finds Lorna (Marissa Chanel Hampton) sobbing in her seat. She claimed a flickering light told her to hurt people. William connects it to the cyclops. When he calls Nelson for back-up, he’s reduced to begging for help. In that annoying sing-song voice, Nelson reprimands William for his wild beliefs. He encourages William to grab a drink, and then come warm his bed. “I’m afraid you’ll have to solve Black unrest all on your own,” Nelson faux laments. He’s uninterested in the problems of the Black community. Superheroes save white people, and business is good.

Here comes goddamn Fred. Fred, with his foul mouth, belittling gestures, and his hate-filled heart runs around without consequence. It’s enough to make anybody understand that justice isn’t equal. So William tips the scales and fires directly into Fred’s face. Good riddance. When William walks through Fred’s factory, he uncovers a conspiracy to cause riots in Black communities. If the voiceover on the films they sought to place in segregated movie houses seems over the top, consider how many iconic corporate mascots have been Black service workers. Ponder the difference in sympathy for victims of the opioid crisis, and the crack epidemic. Look at the difference in sentencing Black criminals and white criminals.

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No, the episode is spot-on, but I have one gripe with a conspiracy. If one organization planned and upheld the systemic oppression of Black Americans, there would be cause for celebration. But it’s deeply ingrained in every aspect of global culture. It makes that squid look like a joke. It is pervasive. It’s in the DNA of all human beings. And it won’t be beaten in my lifetime. I don’t know how the season will close. Lindelof, the master of suspense, only gives answers to derive better questions. Given the excellence of the season thus far, faith remains that the next set of questions will be ones we are eager to ponder and whose conclusions have no definitive resolution. Is there a name for this endless mystery style of television? Watchmen bests Lost, True Detective, Manifest and The 100, because the questions raised have real-world, life-and-death stakes. It’s what made reading the original graphic novel such a wondrous experience. It takes a writer at the top of their game to do it.

No longer trusting in the law, William comes home to find his son dressed in his costume. All of the secrets, the shame, and the pain draped on his tiny shoulder breaks something in Will. He tries to course correct, but as June explained, he can’t take back the decisions he’s made. Mother and son leave for Tulsa the next day. This explains how and why Angela never knew William. In the final memory, Will left for his granddaughter, he murders her captain. He said he wanted her to know everything and that she would never forgive him. As he used the tools of his oppression to form armor, so too, did he use his oppressors’ tools to fight back. The same tech from the projectors now fits in a flashlight. Under the tree, Judd makes a plea for his life, using the absolute worst choice in words. “Whatever you think I did, you don’t understand,” he begins. “I’m trying to fucking help you people. You don’t know what’s really happening here.” With friends like you Judd, who needs enemies?

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I’ve grown a lot since those first Batman memories. Every week I get to see Regina King in a healthy relationship, struggle to uncover her family’s secrets, and molly whop bad guys. A hero like Hooded Justice helps me feel seen in an entirely new way. He’s the men in my family, the generations above me still struggling to make sense of what they survived, and hoping to further civil rights for their children before they perish. He’s not an ideal hero, but a human hero brings something we can aspire to.

Stray observations

  • Lady Trieu (Hong Chau) to the rescue. I’m so glad to have her back with her functional sneakers and a bit of color added to her outfit than we’re used to seeing. I hope next week is a Trieu heavy episode.
  • “He’s got a safe behind the painting of the white horse in his boudoir.” Am I learning that Judd’s granpappy and Angela’s gramps used to smash? Probably not, but I liked writing that sentence.
  • So Hooded Justice threw that KKK member right into some romaine lettuce. What is the connection?! Why lettuce, the least tasteful of the vegetable so central to this story?
  • All the old-timey songs came from a Black quartet called The Ink Spots.
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About the author

Joelle Monique

A contributor for Playboy and Hollywood Reporter Joelle writes about film, television, and comic books. A speaker, host, and avid podcaster her reviews have been featured on NPR, BBC1, and ET.