Nostalgia is a hell of a drug.
White America loves nostalgia. It loves to think back on the “good” old times when life was “simpler” and things were “better”…for them. Those are the keywords that get left out when white people talk about nostalgia. Why? Because white people have blinders on when it comes to the past; it’s just a part of white culture. But, the past is not rosy, it’s black and white and brutal all over, and the sixth episode of Watchmen is, to me, one of the most important hours of television ever made.
Angela has ingested a lethal dose of Nostalgia – a drug that is created by harvesting the memories of its users – and what’s worse they were not her pills to take. They belonged to her grandfather, Will Reeves (whose actual name is Will Williams, maybe a little nod to Stan Lee’s naming preference?) who left them behind with the full intent that she would down them. I can’t imagine Will is ignorant about how dangerous this is, but, seeing as how he’s buddy-buddy with Lady Trieu, whose pharmaceutical company created the drug, it’s very possible he’s taking a calculated risk. But, for him, it’s worth it. Remember what he told Angela: “I’m here to show you where you came from”, literally.
Poor Angela, her acceptance of what’s about to happen is part inability to stop it part curiosity, I say this only because she doesn’t sink into her grandfather’s memories right away. Instead, we see Agent Blake talking, explaining that shits about to hit the fan and Angela needs to sign a form to get her stomach pumped or she’ll die. The look on Angela’s face belies a hint of understanding, yet is detached enough to express the memories are coming and there’s nothing she can do to stop it. Before she knows it the little blips of the past she’s been seeing become a whole scene she is now living in.
It’s 1938, Angela is Will Reeves (played by Jovan Adepo in the past) on the day of his graduation as a Cadet in the NYPD. All the other cadets get the honor of the chief (John Newberg) pinning their badges on and shaking their hands, but not Will. He gets passed over by the white chief and is congratulated by a black Lt. named Samuel J. Battle (Philly Plowden) – a real historical figure who was in fact the first black Lt. of the NYPD. Will expresses a reverence for Battle, but is warned to “beware the Cyclops” before getting the same speech as his fellow officers along with his badge.
Later, in a lounge, Will/Angela meets up with June (Danielle Deadwyler), a black reporter (later his wife) who was sent by her editor to cover the graduation ceremony. June is worried about Will becoming a cop, she says he is an angry man, but he shrugs the accusation off. What does he have to be mad about? All he’s ever wanted is to be a cop, it’s his dream come true. Until, while trying to do his job, it becomes a nightmare.
One night, on patrol, Will witnesses a white man named Fred (Glenn Fleshler) setting fire to a Jewish deli. He brings the man into the desk sergeant (Charlie Talbert) for booking, but his arrest is handed off to two other officers. Not long after, he sees Fred once again roaming free. He confronts the desk sergeant, going so far as to ask about Cyclops, but is told to stop asking questions.
The next scene is Will walking, plainclothes when a squad car pulls up. One of the officers (Jordan Salloum) invites him to get a beer. He declines, realizing something is off. We know this because as the car drives away we see the bodies of two black Tulsa victims being dragged behind it. These snippets of the massacre are the only sparks of color in this largely black and white episode. And, besides Will’s mother who plays her piano, they are violent scenes. But the two bodies behind the squad car portend to the true intentions of his fellow officers, who corner Will in an alley and beat him severely. He blacks out.
When he wakes up his wrists are tied, he’s being dragged towards a large tree, and then the hood goes on. The fact that this scene is in first-person is extremely important. We are forced to experience the harrowing retribution of white supremacy on a black man who dared to bring a white man to justice. It’s chilling. If you’re not moved by this scene, by the sounds, the flickering of the lighting as Will chokes near-death, the devastated tears Angela cries when Will is cut down, that’s a problem. Because this is an incredible scene. It is the fear that every black American has when they run into the cops. It is also the catalyst for everything else that happens.
On his way home, still bloody, a noose around his neck, ropes around his wrists, Will hears a woman scream. He puts the hood back on and beats the shit out of the criminals. Thus is born Hooded Justice. June hopes that this “hobby” will allow Will to exorcise his anger (she even gives him the suggestion to paint the area around his eyes “white” so white folk will think he’s one of them), but over time she comes to regret her encouragement. It doesn’t help when Will joins The New Minutemen, at the behest of their creator Captain Metropolis, who personally comes to Will’s house to recruit him. Why? Because Nelson Gardner (Jake McDorman), Metropolis’s secret identity, has figured out that Will Reeves is Hooded Justice. The catch? No one can ever know Will is black, so he can never take off his hood or any part of his costume. But, Gardner assures Will that he’s interested in the Cyclops conspiracy Hooded Justice has mentioned. Only, as June suspected, they don’t care about him just about what he can do for them.
Gardner is a perfect example of an optical ally. He claims to want to help Will, but once he’s given the opportunity to make good on those promises he fails. During a press conference when Hooded Justice attempts to bring up Cyclops, Captain Metropolis cuts him off and talks about his supervillain instead. Later, when Will comes across a warehouse that is creating projectors designed to turn black people against each other using mind-control technology, he calls Gardner to insist he and the other Minutemen come and help. Nelson’s response? Mind-control is less believable than the idea of black people violently assaulting each other just ‘cause. This is the last straw for Will. He finally breaks, killing every single white supremacist he comes across (including Fred!) and disguising his crimes by setting the warehouse on fire.
That night, Will comes home to find his son wearing his costume and donning his makeup, and it disturbs him. He tries frantically to wipe the makeup off his son’s face as the boy cries, which attracts June’s attention. She’s had enough. She leaves him, taking their son with her, back home to Tulsa. Then we cut to Will (played again by Louis Gossett Jr.) in the present day, sitting in his wheelchair awaiting Judd Crawford’s truck. He asks Crawford about the Klan robe, the answer convincing him that the Chief is another racist who deserves to die. Then we see how he strung up the captain of the Tulsa police using a projector light that causes Judd to hang himself – he saved one of those mind-control devices from the warehouse fire (maybe to use as evidence later?). This is a satisfying bit of turnabout.
After this, Angela starts to come back to herself. She wakes up in a bed hooked up to an IV with Lady Trieu nearby. And that completes our hour.
Other things about this episode:
Firstly I will point out that this is the only episode (so far) without an Adrian Veidt side story. I believe this is because the side stories are designed as a break for the audience, they tend to come after a big reveal in the main story, but here we don’t get one. Why? Because, honestly, this storyline can’t have a break. If you understand that one of the biggest themes running through this series is racism, then the episode that boils that theme down to a perfect visual essay giving you a history lesson on why that theme is so very, very important having no breaks makes sense.
Superman tie-in confirmed! Yes! So, when I first watched the pilot I couldn’t help but notice the startling similarity between this child’s story and superman’s. Given that this series isn’t great at subtly, I knew this couldn’t be a coincidence, and it is not. Will comes across a man reading the edition of Action Comics that features the premiere of Superman, and as he explains the alien’s origins, we see glimpses of the opening Tulsa massacre.
Here’s another fun fact: Superman premiered in the ’40s, along with Batman and Wonder Woman, but many people wouldn’t get a black superhero until the 1960’s introduction of Black Panther, however, he’s not actually the first black superhero to get his own comic. A character named Lion Man, created by Orrin Cromwell Evans, featured in the first and only edition of All Negro Comics (1947), a comic book created by black people for black people. Unfortunately, racism did what it does best and Evans was never able to print a second edition. The other black figures in comics during that time were racist stereotypes and it took nearly twenty years for more nuanced characters of color (and women) to appear.
Fred Trump is that you? There’s a number of online publications that suspect “Fred” is really Fred Trump, father of the 45th POTUS. Is it true? The sleuths on Twitter certainly seem to think so, and given the historical clues, it’s not an impossible conclusion to draw. I will say that this trend of Watchmen to include historical events and figures really adds a rich quality to the show. It allows the viewers to find Easter Eggs that actually matter. Did you know Sam Battle was the first black NYPD officer? I do now!
The use of black and white. Normally, I’m not a fan of movies or shows that use this color scheme because I find it pretentious, and that’s because it usually is. But, if its use is purposeful I have no objections. This is a perfect example. Not only does our episode take place largely in the ’40s, before the implementation of color, it’s also about how black and white racism really is. There are only two reasons color comes into play, one I’ve mentioned, but the other is when Angela is pulled back into the present and even then it’s little pops of color that peek through.
This episode proves itself to be a good companion to the book “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla Saad. It outlines the many faces of white supremacy, including optical allyship, white centering, white exceptionalism, and many more. There are examples of the symptoms of supremacy that she mentions peppered throughout the hour, though Nelson embodies lot them himself.
The difference between media and reality is another theme this series explores, and “This Extraordinary Being” does a fine job of illustrating this with its “American Hero Story” opening focusing on the “true” story of Hooded Justice. You may also appreciate another deviation from “American Hero Story” where Hooded Justice intervenes during a grocery store robbery, we get to see the real version here.
Lastly, it’s a small world, huh? I can think of no better explanation for how a 7-year-old Will manages to keep in touch with, and meet up with, the baby (June) who also survived the Tulsa Massacre with him all those years ago. I mean, seriously…for a show about extraordinary things happening, this is hands down one of the more remarkable to me.