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‘Watchmen’ Opens Its Mystery Box

The sixth episode, “This Extraordinary Being,” plunged Angela Abar into the past, answered many questions, and took the series to a new level

HBO/Ringer illustration

At the end of Watchmen’s fourth episode, the mysterious Lady Trieu (all characters on Watchmen are mysterious) engaged in a cryptic conversation (all conversations on Watchmen are cryptic). “They’re passive-aggressive exposition,” she scoffed to the wheelchair-using centenarian Will Reeves, referring to the bottle of pills he’d left in the glove compartment of his granddaughter’s car. “It’s too cute by half.”

Leave it to Watchmen to make a meta joke we can’t even understand until two episodes later.

Chekhov’s medication plays a pivotal role in “This Extraordinary Being,” the sixth and most significant entry in Watchmen’s nine-episode season. Angela Abar, the Tulsa detective who operates under the crime-fighting alias Sister Night, learns the pills are Nostalgia, a now-banned form of repackaged, edible memory. (Lady Trieu owns the manufacturer.) In an act of desperation, Angela swallows Will’s entire stash. She spends the following hour immersed in the past of a man heretofore seen only in glimpses: smiling beatifically under the strung-up corpse of Angela’s mentor, Tulsa’s chief of police; ducking in and out of the Vietnamese bakery she keeps as a front, despite her efforts to contain him; floating into the sky as an aircraft dramatically lifts Angela’s car with Will still inside. For much of Watchmen, Will has introduced only questions. “This Extraordinary Being” finally offers some answers.

And what answers they are. Directed by Stephen Williams and cowritten by Cord Jefferson, “This Extraordinary Being” is effectively Watchmen’s skeleton key, at long last opening doors creator Damon Lindelof has otherwise kept locked up tight. It solves not only the logistical riddles of who Will is and what he wants from Angela, but also the existential ones brought on by Watchmen’s volatile mix of race, superhero imagery, and alternate history. What is Watchmen trying to say and why did Lindelof choose Watchmen to say it? Much of the episode may be exposition, and the flashback device—which frequently switches out Angela for Will as she experiences his memories as her own—is certainly cute. But it’s also necessary, and the revelations it facilitates are downright thrilling. “This Extraordinary Being” marks the turning point where Watchmen finally rises to the level of its namesake in daring and transgression. The show about masked avengers has finally taken off its own. What lies beneath is an equally bracing challenge to the notions of heroism that fuel our national iconography, now more than ever.

Lindelof has made a point in interviews of stressing that the events of the original comic, published over 12 issues from 1986 to 1987, are canon. But there’s a loophole to that self-imposed ground rule, and one that “This Extraordinary Being” cannily exploits. Watchmen may not be able to tweak Alan Moore’s story, but it can fill in its gaps. And what Lindelof and his writers retroactively weave into Watchmen’s mythology upends everything we know: about costumed crusaders, about the stories that center them, and about who the audiences for those stories are, or ought to be.

In this Watchmen, as in the original, the phenomenon of costumed adventuring—not superheroes, as virtually none of them have powers—began in the late 1930s with Hooded Justice, an anonymous vigilante wearing a massive noose around his neck. Prior to his disappearance in the 1950s, Hooded Justice’s true identity was never revealed, though the comic implies he could have been a circus strongman named Rolf Müller whose body washed up in Boston around the time Hooded Justice vanished. In Watchmen’s 2019, Hooded Justice is the protagonist of show-within-a-show American Hero Story, played with corn-fed, square-jawed blandness by a perfectly cast Cheyenne Jackson.

“This Extraordinary Being” opens with a scene from American Hero Story that’s also a charmingly blunt bit of place-setting. “Hooded Justice. It all started with you,” a crooked cop smirks. “What’s the story with the noose around your neck?” Will’s memories proceed to tell that story—because Will, not Rolf Müller, is the real Hooded Justice.

William Reeves, Watchmen has already established, is the young boy we met in the series’ cold open, violently orphaned in the 1921 massacre of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street. He’s also a former New York police officer, as well as the grandfather Angela never met. “This Extraordinary Being” explains how that estrangement came to be. Upon joining the NYPD, Will runs afoul of the Cyclops, a covert branch of the Ku Klux Klan operating inside American law enforcement. (Will terms it “a vast and insidious conspiracy,” the same phrase he used to warn Angela that the colleague who helped her fight white supremacists actually was one all along.) After a gang of Cyclops nearly lynch Will, he stumbles on a robbery in progress at a market in Queens. Furious and stripped of his agency, Will dons a hood and beats up the burglars, the noose from the near-hanging still around his neck. Hooded Justice is born.

Watchmen has always been concerned with the psychology of masked vigilantism—the quirks, flaws, or deficiencies that would lead someone to think they can solve society’s ills by creating a new identity, and what that act of creation does to the person behind it. “The uniform a man wears changes him,” Will’s commanding officer warns at the beginning of the episode. “People who wear masks are driven by trauma,” explained FBI agent Laurie Blake earlier in the season. “They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they’ve suffered, usually when they were kids.” Laurie would know; before she was part of the Anti-Vigilante Task Force, she was the second Silk Spectre, a vigilante herself.

This thread of Watchmen has run parallel to one of Lindelof’s newer additions: exploring the traumatic legacy of American racism and how it’s passed down through the generations. In this other America, President Robert Redford has instituted a system of reparations, which has in turn provoked the rise of a violent, racist organization called the Seventh Kavalry. These parts of the show have always echoed one another: Laurie is forever haunted by her father (best known as The Comedian) sexually assaulting her mother, the first Silk Spectre; a member of a support group for survivors of an interdimensional squid attack invokes the idea of inherited trauma to explain how his mother’s experience affected him; an automated hologram of Secretary of the Treasury Henry Louis Gates Jr. peppily advises Angela that “the answer to life’s mysteries is life’s histories.” “This Extraordinary Being” makes the implicit explicit, and two distinct Watchmen subplots one and the same.

In an American Hero Story monologue from Watchmen’s second episode, Hooded Justice explains his motivations. “When I was little, every time I looked in the mirror, I saw a stranger staring back at me,” he growls. “And he was very, very angry. What could I do with all his anger—hot, vibrating electricity with no place to ground it? If he couldn’t release his rage, maybe I could help him hide it. I never felt comfortable in my own skin, so I made a new one.” At the time, the speech read like a fairly generic statement about disambiguated rage with no clear cause or outlet. Recasting Hooded Justice as a black man whose alias is a direct response to racist persecution presents it in a new light entirely.

“You are an angry, angry man, Will Reeves,” his wife observes. “It’s OK. Most of us are.” Will’s biography prompts nothing less than a light bulb moment—not just about Watchmen’s intricate, opaque plot, but the very concept of the anonymous hero. Who else in America would have more cause for righteous anger than the minority whose enslavement and persecution enabled the country’s existence? Who would have better use for a mask than those who otherwise can’t express emotion or protect themselves without suffering grave consequences? “You ain’t gonna get justice with a badge, Will Reeves,” his wife continues. “You’ll get it with a hood.” The insight is entirely in line with Watchmen’s long-standing themes, but also takes them in a new and unexpected direction. It’s as brilliantly blasphemous as Moore’s original choice to make his characters rapists and genocidal psychopaths.

Will’s struggles map directly onto Angela’s, ensuring the impact of “This Extraordinary Being” goes far beyond a lone standout episode. As part of his disguise, Will wears whiteface makeup around his eyes, an explanation that doubles as a heartbreaking commentary on whom society will accept extralegal violence from versus whom it won’t. The visual is striking, and also an exact inverse of the black makeup Angela sprays onto her face as Sister Night. Though she’d never met her ancestor, Angela carries within her the same corrosive rage, and Watchmen is similarly ambivalent about whether her alter ego is a productive use of well-justified anger or a way to let it consume her. “I thought it would help get rid of this thing you have,” Will’s wife sobs as she prepares to leave him. “But it didn’t. It just fed.”

With a full third of its season left, Watchmen has no shortage of open questions. When did Will form an alliance with Lady Trieu, and what is its purpose? Why are men like the clean-cut Senator Keene manipulating the Seventh Kavalry? What’s Ozymandias doing up in space? But “This Extraordinary Being” clarifies Watchmen’s most important mystery, and buys patience for the remaining ones. Watchmen is not a utopian fantasy about a world where the police are suddenly a persecuted group or a trustworthy ally in the fight against white supremacy, as some initially feared. Instead, it’s a thoughtful reconsideration of whom socially sanctioned violence might appeal to, and why they might be drawn to it. According to this new Watchmen, everyone from Night Owl to Red Scare has followed in the footsteps of a black man driven to the edge until he took matters into his own hands.

Watchmen took its time in getting here, and while its action, writing, and performances have made the wait an easy one, plenty have grown impatient with the show’s withholding pace. In retrospect, “This Extraordinary Being” makes the season as cohesive as it already was compelling, a thesis statement Lindelof and his collaborators have steadily been building toward. Still, nothing quite equals the thrill of a switch suddenly flipping after weeks spent in the dark. Watchmen is the rare mystery box whose contents live up to the packaging.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.