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On ‘Watchmen,’ Race, and the Story of the Lone Ranger

Sunday’s episode was not only among the most gripping installments of television this year, it also may have the show’s biggest subversion

HBO/Ringer illustration

When I say “Lone Ranger,” who comes to mind? Is it Robert Livingston, who donned the mask to save his New Mexico homestead from a band of raiders in the 1939 film The Lone Ranger Rides Again? Or is it the square-jawed Clayton Moore, who played renegade Texas lawman John Reid on television in the early 1950s? Maybe you’re thinking of Klinton Spilsbury’s distinctly flared nostrils, or—if you endured the 2013 reboot—Armie Hammer and his overrefined, Ivy League–educated lawyer take on the character.

Since the Lone Ranger’s debut on Detroit radio in January 1933, we’ve been reintroduced to one of fiction’s most recognizable cowboys several times over. However, this procession of tall, blandly handsome white men portrayed a character that, according to biographer Art T. Burton, was more than likely a freed slave. In Black Gun, Silver Star, Burton writes that “Bass Reeves is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century.” Yes, Bass Reeves, “the Black Marshal of Oklahoma,” who spurs on Will Reeves’s heroic exploits in the HBO series Watchmen, was an actual, real-life U.S. marshal—the first black marshal west of the Mississippi. And just as Bass Reeves was the ur-cowboy from which most other onscreen depictions of the archetype flowed, Sunday’s episode of Watchmen disclosed via lengthy flashback that Will Reeves is actually your favorite caped crusader’s favorite caped crusader.

You’ll have read in plenty of other places by now that “This Extraordinary Being” is one of the most captivating and viscerally satisfying episodes of television this year. Cowritten by Cord Jefferson and Damon Lindelof and directed by Stephen Williams, the episode also exploits a loophole left in the original Watchmen comic: Alan Moore left Hooded Justice’s true identity and nature to rumor and conjecture. The original costumed hero had a similar build and temperament to a circus strongman named Rolf Muller, who died around the same time Hooded Justice disappeared. He might have had a clandestine relationship with Captain Metropolis; he may have also been a Nazi sympathizer. Casting Cheyenne Jackson (American Horror Story; tall, blandly handsome, white enough) as Hooded Justice in the show-within-the-show American Hero Story is a nod to what you could read on any Watchmen Wiki. The revelation that it was really a black man who inspired two generations of costumed heroes is Watchmen’s latest and biggest subversion.

It’s worth remembering exactly where we are in this disorienting story: In the course of uncovering the vast, insidious, and extremely baroque conspiracy gripping her hometown, Angela Abar (Regina King) has swallowed her only real lead, a bottle of her grandfather’s Nostalgia pills. Nostalgia is a habit-forming drug that functions for the inhabitants of the Watchmen universe much like it does for regular people in real life, blurring the line between reality and fantasy, numbing the user to the outside world, suspending them in a state of emotional arrest. Because watching Angela lay prone and motionless while uttering nonsense for an hour would not make for very good TV, we’re pulled into a vivid depiction of Will Reeves’s memories along with her.

And, really, “vivid” is underselling it. FBI Agent Laurie Blake is pressing a clipboard to the door of Angela’s cell, demanding Angela consent to having her stomach pumped, when Blake’s voice suddenly goes echo-y and distant. To the left, Will’s mother is in sepia tone playing the piano; all the color is steadily draining from the world. Then it’s 1938 New York City. Angela—no, Will is graduating from the police academy, beaming at his wife in the front row, who’s glowing with pride right back. Then he gets no moment in the sun; the spotlight passes over him, the only black officer on the police force.

A defining characteristic of the original comic was its broad but nonetheless sharp cultural critique. Alan Moore wrestled with the problems of sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, and consumerism—but was never hands-on with race politics. Race was primarily a means to flesh out a background character. Acts of racial aggression, like Captain Metropolis’s using a slur behind closed doors, were mostly passed on to the reader through hearsay. Come to think of it, it was strange that a story that took place between the late 1930s and mid-1980s would deal with race so indirectly.

Lindelof’s Watchmen has made race a centerpiece, as it’s a centerpiece in U.S. society. The show begins with a brutal reimagining of the Black Wall Street massacre of 1921, a major historical event that was obscured for decades by inaccurate accounts, conspiracy theories, and selective teaching. As Tulsa—the black, middle-class part of it—was razed to the ground in the premiere, there were people learning about this tragedy for the first time. (Much in the same way I recently learned that the first Lone Ranger was a black man.) “This Extraordinary Being” recasts Tulsa as Will Reeves’s Krypton: His first day walking his beat, he passes by a newspaper stall. The salesman is reading a story about an exceptional boy whose dad puts him in an escape pod just before their home planet blows up.

This would make Will something like Superman, but he’s far from an icon of resilience. Where Superman could eat several magazines of bullets and catch a speeding train barehanded without a single hair falling out of place, Will wears his trauma on his face. Literally. Like Bass Reeves, Will is upright and staunchly dedicated to his position, which the white officers on the force take umbrage with. One night they nearly lynch him, just to show him that they can at any time. It’s a perverse baptism of sorts: Will staggers home in a daze wearing the noose, and along the way pulls back on the hood to violently stop a mugging, a way to reclaim some part of himself. His heartbeat is thundering in his ears the whole time. Hooded Justice is born.

I keep thinking about the white makeup he wears around his eyes underneath the mask. It’s a commentary on who society will accept extrajudicial force from and who it won’t, but it also primes Hooded Justice to fade into legend, almost as if this was what Moore intended for the story all along. By the way, the first-ever Lone Ranger movie is about a Confederate Army captain who leads a band of deserters to install a dictatorship in Texas, but has his progress continually arrested by a ranger in a mask. In the course of the film, the captain whittles down an entire resistance to five suspects, any of whom could be the Lone Ranger. They’re all white.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.