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How We Watched ‘Watchmen’ Through Regina King’s Eyes

After a career of playing smaller roles, the actress finally had a vehicle of her own—as our guide through the weird, wonderful world of Damon Lindelof’s show

Jaya Nicely

After nine episodes that required not a little bit of untangling and message board sleuthing, Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen finally met its end (or is it?) this past weekend. Since the penultimate episode saw her husband—God, for all intents and purposes—forcefully teleported offscreen to his probable doom, Angela Abar spends the finale as she did the season, one step behind the next big revelation. Regina King spends it sharing your frustration as the viewer, who’s had great fun with all the soft fade transitions and thematic swashes, both subtle and unsubtle, but at this point would very much like some straight answers. When she pins the sole surviving member of a hit squad, sent to shoot up her family home, onto the bed of his own truck and begins breaking his fingers, promising to start in on his “motherfucking teeth” if he doesn’t advance the plot, well, that could just as well be you or me, couldn’t it? It’s as if Regina King respects your time, even if you don’t.

Watchmen has been praised on this very site extensively, but to recap: A recent sighting of or classified information about a recent sighting of Earth’s most powerful man, who has spent the last few decades playing hooky, causes a trillionaire and the federal government to converge on Tulsa, Oklahoma. This results in a bloody, supernatural clash between local law enforcement, a white terrorist cell, and an army of lab technicians led by Hong Chau. Somehow, despite being weird and withholding as hell, Watchmen manages to be both a thoughtful meditation on the toxicity of internet fandoms and an affecting tale about the power that black people derive from ancestral stories. King facilitates the show’s duality by lightly shielding you from its zany duplicity. Like, with one word. If you have been tuning in most weeks and have spent any time on the internet, then you have no doubt seen the quadriptych of Angela’s quasi-inquisitive “the fuck?” in response to, among other things: a spaceship; an elephant, previously thought to be her grandfather; a man, who evades capture by covering himself in lube, named Lube Man. Speaking to IndieWire earlier this month, King said that Angela’s “eyes are the audience’s window into this world.” Often, they were wide with bewilderment. It’s a great show, but come on, it’s a weird show.

King has made a decorated, three-decades-long acting career out of being a really good window. Her characters are marked by a certain empathy. They exhibit empathy toward their friends and family—think of her nuturing, Oscar-winning turn as Sharon Rivers in 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk—and even toward the dorky little sad boys they chastise, like Carter and his stupid Zorro costume from 2004’s A Cinderella Story. What makes King truly special is that her characters also have an empathy toward you, as you sit there in your seat. They’re not only loving, they’re almost self-aware.

Like as in, she knows I’m bored by our family’s annual viewing of 2007’s This Christmas, a black ensemble holiday movie that you’ve seen, even if you haven’t. Loretta Devine plays Ma’Dere Whitfield, who spends the last few suspenseful days before Christmas waiting for her far-flung children to stop all of their foolishness, come home, and be related to one another. There’s the bourgie Ivy League graduate (Sharon Leal), the artsy bohemian fuck-up (Idris Elba with a faux-hawk and a vague Chicagoan accent), the professional student (Laurnen London), the son who brought the white girl home (Columbus Short), and the baby boy who just wants everyone to get along (Chris Brown, whose public approval rating had yet to sink fully into the gutter). It’s about two hours long, but there’s no real reason to pay attention until the third act, when King’s Lisa, the Eldest Sister Who Stayed Behind, uncorks a full movie’s worth of disrespect—from her catty siblings, from the undue pressure of maintaining the facade of a happy nuclear family—on her deceitful husband. Laz Alonso helped to make the scene shine, since every minute he was on screen as Malcolm the Walking Bluetooth Earpiece he preened and sneered and pleaded in a way that suggested Alonso might be unsavory in real life. But it’s one of King’s earliest acts of vigilante justice, and history will remember it fondly: Using silk lingerie and her best sexy-time voice, Lisa coaxes Malcolm into the shower, then pulls on jeans and running shoes, coats the bathroom floor in baby oil, and jumps the cretin with a belt the second he steps out. For the record, this is after she’s already dropped his Chevy Tahoe to the bottom of the Los Angeles River in a fit of rage.

At least, you think it’s just plain rage, but there’s obviously more beneath it than that. Lisa went into the family’s soon-to-be-shuttered dry cleaning business straight after high school, and—in totaling her husband’s car, and even more so in whupping his ass—is making the decision to be a single mother. That’s daunting. She doesn’t fully laugh when she recounts the baby oil beatdown to her sister but seems, through a half-smile, to be pushing the good times with Malcolm out of her mind while also considering an uncertain future. It’s a smaller part in a dumb movie that was probably in the sales bin as soon as holiday season gave way to clearance season, so the end of the divorce plot line could’ve been played as a simple victory and no one would’ve noticed. Instead, King appreciated that in a story about reaching out and making strides, her character had to take the scariest step forward.

Toward the end of the Watchmen finale, Angela scurries through a squid storm to find refuge in a movie theater, the same one her grandfather sat in as he waited out the Black Wall Street Massacre of 1921. Now, if this collection of words makes no sense to you, we did a lot of explainer videos. There’s also the PeteyPedia if you’re feeling especially froggy. But the conversation that takes place in that theater, between King and Louis Gosset Jr., who plays Angela’s grandfather Will, is moving and alive in a way that has almost nothing to do with centrifugal generators, interdimensional psychic events, atomic-powered cars, or President Robert Redford. It obviously does have something to do with those things, coming as it is after the discovery that superheroes in the Watchmen universe got their swag from Will Reeves, who was the first hero, Hooded Justice. It’s the first time grandfather and granddaughter have spoken since their shared trip through generational trauma a few episodes ago, but Angela nearly addresses him like a Redditor in an AMA session—again King is the audience, and Will a facsimile for the people with answers. Angela claims to know what he felt when he pulled on the hood for the first time—anger—and Will gently corrects her: “It was fear. Hurt.” Summarizing the show pretty neatly for The New Yorker, my former Ringer colleague Victor Luckerson wrote that Watchmen is ultimately “a show about black people who have the ability to mold history in ways their ancestors could not.” This is even more true if you consider that conversation between Will and Angela as a conversation between two actors who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, about three decades apart.

What follows is the show’s requisite cliffhanger, which, not for the first time, surfaces questions about power and in whose hands it belongs. After all the explosions and reconciliations, there’s an egg with the powers of a god in it, Angela eats the egg, and then decides to test whether it worked on the backyard pool. You could ask whether Angela would be a more benevolent god than any other human, or whether she passed up an opportunity to bring true balance to the world by breaking the egg, or whatever. Or you could consider the egg as symbolic, since most everything else in Watchmen is: After a career of grabbing our attention playing smaller roles, she’s completed her first long haul in a genuine Regina King vehicle. She opens the door, she steps out onto the water. Only time will tell if it holds firm beneath her.