“Who wants to be in the present when you can live in the past?”
“Tonight, on a very special episode of Watchmen…” Yes, this week Watchmen continued to experiment with form, with a self-contained episode very different in style to any that have gone before. As with everything on this well-executed series, that’s something that has precedent in the original comic; for example, one issue is entitled Fearful Symmetry, and every page is the mirror image of its equivalent on the same sheet of paper. Hence, p1 is mirrored on p28, p2 on p27, and so on – until the very middle of the comic, where pages 14 and 15 mirror each other.
Moore’s comic, as well as telling a deep, compelling story, exploits the possibilities of comics as an art form throughout. What’s been so interesting about this TV sequel is the way it has similarly played with the possibilities of its medium. So here, we got an episode entirely about the past, and it used interesting stylistic techniques to demonstrate that idea; techniques that, in this case, only work in a moving visual medium.
The most obvious, of course, is the use of monochrome. Black and white images are often used, in these days of colour films and TV, to signify events taking place in the past. So far, so ordinary. Here, though, director Stephen Williams (also one of the show’s producers) mixed it up more cleverly than that, with different narrative threads from different points in the past represented in colour mixed in with the monochrome.
For example, any depictions of events surrounding the Tulsa massacre were in colour, sometimes mixed up with the monochrome of the 30s and 40s; that’s how we know those bodies being dragged behind that cop car aren’t really there in 1938 – they’re something Will is remembering, and associating with the behaviour of the racist cops.
This sparing use of colour to make details stand out in the surrounding monochrome also consciously references Steven Spielberg’s use of the technique in Schindler’s List – a callback to last week’s in-universe equivalent, the movie Pale Horse.
Other playing with form comes up throughout; notably the frequent appearances of a pianist, in colour, literally playing the music score to counterpoint the action. This of course was common practice in the days of silent films – just like the Republic serial based on Bass Reeves we saw right at the beginning of ep1.
Here, it – and the mixture of monochrome and colour – helped to emphasise the rather trippy feel to the ep. It was, in essence, a long flashback told from one character’s perspective. Nothing unusual there, and the comic did this frequently. But here, because of the pills Angela audaciously necked at the end of the last episode, we were experiencing the perspective through somebody else’s perspective. Angela’s perspective lent the ep its drugged up feel, but the use of two perspectives gives even more opportunities for the narratives to be unreliable. After all, reality may be different than the way we perceive it to be.
That turned out to be a central theme of the ep. On the face of it of course, it was the full story of Hooded Justice, which felt justified as he was one of the least-explored characters in the comic. By now, it came as no surprise to find that Will Reeves had been HJ all along; but the clever usage of his visual trademarks – the noose, the hood – made you wonder whether this was what Alan Moore had in mind all along. After all, the most common association of those things is with lynchings.
So along with giving us a lot of character background for both Will and Hooded Justice (two facets of the same personality), this ep brought us once again to another of the show’s most prominent themes – racial conflict. I mean let’s face it, it can’t have been easy to be a black cop in 1938, even in a supposed bastion of liberal values like New York City.
So, inevitably, we followed Will’s increasing disillusionment at being one of the boys in blue, when the only boys that really mattered were white. The 1938 setting was important – as we saw at the newsstand, the Nazis were reaching the early heights of their racial pogroms against the Jews, and 1938 is particularly remembered for the so called ‘Kristallnacht’ (crystal night), when hundreds of attacks on Jewish businesses across the Reich left the gutters sparkling with crystal-like broken glass.
That was almost immediately recalled in the next scene, as Will confronted a breezily confident white man doing exactly that to a Jewish delicatessen in NYC. The suspect’s lack of concern, stemming from his confidence in white superiority, helped to neatly draw the parallel between the Nazis’ institutionalised anti-semitism and the US’ own Jim Crow laws and overt white supremacy.
But racism wasn’t the only prejudice in socially conservative 1940s America. Now that we knew Hooded Justice was Will, I’d expected all the gossip about his gay relationship with Captain Metropolis to be nothing more than that – gossip. So I was genuinely surprised to find him literally acting out the sex scene we saw in last week’s American Hero Story snippet; the significant difference being that, in this ‘real’ version of events, neither was wearing a mask. That came later, when Nelson Gardner aka Captain Metropolis suggested wearing the masks to bring a bit of extra spice to the sex.
“You’re an angry, angry man, Will Reeves,” wife June told him at one point. Now we know he doubly had reason to be. Not only had he witnessed the most horrific demonstration of racism as a child, he couldn’t even be open about who he was attracted to. The ep (intentionally, I presume) left ambiguous the question of whether he was bisexual, or gay and living in the closet with a wife and child as camouflage. Real life, of course, is never that simple, and many a gay man who married for appearances’ sake truly loved the women they were married to. Even if, sexually, they’d rather be with a man.
All of which gave a great deal more depth to the character of Will – both for us, the audience, and for Angela, as the perspective above the perspective of Will. In a previous ep, Lady Trieu called Will’s leaving of the pills as a clue, “passive-aggressive exposition”; but seeing this, it’s hard to grasp how else to make another character truly understand his story other than by, in essence, living it.
“There’s a vast and insidious conspiracy centred here in Tulsa,” Will had previously told Angela. Here, that phrase was knowingly used again to describe Will’s ongoing investigations into the mysterious ‘Cyclops’ organisation in the 1940s. Not much detail was given as to who was behind this conspiracy, but its logo did look awfully familiar. Not only does it resemble the single eye of Veidt’s ersatz alien squid, but didn’t we see it just last week, scrawled on the wall of the 7th Kavalry HQ? I think the reason so many loose ends were left on this subplot is that it’s still happening – and further information on ‘Cyclops’ or whatever it has now become, will be forthcoming in later eps dealing with its present role in events.
Will’s investigation led to a sinister plot to use ‘mesmerising signals’ projected along with films, specifically to target and incite the black community into violence against each other. That’s very much a comic book villain kind of plan, but in the racially charged context of this show, it also made perfect sense. It also served to further heighten that sense of racial conflict, when even the Minutemen, and Will’s lover Captain Metropolis, couldn’t be bothered to help him deal with it.
“You’ll have to solve black unrest on your own,” the tinny voice at the end of the phone said, instantly giving the lie to the idea that the Minutemen were a liberal and progressive group. Nelson Gardner, a gay man on the receiving end of prejudice, couldn’t even summon up the empathy to support victims of different prejudices. He may have had a black man as his lover, but it looks like he still doesn’t consider black people his equals.
No wonder Will was angry enough to instantly kill the first member of the conspiracy he bumped into – motivation further heightened by the fact that it was that suspect he’d first met burning down a Jewish deli, who’d obviously been released without charge. It was a well-directed piece of trad comic book action (albeit rather more violent than the equivalent Superman and Batman serials of the time), but this plot is obviously not yet resolved.
Not only did it give us further hints as to the origins of the 7th Kavalry, it also, finally, explained the fate of Jud Crawford. It looks as though Will not only kept, but refined the Cyclops group’s mesmerising device, and used it to get Jud to hang himself. So while he may not have physically pulled the dodgy police chief up a tree, it turns out that he was telling the truth when he told Angela, “I’m the one who strung up your chief of police”.
That sequence, significantly also in monochrome despite being much more recent than other flashbacks, usefully gave Jud himself a chance to explain his actions. ”I’m trying to help you people,” he protested before his death; as a white man in Oklahoma, he can’t have been ignorant of the effect the phrase “you people” would have on a black man. So was he actually trying to get himself killed? I’m glad to see all these flashbacks mean the show hasn’t entirely finished using the excellent Don Johnson in the part, just as the original comic’s opening with the death of the Comedian didn’t stop him becoming one of its most significant characters.
So, we know more now about Jud, and the secrets he was keeping. We also, seemingly, learned more about that baby that the child Will found outside Tulsa on the night of the massacre. In another, deliberate reference to Superman’s origin story, this time we were told that the baby grew up to be his wife. So will we be seeing more of her? If she is somehow unearthly in origin, does that mean she had unusual abilities that she could have passed down to granddaughter Angela? Hang on though – the note with the baby said, “Watch over this boy” – so was Will telling the truth here? And it was written on the back of that German propaganda leaflet Will’s own father picked up in Europe, so how could it have been left with the baby? Was it, in fact, referring to Will himself? As ever in this twisty, turny show, answers only led to more questions…
Meanwhile, over in Veidt-ville…
…nothing at all, this week. For the first time, an ep of Watchmen didn’t have a vignette in its original villain’s surreal captivity. That makes sense, as this was deliberately written to be almost a self-contained story, and including the usual snippets of life off Earth could easily have taken the viewer out of it. I’m betting we’ll see a bumper selection of Veidt scenes next week though.
Episode title significance
This week’s ep was entitled This Extraordinary Being.
In a particularly meta example of referencing, this actually comes from an in-universe source. Each of the original comic issues ended with fictional background materials to give further depth to the story, and one was several chapters of original Nite Owl Hollis Mason’s autobiography, Under the Hood (also seen perched on Jud Crawford’s desk in ep 1).
In the excerpts, the admiring Mason describes Hooded Justice as “this extraordinary being” – so for the first time, the quote forming the title is from a source within its own universe. That’s so meta it’s worthy of Abed in Community. It’s notable that this excerpt is also the source for the foiled drugstore robbery we’ve now seen the show depict twice.
American Hero Story
After a couple of weeks with only glancing references and little snippets of the show-within-a-show, this week put it front and centre by actually having it form the opening scene of the ep. It was a clever bit of misdirection, appearing before the screen went into monochrome so we could have taken it to be the actual story we were expecting of Will’s past.
But the reveal of HJ as a (rather handsome) white man instantly declared that this was the fictionalised version of the story; after all, we’d already pretty much made up our minds that HJ was actually Will. Extra meta casting points here for using actor Cheyenne Jackson in the role – Jackson is one of Ryan Murphy’s recurring ensemble cast in the actual American Horror Story.
We also saw, in the ‘real’ story, a factual version of HJ’s foiling of a drugstore robbery, fictionalised in one of the earlier AHS eps. Particularly notable was that the victims didn’t see HJ as a saviour, but as a threat.
Finally, it was a sly bit of humour – and typical of Ryan Murphy’s scandalmongering style – to suggest that Captain Metropolis was actually having an affair with none other than notoriously closeted FBI Director J Edgar Hoover!
Callbacks and references
Fewer than last week’s deluge, but still plenty here.
Most obviously, the show’s ever-varying title card this week changed not just the style but the actual title of the show. Reflecting the story it told, of the original team of masked avengers in this universe, it became, for one week only, Minutemen. For added detail, that trademark yellow font changed to purple, like the hood of HJ’s costume.
Several ‘supervillains’ were mentioned as possibly being behind the ‘vast and insidious conspiracy’ that Cyclops was part of. Notable references were to Captain Axis, King Mob and Moloch – all villains shown in flashback in the original comic, and all pastiches of typical 1940s comic book bad guys.
Moloch the Magician in particular featured heavily in the original story, ending up as a pathetic cancer-ridden ex-con who unknowingly was a vital part of Adrian Veidt’s complex plan. In a perfect bit of casting, Matt Frewer played him in Zack Snyder’s film adaptation; I’d wondered if Frewer might make a return appearance in the part here, but alas, the Mephistophelean magician wasn’t actually shown onscreen. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t involved though – who else but a magician would be so familiar with the concept of mesmerism?
At the Minutemen press conference where Hooded Justice was proudly introduced as part of the team, we saw again that poster for bank-sponsored hero Dollar Bill (who would so unfortunately meet his end with his cape caught in the bank’s revolving door. Significantly, we saw a detail here that was less visible last time, when we saw it on a wall of a darkened 7K trailer – the shifty suspect being held by Bill is black. And the grateful onlooker (and of course Bill himself) were white.
No wonder Nelson advised Will to maintain the fiction that he was a white man under that hood – though I did find myself thinking that his voice marked him out unmistakably as black.
Also subtly in keeping with the racial theme was all the music played on the soundtrack. Every song I heard (at least the ones that I knew) was by a black artist, at a time when mainstream success was still a distant dream for any who weren’t Paul Robeson. We heard Eartha Kitt’s version of ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ as Will burned the Cyclops HQ, and several songs by pioneering vocal ensemble The Ink Spots played at various points. The Ink Spots were one of the first black groups to make a mark on a white audience, though like their contemporary Nat King Cole, they had to “white up” their hair and their singing style to achieve that popularity.
The mesmerism-inspired riot took place at a cinema that was showing Danny Kaye’s 1947 comedy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Based on a short story by James Thurber, it’s the story of a dreamer who retreats into a fantasy life to escape his humdrum existence – sound like anyone we know?
Also in external influences, at one point we saw Will’s son (Angela’s father, presumably) being read L Frank Baum’s classic children’s book The Wizard of Oz. That’s another one about a man hiding behind a mask; in this case, the titular Wizard, who uses a godlike projection to disguise the fact that he is, actually, a cheap conman from Kansas. You could hardly find a children’s story more relevant to the themes here. And for added bonus points, it was also the inspiration behind John Boorman’s weirdo scifi epic Zardoz, which I thought might have been referenced in the Veidt vignette two weeks ago…
We saw another of the newsstands that pay homage to the one so prominent in the comic; this one was extolling the virtues of Action Comics’ very first issue. That’s now worth far, far more than its original cover price of 10 cents, but most importantly it marked the debut of the most archetypal superhero of all – Superman.
In the Watchmen universe, superhero comics faded from popularity with the rise of real costumed crimefighters. But even here, that 1938 debut was obviously a very big deal. It also yet again echoed the repeated references to Superman’s origin story – the baby outside Tulsa, the Clarks and the mysterious object that fell from the sky to their farm. Not to mention Will’s own father packing him off out of Tulsa just before it exploded like Krypton.
Alan Moore was no stranger to Superman, having written some of his more memorable stories in the mid-80s just prior to Watchmen; and I always got the impression that Dr Manhattan was his attempt at a more searching examination of the Last Son of Krypton’s godlike powers. Either way, the repetition of this reference appears deeply significant – though I do hope Damon Lindelof isn’t going to bring the big blue boy scout in for an onscreen appearance. Let’s keep Watchmen out of the mainstream DC Universe, eh?
Finally, we actually saw the Minutemen all together, in a dramatic shot at the press conference that was (intentionally) too blurry to really make any of them out other than Captain Metropolis. You could make out Mothman, and just vaguely see the Comedian – but great though the latter character is, this isn’t his story, so I can appreciate the need for keeping him in the background.
This was a format-shattering episode – all the more remarkable in a show that’s only six episodes old. It told a gripping story that filled in plenty of blanks from both this show and the original comics, while providing plenty of new questions to keep us guessing. But what really impressed was its depth, and the way it played with the form of the medium – all that precisely chosen mixing of monochrome and colour, the choice of soundtrack songs, the devices to show that we were really seeing Angela’s perception of Will’s story. As we’re seeing it through the eyes of two potentially unreliable narrators, it’s a great way to add ambiguity to the narrative, up there with the multiple levels of narration in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.
Only three more eps to go of this season, and wilfully dense though it may have been, it’s barely put a foot wrong for me so far as a spiritual successor to Alan Moore’s classic comic. This was the best episode yet, and that’s saying something; I didn’t even mind there being no visit to Veidt-world this week. It kept this as an almost self-contained story, but one that played perfectly into the larger narrative.