HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ Rewrites the Comic — All for the Better

HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ Rewrites the Comic — All for the Better

This week’s episode of Watchmen manages to provide a story to satisfy both longtime fans and new viewers.  It digs into the backstory of the mysterious Will, Angela’s grandfather, and if this episode is any indication, the show may finally have found its voice.  Let’s dig in.

The opening scene is from the show-within-a-show, American Hero Story: Minutemen.  It shows the 1940s masked hero Hooded Justice being interrogated by NYC police officers.  The officers harass Hooded Justice about his homosexuality, demanding that he remove his mask so that they can take a picture of his face.  They want this picture to hold as blackmail over him so that they can force him to steal a roll of film that shows his boyfriend, Nelson Gardner (alias Captain Metropolis), having sex with J. Edgar Hoover.  They say they will destroy the picture once he brings them the film. He removes his hood, revealing the stunningly beautiful (and white) face of actor Cheyenne Jackson, a frequent star on American Horror Story, on which the show-within-a-show is clearly based. 

It’s a fun easter egg, and is of course immediately followed by a scene of stylized violence reminiscent of the Zack Snyder Watchmen movie, because what’s the first five minutes of an episode without ample fan service?  We zoom out, hearing a voiceover of Hooded Justice agonizing over Captain Metropolis’ cheating as Agent Laurie Blake walks by the TV it’s playing on in the police station. “Turn that shit off,” she says to the two officers who are watching raptly.

She is on her way into a cell where Angela sits, blinking away the blurry hallucinogenic effects of the pills she swallowed in bulk at the end of the last episode. Laurie shouts at her, alternately asking where Will is, and begging Angela to sign a release so they can pump her stomach. She reminds Angela that the pills — an illegal memory-storing substance called Nostalgia — can cause psychosis and even death.  Angela, however, is already hallucinating and slips into Will’s memories.

The memories, by the way, are shot in beautiful black and white, and we’d feel like we weren’t covering everything if we didn’t take a moment here to mention that this is a visually stunning episode, shot with a thoughtfulness leagues beyond the bland stylishness that the show has so far achieved. We hope to see more work like this from the show’s team in the future.

The first scene finds Will at an NYPD academy graduation ceremony, the only black cadet on the stage. He waits nervously for the white police chief to pin his badge on, but the man simply passes over him, leaving a black officer trailing behind him to pin the badge on. “Beware of the Cyclops,” the officer whispers in Will’s ear as he does so. That night, Will is out with his girlfriend, June, a reporter who attended the ceremony. Will speculates that June might feel he has betrayed other black people by joining the “enemy,” but June says that she is more afraid of what he’ll do with his gun. “You are an angry, angry man, Will Reeves,” she says, citing his childhood experience of the Tulsa massacre.

Next, we see Will on patrol, where he stops at a newsstand to glance at some headlines about Nazi activity. Across the street is a Jewish deli, and he sees a white man in a suit lighting a molotov cocktail outside its windows. He tells him to stop, but the man casually throws the bomb into the deli and slowly walks around the corner. Will follows and arrests him, but the man — who introduces himself as Fred — is not afraid.  “You’re under arrest,” Will says, to which Fred replies, “I seriously doubt that.” As soon as Will gets Fred to the station, Fred begins lying to the desk sergeant, referring to Will by racial slurs and asking whether the desk sergeant is going to believe the white man or Will.  Two of Will’s (white) fellow officers force Fred to apologize for the slur, then take him away, saying they’ll book him themselves.

Shortly after, Will is back at the newsstand, listening to the proprietor explain Superman’s origin story over an issue of Action Comics. Will cannot help but remember his own childhood trauma: being sent away by his parents from a tragic event that would end in their deaths, just like Kal-El. As he leans over the other man’s shoulder to see the comic, Fred walks by, purposefully bumping into him. Furious, WIll rushes back to the station and demands to know why Fred is already walking free. The desk sergeant warns him in a low voice not to push it, or he could end up dead.

The next memory shows us Will in plainclothes, walking down the street at night. Three white officers, including the two who lied about their intention to arrest Fred, pull up to him in a patrol car, offering him a ride home and a beer in an entirely menacing fashion.  When Will refuses, they drive away, revealing the two lynched corpses that are being dragged behind their car. Shaken, Will turns down an alley to escape, but they pull around, trapping him, and beat him. He opens his eyes later to find himself being dragged toward a tree; a hood is placed on him, and we see through his eyes as he is hanged and starts to lose consciousness. Just as he is about to black out, he is pulled down from the tree and one white officer cuts the rope from around his hands, saying that this was a warning for Will to keep “out of white folks’ business.”  As Will walks back home, bloody and traumatized, he comes across a couple being mugged. He rips eyeholes into the hood he was lynched in, puts it on as a mask, and proceeds to beat up the muggers. The couple thanks him and runs away.

Will goes to June’s apartment, still wearing the rope around his neck. “Okay,” he admits, “I’m angry.” He spends the night on her couch and wakes up to find out that his attack on the muggers made it into the paper, and that he’s being called a hero.  June reminds Will of the movie he was obsessed with as a child — the one he was watching when the Tulsa massacre began in the flashback we saw in the first episode. Will describes the ending, in which the black sheriff tells the white townspeople to “trust in the law” rather than lynching the white criminal he has captured.  June points out that he, unlike the sheriff in the movie, isn’t going to get justice with a badge. She paints white makeup around his eyes, telling him to pretend to be white underneath the hood so that people won’t be suspicious of him. In a neat shot, he looks in the mirror and Angela’s face looks back at us, so that we can easily see that the black facepaint she wears as Sister Night is the inverse of her grandfather’s.  

Now it’s obvious to the viewer that Will has become the vigilante hero Hooded Justice, wearing the distinctive mask and ropes around his neck and wrists, features which have taken on horrifying new meaning for longtime fans of the comic. His first act is to stake out Fred’s grocery store, where he sees a group of white men entering through a side door. He suspects this organization might have something to do with the “Cyclops” the black lieutenant warned him about, and when he kicks through the door, he finds a group of men in KKK robes. He beats them up, which is extremely satisfying to watch. Once they all appear to be knocked out, he gathers their maps and documents from the desk, and notes with surprise that there is a book on mesmerism sitting there. Before he can investigate further, one of the Klansmen wakes up and attacks him, knocking him through another door and into the grocery store.  Once he beats the Klansman unconscious, Will looks up to find a group of unimpressed shoppers staring at him in a scene reminiscent of the first American Hero Story clip we saw. Instead of getting a chance to quip wittily as his TV counterpart later will, our hero is immediately shot at by Fred and forced to flee by bursting through the window.  

Here, the scene freezes. Will’s face is replaced by Angela’s, and we see Laurie’s face floating in front of her, telling her that she has swallowed a lethal dose of Nostalgia, and is in a coma.  \Angela blinks to show she understands this, and her husband Cal reads her a list of facts about herself in hopes of bringing her out of the memory-induced trance. With tears in her eyes, Angela is sucked back in.

The next scene shows Will talking with June, now his wife, when there is a knock on the door. The visitor is Nelson Gardner, who says he’s there on behalf of Captain Metropolis, another “costumed adventurer.” He invites Will to join the Minutemen, saying that the team is “incomplete without the hero who inspired them.” Will denies any knowledge of Hooded Justice’s identity, but a very thinly veiled exchange makes it clear to both men that they are fellow vigilantes. As Nelson hands Will his card, their hands touch, and as soon as this scene ends, we cut to Will and Nelson having sex.

Which is a huge deal, you guys. As a longtime fan of the comic and lifelong actual gay person, I will admit that I felt a frisson of fear when I heard June referred to as Will’s wife: that the show would chicken out and give Hooded Justice the Adrien Veidt treatment. It was heavily implied that Veidt was a gay man in the comic, but in subsequent comics by other DC writers and in this show so far, has been portrayed as likely bisexual and only ever shown having relationships with women. Hooded Justice, with his homosexuality and his outsider status, formed an essential part of the backstory and ideological core of Watchmen, and to have this identity erased would have been devastating. Not only that but given that scenes of a similar, though speculative, nature are shown in the absurd show-within-a-show, erasing the real Hooded Justice’s sexuality would have reduced it to a joke.  

So yes, I’m praising the show for not going out of its way to offend gay viewers, but you have to remember, this is a major win for us. Now on with the recap.

As pillow talk, Nelson continues to persuade Will to join the Minutemen, but suggests he continue pretending to be white, as some of the other members “aren’t as tolerant” as he is. In a parallel scene, Will is in bed with June, and she asks him to tell the story of how they met, which leads to the reveal that June is the baby wrapped in an American flag that Will picked up after escaping the Tulsa massacre. She tells him she is pregnant.

At the first public meeting of the Minutemen, Will as Hooded justice tells a reporter, “I believe there is a vast and insidious conspiracy at play in the city,” and is about to describe what he has discovered of the Cyclops conspiracy, but Nelson cuts him off and talks about the costumed villain Moloch instead. Then Nelson changes the subject to their corporate sponsor, a bank, and reveals an advertisement showing the bank’s corporate vigilante, Dollar Bill, dragging away a hideously caricatured black man.  

A few years later, Will is in uniform as a cop when he is called in to a riot at a movie theatre. Members of the black audience are being dragged away, injured. Will goes inside and a weeping woman tells him that there was a flicker of bright light, and voices ordered the people in the theatre to hurt each other. Will begins to put it together: this is part of the same conspiracy he’s been chasing all this time. He goes to a phone booth and calls Nelson, who is unsympathetic to Will’s insistence that the Klan is using mesmerism to force black people to attack each other. “This sort of thing isn’t really the Minutemen’s cup of tea,” he says. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to solve Black unrest all on your own.”

He hangs up only to find Fred outside the phone booth, mocking him by inviting him into the nearby warehouse for a “free steak.” Will shoots Fred, then walks into the warehouse, where he finds plainclothes Klan members packing movie projectors into crates marked with the Cyclops symbol. He shoots them all, then goes through a door with a red light over it to find a man recording his voice, ordering the listener to attack others, but to spare any white people they come across. The man turns around; it’s the ringleader of the white officers that have been tormenting Will all this time. Will strangles him with the microphone cord, then piles the bodies and burns them, along with the projectors, in a very Inglorious Basterds-esque scene.

When Will arrives home, he finds his son putting on his costume and makeup, saying, “I’m like you.” Panicked, Will roughly wipes the makeup away, frightening his son and infuriating June. Understandably, she leaves, taking the boy back to Tulsa.

Finally, we see Will as he is now, in his wheelchair, waiting for Judd to get out of his truck when he discovers the tire trap in the road.  Using a large flashlight, Will hypnotizes Judd, ordering him to wheel him up to the tree. He gives Jud his mind back for a moment, only to tell him he knows about the Klan robe in his closet, which Judd insists was his grandfather’s. “You don’t know me, old man,” he says. “Oh, I know you,” says Will, making the Cyclops gesture we have seen Klansmen identifying themselves with throughout the episode. Then he hypnotizes Judd again, forcing him to hang himself.

Following this, Angela wakes up. There’s a woman in a chair at the foot of her bed — Lady Trieu — she can see the vivarium through a window. “Oh hi there,” says Lady Trieu, “welcome back.”

So, we’re back in the present day, and there will certainly be a lot to unpack in future episodes. But we at Contemptor, while we’re feeling significantly more sanguine about this show as a whole, doubt any coming episode is going to top this one. Revealing Will as Hooded Justice does what fans have hoped this show would do: deepened the meaning of the comic while bringing forth a fascinating new thread for the show to explore, keeping it firmly grounded in the mythology we love while spinning a new tale with new layers. There is no better way to modernize the well-told but outdated story Alan Moore wrote and bring its best qualities to a new audience.

Now they just need to make Adrien Veidt queer again, and we can die happy.

Evangeline Van Houten

Evangeline Van Houten

Daughter of a high school English teacher and an English professor, Evangeline is a survivor of Academia and an aspiring elegant person. She lives in St. Louis with her family and a lot of books.