The Truth About Watchmen's Present Lies in the Past

Hooded Justice in action.
Image: HBO

Each episode of Watchmen has carefully introduced us to its heroes and villains in a way that fleshed out this strange, hyper-violent world of masked cops all the while keeping the series’ deeper truths just out of focus enough to make the mystery being told riveting. Eventually, the time comes when all good mysteries reveal the secrets that were purposefully obfuscated from us as we try to figure out what’s been going on, and for Watchmen’s Angela Abar, that time is now.

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The first few moments of “This Extraordinary Being” make it abundantly clear that it’s distinct amongst Watchmen’s episodes in a number of different ways. The most notable being aesthetic differences and the way the episode blends multiple pasts and presents of different characters in order to set the stage for their shared futures. The episode opens just minutes after a panicked Angela made the snap decision to down the entire bottle of Nostalgia that her grandfather Will left in her car, and Laurie springs into triage mode because she knows it won’t be long before the drug kicks in, putting Angela at risk of being stuck in a coma.

Legally, Laurie needs Angela’s permission before she arranges to have the detective’s stomach pumped, but by the time Laurie brings her the consent form, the Nostalgia’s already pumping through her veins and it’s beginning to warp her perception of reality. Each and every dose of Nostalgia contains the synthesized essence of Will’s memories—not necessarily all of them, but rather significant ones from pivotal moments in his life, like the day his family desperately attempted to spirit him away from Tulsa during the horrific race riots that left the town on fire and many of its black residents dead.

But as Angela comes to in a now black and white world, we see that the first of Will’s (Jovan Adepo) memories she experiences (and “experiences” truly is the right word here) is actually from a moment in his adulthood when he first joined the New York Police Department sometime in the ‘40s. As Will stands on stage amongst his fellow newly-minted cops, you can tell he feels a deep sense of pride in the line of work he’s chosen, but even though he’s successfully made his way through the entire process of joining the police, the force doesn’t value him or what he brings to the organization. Unlike his white counterparts who all receive their badges from the force’s police chief during their induction ceremony, Will is conspicuously skipped and the duty of giving him his badge falls to one of the other black officers overseeing the entire ordeal. Will proudly takes his badge from the officer—presumably the only other black officer on the force—and before the other officer moves on, he leans in close to warn Will to beware of “the Cyclops,” which leaves the man baffled.

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What’s brilliant about the episode is the way it almost turns Angela into a kind of audience member who’s witnessing everything that happens throughout the episode for the first time, but unlike us, she’s experiencing things first hand. These are Will’s memories, but because they’re coming from the Nostalgia in Angela’s bloodstream, here they’re also hers. And so the line between their identities becomes blurred in a way that’s beautifully reflected in moments where “This Extraordinary Being” shows us Angela-as-Will following the arc of Will’s memories. Though Will insists that he’s happy with the life he’s building in New York City, his wife June (Danielle Deadwyler) can see through his facade, which makes her the perfect person to ask some of the larger, more important questions about Watchmen’s very premise that the series hasn’t addressed directly.

June urging Will to confront his anger.
Image: HBO
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Will thinks that June, like all of the people who read her articles in the local newspaper, thinks less of him for being a black man who wanted to become a cop knowing fully well that the police are known to brutalize black people in their community. June doesn’t exactly deny that, but she insists that what she’s really concerned about is the anger she’s always known Will to keep close to his heart. June understands how living through something like the Tulsa Massacre and losing your entire family in an instant can change a person and leave them spiritually and emotionally broken. All she wants is for her husband to own the anger he feels so he might begin to process and work through it, but he resists and tells her again that he’s fine.

“This Extraordinary Being” makes it obvious that Will’s lying to both June and himself because, throughout the episode, you see specters from Will’s past that reflect the trauma he’s carrying with him. Will’s mother has long since died, but she appears in the episode multiple times, always seated at her piano playing the same song she frantically played as the Dreamland theater in Oklahoma was attacked during the Massacre. It’s unclear whether Will himself or Angela can see his mother or the other memories-turned-flesh that are scattered throughout the episode, but their presence makes it clear to us that on some level, they’re definitely haunting him and fueling his rage.

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For a time, Will’s content to simply do his job, and he’s damned good at it. When he comes across a white man who casually lights a Molotov cocktail and hurls it into a Jewish deli, Will wastes no time in arresting him and bringing him down to the precinct for booking. The man denies his crime in front of the white officers and makes a point of calling Will a “spook” in front of everyone, which the officers force him to apologize for. But as the white officers take the man off to his cell, one of them holds his hand up to his head in order to make a symbol, and Will can’t help but wonder what it means. Soon, Will’s back patrolling on the street, and the episode takes a brief but significant moment to draw parallels between Will and one of the most famous superheroes in both our world and his.

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Will has a brief conversation with the owner of a newsstand about Action Comics #1 and the story of an alien baby whose parents sent him away in a spaceship in order to survive the planet’s destruction. As the stand owner explains Superman’s origins, elements from the day Will’s life fell apart in Tulsa play out through the scene. In that moment, Tulsa becomes Will’s Krypton and on some level he sees himself in this story.

But before Will has a chance to get deeper in the comic, he runs into the same arsonist walking free without a care in the world, which enrages him. Will wants answers, and there’s a chance he might have gotten them right then and there were it not for one of the officers warning him not to go looking for trouble by challenging his colleagues. Will’s frustrated because he doesn’t want to believe that the police force is as corrupted as it is, but as “This Extraordinary Being” progresses, he’s forced to accept the reality of the situation.

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The episode jumps to a moment not long after Will’s firsthand encounter with the police’s crookedness. As he’s walking home that evening, a group of his fellow cops (all of them white) pull up beside him offering to take him out for drinks but Will refuses. The cops drive away but as he turns down a dark alley, their car pulls up again and the men proceed to beat Will brutally before stuffing him in their car, driving off to the nearby woods, putting a bag over his head, a rope around his neck, and lynching him. The officers don’t kill Will but leave no doubt in his mind that were he ever to challenge any of them again, the next time they hang him, they won’t cut him down. Instead, the group leaves Will (once again Angela-as-Will) bloodied, terrified, and still wearing the noose out in the wilderness.

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Unlike shows like American Gods and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina that have cavalierly used lynching in their respective stories while seemingly not understanding the weight and significance of putting those images on screen, in Watchmen, Will’s lynching serves a narratively important and powerful purpose. Dazed, Will stumbles back into the city, still wearing the noose and unable to really process what’s just happened to him. The thing he feared and hated most—the thing that destroyed his family and his home—has followed him despite his best efforts to escape it and it’s all he can do not to break down and give in to despair. But he’s pulled out of his fugue state by screams, and Will realizes he’s stumbled upon a violent robbery that no one is going to stop. He could easily have just left the people to fend for themselves, especially given the state he was in, but instead he makes the curious decision to rip holes in the hood he’d just been forced to wear, puts the thing on, and proceeds to beat the shit out of the criminals.

June is devastated to see what’s happened to her husband when he finally returns home that night, but Will finally admits to her that he truly is angry and “This Extraordinary Being” introduces the idea that masked crime-fighting became a way for him to begin processing those emotions. June has reservations about Will, a black man, dressing up in costume to take the law into his own hands but she can see, at least for the time being, that vigilantism is what he needs. She also reasons it’s in his best interest to paint the visible parts of his face white so that people will assume that the man beneath the hood is caucasian. It’s a wild, batshit idea on its face, but because this is Watchmen, it works, and before long, Hooded Justice is out patrolling and exposing dens of Klansmen plotting to terrorize the city’s black population.

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Angela-as-Will realizing that something’s afoot.
Image: HBO

Will might not have set out to become the world’s first vigilante superhero, but within hours of his heroic act, news of his actions make it into the newspaper, and it suddenly becomes clear who Will is within the context of Watchmen’s larger story. Hooded Justice was one of the members of the original Minutemen, the group of heroes who popularized vigilantism in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ comics. In that telling, Hooded Justice was known for being large, preternaturally strong, and then suddenly disappearing just as the government began cracking down on costumed crimefighters. It’s important to note that in the comics, Hooded Justice was believed to be a white man, which has always been something on a stain on the comics’ legacy because the optics of putting a white man into a pointed hood, wrapping a noose around his neck, and presenting him as a superhero is patently bad.

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By making Will its take on Hooded Justice, Watchmen course corrects some of the source material’s narrative failings and seamlessly connects itself to the comics in a fascinating way because it isn’t long until the Minutemen coming looking to recruit him into their ranks. Inspired by reports of Hooded Justice fighting crime, Nelson Gardner himself shows up at Will and June’s apartment pretending to be an “associate” of Captain Metropolis’ who believes Will is actually Hooded Justice’s partner. The Reeves immediately see through Gardner’s ruse, but the idea of joining a team of likeminded heroes willing to do what the law won’t tantalizes Will in a way June can’t understand. It’s unclear whether she realizes how Gardner himself has a pull on Will, but the episode then cuts to a scene of the two men having passionate sex, which is yet another link back to the Watchmen comics where Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis’ queerness was present, but subtextual.

It’s not that Will doesn’t love June—you get the sense that he really does—but Gardner and the Minutemen give him a chance to explore parts of his other identities that he might not have ever felt comfortable acknowledging. As Hooded Justice, Will’s certain he and the Minutemen could truly rid the city of its Klan infestation, but during a press conference, Gardner stops Will from announcing his mission because to do so might tarnish the Minutemen’s brand.

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Mind you that while we’re watching all of this happen to Will, it’s also happening to Angela, and you can understand why this is how Will wanted his granddaughter to know his truth because it’s all so complex and potentially difficult to accept. Will believed that the Minutemen might give him the freedom to enact the kind of justice the police wouldn’t, but it isn’t long until he begins to feel stuck in the same kind of rut he was in while he was part of the force. June doesn’t like what’s happening to Will, but she still believes in him as a person and while the two are speaking together in bed one evening, she asks him to tell her the story of how the two of them first met. In a surprising twist, it’s revealed she was the small baby he found in the field as a boy after the Tulsa Massacre. She was the first person he ever saved and “This Extraordinary Being” wants you to understand that heroism’s always been a part of who he is, something that he’s passed on to his granddaughter.

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While Will struggles to find a way to make his tenure with the Minutemen worthwhile, the Klan continues to operate out of the city, all the while the police do absolutely nothing about it because many officers are actually parts of both organizations. Will’s still working as a cop, but it seems as if he uses his day job mainly as a mean of picking up information that would be more useful for Hooded Justice, and it’s while he’s on duty that Will reaches his breaking point.

Hooded Justice discovering the Klan’s secret weapon.
Image: HBO
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Following the outbreak of a riot in Harlem that leaves dozens of black people dead in a movie theater, Will arrives to speak with one of the survivors. They explain that the entire audience was driven to madness and began attacking one another after a strange flickering light began shining as the film began playing. Will’s quick thinking leads him to discover that something about the film projector isn’t kosher and he deduces that the Klan has something to do with what happened, but the police insist it was just a case of black on black violence. Because Will knows almost exactly what went down, he immediately calls Gardner hoping that the Minutemen will join him in finally taking down the Klan in NYC once and for all, but the white hero dismisses his concerns, leaving Will to take matters into his own hands.

Coincidentally Will bumps into that same racist he first arrested for burning down the deli. When the man makes a joke about all black people looking alike, Will responds by shooting him in the head, putting on his hood, and marching into the warehouse where the Klan is plotting something intent on murdering everyone he sees. Will’s theory about the projector being a weapon turns out to be on the money, and he sneaks up on a man recording a message directing black people to kill one another. Before the man realizes what’s happening, Will proceeds to strangle him with a cord.

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Satisfied that he’s done what needed to be done after he burns the warehouse down, Will takes the projector home and is horrified to see his son Marcus (now a small child) wearing one of his nooses and applying the white makeup to his face the way his father did. Will’s instinct is to fly into a rage and wash the makeup from the boy’s face, but June stops him because she realizes that Will can’t see how the vigilante business has changed him and made him an even angrier person. Though she’s always believed in Will up until that point, it’s all too much for her and she tells him that she’s taking Marcus and leaving for Tulsa. One imagines that this is when Hooded Justice likely disappeared from the public eye because at that point, Will had lost everything near and dear to him that defined his identity.

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But just because Hooded Justice might have died at this time in Will’s life, Will lived on, and it’s here where “This Extraordinary Being” reveals one of the first truly shocking twists of Watchmen’s first season. Though it’s still a Nostalgia-based memory, Angela’s transported to a moment much closer to the present: the night when Judd Crawford was lynched and she found Will sitting contentedly beneath his body. Will wasn’t lying when he told Angela that he hanged Judd, but he was purposefully opaque about how he did it. Using a reconfigured version of the projector from the movie theater (now made to look like a flashlight) Will hypnotized Judd into walking with him into the woods, putting the noose on himself, climbing up, and killing himself. Before Judd does the deed, he attempts to reason with Will that they’re on the same side and fighting for the same justice, but Will counters by pointing out that he knows about the Klan hood in Judd’s closet. Judd reasons that the hood belonged to his grandfather and is part of his family’s legacy, as if that someone makes it ok, but Will carries out the deed as planned.

The scene deftly transitions so that it’s Angela sitting in the wheelchair watching Judd choke and die and while Regina King’s doing a damned good job at physically comporting herself to seem more like Will, an elderly man, you can also see that on some level, everything is finally coming into focus for her. The pain and hurt that Will carried with him from childhood fundamentally defined the person he became, so much so that there’s an argument to be made that it was part of him physically. Whatever epigenetic memories Angela might have had within her because of her biological connection to Will were already clearly strong, but with the Nostalgia, Will’s turned his pain into her pain. Angela’s always been Will’s living legacy but now that she knows that explicitly, she’s in a position to understand what’s happening around her in a much, much more significant way, which is part of what finally pulls her out of the coma.

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Angela has no idea how or why she’s in Lady Trieu’s care when she wakes up, and the trillionaire seems none too thrilled to see her awake. But if “This Extraordinary Being” proves anything, it’s that Will’s had a grand plan all along, and now that Angela’s on the level, the time’s come for things to be kicked even more into gear.


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About the author

Charles Pulliam-Moore

io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.