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‘Watchmen’ Review: Episode 2 Hunts for Truth Amid a ‘Vast and Insidious Conspiracy’ — Spoilers

Will Reeves steps into the spotlight, Angela takes a step back, and "Watchmen" tries to figure out what is going on in a contemplative second episode.

Watchmen Episode 2 HBO Regina King

Regina King in “Watchmen”

Mark Hill / HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Watchmen” Episode 2, “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship.”]

Will Reeves confessed. Caught red-handed, the wheelchair-bound gentleman played by Louis Gossett Jr. tells Angela (Regina King), “I’m the one who strung your chief of police up.” He said it more than once, actually, and he said it without being coerced or threatened — he doesn’t even flinch.

But Angela knows better than to take his word for it. Pairing the image of a disabled elderly man who can barely get the lid off his memory pills with that of someone who can hang a trained, active police officer from a tree is hard enough; too much has happened, too quickly, over the past 24 hours, and Angela tries to take a step back and reassess what she knows. “Watchmen” dutifully follows her direction, using its second episode to lay foundation (via telling flashbacks and clever framing) while pushing along current events just enough to keep momentum.

Masks Off: What We Know

Questioning what you’re told is the predominant theme of “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship.” Take Will’s father (played by Steven Norfleet): When he was in the army, a letter fell from the sky asking why he and other black soldiers would remain loyal to a country that has no loyalty to them. “Do you enjoy the same rights as the white people do in America?” the letter reads. “How about the law? Is lynching, and the most horrible cruelties connected therewith, a lawful proceeding in a democratic country?”

That Will’s father keeps the letter doesn’t mean he switched sides or even buys into the German propaganda. (For those interested in a deeper historical discussion on African Americans fighting for their country even when they weren’t considered full citizens, I can’t recommend The New York Times’ 1619 series highly enough.) But parts of the letter still stuck with him. Young Will finds it in his dad’s coat, and later he finds it on his person, after waking up outside of town as Tulsa burns. Decades later, he’s reading it as Angela pulls up to discover her friend’s hanging body next to the man who was parked outside her fake bakery, asking if she thought he could lift 200 pounds.

Will clearly gleaned his own lessons from that fateful slip of paper, making his warning all the more ominous: OK, there’s a vast and insidious conspiracy in Tulsa, but whose side of the conspiracy is Will on? One man’s insidious intentions are another man’s benevolent plans. So is he there to help Angela? Hurt her? Use her? So much of what Will says holds up, but only after Angela investigates on her own. By the end of Episode 2, she’s done everything he wanted her to do. She admits as much to Will after after discovering the Ku Klax Klan robes in Judd’s closet, but it’s only then that she gets a phone call with her DNA results: Will is Angela’s grandfather. And why is he there? “I wanted to meet you,” he tells her. “And show you where you came from.”

Check and check. So did Will string up the chief of police? Much like Angela, we’ll believe it when we see it — and maybe not even then. The last line of the letter that fell from the sky (twice) reads, “Come over to the German line, and you will find friends who will help you along.” Who are these friends Will has made in high places? What are they planning? Are they the same friends looking out for Angela on the White Night? Are they even friends at all?

“Watchmen” is again asking the audience to be patient, to wait for answers. But more than that, it’s emphasizing the importance of asking questions. Angela needed to discover her identity on her own. She needed to learn about Judd’s secrets on her own. She needed a bit of a nudge from Will, but taking responsibility for yourself in a time of great confusion is paramount to surviving in modern America. The parallel established between “Watchmen’s” central mystery and the real world’s cultural status quo is potent: We’re all Angela, trying to make sense of things that don’t make any sense, so we know who’s part of the problem and who’s trying to fix it. Often, the answers don’t neatly divide into two bins, but you have to take personal accountability before going out and busting heads. Otherwise, you go in too hot — like the cops into Nixonville — and chaos reigns.

At a time where even seeing isn’t necessarily believing, living through it is often the only way to the truth. Will is pushing Angela along that path, and “Watchmen” is guiding viewers on the same route. A vast and insidious conspiracy is underway. We all need to find the truth — and as much of it as possible — before someone else decides our fate.

Watchmen Episode 2 Jeremy Irons

Jeremy Irons in “Watchmen”

Colin Hutton / HBO

Masks On: What We Want to Know

What the hell is going on with Adrian Veidt? (Part II)

Last week, I asked what Adrian (Jeremy Irons) was up to in his magnificent castle that time (and everyone else) forgot, and this week, well, we got a few half-answers and one helluva play. “The Watchmaker’s Son” did indeed focus on Jon Osterman’s story from the original “Watchmen” comic books, where the scientist is accidentally trapped in a nuclear accelerator and turned into Dr. Manhattan. But in Veidt’s play, he doesn’t turn his butler/actor Mr. Phillips (Tom Mison) into anything other than a charred crisp — after burning him alive and replacing him with his twin (Or clone? Or replicant?) Veidt tells the new Phillips’ copies to dump the body in the cellar with “the others” and promises he’ll have a “use” for the pile of corpses soon enough.

OK… so… is the play for Veidt’s amusement? Is it an excuse to kill off butlers and horde their carcasses? Does he miss his old friend, or is he merely obsessing over the source of his powers? Given the second candle on Veidt’s anniversary cake, it’s clear he’s been working on this play for a year now, but what else is he up to? And where is he? Most people think he’s dead (per the newspapers), and maybe he is dead! At this point, we’d believe anything.

These black comic cutaways are perhaps the most perplexing elements of early “Watchmen,” but they’re also the most fun. Every part of them is infused with maniacal glee: Irons adds a dash of zeal on his own, from plunging the explosive lever that lights his “prop” on fire, to feigning disgust when the replacement Phillips unceremoniously drop their predecessor’s cooked remains at his feet. Lindelof treats each new reveal like the madcap unveiling it is, knowing it’s meant to make zero sense (yet) and relishing the bewilderment. Even director Nicole Kassell transitions to Veidt’s story through clever yet absurd match cuts, turning the starry sky over Tulsa into a frozen coastline in the pilot and zooming into a painting of a white horse in a green field before cutting to Veidt charging through a pasture on his own gleaming steed.

Answers are coming, but it’s oh-so-fun to just watch these little cartoons play out.

How did Angela survive the White Night?

There were clearly two members of the Seventh Kalvary who broke into her house, and one of them had her dead to rights: defenseless, consciousness, and with a shotgun trained to her face. But when Angela wakes up in the hospital, all Captain Crawford tells her is she got her guy — there’s no mention of the second shooter, and no explanation for why he didn’t kill Angela. One could assume that Cal interfered, but you can’t assume anything with this show.

What’s with all the castles?

Veidt lives in a castle. Dr. Manhattan is building castles on Mars. Angela’s adopted son, Topher (Dylan Schombing) is building a (floating) castle when his mom tells him about Judd’s death. Are these castles connected? Come back next week, and maybe we’ll know a bit more. Tick tock.

Grade: B+

“Watchmen” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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