[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Watchmen” Episode 6, “This Extraordinary Being.”]
There is an anger inside Will Reeves. Before the hoodie-sporting old man (played by Louis Gossett Jr) took a deceptive seat in his wheelchair, a barely walking Will witnessed unthinkable pain and suffering — his town, his community, and his parents were all wiped out. And they were wiped out by racists. Witnessing such atrocities, atrocities driven by pure, unabashed hatred, at such a young age is difficult to imagine, yet unquestionably formative for Will. He’s angry. He’s been angry since before he knew what to do with it, and he’s still angry to this day.
What “Watchmen” Episode 6 examines, through a flashback to his early adulthood (where Will is played by Jovan Adepo and, in a stroke of wit, Regina King), is how the crimes of the past connect to the pain of the present. With immersive, inventive direction by Stephen Williams and an intricate script from Damon Lindelof and Cord Jefferson, “This Extraordinary Being” puts viewers behind Will’s mask and takes them on a visceral journey through the heart of the American divide. It’s an episode of television as affecting as it is awe-inspiring, with profound lessons for everyone and, I imagine, a deeply personal experience for African American audiences. Episode 6 can’t be easy to watch for anyone, but it’s vital viewing nonetheless.
Masks Off: What We Know
Let’s start with how the set-up and cinematography come together to build out a singular, unique perspective. When Episode 6 begins, Agent Blake (Jean Smart) is trying to tell Angela (Regina King) that she needs to sign a release form so they can pump her stomach. Angela just scarfed down a whole bunch of “Nostalgia” — pills prescribed to her grandfather that allow the taker experience old memories all over again — and she could turn into a vegetable if the trip goes wrong. (While this information drop is decently cloaked by the urgency of Angela’s situation, Laurie’s lines are the only moments in the episode that give into redundancy through overt exposition — everything she says about Nostalgia was conveyed in bits and pieces during previous episodes, but given how ambitious this episode is, a little hand-holding goes down a lot easier than those pills!)
“Is it starting?” Laurie asks, as Angela stops paying attention to her and starts focusing on a black-and-white police officer playing a drum. Indeed it is, and Episode 6 doesn’t stop until its final seconds. Angela goes tumbling into her grandfather’s memories, reliving his life as a police officer in New York. First, she’s at his graduation. Then, she’s walking his beat. Soon, she’s going on dates with his wife, June (Danielle Deadwyler), arresting criminals, and getting caught up in a “vast and insidious conspiracy” led by the KKK (and supported by members within Will’s police force).
Mark Hill / HBO
To convey Angela’s presence in Will’s memories, director Stephen Williams uses a simple, sweeping camera movement. In one smooth, roaming motion, the camera moves from Angela sitting on the stage with the rest of the 1938 cadet class, to the captain giving a speech, and then back to where Angela was sitting; only instead of Angela, Will (played by Adepo) is in her place. The move is repeated when Will gets his badge, as a two-shot of Will with Lieutenant Battle drifts into a close-up of Battle, then down to their handshake, and back up to… Angela’s face. In one quick scene, Williams establishes an eerie tone for the Nostalgia trip, as well as an easy-to-grasp visual explanation for what’s going on.
The movement is repeated throughout the episode, building off its original purpose (to show how Angela is experiencing Will’s memories) to create a similarly transportive effect for the audience. Williams swaps Will and Angela in the same take when Will asks the cop behind the desk why Fred (Glenn Flesher) is walking the streets, and Angela appears to tell him, “My memory is fine.” Angela has always been the audience proxy in “Watchmen.” I talked about it before when the baffling events of the first two episodes were punctuated by her exclaiming, “What the fuck?” but it’s just as clear from her role as the investigator: She has the same questions we do, and she’s the one who’s trying to get the answers.
But Episode 6 pushes that identification to a bold new level when Will is beaten, kidnapped, and lynched by his fellow officers. What starts as a point-of-view shot from Will being kicked in the face, grows ever more daunting when he opens his eyes and sees two men dragging him toward a tree with a rope dangling from a sturdy branch. While there’s a break from Will’s POV when the noose is draped around his neck, we’re thrown back into it as the hood covers his eyes and he’s slowly dragged off the ground, choking and gagging as his tormentors watch. It’s not until the cops cut him down and warn him to “keep his black nose out of white folks’ business” that Williams cuts back to show Will — and when he does, it’s Angela laying in the dirt, blood on her face, wheezing from the pain.
Mark Hill / HBO
While the scene does shape Hooded Justice’s heretofore unknown origin story, it’s also (and more importantly) a stunning piece of visceral transference. Now, there’s no way to compare what it’s like to actually go through something like that with watching it play out on TV, but the power of this scene — and the episode overall — stems from how well Williams, Jefferson, and Lindelof captured and conveyed Will’s perspective. The director’s choices emphasize and enliven what the writers’ had already decided: William is the subject, Angela is the observer, and the two in tandem can elucidate the plot and connect the past and the present — Will’s anger isn’t just his; it’s Angela’s, too.
It’s why Angela is so eager to ride into Nixonville and beat the shit out of Seventh Kavalry members. Every racist remark, implication, or association in the present brings up the overt and protected racism of the past. This pain has been felt for generations, in part, because people are unwilling to let it die. Just look at Captain Crawford (Don Johnson): Even though there was no way he could talk himself out of his fate, he defended his right to hold onto his grandad’s Klan robes. “I have a right to keep it. It’s my legacy,” he says. “If you’re proud of your legacy, why did you hide it?” Will asks, but it’s not a question. It’s a statement. You shouldn’t be proud of it, and you shouldn’t keep it; not unless you’re willing to defend all of the ugly baggage that comes with it.
That’s not to say the Captain deserved his fate. Will’s anger stems from his righteous intentions, but he’s not exacting justice. He’s acting out of vengeance. There’s a kind of practical balance to Will killing KKK members and burning down their successful factory, after the KKK killed his family and burned down the wealthy black community where they lived, but the latter won’t erase the former. When Will is confronted by June over their son dressing up like Hooded Justice, she tells him, “I thought it would help you rid of this thing you had. But it didn’t get rid of it. It just fed it.” Anger breeds more anger. Violence begets more violence. Will is trying to even the scales of justice, without realizing he’s only feeding the pain that sparks the racial divide. He won’t let it die either, perhaps because he’s not sure it will ever go away.
Mark Hill / HBO
Masks On: What We Want to Know
What is “Watchmen” trying to say about racism in America?
Episode 6 is as close as the series has come to making a statement — and it does make some. There’s a clear and effective illustration of transgenerational trauma and its damaging effects in the United States; the same could be said toward institutionalized racism, as the Cyclops conspiracy is nothing if not a mysterious form of people with privilege protecting each other, while keeping everyone else down. More than that, Episode 6 feels like it’s actively trying to foster empathy and understanding; there aren’t a lot of shows — or any widely absorbed piece of popular culture — that engage in serious discussions about slavery, racism, and the surviving consequences of both. “This Extraordinary Being” tries to convey the perspective of a traumatized individual and a repressed group of Americans not often put forth on television.
But where the series goes in its final three episode will tell us “Watchmen’s” ultimate lessons and opinions. How things are left with Angela, how we ultimately think about Will and Captain Crawford, not to mention so many other intense, complicated characters, will better outline the show’s own perspective on its weight central theme. Episode 6 should give everyone watching confidence they know what they’re doing. Now, we just wait to see what’s next. Tick tock.
“Watchmen” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.
What Else We Want to Know
What the hell is going on with Adrian Veidt?
Really! What’s going on? We have no idea because this is the first episode not to take a break for a trip to Jupiter, where Adrien Veidt (Jeremy Irons) is trying to escape from a mysterious prison. What justice has The Game Warden exacted on the former hero? Who was Adrian trying to ask for help? Will any of the clones survive?! It was the right choice not to force in an Adrian break during this critical episode told from a singular perspective, but boy, am I still curious what’s going on in outer space.
Did Lady Trieu help develop Will’s portable mesmerizer?
This week confirmed what Will had been saying all along: He killed Captain Crawford. Technically, he made Captain Crawford kill himself, but the blame still lies with the former Hooded Justice. But where did he get the strobing flashlight that doubles as a hypnotic mesmerizer? Clearly, he held onto the technology developed by the Cyclops KKK members — who used a film projector to turn black audience members against themselves — but how did he turn it into a flashlight? It’s been a while, so Will could’ve studied the technology and done it himself, but given Lady Trieu’s penchant for advanced machinery and her close ties to Will, methinks she lent a helping hand. If so, the real question might be: What are they going to do with it next?
Will more Superman parallels emerge?
The man at the newstand provided a fascinating parallel for Will’s journey toward fighting crime and donning a cape: Superman. He’s reading Action Comics No. 1, the first appearance of the alien from Krypton, which brings Will back to his own origin story. Just like the baby who was put in a rocketship by his father, just before his planet exploded, Will was put in a basket strapped to the back of a car, just before his town exploded. This is not a mistake — nothing so pointed could be, especially in “Watchmen” — and stay tuned to IndieWire for more on the meaning of these parallels. Some folks smarter than myself have thoughts.