This Sunday saw the premiere of HBO’s Watchmen, a limited nine-episode series. Overseen by Damon Lindelof — a vocally devout fan of everything Watchmen, its influence quite apparent in some of Lindelof’s other work such as Lost and Prometheus — the show serves as a follow-up to the iconic DC graphic novel from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
Published in the mid-80s, Watchmen was famous in part for tackling various social issues of the day. Lindelof and his team of writers have seen fit to continue that tradition, using their new series to offer commentary on the problems currently gripping America: police brutality, the reckoning of our racist history, questions about gun control, and a government unable to merely legislate away our deeply ingrained societal ills.
It’s a bold, risky, and daring move in a day and age when even the slightest misstep can get you endlessly dragged on Twitter. The messy but important conversation about what is okay to say, and who’s allowed to say it, isn’t going away anytime soon.
But art ceases to be of much use if it avoids taking chances, and in this instance, that gamble has more than paid off. Based on the first episode alone, Watchmen already stands as a monumental achievement, a well-written, well-acted, well-directed and immersive story rich with big ideas and thematic depth.
Watchmen was previously adapted by director Zack Snyder in 2009, resulting in an incredibly polarizing, somewhat misunderstood film which still sparks arguments ten years later. (Many of the transgressions leveled against the movie, often regarding its graphic violence and sexualization of superheroes and their brutality, have their origins in the novel). Lindelof’s new take is specifically a sequel to the original comic as opposed to Snyder’s adaptation, though it remains somewhat of a mystery exactly how much the show will connect back to the source material.
It’s by no means mandatory to read the comic to appreciate the new series. But in order to take a deep dive into this very loaded premiere episode, some familiarity with the book and its events would be worthwhile. So first, a little history.
The graphic novel takes place in an alternate version of 1985, where superheroes not only exist, but have become a large part of the public consciousness. While in many ways this iteration of the 80s resembles the world we know, it diverges in others. Genetic engineering is already well-advanced. Zeppelins are in use as a mode of transportation around New York City. Vietnam has become our 51st state after the US wins the war, while Nixon is in his fifth term as President.
But the deviation from our timeline begins fifty years before. In the 30s, costumed avengers start to emerge: masked vigilantes fighting crime on their own terms, under invented personas and without the supervision of the law. They become celebrities and icons, banding together under the name The Minutemen (as much a publicity stunt as an attempt to consolidate their efforts). Comic books such as Superman die out, readers losing interest in fictional costumed heroes when such people are readily part of real life.
Events diverge further in the late 50s, when a physicist named Jon Osterman is killed in an accident during a top secret quantum experiment. Reborn as a glowing blue godlike being with near unlimited power, he’s enlisted by the US government and christened Dr. Manhattan. The mere existence of such an entity — who could easily wipe out entire civilizations with the flick of a wrist if he felt inclined, and the sole character in the story who possesses genuine supernatural powers — sets the entire world on edge, positioning the United States as holding the only card that now matters.
After Dr. Manhattan brings the Viet Cong to their knees in less than a week, Nixon continues employing masked heroes to do the bidding of the government. He has journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein assassinated (thus preventing Watergate), and following a repeal of the two-term limit is elected President for a third time.
The populace grows wary of being terrorized by these imposing figures who disguise their identities and act with impunity, the country consumed in civil unrest. In 1977, costumed vigilantes are outlawed by Congress, forced to either go underground or serve the Nixon administration.
What follows in the plot of Watchmen is a mystery that ultimately delves into who these supposed superheroes are, and what drove them to put on a mask in the first place. Some simply sought fame and attention. Some are motivated by trauma or personal issues. Some are sadists and psychopaths who get off on hurting people.
This character-based narrative unfolds against the backdrop of a looming World War III, hysteria about the end of humanity rippling through the culture as Cold War tensions reach their boiling point.
But the apocalypse is finally averted in a manner no one could have foreseen. Adrian Veidt — a brilliant and incredibly wealthy philanthropist and entrepreneur, formerly known as the superhero Ozymandias — employs his vast resources to stage an elaborate hoax in order to unite the world against a common enemy. Using a colossal genetically engineered squid, he teleports the creature into the middle of Manhattan to trick the world into believing they’ve witnessed an attempted alien invasion from another dimension. Millions of people die in the process.
His grotesque creation has been given a telepathic brain uploaded with as many horrifying images and sounds as possible. The monster dies immediately upon arrival, sending out a shockwave of psychic energy that drives many people insane. To achieve his plan, Veidt has left a trail of corpses — associates, employees, friends, his beloved pet lynx Bubastis — assuring that no one will reveal the truth.
The only people who do carry his secret are the few remaining masked heroes. They face an unsolvable dilemma: bear the burden of knowing their former ally caused the deaths of millions, or reveal what happened and watch world peace unravel as the inevitable trek towards global annihilation resumes. Dr. Manhattan, the most advanced being in the universe, proves vexed. Realizing this is too much even for him, Jon abandons Earth (and possibly the galaxy).
The reader is left to decide the level of rightness and wrongness of Adrian’s actions. On the one hand, Veidt is likely the most intelligent person alive, second only to Dr. Manhattan. His mental and physical discipline has given him near superhuman prowess. (He is so fast that at one point he literally catches a bullet). Veidt’s calculations and preternatural ability to process information have made him certain that Armageddon is inevitable without such a drastic intervention as his scheme. He readily acknowledges the horror he’s caused and takes no joy in it.
On the other side of that equation, Adrian has become so single-minded in his focus that he may have lost sight of the basic decency of everyday humans.
The novel makes numerous diversions into side characters mostly tangential to the main plot, highlighting the basic struggles and joys they experience as they navigate daily existence. All of them perish when Adrian’s plan is executed, providing even more weight to the tragedy of his actions. Veidt insists he’s forced himself to consider each and every individual life he’s ended, but of course he hasn’t; such a thing is impossible. The lives he took are and always will be abstract concepts to him. It’s we the audience who get to know (some of) these people, not Adrian.
His cynicism — curiously desperate and helpless for such an otherwise measuredly willful person — blinds him to the fact that he’s an elitist taking it upon himself to enact a holocaust in the name of, well, himself. This is, when broken down to the most basic building blocks, the classic modus of a villain.
Adrian Veidt models his public persona after Alexander the Great and Rameses II, not exactly role models in terms of humility. Calculating in the image he projects, Adrian surrounds himself with symbols of power and dominance, his private fortress in Antarctica showcasing a throne at its center so that he can sit in his palace like a pharaoh.
Veidt’s claims of absolute selflessness remain at odds with the fact that his goals are curiously self-serving. He aims to use this catastrophe as an opportunity to push newer, more environmentally friendly forms of energy he’s recently patented, as well as rebuild much of Manhattan through the construction arm of Veidt Industries. These motives betray an unsettling implication that he’s destroyed the world and recreated it in his own image. And by sheer coincidence that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with his own personal desires, nearly every single one of the people Veidt considers competitors or enemies ends up dead by story’s end.
Though he often criticizes certain other costumed adventurers for being fascist in their intentions, Veidt himself is somewhat totalitarian in his belief that he’s both done the right thing and had the right to do it, and his obsessions with willpower and becoming some kind of Ubermsensch also feel uncomfortably parallel to the philosophical underpinnings of Nazism. (The comic intimates the German-born Veidt has long been haunted by his own parents’ association with the Third Reich).
Adrian is famous for his liberal and progressive stances, and for furthering humanitarian causes. But would an actual humanitarian believe that sacrificing millions of people is worth the cost? Has his hand really forced humanity to evolve, or is this merely the illusion of progress, with world peace another part of Veidt’s sick joke?
For as sensitive as he may be to the human condition, Adrian’s supposedly benevolent concern for the state of the world masks the motives of a deranged narcissist unable to recognize what he’s become.
And masks — as well as the secret and complicated motivations they conceal — are at the very heart of Watchmen.
Picking up 34 years after the graphic novel ends, the new Watchmen imagines the ways the world of the comic has both changed and not changed.
But before the first episode gives us any of that information, we’re taken back to 1921 to revisit an extremely shameful moment in American history: the looting and burning of a black-owned business district in Tulsa. Officially called Greenwood but known as Black Wall Street due to its thriving businesses and economy, shops were sacked and burned as throngs of angry whites assaulted and gunned down black people in the streets.
The show pulls no punches in ensuring that its viewers — particularly the white portion of the audience, many of whom likely unaware at first that they’re watching the recreation of a historical event not invented for the series — are as disgusted and uncomfortable as possible. This is a tough line to tread, as Watchmen is overseen by a white showrunner, and the sequence could easily dip into an exploitative appropriation of black suffering.
(Knowing that he’s walking on provocative ground, Lindelof has staffed the writers’ room largely with women and people of color, to ensure multiple perspectives are brought to the table in crafting each episode).
Thankfully, the violence is portrayed as nothing less than horrific, and the glimpses we get are never more graphic than necessary in terms of getting the point across.
The episode then moves ahead to Tulsa 2019, and immediately hits us with a revelation which feels audacious at the very least: in the world of Watchmen, the police have a positive relationship with black citizens and communities. Not only that, a large amount of the force is black. And not only that, but the police are shown as victims of anti-cop terrorism, meaning the story is asking the audience (at least on the surface) to side with them. And not only that, but the cops wear masks and operate anonymously and sometimes outside the law, meaning that black Americans are voluntarily participating in a system which is clearly moving in an overtly authoritarian direction.
This is, to put it mildly, a lot to unpack.
Before going any further, there are two things worth mentioning. First, within the universe created by Moore and Gibbons, it’s important to remember that the police are seen differently. Going back to the novel’s version of the 70s, much of the American populace became decidedly pro-police, as by that point citizens were more afraid of masked vigilantes — who would, without any oversight, accost, beat, and sometimes kill whomever they decided was a criminal — and started to see cops as a means of protection from costumed heroes. The comic even does an inversion of American history by showing a riot protesting vigilantes and supporting the force, the American people accusing superheroes of the same behavior so often attributed to the police in the world we know.
Which gets to the second point. Just as that scene from the graphic novel is intended to highlight what’s not the same about the America of Watchmen versus our reality, the show depicting the police making an effort to protect black citizens is meant to be jarring in the complete and utter way it breaks from modern history. The fact that it defies believability is purposeful.
Without a doubt, this will rub some viewers the wrong way, and there has been a degree of understandable pushback from critics. We live in a world where the police routinely gun down unarmed black people and get away with it. This is a life or death social issue. But the show is taking a calculated risk, well aware that it’s playing with potentially problematic material.
It should also be noted that the comic ends with a vision of utopia which conceals a very dark underbelly. The notion that the police are racially sensitive and tolerant and that all is well, ho ho ho, frankly rings false based on that foundation. Sure, Robert Redford has been President for decades and instituted the types of idealistic liberal policies which sound great in theory: limited access to firearms, accountability for law enforcement, and reparations for slavery. But in a system that may be inherently broken, policy is quite different from practice, akin to slapping a band-aid on a tumor.
In Watchmen’s version of 2019, black Americans may have finally been granted a seat at the table, but that table — passed down over generations — is wobbly, warped, and could collapse any moment.
Indeed, the show quickly makes it clear that white supremacy has not only stayed alive and well, but is on the rise again, as a white nationalist terror organization called the Seventh Kavalry has reactivated after going dormant years before. Donning masks of their own, the Kavalry was responsible for the White Night, an incident where many police officers and their families were murdered inside their own homes. This event is what changed the law to allow the police to conceal their identities.
The Seventh Kavalry have adopted the mask of Rorschach, a main character from the graphic novel. Born Walter Kovacs, Rorschach is an irreparably damaged human being, his childhood full of abuse, bullying, and neglect. After creating his costumed hero persona, Walter snaps while investigating the abduction and murder of a young girl, coming to see Rorschach as his true self and Walter as his mask. From that point onward, he operates with unwavering ruthlessness, often straight up killing criminals instead of turning them over to the police.
Rorschach is bigoted, xenophobic, homophobic, and misogynistic, but he stops short of being an avowed white supremacist. A misanthrope to the extreme, he believes life is savage meaningless chaos and it’s therefore his responsibility to adopt an absolutist moral stance in terms of good and evil, an inflexibility which can make him just as dangerous as the people he views as scum. And while his political stance could be labeled anarcho-libertarian (he hates the government and all politicians), Rorschach’s conviction that it’s his duty to kill the unworthy is so sociopathic as to be borderline fascist.
The character is written by Moore as a parody of the grizzled but deeply bruised male ego often at the heart of comic book protagonists and pulp detective stories, a vicious deconstruction of what we nowadays call toxic masculinity. Far from being the classic tough guy, Rorschach is a psychotic murderer with no self-awareness. Sections of the novel are punctuated with entries from Rorschach’s meticulously kept journal, his hard-boiled narration pitched somewhere between Sam Spade and Travis Bickle in its absurd nihilism. (“Beneath me, this awful city. It screams like an abattoir full of retarded children”).
Rorschach is the one person who refuses to keep Veidt’s secret, and subsequently killed by Dr. Manhattan when he threatens to reveal the truth to the world. While his defiance is ostensibly rooted in Rorschach’s rigid moral code, it’s more couched in the fact that this is a man who hates himself and wants to die. After a life of endless horror, seeing millions of people murdered by someone who will go unpunished is more than he can handle; his death at the hands of Jon is as much an act of mercy as anything.
(If there’s anything at all heroic about Walter/Rorschach, it’s that despite his overt hatred of everything, he does genuinely care about preventing harm to those he deems innocent. The case which broke him involved a child who was kidnapped, raped, butchered, and fed to the killer’s dogs. That this caused Walter to unravel shows somewhere within him exists a sensitivity to innocence. But Rorschach’s determinations of good and evil are so skewed and influenced by his own psychological issues as to render him a menace to the society he claims to protect).
Given all these factors, it makes sense why the Seventh Kavalry would claim Rorschach as their mascot. He fills the trope of the misunderstood loner forced to become a brute by a cold and unforgiving world — a favorite narrative of white supremacists in both Watchmen and real life*— and his anti-authoritarian authoritarianism is ready-made for militant far-right extremists. That aside, Rorschach fancied himself a rugged individualist, and very well might not have appreciated his image being commandeered, nor is it clear if he would have supported something like the Seventh Kavalry.
*(Considering the recent controversy surrounding Joker, a narrative putting Rorschach front and center might not play so well today).
Another intentional inversion of real world racial dynamics occurs early on, when a black police officer pulls over a white man in a pickup truck. Here, it’s the white character who is treated as a suspect for virtually no reason, and who has to fear that the officer might hurt him with little legal justification.
The appropriateness of doing a scene like this will no doubt be hotly debated, as it almost seems to fulfill the right-wing fantasy of white persecution. But while the moment is absolutely meant to make us worry about the idea of cops with concealed identities, the man does turn out to be a member of the Seventh Kavalry and the officer is critically wounded. We’re also shown that the officer is just as nervous as the civilian he’s questioning. The concerns of both characters — one about the potential behavior of the police, the other about the potential for terrorist violence — are correct.
The Seventh Kavalry seethes with resentment over reparations and what they perceive is the oppression of whites by a liberal administration. But it’s not white people who are being oppressed . . . it’s white domestic terrorism. Unfortunately, oppressing terrorism is a snake eating its own tail, as it tends to fuel the fire by adding to the feeling of persecution. Again, the disease of racism (whether systemic or cultural or personal) isn’t magically solved by having Robert Redford in the White House or making it harder for the police to use lethal force. It lives, and breeds, and continues to fester in a society founded on white supremacy.
Hence why the Seventh Kavalry has returned.
Which brings us to the character of Angela Abar, played by Regina King. A “former” police detective who grew up in Vietnam — based on the American flags visible in the show, we’ve added many more states since — she retired after getting shot during the White Night and now runs a bakery in Tulsa, living in the suburbs with her husband and their three children.
But her status as mild-mannered confectioner is a ruse: Angela is still a detective, operating under the guise of her masked character Sister Night. Appearing equal parts nun and ninja, Sister Night works with Tulsa police Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), with whom she seems to share a long history. (Both King and Johnson deliver some of the most stellar performances to grace a screen this year, in any medium). Judd and Angela are alarmed to see the return of the Seventh Kavalry, and aim to stamp it out accordingly.
Sister Night isn’t the only costumed hero working for the Tulsa PD. Other personas include Red Scare and Pirate Jenny (both callbacks to the original comic), Panda (literally a dude wearing a shitty looking giant panda head), and Looking Glass (donning a rather unsettling reflective cover), all active detectives. With the exception of high-ranking officials like Judd — kept under guard, even when off-duty — police officers are forbidden to reveal their identities to the public, and must keep their true profession hidden apart from immediate family. While this level of secrecy is intended as a protective measure, it nonetheless carries with it the air of questionable authority.
No sooner is that silk specter raised than we witness the police kidnap, interrogate, and brutalize potential suspects. The temptation, as Angela does things like shove a man into the trunk of her car and later beat the bodily fluids out of him behind a closed door, is to say this is justified because it’s happening to objectively bad people. (Certainly, the current cultural debate about the behavior of groups like Antifa — who wear masks and offer violent resistance against white power organizations — will influence interpretations of this episode). These are racist terrorists, after all, and it’s empowering to see a black woman go full badass and take these people on.
But that is and always has been the trick of Watchmen. It’s easy to rationalize the actions of a superhero because we think they’re cool.
Now, there are valid reasons for the cops to be doing this, as in some ways they’re hampered by the stricter laws that have been placed on the police by the Redford administration, and they need to curb a terrorist threat before it grows out of control.
Yet the fact remains that our main characters are authority figures abusing their authority. They have no legal right to nab a civilian and throw them into an interrogation room, one specifically designed to confuse and overwhelm the person until the suspect breaks down and confesses. And while Angela can say she has a nose for white supremacists, she’s smart enough to know that at some point, she will inevitably hurt someone who turns out to be innocent.
Nowhere is this potential for wrongdoing clearer than in the scene where the police watch the video sent to them by the Seventh Kavalry. Borrowing various quotes by Rorschach as they blurt out their manifesto like homegrown al-Qaida, we see threatening-looking people in masks threatening threatening-looking people in masks. Aesthetically there is almost no difference between the terrorists in the video and the police watching the video, and the subtext here is meant to be troubling.
Ditto for when Looking Glass questions a suspect in “the pod.” The swirling images reflecting off his silver-toned visage make him resemble a member of the Seventh Kavalry. In fact, he recalls Rorschach even more than they do, as Rorschach wore a mask with moving ink blots, whereas the Kavalry’s are simply stained black.
While the interrogation fails to yield a confession, the pod and LG’s mask are used as a combination lie detector/Rorschach test/Voight-Kampff exam meant to unsettle the subject enough to reveal certain info via physical responses to specific visuals and lines of questioning. Between this and Sister Night’s physical intimidation tactics, what we’re talking about is torture.
While one could drub the show for engaging in bothsides-ism, it’s aiming for two very real life targets: white supremacy and the police state. In this fictional setting, it’s less a false equivalency and more an unconventional way to recast the problems plaguing our country today.
The graphic novel was nothing if not an indictment of how anyone can abuse power if given the ability to wield enough of it, whether legally or illegally. Both the comic and TV versions of Watchmen are genuinely concerned with the slippery slope of when those with power start to, bit by bit, trade moral restraint for self-justification.
What do we do when we can’t trust the people in authority? And what do we do when others take the law into their own hands? Is vigilantism actual justice, or is mob justice something else? Who should have the right to declare themselves judge, jury, and executioner? Does maiming and killing become okay when the person is wearing a badge? What if they’re wearing a mask? What compels someone to put on a costume and commit violence under an assumed identity? Is a hero still a hero if they do the right thing for the wrong reasons? What if they do the wrong thing for the right seasons?
There are no easy answers.
It’s a brilliant move, in taking this story thirty years down the road from where the comic ended, to now have the police as the costumed vigilantes. That type of dramatic complication is what made the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons story so engrossing, and is the most Watchmen thing the show could have done.
Before adjourning the police meeting, Judd quotes the famous Latin phrase qui custodet ipsos custodes?, the origin of the later translation “who watches the watchmen?” In both our world and the world of Watchmen, that question has never been more important.
Further under the hood:
- Dr. Manhattan is supposedly hanging out on Mars, building and destroying sand castles. While that sounds like a great time, this stands at odds with what he declared in the graphic novel, where he stated he’d be traveling elsewhere in the universe and may even create new forms of life. Taking into account that at the end of the comic Dr. Manhattan is considered a potential line of defense against a future “alien attack,” there’s a decent chance this situation is not as it appears.
- Another layer of Veidt’s machinations involved disgracing Dr. Manhattan by secretly exposing people close to him to radiation, thereby inducing cancer and making it look like Jon’s energy signature is dangerous. At the cow farm, the Seventh Kavalry is stockpiling obsolete batteries made with Dr. Manhattan-based tech, banned due to fears the energy might be cancer-causing. The 2009 film omitted the squid out of concerns that it was too complicated and left-field, instead having Adrian replicate Dr. Manhattan’s energy pattern and dropping it on various cities around the globe, framing Jon and killing millions more than in the comic.
- Though Dr. Manhattan is considered the only character in Watchmen with true paranormal abilities, there’s a fascinating wrinkle in the novel which often goes unmentioned: Veidt is able to imbue our favorite squid GEEPS with telepathy by copying the brain of a recently deceased psychic. This opens the door for the idea that supernatural powers exist beyond Dr. Manhattan, as Veidt’s plan wouldn’t have been successful otherwise.
- It’s raining squid! (Hallelujah!). Not only that, but it sounds like a fairly regular occurrence in this world. However, Veidt’s creature was a Lovecraftian nightmare of psychosexual awfulness. This looks more like a tornado hit a seafood stand. Regardless, someone is making extra effort to keep up Veidt’s lie.
- And speaking of Adrian Veidt, he returns in the form of Jeremy Irons riding a horse and eating a creepy cake and typing a play while naked. Or, we’re at least led to believe this is in all probability Adrian. But if so, where is he? A newspaper headline mentions that Veidt has been declared dead after having gone missing for an extended period of time. His palatial estate looks to have nothing resembling modern technology, and his servants seem . . . not quite human. These scenes are charged with a sense of unreality, as if there’s a factor at work currently obscured to us. Is Veidt just a brain in a vat somewhere, and this his dreamworld? Did he somehow manage to create his own pocket universe? Is he trapped forever in a very weird afterlife? This scenario will likely only get stranger and stranger as the season progresses.
- Another way the series deviates from the world we know: the internet and cell phones don’t exist. Apparently Veidt’s alien invasion fakeout had the unintended consequence of making society afraid of technology. (Part of his scheme was to lead people into thinking a trans-dimensional experiment gone wrong was the source of the incident. That, coupled with the Dr. Manhattan cancer scare, set technological progress back significantly).
- In the alternate universe of the show, the belief that the squid event was staged is their version of 9/11 trutherism. But they have more reason to suspect it was a hoax: Rorschach’s journal, the final entry of which reveals his suspicion that Adrian Veidt is behind a massive conspiracy, has been published (albeit by a disreputable right-wing newspaper). Though dismissed by the public at large as a conspiracy theory, this explains how Rorschach was transformed into a redpill folk hero, and also how the Seventh Kavalry is able to parrot his statements from the comic.
- Disparagingly calling reparations “Redfordations” is exactly what would happen if this went down in real life, sadly.
- The soundtrack, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is fantastic, a riff on classic John Carpenter-esque synth scores that somehow feels fresher than your standard nostalgia-driven throwback.
- Panda, the Tulsa detective tasked with authorizing the use of deadly force on a case by case basis, clearly has reservations about the direction his fellow police are heading. So far he’s the only cop openly reticent to embracing vigilante tactics.
- The airship used by Judd and Pirate Jenny to take out the Seventh Kavalry is modeled after Archie, the vehicle which belonged to the character of Nite Owl in the comic. Judd’s office is also decorated with various Nite Owl memorabilia.
- The original Watchmen was a dense narrative that complexly interwove flashbacks, nonlinear storytelling, subplots, the repetition of particular images and symbols, stories within stories, appendices, and references to other works of pop culture. Lindelof and company have taken a similar track by tying this episode into various aspects of the musical Oklahoma!, as well as introducing American Hero Story, a show within the show that will play an ongoing role in future episodes.
- Speaking of, a major focus of American Hero Story is indicated to be Hooded Justice, the very first costumed adventurer and therefore the person who in some sense set this whole thing into motion. In the source material, he’s the only one of the Minutemen whose true identity is never confirmed, but it’s revealed that he was gay (he maintained a long-term relationship with fellow masked hero Captain Metropolis) and that he possessed an unfortunate and especially brutal sadistic streak which was a driving factor in his becoming a vigilante.
- But there may be more to that story, since this new Watchmen opens with the tale of Bass Reeves, a (real life) black lawman whose first appearance on the show makes him suspiciously resemble Hooded Justice. Though Bass Reeves is long dead by 1921, Louis Gossett Jr. is credited as playing Will Reeves, which can’t be a coincidence. Seeing as how the elderly, wheelchair-bound Will suggests he can still lift two hundred pounds and that he’s last shown hanging out next to Judd’s lynched corpse, it’s not hard to connect some of the dots. (Whether Reeves actually killed Judd is up for grabs). Furthermore, the show strongly implies he’s the little boy from the beginning, who idolized Bass.
- Another connection: the name Sister Night is a reference to an unused idea from the comic, as Hooded Justice was originally called Brother Night before the concept of his character evolved. It’s also possibly a nod to the song “Sister Midnight” by Iggy Pop and David Bowie; Alan Moore directly modeled some of Veidt’s personality traits on the latter.
- Hooded Justice’s costume recalls the classic appearance of an executioner, and he wears a noose around his neck. However, if you were to flip the color of his costume to white, he would look like a member of the KKK, the very definition of masked vigilantes. (Almost definitely intentional on behalf of Moore and Gibbons). Was Will Reeves actually Hooded Justice, styling himself partly after his hero Bass Reeves and partly as a mockery of the Klan? It doesn’t fit with what people thought they knew about HJ in the comic (among other things, he was believed to be from Germany), but it lines up with the idea that it was the Tulsa riot which planted the seeds for costumed heroes. This also jibes with Will’s apparent lynching of Judd. It’s possible Will Reeves originated the Hooded Justice persona (or even called himself Brother Night), which was then copied by the man who became famous as HJ. Or Will very well may have invented a German accent so his fellow Minutemen wouldn’t suspect that he’s black, in essence creating another layer of secret identity as added protection. Either route would cleverly undermine what we thought we knew about the world of this story.