Watchmen review: “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship”

Sometimes, a first episode tells the audience exactly what to anticipate going forward. It will establish the tonal range of the storytelling, and we can count on the show to stay largely within those parameters: expect this much drama, a heavy dose of comedy, a dash of sci-fi.

Other times, a new series refuses to tip its hand, leaving viewers in the dark about where this is headed or even what the rules are.

By turns funnier and darker, weirder and more serious than the premiere, if this second episode is any indication, Watchmen falls squarely into the latter camp.

World War I

Just as the previous installment opened with the Greenwood riot, this episode goes even further back, taking us to Germany in WWI. A Ms. Mueller types propaganda aimed at black American soldiers to remind them of their own mistreatment at the hands of the country they serve, a very real tactic employed by Germany during both World Wars. One of these leaflets makes it into the hands of Will’s father, and will become the piece of paper on which he one day writes “WATCH OVER THIS BOY.”

Tulsa

Speaking of Will, the revelations about him come fast and furious. He insists he’s the person who lynched Crawford. (Or that’s at least how it sounds; he very strategically keeps saying “I’m the one who strung up your Chief of Police” without giving any additional details). He drops that he has psychic powers and might be Dr. Manhattan in disguise, flippant and highly dubious claims. He mentions having friends in high places — much less dubious, considering he’s whisked away by a fucking UFO at the end of the episode — and insists there’s a deep, wide-ranging conspiracy at play. He can get out of handcuffs with no struggle and in all ways appears to have the upper hand over Angela, despite being 105 years old and in a wheelchair. And finally, and most significantly, he turns out to be Angela’s grandfather.

While not exactly a surprise to the audience, this familial connection sure comes as a shock to Angela, as this man is the prime suspect in the murder of someone she considered a close friend and mentor. Unable to fully show her own emotions in front of others, Angela locks herself in the armory before emitting a howl of rage and sadness. When she reemerges to interrogate Will, she dons her Sister Night outfit as a layer of psychological protection.

Her feelings only get more complicated, however, when she discovers a KKK outfit hidden in Judd’s closet. Implicating him as connected to the Seventh Kavalry or some other variation of the white power movement, it calls into question everything she thought she knew about Crawford. A flashback sequence depicting the White Night and its aftermath — Angela is very nearly killed in her own home on Christmas Eve, and awakens in the hospital with Judd informing her that everyone else they know from work is either dead or has resigned — takes on a much darker subtext in retrospect, with the possibility that Judd may have been manipulating Angela this whole time, and also could be one of the men who broke into her house or otherwise coordinated their actions.

Don Johnson has not learned his lesson since Django Unchained.

For those who questioned the show’s depiction of racial harmony between black citizens and the police in the first episode, here our suspicions are confirmed that this progress was mainly illusory, masking much deeper problems that haven’t actually gone away.

That being said, this is a story about the slipperiness of identity, so there’s still the minute chance Judd’s KKK outfit has something to do with an attempt to infiltrate an organization like the Seventh Kavalry. But the fact remains that there is almost definitely a white supremacist presence in the Tulsa police force, and Judd’s costume looks old and well-worn enough to be alarming.

The scene where Angela discovers Judd’s secret is an intentional callback to an early moment in the comic. The graphic novel begins with the murder of a government assassin named Eddie Blake, whose public identity was the costumed “hero” the Comedian. Blake had discovered Veidt’s plan to fake an alien invasion, and is murdered by Adrian in an effort to silence him. As Rorschach pokes around the murder scene in Blake’s apartment, he uncovers a hidden chamber in which Eddie keeps his Comedian costume and related memorabilia, his alter ego revealed for the first time.

The Comedian is, to put it mildly, a thoroughly awful human being. Openly amoral and fascist, he’s murdered countless people, raped women, killed children for fun. But Veidt’s scheme shakes Blake to the core, even his cynical nihilism unable to withstand the existential crisis triggered by learning Adrian’s goals. Though Blake is irredeemable in many ways, we come to see him as a broken person who, in some sense, is the heart and conscience of Watchmen. He’s not this way because he doesn’t care, he’s this way because he does.

The Comedian, deep down, is horrified by the state of the world, and his version of dealing with that horror is by becoming part of it. Again, there are no excuses for the many sins he’s committed, but the fact that Blake’s Comedian persona hides someone sensitive to the human condition speaks volumes about what these costumes really mean to the people who wear them. (More on the Comedian in later recaps).

The Comedian enjoying himself during the Vietnam War.

Just as the book slowly unveils these facts about the Comedian, the series will likely be taking a similar approach to Judd Crawford. Two episodes into the season, it’s not easy to gauge how far he tips on the scale of terribleness. We know he was a well-respected police Chief that also maintained a barely concealed coke habit and kept a Klan robe stashed away in his bedroom. And he may have been a racist, but the mutual respect and care between he and Angela appeared quite genuine. Whether it was authentic, and whether or not Angela can or should in any way forgive him, is a question she’ll have to confront.

Certainly, even without her Sister Night getup, Angela has trouble betraying her emotional state, preferring to remain stoic and calm. During the flashback to the immediate fallout of the White Night, Judd tells Angela that her partner was murdered and, sensing her hesitance, gives permission to cry; she responds with a glib “maybe later.” Her issues bubble just under the surface, involving trust, vulnerability, loss, and race.

The trauma of the White Night — which touches on all of those subjects — still hangs over her everyday life. Even her children are reminders of that event, as she and Cal adopted them from her slain partner’s family. When she explains to Topher that the world is black and white, her statement not only refers to racism, but also suggests the type of binary thinking which caused Rorschach to justify any number of horrific he acts he committed, a dangerous emotional road to be traveling.

But Angela is also not so consumed yet in her masked character as to lack awareness: she demonstrates restraint when it comes to the Nixonville raid, and at first resists the suggestion.

That confrontation in particular gets at the larger idea with which the new Watchmen concerns itself. Again, the police are abusing their power by staging this shakedown. Though the Nixonville camp acts as a haven for some members of the Seventh Kavalry, Red Scare and the other cops don’t have any concern about basics like evidence, due process, etc. They storm in, ready for violence. And while Angela is initially reluctant, once someone takes a swing at her she immediately joins the fray, beating her attacker senseless and with way more force than necessary to disarm him. That she can go from measured to deadly within the blink of an eye shows how dangerous she is.

Further cause for concern can be found with Looking Glass. Judd’s death brings him to tears, but he won’t allow himself to be seen crying, choosing to keep his face mostly covered. Later at home, despite being off-duty he’s attached enough to his mask to wear it while sitting in front of the TV and eating dinner. (Rorschach would do this same exact thing, pulling up the bottom of the mask just enough to get food in his mouth).

And Red Scare comes across as downright thuggish, violently belligerent towards the press and eager to raid the trailer park specifically because he wants to hurt people regardless of their guilt or innocence.

(The moment when he flips his switch and initiates the Nixonville assault mimics a similar scene from the graphic novel, where the Comedian terrorizes a group of civilians staging a protest against masked heroes during a police strike. Someone throws a tin can at his head, which causes him to snap. In this episode, a glass bottle just misses Red Scare, hitting the windshield of the car he’s standing on).

It’s quite obvious that the Seventh Kavalry and the police will only continue to provoke each other, locked in this death spiral of mutual antagonism, each pushing their own brand of authoritarian power. And the fact that this scenario is, in all likelihood, furthering somebody’s ultimate goal makes it that much more unsettling.

Citizen, now you go to gulag.

In the world of Watchmen, masks both conceal and reveal. The costumed personas the characters create confess to who they really are underneath the polite veneer of daily existence . . . their primal urges for power, for revenge, for fetishistic gratification, for some sense of control.

But those disguises are also a way for people to hide from themselves, to bury the very things that make them human.

The Watchmaker’s Son

Elsewhere, we check in with Probable Veidt, flitting about his manor as he prepares for the play which he recently OH MY GOD HE IS INSANE WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON.

Anyway, Adrian’s one-act “The Watchmaker’s Son” is a retelling of Dr. Manhattan’s origin story, depicting the moment Jon became trapped in a quantum field generator at a Gila Flats research facility in 1959, girlfriend and fellow scientist Janey Slater unable to free him from the locked chamber. As the title suggests, Jon’s father was a watchmaker, and taught him to assemble all the pieces of a watch from scratch. This knowledge aided Jon in coming back together after being disintegrated, rebuilding himself atom by atom.

Adrian’s version takes more than a little dramatic license. For one, Janey did not witness Jon’s death; she ran away, terrified to watch as the man she loved met the grimmest of fates. And she certainly didn’t yell hilarious, melodramatically stilted dialogue like “It’s as impenetrable as the Gordian knot itself!”

Adrian seems to be living on repeat, writing this play over and over again and having it performed by his servants Mr. Phillips and Ms. Crookshanks, clones created to serve him. Each time, he burns alive the Mr. Phillips playing Jon, replacing the immolated butler with a fresh version.

“I do say, good man, how would you would like to be burned alive in a phone booth?”

The bizarre absurdity of this scene is at once hysterical and malevolent, Adrian casually murdering his servants (slaves?) as he works through whatever psychological issues are very obviously weighing on him. His ultimate objective remains unclear, though it’s doubtful his plans bode well for others.

Veidt’s obsession with Dr. Manhattan might appear odd and even comical — he’s put a rather surprising emphasis on Jon’s giant blue penis —but it goes back to the graphic novel. It takes very little work to realize that Adrian, a narcissist priding himself on mental and physical supremacy, carries a major inferiority complex in relation to Dr. Manhattan. He’s dwarfed in every way by someone who’s the closest thing possible to a living god.

Adrian’s envy is part of what motivated him to frame Jon back in the 80s and make it look like Jon’s energy signature is carcinogenic. And his squid plan was arguably so unfathomably weird because he sought to concoct something elaborate and unpredictable enough that not even Dr. Manhattan would ever think of it.

Near the close of the comic, before Jon leaves Earth for good, Adrian experiences a rare moment of self-doubt. He asks Jon if he did the right thing, since the world was saved in the end. Dr. Manhattan replies “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” Adrian appears haunted as Jon vanishes; those final words are notably reproduced verbatim in Veidt’s play.

The threat and jealousy Dr. Manhattan always invoked in Veidt has lead to a fixation, one still quite active. It tracks that a man who took it upon himself to murder millions would slowly lose his mind over the years, the guilt and uncertainty gnawing at him until he winds up . . . wherever the hell he currently is.

American Hero Story

The digression with Veidt isn’t the only meta-narrative in this episode. We’re also treated to a few minutes from the premiere of American Hero Story, a parody of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror /Crime series.

Devoting its second season to the Minutemen, the premiere focuses on the emergence of Hooded Justice, the first costumed vigilante, whose true identity has never been established. Interrupting a holdup in a Queens grocery store one night in 1938, Hooded Justice beats the everloving snot out of the robbers, his mighty fists inflicting serious injury.

The sequence is filmed in an exaggerated, hyperviolent style, meant to humorously reflect the aesthetics of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen theatrical adaptation. That meta aspect also applies to the gritty narration from Hooded Justice, styled after Rorschach’s preposterous wannabe-noir observations from the comic and Jackie Earle Haley’s robotic, gravel-throated delivery in the movie.

(This will be seen by some corners of the audience as the series attempting to dump on the big screen version, but in reality showrunner Damon Lindelof and Snyder are friends, and Lindelof is on the record as liking the film. So it’s more plausible that this is the show’s method of giving a shoutout to its forerunner, not so much a jab but playful wink).

Fuck the front door.

Like Veidt’s rendition of Dr. Manhattan’s birth, Hero Story presents a no doubt heavily fictionalized facsimile, another example of how this narrative creates further versions of itself within itself, each more distant from its internal reality than the last.

The book achieved the same idea in several ways, most blatantly with Tales of the Black Freighter, a comic within the comic whose story contains eerie parallels with (and reflections of) the main plot. Both the Veidt storyline and AHS fill this role for the television show.

The episode of Hero Story touches on a notion floated in the graphic novel, that Hooded Justice was in actuality a German bodybuilder named Rolf Mueller. (The corpse facedown in the harbor wears Mueller’s robe). This suspicion is never confirmed in the book, though enough evidence exists to make it worthy of consideration. In the 50s, Hooded Justice was pressed by the House Un-American Activities Committee to reveal his name; he refused and later disappeared from public view. The theory goes that he was either murdered by a government assassin (quite possibly the Comedian) for having an active role in Communist organizations, or faked his own death to go underground.

AHS might be hyperbolized in its portrayal of Hooded Justice, but his use of exceptionally violent tactics is very much not an embellishment. HJ was famous for pummeling people with such force that it often inflicted lasting damage, and his lover Nelson Gardner (aka Captain Metropolis, also of the Minutemen) on several occasions mentioned Justice’s sadistic tendencies, including beating rent boys within an inch of their lives.

(In the comic, Hooded Justice foils an attempted rape at the hands of Blake/the Comedian. As he punches Blake, the Comedian laughs at him and says “This is what you like, huh? This is what gets you hot.” HJ hits him harder).

While Rolf Mueller may have been Hooded Justice, it feels as if the show could be heading down a different avenue. As discussed last week, some viewers are steeling themselves for the reveal that Will Reeves was really Hooded Justice and therefore kickstarted the era of costumed heroes. The series would have some surgery to perform in order to bridge the ideas from the book with such a twist, but it could be done.

One thing to consider: Rolf and the woman who typed the WWI propaganda flyer have the same last name. If the message on that piece of paper encouraged young Will Reeves to one day flee to Germany, seeking a place more tolerant and with more opportunity . . . well, as Will stated, let’s not rush things.

Will’s outfit features the same colors as Hooded Justice’s costume: dark purple with a red cover.

Further under the hood:

  • DC’s extended Watchmen universe — which includes prequels, sequels, and crossovers, and has no involvement from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons — doesn’t answer the question of Hooded Justice’s identity, but it establishes that Rolf Muller was a child killer and not the man behind the mask. However, until the HBO series explicitly says otherwise, all extra-universe material is being disregarded in these reviews.
  • Angela experiences three significant embraces in this episode . . . when she holds Judd’s hanged body, when she dances with her husband during the flashback, and when she puts her arms around Will as she helps him from his wheelchair to her car.
  • It can’t be overstated the level at which Regina King is working here. In this episode alone, she’s got so many emotional notes to juggle: grief, rage, shock, confusion, tenderness, and has to hit all of them, often at the same time.
  • Topher takes after his adoptive mother, bottling his emotions until he eventually explodes.
  • Senator Joe Keene Jr, who Angela meets at Judd’s wake, is the son of the Senator that pushed the Keene Act in 1977, banning masked vigilantes. Seeing as he’s running for President, it wouldn’t be shocking if Keene plays some role in whatever is currently unfolding in Tulsa.
  • In this alternate 2019, reporters use mechanized wings to sneakily gain access to crime scenes. That technology is inspired by Mothman, one of the original costumed heroes, who designed a pair of wings which allowed him to glide. (Mothman later had a nervous breakdown due to severe anxiety and alcoholism, and was institutionalized. At least his legacy lives on!).
  • The scenes at the newsstand are designed as the show’s version of a notable side plot from the comic, where a news vendor named Bernie interacts with various characters. Seymour, this Watchmen’s analogue to Bernie, is much like his counterpart in that he gossips and enjoys spouting what are probably ill-informed kook stories.
  • Two of the main newspapers from the graphic novel — right-wing propaganda machine The New Frontiersman and the less biased but still slanted, left-leaning Nova Express — are apparently still in business.
  • American Hero Story is preceded by an unbearably long notice about possible offensive content, not just a satire of parental advisories and trigger warnings but also — according to Peteypedia, an official HBO website that provides additional information about the mythology of the TV show — because the government holds genuine concern regarding pop culture depictions of superheroes, concerned about media glorification of masked vigilantism.
  • The Hooded Justice scene mentions Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast — a Halloween prank that accidentally tricked people into believing a real alien invasion was happening, and also here a nod to Veidt’s scheme.
  • The use of Mozart’s “Requiem” during the transition to Adrian’s estate is another nod to the Zack Snyder adaptation, which scored Veidt’s final scene in the movie with the same piece. Same for “Ride of the Valkyries,” performed as accompaniment for Adrian’s play: the Watchmen film uses it as Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian fight the Viet Cong, an homage to the song’s appearance in Apocalypse Now.
  • Janey’s ridiculously wooden line about the Gordian Knot goes back to Adrian’s fascination with Alexander the Great. When faced with the dilemma of how to untie the famously complex tangle, according to legend Alexander cut it with his sword. In the comic, Veidt discusses his admiration for this moment, deeming it an early example of lateral thinking. But of course, simply slicing the rope misses the point entirely, like being asked a riddle and then instead of solving it just shooting the person in the head. That Adrian idolizes Alexander’s solution hints to his darker nature, given that this move places brute strength above intellectual innovation.

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