Watchmen review: “This Extraordinary Being”

In 2017, Showtime aired a revival of Twin Peaks, the landmark television show created by David Lynch and Mark Frost. The eighth hour of that limited series pushed the medium into a largely unexplored no man’s land, located somewhere between the realms of TV, film, and art experiment, employing abstract imagery and mythic storytelling to detail the birth of the Twin Peaks cosmology.

It’s an astonishing effort, considered to be some of Lynch’s best work as well as a high point of modern television in general.

“This Extraordinary Being” — the long-awaited origin story for Will Reeves and Hooded Justice— joins that episode of Twin Peaks as genuinely groundbreaking, and places it right alongside the original Watchmen graphic novel as a transgressive, audacious, challenging work of art.

The source material

Hooded Justice plays a rather minor role in the comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, relegated to passing mentions and brief appearances in flashbacks. But he’s memorable because HJ stands as the one costumed hero whose true identity is never revealed, left as a lingering mystery to be pondered but never conclusively solved by the reader.

The very first masked vigilante and thus the originator of the story’s alternate timeline, Hooded Justice first appeared in 1938, kickstarting the superhero craze by inspiring scores of imitators, some of whom would later band together as the Minutemen. From the start, he was known for his brutality, violently pummeling assailants and often leaving lasting damage.

In 1940, Hooded Justice foiled an attempted rape within the ranks of the Minutemen, as young “crimefighter” the Comedian assaulted their cohort Sally Jupiter in the gang’s trophy room. HJ beat him furiously, but the Comedian merely smiled and replied through bloodied lips “This is what you like, huh? This is what gets you hot . . .,” something at which Hooded Justice bristled.

Little is established about the man behind the mask, but it’s revealed throughout the course of the book that Hooded Justice was in a homosexual relationship with fellow costumed hero Captain Metropolis (real name Nelson Gardner), the de facto leader of the Minutemen. Both men in the closet due to the social climate at the time, the group’s manager Larry tried to offset any rumors by staging a very public romance between HJ and Sally, though Hooded Justice’s participation was half-hearted at best.

As the years went on, HJ became increasingly angry and violent, Gardner reaching out to Larry with stories of rent boys and male prostitutes who’d been severely beaten. Larry did his best to cover up these incidents, but felt it was only a matter of time until the Minutemen imploded.

During the 50s, the House Un-American Activities Committee pressed the Minutemen to reveal their true names and faces and to prove they had no ties to Communist groups. The majority of them did so with varying degrees of willingness, but Hooded Justice patently refused. Not long after, he vanished.

Years later, retired costumed hero Hollis Mason (formerly known as Nite Owl) released a behind the scenes tell-all about the days of the Minutemen, called Under the Hood. In it, he speculates about Hooded Justice’s identity, suggesting HJ may have been Rolf Mueller, a circus strongman from Germany. Displaying a remarkably similar build to Hooded Justice, Mueller had disappeared around the same time as HJ; his body was later discovered on the shore of Boston Harbor, a bullet to the head.

Mason ruminates on whether the corpse actually belonged to Mueller, or if the bodybuilder had managed to stage his demise and go underground.

Another theory states that Mueller had Communist affiliations due to his family being located in what was then East Germany, and that he’d been executed by nefarious East German/Russian forces. (Though this contradicts another detail in Mason’s book, where he claims to have heard Hooded Justice express support for Hitler in the days before the US became involved with WWII).

One final possibility is that Mueller had been tracked by a government operative and assassinated. Near the end of the book, Adrian Veidt mentions that he’d at one time attempted to solve the disappearance of Hooded Justice. Though he never came to a concrete conclusion, Veidt suspected that the Comedian — who during the Cold War ran covert missions for intelligence — followed HJ’s trail and, considering their rocky past, murdered Hooded Justice/Mueller in revenge.

All the same, by the end of the comic, Hooded Justice remains as enigmatic as the day he first appeared.

Will Reeves

But as we know, in the world of HBO’s Watchmen, Rolf Mueller was not the elusive superhero in question. Instead, that honor goes to Will Reeves, a character whose identity has driven a large part of the show’s mysteries.

The episode’s altered opening title.

As a boy, Will survived the 1921 Tulsa riot, watching as the world he knew burned around him, people gunned down in the streets by angry whites. The comic had led us to believe that it was the emergence of Hooded Justice in 1938 where the story began to diverge from history as we know it, but the show solidifies that it was the Tulsa incident which planted that seed and created the alternate timeline.

Little is known about Will’s life between 1921 and 1938, when he graduates the NYPD cadet academy and becomes a police officer. (The co-writer of the episode, Cord Jefferson, mentioned in an interview with Vulture that Will may have gone to Germany at one point, a detail that could account for some other loose ends which will be discussed shortly). But it’s clear that after he settles in New York, Will reconnects with June, the baby he discovered in a field on that terrible day in Oklahoma. A lifelong friend, she’s one of the only people Will trusts.

What follows has to be one of the most complex character studies ever portrayed on TV, an interweaving of Will’s memories and the emotional state of his granddaughter, experiencing her grandfather’s past in real-time. The episode cleverly shifts back and forth between the performances of Jovan Adepo and Regina King as Will and Angela, respectively, occasionally putting her directly in Will’s shoes, linking past and present.

No bones about it, establishing Hooded Justice as a black man in disguise is a brilliant, daring, and emotionally powerful move, dovetailing with the show’s larger themes of race and serving as the raison d’etre of this new Watchmen. That a black person, acting out of helplessness and his own racial trauma, invents the trend of costumed heroes and is later whitewashed feels all too believable, in both our world and the world of the story. This also fits perfectly with the subversive nature of the original comic, both honoring and undermining the graphic novel in the same way the book honored and undermined the idea of superheroes as well as the medium of comics in general.

To say that Will has mixed motives would be an understatement, his behavior filtered through many different factors: a desire for justice, a reaction against the pervasive racism of America, a need to prove himself to himself, a flight from the aspects of his soul he’d rather not confront, and, most of all, an at times blinding rage.

Will’s desire to become a police officer is rooted in Bass Reeves, the real-life black lawman and the subject of Trust in the Law, the silent film young Will watches at the very beginning of the series. The movie depicts Reeves apprehending a corrupt white sheriff, and subsequently thanked and celebrated by the white townsfolk. When they suggest stringing the sheriff up, Reeves reminds them of the importance of lawful rule, and declares that he will not indulge mob justice.

Sadly, Will’s time on the force teaches him that not only is this idealized version of history far from reality, it’s almost propaganda compared to the harsh truth of being a black cop. Will immediately encounters racism in the NYPD, and even worse, some of his fellow officers turn out to be part of Cyclops, a menacing new offshoot of the KKK that exists in this alternate history. After barely living through a brief lynching meant to put him in his place — a terrifying sequence which places the audience in the POV of a person slowly suffocating — Will comes to the realization that he is ultimately impotent and ineffective as a cop, his position neutralized by the entrenched systemic oppression he cannot overcome.

His adoption of the Hooded Justice persona arises out of the immediate aftermath of that lynching, Will breaking up an attempted assault in an alley, noose still around his neck, face covered by a black hood. (The moment intentionally evokes Bruce Wayne’s parents, one of several Batman parallels in the episode, joining the many Superman references which have been part of Will’s story).

It should be noted that this is a wealthy white couple, which brings home a couple of significant points: firstly, it demonstrates Will’s genuine belief in protecting people from crime, with or without his badge and regardless of their race or class (the episode otherwise focuses on HJ’s attempts to dismantle white supremacist terror organizations); and second, it’s the fact that this couple is white which results in Will’s actions making the newspaper, since if they were black the event wouldn’t be considered newsworthy.

With June’s encouragement, Will hones his superhero costume, creating a dark purple outfit adorned with a red cape and with rope tied around his waist and neck. His costume is meant to reference several different touchstones . . . the classic historical hangman or executioner, the hooded disguises sometimes worn by Bass Reeves, and the traditional robes of the Klan, a purposeful inversion and mockery of their getup and practices.

Though many will see this as an add-on to the comic, the subtext of Moore’s conception of Hooded Justice intentionally recalls the Ku Klux Klan, pointing out how they’re a group of masked vigilantes and poking holes in the very notion of superhero worship.

When Captain Metropolis arrives to recruit Will to the Minutemen, the series takes another bold turn, showing the two men engaging in gay sex and pulling no punches in handling their queerness. (To unflinchingly incorporate Will’s complicated sexual feelings makes major strides in representation and the ability of TV series to take risks). Though Captain Metropolis appears to truly like Will, the old fashioned and conservative Gardner also fetishizes him both as a black man and as a masked vigilante, and Nelson’s casual racism becomes a major problem as time goes on.

Will is forced to hide his identity further by wearing white makeup around his eyes, a mirror image of how Angela darkens her already dark skin in the same part of her visage. Will’s time in the Minutemen finds him alienated, a fact readily apparent during a photo op when his attempt to discuss Cyclops is wholly dismissed by his lover, and he’s further humiliated at the unveiling of a racist ad promoting Dollar Bill, another member of the Minutemen.

This degradation continues as his concerns about Cyclops are shrugged off by his compatriots, despite the very clear threat at hand. While many of Will’s fellow masked adventurers have taken up this lifestyle as a lark, kink, or promotional stunt, for Will his motives are rooted in fighting the injustice he sees every single day . . . white supremacy a mechanism built into the fabric of American society, up to and including the Minutemen.

In needing to stick with Will’s story, the episode does not delve into any of the other costumed heroes apart from Captain Metropolis. But they aren’t the only queer members of the group: Silhouette has a relationship with a woman and is later ousted from the Minutemen when her sexuality goes public, eventually murdered by a homophobic enemy. Moreover, nearly all of these superheroes are driven to put on masks by some manner of deep-seated pathos.

The Minutemen (l to r): Silhouette, an especially sassy Mothman, Dollar Bill, Nite Owl, the Comedian (front), Captain Metropolis, Silk Spectre/Sally Jupiter, Hooded Justice.

The show does not skirt the questionable nature of hiding one’s identity and taking the law into your own hands, and that includes Will Reeves. He, of course, has many legitimate reasons for doing so, considering that he feels powerless both on and off-duty, and if Hooded Justice were to be revealed as a black vigilante it would almost certainly mean Will’s death. His anger is also justified, given that as a little boy he experienced something akin to witnessing the apocalypse, and the color of his skin meaning his life is never not in some level of danger.

Nevertheless, the Hooded Justice persona begins to hurt more than it helps, fracturing the identity of an already conflicted man with a wellspring of violence bubbling within.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the scene where he annihilates a warehouse full of Cyclops members. Will, still clad in his police outfit but with a mask over his face, mercilessly shoots every person he sees, finally strangling one of the racist cops who had tried to lynch him, and then burning the warehouse to the ground. The image of Will as a mishmash of police officer and vigilante says everything about his confused sense of self and his propensity for destruction, even if the targets fully deserve it.

No doubt some will watch this scene and not question Will’s actions, nor worry about the state of his existence. After all, he’s killing the KKK, who have a foothold in the police department and are ramping up their efforts to sow violence and fear. Will is literally saving lives . . . lives few white people give a damn about.

But it’s also not fixing him in any way, shape, or form. If anything, this torrent of death and mayhem results in further psychic damage. It won’t undo what happened in his childhood, it won’t bring his parents back, and it won’t aid Will in confronting himself. He’s not just avoiding his issues and his trauma; he is violently rejecting the fact that he must face them, plunging deeper into the fantasy of Hooded Justice.

Thematically this presents a tough line to walk for the writers, to both avoid taking away from the righteousness of Will’s anger but also to sidestep fully endorsing his choices, and the show manages to strike that balance.

Will is, to put it frankly, an absolute fucking trainwreck of a person. No matter where he goes or what he looks like, he’s hiding something. From his fellow officers. From the Minutemen. From June, now his wife. From his son. And most of all, from himself. Due to his race and sexuality and profession and secret life, he’s never out of costume. Even his Hooded Justice disguise has interlocking masks, with the hood and then the white makeup on his face. Will Reeves can’t deal with being Will Reeves.

And he’s not even Will Reeves. He borrowed the surname Reeves from his hero, Will’s given last name Williams. His identity was shattered when Greenwood burned, and the PTSD of that incident has carried him his entire life.

The film version of Bass Reeves argued against mob rule, but Will’s only recourse has been to resort to that very thing. The series presents no easy answer here. Circumstances force Will Reeves to pursue vigilantism because the law — which he represents in his daily life — offers no justice to black people. Still, there’s a tragic element in his igniting a wave of vigilantes seeking their own brand of punishment for whoever they deem wicked.*

*Despite operating outside of the law, many of the Minutemen would turn criminals over to the police themselves. Though the episode didn’t have time to fully flesh out Will’s stint as Hooded Justice, it would have been fascinating to dramatize that conflict of interest, as his coworkers would be the last people he’d want to interact with while in costume (for a variety of reasons).

It isn’t Will’s fault what happened to him in Tulsa, but he’s shouldered with the responsibility of discerning a healthy way to deal with that experience, both for his child and for June. (Less of a wife but more of a confidante, their marriage convenient and sometimes transactional). Otherwise, his toxic rage will continue to consume him and poison those in his vicinity.

June leaves Will because she can see the way he’s careening off the rails, his pain already imprinting itself on their son. Will insists to her that he doesn’t want to dwell on the past; but, by not processing that trauma, the past is exactly where he’s trapped, bound to it by the ropes of his Hooded Justice costume.

Like her grandfather, Angela too uses her costumed persona to avoid herself. And like him, she’s in denial. She has that same anger, the wounds of Will’s life and the consequences of his choices passed down to her and exacerbated by her own experience, and her own troubles.

Is Sister Night the mask, or is it Angela Abar? If Watchmen tells us anything, the answer is both.

Further under the hood:

  • If there are any quibbles about how this revelation intersects with the source material, it’s that the book references the character’s growing sadism (heavily downplayed on the series), and that the Rolf Mueller angle remains unaddressed in Will’s story. But it feels like too much of a coincidence that Will might have spent time in Germany and that Rolf Mueller is German — and, to boot, the woman who typed the propaganda flyer on which Will’s dad wrote WATCH OVER THIS BOY was named Fraulein Mueller. It does seem as if the show wants us to be drawing a connection. In terms of what happens after this episode, if the graphic novel is to be accepted at face value, the relationship between Will and Nelson grew to be alarmingly codependent and Will took it out on additional lovers. It remains to be seen if the series plans to fill those gaps, but so far the writers have paid meticulous attention to continuity regarding the show’s relationship with the comic, so presumably there’s a method to the madness.
  • DC’s Before Watchmen prequel series reveals Rolf Mueller to have been a child killer and definitely not connected to Hooded Justice, but any additional Watchmen material outside of the graphic novel does not seem to be in play with the HBO show.
  • Peteypedia, HBO’s tie-in website, this week posted the details of Nelson Gardner’s last will and testament. According to the site, following Nelly’s tragic death in a car accident in 1974, Gardner bequeathed his rather significant estate to Will. While the episode depicts Captain Metropolis as largely flippant and manipulative, it’s obvious the two men cared for each other despite the sometimes abusive dynamics of their relationship. (Also, happy to report that Peteypedia has been correcting the continuity errors between the website and the series, as the content is sometimes created from scripts that changed during shooting).
  • Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl and author of Under the Hood, was also in the NYPD, and wrote with unbridled enthusiasm about how Hooded Justice inspired him. (The title of the episode comes from a phrase in his autobiography). It’s hard not to wonder if they ever crossed paths on the force.
  • HJ’s pro-Hitler comment which Hollis claims to have heard is almost definitely part of Will’s cover. Not only did he have to hide his face even from his friends, he had to hide his personality and beliefs, maintaining disguises within disguises.
  • It should be noted that despite how it might seem in this episode, the Minutemen weren’t entirely laissez-faire when it came to standing up against fascism. Some of them fought in WWII, and one of their main rivals at home was the Nazi-garbed Captain Axis. (Though most likely, Axis’ persona was more of a dastardly construct and less any type of political statement. Plus, the very act of being a costumed hero could be considered authoritarian or proto-fascist, one of the main observations of the comic).
  • The existence of a malevolent organization like Cyclops is a clever touch which keeps Watchmen with one foot firmly in a comic book reality, adding a pulpy sheen to a topical issue. The group’s method of employing celluloid mesmerism as a weapon introduces a sci-fi element to the proceedings, well in advance of Dr. Manhattan’s birth in 1959. It also connects with villains like Moloch the Mystic, a frequent enemy of the Minutemen and mentioned twice in this episode.
  • Will has adopted the mesmerism technology created by Cyclops, hypnotizing Judd Crawford and telling him to hang himself. We still don’t know the full story on Judd, nor do we know Angela’s emotional state in coming to grips with these revelations about her friend.
“Oh nothing, just sitting here with some rope and whatnot.”
  • The basic concept of creating hysteria through flashing images is probably inspired by the infamous experimental film The Flicker, which induced vomiting and panic in certain audience members during screenings.
  • This episode really takes an ax to the idea of romanticizing history, most directly by naming the memory drug Nostalgia. (Itself named after a perfume Adrian Veidt promoted in the comic). The concept of living in the past has been frequently criticized on the series, here contrasting the supposed good old days with the blatant racism and white terrorism which seethed at the time. The cinematography beautifully illustrates this disparity by filming adult Will’s memories in black and white but his childhood memories in color, a kind of reverse Wizard of Oz. It also calls back to Angela’s insistence in episode two that the world is black and white.
  • In the previous episode it was mentioned that Steven Spielberg made a movie about 11/2 called Pale Horse, instead of Schindler’s List as he did in our reality. Like those films, “This Extraordinary Being” is filmed in b&w with certain objects colorized for dramatic effect.
  • Both of Damon Lindelof’s previous series — Lost and The Leftovers — featured occasional one-off, hallucinatory entries that challenged the typical structure of a conventional episode by jumping around in time or instilling a surreal, otherworldly atmosphere. This episode does that and then some, creating an elaborate web of history, memories within memories, dreamlike images, and intertextual references.
  • The hilarious American Hero Story again casts the story of Hooded Justice in a lurid, exaggerated, and racially inaccurate light. And as this episode clarifies, HJ’s second historical appearance was not in fact interrupting a grocery store robbery but instead a KKK meeting in the market’s backroom, with Will bursting through the front glass as a means of escape as opposed to making a grand entrance. This gets back to the idea of undermining accepted narratives, history having been rewritten to hide the truth.
  • One amusing takeaway from the AHS version of Hooded Justice is that it’s not far off the mark in terms of the character’s psychology: he is indeed a very angry person unsure of his identity. The writers are just ignorant of the larger context to his background. While some have pointed out that American Hero Story is whitewashing Hooded Justice, it’s not doing so in the traditional sense, as very few people knew that HJ was black. It highlights the racist assumption that someone is most likely white even if we can’t see their face.
  • Will is asked during the press conference if he has supernatural powers, a play on the trope of the Magical Negro, the irony here being Will’s racial identity is hidden. It’s also a reference to Alan Moore’s original idea for Hooded Justice, a mysterious figure called Brother Night believed to have occult abilities. The series previously called back to that unused concept by naming Angela’s alter ego Sister Night.
  • Attentive viewers have noted that Fred, the racist owner of the grocery store, has more than a little bit in common with Fred Trump, father of the current President. Apart from the same first name, Trump owned a grocery in Queens at the time, and was arrested at a KKK rally where he reportedly donned a Klan outfit. Also, the store’s name in the episode is F.T. & Sons. This continues the comic book’s legacy of vicious political commentary.
  • The performances in this episode go above and beyond. Regina King, Jovan Adepo, Danielle Deadwyler, Jake McDorman, Lou Gossett Jr., Don Johnson . . . all fantastic in a show with an already stellar cast. King is simply astounding in how she’s able to mimic the mannerisms and emotions of the actors playing Will, and Adepo brings so much to the table for what is essentially a guest spot, conveying Will’s tangled personality while still leaving room for interpretation, Will Reeves remaining a somewhat ghostly shadow despite us witnessing his past.
  • As a capper, I would be remiss not to mention one of the most famous fan theories concerning the graphic novel, one that the series won’t be able to touch upon given its own creative choices. The comic features a panel detailing two older men in a restaurant, enjoying drinks and dinner together. A popular rumor is that these men are Rolf Mueller/Hooded Justice and Nelson Gardner/Captain Metropolis, each of them having faked their deaths — Nelson had been decapitated in the car accident, but his head curiously never recovered — and now enjoying a carefree life together. Indeed, the couple bears a striking resemblance to an older Mueller and Gardner. Though Dave Gibbons has confirmed this was never his or Moore’s intention, it’s nonetheless a beautiful idea.
Yes, that is a four-legged chicken on the left.

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