Each year I make an end-of-year list of my favourite episodes. As someone who watches an unhealthy amount of television, I have to keep notes throughout the year of the episodes that might be in consideration. This year, 4 of Watchmen’s 6 episodes are on my list — the most of any, and it’s only just passed its halfway point. Of course, this is not an objective measure of “greatness,” but then again nothing really is. What I’m really saying here is that nothing has blown me away in 2019 in quite the same way that Watchmen has.
I started the season posting episode by episode recaps, diving deep into the graphic novel lore behind every episode and tying it into the story being told in the present show. Creator Damon Lindelof was adamant when he started the show that it would not be a reboot, but a “remix” — something that took the ideas, themes, and imagery of the original piece and put them in a new context, giving way to something new. My recaps were meant to try and capture that process.
In my recap of the third episode, I wondered if Watchmen was accessible to a larger audience or if it required this kind of deep, line-by-line reading. Perhaps it was limiting its audience to just the comic book nerds (which has worked pretty well for a number of other franchises).
But I was forgetting something essential to what makes this show so masterful and something that Lindelof has shown again and again in his career as a television creator: that the uneasiness you get from not knowing the answers is the only way to truly understand the show.
Lindelof’s two endeavors before Watchmen were Lost and The Leftovers, shows that related deep existential questions, and with both it’s the contemplation of those questions that leads to understanding. Sure, you can take the time to read the source material as closely as Lindelof did himself and retrace his footsteps to see what he was thinking, and that exercise can bear real fruit. But what sets Lindelof apart from other creators is that not doing that is equally as rewarding, letting the show wash over you and bathe you in its richness.
The fifth (“Little Fear of Lightning”) and sixth (“This Extraordinary Being”) episodes embody this duality perfectly. Even if you’ve seen the 2009 film adaptation of the graphic novel, you might have been confused by the squid imagery and the squid monster apocalypse wreaked on New York City. In the film, this is replaced for some more generic explosions that more-or-less get the same point across, but you don’t need to know that when it happens. The show fills you in at the right time so long as you’re willing to sit with that uneasiness.
In fact, sitting with that uneasiness is absolutely critical. The main character of the fifth episode, Wade (aka Looking Glass) has struggled with the fallout of the attack on New York City for his entire life. It was an event as unexplainable as it is impossible to understand. It’s not just that the characters don’t know why the squid showed up, but they don’t even know the more fundamental questions about what happened. What was it? How did it kill all of those people with a psychic scream? Where did it come from? That intense and existential fear is what united humanity in the face of self-inflicted armageddon in the comic and it is necessary to sit with that confusion and chaos just as Wade is.
When he finds out about the real reason behind the squid and the attack, the show makes sure to catch you up to speed in the same breath, without assuming that you know what happened, because, well, Wade has to find out too.
Likewise, in “This Extraordinary Being,” we dive into the memories of Angela’s (Regina King) grandfather Will Reeves. We learn quickly about the way in which we’re going in — through pills called nostalgia that bottle up memories — and that method creates the surreal experience Angela, and we, have in the episode’s journey. We’re watching the episode right along with Angela, and the camera floats through each scene in a dreamlike haze, periodically checking back on Will in his memories, sometimes played by King and other times played by Jovan Adepo (who puts in an amazing performance at a high degree of difficulty).
Could your background understanding of the character of Hooded Justice influence your experience of the episode? Absolutely. But what makes the episode such a masterpiece is that it’s equally rewarding for both people who have knowledge of Hooded Justice and those who don’t, by filling in the blank spaces that exist. In the graphic novel, Hooded Justice is the only vigilante whose secret identity remains a mystery.
In the world of what we’ve seen on screen in Watchmen, we only know Hooded Justice as the character from American Hero Story, a show within a show meant to invoke ACS. We’ve seen snippets of that show, but in this episode alone we’re given everything we need to know, even if you weren’t paying attention before. Hooded Justice is the first vigilante, mythologized in pop culture despite a background of violence and closeted homosexuality.
Throughout the course of the episode, we start filling in blanks left and right, learning the past of Will Reeves, that he and Hooded Justice are one and the same, that people think he’s white because of the city’s sordid history with racism, the impact of the Tulsa Massacre (again, a real thing) on Reeves and HJ, how Will killed police chief Judd, and so on. Having your expectation and understanding of Hooded Justice upturned is a mind-blowing twist for close readers of the graphic novel (and one that still holds up to the integrity of the canon) but it’s also a singular and powerful story that can easily be watched in the narrow context of the show itself.
“I want you to think about what you’re wearing, what you put on when you wake up, what you take off when you go to bed. The uniform a man wears changes him.”
In both episodes, costumes are explored. Looking Glass’s reflective mask isn’t just a really cool looking inverted Rorschach, but also the only way Wade can feel safe in a world once attacked by a psychic squid monster while he was being compoundly traumatized by his first interaction with a woman inside a hall of mirrors. Hooded Justice’s costume isn’t just a nod to a vigilante’s role as judge, jury, and executioner — a running theme of the series — but it’s a reminder of the injustice he is fighting against, having found that costume wrapped around his neck while he was lynched by his fellow police officers. Even his white makeup that hides his identity twice over is something he has passed on to his children, first to his son, and later to his granddaughter, who sprays her eyes black while getting into costume.
These are profound developments of character that exist solely within the scope of the show, of what we’ve seen on screen, captured in beautifully made singular episodes of television. The best episodes are those that serve the purpose of the singular story of that episode while also serving the larger arc of the series. Watchmen is doing that at an elite level right now, without a doubt.
But even more impressive is that Watchmen is telling stories in its episodes that serve a third story: the context of the source material. These episodes are powerful stories to both the casual and the intense viewer, wrapping real-life horrors like the Tulsa Massacre and KKK in things like Cyclops, The Seventh Kavalry, and masked vigilantes, that challenge their audience with mammoth questions, so long as they’re just willing to sit uneasily with them for a bit longer.
Watchmen continues Monday at 9.00pm on Sky Atlantic.
Contributed by Jackson From Skip Intro