Watchmen ep 6: Nostalgia

Watchmen ep 6, Nostalgia, is one of the best episodes of television I’ve watched this year, quite possibly ever. It’s specific about Will Reeve’s personal trauma and also clear-eyed about the national, generational trauma that white supremacy inflicts on our country. It suggests that trauma, quite literally, colors everything, by having Will’s fragmented memories of the Tulsa massacre and the death of his parents pop up in color at moments in his life, otherwise filmed in black and white. His trauma is generational too, since it’s now part of his granddaughter Angela’s memories.

Along with the Tulsa massacre, the near-lynching attack on Will by his fellow white police officers is foundational to his origin story as Hooded Justice. The scene is masterfully, harrowingly shot, notably through its use of Will’s POV during the lynching; the simple shift in perspective is radical and centers black pain without feeling exploitative – we’re not just observing the horror, but we hear Will gasp for breath and can almost feel him struggling against the noose. Angela-as-Will’s howl of ineffectual rage and grief after his attackers cut him down from the tree is a gut punch, and Regina King plays it stunningly. Moments later, when Will puts the hood and noose back on in his first act as Hooded Justice, we feel the cathartic fury and desire for retributive justice that fuel it. For me, these brief scenes, especially with Will’s memories of Tulsa popping up, succeed in capturing Will’s angry, almost desperate motivation for vigilantism in a way that the many depictions of Batman, whose vigilantism is similarly sparked by childhood trauma, somehow never have.

So the lynching hood, a symbol of white racist terror, is transformed into an emblem of black resistance and vengeance. The hood, not to mention the whiteface Will wears around his eyes as Hooded Justice, provides the protection of anonymity, but also, specifically for a black man, confers a default whiteness – the same default assumption of whiteness operating in the show  within the show about the Minutemen, which imagines Hooded Justice as a white man. It’s as though Hooded Justice’s default whiteness weakens his white opponents, in one case the very white men who overpowered Will and carried out the near-lynching. Is Will able to take them down as Hooded Justice simply because they’re disoriented and thrown off-balance by the hood, or is it that their assumption of his whiteness disrupts their belief in their own racial superiority over a black man and somehow undermines their strength?

Or is it that Will is stronger, more lethal in a fight, when he puts on the hood? Perhaps the protection of assumed whiteness somehow frees Will, so that the full expression of his own anger and of a collective black rage against historical racist violence becomes Hooded Justice’s “superpower.” Of course when reporters ask Hooded Justice about his “superhuman strength,” they’re unknowingly evoking racist stereotypes about black men’s “brute” strength, but since we know his real identity, we recognize the ways in which a full expression of black manhood can be read as threatening by white society.

When a newsstand vendor shows Will the very first Superman comic, it highlights the irony that an alien who looks white can become a paradigmatic American, but Will, as a black man, is not considered fully human, let alone authentically American, in a white supremacist society. So it’s especially galling when the Minutemen use Hooded Justice in service of a marketing message that dehumanizes black people – see the ad showing Hooded Justice apprehending a criminal, depicted as an offensive caricature of a black man.

In fact, the episode succinctly catalogues several racist stereotypes that are still familiar to us today: the Cyclops member Fred T. basically calls Will oversexed and says that all black folks look the same to him (just before Will gratifyingly, if unnervingly, shoots him dead); at the Harlem theater attack, white police officers refer to the black people involved as “animals,” and claim that Will “speaks their language;” they some inherent violence in black people for tragic incident.

The Harlem theater attack also points out a white supremacist feedback loop in the world of the show – mind control technology developed by the white supremacist (Nazi-sympathizing) organization Cyclops causes the violence, which itself reaffirms white people’s racist stereotypes about black people. And by having Will’s memories of the Tulsa massacre intrude into this scene, the episode reminds us that the white folks in Tulsa, unlike the black people in Harlem, perpetrated horrific violence all on their own, without psychic manipulation, to uphold white supremacy. Rather fittingly, Will later uses similar mind control technology to make a white man, Judd Crawford, hang himself.

There’s just so much to say about this incredibly dense episode, so here are some disjointed thoughts:

*The technical skill on display is astounding, and I don’t have the formal background in cinematography to fully discuss it. Just one example – when June hands Will a small mirror and the camera travels to reveal the reflected image of Angela-as-Will in the mirror.

* The music choices are on point without being on the nose, from the vintage cues of “Smoke gets in your eyes” when Will/Hooded Justice sets the Cyclops headquarters ablaze, to “I’m not angry” underscoring Hooded Justice’s raison d’etre, to the score transitioning to the modern, unsettling theme of the scenes set in 2019.

*The episode handles Will’s relationship with Nelson Gardner/Captain Metropolis with nuance – it’s not about labeling Will as queer but an almost matter-of-fact depiction of him having sex with a man. It even looks like June knows about his sexual relationship with Nelson.

*The particularly lovely sequence showing the passage of time for Will and his family, with “My echo, my shadow, and me” playing over it – it’s all about echoes of memories and shadow selves: children as reflections of their parents; the shadow-self of Angela-as-Will as she experiences her grandfather’s memories.

*When Will kills Fred T. and other Cyclops members and burns their warehouse headquarters, he’s not in costume as Hooded Justice. This suggests that he’s expressing his rage authentically without the cover of his costume. Will’s memories of Tulsa once again play over this scene, suggesting that this act of vigilantism is retribution for and perhaps partial exorcism of the trauma of the Tulsa massacre.

*I love how this episode and the show in general center black experiences and the history of black people in our country, which is most likely because there are black writers on the show. I thought about this when I was talking about Watchmen with my bestie – I mentioned that the first episode briefly features a black production of Oklahoma!, and she said that on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Titus refers to an all-black production of Oklahoma!, called Alabama! and featuring the song “People will say we’s in love.” That feels somehow emblematic to me – the idea of a black Oklahoma! as a joke because of a limited notion that black people only live in the South and speak a clichéd vernacular versus a straightforward, if pointed depiction of black people starring in Oklahoma! as it’s written (which is in part what the new Broadway production of the musical does). It seems like the difference between an all- or mostly-white writers room versus a diverse writers room, with folks educated in the parts of our history we tend to be ignorant about, who choose to write the black people who lived in the Oklahoma territory back into our history.

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