The genius of “This Extraordinary Being,” Watchmen‘s nostalgia-fueled trip into America’s past, like any powerful idea, is poignant in its simplicity: what if America’s first superhero was black? There’s a scene in “This Extraordinary Being” where a young Will, adorned in police garb, notices a newsstand owner reading a copy of Action Comics #1 instead of the daily news. “It’s more hopeful,” he says to Will, as he quietly reads the quintessential hero origin story. From there, “This Extraordinary Being” posits another very simple question: why is Superman’s origin story so effortlessly hopeful?
Watchmen‘s alternate universe was already a potent minefield of philosophic and sociopolitical ideas; “This Extraordinary Being” absolutely shatters those previous expectations, reaching towards deeper truths about faith, identity, and legacy even the original series didn’t attempt to tackle.
Re-contextualizing Watchmen‘s first hero as a queer black man isn’t exactly a huge surprise (it was pretty obvious back in the second episode); what is a surprise is how it expands on Will’s childhood as a direct inverse of Clark Kent’s birth and rise to superhero-dom (also hinted at in the series premiere), and how that acts a potent metaphor for America’s racist history – and more importantly, how the illusion of progress has acted as a mask for the actual lack thereof.
After all, the story of an alien assimilated, and openly welcomed, into a community proud of his abilities is easy to believe, if only in the whiteness of it all. It is documented throughout history how welcoming America’s been to its heroes of color through time: segregated in armies, systematically distanced from influence in the police force – or, lest we forget, enslaving and imprisoning multiple races at different points in history.
Needless to say, the man known as Will Reeves is not accepted in the world as a beloved hero of American values; should he live openly as a gay black man, Will Reeves most certainly wouldn’t have survived to the age of 105. He barely makes it out of the police force alive, victim to a brutal beating by the emboldened racists running the New York police department. He didn’t experience the privilege of being adopted into a great family, of the opportunities and acceptance Clark experiences throughout his trials and tribulations as a hero.
What would happen if the world found out the first masked hero was a black man? While the legend of Bass Reeves is true story, it’s an obvious exception to the rule – an idea that allows it to lean even harder on the ideas it explores about black identity and culture, and how it has been corrupted by various oppressive movements through the centuries. If America’s first hero was a black man in the 1920’s, it would’ve been outlawed a lot sooner than you might think; and the ripple effects of that throughout history offer a fascinating lens to explore our reality.
As “This Extraordinary Being” weaves its way through the formative years of Will’s adult life, Watchmen‘s exploration of America’s great lie takes a firm grasp of the season’s central narrative. From diminishing the legacies of black innovators, to racial stereotyping, “This Extraordinary Being” uses its stark, monochromatic visual language as a potent metaphor for the fundamental truths about our own world, often obfuscated by a culture too willing to take a lot of credit for a minuscule amount of progress.
Strip away the artificial moral grays and distracting bright colors, and the visual truth of Watchmen‘s greatest episode becomes deafening in its profundity, building to the violent explosions of its powerful climax. A black man’s path to heroism in America is defined by tragedy and resilience, not hope and opportunity: it is much easier to be a happy, positive hero when every door of opportunity is opened to you, most of the time simply because of the color of your skin.
To become a hero in America’s narrative, any non-white person must suffer: and suffer does Hooded Justice, privy to the horrific discrimination firmly ingrained in America’s identity by the early 20th century. Paraded around to the public as an important part of the police force – and later, the Minuteman. Hooded Justice’s very identity becomes weaponized against him: Captain Metropolis uses him as a PR gesture, and he becomes isolated from the family of cops in his precinct, treating him as the “other” in the place he calls his home.
In becoming the Hooded Justice, Will must sacrifice in ways Clark Kent would never have to: he loses his wife and child as he becomes more and more angered at the horrible daily attempts to dehumanize him. More importantly, he loses his trust in the law, his identity stolen and re-purposed by others to fit their needs. And the harder his soul becomes, the harder his skin becomes, until he explodes in a rage of violence, killing an anti-Semitic business owner and his Klan-adorned cohorts, before burning their warehouse down.
Will Reeves became a hero out of pain, hardened into a diamond by a fucked-up world seemingly designed for him to exist as an object for everyone else to fetish, and to die without meaning, without self-worth. Rather than being nurtured into the world, Will fought against its constant, unjust rejection of him: as a cop, as a gay man, as a superhero – and as a child, the traumatic moments when he lost his parents forever haunting him, even in his memories.
The rich subtext of “This Extraordinary Being” offers a shocking amount of depth, reflecting on America’s supposed social progress over the 20th century, and how quickly that becomes reframed when you replace one iconic hero with another. Watchmen‘s alternate universe was already a potent minefield of philosophic and sociopolitical ideas; “This Extraordinary Being” absolutely shatters those previous expectations, reaching towards deeper truths about faith, identity, and legacy even the original series didn’t attempt to tackle.
(My particular favorite are the layers of masks Hooded Justice wears; one to shield his identity, the other to shield his race. It speaks to how many layers of identity Will forces himself to wear: straight man, upstanding police officer, happy person.)
One of those questions frames Will in a hauntingly complex way: what kind of person does someone have to become, to truly fight back against the oppression designed to break one’s very soul? How does someone take on the weight of hundreds of years of history, of inherited trauma, of constant conflict, and remain on the “good” side of morality? The breaking of chains is necessary; but like any revolution, the human cost is palpable, and often deeply personal (just look at how many murdered civil rights leaders America has, if you don’t believe me).
In a year where so much television played it safe, “This Extraordinary Being” is a wonderfully experimental hour of ambitious screenwriting and meticulously crafted visual design. Oscillating beautifully from traditional and modern stylistic choices (the Snyder fan club gets some visual eye candy in this episode’s action sequences), “This Extraordinary Being” aspires to be a level of television so much of 2019’s offerings have failed to achieve.
This is truly No Fucks Given television, at its absolute finest: and while it will most certainly be divisive, it is thoroughly impressive, and exciting, to see Lindelof and co-writer Cord Jefferson embrace the audacious, curious beast lying within the heart of their series.
It remains whether it will be able to stick the landing, especially with only three episodes to go: but in isolation, the story of Will’s long, angry life is perhaps the single most affecting, thoughtful hour of television I’ve seen in 2019.