Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions #47

Who Watches The Watchmen?  Part Two: Episodes 4-6

By Chris M. Barkley:

BEWARE, SPOILERS AHOY!

“I’m in. All the way! Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…”

– Will Reeves, Episode Four

  • Episode 4: “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own.” Written by Damon Lindelof and Christal, Directed by Andrij Parekh.
  • Episode 5: “Little Fear of Lightning.” Written by Damon Lindelof & Carly Wray, Directed by Steph Green.
  • Episode 6:  “This Extraordinary Being.” Written by Damon Lindelof & Cord Jefferson, Directed by Stephen Williams.

As I entered the middle passage of the Watchmen mini-series, I was literally on pins and needles wondering if Damon Lindelof and company were going to serve up more narrative curve balls. Needless to say, I was NOT disappointed…

In the fourth episode, we are introduced to Lady Trieu (Hong Chau), the mysterious Viet-American billionaire who swept up Adrian Veidt’s assets after his disappearance. In the opening moments, she commits a rather shocking piece of extortion (that was chillingly reminiscent of some of the shenanigans they used to pull on J.J. Abrams’ Fox series, Fringe) just before a spacecraft crash lands on their property.

Meanwhile, Angela (Regina King) finds her hijacked car but unfortunately for her, so does Laurie (Jean Smart), who impounds it and finds her grandfather’s fingerprints inside. What Laurie doesn’t find are a bottle of pills in the glove compartment that he apparently left for Angela to find. Angela takes them to the only person she truly trusts, Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), so they can be independently analyzed by his ex-wife.

While disposing of the evidence of her grandfather’s stay in her police hideout, Angela spies a masked vigilante tailing her. She gives chase but her prey proves to be a bit too slippery for her to catch. 

It turns out there’s another connection with the car that leads Laurie, Petey and Sister Night directly to the immense Millenium Clock project complex. They meet with the mysterious Lady Trieu and her daughter, Bian, who both pledge their full cooperation in the investigation. Trieu also passes along a message to Night from her grandfather in Vietnanese, which she coldly deflects.

Trieu and Will have a plan in motion; they want Angela to be a part of it, but Will insists that his granddaughter must figure out what’s going on on her own. Otherwise, he reasons, she won’t accept the truth directly from him. Trieu disagrees, saying family entanglements may endanger their agenda. Will reaffirms that he is in, no matter what may come.

Meanwhile, Adrian Veidt continues to test the limits of his virtual prison by catapulting the corpses of his clones slaves up in the air to an unknown void…

Episode Five gave us the inside story on how Wade Tillman (Tim Blake Nelson) became the sardonic Looking Glass, the human lie detector. When the infamous giant squid was teleported into New York City in 1985, Tillman was a teenager working as a Jehovah’s Witness in neighboring Hoboken, New Jersey amusement park when it happened. While he survived the attack, he was psychologically traumatized.

As a Tulsa cop, he uses his keen powers of observation to interrogate suspects and solve crimes. But those powers are of little use in his personal life; he’s divorced, lives alone, has trouble connecting with people on a personal level and seems to spend a great deal of time studying and/or living in fear of the next “squid attack’ from another dimension.

Wade is also under pressure at work; Chief Crawford’s murder remains unsolved and Laurie Blake has taken control of the force for the forseeable future. She is also pressuring Wade for information about Angela, whom she strongly suspects knows more about the murder than she’s telling.

One of those things is a bottle of pills that Angela desperately wanted analyzed. His  ex-wife Cynthia informs Wade that the pills are Nostalgia, a pharmaceutical memory aid that has been outlawed due to its dangerous side effects. (It also turns out to be a drug that was invented and marketed by Lady Trieu’s corporation!)

Wade’s cover identity is market research consultant and his public service hobby is helping people who are still traumatized by the 1985 attack or the infrequent “squid drops” that keeps the populous on edge.

When Wade meets Renee (Paula Malcolmson), a new member of the support group, he is initially smitten with her until he spots a clue that indicates she may be a member of the 7th Kalvary. He trails her to a warehouse but turns out to be a trap; Wade is confronted by Senator Joe Keen, Jr. (James Wolk) who is seemingly using the 7th Kalvary as a front for his presidential aspirations. He offers Wade a choice, either watch a video revealing the truth about the ‘alien invasion” or have his life ruined by his operatives.

Keen also wants Angela served up to Laurie and out of the way while the 7th Kavalry’s plan, involving an elaborate teleportation system, goes operational.

In deep despair over his newfound knowledge, Wade tells Angela about Nostalgia in the presence of one of Laurie’s surveillance bugs and she openly admits her grandfather’s involvement in Crawford’s death. When Laurie immediately moves in to arrest her, Angela swallows all of Will’s pills…

Using a powerful trebuchet and wearing a primitive pressure suite, Adrian is launched into the air…and onto an airless moon. He rearranges the numerous corpses of his clone servants into a distress message that may (or may not) be observed by an orbiting satellite. But just as he rejoices in triumph, he is pulled back into his virtual prison by the Game Warden, who arrests him, promising “no mercy” in violation of the rules of confinement.

In Episode Six we take a deep dive into the life of Angela’s grandfather, William Reeves (Jovan Adepo) via the Nostalgia pills she ingested during her arrest. He was the little boy who rescued a child from the Tulsa massacre. In 1938 New York, that child grows up to be his wife, June (Danielle Deadwyler).

Will was inspired by watching silent movies a distant relative, the famed US Marshal Bass Reeves, to become a policeman. But, unlike the movies, life proves to be more complicated. Hired in a move to mollify black activists, he encounters racism from his fellow officers and the public at large.

When Will catches wind of a conspiracy run by the KKK and some NYPD officers in his own precinct, he’s nearly lynched and warned not to “mess in white people’s business”.

Enraged, Will dons a dark hood and becomes Hooded Justice, the first of the many masked vigilantes of the Watchmen universe.

Disguising himself with white makeup (in a similar manner as Angela does with her Sister Night identity), he continues to investigate the Klan and their insidious plans to kill or destroy the lives of African-Americans.

Will heeds a call to join the Minutemen, a group of masked adventurers sanctioned by the authorities, but is disheartened when their leader, Captain Metropolis (Jake McDorman) belittles his pursuit of racists in favor of criminal masterminds.

Several years later into his police career, Will discovers that the Klan is testing a mind control device on black movie audiences in order to cause widespread riots and mayhem. When he discovers their warehouse, he brutally murders the Klansmen, takes a prototype of the device and burns the base to the ground. In doing so, he becomes the very antithesis of the fictional movie version of Bass Reeves, who once intoned,  “There will be no lynching today! Trust The Law!” to moviegoers.

However, his efforts have a price; June, bitterly aware of his vigilante activities, leaves him and takes their young son back to Tulsa.

A flashforward shows Angela exactly how Chief Crawford was killed; Will, using a modified version of the mind control device, forces him to hang himself…

And when Angela awakes from her coma, she is surprised to be in the company of, and treatment, of Lady Trieu…

The pleasures of re-watching HBO’s Watchmen (and what will make it eminently so in the future) is seeing the various references to the past of the origin comic AND our own past intertwined with narrative. I can pluck three from Episode Six alone:

For instance, Bass Reeves was quite real, the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi. His exploits were so remarkable that they may have inspired Fran Striker and George W. Trendle in the creation of the Lone Ranger in 1933. In a fairer, better world, Bass Reeves would be a better known and loved than a fictional white character.

The immigrant newsstand owner recounts the origin of Superman in Action Comics to Will Reeves, who almost instantly connects with the tale of an alien baby sent to another world to escape his planet’s destruction. 

Fred T., the racist grocery owner who clashes with Will early on in his policing life, could be modeled on the life of Fred Trump, the father of our current chief executive, who was also known to be a not very pleasant person.

Another thing I found admirable about Watchmen was Damon Lindelof’s dedication to making this production as diverse as possible. A majority of the writers (ten of the fourteen) were people of color and three women directed episodes.

Besides being a top-flight piece of entertainment, Watchmen is also a reaction against the willful erasure of the more violent aspects of American history, race relations, colonialism, political hegemony and policing. Heady stuff, to be sure. But so was Alan Moore’s source material.

It’s quite clear to me after six episodes that the narrative strands of the main characters; Angela Abar, Laurie Blake and Adrian Veidt, are slowly being drawn together.

Of the three, I feel emotionally invested in Angela’s story the most; she is learning about her family legacy in a very hard way. Her neat and tidy life of black and white, good and evil has been upended in the most unusual manner. And while she has acted in her own self interests in the protection of her family and herself, we can see the toll it’s taking on her through the sheer acting prowess of Regina King. Jean Smart and Jeremy Irons may delight us by chewing the scenery around the edges of the story but Ms. King’s performance is the living, beating heart of this epic. And I hope the Emmy Award nominators remember that going into the new year.

Also, I must highly commend the original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which I neglected in my previous review of the first three episodes. It’s a fantastical, electronic wonderland that invokes thrills, whimsy and dread in all the right places.

Watchmen also features a remarkable number of period pieces from several musical eras, from the Inks Spots, Eartha Kitt and Billie Holiday to Devo, Howard Jones and the Beastie Boys. A weekly updated list of the music being used can be found at:

https://www.menshealth.com/entertainment/a29516167/watchmen-season-1-soundtrack-songs/   

As for me, I don’t know how Damon Lindelof and company are going to pull off this feat of narrative derring-do in the final three episodes.

In an interview published online in Gen Mag (which can be read here) before Watchmen’s premeire, Damon Lindelof made the following statement: “I envision myself holding two stacks of plates each in my outstretched arms and we’re putting plates on both sides to find the perfect balance, but in finding that balance, plates are fucking breaking, man. You can’t play this game and not break stuff. But I hope when plates break, it’s not irreparable. Talk to me in a few months and then we’ll have a conversation about whether it was worth it.”

In three more weeks we’re all going to find out if this ambitious, audacious and totally unauthorized endeavor is going to pay off. Stay tuned…

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