In retrospect, the premise of “This Extraordinary Being” — that Hooded Justice, the original masked hero, was a black man alienated by and working outside of the rotting, racist institution of American policing — feels obvious. And, to be fair, a few people have predicted this turn of events in the weeks the show has been airing. (Though when I watched through the first six episodes, I was taken completely by surprise.) The first five episodes of Watchmen have felt a bit like watching Damon Lindelof build a precarious Jenga tower. This is the episode that makes everything snap into place. There was a plan.
The original Watchmen posits that costumed heroes are psychosexual messes sublimating their rage and desires into violence. Certainly, that’s the perspective taken by the American Hero Story clip at the beginning of the episode, which positions Hooded Justice’s hero career as reliant on, as one of the FBI agents puts it, “sex stuff.” Watchmen the series posits another possibility: that a caped crusader makes the decision to operate outside the law because of the bigotry and limitations of the police themselves.
That’s the origin story of Hooded Justice, the first masked hero in the world of Watchmen, and the costumed persona of Angela’s grandfather Will — something she discovers while experiencing memories brought on by Nostalgia pills. Stephen Williams, a frequent collaborator of Lindelof’s from the Lost days, creates a specific aesthetic for the hallucinatory experience: Beyond the use of black and white to indicate we are Definitely In A Flashback, there’s a lot more happening in the way the episode depicts the experience: memories appear as doors in the air, Angela alternates between watching Will and occupying his perspective, events ebb and flow like the tide.
As a young adult, Will graduates from New York’s police academy in 1938, aiming to do some good — and he has his first encounter with the department’s double standards in the way the only other black cop in the room delivers the message to successful cadets: “Congratulations son. Do us proud. Be safe out there.”
Will doesn’t take the advice. Almost immediately after becoming a cop, he arrests a man named “Fred” for burning down a Jewish deli. The man turns out to be well-connected within New York’s white supremacist power structure, codenamed Cyclops. Though one of the cops berates Fred for insulting Will and seems to be a good guy, all things considered, he’s the one who leads a bunch of other officers in hanging Will up in a tree as a warning. No one is going to stop in the name of the law. Putting the hood from the hanging back on his head, Will discovers something: People won’t stop for the law, but they’ll stop for Hooded Justice. At least, they will sometimes.
The best moment of the episode comes a ways in, when Will, as the Hooded Justice, agrees to join the Minutemen. He arrives at his first press conference with the Minutemen and attempts to brief the assembled reporters on Cyclops — only to be immediately shut down by Captain Metropolis, who only wants to talk about crime lord Moloch’s plan to “harness the sun’s energy into a deadly solar weapon.” It’s patently ridiculous, a PR stunt, a way to sell things. It’s an effective subversion not only of the superhero genre, but of Watchmen itself. The real evil plan is still a little out there, but it makes a lot more sense: Cyclops is using subliminal messaging and mesmerism to instigate mass riots among New York’s black community. It feels almost besides the point to imagine a “secret” conspiracy to instigate racial violence. It’s baked into the system.
The life of Hooded Justice is, if not allegorical, at least a stand-in for a certain sort of political journey for black Americans. Adrift after a foundational trauma that has left him an orphan, Will turns to his idealized version of the law, an institution capable of standing up for people suffering like him. Instead, he discovers, American policing is rotten to the core, and full of racists. The white man who offers to help Will in his quest is more interested in money, and in his body. Eventually, Will is forced to turn to violence in his pursuit of justice — and though he’s more than justified in doing so, he alienates his wife and child in the process.
Experiencing Will’s memories through Angela’s Nostalgia haze explains a few of the visual details and choices in the episode. In particular, it gives some context for the episode’s treatment of Will’s wife and Angela’s grandmother, June. Originally, June is the architect of Hooded Justice, painting the skin around Will’s eyes white in an echo of Angela’s Sister Night makeup, and as a way to convince the world that the hero isn’t black. She pokes immediate holes in the “strategic mastermind” persona of Nelson Gardner, Captain Metropolis. This leads to the funniest moment of the episode, cutting from June saying “no” to the Minutemen to Gardner grunting “yes” while he has sex with Will. Still, the relative removal of June from the narrative is the only slightly false note in the episode — we know almost nothing about the intervening years of Will and June’s lives, outside their importance to his mission as Hooded Justice.
We should be put off by Will’s massacre, to think that now he, too, is a guy in a mask killing a bunch of people. Except that when he murders everyone in Fred’s warehouse, it owns. Though he’s alarmed at the prospect of his son going into the family business, we might be able to guess that Angela’s father was a soldier — explaining why she grew up in Vietnam.
Nothing much happens in the intervening decades, or at least nothing Will wants Angela to know. All of this is part of Will and Lady Trieu’s plan. When we pick up with him, Will is an old man, sitting with a rope, waiting for Judd Crawford on the side of the road. Using the mesmerism technology to make the flashlight work, Will hypnotizes Crawford into hanging himself. Crawford claims he’s trying to help “you people,” but the episode has done an excellent job breaking down any trust Will might have in law enforcement, or in white people more broadly.