Watchmen episode 2 is a direct counterpoint to the series premiere

“Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship,” the second episode of HBO’s Watchmen, feels almost like a direct response to the series premiere — as if the two are intended to offer a point/counterpoint on living in a world full of superheroes.

In many ways, its structure resembles an episode of Lost, the show that made Watchmen creator Damon Lindelof’s career. Stressful events in the present are interrupted by occasional flashbacks to one of the character’s pasts — in this case Regina King’s Angela Abar. The flashbacks reveal how she became a person who could face down such stressful events to begin with.

“Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship” also answers questions on both a character level (why are Angela and Cal’s kids white?) and a thematic one (so does this show love cops or what?), in ways that are designed to make you feel more comfortable with plunging ahead into what’s to come. It is a jam-packed episode, and that doesn’t even mention the cameo from Harvard professor (and Finding Your Roots host) Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as a talking head who helps folks determine whether they qualify for reparations due to an ancestor’s connections to the Tulsa massacre.

What I (Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff) like about this episode is the way it makes sure that Watchmen remains slippery and hard to pin down. It features an over-the-top, gratuitous trigger warning before an episode of the in-show drama American Hero Story, one that feels like red meat for whatever audience exists in the Venn diagram intersection between Watchmen and Fox News. But it also contains a moment when Angela discovers a literal Ku Klux Klan outfit hidden in Judd’s closet, a clear an indication of where Watchmen stands on the intersection of the police and white supremacist movements.

“Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship” is also a little top-heavy. I really liked it, but it made me wonder if anybody involved had a plan for the show beyond making individual scenes as cool as possible. (Fortunately, next week’s episode answers that with a hearty affirmative.) Then again,second episodes are notoriously difficult to nail — especially when a pilot was as good as Watchmen’s pilot — since they have to restate the pilot’s major themes without directly repeating them. On that scale, “Martial Feats” is a solid example of the form.

Maybe the rest of the world disagrees! This week I’m joined by associate culture editor Allegra Frank and senior culture writer Alex Abad-Santos to talk everything episode two.

What’s up with Jeremy Irons? (Just kidding, we totally know — wink, wink.)

He is absolutely playing Adrian Veidt.
Who is Jeremy Irons playing in this show? It’s impossible to say! But he has a tomato tree, so that’s nice for him.
HBO

Emily: All right. So much stuff happens in this episode that before I get to just listing random moments and images, I want to hear what stuck with both of you. What is still rattling around in your brain after watching it?

Alex: The world-building.

When Watchmen was published, it spoke specifically to the time that it was created. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were commenting on American Reagan-era politics in 1986 and 1987. But in HBO’s Watchmen we have a world where what happened in that comic is the status quo. This affects how the show looks back at past historical events (like World War I, as we see in this episode) and what it will look like going forward with Robert Redford as president and paying reparations to descendants of the victims of the 1921 Tulsa massacre.

Lindelof has really thought about what these situations would look like, what their positive and negative repercussions might be (e.g. white supremacy in the face of reparations), and then spins out possible scenarios from there.

Also, of course, the mystery of how a man in a wheelchair hangs the chief of police and then gets whisked away by some kind of space object.

Allegra: God! What the heck was that UFO … thing! I can appreciate a good cliffhanger, but that one left me skeptical that any answer at all could be satisfying without also tilting the show way too far into the fantasy zone for me.

Which, strangely, is why I am currently most intrigued by Jeremy Irons’ “Lord of a Country Manor” storyline. Irons maintains a perfect level of calm that belies this character’s status as some kind of truly absurd supervillain. The scene I’m still thinking about is the party at the old man’s lavish mansion, a setting I still can’t get my bearings around.

His cronies — a man and a woman servant pair — present him with a birthday cake, and sing to him, but the real big to-do at this party is a performance in which the two servants star. The Lord gives them directions to express their love for each other, with the man trapped inside of a box and the woman standing outside of it. Their anxiety ramps up at the Lord’s behest, and then … he sets the inside of the man’s chamber aflame. The man screams bloody murder, because he’s actually dying, but the Lord instructs the woman to carry on with the production. He wants to see her cry real tears.

It’s bizarre and shocking and an admittedly entertaining feat of true evil. These are the kinds of confounding moments that I love to see disentangled, that I long to know more about. One thing I do know about, courtesy of the internet (spoiler alert!): The Lord of a Country Manor is most likely Adrian Veidt, the main villain from the comic book version of Watchmen. As you have both read the comic and I have not, you have more context for the Adrian Veidt character than I do. Is this version of him in step with the one in the comic?

Emily: Yes, Irons is almost certainly playing Veidt (also known as Ozymandias). Damon Lindelof and HBO, in fact, have taken to calling him “Probably Who You Think He Is,” which feels like as big a clue as anything else out there. But for now, the show is playing coy, for reasons I can’t fully understand.

Well, actually, I can. Watchmen is using Probably Veidt to help catch up non-Watchmen readers on the comic’s lore. In this instance, the show usesthe play the character writes to depict the creation of Doctor Manhattan, who was once a normal man, but then got ripped apart by subatomic particles and turned into a giant blue guy. In general, the TV series has been smart so far about looping in some of the weirdest bits of the comic in a way that feels “realistic,” and that may be why it’s stringing along Doctor Manhattan fans.

But speaking of Doctor Manhattans who here on Earth, we learn more about Louis Gossett, Jr.’s character. Will, this week, including that he and Angela are apparently related, even though she just met him. (I’d say this was a contrivance if I didn’t think it was part of some huge, master plan on the part of whoever was driving that giant airship.) And the choice to make him Angela’s grandfather also makes the choice to reveal the KKK robes in Judd’s closet all the more pointed.

How Watchmen uses Angela’s quest to find her identity as a way to tell stories about America’s efforts to uncover a dark and shameful past

Angela enters a secret storage space.
Angela gets ready for action.
HBO

Emily: Angela, who lacks for family to rely on, essentially viewed Judd as a kind of father figure, especially in the wake of the terrifying police shootings that happened several years back (which is also when she and Cal adopted the kids, who are the biological children of a deceased former colleague). Now, Angela’s grandfather is pointedly trying to show her that the man she embraced, no matter how kind he could be, was also her oppressor, no matter what a strong bond they had.

The duality of the self is something this Watchmen is hugely interested in, as we saw with its use of deep Oklahoma! lore to explain some of its ideas in the series premiere. (See last week’s recap for more details.) And it’s especially interested in the duality of the white self. To be white in America is to always be linked to a long tradition of horrific policies that ensured your own supremacy, even if you try to be the best person imaginable. You can try to atone for the past, but you can never entirely do so, because the ground on which you stand is covered in blood. Hence, the Klan outfit in Judd’s closet — we might not mean to be hiding demons, but we are, always.

Lots has been written about how Watchmen is a show about race in America. But it’s also a show about whiteness in America, a subject that is usually treated as a vague default in most other entertainment. I think that’s why I’ve been able to accept that the show was created by a white man with many other white folks on his creative team, despite having black protagonists. That setup hasn’t rubbed me the wrong way or struck me as false as it usually would.

Some of that sureness stems from Lindelof choosing collaborators who can illuminate experiences he couldn’t possibly understand. But just as much of it stems from how Lindelof’s tendency to publicly self-flagellate himself has now been turned on his entire race and gender. This is a show about wanting to be a “good” white guy in the year 2019 and realizing how hard it is to manage that feat.

That message is also why the show has already sparked debates over whether its politics are “correct” or not. But whether Watchmen is pro-cop or not misses the point, I think, because the show is successfully arguing that being anti-cop is only one small tendril of a huge, squidlike apparatus that’s rotten from the core.

What do y’all think about the introduction of Angela’s family history in this episode? And what on Earth could that painting of Native American hunters in Judd’s house (which is a very real painting!) possibly mean to the show’s larger ideas about race and white supremacy?

Alex: I mean, if people were already mad at the “politics” of this show, there was literally a KKK hood in this white man’s closet. Between that and Angela and the rest of the police force putting on uniforms as preparation to do some not-totally-above-board police work, and signaling that you put on a costume to do things you wouldn’t exactly be proud of … I suspect gaskets will be blown.

And then there’s the beginning of Angela having to reconcile this revelation about Judd and come to terms with knowing that the man who says he murdered and hanged her mentor and father figure is related to her.

Angela’s history is, more or less, an origin story, but in this case, it starts with our hero fully formed. We know what Angela is capable of and have already seen her do some hero stuff, but now there’s a wrinkle we didn’t consider.

The reveal of her grandfather Will changes what we thought we knew about Angela. Like, does he have powers (which he might, because of the circumstances regarding Judd’s murder)? And if he does, does that mean she has powers? Are those powers tainted? Is he bluffing? Does she know he’s bluffing?

Because the whole idea of Watchmen is that a world where superheroes aren’t so different than the rest of us, I’d probably wager no to all of the above?. But it’s unpredictable.

I also love how this revelation of her family feels like an Uncle Ben/Bruce Wayne’s parents moment. So many origin stories are allegories about the morality we learn from our parents and our family. Less examined in superhero comic books (though that’s changing) is the question of how that morality is informed by America’s history of racial injustice.

To still believe in the concept and conceit of America being fair and equal and great in the face of the Tulsa Massacre or something analogous like real-life Native American genocide, Japanese internment camps, or present-day kids in cages feels as foolish or as brave as the idea of a superhero. How is Angela going to reconcile Will’s past experiences (that only we’ve seen) with her idea of being a hero?

Also, I totally punted on the painting, please bail me out Allegra.

The police wear yellow masks to hide their faces.
The police in masks make for an eerie and unsettling image.
HBO

Allegra: I got you, Alex. I think. Angela walking past the painting of Native American hunters immediately after she stumbles upon Judd’s Klan outfit read, to me, like a nod toward the insidious nature of racism. The camera zoomed in, slowly, wearily, toward one hunter sliding off his pure white horse. It’s easy to regard that closeup as a nice way to set up the next scene, which starts with Probably Veidt riding a white horse of his own.

I also can go a step further to read it as saying: the white horses in the painting are powerful creatures shuttling people of color toward each other’s ruination. They are helping, but not for a good cause; they are inflicting damage, but under the guise of doing so at someone else’s insistence.

Judd is a white person whom Angela loved and trusted; I don’t think he was a liar or a bad person, necessarily. But he supported Angela in ways that hurt her family and got himself killed, by encouraging her to hold onto that mask and to remain on the police force. I think that painting — and that KKK outfit — reinforce that the seeming good guys aren’t always good. It’s hard to know just what they are much deeper down.

Angela seems like she will be contending far more dramatically with black-and-white notions of racial power relations, and goodness, and the public-facing nature of racism or not. But first on her mind is probably how the hell Will got picked up by that damn aircraft.

I mentioned before that I found that scene a little too fantastical for my own tastes. So I want to ask you both, to finish here: Do you wish HBO’s version of Watchmen was a bit more traditionally comic book-y? Or are you satisfied with its balance of interesting deconstructions of racism and society and unidentified flying objects whisking old men away into the sky?

Alex: I’m completely fine where we are going. Moore and Gibbons’s conceit of Watchmen was to manipulate the heightened genre of superhero comic books to tell a story about our flawed world. I’d actually appreciate more razzle dazzle, but there’s just enough mystery going on here with Probably Veidt and the episode two cliffhanger to keep the suspense and my interest up.

Emily: I, for one, hope Watchmen gradually just becomes an intimate character piece that takes place in a world where a blue man lives on Mars. My kind of TV show!