Episode two digs into more of the show’s thematic material, as answers give way to more questions.
Second episodes can be real rough, especially for high-concept pilots and shows like Watchmen — it takes quite a lot to maintain the momentum of all of the first episode’s characters and concepts and ideas, while also easing viewers into the overarching plot of the rest of the series. In this respect, episode two — “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship” — suffers from the pitfalls of most second episodes while still setting out some incredible setpieces and ideas we’ll get to enjoy later in the season. It’s still interesting, but it maintains a holding pattern that doesn’t quite match some of the other moments in the series (full disclosure: six episodes were sent ahead of time to critics, and as of this writing I’ve seen four of them).
Once again, the complicated dynamics of race in America are front and center, and America’s deep racial flaws are made plain by no less than the Germans, as we chart the life cycle of a propaganda letter flown over black soldiers (particularly the black soldier we saw killed in Tulsa in the pilot) fighting in World War I. “What is democracy?” it asks, as it points out the abject nature of the African-American experience; they’re fighting for the kinds of freedoms white America doesn’t let them have: poverty, lynchings, racial violence.
Angela Abar (Regina King) is still dealing with the aftermath of finding her friend, Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) strung from a tree, with an old man in a wheelchair (Louis Gossett Jr.) sitting below him. He claims he’s the one who killed Judd, which Angela is obviously skeptical of; and yet, as the man (who identifies himself as Will) notes, we live in a world where Dr. Manhattan can copy himself and do all manner of godlike things. He’s a mystery in that Lost-ian sort of way — which is both good and very bad for Damon Lindelof‘s prospects here — but it helps that he’s a mystery to Angela as well, which is why she knows on some level not to turn him in yet.
Instead, she has to go back to the crime scene and pretend she knows nothing in front of truth-seeker Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), while a “World’s Greatest Mom” mug with Will’s DNA might hold the answer to his true identity. To find it, we head to one of Watchmen‘s most interesting settings, both from a visual and thematic perspective — the Greenwood cultural center, the Tulsa massacre equivalent of Yad Vashem, the world Holocaust remembrance center, a facility that is both historical museum and geneological database of everyone who has suffered. In a neat touch, info kiosks are narrated by the real Henry Louis Gates, Jr., here President Robert Redford’s Treasury Secretary; his presence makes for quirky, but clunky worldbuilding, which fits Lindelof to a tee.
The center is a convenient device for exposition — we get a rote explanation from Gates about the Tulsa massacre for those who have never heard of the event before the show’s premiere, and how that affected this alternate timeline, including “Redfordations,” the president’s reparations for those families affected. But it also acts as an epicenter for the cultural and historical pain black people have suffered throughout America’s history. Here, the Tulsa massacre feels like a singular signpost to explore this issue in macro, every character reacting to the agony of history with trauma or defensiveness, depending on context or skin color. Memory and history are some of Watchmen‘s deepest concerns and, as we eventually learn that Will is Angela’s long-lost grandfather, we get a bigger sense of how it feels to have your history ripped from you by violence.
For Angela, this hits especially close to home, as a harrowing flashback takes us back to the events of the White Night — the cop-killing massacre that led to the Tulsa PD putting on masks to protect their identities — in which Angela’s partner is killed by a member of the Cavalry, and we learn that her children are actually adopted from said partner.
Memory and history are some of Watchmen‘s deepest concerns.
But just as Watchmen reckons with the mythology of American history and race, so too does it work in conversation with its source material, and adaptations of the past. For the first time, we get a glimpse of American Hero Story, the reenactment-style retelling of the Minutemen saga complete with Snyder-esque hyperviolence and speed ramping as Hooded Justice busts up a general store robbery. As Angela watches on, the camera turning to her face, Hooded Justice asks, “Who am I? If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be wearing a fucking mask.”
It’s an important line that gives us insight into Angela’s character – someone who’s had to hide a part of herself away out of survival. She can’t reveal her true secrets to anyone, even her fellow vigilantes. As she learns after scoping out Judd’s bedroom at his wake, she’s not the only one: she finds an old-school Klan outfit, hanging decoratively on a bust, revealing a past (or a present) that clashes with our previous understanding of Judd as One of the Good Ones.
As if that weren’t enough to turn Angela’s world upside down, her brief reunion with her grandfather ends in the most bizarre of ways: while loading the wheelchair-bound Will into her minivan, it’s snatched up UFO-style by a mysterious craft. By the look on Will’s face, it’s something he expected. All that’s left for Angela (and us) to ponder is the piece of paper Will had on him — the propaganda flier from the start, which turns out to be what his father scrawled “WATCH OVER THIS BOY” onto in the first episode.
Like I said before, “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship” is a bit of a step down from the stellar episode one, but it kinda has to be by default — there’s a lot of place-setting and followup, laying bread crumbs to follow in future episodes. But even in its stumbling, Watchmen remains strange, idiosyncratic, and fascinating, not to mention daring in its desire to interrogate some of America’s most uncomfortable sins through the lens of caped crusaders.
- We can’t not talk about The Increasingly Baroque Adventures of Jeremy Irons, here disillusioned with his servants Mr. Phillips (Tom Mison) and Ms. Crookshanks (Sara Vickers) until they put on a Rushmore-level lo-fi stage show adaptation of Dr. Manhattan’s origin story. It’s cute and arch in that Jeremy Irons way as he barks lines to the increasingly frazzled actors on stage, only to turn to horror on a dime when Mr. Phillips is seemingly burned alive in the ‘intrinsic field generator’ that Manhattan is borne from. But then, of course, Mr. Phillips appears again as a blue-painted (and big-donged) Dr. Manhattan, and we learn that Phillips and Crookshanks are just a series of clones born and bred to serve Adrian. So far, Irons’ part of the story remains a mystery, but it’s lovely how these segments allow the show to go full cuckoo-bananas while still upending expectations in the most interesting of ways.
- Still love all the little post-Watchmen tech nods, like Topher’s floating construction toys, which she’s constructed to look somewhat like Irons’ mansion, or the Mothman-like aerial rigs that paparazzi use to float above crime scenes to get photos.
- In another great nod to the comic, we get to hear ground-level conspiracies about world events thanks to a newsstand vendor (The Wire‘s Robert Wisdom) and his young worker. All that’s missing is a copy of The Black Freighter.
- James “Not Great, Bob!” Wolk pops up here as James Keene, Jr., the supercilious Tulsa mayor who passed the act that allows cops to wear masks, and he’s clearly gunning for president off the back of that initiative. It’ll be interesting to see where craven politicians who sell social solutions for political gain fit into this universe.
- The episode’s title is a reference to the George Catlin painting “Comanche Feats of Martial Horsemanship,” seen in Judd’s office — an image that both evokes feelings of earnest frontier wonder and the cruel colonialism of the Old West. Given Judd’s new context for Angela, that seems apt.