In its entirety, HBO’s Watchmen is deserving of tremendous praise: “woke” without patronising, intellectual without pomposity, indulgent without narcissism, complex without confusing. Its best trick is to make the fanciful believable, laying on just enough familiarity and pseudo-science to imagine we really could be watching a parallel version of our own reality. Many of the ideas originated from its source material — Alan Moore’s seminal 1980s graphic novel of the same name. But successfully adapting, updating and elaborating on those ideas is no simple task, notwithstanding the presence of showrunner Damien Lindelof, and his history of intricate storytelling (Lost, The Leftovers, Prometheus, Tomorrowland).
The series follows Vietnam-born Angela Abar (Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk) as Sister Night — a highly-skilled police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Masked vigilantes are outlawed, but several are now openly integrated into the police force. Ironically, all Tulsan police officers now wear masks to hide their identities — a reaction to a white supremacist terrorist attack on officers in their homes, several years earlier. The KKK-like “7th Cavalry” responsible for the attack were forced underground, but have re-emerged, threatening to re-boot their police-killing operation. Dr Manhattan, a blue, atomic, god-like super-human has long-since disappeared to reside on Mars, and (oh yeah) the world appears to be in occasional overlap with a portal to another, squid-filled dimension.
If you are familiar with previous iterations of Watchmen (either from the novel or Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie), you’ll recognise some of these elements and be unacquainted with others. Set 34 years after the novel, the surviving characters have evolved in tandem with their invented surroundings. Given George Floyd’s recent death and the recent focus on Tulsa (via Trump’s floppy rally and heightened awareness of Juneteenth), the intersection of the setting, white supremacy and policing makes this version unavoidably topical. Beyond that, the original thematic similarities are maintained — what if superheroes (with the notable, dick-swinging exception of Dr Manhattan) were just exceptional people, without supernatural powers, but with typical human flaws? What if there had been a different chain of presidents and major events in the latter 20th century? What if we better understood quantum physics and could put it to use?
Does Your Anchor Hold?
Every season of novelistic, modern TV has that episode, anchoring the entire show. In a typical 8–12-episode affair, it tends to appear around two-thirds of the way through. In a good show, it allows the other episodes to tread lightly on otherwise clunky exposition and foreshadowing, resolving unanswered questions from the first two acts, while constructing intrigue for the third. In a great show, it will go further, offering up an ambitious concept with cinematic exposition and efficient storytelling. It can virtually stand alone — a piece of poetry amidst a wealth of narrative, specifically memorable beyond the whole.
Often it is played out in a context outside the conventional environment or characters of the show. At its best, it can even make the finale seem underwhelming (which, despite our natural (perhaps biological) craving for a climax to signal a conclusion, is no bad thing). On the other hand, it can just as easily go underrated, without the major twists or revelations offered elsewhere.
It’s the cradle into which the show’s fundamental ideas are birthed. For everything to work, it’s the point the show needs to reach. The list is increasingly extensive, but a few examples, recent and historic, are listed at the end of this article.
Joining the anchor pantheon is Watchmen’s Episode 6 — This Extraordinary Being; a significant reason for the show’s recent 26 Emmy nominations. The episode itself is up for 8 categories: direction, writing, cinematography, original music, picture editing, sound editing, sound mixing AND supporting actor (Jovan Adepo; Fences, When They See Us). Wowzers.
WARNING: DEPENDING ON YOUR TOLLERANCE LEVELS, WHAT FOLLOWS POTENTIALLY CONTAINS (LIGHT) SPOILERS. YOU COULD PROBABLY READ IT ALL BEFORE WATCHING THE EPISODE WITHOUT ANY MAJOR HOO-HA, BUT IF YOU LIKE TO GO INTO EPISODES COMPLETELY BLIND — I FEEL YOU. JUST SKIP TO THE LAST PARAGRAGH, NO HARD FEELINGS. WHEN YOU’VE WATCHED THE SHOW, COME BACK AND GET FILLED IN.
This Extraordinary Episode
As anchors go, what makes This Extraordinary Being so… Extraordinary? Well, in addition to drawing the story threads together and answering a wealth of pent-up questions, it’s a masterclass of meta. A meta Beretta. A meta Matryoshka. A full meta jacket.
It opens with a big storyline reveal on “An American Hero” — a fake, popular TV show within Watchmen, which portrays a fictionalised (and inaccurate) version of the (also) fictional story we ourselves are watching unveil. Phew. Maybe read that again.
[Incidentally, this is just the self-referential rollercoaster making its initial ascent. Keep your hands and legs inside the episode at all times.]
It quickly progresses to depict one character’s experience of another’s memories; including memories within those memories; and the occasional reversion to the show’s reality. If that weren’t enough, among the fiction, chunks of your and my actual, human reality continue to land, in the form of real-life people, events and societal norms. Cleverly, the effect is to blur what is true versus what Angela, the other characters and we, the audience, perceive to be true. This not easily achieved (nor easily explained), but simply put, in This Extraordinary Being, it is seamless, sumptuous, and sensational.
The audacious concept of “Nostalgia” — a pill that contains a person’s harvested memories — drives the episode. Tremendously cinematic, it’s filmed in rich, crisp black and white noir, with flashes of colour emphasising critical moments to pertinently fuel the story. Constantly on the move, the camera switches between first and third person, accentuating the feeling of simultaneously experiencing several perspectives. There are very few gimmicks or effects — it’s traditional film-making, reliant on great camera work, acting, direction and editing. Hard cuts and smooth transitions are cleverly blended, with flashbacks quietly interspersed, allowing the story to move at pace. Beautiful pacing is one of the episode’s most impressive achievements.
Back to the action, which is precisely detailed. Playful, symbolic flourishes compliment heftier motifs, often subtly relating to previous episodes or our own cultural reference points. Note the lettuce in the grocery store, the (real-life) Bass Reeves, Will painting his eyes white (compared to Angela’s black), the piano playing in the (again traumatic) cinema, the comic book reader on the sidewalk, the Alt-Right “OK” gesture, the destructive and restorative functions of fire. All these pieces efficiently collude to inform the present story, as well as crafting Will’s personality and guiding his behaviour.
Adhering to it all is deeply affecting music. Its simplest impact is to aptly recall the early 20th century era in which the memory is set. But the romantic, haunting, crooning over both tender and violent moments consummately mirror the emotional state of the protagonist. In particular, I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, by the Ink Spots (1941) — with lyrics variably ironic and literal — will infiltrate your dreams for some time afterwards. Between the ballads is the show’s thematic, dramatic, western movie piano music — a tormenting echo in Will’s psyche, recalling both his mother and his hero. Reminiscent of Birdman (dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2014), chaotic, thrilling solo jazz drums play whenever he escalates the power of his own agency.
With these ingredients blended, the scenes all underscore the internal and external conflicts of the characters: between blacks and whites; rage and serenity; integrity and corruption. The underlying messages of racism, history, and technology essential to this version of Watchmen are wonderfully extolled.
Notably, there are no plans for a second season of Watchmen. Rather than a question of HBO’s reticence to renew (I’m sure they’d love to), Lindelof himself has stated his intention for the show to end where it does — his exhaustive love-letter to the ever-extending Watchmen epic. As much as we have become accustomed to the fulfilment of our insatiable desire for sequels, we should be grateful that this symphonic limited series and Its Extraordinary Episode will exist in illustrious isolation. Like Nostalgia, some things are best consumed in small, perfectly measured doses.
Watchmen is available to stream on HBO Max (US), Amazon (UK, £11.49), HBO Go (elsewhere).
Other Anchor Episodes for Your Viewing Pleasure
Sopranos Season 3, Episode 11 — Pine Barrens (HBO / Now TV)
Mad Men Season 4, Episode 7 — The Suitcase (Netflix)
Atlanta Season 2, Episode 6 — Teddy Perkins (Hulu / Amazon)
Better Call Saul Season 2 Episode 7 — Inflatable (Netflix)
The Wire Season 3, Episode 7 — Back Burners (HBO / Now TV)
Bojack Horseman Season 5, Episode 11 — The Showstopper (Netflix)
Westworld Season 2, Episode 8 — Kiksuya (HBO / Amazon)
Succession Season 2, Episode 8 — Dundee (HBO / Now TV)
The Marvelous Mrs Meisel Season 2, Episode 7 — Look, She Made a Hat (Amazon Prime)