In theory, HBO’s Watchmen should take inspiration from its source material, and from America’s near-century of caped heroes. Instead, the show continues to draw on — to barrel toward, really — foundational images of American racism. The premiere episode ended with Chief Crawford (Don Johnson) swinging from a tree branch, and most of the second, “Martial Feats Of Comanche Horsemanship,” is about the characters reacting to his murder.
Nicole Kassell, who directs again, repeatedly frames Crawford’s body in conversation with cinematic depictions of lynching. It’s a brazen choice, one that could be disastrous for a superhero show written and produced by Damon Lindelof, a white man. But Kassell never quite lingers on the body, and instead chooses to focus on the reactions of the other officers. Tim Blake Nelson’s Looking Glass narrates the brutal details of the murder, including the presence of serious rope burn on Crawford’s hands.
The scene’s editing rhythm alternates between shots of just Looking Glass or Angela, separated from each other in an unnerving suggestion that they might not even really be occupying the same space, and shots where the camera focuses on Angela, leaving the unsettling Looking Glass to fester in the background. Though Angela is our point of view character, everything else is out of focus, partly because she doesn’t quite understand it either.
If the task of the first episode of Watchmen was to establish the show’s world and starting to introduce us to the cast, the task of the second episode is to consider everything in the first episode. Let’s start with Crawford. The end of “It’s Summer And We’re Running Out Of Ice” raised some questions about his loyalties, but now it seems clearer: Crawford was almost certainly part of the Seventh Kavalry. After Angela and the rest of the officers arrive at the scene of the hanging, the episode flashes back to Christmas Eve 2016, The White Night. Angela and Calvin are attacked, but she manages to stab their assailant — only to be shot by a second member of the Seventh Kavalry. When she comes to, the first thing she sees is then-Captain Crawford. This trauma is a turning point in Angela and Crawford’s relationship — he tells her to call him by his first name — but, notably, he only mentions the first attacker. Someone else, he suggests, is looking out for her.
“Martial Feats Of Comanche Horsemanship” is named after the painting in Crawford’s house, which Kassell focuses on as Angela hurries away. The painting depicts a group of indigenous Comanche people on horseback, and the scene (painted by a white man observing alongside the American army) takes on a sinister significance when it’s placed in context alongside the rest of the chief’s secrets. Showing up to the house to pay her respects, Angela seemingly faints from exhaustion, then uses Nite Owl goggles to snoop through Crawford’s closet, where she finds a Ku Klux Klan robe.
Angela’s investigation is one of two moments in the episode that seems consciously reflective of Watchmen’s broader project: Though she at first appears to be sickened, soft, and perhaps naive in the face of her commanding officer and friend’s death, she almost immediately reveals herself to have a deeper, sharper plan. Likewise, Watchmen has, at most, complicated feelings about Crawford —the moments that seem to express sadness about his death (largely through the score) come early in the episode, and are framed almost entirely through the pain Angela feels at the loss of her supposed friend. It’s hard to cry for a Klansman.
Much of the rest of the episode finds Angela investigating the killer, a man she eventually comes to know as Will, her grandfather. Played by Louis Gossett Jr., Will is an exciting, enveloping presence. Though he’s clearly physically limited, there are people behind him, and he has a much better understanding of the world than his granddaughter. Gossett and Regina King have an easy, bickering chemistry that remains inviting whether they’re arguing about Doctor Manhattan’s powers or the existence of a vast, complicated conspiracy.
Will and Angela’s conversation about the conspiracy, whatever it is, is the second highly self-aware moment of the episode. When he tells her that he has to give her the information “in pieces,” he’s basically talking to the audience, asking us to give him (and the show) time. Consider the way the beginning of the episode reframes Will’s gesture of raising his hands toward Crawford’s body as Angela approaches. From Will’s perspective, the gesture, which seemingly acts as a presentation of mystery in the first episode — this man is dead, and what are you going to do about it? — indicates that he does not pose a threat. When he tells Angela that Crawford has skeletons in his closet, it seems like a metaphor. Until she discovers the Klan robe.
The robe is yet another way that Watchmen positions its real subject as the past, and the way history informs the present in sinister ways. We open with a real leaflet called “To The Colored Soldiers Of The U.S. Army,” dropped by the German army during World War I as a propaganda tactic and aimed at black soldiers in the army. Though it’s being dropped by the Germans (though, importantly, not the Nazi army), the leaflet makes, uh, some fair points: “You have been made the tool of the egotistic rich in England and in America, and there is nothing in the whole game for you but broken boils, horrible wounds, spoiled health, or — death.” It might be unsurprising, then, that the leaflet is found by Will’s father, and becomes the foundation for the message we see the old man still holding in the last episode.
Our primary development in the mystery comes from Angela’s trip to the shiny Greenwood Cultural Center, passing by protestors who hate the prospect of reparations. She tests Will’s DNA (at the behest of U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Louis Gates Jr.), and discovers that not only is he a survivor of the Tulsa massacre, he’s also her grandfather.
In perhaps the episode’s most dynamic sequence, we watch the show’s characters settling in to watch some good old historical television. Prefaced with the extended equivalent of a content warning, American Hero Story focuses on Hooded Justice, the first costumed adventurer and inspiration for The Minutemen. Though the show hints at the original Watchmen comics’ implication that Hooded Justice was sadistic German strongman Rolf Muller, the show-within-a-show — and Watchmen — implies that Hooded Justice was really someone else. If he just came clean about his identity, the voiceover suggests, “you wouldn’t watch until the end.” (Just like the vast conspiracy.)
Speaking of characters from the original Watchmen, it is, apparently, once again Adrian Veidt’s anniversary. This time, he instructs his weird servants to perform his completed play about Doctor Manhattan, which requires one of the servants, playing the human Jon Osterman, to literally be consumed in flames — only for an identical servant to appear, now painted blue and playing the transformed Doctor Manhattan. Veidt might be off to a corner of the story for now, but the mystery continues to deepen.