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will stands in his police officer uniform, hiding behind a wall beam Mark Hill/HBO

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Watchmen episode 6 writer Cord Jefferson on Hooded Justice and the absurdity of Batman

‘The idea that a billionaire white man is going to be stuck seeking justice on the street ... is absurd.’

“This Extraordinary Being,” the sixth episode of HBO’s Watchmen, unlocks much of the show’s central project. The episode’s full-length flashback to the 1930s and ’40s reveals Hooded Justice, the world’s first superhero, to be young Will Reeves, a black police officer and the grandfather of the TV series’ protagonist Angela Abar.

The choice to have Hooded Justice be black makes a lot of thematic sense, but interpolating an entire life within what we know about the character from the comic is a daunting task. Polygon spoke to Cord Jefferson, who wrote “This Extraordinary Being” with series creator Damon Lindelof, about that writing challenge, Will’s sexuality, and the parallels between Captain Metropolis and Batman.

Polygon: How was the concept of Hooded Justice being black pitched to you, and what was it like to develop it?

Cord Jefferson: Damon’s original conception was that Hooded Justice should be a black man, but we then had to work backward from that premise to figure out exactly what black man that would be, how he would go about becoming Hooded Justice, and what would motivate him to take on this secret identity. I initially pitched that it should be an act of racial violence that spurs Will to become Hooded Justice. The idea that we’re thinking of the 1930s United States, it makes sense that a person of color would be looking for means of justice to be found outside of the courts or the police.

And if you look at Hooded Justice’s costume, with a noose around his neck, there’s no way for me to look at a costume with a noose around the neck of someone in the 1930s and not immediately think of lynching. So we were starting at the place of thinking that Hooded Justice was a black man, and it became relatively easy to fill in the blanks from there, to come up with a compelling story for how Will Reeves might have become this first superhero.

Was that backstory originally a separate thread from the Greenwood Massacre?

When we started writing, we knew that the Greenwood Massacre was going to be part of the pilot for the show. We didn’t know for sure that Will’s story would tie directly back to that massacre when we started writing Watchmen, but it became clear to us as we started constructing episode 6 that the Greenwood Massacre should play an important part of it. There was no way we were going to get through episode 6 without acknowledging what a massive piece of Will’s life this was. But when we initially put the massacre into episode one we didn’t know exactly how it was going to connect to episode 6, but we knew it would connect in some way. It’s such a major moment in Will’s life, and such a major moment in the show.

will accepts his police badge on a stage of policemen Mark Hill/HBO

We’re getting Will’s backstory from the perspective of Angela after taking his Nostalgia pills. How did that change the way you presented Will’s life story in the episode?

Some of the pops in of Angela were done for practical reasons, so you as the viewer remember that this is a story about Angela ingesting the Nostalgia pills, and that she’s living out these experiences in the way that her grandfather experienced them. But also a huge part of this season of television — and this episode in particular — is the idea of generational trauma, and how the wounds of our past haunt us, and how we have a tendency to hand them down to our children and grandchildren and beyond if we’re not careful.

I think a perfect example of Will and Angela’s shared trauma comes in the moment when June is talking to Will and she says, “You’re angry.” And we go back to where Will is sitting, but it’s Angela, and she says, “I’m not angry.” We wanted to get across the idea of generational trauma, and that Will’s life was lived in such a way that he handed down this anger and rage that he felt to subsequent generations, and now he’s in Angela’s life to try to correct the mistakes of his past.

Something else worth keeping in mind is that Nostalgia, in this world, was made for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Normally, you’d think that people would want to put good memories from their past into those pills. You wouldn’t think someone would put into a Nostalgia pill the memory of their lynching, or the memory of the time their wife left them. But we had Will put those in the pills for Angela because it’s important for Angela to understand who her grandfather is, why he made the decisions he made, why he made the mistakes he made, the barriers that he was up against. It fleshes out his life, and hopefully helps her understand her life a little bit more.

How did the focus on what memories Will would want Angela to experience change which moments from Will’s life you highlighted?

I wish June had been in it a little more. The two things that got cut, mostly for time, were June and more time with the Minutemen — more time understanding what the Minutemen were doing, and more time with their actual day-to-day crime fighting. But we realized in the writing, production, and editing of it that this was really a Will-forward story, and this was a story that, as powerful as the rest of those actors and actresses playing the rest of the Minutemen were, needed to be focused on Will and Will’s experience as opposed to spending time with other characters. It became very clear to me that this needed to be Will’s journey.

Speaking of the Minutemen, did you consider including the scene from the comic where Hooded Justice stops The Comedian from assaulting Sally Jupiter?

No, that was never in our plans or outlines or anything. For me, I wouldn’t want to include. Zack Snyder did it, almost frame-for-frame the way the book did it. It’s a famous scene, people know about it. When I was thinking about the episode, I was much more interested in the lesser-known parts of Hooded Justice’s story, the parts that people hadn’t really touched on before. Not that a ton of people have touched on it at all, but I think that that’s what everyone knows about Hooded Justice. If you know anything about Hooded Justice, you know that scene, and for me, I was more interested in exploring the under-examined parts of the character.

Which parts? There’s so little information you really know about him coming out of the book.

His sexual identity was interesting to me, his relationship with Captain Metropolis. It’s in the book, but it’s only mentioned in passing that these two had a sexual relationship. And then the stuff we were inventing for him was interesting to me — his racial identity, what was leading him to do this, how he was doing it, putting on the makeup under the mask. Those things were more interesting to me than the Comedian assault.

captain metropolis and hooded justice stand in the minutemen headquarters Mark Hill/HBO

What was it like figuring out the Captain Metropolis and Minutemen relationships? The scene with the press conference does a great job of highlighting how absurd the whole thing is. Will is about to talk about this very real, white supremacist conspiracy, and Captain Metropolis interrupts him to warn about Moloch’s solar weapon.

This episode is very much about a man trying to heal the wounds of his childhood, and in particular the main wound of his childhood, which was watching his family and his entire community get destroyed by racists. He tries to do that by joining the police force — he thinks that by becoming a lawman like his hero Bass Reeves, he will in some way be able to obtain justice for the injustices that were wrought on him when he was a kid. But he joins up and realizes very quickly that putting on a badge and a blue uniform are not going to help him. In fact, there’s going to be more injustice wrought on him within the police force.

So he puts on a different uniform, with a hood and white makeup around his eyes, and thinks he’s going to find justice that way when he joins the Minutemen. We wanted to show that the Minutemen were just as silly and racist and unserious as the police force were. Him trying to join up with these so-called allies in an effort to obtain justice for what happened to his family decades prior was wrongheaded — he wasn’t going to be able to get justice by putting on uniforms and joining up with racists to combat racism.

Say more about the Captain Metropolis relationship. It feels like it ties into the comic’s “sex stuff.”

In thinking about this character, and thinking about this episode, I’d been thinking about how ridiculous the idea of Batman is — the idea of a straight, white, billionaire man not being able to get justice through traditional means and needing to put on a costume. That’s absurd, because rich, straight, white men will get justice however they want it. They can buy courts, they can buy police forces, they can buy presidencies. The idea that a billionaire white man is going to be stuck seeking justice on the street because he can’t obtain it elsewhere is absurd. So Captain Metropolis is a good stand-in for Batman here.

Captain Metropolis is a dilettante. He’s someone for whom costumed adventuring, as they call it in the book, is kind of just a game. He’s doing it for fun. He’s not doing it because he feels like he can’t obtain justice, or because he cares about the city’s crime rates. He’s doing it because he has certain fetishes, proclivities, and fantasies, sexual and otherwise, that go along with putting on a costume and going out to fight bad guys. He’s doing this as a hobby.

Juxtaposing his motivation with Will’s motivation, you can see how frustrated Will is, even while he’s also sexually attracted to, and perhaps even having romantic feelings for, Captain Metropolis when it comes to his sexual identity and his queerness. He’s kind of repelled, and ultimately reaches the breaking point when he realizes that none of his Minutemen colleagues actually give a damn about fighting crime. They’re in it for the commercial aspects and endorsement deals, while he’s actually in it for crime-fighting. Of course the first superhero was a person of color, because you have to think about who would be looking for justice in this unorthodox way. When Will gets there, he realizes that the justice he’s looking for is something that’s readily available to Captain Metropolis. So he also has to reckon with the idea that his colleagues don’t care, and he’s the only one that gives a damn.

I want to go back to Will’s uniforms. At the end of the episode, Will comes the closest to achieving justice when he kills all of the white supremacists at the warehouse. He’s wearing the police uniform, but with the Hooded Justice mask. Was that an intentional choice to blend those two things?

To me, I had never thought about the costuming that way. It was a decision to have him get to a place where he was carrying around the mask all the time, that the mask had become such an important part of his identity and his reality that he kept it in the back pocket of his police uniform. It had become, in many ways, who he was and how he felt. Much of his strength was derived from knowing it was close by. The blending of the mask and the police uniform is interesting, but I don’t think we were attempting to say anything about those pieces of costume — we were trying to say that the Hooded Justice identity had become so integral to how he felt as a human being that he needed to keep it on his person at all times.

That centrality of the Hooded Justice identity carries over into the next scene, when Will’s son tries to put on the mask and makeup.

To me, that moment is the moment when Will has to face the reality of his generational trauma, and that he’s handing down his wounds to his progeny in a way that may harm them. He realizes that his life has not become what he wanted it to be, that he’s lying to everyone, that he hasn’t dealt with the trauma, that he hasn’t gotten rid of the hurt and pain and anger he feels about what happened to him when he was younger. He understands that, even if he hasn’t admitted it to himself, he hasn’t been able to get rid of those wounds. Even though he’s killed a warehouse full of racists, it still hasn’t brought back his mother and father, it still hasn’t brought back Greenwood, he’s still suffering. He comes home after doing this thing and sees that his son is becoming exactly what he was, and who he is, and he’s forced to face the idea that he’s just making another person to follow in his footsteps. And he doesn’t like his footsteps.

will sits with white paint across his eyes looking in a mirror Mark Hill/HBO

It’s a difficult moment for June, too. She originally encourages Will, and has this sort of strategic role in what he’s doing as Hooded Justice, even in the first Captain Metropolis scene.

June did the thing that I think a lot of people do when you love somebody, which is that you try to support their endeavors. She’s saying, if this is what it seems like you need to do to exorcise your demons, then so be it. But she says at the end, “I thought that doing this was going to help you get rid of what you were feeling, and instead it only fed it.” She realizes that she never should have gone along with it in the first place, that she participated in making this man who is still suffering so much, and who had eroded so much of his identity, and eroded so much of his dignity in pursuit of justice, and who had only found more injustice along the way.

It feels like she also has all of that trauma in her background, too. They were in this experience together, but she doesn’t respond to it in the same way.

She was a baby when it happened — this isn’t something we talked about in the room — but she doesn’t really remember it, or her parents. She understands in the abstract that this bad thing happened, but she doesn’t have the actual visuals that Will does. And we didn’t go as much into this in the episode, but in the initial cut, June was a reporter for a black newspaper, focusing on the civil rights movement and on, for lack of a better term, social justice stories, and stories about civil rights the black community, in a way that was making her happy and proud and fulfilled, in a way that felt like it was actually effective and doing good work. We were attempting to say that June had found something that helped her exorcise her demons that was a little more socially acceptable — well, a lot more socially acceptable — and that was helping her get past the trauma that she felt also.

How did you go about depicting that trauma as part of the episode? We spend a lot of time with the remnants of Will’s past.

We initially wrote with the understanding that there would be these ghosts following Will throughout the episode, and we needed a way to delineate what were ghosts and what were real things in the world that everyone could see. We originally talked about making the ghosts sepia-toned, which everyone disagreed with. Then we thought that maybe the ghosts would be blurry and everything else would be in sharp focus, but we didn’t like that either.

Damon had been watching The Wizard of Oz with his son, and brought up the scene where they open the door into Oz and the movie that had originally been in black-and-white all of a sudden was in color. So we started toying with the idea that the episode would be in black-and-white and the ghosts would be in color. It seemed kind of crazy at first, but then we started getting into it, with the music and the period jazz we wanted to include, and it started to make more and more sense that this would work. It also thematically referenced the idea that Will is living this dulled-down, calloused life in which he’s trying to pretend that the past doesn’t exist. So everything else is in black-and-white, while the real trauma that haunted him all the time was in color, following him bright and fresh in his memory.

Was this episode conceived of as a parallel to the “Fearful Symmetry” issue of the comic? There are a lot of structural similarities. If not, what was especially important for you to bring from the book?

There wasn’t anything from “Fearful Symmetry” that we took for this episode. The thing that was important for me to keep was the sexual relationship between Captain Metropolis and Hooded Justice. I think that makes the character far more complex and difficult to understand, that he’s sleeping with and having an affair with a racist who is openly racist, and says racist things in front of him. I think that a lot of people might not understand that — and it is difficult to understand — but it makes Will complex and interesting, and broadens and deepens his character in a way I found important.

There was some discussion in the room that it was going to be difficult — nobody ever said we shouldn’t do it, but there was some discussion about how it was going to be incredibly difficult to pull off, and to make it believable and to make it feel authentic. But I feel like it’s an important part of who Hooded Justice is and was, and I felt like I really wanted to include that from the book.

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