Six episodes in, it is safe to say that HBO’s Watchmen is unlike any series ever produced for television – even in this wild and vast Peak TV era. If last week’s mind-bender of an episode didn’t make that fact abundantly clear – it takes a certain level of gonzo chutzpah to follow up an interdimensional squid attack with a meta joke about The Sopranos – then certainly this Sunday night’s hour cemented that fact.
In the time-bending sixth episode of HBO's "remix" of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' landmark 1986 comic book series, titled "This Extraordinary Being," writers Damon Lindelof and Cord Jefferson along with director Stephen Williams offered a brief but searing history of prejudice and made-in-the-USA hate. That the narrative was engineered through a fiendishly clever use of flashbacks – after popping some "nostalgia" pills, series hero Angela Abar (Regina King) mentally relives the racial traumas suffered by her grandfather, who is revealed to be the legendary masked vigilante Hooded Justice – only underlines how hard Lindelof and his team are pushing the medium's capability to surprise and innovate.
A few weeks ahead of the twisty episode’s airing, The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz asked King, series star and recent Oscar-winner for If Beale Street Could Talk, to walk us through Watchmen’s many secrets and hidden histories.
Ahead of filming, did you and showrunner Damon Lindelof have much discussions about how Angela’s story would play out, and what you’d be exploring in this sixth episode?
No, not prior to filming. But I knew Stephen and Damon had several conversations about it being such a stylized episode – black and white, told in scattered flashbacks – and while the show itself is very stylized, this is very much a standalone episode. For me, there was this great set-up from episodes one through five, where answers were given to so many questions, and then episode six starts a whole new series of questions.
Were you getting scripts week-to-week, then, not knowing what the arc of Angela’s character might be?
I didn’t know where anything was going to land. Outside maybe the U.K., where they have all 10 or so scripts ready before they start shooting, television is week to week. You don’t know what the end game is until closer to it. It’s a big trust thing, which is part of the reason I jumped at the chance to be able to work with Damon. I experienced such a great trust with him on The Leftovers. My safety factor was high.
Damon also broke his casting rule for you, in that he previously never worked with the same actor twice.
I know! I'll take being the first.
What was your first exposure to Watchmen?
It was this pilot script. I did not know what the comic was – I just knew Damon was sending me the script. I never saw the Zack Snyder movie, either. I had no reference point at all. I just knew it would be Damon, so it was one of those kind of "had me at hello" moments.
Have you since done a deep dive into Alan Moore’s original work? Or do you find that unnecessary?
Damon did not want me to watch the film or read the graphic novel while we were shooting the pilot. He made it very clear that this was not a sequel, and it wasn't like the Snyder movie. For him, there was no way to do something over that'd already been perfect. And my character isn't in the source material any way, so I didn't feel a huge responsibility. I wasn't terrified I was going to mess up someone's idea of a certain character. But I did want the true, original fans to feel like the art was being honoured and respected, and who else could do that better than Damon?
He walked me through the material, and gave me all the information I needed to know, that Angela needed to know, to exist in that world, that alternate history, that takes place 30 years from the last page of the comic.
Before you signed onto this, did you know much about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, the racist attack on what was called the “Black Wall Street,” which opens the series?
When I read the pilot, I closed it after the first five pages and was like, “Oh my god, Damon’s going to do Black Wall Street?” My mind was blown. What an amazing entry point into this world. It was bonkers. I told him that so many people don’t know about this history, and he told me that he only heard about it after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations in The Atlantic. He was a little embarrassed, but you shouldn’t be. A lot of people people don’t know. A lot of black people don’t know. It’s not taught in history classes. Then cut to our show premiering, and “Tulsa” and “Tulsa Massacre” and “Black Wall Street,” are trending and people are looking it up. Those are the type of rabbit holes that you want people to go down.
This update of Watchmen is rooted in examining America’s original sin of racism and white privilege. But it was developed by Damon, a white showrunner. Have you had discussions with him about the tension of that, of this history lesson about black lives in America coming from a white writer?
No, but people might come to it with a raised eyebrow because they know a bit about the subject matter. But Damon was very smart in surrounding himself in the writers' room, at all times, with men and women of colour. He was very smart in making sure that he was asked the right questions as they were breaking the story. He was in uncomfortable spaces very often, and when reading this script, I never felt like it was irresponsible in any way. I used my own emotional space as a gauge.
Damon has said that Watchmen is a one-and-done series, that there won’t be any more episodes past the ninth. Do you think audiences will walk away satisfied with just one season?
Me answering that sounds like I might be walking across a landmine. I think you can please some of the people some of the time, or whatever that saying is, it applies here. You’ll have to answer that question when you get to episode nine. I’ll call you up then.
This interview has been condensed and edited
Watchmen airs on HBO Sundays at 9 p.m.
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