NOTE: Spoiler alert for those who have not seen Watchmen episode six, “This Extraordinary Being.”
HBO’s Watchmen forwards an extraordinarily powerful vision of an alternate-reality. An America where masked vigilantes are outlawed and Robert Redford serves as president. If you’re not familiar with the source material, the series holds countless surprises and offers a compelling discourse on race relations, using alt-America as a stand-in for our own. But if you know the graphic novel, then episode three, “She Was Killed By Space Junk,” kicked your fan obsession into high gear as the first episode that pulls past events into focus beyond cast-aside allusions. It also features astounding work from stars Regina King and Jean Smart.
But episode six, “This Extraordinary Being,” blows the roof off of the series, nearly literally. In my opinion, it stands as Watchmen‘s finest hour, an hallucinogenic hour that directly ties the Tulsa riots of 1921 to the creation of the Watchmen mythology. It’s a brilliant, cinematic exploration of the superhero aesthetic of which Martin Scorsese would approve. That both episodes were brought to us by a single directorial vision is a revelation.
Director Stephen Williams previously worked with series creator Damon Lindelof on the Emmy-winning Lost. There, they developed a communication shorthand that allowed them to deeply explore the Watchmen universe.
“I think ‘This Extraordinary Being’ is a great example of that. He first told me about this episode long before he and (co-screenwriter) Cord Jefferson put it down on paper,” Williams explained. “As soon as he told me about it, I started visualizing how I would approach it. The conversations between he and I after that could not have been more brief. In a way, I think that’s indicative of the level of trust that we have evolved over the course of our working relationship.”
Here, Stephen Williams talks to me about engrossing himself into the Watchmen universe, about working with the great Regina King and Jean Smart, and about filming the hallucinogenic memory play that is the extraordinary “This Extraordinary Being.”
Awards Daily: When you found out that Damon was going to pull you into the new take on Watchmen, did you read the original graphic novel or were you already familiar with the series?
Stephen Williams: I had a passing familiarity with the graphic novel, and I had obviously seen Zack Snyder’s movie. But yeah the invitation from Damon triggered an immediate immersion into all things Watchmen. That began with the source material itself, so I set about diligently reading every syllable of the graphic novel. I found it to be a treasure trove of narrative brilliant that just continues to reveal layer after layer the more you return to it.
AD: Absolutely. My favorite thing about episode three, “She Was Killed By Space Junk,” is the opportunity to pit Regina King against Jean Smart in an acting powerhouse showcase. Tell me how you harness the energy of those two fantastic actresses.
SW: I do not mean to be disingenuous in my response to that very reasonable and fair question, but the truth is, when you are blessed to be working with actors of the calibre of Jean Smart and the one-and-only Regina King and you are presiding over them with words written by Damon Lindelof, all you really have to do in that case is stay out of the way. The further out of the way you stay, the stronger the work is likely to be. I was happy to be essentially an audience member to their brilliance.
AD: For sure. I had been a fan of the series since the beginning of the series, but episode three was the moment for me where I realized you guys weren’t playing around. Looking at “This Extraordinary Being,” though, you kick the episode off with a longer scene from the TV show within a TV show, “American Hero Story.” Considering the name and the guest star Cheynne Jackson, are these scenes deliberate call-backs to perhaps Ryan Murphy productions?
SW: (Laughs) I would say that it’s a call-back to that genre of TV drama or melodrama. It’s our interpretation of what a Ryan Murphy-like show would be.
AD: Looking at the episode, were you surprised about tying the origin of New Minutemen / Watchmen directly to the racial violence in 1921 Tulsa and the fallout or rage that came from that incident?
SW: It wasn’t actually a surprise to me. The nature of the way in which Damon and I work together is that we had many conversations before the script was even written. I understood the way in which “This Extraordinary Being” was going to be integrated into the larger over-arching narrative that we were hoping Watchmen the series was going to take. I was appreciative, thrilled. I thought it was a genius re-mixing of the original graphic novel, and I was insanely trepidatious about not messing up what was such an intricately constructed piece of work.
AD: My mind was reeling as I realized what was playing out. Particularly speaking as a white American, I had no idea, we’re just not taught, about the real-life horrors of the Tulsa massacre. I had no idea that was a real thing.
SW: Right. I think one of the really gratifying reactions to our iteration of Watchmen is that a lot of what has remained hidden in terms of a fuller narrative of American history has been illuminated. Not just for us in terms of research and construction of the series, but also for the viewers themselves. There is a quaint old folk expression in Jamaica that basically goes “What about the half that’s never been told?” I feel like American history like everybody else’s history in a way is a version of a story. It is a story. It is a narrative. It is defined as much by omission as it is by commission. Things that are included in that narrative history are just as important as the things that are left out. Hopefully, what the Watchmen series is doing is starting a conversation about those gaps in our collective awareness of our shared story.
AD: Looking at that history and the impact it has on the character of Will Reeves, his wife brings up “living in the past” and Will’s inability to deal with this terrifying childhood legacy. Given that Angela takes his Nostalgia pills, how would the understanding of where her grandfather comes from have an impact on her moving forward?
SW: It’s going to affect her profoundly. It starts with the discovery of the Klan robe in Judd Crawford’s house. That’s something that creates a lot of confusion and raises a lot of cognitive dissonance for her. I think that’s only both deepened and, strangely enough, clarified by the Nostalgia journey that she undergoes in “This Extraordinary Being.”
AD: I’d like to talk more about the filming of the episode. On second watch, you see Will’s mother playing the piano in the background in several different scenes. Talk to me about filming those hallucinogenic call-backs and other examples of reality-bending.
SW: It was a holistic visual approach to the episode. I wanted to make sure that we invested in a visual grammar that was going to allow for as immersive and intensive an experience as possible. That is a mirror to the experience that Angela Abar (Regina King) is undergoing having ingested an excess of Nostalgia, this drug that harbors specially curated memories of her own grandfather. She is not just observing these memories from a remove. She is literally walking in the footsteps of her grandfather. How to approach depicting memory and depicting all the sensory experiences pursuant to you having that kind of experience – that’s where we started. That led to a visual design that incorporated black and white, really long takes with few interrupted cuts, and also the insertion of specific splashes of color for accentuation.
AD: I love that scene where Angela breaks the memory thanks to an injection of adrenaline, and Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) appears fading from color into black and white. Those are really beautiful, subtle touches that I responded to visually.
SW: Thank you. That was exactly the intention of that return to color but then receding into black and white. It was supposed to be an analog of what Angela was holding on to in terms of consciousness.
AD: That also brings up another question about Will Reeves and what we know about Nostalgia. Do you think Will becomes an unreliable narrator as he is curating these memories for Angela? To elicit a certain reaction from her?
SW: That’s a really great question. The short answer to that is, “Yes.” (Laughs)
AD: No spoilers, right?
AD: One more question. One of the events hinted at in the original graphic novel but made more explicit here is the sexual relationship between Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis. The episode jumps from their first meeting to a sex scene without an explanation of how that transpires. Why not explore that a bit more?
SW: Two things. It’s subtle, but it’s there. There are lingering glances between Will Reeves and Nelson Gardener (Captain Metropolis) in the dinner scene. There is a kind of visceral connection between the two that runs like a metronome in the scene. There’s another scene where Nelson Gardener hands over his business card to Will Reeves, and their fingers touch just for a beat longer than would be customary in that circumstance. We are tipping our hat to the scene that, as you say, quite abruptly appears next as they’re having sex. Also, in the context of these being curated memories, Will Reeves wants to fast-forward to that moment. To cut to the crash. That was our thought process.
AD: That’s true. I hadn’t thought about that as this is not a linear narrative. These are curated memories.
SW: Right. These are the highlights of his life, moments he wanted her to pay attention to.
Watchmen airs Sunday nights at 9 pm ET on HBO.