THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASON 1 OF HBO’S WATCHMEN
My favorite moment in Alan Moore’s original Watchmen comic involves an unmasked hero. In it, the ensemble of heroes at the book’s center is in Antarctica and has just learned of a plot by fellow hero Ozymandias—a.k.a. Adrian Veidt—to kill three million New Yorkers in order to prevent World War III. All of them agree to keep the morally bankrupt plan under wraps; everyone except the psychotic antihero, Rorschach.
“Even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise,” the masked adventurer growls as he makes a break for the mainland. Doctor Manhattan, the only superpowered hero of the bunch, appears behind him and tells him he can’t let him leave. After removing his mask, Rorschach turns around, ready to accept his fate. In his final moments of life, Rorschach’s face is fully visible, tears streaming down his face in abject anger. It’s a naked moment, one where we see the effects of the life flashing before his eyes before it ends in an instant. Like a lower-stakes version of Avengers: Endgame’s massive sacrifices, it’s both bleak and beautiful.
The overall point of Watchmen the book remains bold over 30 years later: Superheroes are not meant for the real world. But Rorschach’s face stayed with me long after I’d finished reading, enough for me to wish the idea of masks and trauma could be explored further. When HBO and Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof announced they were creating a direct continuation of Watchmen, set in an alternate timeline 2019, there was no way I could’ve predicted how deep the idea would bleed into the show’s atmosphere—or into American history at large.
The show’s premiere episode, “It’s Summer And We’re Running Out Of Ice,” begins with a Black family inside of a movie theater. It’s 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street district, and a young boy is watching a movie about famed Black sheriff Bass Reeves. The child is Will Williams, eventually revealed to be the influential hero Hooded Justice, and his innocence is about to be snatched away. The infamous Tulsa Race Massacre perpetrated by the KKK is happening right outside, and the theater is a safe haven for Will and his mother before his father barges in to escort them to safety. Neither parent survives the bombing, but Will himself is spirited away to New York with a note attached to his chest: “Watch over this boy!” There is a direct parallel between Will’s origin and that of Superman, another baby spirited away from a collapsing city by two parents.
Inspired by Bass Reeves’ heroics and a bystander coincidentally reading Superman’s debut story in Action Comics #1, Will changes his last name to Reeves and grows up to become a police officer in New York City. Being a Black man in the early 1900s, few take him seriously. In fact, his fellow (mostly) white officers prove nefarious when they attempt to hang him as he begins following the trail of a white supremacist group known as Cyclops. We see the hanging from Will’s perspective, hooded and claustrophobic.
Shortly after, while Will is walking home, the noose still around his neck and hood in hand, he stumbles across a mugging. With the adrenaline of his near-hanging still coursing through his veins, Reeves dons the mask and doles out justice. He and his wife June eventually fashion a full-fledged costume, completed by painting his eyelids white in order to convince the white masses he’s one of them, therefore hiding in plain sight. Like Superman, his police uniform becomes a mask to blend in with the public, separating him from the fear and injustice powering Hooded Justice. Every hero needs an origin story, and Will’s becomes the backdrop for generations of trauma covered by masks.
The Tulsa Race Massacre’s impact lingers in Watchmen’s very bones, particularly when it comes to series protagonist—and granddaughter of Will—Angela Abar (Regina King). As the show opens, Angela has been living in Tulsa for a decade since 2009 as a retired police officer with little knowledge of her family history. An event called the “White Night”—where members of the Tulsa police were methodically assaulted by members of the Rorschach-imitating white supremacist group known as the Seventh Kavalry—resulted in Tulsa’s police force donning yellow face masks to protect their identities. Others became government-sanctioned vigilantes, including Abar as Sister Night. Angela’s investigation of the Seventh Kavalry leads to her finding out Will (played in old age by Louis Gossett Jr.) is her grandfather, which prompts her to see just how deep the familial rabbit hole goes.
The Sister Night identity stems from a blaxploitation film of the same name Angela longed to watch as a child growing up in Vietnam. Angela was born in Vietnam shortly after the country becomes America’s 51st state in the wake of Doctor Manhattan’s intervention during the Vietnam War. Being what appears to be one of the only Black families in Vietnam, Angela’s attraction to a powerful figure who looks like her comes as no surprise. Her parents are wary of her watching the tape, especially her army father Marcus, clearly traumatized from the stern lecture he received after stumbling onto Will dressed as Hooded Justice as a boy: “People in masks are dangerous,” her father tells her. “They have something to hide.” Shortly after, her parents are killed in a suicide bombing not dissimilar to the bombing that fractured Will’s life in Tulsa.
The effects of imperialism, racism and childhood trauma bond Angela, Marcus and Will by more than just blood. In “This Extraordinary Being,” the show’s best episode, Angela takes all of Will’s Nostalgia pills and lives his life in his shoes. She experiences everything from his induction as a police officer to the beginnings of his career as Hooded Justice, the very first costumed adventurer who inspired the Minutemen, a wave of copycats not burdened with the trauma Will receives right out of the box. The show’s ingenious use of flashback irrevocably exposes the ties that bind Angela and Will. Masked adventuring is the Abar’s gift and curse.
Angela’s relationship with Doctor Manhattan also deals in well-disguised secrets. In a shocking twist, Angela’s husband, Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), was revealed to be Manhattan in disguise, living life blissfully ignorant of his godlike powers thanks to a mind-scrambling device given to him by Adrian Veidt. The two first met in Vietnam on VVN (short for Victory in Vietnam Night) in 2009, with Manhattan entering the bar wearing a plastic mask of his face to blend in. An impromptu date turns into the partnership of a lifetime when Angela and Manhattan connect and agree to be together with Manhattan under a new identity, a recently deceased man named Cal.
Both Angela and Manhattan hid his godly presence from their three kids for 10 years but weren’t able to stave off the watchful eyes of the Seventh Kavalry, who wanted to use Manhattan’s powers to further enforce white supremacy. Through Angela, Cal/Manhattan put on a mask in order to experience unfiltered love unhampered with his godlike powers; through Cal/Manhattan, Angela was given an opportunity to create the perfect life she was denied as a child. Two people, hiding in plain sight.
The original Watchmen graphic novel has always posited that a world where masked adventurers and superpowers are necessary wouldn’t be one worth living in. The show’s first season details enough messed up lives to continue proving this point. Former vigilante turned FBI agent Laurie “Silk Spectre” Juspeczyk (Jean Smart), who claims “trauma” as the driving factor behind all masked heroes, hides her pain with barbed humor. Veidt (Jeremy Irons) claims “masks make men cruel” during the show’s season finale, though his ego prevents him from wearing one when he commits two amoral acts of genocide involving telekinetic squids. After witnessing the squid attack firsthand while on a trip to New Jersey, Wade “Looking Glass” Tillman (Tim Blake Nelson) becomes paranoid to the point of creating his trademark mask out of reflectatine, a material specifically made to seal the mind from psychic blasts.
All of these characters are compelling in their own ways, but Angela’s story makes up Watchmen’s emotional core. The silent rage she brings to her role as Sister Night; the fear that slowly fades as she becomes more aware of her family history; the love she shares with a god hiding in plain sight. Angela’s story throughout the first season of Watchmen is proof of masks as the show’s ultimate villains. In fact, her most heroic moments of the season come when she’s unmasked. In “She Was Killed by Space Junk,” the show’s third episode, Angela saves every attendee at Judd Crawford’s funeral when a Seventh Kavalry member attempts a suicide bombing. In the season finale, “See How They Fly,” Angela also attempts to save Cal/Doctor Manhattan not as Sister Night, but as herself. This rawness is also reflected when her son, Topher, stumbles across her Sister Night uniform, realizing who his mother is, much like Marcus did when he saw his father dressed as Hooded Justice.
Angela’s future becomes much brighter once she stops hiding behind her mask, the potential inheriting of Doctor Manhattan’s powers notwithstanding. Will puts it best when he and Angela leave it all on the theater floor in the finale’s final minutes: “You can’t heal under a mask, Angela. Wounds need air.”