The story taking place in Watchmen’s present is informed by that world’s past—one similar to ours where groups of white supremacists have terrorised black people across the world for centuries. At times, the show assumes you know this fact to be true but in others, like the opening moments of this week’s episode, Watchmen slows down to provide everyone with an important history lesson to refresh our memories.
Though the German Nazi Party had no qualms about discriminating against and forcibly sterilizing black people living in Germany, the Nazi were also known to occasionally attempt to convince black American soldiers to surrender during World War II by dropping leaflets into their laps from aeroplanes which pointed out America’s own legacy of anti-black racism. The appeals were often filled with blatant lies about German racism and sharply contrasted with the way the Nazi regime vilified black people in its media aimed at white Germans.
The leaflets’ promises of happy lives in Germany for black soldiers who surrendered were calculated, obvious attempts at sowing discord and mistrust within the Americans’ ranks. But there were aspects of the propaganda that touched on the truth about how black soldiers were fighting for a country that did not truly love them or believe in their right to exist as equal citizens. The man we first met while he was trying to save his family during the Tulsa Riots in Watchmen’s premiere episode might not have joined the losing team during the war, but he brought the message carried in one of those pamphlets back home with him to Oklahoma where his young son would eventually discover them.
“Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship” uses all of that as the pretext for Watchmen’s next chapter, which has quickly become a murder mystery as the Tulsa PD attempt to learn who discovered its beloved police chief Judd Crawford. The episode also establishes how each instalment of the series will blend together seamlessly and the show picks right up from the premiere’s final moments when Sister Knight pulls up to discover Judd’s body hanging from a tree above Will, a mysterious man in a wheelchair.
Horrific as the murder scene is, Sister Knight is still able to think clearly enough about what she’s seeing to know that the old man’s story about killing Judd himself has to be a lie because, as the man explains, he’s over 100 years old. Angela’s none too amused by the man’s cryptic suggestions that he might have psychic powers or be Doctor Manhattan in disguise, but she also doesn’t really know what to do in the situation because of how strange it is. Between her immediate grief, rage, and confusion, Angela’s barely present to appreciate what Will’s trying to tell her after she makes the snap decision to pile him into her car and take him back to her secret base of operations. But when Will plainly states that Judd kept dangerous secrets from the people who trusted him that needed to be exposed, Angela can’t help but suit up and get ready to begin looking into things more deeply for herself.
Scenes like the Tulsa PD coming together at the site of Judd’s murder showcase Watchmen’s ability to gently nod to the source material in small, clever ways that work surprisingly well despite how campy they sound on paper. Looking Glass pushing up his reflective mask to munch on fistfuls of nuts echoes panels of Rorschach loudly slurping up beans while waiting in Nite Owl’s apartment. Looking Glass is similarly aloof in the way that he interacts with his colleagues, but the dynamic between this Watchmen’s masked cops is distinct, if only because the police all seem to be working with the same idea about who their collective foe is. But at the same time, all of the surviving cops are still somewhat suspicious about what’s happened to Judd because the crime scene’s details don’t exactly add up.
“Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship” makes a hard left back into dark territory with yet another flashback, but this time to Angela’s past on the evening of the White Night—the night the Seventh Kavalry launched a coordinated attack on Tulsa that left multiple cops brutally murdered. After nearly dying, Angela awakes in a hospital room to find Judd, who explains that they are two of the only officers to survive the White Night.
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The scene’s meant to make us understand the love and affection Angela and Judd felt for one another that was borne out of their shared trauma and their commitment to justice. And in the present, the cops mobilize in a way that speaks to how Judd’s death has devastated them, but Sister Night’s heart isn’t fully in it as the police descend on a white shantytown—“Nixonville”—in an attempt to flush out the 7K members they think might have killed their colleague.
The way this episode repeatedly pivots back and forth between grim darkness and moments of occasional levity mirrors the conflicting emotions Angela’s grappling with as she keeps up appearances in her civilian life and continues to do her police work in disguise. In one moment, Angela’s wailing on a suspected-racist with terrifying fury, and the next she’s in her police car sobbing because she knows how out of control she’s becoming. But because so much of Angela’s life is built around hiding herself from the outside world, she’s only but so able to express all of these emotions openly.
Personal truths aren’t something that Angela can safely afford to trade in with most other people, but she is about to make a kind of cathartic trip to Tulsa’s Greenwood Centre for Cultural Heritage, a technologically-advanced museum celebrating the legacy of Tulsa’s historic black population that was devastated by bombings. She’s there to test a surreptitiously secured sample from Will that can be processed free of charge at the Greenwood Centre, and if he’s got any roots in Tulsa, the system will tell her. But you can also see that Angela’s there, partially, because she’s unsure of her own identity in an existential sense, and the Centre’s system (portrayed by Henry Louis Gates) tells her that it can’t explain those kinds of truths to her.
The episode makes yet another of its hard left turns into the surreal with a curious detour into American Hero Story, an in-universe show chronicling Watchmen’s early 20th-century history. It’s not clear if American Hero Story is purposefully aping, but it definitely seems like it is given the way the show’s hyper-violent, sexually explicit, and controversial subject matter is so extreme that the FCC considers the show “emotionally harmful” for young viewers to watch.
But it’s not just young people that are watching the show, we see that nearly everyone in Tulsa, from Angela’s son to a group of Seventh Kavalry racists tune in regularly as if it’s must-see TV, which is an interesting way of commenting on what pop culture is like in this reality. While most everyone else is raptly watching Hooded Justice’s American Hero Story origins, Angela busies herself by paying respects at Judd’s wake where his wife Jane introduces her to Senator Joe Keene, a rising political star. Within moments of arriving, Angela full-on faints, seemingly out of distress, but after Jane leaves her to rest, Angela whips out a pair of future-tech goggles that allow her to see things hidden behind walls in Judd’s bedroom, and it isn’t long before she sees something dreadful.
“Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship” treats the idea of police offers being active within white supremacist organisations as some sort of wild twist that’s supposed to shock audiences, when the reality is that there are reports of just that happening all over the country in 2019. Angela’s dismayed to find a mannequin bust cloaked in a Klan hood tucked away within Judd’s closet, but the moment lacks the emotional oomph the show seems to be going for because, again, this is all firmly grounded in reality. Thankfully, the episode seems to understand that lingering on the hood reveal would quickly grow a bit weary, and it’s safe to assume that Angela will follow up on her discovery as the season progresses.
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What’s rather astonishing about “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship” is how much you realise is packed into the episode and how much development it provides almost all of its characters with—even the weird, cryptic ones like Jeremy Irons’ Ozymandias, whose madness we see in a completely new light as the episode comes to a close. It was always clear that something was amiss on the palatial estate where Adrian’s being kept and tended to by his two slightly-off servants. But we’re clued in on just how messed up the man is in the form of a twisted one-act stage play Ozymandias forces his servants to perform.
In his exile, Ozymandias has taken to periodically making his servants basically act out Doctor Manhattan’s creation by way of a freak accident. Every time, Ozymandias forces Mr. Phillips (Tom Milson) to step into what appears to be an incinerator, which Ms. Crookshanks (Sara Vickers) then locks as she explains that the machine’s safety mechanism makes it impossible for her to open it. Of course, this is all a farce for Ozymandias’ enjoyment, and after Mr. Phillips is burned alive, a nude man painted in blue descends from the rafters wearing a fencing mask made to look like Doctor Manhattan’s face.
The entire performance is made that much more difficult to watch because you can see how much Ozymandias enjoys every detail of it and how he’s still clearly obsessed with Manhattan, who probably knows exactly what his old foe does in his spare time, and thinks it’s fucking weird. It’s not until the ersatz Manhattan pulls off his mask to reveal he’s identical to the now-deceased Mr. Phillips that you realise all of Ozymandias’ servants are apparently clones of one another destined to meet terrible fates for their master’s entertainment.
The second episode of Watchmen closes out with a flurry of not-entirely-unexpected, but nonetheless gripping, revelations as Angela returns to her hideout to confront Will about what she found in Judd’s closet. The man refuses to answer her questions directly, but he lets her know that he’s come into her life because he has plans for her. Before she can interrogate him further though, an automated call from the Greenwood Centre informing Angela that Will’s her biological grandfather almost completely knocks the cop off balance.
Every time it seems as if Angela’s getting closer to the truths we all need to know, Watchmen pulls the rug out from under her or, in this episode’s case, snatches her car—with Will inside it—right up into the sky before she can even think of how to react.