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‘Watchmen’ episode two: ‘Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship’

HBO series asks who gets to be a patriot

The propaganda flyers were real.

Just as the opening scene from the premiere of Watchmen was based on historical events, so too, was this week’s.

Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship, (a reference to this George Catlin painting, which hangs in the Crawford house. Hang on. We’ll come back to that) commences with a German commander giving dictation to a typist during World War I. The message she’s writing is directed at black soldiers, urging them to question their pledge to serve the United States. At the time, around 1917, the military was segregated, the Ku Klux Klan and its attendant terrorism was resurgent, and black Americans, including those serving in the military, were treated as second-class citizens as a result of the strictures of Jim Crow.

The Germans hoped black soldiers would defect when they pointed out the hypocrisy of American democracy: Why would anyone die for a country that would just as soon lynch them for trying to vote?

We still don’t know much about Will (played by Louis Gossett Jr.), but we do know that his father read the Germans’ propaganda and chose to return to a country that hated him because of his blackness. And he wasn’t alone.

Mark Hill/HBO

In Watchmen, one of those soldiers was Will’s father. Will (Louis Gossett Jr.), as we now know, is not just the elderly man who uses a wheelchair and sits outside Angela’s bakery. He’s her grandfather. He’s also the little boy who was watching a silent film about Bass Reeves, the real-life man who became the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi, when the Tulsa Race Massacre began in Oklahoma. And, as Will repeatedly asserts to Angela, he’s “the one who strung up [her] chief of police.”

Will’s most formative childhood memories are fleeing the racialized violence of gunshots and fire without his parents, and the silver-screen tale of Reeves, who, in the film Will was watching, was lauded as a hero for arresting a corrupt white sheriff. As he grows up, one of the few items he has to remember his parents is his father’s World War I uniform and the note stuffed in the pocket: on one side, his father’s words, hurriedly scrawled: “Watch over this boy.” On the other, the Germans’ entreaties to black American soldiers.

One of Watchmen’s many laudable qualities is the way it employs allegory in its exploration of who holds power in America, and how the lived realities of race are difficult to shake, no matter who is in charge, including the sympathetic liberal President Robert Redford.

One of Watchmen’s many laudable qualities is the way it employs allegory in its exploration of who holds power in America, and how the lived realities of race are difficult to shake, no matter who is in charge.

We still don’t know much about Will, but we do know that his father read the Germans’ propaganda and chose to return to a country that hated him because of his blackness. And he wasn’t alone. In Mudbound, director Dee Rees illustrates in great detail the many horrors and indignities that black World War I veterans experienced if they managed to survive their experience of trench warfare. And yet, return they did.

To understand the mindset of Will’s father, and Will himself, it’s helpful to read Nikole Hannah-Jones’ essay that opens the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones elucidates a point that is vital to understanding the decision of black soldiers targeted by Germans pamphleteering. America’s enemies still use its legacy of racial discord and hypocrisy to sow chaos and upend democracy. It’s just that now, they use social media to do it.

And yet, African Americans hold fast to the promises contained within the Constitution, even when they haven’t included us under the umbrella of equal protection. Wrote Hannah-Jones:

The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals.

… My father, one of those many black Americans who answered the call, knew what it would take me years to understand: that the year 1619 is as important to the American story as 1776. That black Americans, as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true “founding fathers.” And that no people has a greater claim to that flag than us.

Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship inspires questions about who gets to be a patriot, and how such a designation is defined, especially because so often it’s conflated with white American identity. Will, who seems so sure of the existence of skeletons in the closet of the (now dead) Tulsa police chief Judd Crawford, is a tricky character. What does he want? And why? This man is 105 years old and he still has this document left by his father. How many times do you think he’s read it, tried to understand it, and tried to imagine why his father chose to return to a country that subjected him to such vicious hatred?

It’s a testament to the skill and charisma of Don Johnson that viewers are left genuinely confused about Chief Crawford’s death until Angela discovers the Klan robe in his closet. In a nod to Oklahoma!, Chief Crawford’s first name is Judd, just like the farmhand who ends up dead at the end of the musical. But he played Curly in his high school musical production. Is he a villain? A hero? Both?

Then there’s Crawford’s interest in Native Americans. He uses “Little Bighorn” and “Custer’s Last Stand” as police codes. Hanging in his house, which we see for the first time during his wake, is the painting from which the episode takes its title: Comanche Feats of Horsemanship. According to the Smithsonian, George Catlin painted it in 1834 or 1835 after he embedded with the United States Dragoons on a journey to Indian Territory. Here’s an excerpt from the artist’s letters and notes, provided by the Smithsonian:

Amongst their feats of riding, there is one that has astonished me more than anything of the kind I have ever seen, or expect to see, in my life: — a stratagem of war, learned and practiced by every young man in the tribe; by which he is able to drop his body upon the side of his horse at the instant he is passing, effectually screened from his enemies’ weapons as he lays in a horizontal position behind the body of his horse, with his heel hanging over the horses’ back; by which he has the power of throwing himself up again, and changing to the other side of the horse if necessary. In this wonderful condition, he will hang whilst his horse is at fullest speed, carrying with him his bow and his shield, and also his long lance of fourteen feet in length, all or either of which he will wield upon his enemy as he passes; rising and throwing his arrows over the horse’s back, or with equal ease and equal success under the horse’s neck.

Is Crawford’s reverence for the Comanche real, or simply a way for him to cover up his own racism? After all, Comanche horsemen are a cavalry of sorts. And the White Night — the coordinated attack on Tulsa police — is a homonym for how the Klan thought of themselves — as white knights.

It’s obvious that Watchmen is interested in how media, especially pop culture, shapes our attitudes about society based on its presentation of American Hero Story, its fictional show-within-the-show. And two films that are seminal in American film history seem to be hanging out in the wings of Watchmen, so to speak. One is The Birth of a Nation, which helped resurrect a dormant Ku Klux Klan and served as cinematic propaganda for white supremacy. The other is The Searchers, the 1956 John Ford western starring John Wayne, who is on a mission to hunt down the Comanche who kidnapped his brother’s family. When Wayne’s character discovers the Comanche have his niece, played by Natalie Wood, he doesn’t actually intend to rescue her, but instead, to kill her because he believes that she’s been indoctrinated and/or raped by the Comanche. It’s an honor killing, of sorts, much like the white woman who is the victim of lascivious black men in Birth of a Nation, and who would rather hurl herself off a cliff than be sexually violated.

So, is Crawford drawing inspiration from the white knights or the Comanche? Judging from the Klan robe in his closet, and Will’s insistence that Crawford is no good, it’s the former.

One of the aspects of Watchmen that makes it so engrossing is creator and showrunner Damon Lindelof’s patient commitment to world-building. So what did we learn about this alternative 2019 Tulsa?

Under the Redford administration, police power has been significantly curbed. Not only are officers required to buzz their precincts to have their guns unlocked and authorized for use but it doesn’t seem like they’re allowed to stockpile DNA evidence, either. Angela is investigating Will on her own, and rather than taking him or his DNA to the police department, she takes it to the local museum dedicated to telling the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre. That’s how she discovers that Will is actually her grandfather. But given that this is a society in which people still read newspapers (even if they don’t believe what’s printed in them) and smartphones don’t exist, it’s not unreasonable to believe that law enforcement databases of DNA have been outlawed, too.

Stray, but maybe important observations:

  • In another nod to the fact that technology has been curbed in this alternate America, it’s not drones that show up to photograph the crime scene where Crawford has been hanged, but “moths,” human photojournalists rigged with motorized wings. But the police still are hostile to the photographers, who insist they have a right to know what’s going on. No matter who is in charge, control of information is paramount to maintaining power, a point that’s reinforced when the black man who runs the newsstand accused President Redford and the “libstapo” of manufacturing the squid falls to keep everyone freaked out, thereby continuing his multi-decade presidency.
  • I’m not going to list every Easter egg that shows up, but the aesthetic similarity between the clock in the Abar house, the egg timer in the bakery, and Adrian Veidt’s watch are too glaring not to note.
  • Tomatoes grow on vines, not trees. Where the heck does Veidt live? We know he’s cloned humans to make a personal army of servants and performers in his strange “plays.” Maybe he’s done some genetic engineering to allow tomatoes to sprout from trees like apples, too?
  • Apparently Dr. Manhattan (who lives on Mars) can deploy magnets and spaceships to suck up cars from Earth. Maybe Will wasn’t lying about his psychic powers, after all. His assertion certainly seems a lot less crazy in light of the episode’s closing scene.
  • The Abar marriage is radically egalitarian, and it’s also Angela’s second. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Cal, Angela’s happy stay-at-home husband, who does most of the child-rearing. In this alternate America, where Soviet communists can be police detectives (Red) and no one bats an eye, Cal is the dutiful Hot Spouse supporting his wife’s career without a lick of resentment to be found. It’s just normal. What a world!

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.