If a lie isn’t a lie? The hero Jeremy Irons asks his maid and lead lady Mrs. M. Crookshanks (Christie Amery) in the film to the fighting performances of the Comancha riders. When she acts, Guru, she reacts by repeating the lesson he apparently gave her before. Lies are not lies if they are performative, if they tell a story that everyone understands as fiction. A lie is not a lie, in other words, if everyone knows it’s a lie.
History – as Napoleon would have said and David Milch undoubtedly said – agrees with such a lie. It’s a constructed story, a story that was told to us and that we wanted to believe. His fragile illusion is not to deceive us, but to convince us to actively participate in our own deceit. Just as we do when we watch a play or a movie, we tacitly accept to renounce our disbelief and accept the obvious artifact as real. Without the voluntary cooperation of the public, the performative illusion would have been destroyed. Without the active participation of each of us, the accepted stories of our own history would collapse and the society we built on its foundations would perish. We need lies – we’re afraid of the truth – and that’s why we all act in one way or another.
Last week, the Watchmakers pilot announced that the show will address some of the hard truths hidden beneath the surface of America’s persistent lies. In a more capable but still impressive way, Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship, written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse and directed by Nicole Cassell, now takes this mission and brings it to the microcosmic level of the series ‘characters’. After all, they play all the guards. Just putting on the mask of a superhero is clearly performative – it is a public lie that everyone understands as a lie, and in the Guardian universe that lie extends to the police. And it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that this also applies to people who don’t wear masks in public, like the late Judd Crawford. (In the Guardian universe, even the President of the United States is an actor, as he was in our own universe when the graphic novel first came out).
In Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship, the characters begin to face the common lie of a grand performance and discover the truths hidden beneath the costumes. Everyone has a role to play, whether they are dressed as a superhero, a policeman, a terrorist, a soldier or a friend.
And if we look closely enough at the character of the piece – the treacherous purpose of the beautifully constructed story in which we all play our part – it may occur to us, as the master says, that each of us is also a prop.
Carrying a rifle in the service of America is not an honour, but a disgrace. – Propaganda for World War I in Germany
That’s what happens to young Will in the prologue to this episode. We already know Will believes in heroes – we saw him last week on Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves’ action sheet – and here we see Will fitting his father’s World War I O.B. (Stephen G. Norflit) uniform. Bass Reeves was one of the heroes, the lawman. His father probably thinks they were a different kind of hero, soldiers. One can imagine how surprised Will will be when he looks at a movie screen or sees his reflection in the mirror, what a hero he will be when he grows up.
But Will finds in the pocket of his uniform a propaganda letter that the Germans dropped on his father’s entire black unit.
As I said last week, the Guardians are rich in side effects and we are accused of following their example and questioning the story, complementing and clarifying the main story. The history of the black soldiers in the First World War is such a common thread. After the declaration of war, the Afro-Americans signed up so much that one week later the military department no longer accepted black volunteers to fill its contingents. Later, when the national draft was adopted, the discriminatory practice was reversed: Black soldiers were recruited much more often than white soldiers, the latter being excluded from all-white editorial staff much more often. Initially black units were deployed throughout the theatre in non-combatant roles, but eventually the protest of the Afro-American community led to the creation of the 92nd and 93rd Battle of the Ardennes. Divisions that were completely black.
A total of nearly 400,000 Afro-Americans served in the First World War, and many did so in the hope that by putting their country first, they would help to earn respect and secure their rights in their homeland. The crisis says: First your country, then your rights! V.E.B. Dubois wrote in 1917. Some of us honest thinkers hesitate in the last sentence. They say it’s good to be idealistic, but isn’t it true that, while we’ve been fighting against our country for 150 years, we haven’t been given our rights? No, we received them quickly and efficiently because of our loyalty during the process. Or, as the New York Times said, a black soldier in the front line, if we can’t fight and die as bravely as whites in this war, we don’t deserve equality with whites.
This hope was of course unfortunately optimistic. The black soldiers, gratefully applauded by the white citizens of France, returned home to make sure that their status had not changed an iota in the eyes of the white Americans; on the contrary, the situation had worsened. In 1919, anti-Black riots broke out in 26 American cities because parts of white America feared that new blacks who had received military training would be released and demand change, wrote Sean Bracewell. Dozens of black men were lynched, including some veterans, some in uniform. History has been essentially the same after every war America has fought, and will remain the same after every war America has fought: Black Americans fight and die for a country that continues to treat them like second-class citizens.
It’s a message the German commander is sending to black American soldiers, and he’s not wrong. This O.B. letter reads like it was literally spit out by a white horseman. A letter is propaganda, but not more or less true:
Hey, guys. What are you doing here? In the fight against the Germans? Have they ever hurt you? Of course, some lying white Anglo-American newspapers have told you that the Germans must be destroyed in the name of humanity and democracy. But come on, guys: What is democracy? Do you have the same rights as the white people in America? Or do you just not like being treated like a second-class citizen? Can we sit in the theatre where the white people are sitting? Or can you go south on the same tram as the white people? What about the law? Do lynching and the worst atrocities have to do with the judicial system in a democratic country? You have become an instrument of the selfish rich man of America, and for you there is nothing but a broken bone, terrible wounds or death. Carrying a gun in America’s service is not an honor, it’s a disgrace.
It is clear that this letter had sufficient resonance with the midwife to save him and carry him with her at all times. It was the only piece of paper he had with him when his prophecy was fulfilled again during the massacre at Toula in 1921, only two years after the soldiers had returned home. It was a piece of work on which he wrote a desperate note in the hope that someone in the vast racist landscape of America would take care of his only son.
And that son, Will, still carries this letter with him – a prayer, a lesson and an inheritance from his murdered father – only a century later, when the military heroics of the Comanche riders were revealed. He took it out and reread his message while Detective Angela Abar waits under the dumped body of Police Chief Judd Crawford to join him.
Last week I suggested that Angela’s bow in the Storozhevs was a regaining of the truth about her complicity in a fundamentally unjust system. If we accept the reality that America is, and always has been, a racist white state, then acting as an agent of that state to enforce the existing order means we are actively participating in this injustice. Carrying a weapon in the service of America is not an honor but a disgrace, says Will’s letter, and there is an uncomfortable charge that applies to both a police officer and a soldier. In fact, for too many American communities, this distinction is meaningless. An occupied territory is an occupied territory, even if it was conquered by Europeans in the New World, wrote James Baldwin in 1966, describing police violence in Harlem. Little has changed in Baldwin Harlem since the Tulsa massacre in 1921, when white municipal officials, police officers and members of the National Guard united to destroy Greenwood. Since then, little has changed in Baldwin Harlem in more than half a century. (None of those who witnessed the crushing and terrifying demonstration of militarized power in Ferguson, for example in 2014, should wonder why in many parts of America the police were not seen as defenders of the people, but as an occupying army).
Law enforcement officers in Ferguson, Missouri, 18. August 2014 (Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)
(Defensive note: Stick to the show and ignore history and politics, I can imagine what some of my readers will say. And I don’t claim to be a particularly educated or enlightened thinker on race in America: My struggle with the problems of this show seems inevitable, clumsy and flawed. But it’s the show: all that, I’m sure, and that’s what the guards are talking about. It is such an extensive and important program that I find it hard to believe that Lindelof and his versatile writing room have tried it. If we want to do a modern paraphrase [of The Guardian] in 2019, we have to ask ourselves: How does it feel to be an American now? Lindelof told the Los Angeles Times. What are the social fears? When I asked that question, and now even more, the answer seemed to me to be a race – an assessment of America’s secret history. So I don’t even know if it’s possible to talk about this spectacle without mentioning all the historical parallels it evokes and the real associations it evokes, but I do know that trying to do this would be to omit everything that makes this spectacle worth discussing in the first place. Not telling a story about race in 2019 in the context of a political text seems almost irresponsible, said Lindelof, and I think it would be just as irresponsible not to first contact the Custodes at this level).
That shit was very easy to find – Angela
Angela’s Arc is – especially in this episode – a fascinating treatment of the truths with which this series is connected. Faced with the murder of his white friend and mentor Judd and confronted with a black man who claims to have murdered him, Inspector Abar does something unusual: She’s hiding it. She immediately takes Will off stage and hides him in her bakery. She doesn’t tell anyone about him, and she even claims she didn’t find Judd’s body. It’s an odd choice when you think about it, because superficially there’s no reason to do anything. She loved Judd and trusted him. She doesn’t know Will, and she has no reason to trust him. She’s a policewoman who came to the scene of the crime and found someone who’s a witness at best and a suspect at worst. Why didn’t she arrest Will at the scene and bring him in for questioning?
One way to explain this, of course, is that she behaves like a vigilante superhero, not a policewoman. (In the last episode we finally saw her kidnap the suspect and keep him in the trunk of her car without official permission from her superiors) But there are a few other reasons that come to mind, and they all talk about the underlying problems the Guardians are facing.
First, there’s the simple fact that Will is black at the scene of the white police murder, which means his life is in great danger. Angela may be a policeman, but she is also a black woman in America, so she knows she has to protect this old black man from the almost certain destruction he seems to care about. (We don’t know if another inspector would have reacted as she did or if a white member of the Seventh Cavalry found her sitting under Judd’s body).
And with that consciousness comes – maybe even unconsciously – the following: She can’t trust the system. She knows there’s a mystery here – maybe or maybe not really guilty of this crime – but she can’t trust her colleagues, her fellow state agents, to look beyond their own anger, their own prejudices and their own interests to find the truth.
This whole awesome Regina King thing goes on without saying a word. And throughout the episode she broadcasts something else without any articulation: Deep down, she must have known something was wrong with Judd. I think she’s always known.
It’s the only explanation I can find for their actions in the Comanche Cavalry campaigns. After all, Will hardly says anything to her: He just admitted that he had shot Judd several times, saying he had skeletons in his closet, suggesting he had bigger secrets. He says there’s a big and treacherous conspiracy going on here in Tulsa. If I tell you, your head’s gonna explode, so I’m gonna have to give it to you piece by piece. You didn’t give me anything, Angela looks, and she’s right: And he’s not. But what he says must resonate with her and evoke a deep sense of unease – distrust – that she may have ignored for a long time.
And it is this subconscious mind that later in the episode leads her to look for her beloved boyfriend: to invade his privacy and literally search his closets, supposedly as payment for a call of condolence to the widow. He loved you, told Jane Crawford (Francis Fisher) to Angela. That’s right. But Angela’s faith in this love is already shaken, and maybe she was never as strong as she thought.
And so she’s joking, finding perhaps the most disturbing thing she can find. This scene parallels one of the first scenes in the graphic novel The Watchmakers, where Rorschach, investigating the murder of a man named Edward Blake, discovers a hidden closet to unmask a superhero costume called The Comedian. Rorschach had worked with the actor for many years, but he never knew his secret identity. Angela worked with Judd Crawford for many years, and the costume she recognizes proves that she never knew who he really was. It seems that her boyfriend, her mentor, the police chief she serves and her supposedly white ally have been secretly serving the white supremacist agenda all along.
In the novel, the murder of Edward Blake actually revealed a huge and treacherous conspiracy in the game, and Crawford’s death will undoubtedly play the same role in the series. But here, as we suspect, the conspiracy will be even bigger and more treacherous, because it is an open conspiracy at the heart of American history. We are reminded when Angela leaves the house and the camera is stopped on a painting that inspires the title of this episode: Command execution of George Kathleen’s Skilful Horseman (1834-5). Kathleen was a white colonizer who built his career on documenting Indian tribes in the midst of their subjugation and genocide by the U.S. government. Kathleen had portrayed himself as an indigenous champion by romanticising his way of life and showing pity for the wrongs he had suffered, but he had also benefited from the destruction and appropriation of his culture. Today, Kathleen can be considered a P.T. cultural barnum, a rude hacker who takes care of other people’s lives, writes W. Richard West, member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma and director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. I think the natives should avoid feeling deep resentment against Kathleen at any level; her obsession with the image of the Indians is extremely pervasive. There’s no doubt… … …he exploited the Indians and the West as merchandise.
In other words, it was a white man posing as a friend of people of color, but it didn’t take long to realize that he was just another white man exploiting them. So it was Judd Crawford, the alleged white ally who actually served the cause of the white domination? As I said at the beginning, the big lies depend on our willingness to pretend to believe them, and all it takes to break the illusions is our willingness to look beyond them. Here Angela’s discovery – and to some extent her lack of surprise – may reflect the mistrust of many black Americans towards white Americans who position themselves as allies and exploit and support existing power structures.
And Angela’s dilemma – which will undoubtedly take place in the coming weeks – is just one example of the questions of the German commander, questions that anyone who wears a gun or badge during his service in the United States should ask: Who do I really work for and who do I really serve?
Angela sees herself as a person who is able to deal with a harsh reality. (She and I, Topher, don’t make rainbows and lollipops, she says to her adopted son Topher, an orphan who has undergone a police murder known as Nuit Blanche. Because we know that only beautiful colors hide what the world really is: black and white). But Angela’s not ready to ask herself any difficult questions. It is interesting to note that just as she learns that she is Will’s granddaughter, she immediately withdraws to strengthen her official role as the state’s agent and tries to stop him. (We saw this pageant in an episode during a raid in Nixonville being played in a small key. Angela first resists the desire of her fellow police officers to express her anger with senseless brutality – especially since she already knows the truth about Judd’s death is more complicated – but in the end she obeys this instinct and almost kills a white Nixonville resident). Their dilemma here is a manifestation of the dynamics we hear from many black policemen: how systemic power racism leads them to see themselves first as blue and then as black. Now – as she learns that she literally carries the legacy of the racist oppression represented by the Tulsa massacre – Angela’s instinct is to return to her rigid position within the established power structure. For the time being, at the end of the battles of the Comanche Ride, she rejects this burden and chooses blue instead of black. But we think she’ll have more and more reason to doubt this decision if the Guardians take action.
I’ve never felt at ease in my own skin –Hooded Justice.
Last week I said that this series – like a graphic novel – is rich in intertext that comments on the main story in an interesting (but not always immediately noticeable) way. Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship brings us one of these stories this week in the television show The Story of an American hero, which tells the life of a superhero known as Justice in the Hood.
In the novel Justice in the Hood, first published in 1938, he is America’s first costumed avenger. In his memoirs Under the Hood, one of the interludes of a comic strip, and in a book that we will see in episode 1 on Judd’s desk, police officer Hollis Mason tells how the appearance of hooded justice was one of the events that inspired him to wear a stupid suit and fight crime. Mason became the second costumed adventurer – the first night owl and the other superheroes who would soon become the Minutemans.
We know nothing more about masked justice. He is the only Minuteman whose identity could never be definitively established. (No one seems to have ever seen him without his hood.) He was known for his cruelty, he was reportedly gay (and in relation to another hero, Captain Metropolis), and Mason reports that he heard him express his admiration for Hitler’s Third Reich. Mason describes how Hooded Justice disappeared after he refused to testify before the House of Representatives Committee on Anti-American Activities, and how around the same time a German wrestler named Rolf Muller disappeared. After some time, Mueller’s body was dumped in Boston, and Mason suspected – without any evidence – that these two men might be the same person.
It is interesting to note that the American Hero Story program begins with the repair of Müller’s body and disproves this theory. Not me, says the judge with the hood. I just want people to think that so they stop looking. From here we remember the beginning of Hooded Justice in 1938, when a robbery at a grocery store was stopped and thieves were brutally killed.
What does this have to do with the basic story? It seems inappropriate in this episode, unless it is an interesting possibility: that Will Reeves is Huded Justice.
After all, the time would have come: The villa – now 105 years old – would have been 24 years old, and at its peak he made his debut with Huded Justice. Will would be the only black superhero made up of racist white collaborators, which would explain why Hooded Justice has never been seen without his hood, not even the Minutemans. It could also explain why the hooded suit, as we said last week, caused both the lynching and the image of Marshal Bass Reeves in the silent film Will the Talsa massacre. (Will hasn’t mentioned his last name in the show yet, but we know from the distribution lists that he passes Will Reeves and takes his hero’s last name).
When I was a child, every time I looked in the mirror I saw a stranger looking at me, Hooded Justice says in an episode that begins with young Will staring at his own image – in the shape of a father in the mirror. He was very, very angry. If he can’t let go of his anger, maybe I can help him hide it. I’ve never felt comfortable in my own skin, so I made a new skin. And when I slipped, he and I became one. His anger became mine, as did his thirst for justice…
Is this the kind of hero that young Will chose, who chose not to become a soldier or a policeman, but to work outside the established systems of so-called justice? In the history of television, the right with a hood is clearly white, but it is a drama, and we should not believe any of this. (No, not even a story.) And it’s nice to think of Will painting his eyes white behind the hood, just like Angela is painting them black behind Sister Night’s hood now.
I certainly don’t know if my theory is true, but I believe it’s true, and I hope it’s true. There are no black superheroes in the original Watchmakers graphic novel, but if my theory is correct, Lindelof and his team captured the overt secret identity of Hooded Justice in order to rewrite history and realize that ironically it was the black man who started it all. Just as the legend of Bass Reeves became a source of inspiration for the Lone Ranger, the story of Will Reeves became a snow-white legend of masked justice, marking the beginning of the whole superhero era.
It never ends. – Dr. Manhattan
Finally, we have the mystery of what exactly happens to the character of Jeremy Irons.
I’ll just… as long as I launch my unsubstantiated theories recklessly – I repeat my prediction from last week that nothing will happen as it seems. Nothing ends, Janey, in Dr. Manhattan’s stage version. It never ends. This quote is not from the scene, but from Dr. Manhattan’s last day on earth: That was the last thing he said to Adrian Weidt, who eventually asked him if he had done the right thing.
So yes, it is of course possible that Irons plays Adrian Weidt (as IMDB and other sources indicate). But to believe that Weidt has almost reached perfection in the art of cloning (which is certainly possible for the man who made the giant psycho-cosmic squid teleporter), and that he has gone mad (which is also possible for the same reason).
But wouldn’t it make sense if it was Dr. Manhattan himself? It would cloud the idea that at the beginning of the episode, we might believe that Dr. Manhattan looks just like us now. He fucking lives on Mars, and he can’t, Angela protests, but Will points out the flaws in their logic. He can make copies of himself, he can be in two places at once, he can be up to 100 feet tall, the color of our skin changes, Will is watching. Why can’t he look like us?
We just had a brief glimpse of Dr. Manhattan in a pilot episode, in news footage showing him destroying a large structure he had built from the sands of Mars.
Compare this with a castle in which the figure of Yser plays his peculiar picture.
It’s more or less the same building that makes us think that Dr. Manhattan just improved every simulation of life he wanted to do on Mars. And the identical, strange-looking people with whom he surrounded himself also make sense in this context. They have a renewed interest in human life, said Adrian Weidt in Manhattan during their last rift. Yeah, says Manhattan. I think I might be able to create something.
I have to say, I’m actually not very interested in solving puzzles. (Lindelof’s Lost Lost me very quickly.) But the Guardians make it necessary for me to do what I want to do in order to understand what it all means. As in the story of Hooded Justice, strange and incoherent interludes with an iron character seem inappropriate until we question their superficial reality and see how they can relate to larger issues. We need to look behind their masks to see the truth.
I don’t see it yet, but of course this sequence has a more emotional resonance if you read it as a piece in a piece. In this artificial world on Mars, something once known as John Osterman tells his own story, using the imperfect simulacrum of man as his puppets, his props. He rewrites and revises his own history. He tries to separate the truth from the lie, or maybe, if you prefer, he tries to exhaust the complex truth or hide it in a simplified story. (For the story he tells on stage, it is a very reductive version of his own lineage and even of the characters of him and Janie Slater: it is a story he gets, not a historical truth). On some level he may be trying to understand how things went wrong.
It’s a strangely funny order, but also frighteningly dark. He created human life and used it to tell his human story, but there is no human being, neither in them nor in himself. (Poor Mr. Phillips comes too late to play his part in the big play) Real tears! He warns, trying to reconstruct the last real human moment he ever experienced, but none of it is real, just a sad and meaningless story in a sadly contrived little world.
I don’t know what all this means yet. But of course, as I suggested at the beginning, the play is an honest metaphor for the story, a false and simplistic, dehumanizing fiction, in which we all play our part – and which serves as a human prop, because the truth is always more complex and heartbreaking than what we are willing to look into our eyes.
That’s enough to put an end to it.
Additional notes and selected bits
- I have nothing to say about the footage of Nuit Blanche where Angela was allegedly shot by a member of the Seventh Cavalry in a coordinated police attack. It is one of the most important events that accelerated the world of the Guardian in the opening night – that is why the police are now wearing masks – but we do not know enough to do more than we are doing now. The most interesting part of that series is what happened to the second shooter who apparently left Angela dead. Is it possible that Judd, who claims to have been shot in the same attack, was somehow involved? Maybe even the fact that he was the second shooter and spared Angela for reasons unknown? We’ll wait and see.
- In this episode we also meet Senator Joe Keene (played by James Wolf, Mad Bob Benson). Keene – the son of Senator John Keene, who wrote the eponymous law in the novel banning the masked vigilante.
- Did I see the links on Twitter that Topher had superpowers? I didn’t read that scene that way. In the novel, Dr. Manhattan’s existence led to certain technological advances and spin-offs – the interchangeable fabric of the Rorschach mask was one of them, and I just assumed that the floating Manhattan blocks with which Topher played was one of those innovations.
- On the other hand, I have no explanation for the fact that Topher seems to be building the same damn building as Dr. Manhattan and Adrian Weidt’s castle. Just a visual echo? Maybe this guy is Dr. Manhattan, and in the last episode, we find out the whole story took place in his snowy jacket. (Link for former viewers.)
- More things I don’t know what to do: The secretary removes the letter from the German commander – Fräulein Muller. Is it just a coincidence or does it have something to do with Rolf Müller? Does that mean anything? (This show allows me to chase away the associative shadows).
- Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (of Finding Your Roots) – now Secretary of the Treasury – was pleased to perform a DNA test to determine that Angela is a descendant of the Tulsa massacre.
- Jim Beaver is a welcome guest at every show.
- I hope that with Tim Blake Nelson’s Mirror we’ll have a lot more soon. (And I enjoyed his masked food like Rorschach). I think, like Rorschach, it will gain in importance as the exhibition develops).
- Other random visual memories of the book: Ghost, Pirate and Owl Costumes The Angela family carries echoes of the ghost, pirates and the devil who found the body at Halloween Night Owl Hollis Mason.
- No more memories: The novel is based on the character of the owner of a white kiosk on the run and talks to a young black man who spends his time reading comic books. He wore a hat, which he eventually gave to his child, and it looked exactly like the hat the owner of the black kiosk (Robert Wisdom) wore here. (Both characters died in the attack on New York, so it’s not literally the same child growing up, but it’s a suggestion). Who is this strange little girl (Pretty Hoang Report) for whom she collects newspapers?
- In the comic book Motman was an alcoholic superhero who ended up in a psychiatric hospital after a complete nervous breakdown. Now his technique is clearly used by the paparazzi.
- Wagnerian Valkyrie plays in Dr. Manhattan’s first performance in the piece. In the first chapter of the book Under the Hood, Hollis Mason explains how he links this piece of music to the suicide of a man he knew as a child. Every time I hear this, I get depressed and start thinking about the fate of mankind, the injustice of life and all those things we think about at 3 a.m. when our digestion keeps us awake. The story he tells is actually the story of how he and a number of others laughed at the man’s pain just before he killed himself, so it is a parable of inhumanity and indifference. Do what you want with it.
- If Will says he’s got friends in high places, he’s got friends in high places. Is there an owl boat up there? Probably another proof that Will has old connections in the Cape and Hood community.