'Watchmen' Writer Cord Jefferson on That Huge Twist, Black Superheroes and Lube Man
Watchmen had a lot of loose ends to tie up after Episode 5, and the sixth installment, "This Extraordinary Being," didn't disappoint. The hour reveals why we've been in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this whole time as well as expands the backstory of the comic book's most mysterious costumed hero, Hooded Justice, allowing the HBO adaptation to tell his story from an entirely new angle. In the episode, Angela Abar (Regina King), having just downed a near-lethal dose of memory pills created for her grandfather, Will Reeves, relives the major moments of his past, and she learns that he is none other than Hooded Justice, the very first masked hero, in a sequence (guest-starring Jovan Adepo as a younger version of Will) that will surprise both show-watchers and longtime comic fans. The episode's co-writer Cord Jefferson, who wrote "This Extraordinary Being" alongside creator Damon Lindelof, talked to Thrillist about creating a new character out of an old one, the show's bold examination of American racism, and the costumed hero appearance that surprised him the most.
Thrillist: Are you excited for the reaction to this episode? I feel like this is the big one, so far.
Cord Jefferson: Yeah, I'm excited. I'm a little nervous because this is one that I think we're taking a big risk with. Hooded Justice wasn't necessarily a main character in Watchmen, he's more an ancillary character, but he's important, he's big. He's the first superhero ever, he's sort of the one on which everybody else molded themselves afterwards. So, despite the fact that he's kind of an ancillary, smaller character, his presence looms large. I wouldn't say that he is beloved amongst Watchmen fans, but we're taking a big risk with a character that I think a lot of people who had read the source material looked at one way, and we're looking at it in a completely different way.
I think that when you do that, when you interpret the source material differently than maybe other people interpreted it, I think that you're bound to upset some people. So, I'm a little nervous about that. But, overall, I'm really excited about what the response is going to be. I think that the story's great. I was talking to another journalist, actually, about this, who's black, and he said that after he watched the episode, he went back and reread the book, and he felt closer to the book in a way that he had never felt before. It really thrilled him, the idea that the first ever superhero was black, and he said that it recontextualized the entire story for him in a way that he really enjoyed. We took this big risk, and if it brings a new audience to Watchmen and opens up the world to a lot of people who might have otherwise not felt as close to the material as they would, I'm super excited about that.
Thrillist: Was it Lindelof's idea, that Hooded Justice would be black?
Jefferson: Yeah. It was Damon's idea. And then we worked backwards from that premise. I was the one who pitched that racial violence would be what convinces Will Reeves that he needs to become Hooded Justice and take on this alter ego in order to exact revenge and find justice, because he was otherwise unable to find justice in traditional ways.
Thrillist: The lynching scene is really intense. I don't think I've ever seen that before. This show is doing a lot when it comes to grappling with America's racist history and present.
Jefferson: Yeah, Damon said he wanted it to be about race, and he wanted to include the Tulsa Massacre somewhere in the story. Damon came into it knowing that he wanted to make a show about race and racism in America.
Thrillist: I talked to Jovan about this episode as well, and he said that he was really excited by all the subtle Superman aspects of his character. I love that in the show your Superman ends up being this black bisexual man.
Jefferson: Yeah, it's incredible. By the way, he's not black in the book, but him being queer is part of the original text. The story follows a guy who wears many masks, who is hiding a lot of himself from everybody who's close to him in his life. I think the masking works really well when it comes to Will's character.
Thrillist: You do have a lot of little details about Hooded Justice from the comic that you work into the show, like how people thought he might have been a circus strongman at one point.
Jefferson: It was exciting and thrilling, because the greatest part is he could have been anybody. Damon said he wanted him to be a black man, which was one limitation that we had, so we needed to make him black. We knew that his character was at least rumored to have been having a sexual relationship with Captain Metropolis, so that was another thing we had to reconcile with. But outside of those parameters, he could have been anybody. It was really exciting to, using those details, put together who this man was and what his life looked like in New York at the time. It opened up the world in a way it hadn't been open before. I was really excited to craft somebody who felt authentic and who felt real and who felt of a piece with the original text of Watchmen, but also something that was all our own in the show as well. And Jovan was incredible. He knocked it out of the park.
Thrillist: This is a really self-contained one-off episode. Did you have any ideas for it in the writers' room that you really loved that didn't manage to make it in?
Jefferson: I would have really loved to find more space for June's story. I think that Danielle Deadwyler is such a tremendous actress that I would have really loved to have given her more screen time, but you gotta make cuts here and there in order to make an episode. If we had had all the time in the world, I would have loved to explore Danielle's character more.
Thrillist: She has that wonderful exchange with Will where she says, "I thought the mask would help you get rid of this thing that you have, but you didn't get rid of it. It just fed."
Jefferson: Yeah. That, to me, was one of the most important scenes of the episode.
Thrillist: I really liked that even though he gets what he wants -- he becomes pretty much a superhero, and then he joins a superhero team -- it turns out that none of the team members really care about anything that he's trying to do.
Jefferson: Yeah, exactly. The episode is very much about a man who's haunted by the trauma he experienced when he was a little boy, and trying to escape those ghosts and escape those demons and outride all those wounds, and not being able to. He joins the police force, because he thinks that he might be able to put on a uniform and a badge and exact revenge that way, bring down the bad guys and, in a way, be able to exact justice for what happened to his family and his family's friends and his entire community years before. And he finds out that can't do it that way. And then he becomes Hooded Justice and he joins the Minutemen and he thinks he's going to be able to outrun his ghosts that way and he fails there also. It's very much about a guy trying to find ways to get rid of the trauma that's haunted him for decades and being stymied at every turn by the powers that be. And frequently those powers are racist white people who refuse to help him on his journey. When she says at the end, "I thought that this would get rid of this anger," he realized that it's only served to compound the anger because of all the roadblocks that he's run into and all the unhealthy decisions that he's made in order to get rid of that trauma.
Thrillist: Was there anything in this episode, or over the course of the show, that you thought was maybe too dark, or wild, or crazy, but you decided to go through with it anyway?
Jefferson: In this episode I can't think of anything, but in the show, Lube Man. [Laughing.] There was I think, like, a whole week of debate about whether or not Lube Man is ever going in the episode. It's so crazy because I thought they'd cut it. I thought we'd all agreed that it's way too insane to include it, and I left thinking that that was one of the more insane ideas that's never going to come to pass. So I was crazy surprised when I was watching it to find out that Lube Man was still in it.
Thrillist: There's so much stuff like that in the show, where you see all these weird, funny little things going on. And then you also have this very serious, dark undertone throughout -- in this episode, that's the tone of the whole thing. What is it like working to fit the sobering aspects of the show in with all the ridiculous, humorous Lube Man stuff?
Jefferson: I think that it is very much the Lindelof-ian way. I don't know if you've ever seen The Leftovers, but I was a huge fan of The Leftovers. And The Leftovers is a show about people's entire families disappearing and leaving them in the pits of despair and grief, coupled with insane silliness, like a woman getting a Wu-Tang Clan tattoo on her arm and jumping around on a trampoline blasting Wu-Tang Clan. It is that way because that's the way that life is. Life doesn't really care if you're grieving or if you're incredibly happy or if you just went through a breakup or you lost your job. I think that even at our best moments life will throw a little curveball and then something devastating will happen, and at our worst moments there's frequently opportunities to laugh at something. In making a show, Damon's way is to acknowledge that even though we're dealing with very serious, weighty issues, that there's still room for absurdity and silliness in the world. I would hope that nobody thinks that we're treating the subjects that we write about flippantly or we're not giving them due diligence and due respect, but I think we were able to walk the line in a way that pays respect to the tough things that we're talking about, but makes it an enjoyable, fun, surprising show to watch.