'Watchmen': A Closer Look at That "Extraordinary" Origin Story

The Hollywood Reporter speaks with 'The Good Place' writer Cord Jefferson about unmasking Hooded Justice: "This episode feels like the linchpin to a ton of questions."
Mark Hill/HBO

[This story contains spoilers for season one, episode six of HBO's Watchmen, "This Extraordinary Being," as well as the comic books from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons on which the show is based.]

A central mystery at the heart of HBO's Watchmen, not to mention the original graphic novel of the same name, now stands revealed: the identity of Hooded Justice, the first masked crime-fighter of all time.

Introduced in Moore and Gibbons' comic books but never identified, Damon Lindelof's take on the Watchmen mythos provides an answer to Hooded Justice's secret identity: he's Will Reeves, the man in the wheelchair played by Louis Gossett Jr. in the present and The Leftovers veteran Jovan Adepo in the past — specifically, in "This Extraordinary Being," an episode that takes place almost entirely in the 1930s. Regina King's Angela Abar cruises through her grandfather's memories by way of a drug trip, witnessing his Hooded Justice transformation firsthand.

Tasked with bringing the transformation to life: Lindelof and co-writer Cord Jefferson, a member of the Watchmen writers room, and a veteran of NBC's The Good Place since season two. Ahead, Jefferson pulls back the curtain on how he became involved in Watchmen by way of his own The Leftovers fandom (which means, yes, the interview ahead touches on some Leftovers spoilers; proceed at your own risk), how his own storytelling process was impacted by working in Lindelof's writer's room, the ways in which he found himself relating to Will Reeves, and much more — including some insight into how The Good Place will come to an end, when its series finale airs in 2020.

Listen to more about this episode in the Series Regular: Watchmen podcast.

Since we can't be flies on the wall in the Watchmen writers room, can you give us a sense of the atmosphere?

Despite how insane it is and crazy and silly at times, I think that it may be surprising that [it] felt like very, very serious business in the room itself. That's not to say we didn't have fun while we were doing it, but at the same time, there were some arguments in the writers room and people cried from time to time in the writers room. And I think that it was, it's a show that we fought really hard on. The reason I think it felt difficult at times is because we were dealing with situations and issues of real importance to people and things with a lot of gravity to them. Beyond all of that, we were dealing with a much beloved original text, a book that's important to a lot of people. And so we also didn't want to mess that up, too, particularly Damon who literally read Watchmen issue by issue with his father when he was a little boy. I think it was a particular importance to him that he treat this book with the respect that he had for it.

How did you come to be involved? What's your origin story, as it were?

My origin story with Watchmen is that I had never read Watchmen until Damon asked me to work on the show. I was working on The Good Place at the time and I had just finished up my first season on The Good Place, which was season two and I was at a dinner party at Mike Schur's house, and one of the other people at the dinner party was Damon Lindelof. I think it was like a few weeks or a month after the finale of The Leftovers had aired. I was just such a huge fan of The Leftovers. I made sure to get next to Damon as quickly as I could to sort of gush over how brilliant I thought the finale was and tell him how much I loved the show, and we hit it off and started chatting. We started talking about politics that night and we realized our ideas were aligned in many ways. I think about a month after that he emailed me and said that he's working on [Watchmen] and asked me if I would be interested in talking to him about it. So I went out and bought the book immediately and read and loved it. And at our first conversation he asked if I'd be interested in coming to work on it and I leapt at the opportunity.

Did Nora Durst go through the machine, or did she lie to Kevin Garvey?

My personal opinion is that she lied. The reason that I think that is because, if they had this technology on the other side then, and nobody had used it before her, that makes no sense. You'd think that if that technology existed, wherever all those people are and the only person to ever utilize it was Nora Durst. I find that hard to believe. She freaked out. She panicked and decided at the last moment that she didn't want to do it and then she just lied to Kevin to sort of soothe him in a way, to some of his fears and concerns.

You're breaking my heart.

Oh, did you think she was telling the truth?

I want to believe Nora Durst.

Well, what's your answer to my question? Do you have one? Why nobody else would ever have used it?

I don't have an answer. That's why you're breaking my heart! But you go from an admirer of Lindelof's to collaborating with him on Watchmen. What did you learn about storytelling from that process?

For me, the thing that I learned in the room was Damon is a genius of mystery and the strength and power of mystery. Before coming into Damon's room, I was very much a writer who, everything that I've worked on, I really tried to make into a crystalline perfect structure and all the pieces are in the right place and everything makes sense and the story moves that you make in the first scene pay off in the middle somewhere, or the end. All the I's are dotted and the T's are crossed and everything is in its right place. And I think that for me, that's always how I've approached everything. Now I may have failed along the way and it hasn't been a crystalline structure, but that's at least always been my ambition. 

Working with Damon, he's very much a guy who doesn't want every question to be answered. He thinks it's OK if things are messy and complicated and confusing, and thinks that, perhaps sometimes that's where the power of the story lies: he doesn't answer questions that you may have. He leaves threads dangling that he'll never fully tie up. When I first started working in the room, that was very difficult for me to understand and that was very difficult for me to accept. And I think that the more that we went on and the more that I understood there was a method to his madness, the more that I started to hop aboard and understand where exactly it's coming from.

It's a little silly for someone who loved The Leftovers to not come into Damon's room expecting that he's going to be a guy who is pretty mysterious, and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. I guess I should've been expecting that, but I wasn't, and I think that it was a learning experience for me. And what I took away from it is that, I think that sometimes stories can be enhanced by making them a little messy and a little complex and a little difficult for the answers to be revealed. 

This episode, I guess it's a little different. This episode feels like the linchpin to a ton of questions. Where every other episode leading up to it — the first five — I think can be a little confusing at times, particularly if you haven't read the source material. I think that this episode six is that payoff. That's sort of like a pressure release where a lot of what's been going on in episodes one through five, you finally understand and go, "Oh!" It's very revelatory in that way, which was exciting for me.

The episode identifies Will Reeves as Hooded Justice. Initially, I meant to ask if there was a lot of debate about identifying Hooded Justice, because it's one of the lingering mysteries from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' novel — but then again, it seems a central part of this show's thesis.

I'm not sure if it was day one or week one or whatever, but when we came into the room, Damon said that he wanted Hooded Justice to be a black man. That was that, that was his goal, was to make that character black. And then we sort of had to work backward from that central premise. And so there was a lot of building that went on after Damon said that. For me, that was a very exciting concept. When I read the source material, I started to really sort of dig into that idea and I thought that it made a lot of sense after I started looking at it. If we're talking the 1930s, who really would be looking for justice outside of the traditional means of obtaining justice? What kind of person in the United States of the 1930s would be the one most likely to seek justice outside of the police and the court system. When you think about it in those terms, it's like, of course, it's a person of color. Of course, it's a black person. Who was being the most trampled on in the United States and whose rights underneath the law were the most precarious? And I would say that it's clear to me that like, oh, of course it's a black man. And then, once we started to talk about that concept, it got really, really exciting. When I found out that I was going to be the one writing six with Damon, I was really, really excited to take it on.

How did that happen?

I was the one who originally pitched that an act of racial violence should be what spurs Will to become Hooded Justice, the lynching. When we discussed this character as a black man and then I looked at him and he's got a noose around his neck as part of his costume…to me it was so clear and obvious that this should be somebody who was the victim of some racial violence, who decided to strike back by becoming the first superhero ever. I think it was because of that pitch and because of some other stuff that Damon and I had discussed about it, but Damon tapped me to write this episode with him.

Jovan Adepo plays Will Reeves in this episode. Coming from The Leftovers, he has a Nora Durst opinion of his own

Oh, does he?

Neither here nor there! We already know Will as an older man. What did you want to express about him as a younger man?

I identified a lot with Will Reeves when we were exploring him. I'm a person — and this is perhaps a kind of a therapy session — but I'm a person who's been to anger management therapy for years. I'm a person who's been in just regular therapy for years. And so approaching this character, who is a man who is really haunted by the early trauma of his life and is sort of trying to run away from that trauma in completely unhealthy ways, I totally understood that and identified with that, in a way that I felt really, really grateful to be taking on a character who was dealing with those issues. And so I think that I'm seeing and writing for a man who is literally trying to run away from the ghost in his life to no avail, and that was really exciting because I think that what opens up in this episode that I think is a main theme of the season is this idea of generational trauma, of how the wounds of our lives, if we don't take care of them and address them, we can pass them down to our children, our children's children and their children.

That is something that I have felt in my life. And I think that seeing Will, to me is somebody who was angry because of what happened to him, and is rightfully angry about what happened to him in his childhood and his family, and the terrors that were sort of brought upon his life. And then you didn't address those terrors, and he went on with that anger and those wounds. And then we see him 80 years later, a hundred years later, and he has passed that anger and that rage to his grandchild, his granddaughter. That was such an exciting idea to me. 

It's helpful for me to be able to really encapsulate what an episode is in a sentence or two, to make it very concise for myself. In my own brain, that helps me write. And so when I realized that what this episode was about was Will's trauma and him trying to run away from that trauma and that he was eventually going to give this trauma to Angela, that to me opened up the episode and made it clear as to what I was actually going to try to accomplish when writing it.

Lindelof has suggested Watchmen may only last one season. Based on what you know, do you think there's more life to this story beyond this season?

I will leave it up to Damon to decide that. Here's what I will say, to be perfectly honest: I do not know what happens in episodes eight and nine crazily enough, because I had to actually leave. I had to leave early to go back to The Good Place. And so I was not around for the breaking of episodes eight and nine and I have since decided to not read the scripts.

Smart move!

Yeah, I decided I would rather watch it as a fan. I'm with everybody else. I don't know what happens in episodes eight and nine. From what I've heard, the finale is great. I've talked to my other writers, one of whom worked on the finale with Damon, and he said that he really loves it. I'm excited to see it. I would say that I think that the talent in the writers room and the strength of the writers that Damon assembled, I would say that of course I could envision a world in which there is a season two, but I also know that Damon is wary to go on the record and say that there's definitely going to be a season two. So I'll leave it up to him. I think, I mean, it's that idea: "nothing ever ends." It's one of the great Watchmen quotes. I would say that if there could be more Watchmen, yeah, nothing ever ends. But maybe, maybe this Watchmen on HBO ends. I don't know.

How will The Good Place end, tonally?

The Good Place ends on one of the more beautiful, satisfying notes that I think I've ever seen on television. I'm incredibly biased, obviously, but I think that The Good Place is…. I went to see some of the final shots of the finale and I was really, really moved. I think it's going to be a very beautiful and satisfying conclusion. I hope you agree.

Did Eleanor Shellstrop go through the machine or was she lying to…wait, sorry, that doesn't work.

I'm sorry to have ruined Nora Durst for you, man. (Laughs.) I hope I'm wrong!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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