One of the most acclaimed TV episodes of the last year is “This Extraordinary Being,” from HBO’s miniseries version of Watchmen, which aired in late 2019. In it, the series’ main character, Angela (Regina King), imbibes a drug called “Nostalgia,” which allows her to enter the curated memories of Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr. in 2019; Jovan Adepo in the 1930s), the grandfather she’s just met. As she viscerally experiences those memories, she discovers the ways in which superhero stories and American racism are hopelessly intertwined.
The episode has received eight Emmy nominations, out of Watchmen’s total 26, and one of those nominations belongs to its director, Stephen Williams, a longtime TV director whose work with Watchmen showrunner Damon Lindelof also includes Lindelof’s earlier series Lost. Williams turns Angela’s journey into the past into an eerie reflection of our own history — both because Watchmen takes place in an alternate timeline version of our reality and because it’s touching on darker parts of the American narrative that are rarely presented within the confines of superhero stories.
I recently spoke with Williams via Zoom about the ways our real-world conversations around structural racism informed Watchmen, how “This Extraordinary Being” depicts America’s queer history, and how jarring it is to suddenly see everybody in the real world — not just the characters on a fictional TV show — wearing masks. Our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.