Almost six months since its conclusion, HBO’s “Watchmen” still resonates as a remarkable achievement. Not only did the limited series find a way to tell a compelling and meaningful tale in the universe of a classic graphic novel set and published over 30 years ago, but it kept the source material’s willingness to tackle difficult subjects such as social injustice alive. Series creator Damon Lindelof grabbed that baton and found a way to make an alternative history a mirror that takes a deep look into contemporary America’s troubled soul. That stinging admission was no more evident than in the sixth episode of the series, “This Extraordinary Being.”
Written by Lindelof and Cord Jefferson, the chapter finds our heroine, Angela (Regina King), under the influence of a fictional drug called Nostalgia. This powerful elixir allows the person who takes it to relive all the experiences of the person that it contains. In this case, it transports her back to 1938 when her grandfather, Will Reeves (Jovan Adepo), has just been inducted as a member of the New York City police force. Reliving his memories, she watches him suffer racial discrimination from his fellow police officers and witness their blind eye to a Klu Klux Klan cell operating in almost plain sight. He decides to take the guise of a masked vigilante to bring them to justice. Painting his eyelids white, Hooded Justice becomes the first well known “superhero” in the Watchmen universe. A hero that this world still believes was white.
The two writers collaborated with episode director Stephen Williams to show how Hooded Justice not only was discriminated by his public peers but by his secret lover, Nelson Gardner aka Captain Metropolis (Jake McDorman). Our hero prevails against Cyclops in the end, but the consequences of his work destroy his relationship with his wife and young son. In the 21st Century, Angela has been battling a new wing of the KKK and her Nostalgia “overdose” exposes her to the systematic trauma her family and African-Americans have faced for generations.
As Jefferson notes in our interview conducted earlier this month, it’s depicting that “generational trauma” in this context that he’s most proud of. Jefferson began his career as a journalist but has transitioned to writing on the staff of “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” “The Good Place,” “Succession” and, of course, “Watchmen.” And in case you are unaware, there is a common thread of massive critical acclaim amongst those programs.
Jefferson earned his first WGA nomination earlier this year and could find himself with potentially multiple Emmy nominations in July. We discussed his work on “Watchmen” and more in the interview below.
The Playlist: Hi Cord, how has your isolation been going?
Cord Jefferson: It’s going really well. I mean, I’ve been lucky. I’m still employed. I’m staying busy with that. I am safe and healthy. I think that I’m about as good as I can get I think which I’m incredibly grateful for.
I’m not sure what you’re working on at the moment, but have you found it easy to write or has it been harder than you thought?
It’s harder than I was expecting. I think that it’s difficult just to focus and concentrate on anything these days without sort of letting your mind wander to doom and gloom. So, it’s certainly harder than it has been in the past, but I’m accomplishing some stuff here and there.
Well, let’s talk about this amazing Watchmen episode, which I re-watched a couple of days ago. First of all, you were in the writer’s room for the show, correct?
I was, I was. I started working on “Watchmen” I think in September 2017. So I worked on it. The entire writing process was about a year and a half. So I started in September 2017 and we kept going until about the middle of 2019. But I would leave the room, and go work on all this stuff, and then come back, and then leave, and then come back. So, there were about three iterations of the room in total.
And based on that time frame you were obviously going back and forth also working on “The Good Place”?
Yeah, I went to work on “The Good Place” and then “Succession.”
Were those breaks helpful at all in coming back to “Watchmen” to give it a new perspective?
Absolutely. I mean, I think once you get really involved in a show [as] we were really involved with Watchmen, I think that anything suffers when you’re just staring at it for far too long and not taking a break. And so being able to step away for a little bit, and clear my head, and work on other stuff, and then come back with a fresh set of eyes, I think that absolutely helped when it came to writing the show.
Do you remember where the genesis came from of making Hooded Justice African-American and a sort of centerpiece in a way to the backstory for the entire season?
Yeah, that came directly from Damon. That was one of the first things that he said. Damon came with sort of a handful of main ideas that he wanted to incorporate into the season. And one of them was that he wanted Hooded Justice to be black. He said that I think week one of the room. So, starting from that premise, we worked backward to figure out how exactly we would incorporate Hooded Justice into the season. We had no idea that it was going to be Angela’s grandfather, we had no idea that he was going to sort of be somebody who was in Tulsa ’21. We just knew that he was going to be black, and we built backward from there.
And did the idea of putting Tulsa as, I guess, the front bookend of the show, and where it’s set, did that come out of the writer’s room exploration or was that another thing that Damon wanted to work into the show?
No, no, Damon knew that he wanted to incorporate Tulsa ’21 somehow, but we didn’t know where it was going to be. We knew that there was probably going to be a Tulsa ’21 scene, but we thought that it might be somewhere in episode three or four. Once we started toying with the idea of making Hooded Justice, making Will’s origin story come from Tulsa ’21, we thought that maybe we should just put it as the opening of the pilot and just start with it bang in that way so everybody understands that sort of, that’s the original sin from which this story originates.
You’re talking about a year and a half working on this show. Did you guys have a timeline for all the plot machinations that only the writers saw? How did you keep track, especially when, say, you are leaving the show and coming back to sort of catch up on what may have changed?
There was not really a map. It could have been chaos, but luckily, Damon sort of has everything under control. I think that it’s a testament to Damon’s ability and HBO’s trust in Damon’s ability that they just kind of let him go with it. And so he said, “I need more time, I will sort of want to really work on this and dig down in some ideas with these people.” And so I would leave, and come back, and Damon would say, “Welcome back, here’s what we’ve been working on” and update me. And we’d just go from there. It sort of was a very malleable process, which was helpful. And I feel like more TV shows are being written that way nowadays anyway.
About the episode itself, did you ask to co-write that episode? Was it assigned?
Damon assigned all the episodes. So I was assigned that one. I think that I pitched out a couple of the central ideas to that episode that stuck, that Damon and the room liked. And so I think that based on that, and just sort of some of the other themes in the episode, Damon assigned it to me.
Was there anything in particular that, when you got that assignment, you wanted to make sure it was part of that episode? Any ideas that you had?
The main idea that I pitched out that became central to that episode was that Hooded Justice’s origin story was going to be one of racial violence. That the noose around his neck signified a time in his life when he was lynched. And that was sort of, that was the inciting incident that catalyzed the rest of his life, and the rest of his career as a masked vigilante. So that’s something that I felt was incredibly important to me, and in my mind was sort of fit perfectly with the idea of Hooded Justice being a black man. So I was thrilled when that ended up staying and becoming a huge part of the episode.
And in terms of “Trust in the law” the fake movie based on Bass Reeves that Will was a fan of, where did that idea come from?
Yeah, that’s in the pilot. We had already established that he was going to like Bass Reeves, that he was going to look up to Bass Reeves. I forget exactly who, I believe Jeff Jensen, one of the other writers, came in with the idea. I think we were supposed to talk about that he was going to be fascinated by movies in this movie house that he used to go to when he was a boy. And so we were talking about what movies he could have watched. And Jeff Jensen, I think, came in with the idea of him watching Bass Reeves movies. And so from that, believing in the law, trusting in the law, there’s a lot of themes and motifs around that, and that character that sort of grew organically from that. And so when we came to episode six, and sort of his growth into a police officer, and believing that putting on a badge and a uniform would be an effective way to get justice for the wrongs of the past, it seemed only right that we would incorporate Bass Reeves again.
Each episode in the series is basically a download. There’s a lot to pick up, there’s a lot that you can catch on second viewings. But this episode in particular is one of the more self-contained ones of the entire season. And it also has a lot that you’re trying to tell about Hooded’s story, and his growth, and all that stuff. How difficult was that in terms of knowing you had 60 pages to do it?
I mean, it was incredibly terrifying, I’ll tell you that. It was looking at how much story we needed to collapse into such a short window. It was certainly challenging. I would say that the storytelling was such that, using Nostalgia as a device, and saying that this is just sort of a surreal hallucinogenic window into snapshots of a person’s life allowed us to tell a lot of story in a sort of strange way that you didn’t really need to focus on totally centered narrative beats that made perfect sense from one scene to the next. So, the fact that you’re basically supposed to be watching somebody’s drug trip, I think helped a lot in that regard.
In terms of how you actually wrote the stylistic flourishes in the prose, would you have, “Hooded Justice and his girlfriend are at a restaurant, and then in a corner, the viewer sees a flashback to something else, not in black and white”? Or was that something that Steven Williams took from your script and just interpreted it on the set?
No, yeah, we wrote all of the sort of ghosts of the past into the script. The conversation after was sort of how we were going to visually portray those ghosts. There was discussion that, before we decided to put the episode in black and white, there was discussion that maybe the ghosts would be the ones in black and white and the episode would be in color. And we toyed with the idea of maybe the ghosts being blurry somehow or using some vis effects to make him a little muddled. But ultimately, we decided that we wanted to go with the ghost being in color, and the episode being in black and white.
Considering its individual reception and critical acclaim, what about this particular episode are you most proud of?
I think that the issue of generational trauma is one that is near and dear to my heart. And it’s a thing that I think a lot of people don’t frequently talk about, because a lot of people don’t like to talk about old wounds, obviously. And so making an episode of TV that has sort of put that at the front and center, and that puts, to me, what is such an important conversation directly in the spotlight. Particularly as it pertains to People of Color. I was just really, really thrilled that I was able to do that. And I think that, to me, that’s the thing I’m most proud of.
And when you saw the final episode, was there anything that resonated more that you weren’t expecting?
I mean, I think that everybody involved in the episode is incredibly talented. But I just think that the ability that Steven brought to directing the episode was truly remarkable. I think that Damon and I, we had put some of the stuff into the script, but those one-shots that Steven did seamlessly, from sort of the transition between Regina and Jovan? That was Steven, that was fully Steven’s idea. And I think he pulled it off beautifully. So, that episode, when we were looking at it on paper, there’s a lot of huge swings in there. And I think in the hands of a lesser director, that episode could be terrible, it sort of could be incredibly confusing, and totally off the wall. I was floored by it.
I know you’re on social media and you appear like you take breaks, but was it important to you to go online and see what the reaction was to the episode? Because I remember particularly, people were quite moved by it.
Yeah, so actually, the night that the episode premiered, I was so stressed out about it. It was right before Thanksgiving, and I was traveling for the holiday. And I made a good friend of mine come with me to dinner. And while the episode was airing, I forced him to not allow me to look at my phone. I sort of, I gave myself a few hours before I checked out what the response was online because I was so nervous as to what the response was going to be. Because like I said, there’s a lot of big swings. It is a departure, it is a significant departure from what people might expect after reading “Watchmen.” And so I was nervous as to what people were going to say. But after I had a couple martinis and a full belly, I decided to look at what people were saying. I sort of finally got the courage to do it. And I was very happy to see people enjoying it.
I know that Damon doesn’t really want to do another season at this point, or doesn’t have any idea to do it. But did the room flesh out what happened in the rest of Hooded’s life before he meets Doctor Manhattan in, I think it was 2009? From when the superheros became illegal, or whatever it was? Did you guys think about what he’d been doing, what his life had been?
There was a lot of discussion, but we didn’t ever settle on anything. So there’s no real final answer that I can give you. But we did a lot of discussion as to what happened between Tulsa and moving to New York. We sort of hint in that episode, in episode six, that he spent some time in Europe, he went to Germany for a little bit, he speaks German. So, we sort of think that he did some time abroad, and traveled around trying to find himself and then came back to New York eventually. And we did some of that brainstorming when it came to what he did post-Hooded Justice era also, but we didn’t ever really settle on anything.
Having now worked on three critically acclaimed … Actually, even “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore Show,” critically acclaimed, never should have been canceled…
Oh, thank you.
Working on four uniquely different experiences, what has it taught you as a writer? Do you feel like you’ve learned anything about how you can create such consistent quality in such different creative environments?
I mean, if I had an answer, man, I’d be the richest guy in Hollywood. I think that the thing that I do feel like I’ve been able to do is, I just feel like I’ve been able to work with really, really great, talented people. And I think that the thing that I’ve always tried is, I don’t really care about genre. I don’t really care about half-hour or hour drama or comedy. I don’t care about any sort of that surface-level stuff. All I really care about is that it’s something that feels like somebody wants to be thoughtful, and wants to put something good into the world. All I care about is just working on things that feel additive. I feel like there are some TV shows, and some movies and stuff that I feel like just don’t speak to me. And for whatever reason, these projects have spoken to me. And so I try to follow my gut and follow my heart as to what feels like it’s going to be something that I want to work on. And I feel incredibly lucky to have ended up in the places that I have.
Can you say what you’re working on these days?
I’m working on a thing for Apple, about my time at Gawker. Set in 2009. And it’s just basically [chronicling] a tabloid news website in 2009. It’s about the rise of websites like Gawker, and sort of other blogs, and how they changed journalism, and how they changed media.
Oh, wow, as someone working during that era I’m very curious about that.
Yeah, I hope it comes to pass. We’re just in the process right now of, we have a writer’s room going. We don’t have a series order yet. So I think it’s reliant on a bunch of different things. Number one being the pandemic.
“Watchmen” is now available on HBO and HBO Max.