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Performers of The Month - Staff Choice Most Outstanding Performer of November - Jean Smart



The article was written by Ellys Cartin, Donna Cromeans, and Milo. Article edited by Donna Cromeans (@DJRiter). Article prepared for publication by Aimee Hicks.

The mark of a great performer is the ability to transition genres with ease and excel in each one. Such a performer is Jean Smart. She first came to prominence in comedy with an award-winning turn in Designing Women. Next came multiple accolades and Emmy awards in several television appearances in both comedy and drama series and even a Tony nomination for work on Broadway. Now, Smart brings her incredible presence on-screen to the superhero/sci-fi genre with a dynamic debut in the HBO series The Watchmen, bringing to life the iconic character of Laurie Blake. First, we see her fingers tapping impatiently, waiting for a phone to connect. Her first words are furtive and eager. "It's me again. I've got a joke." Thus, Watchmen fans are introduced and reintroduced to Laurie Juspeczyk, 34 years older and now known as Laurie Blake. Smart plays the vigilante-turned-FBI agent, now master of her destiny in some ways and, in others, still irreversibly linked to the legacy of the men in her life. Her dominating performance has garnered more praise, most notably in terms of this article, the title of SpoilerTV Staff Choice Performer of the Month for November.

Smart's first time in action as Blake is unforgettable, cold, and thrilling. She made a memorable entrance to the series here in this major scene that remains a contender for the most memorable one of the series so far. We see her exit a cab. Her coat flutters behind her like a cape, and her steps are precise and purposeful as the moving hands of a clock. She walks into a bank, up to the counter as if to have an ordinary transaction, except within a blink she pulls a gun from her purse. Her command for money is forceful but not panicked. She stole the scene from the get-go, taking a commanding presence over the bank and every hostage. It was like she'd been there for ten seasons rather than just a few minutes, and Smart made sure that all the attention in the room was rightly on her. When smoke hisses nearby, she turns and watches, waiting. A masked man drops from above to stop her comrades. She keeps an eye on his approach, snatching up a trembling woman off the floor to use as a shield. Her demeanor shifts to amusement. She asks the vigilante how he knew they would be there, and her expression becomes smug. As most of the individuals in the bank reveal themselves to be FBI agents, the vigilante makes a break for it. The only muscle on Smart's body that moves is the one in her trigger finger, and Blake doesn't blink when she fires three shots into the fleeing man's back. She follows the man to the ambulance to handcuff him to the gurney, pausing just once to address an angry bystander who calls the man a hero. Smart makes a half-turn and chews on her words before speaking. She tells them the man wasn't a hero and tells herself quietly he was only a joke. There is unmistakable bitterness in her expression and Smart ushers in her war-weary heroine.

We get our first glimpse of the private life of Agent Blake, as Smart perfectly captures the melancholy mood of the character as she wearily returns home. It's a brief scene that in the masterful hands of a performer of Smart's caliber reveals so much about the complex character she plays with smooth, subtle ease. The first thing she does is tell her Alexa to play Devo. This is a nice throwback, as comic fans know, to the young Laurie Blake who was known as a big fan of the punk rock group. The episode's title, She Was Killed by Space Junk is even an homage to the group as one of their songs is entitled Space Junk. Out on the streets, Blake is a cool, collected customer, at home, she lives a lonely existence, surrounded by reminders of her previous life. Smart's slow, measured movements throughout the apartment show her life behind doors is routine mired in her memories. She nonchalantly feeds a live mouse to an owl in a cage but, is it her owl or is she merely keeping him for a friend, perhaps her former lover Nite Owl? She ponders a silver case in her lap as though it's another part of her daily routine when she's interrupted by a knock on the door. Most people would be a little flustered to find a U.S. Senator – Joe Keene (James Wolk) on their doorstep, but not Blake she doesn't hesitate to hide her irritation and disdain at being interrupted. She quickly corrects him when he wrongly identifies the name of the vigilante she recently apprehended and begrudgingly lets him in although one gets the idea that if he hadn't asked politely, he'd have never crossed her threshold. Each time Blake corrected him Smart did so with just the slightest raise of her voice and a brief flare of anger in her eyes telling us this is a woman who is a stickler for details and getting things right. She goes through the motions of being a good hostess by offering him a glass of water, all the while keeping a close eye on him as he gets close to the owl in the cage. The Senator thinks he's in charge, but little does he know.

Smart is masterful at playing characters whose face says one thing but a slight edge in their voice tells you they mean something else entirely. In this case, she is expertly conveying to the Senator her disdain for not just all authority, but particularly his authority. Blake is controlled at first schooling her face not to react but when the Senator brings up his Defense of Police Act, she brings her hand to her mouth to keep from laughing in his face. She chuckles a bit at him, incredulous that he named his bill DOPA. We see more visible anger from her as Smart's body language stiffens, and Blake lashes out at him about putting cops in masks and treatment of vigilantes as though his legislation had personally hurt her. The beauty of this scene is the way Smart is framed in the shot. Behind her is a Warhol-like painting of four squares. Three men, sharp-eyed comic fans will recognize the figures as Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl, (two of her former lovers) and Ozymandias - occupy three of the squares. She never moves her head out of the confines of the square until the end of the scene when the camera pans to reveal the fourth image is Laurie herself as her one-time vigilante alter-ego, Silk Spectre. An indication to fans not familiar with the name/character of Laurie Blake that there is more to this woman than meets the eye. When the Senator informs her about the case in Oklahoma that he wants her to take (Judd's death) she doesn't agree. And instead calls his bluff a bit by telling him she knows the real reason he wants her on the case is to save his fledgling Presidential campaign from embarrassment. He teases with a President can issue pardons; teasing her with the knowledge that as President he could even open the bars holding her owl, a likely reference to her partner Nite Owl whose fate has been unclear up to this point. It was perhaps the first thing he said that surprises Laurie as Smart throws her head back and lets out an exasperated sigh frustrated with herself that this bureaucrat knew just which of her buttons to push to get her to help. Who does she want out from behind bars? She didn't like it, but she was going to Oklahoma.

A defining trait of Smart's performance is her ability to disappear into the edges of a scene, while still commanding all our attention. This is demonstrated in her FBI scenes. Blake enters a meeting late but takes her seat without any apology or fuss. Coincidentally, nothing important has been covered. She barely raises a remark but pays close attention to every detail discussed. When a joke is directed at her about masked vigilantes, she nods good-naturedly, with Smart creating the impression of a person with thick skin. She is the last to arrive but the first to stand, as the case is handed over to her. Her only indication of inconvenience is the disdain in her shoulder shrug when her boss says she can't go alone. Aboard her flight to Tulsa, Blake wakes from her nap to find her companion Agent Petey (Dustin Ingram) ready to socialize. He chats about his mask, mentioning that the police in Tulsa wear them, and she politely ignores him. Smart goes through a very habitual routine, with Blake rummaging in her belongings, procuring her toothbrush, and tidying up as she goes. Only when this ritual of hygiene is complete does she address Agent Petey bluntly. Ever so slightly peeved, she wonders aloud if he is a fan of the old stories, the old "superheroes," the past in general. Agent Petey's direct denial, his annoyance that she would categorize him that way, earns him a modicum of respect, as Smart shifts her posture from one of wary confrontation to ease. She confides aloud that she isn't a fan either and turns her gaze to the window, dissolving into her thoughts.

Smart owns every second with her non-plussed authority. As she and Agent Petey wait outside the Tulsa Police facility, Blake tosses back small handfuls of sunflower seeds, spitting the occasional stray shell out the window. She sees the truck pull up and hands the seeds to Agent Petey with a firm warning he isn't allowed to eat any. She casually strolls up to Red Scare (Andrew Howard) and Pirate Jenny (Jessica Camacho) unloading a prisoner. Her walk is full of cheerful pep as if she's just out to have a nice morning. Blake keeps her hands in her pockets and pleasantly inquires what the two masked officers are up to. Her introductory manner here is perfectly polite but absolutely disinterested. She makes this plain when she asks the prisoner if his rights are being violated, with mock concern she doesn't even wait a breath before walking back. Her first sight of the building's interior operations does result in her first voluntary pause of the episode. The bedlam of dogs, officers, arrestees, loud voices…. her face darkens with something mournful, something nearly regretful. With a slight incline of her head, Smart erases those complicated feelings.

She controls her entire interaction with Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), from overriding his protests to not touch the remote to her bemused belittlement of his explanations. In a singular perfect moment, Smart stops abruptly and leans toward Looking Glass's reflective mask. Blake peers intently at her image, then with a grimace, picks at her teeth to remove an offending particle. With a wave of her hand, she dismisses Looking Glass's humiliation. Smart gives the sense that there is very little that can stand up to Blake's scrutiny. Looking Glass, or Detective Tillman as Blake identifies him, just removes the mask, reduced to merely reacting to each of Blake's remarks. When Smart quietly mentions that Angela Abar (Regina King) is Sister Night, Looking Glass is too surprised to react. Blake, however, looks up slowly into his eyes, an all-knowing smile almost visible on her face. She announces shortly afterward that she'll be attending Chief Crawford's funeral with the wry statement that she will wear something darker. She is always frank but cunning.

Smart's portrayal of Blake is just as masterful in situations that discombobulate her character, such as the kerfuffle that unfolds at the funeral. Before her arrival, we witness Blake preparing her outfit. She straps a gun to her ankle, briskly buttons her satin blouse, and gives herself one long glance in the mirror. When she and Agent Petey make their way to the mourners, Smart crosses her arms in a pose that is both meant for Blake to shield herself from the wind and for Blake to present herself in a more vulnerable, friendly light. This is useful in her first approach to Abar. She is nothing but cordial, announcing she's there to help, extending a card and suggesting a coffee meeting as if the meeting is optional. The tranquility is broken by the arrival of a suicide bomber warning that his explosive device is wired to his heart. He wants Senator Keene to go with him, and everyone draws back to let it happen. Everyone is paralyzed by necessity. Blake's single shot kills the bomber, and the ensuing explosion slams her and Abar near each other on the ground. Both women stare at each other, calculating the other's mettle; neither blinks. Blake appears slightly stunned.

Abar and Blake reunite shortly afterward in the mausoleum, with the tension between them brittle as ice. Smart makes the first move to thaw it with Blake extending a hot coffee towards Abar, complete with another smile and a jest. She holds it a second too long; her arm starts to show strain just as Abar lifts the cup out of her hand. Smart settles back into a watchful position, letting Blake show Abar she's pretending to evaluate the other woman. Her opinions are already formed, which Smart tells us by letting every question run through her eyes before it leaves her mouth. She pretends to make throwaway statements, meaning to lead Abar into the responses that Blake wants to hear to confirm her observations. She feigns dropping a bombshell on Abar with the revelation that Crawford had a secret closet, and she isn't displeased when Abar is more curious how Blake knows there was a closet. Cautiously, Blake offers up that her father had a secret compartment that was found after his death, so now she checks for compartments just in case. Smart lets nostalgia coat this remark as if Blake briefly slips into mentally reminiscing her complicated life. But Abar is asking about the secret compartment, as calmly as she can. Blake turns the question around, dramatically flourishing her response as if she's Marple or Poirot solving the whodunnit. The women lock gazes; a quiet, yet deafening menace fills the air. Smart lets her character relax just a little. Blake is confident she has Abar caught in her thrall. She delivers a monologue that is nothing short of scrumptious, with Smart's voice building crescendo with each line she recites. The climactic moment is her pointed announcement brimming with smooth, calculated menace. "Here's the thing about me, Sister Night. I eat good guys for breakfast." Smart's delivery of this statement induces goosebumps, threatening to overpower the entire scene. It's far too powerful to go unanswered, and King swats it away by mocking the very chills that are crawling up viewers' spines. She pours the untouched coffee down into the bomber's hole in the ground, leaving Blake sitting alone in the crypt. Smart lets out an exhale here that punctures the remaining tension. She shows us that Blake has been shaken by this conversation. She isn't quite sure how to process Abar’s defiance.

"It's not a hero. It's just a woman." That's how Laurie Blake refers to herself at the end of the long joke she's telling the former Jon Osterman at the end of her trans-planetary phone call. Usually, voiceovers are cheap ways of providing info-dumps for the audience but not so in this case, as everyone felt needed. Very little has rattled Blake in this episode, but here Smart peels some of the veneers back. Her voice is wistful, her tone lonely, as she wonders why she keeps coming to the phone booths. Smart doesn't linger on any part of this conversation, but she participates in it with familiarity, an intimacy that ensures it doesn't feel one-sided. When the voice tells her to hang up, because her time has run out, she cracks a small chuckle and bids her old friend goodnight. A single tear zips down her face, and she leaves the phone booth deep in melancholic thought. Her steps are heavy, but suddenly something is different. She looks around and upwards; a car falls from the sky, smashing into the pavement right in front of her. Smart reacts with complete astonishment, but then she throws back her head and laughs. Formerly the Silk Spectre, formerly The Comedienne, Laurie Blake stares up into the sky and lets peals of laughter replace the emptiness.

It's a testament to both the brilliant writing and Smart's incredible performance that this episode is as memorable as it was. From moments mundane to bizarre, such as a car being dropped from the sky, Smart sold each one with her reactions; and most important of all, she presented Blake as a fully realized character carrying the weights of her past and the challenges of her future. By the time the episode ended, it seemed as if Jean Smart and Laurie Blake had always been a part of the show.

Smart's performance here transcends the mundane boundaries of her character's role and harkens back to the rich, complex identity of the person she's giving life to. Not quite a hero but not just a woman, Smart's Blake is a tapestry of contradictions. The richness of this character is well-suited to an artist of Smart's considerable talents, and it's impossible to imagine anyone else bringing life to Blake with as much snark and pathos. For all the reasons discussed in this article, she was voted SpoilerTV's Staff Pick for November Performer of the Month.

While so many aspects of Jean Smart's brilliant debut as Laurie Blake have been discussed here not all have been explored. Share your thoughts about her performance in the comment below.


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