A review of this week’s Watchmen, “Little Fear of Lightning,” coming up just as soon as I offer you a squid pro quo…
The revolutionary masterstroke of the Watchmen comic book is often presented as Alan Moore asking, “What if superheroes lived in the real world?” And there’s certainly a lot of that in both the comic and now this bizarrely grand television show. But both the comic and the show also draw a lot of their power from asking the inverse question: “What if real people lived in a superhero world?” What’s it like to be an ordinary slob walking home from work, only to come across two lunatics in spandex having a fight to the death? How would it feel to be a therapist responsible for treating a Batman wannabe? To be the girlfriend of an omnipotent being with no concept of linear time?
Or, in the case of poor Wade Tillman — a.k.a. Looking Glass, and the point-of-view character of “Little Fear of Lightning” — what would your adult life be like if, as a teenager, you were one of the few survivors of an alien incursion into New York?
And, worse, how would it feel to discover three decades later that you were, like the rest of the world, just the victim of history’s most elaborate prank?
“Little Fear of Lightning”(*) is structured very much like an episode of The Leftovers — specifically, those annual installments about cosmic punching bag Matt Jameson. When the story begins, Wade is a young man of faith, part of a Jehovah’s Witness field trip from Oklahoma sent to convert the heathens of Hoboken, NJ, at a carnival in the fall of 1985. A girl adjacent to a gang of Knot Tops (a youth subculture from the comic) appears to be seducing him in the funhouse’s hall of mirrors, but really she’s just tricking Wade out of his clothes to punish him for trying to judge her and her friends. Inadvertently, she winds up saving his life, as he’s still inside the funhouse, and surrounded by the mirrors, when a giant mutant squid teleports into midtown Manhattan, killing three million people throughout the city, and even over the river in Hoboken. Wade survives, and almost no one else at the carnival does.
(*) The title is part of a line (“If there were no thunder, men would have little fear of lightning”) from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea — a book that features both a giant squid and a captain named Nemo, which leads to the support group members being known as “Friends of Nemo.”
Last week, Laurie told Angela, “People who wear masks are driven by trauma. They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered, usually when they were kids.” Few traumas imaginable are greater than nearly being killed in a world-altering alien attack, and we see throughout “Little Fear of Lightning” just how much Wade’s life has been defined by that incident, and the nature of his survival. Mirrors kept him safe at the carnival, and as Looking Glass, he has turned his whole face into a mirror. It’s both symbolic of his trauma and pragmatic, since the material, Reflectetine, allegedly shields him from psychic blasts from any future invaders. His cover identity involves him consulting on focus group tests, where again he is hidden from the rest of the world by a mirror he has the ability to see through. He claims to have the power to identify lies — to look through the polished surfaces people present to outsiders, and find out who they really are — but this seems spotty, at best. He sniffs out some of the lies told by his new friend Renee (played by Deadwood and Ray Donovan alum Paula Malcomson), but not the fact that she’s laying a trap for him on behalf of the Seventh Kavalry. When he visits his ex-wife Cynthia, a lab scientist at a pet cloning company, to get information on the pills that Will left for Angela, she suggests he spent their entire marriage assuming she was about to make like the girl at the carnival and publicly humiliate him. He sees what he wants to see, whether or not it’s the truth.
Most tellingly of all, he has never figured out that he was at the center of the biggest lie in human history.
As revealed to him by Joe Keene Jr. — another liar, who has been secretly masterminding the war between cops and 7K without Wade or anyone else so much as twitching — the squid wasn’t an alien invader at all. It was a creation of Veidt’s: “An elaborate, meticulously engineered hoax to save the world,” as the mastermind puts it in a video he recorded years in advance for President Redford’s inauguration day. The squid averted the nuclear holocaust that seemed inevitable in Nixon’s gamesmanship with the Soviet Union, scaring the world into banding together against an outside foe. Even the periodic storms full of baby squids that so obsess Wade all these years later are part of the hoax — Veidt maintaining the illusion decades after the fact(*) — and just one more thing that’s eaten his life from the inside out since he stumbled out of that funhouse.
(*) And arranged in a way that continues to work even when he’s not on the planet anymore, as we’ll discuss in a bit.
The episode, written by Lindelof and fellow Leftovers alum Carly Wray, and directed by Steph Green, reveals the comic book’s biggest secret to Wade, and to any viewers who didn’t already know. Along the way, it deftly illustrates the many ways, big and small, that Veidt’s hoax altered the world. Renee, for instance, discusses Pale Horse, the movie that Steven Spielberg made in this universe instead of Schindler’s List, named after the doomed band that was playing at Madison Square Garden right as the squid appeared. (Spielberg still found a way to use the image of a girl in a red coat in an otherwise black-and-white film.) As important as dramatizing the Holocaust was to Spielberg, it’s not hard to understand why, in the early Nineties of this world, he’d be inclined to tackle a far more recent horror. There are support groups and a variety of bunkum products like Reflectetine and the extra-dimensional security system Wade uses in his home. “Eleven-Two” (akin to us talking about “Nine-Eleven”), understandably, is the defining event of the lifetime of anyone who was around for it, and the all-consuming event for a poor bastard like Wade, who survived that night at the carnival but never really left it.
Laurie derisively — and hilariously — refers to Wade as “Mirror Guy,” and by episode’s end, the mirror has been shattered. Everything Wade thought he knew, everything he put his faith into, is a lie. As he sits in the squad room, talking on the telephone with Angela — a fake conversation itself, since both are physically in the same space but using the phone in a failed bid to throw Laurie off Angela’s scent — he asks, “Is anything true?” How could he not feel that way?
But live a lie long enough — even a deeply traumatic one like this — and it starts to feel perversely comforting. As we see Wade at home that night — shortly before a group of armed Seventh Kavalrymen show up at his house (because Joe Keene apparently changed his mind?) — he has finally ditched his Reflectetine-lined hat. He even confidently throws his new dimensional alarm system in the trash. But at the last second, he goes back and brings it into the house. He has seen with his own eyes that his whole adult life has been based on fake news(*), but it feels better to believe in it, even a little longer.
(*) Watchmen: an intensely progressive show where the racist conservative villains are nonetheless completely correct when they talk about false flag conspiracy theories! It contains multitudes.
Watchmen is in many ways incredibly different from the previous HBO show that Lindelof, Wray, Nicole Kassell and other members of the crew and cast worked on. But both take place in a world where an inexplicable supernatural phenomenon wiped out millions in an instant, in the process transforming the way the survivors felt about the very nature of existence. For The Leftovers, making sense of a senseless reality was the first and often only topic. Watchmen has a lot more on its mind, and often feels more applicable to the world in which we live, even though we don’t have naked blue supermen who vacation on Mars, nor periodic squidfalls created by an insane Englishman who’s currently hanging with cloned servants near Jupiter. But there’s still enough Leftovers DNA here that an episode like this — weird and claustrophobic, intensely tragic and darkly comic, relying entirely on the sweaty magnetism of its central character (and all the pathos the great Tim Blake Nelson could pour into him) — was not only inevitable, but necessary. It fills in a huge chunk of the mythology, while also doing that thing that both Alan Moore and Damon Lindelof do so well: looking at an utterly outrageous sci-fi/fantasy construct and wondering how a very real and fragile human being might respond to it.
As Matt Jameson once said, that’s the guy I was telling you about. I think he and Wade would get along swimmingly.
Some other thoughts, many of them comic book-related:
* The intense focus on Wade risks making our weekly Veidt interlude feel like an unnecessary distraction. Fortunately, this one not only comes right after we’ve seen video of a younger Veidt addressing Redford, but fills in a huge puzzle piece regarding what’s happening with him. This time, he is the one in the spacesuit being catapulted, and when he clears the illusion of a sky above the castle grounds, we see that he’s on one of Jupiter’s moons, arranging the many Philips and Crookshanks corpses to spell out “SAVE ME” for the camera on the Juno satellite probe floating overhead. How and why is he there? The only being in the show’s universe with the power to enact such a punishment is Dr. Manhattan, who was glimpsed on Mars (in news footage shown in the series premiere) making a version of Veidt’s castle in the Martian soil. Mars seems to be his preferred hangout spot in this solar system, but maybe Veidt’s one planet further away from Earth to avoid sullying both of Manhattan’s home bases.
* While the trip to Jupiter’s orbit is largely unconnected to Wade, the episode nimbly advances Laurie’s investigation of Angela even as neither woman is our POV character. The pills are revealed to be Nostalgia, which in the comic book was one of the signature perfumes of Veidt’s company, and here appear to be a way to bottle someone’s memories. Angela, unaware that Laurie has bugged Wade’s cactus, confesses what she’s been up to, prompting Laurie to arrest her — but not before Angela can swig the entire pill bottle. What will that do to her? Tune in next week, same Sister Night-time, same Sister Night-channel!
* The comic details the squid’s origins in much greater detail, as it was designed by a collective of artists and scientists, the latter of whom cloned the brain of a dead psychic and placed it inside the creature. Max Shea, creator of the pirate comic book that functions as a parallel narrative within Watchmen, is among the many writers and artists recruited to help encode the brain with nightmarish imagery that would infect the minds of everyone in the vicinity, the survivors included. (Laurie notes that people who were in the squid’s psychic blast zone still wake up screaming.) Veidt kept the hoax a secret by murdering everyone who worked on it, Shea and the other artists included.
* If only this episode had debuted a few weeks ago in our current political moment, Keene’s “squid pro quo” joke would have felt shockingly, as opposed to just amusingly, timely.
* The wall of screens in front of Wade as he watches the Veidt/Redford video is a callback to all the TV monitors Veidt was watching in the comic as he learned that his squid masterplan was a complete success.
* Wade watches an episode of American Hero Story where Hooded Justice has sex with Captain Metropolis. Their affair is explained in the supplemental materials of the comic book issue focusing on Laurie’s life, as a letter from her mother’s business manager to Sally references the relationship but uses both characters’ initials.
* Always nice when HBO shows keep things in the family — or Family, in the case of Sopranos alum Michael Imperioli’s cameo as himself, appearing briefly in the New York tourism video that Wade’s focus group is watching. (Imperioli: “You know how we like our squid now? With lemon and a little marinara!”) This raises the question of what The Sopranos is like in a universe where 1)superheroes exist, and 2)a good chunk of the New York Family probably died in the squid attack?
* Another way that Redford’s America diverges from our own: tobacco is a controlled substance.
* Finally, do you figure the identical receptionists at Forever Pet are twins, or — like the pets at that place, or Philips and Crookshanks — clones themselves?