“Hey. It’s me again. I’ve got a joke. Stop me if you’ve heard this one…”
Do you know what a brick joke is? Well, despite the first joke we hear this week, it doesn’t actually have to be about a brick (though the best iteration I ever saw, in the Father Ted episode Speed 3, certainly was). No, a brick joke is something that rewards patience. And a good memory.
FBI Special Agent Laurie Blake clearly knows what a brick joke is. And why shouldn’t she? After all, her father was a Comedian. Yes, this week saw another original character from the comic returning to the story, opening up the narrative to the world outside Tulsa (and wherever Adrian Veidt is). Laurie Blake, formerly Laurie Juspeczyk, is one of the most crucial characters to the original story. A former masked hero herself, she inherited her mother’s secret identity as the glamorous Silk Spectre, doyen of many a teenage boy’s masturbation fantasies.
But when the Keene Act drove the vigilantes into retirement (or underground), she found something else to do with her time – she was Dr Manhattan’s girlfriend. And despite breaking up with him and turning to fellow retired hero Dan Dreiberg in the comic, this ep showed that, even after 34 years, her omnipotent, perma-naked ex is still very much on her mind.
Jean Smart is a charismatic, drily sarcastic presence as Laurie, a welcome addition to a cast that, up till now, had fairly few major characters; in fact we don’t even see Angela Abar until more than halfway through this ep. Despite an apparent happy ending with Dan in the comic as both disappeared together under false identities, she now seems to be single and back to using her real name.
And interestingly, it’s her father’s name. A crucial revelation in the comic was that, unknown to her, her mother had carried on a brief affair with her would-be rapist, Edward Blake, otherwise known as masked ‘hero’ the Comedian. The discovery that Blake was actually her father, in the comic, provoked anger and tears – and was a vital reason for Dr Manhattan to return from Mars and re-engage with humanity.
So has Laurie now embraced her identity as the daughter of the rather monstrous, amoral Comedian? It would seem so, since she’s using his name. Notably, she’s also shown to have grown into many of his character traits – particularly that dry, nihilistic sense of humour that motivated him to view all of life as a sick joke.
It’s fitting that Laurie would end up as an FBI agent – and didn’t that sequence of her walking into FBI HQ remind you of an older Agent Dana Scully? But it’s also useful for the narrative. Exposition has been scant so far in this story, but there’s no more tried and tested way to reveal it without contrivance than the good old FBI briefing.
We actually learned more about this world in the ten minutes that FBI Director Farragut was briefing his officers than we have in the two hours up to this point. ID cards for both Jud Crawford and Angela Abar concisely gave us background on both characters, while the events of ‘White Night’ were explained in more detail than previously. Vitally, though, we also learned of the legal justification for Tulsa’s cops being masked – a specific act of Congress passed by Senator Keene Jr, called the Defence of Police Act, or DOPA. It seems that so far this is indeed a practice restricted solely to Tulsa – but it seems other cities are keen to give it a try.
We also get a glimpse of a published version of Rorschach’s journal from the comics, the dog-eared epistle that seemed poised to reveal Veidt’s deception to the world at the end of the comic. From the cover, it seems that it’s gone on to be considered a fringe, racist screed – the cover seemed deliberately designed to evoke William Pierce’s 1978 Jew-baiting novel The Turner Diaries, one of the most infamous pieces of anti-Semitic propaganda ever published under the guise of fiction.
We even see some of Rorschach’s scrawl, on a slide deliberately inserted (much to the Director’s fury), by naïve young agent Petey. Petey, who doesn’t seem to have a surname as yet, is a likeable foil to the steely, cynical Laurie; but more than that, he’s an audience identification point in a show that sorely needs one. Partnered with her on the FBI investigation into the events in Tulsa, Petey is handily placed to ask all those questions that the audience want to ask.
As he did on the flight to Tulsa, laying bare not only his own fanboy background but also plenty about Laurie. Her ‘association’ with Dr Manhattan appears to be well known – as is her association with Veidt. It’s still not clear whether the world ever wised up to the deception he played on it, but Laurie, who was there for the final confrontation in Antarctica, certainly knows about it. Perhaps it’s a well-kept secret among certain echelons of the American government – of which the FBI would almost certainly be one.
Speaking of secrets the FBI is privy to, it’s notable that the real names of the Tulsa police officers are included in that. As a former ‘mask’ herself, and now a member of the ‘Anti Vigilante Task Force’, Laurie was ideally placed to puncture the mystique these ‘masks’ have built up around themselves, their self-consciously ‘cool’ secret identities. It was amusing to see the likes of Looking Glass (now named as Wade Tillman) wilting under her mocking scrutiny, even having to endure being used as a mirror while she picked her teeth.
Even in the comic, Laurie’s feelings towards masking up were… complicated. Pushed into it by her mother, she seemed to simultaneously love and hate it, unable to ever truly give it up and guiltily enjoying her return from retirement in the Veidt affair. But as she said to Angela in a far more serious exchange than the one with LG, “You know how you can tell the difference between a masked cop and a vigilante? Me neither.”
After two episodes focusing entirely on Angela, this was very much Laurie’s episode, exploring her character and widening the narrative. I’m not sure she’s entirely likeable, but she’s obviously smart and perceptive; and her dry wit is a lot of fun.
She’s obviously made of pretty stern stuff too; we established that early on, with her staged bank raid to entrap lawless vigilante Mr Shadow (or was it the Revenger?). Masked up in black with an OTT gravelly voice, he was an obvious parody of Batman – Angela even described him and his sort as “rich assholes who like to play dress up”, in a pretty clear dismissal of on of DC’s most famous heroes.
It’s that kind of cynical irreverence that sets her apart from the ultra-serious officers of the Tulsa PD – but still, it was her who took down the suicide bomber at Jud Crawford’s funeral. Notably, though, it was Angela who ended up saving lives when Laurie’s assumption about the bomber’s failsafe device proved incorrect. She’s smart, but she’s impulsive and she gets it wrong. That much hasn’t changed.
And neither, it seems, have her mask-related sexual proclivities. Back in the comic, she and Dan tried (and failed) to get it on at first, and only succeeded when both were costumed up, in the aftermath of a daring, and illegal, rescue mission. The Laurie of 1985 found living dangerously a turnon, and masks a fetish. The Laurie of 2019 has clearly developed this, and her (rather large) Dr Manhattan-themed blue vibrator made me guffaw. This may not have been the intention. But she ended up in bed with the much younger Petey, who turned out to be a fanboy after all. Is it usual for her to take up with guys decades her junior? Not that that’s a problem, but I’m guessing it had more to do with the vigilante mask he happened to have handy…
Episode title significance
This episode is entitled She Was Killed By Space Junk.
That’s a (mis)quote from the song Space Junk, by cult 1980s surreal rock band Devo. Apparently Laurie’s a fan – she instructs her Alexa-like electronic PA to “play Devo” the moment she gets home from the staged bank raid, and is regaled by one of their other classics, Mongoloid. Deliberately eccentric and almost uncategorizable, the band are perhaps best known for their breakthrough hit, Whip It, which showcased their rather… unusual look.
How is it significant? Hard to say as yet, though it could be seen as referring (again) to Dr Manhattan, who’s currently not on Earth; or the messages wending their way through the ether from those Trieu Industries message pods.
The use of the band themselves, however, is significant – in the original comic, “Devo” was used as an adjective by the unruly ‘knot top’ gangs who represented the anarchist counter-culture. I’d always assumed that Moore had appropriated its use as an adjective from the title of the band’s 1978 debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! In this case, the use of the band’s name is yet another callback to Moore’s comic.
Meanwhile, over in Veidt-Ville…
The show may have been playing coy till now with the identity of the “Lord of the Manor” (even if HBO’s pre-publicity totally blew the gaffe), but this week any doubt as to his identity was completely removed. As Jeremy Irons dictated his rather florid response to the mysterious ‘Game Warden’, he actually signed off with a flourish, “yours etc, Adrian Veidt”. It was played as a Big Reveal, Irons doing one of his most exaggerated twisted smiles as the camera closed in on him. Doubtless it would have been a dramatic moment if we hadn’t already known that thanks to HBO; that said, Lindelof’s scripts have dropped so many heavy clues, you’d probably have to be an idiot to have thought it was anyone else.
For the removal of any doubt, however, the end of his vignette saw him actually costuming up in the distinctive Ozymandias garb from the comic, for no particular reason that I could discern other than to give the viewer a thrill of Nostalgia (by Veidt Industries 😊). This had been nicely seeded from the start of the vignette, as we saw that purple mask in isolation, adorning a statue that was presumably of Alexander the Great. Irons really looked the part in costume – he’s a pretty trim guy despite his age, and you could easily imagine the older version of Dave Gibbons’ visual creation looking like this.
As ever, Veidt’s interludes were at once the most enigmatic and the most reference-heavy parts of the ep. It had been heavily hinted that, wherever he is, he’s there against his will; this week, that was confirmed as the letter from the Game Warden referred to the “terms of your captivity”. These terms, presumably, include his limited access to modern technology. He plays his music (Desmond Dekker’s reggae classic The Israelite this time) on a windup gramophone, and spends a great deal of time constructing what appears to be a rudimentary environment suit out of glass jars and a suit of armour.
But why? What use could he possible have for an environment suit? What is the ‘great beyond’ that he sent the latest, luckless Mr Phillips into (apparently by means of a medieval trebuchet)? Where on Earth is he?
Well, I found myself wondering if he’s actually on Earth at all. Certainly Mr Phillips’ fate – frozen, blue, his eyes bugging out – looked like the effects of a space vacuum on a human being. That lush valley the manor house is located in looks like Earth (I believe it’s actually filmed in Wales), but who do we know with the power to transform environments completely? I’m actually wondering if Veidt is, in fact, on Mars, and trying to escape the captivity of none other than (drum roll) Dr Manhattan himself! Just a theory at this point, but remember the mysterious structure we saw Big Blue creating and destroying on Mars in that grainy news footage? From the brief glimpse we saw, it looked an awful lot like an old manor house with battlements…
Theories aside, this week’s Veidt interludes were chock-full of slight but noticeable references to the comic. At one point, he sits meditating in the lotus position, as Veidt was often seen to in the comics. His horse is called Bucephalus – that was the name of Alexander the Great’s horse, and reminiscent of Veidt’s genetically modified lynx, Bubastis. A yellow pirate flag flutters, tattered, on the hillside as he rides by – a reference to the Black Freighter? And in his letter to the Game Warden, he denies being “a Republic Serial villain” – the exact same words he used at a particularly memorable point in the comic.
To the rest of the world, of course, Veidt is dead – though Petey speculates that he might be hiding out in Argentina like a Nazi war criminal. It’s still unclear whether the world is fully aware of what he did, though some of Laurie’s dialogue hints at the possibility. But if Rorschach’s diary was dismissed as the ravings of a crank, how would they have found out? The only possible source, really, would be Laurie herself, who was actually there…
In his absence, though, it turns out that Veidt Industries was bought out by a corporation owned by the mysterious ‘Lady Trieu’, who built the massive Millennium Clock (“Look on my works ye mighty and despair”, mutters Petey, quoting Percy Shelley’s poem Ozymandias). It also seems that Trieu Industries is the owner of those pods that allow you to send messages to Dr Manhattan. Lady Trieu seems to be being shaped into a person of some importance in the story, and I’m guessing we’ll meet her pretty soon. I’m also guessing she’s the regular Nova Express reader referred to by that little girl last time…
As ever, there were a few visual, blink-and-you’ll-miss-em callbacks and cameos. The motel that Laurie books into with Petey is actually called the Black Freighter Inns and Suites. The Tulsa police officer previously only identified by name in the credits was named onscreen for the first time – Pirate Jenny.
Pirate Jenny is of course a song from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, a frequent inspiration of Alan Moore’s and in fact was the origin of the name ‘Black Freighter’. The original German lyrics in the chorus refer to “ein Schiff mit acht Segeln”. The English translation – a ship with eight sails – doesn’t scan properly to match the tune (it’s one syllable too short), so the English lyric replaced it with the ominous line, “a ship, the Black Freighter”. It’s been sung by many artists over the years, but one of the most famous versions, by Nina Simone, was played over the end credits of the Watchmen movie.
Also in the movie, a snippet in the montage title sequence shows the characters hobnobbing with Andy Warhol, with a four panel print of Nite Owl in the artist’s distinctive style. It looks like Laurie has at least a copy of one of his other Watchmen-themed pieces, this time including Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Dr Manhattan – and, as she gets up and reveals the other corner, a younger version of herself.
That briefly glimpsed vintage edition of “gentlemen’s magazine” Esquire, depicting a steamy clinch between Laurie and Dr Manhattan, was a callback to an older superheroine porn fantasy from the comic – a 1930s chapbook featuring the original Silk Spectre, Laurie’s mother.
The cemetery where Jud Crawford was going to be buried (until there wasn’t enough of him left to bury), was called ‘Tartarus Acres’. It’s an odd name for a place where you want the dead to rest in peace – Tartarus was the ancient Greek equivalent of Hell.
Laurie has a pet owl (his name, amusingly, is ‘Hoo’) – a reference to her presumably now-ended relationship with Dan Dreiberg, aka Nite Owl. There’s been no reference to Dreiberg at all till now, and I’d assumed, given Laurie’s single status and the obvious, dismissive references to him in her ‘joke’ about heroes meeting God, that he was dead. But then, in trying to win over Laurie to the idea of going to Oklahoma, Senator Keene mentions that, if he were President, “I could even get your owl out of that cage”. He’s obviously not talking about the literal owl in a cage in front of him – the implication is that Dan Dreiberg is in prison for some reason. Again, doubtless more details will be revealed as the story goes on.
Alternate history notes
As the camera pans across the watchful BI agents waiting in the bank, you can briefly glimpse a newspaper headline informing us that “Grisham to retire from the Supreme Court”. Presumably this is a reference to author John Grisham, the former lawyer whose seemingly endless stream of legal potboilers provided the basis for many a Hollywood thriller during the 1990s. In this world, it seems he never gave up lawyering, and ended up on the highest court in the land.
The introduction of another main character at this point usefully opens up the story, and it was good to have one of the original characters involved in the main narrative. The tantalising hints about Dr Manhattan have now been added to with the cryptic references to Dan Dreiberg / Nite Owl. Much though I’m loving the new characters on the Tulsa police force, the presence of an original character (other than Veidt, who’s not connected to the story proper yet) feels like more of an anchor to the original.
It was notable that this was the first ep not to have been written by Damon LIndelof, nor directed by Nicole Kassell. The script, by Lila Byock, was still steeped in the references Lindelof clearly loves, but felty even more kinetic, something accentuated by Stephen Williams’ direction; yet it still felt consistent with the style and tone of the first two, establishing eps. I’m guessing that Damon Lindelof, as showrunner, still has a lot of control here.
And the thing about a brick joke is it pays off much later, when everyone’s forgotten the setup. The script here was clever enough to give us two payoffs within seconds – Laurie’s God joke concluded with the return of “the little girl who threw the brick in the air” from right at the start, as the brick smashes the unfortunate deity’s head in. But Laurie then becomes the butt of a brick joke herself, as Angela’s car makes a sudden and unexpected return from the heavens above, nearly crushing her in the process. Actually, that’s more of a brick joke on us, the audience, than her – a payoff from the previous episode that Laurie wouldn’t have been aware of.
So, in a nice bit of playing with form, this whole episode (and a bit of the one before) is itself a brick joke. On the audience. And if I’ve done it right, so is this review 😊 As Laurie herself concluded, quoting Rorschach from the comic, “Good joke. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.” Her father would have been proud.