Watchmen: Season 1, Episode 5 – Little Fear of Lightning

“We know there are other dimensions than this one, but this is the dimension where we live – and we will not live in fear.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Last week, I wrote that Looking Glass was fast becoming my favourite of Watchmen’s minor characters, and I hoped we’d be seeing more of him. It now looks as though he was being prepared for that since the very beginning, as this week the focus was squarely on him. This ep cleverly managed to combine his origin story (his “trauma” as Laurie would put it) with an examination of his psyche overall; and along the way, gave us perhaps more exposition about this world than any ep so far.

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The exposition was far less clunky than characters explaining things to each other that they must, logically, already know, for the audience’s benefit. It was even less clunky than the timeworn but effective FBI briefing used in ep 3 – because it arose naturally out of the story being told.

I’d mentioned before how much LG reminded me of Rorschach from the original comic; this week only served to reinforce that impression. On the face of it, young Wade Tillman’s trauma, that turned him from a meek young Jehovah’s Witness to the cynical masked avenger we know, was to be caught up in the horrifying events at the end of the original story. That would have been enough, you’d think for many comic-style stories. He witnessed death and horror on an almost unimaginable scale, surviving himself (he thinks) due to being surrounded by mirrors as Veidt’s ersatz invader wiped out half the population of New York City.

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It was a neat (perhaps too neat) explanation for why he wears that mirror-mask; and also why he lines his signature hat, when off duty, with the same material. As far as he’s concerned, reflective material can deflect the psychic forces that drove so many of the survivors of the incident insane. But of course, that hat looked like a literal interpretation of the old expression for a conspiracy theorist – that they would wear “tinfoil hats” to keep out imaginary brainwashing rays.

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Wade Tillman certainly is a conspiracy theorist, but it looks like most of this world believes in that conspiracy right along with him. We already knew that he’s fascinated with the repeated ‘squidfalls’ (and more on those later), taking photos of them and saving newspaper clippings. Here, we found that he also runs a support group of sorts for those still traumatised by the horrific events that took place 34 years previously. And there are plenty of them, as it seems the world was indeed fooled by Adrian Veidt’s clever deception; well, most of the world, anyway…

The depiction of the actual incident Veidt created was given as much depth here as it was in the comic. There, several whole pages of the final issue are devoted to depicting, in gruesome detail, the carnage caused by the arrival of the faked alien creature, the New York streets littered with bloodied corpses, as Dave Gibbons’ artist’s perspective slowly tracks around to finally focus on the hellish thing at the centre of the devastation. It’s a jaw dropping bit of comic writing and art.

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Inexplicably, that ending was the one thing that was changed in Zack Snyder’s otherwise too-faithful movie adaptation, so until now, we’d only seen it from the perspective of a comic. Here, in a deft prologue, we were shown how the devastation reached as far as Hoboken, New Jersey – most famous as the hometown of Frank Sinatra, whose songs repeatedly featured throughout the ep. The soundtrack’s frequent returns to Sinatra’s ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, along with several cover versions of George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’ (playing at the amusement park as everything went to hell) emphasised how this night is still haunting Wade.

Indeed, the juxtaposition of Frank’s jaunty ‘Theme from New York, New York’ with the camera panning across the destruction, finally alighting on the murkily lit remnants of the giant ‘squid’ creature, was a brilliant counterpoint from director Steph Green. The whole incident was portrayed masterfully, starting with young Wade’s gobsmacked perspective within the shattered hall of mirrors, and widening to take in the wholesale destruction of miles of city blocks. It’s a devastating moment in the comic, and it was a devastating moment here – kudos to the creative team.

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So yeah, pretty damn traumatic, and enough, you’d think, to explain LG’s rebirth as a mirror-themed vigilante. But, just as with the comic’s depiction of Rorschach’s origin, there was more to Wade’s trauma than that. The fact that he’d just been left naked and humiliated by a mockingly cruel young woman taking advantage of his naivete gave an undoubtedly sexual element to his trauma – just as Rorschach, in the comics, was traumatised as a child by repeatedly seeing his prostitute mother engaging with her clients.

Sexual trauma is one of the most powerful psychological motivators a person can have, but it’s only comparatively recently that comics have started to explore it as a factor in their characters’ often twisted psyches. Even in 1985, Rorschach’s “trauma” was treated in an unusually mature fashion; since then, sex has continued to be a risky subject for comic writers. Alan Moore blazed a trail there, and while a few writers (Frank Miller and Grant Morrison spring instantly to mind) scrambled to follow his example, the rest of the comics world has been more hesitant in engaging with sexuality as a subject.

Reading between the lines then, it looks as though LG’s sexual trauma might explain his bad luck with women. We’d previously heard references to his ex from Angela, who’d tasked him with asking her to analyse those mysterious pills deliberately left for her by Will. This week, we met her as Wade followed up on that inquiry. His accent might lead you to believe that he’s just a dumb Okie, but it turned out that his ex (wife, presumably) was a high-powered scientist that you wouldn’t expect to find with such a guy. It looks like old LG may have hidden depths.

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If so, they’re not transdimensional ones, whatever he and his therapy group might believe. As a conspiracy theorist, he’s on the trail of the wrong conspiracy; and this ep showed him being guided and manipulated into finding the real one. In keeping with such tropes, though, it doesn’t look like the conspirators are letting him in on their secrets for altruistic reasons. No, they want something from him – and as ever with conspiracy stories, the path they’re guiding him on looks like a dark one.

I was genuinely surprised to find that the ‘leader’ of the Seventh Kavalry was none other than Senator Joe Keene Jr. As with his previous role in Mad Men, James Wolk had managed to make the perma-smiling politician more than a little shifty, and it was clear he had something to hide. But I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting it to be this. It also provided a resolution to an earlier mystery (resolutions have been thin on the ground in this show so far), about Jud Crawford’s apparent racism.

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So Jud and Keene have been co-ordinating the actions of the 7th K from their respective positions as masked leader and police chief, ostensibly with the intention of keeping them from straying back into the unholy violence of White Night. It’s not a bad plan, and it mirrors Veidt’s, albeit on a smaller scale – do some bad things in the hope of preventing much worse things on a far bigger scale.

All of which casts more doubt on the Kavalry’s responsibility for events so far. If this scheme was working, why descend to shooting cops, and attempting to bomb the police chief’s funeral? The Kavalry appear to be far from clean-handed, and are certainly involved in something; their experiments with teleportation tech demonstrate that. But are they the ones behind the explosion of violence in Tulsa, or are they being set up? It was notable that there wasn’t enough left of the bomber to examine his body – was he just a patsy, or even a Kavalryman at all? If they are being set up, who for, and who by?

It would be entirely in keeping with the original comic for this whole plotline to be an exercise in misdirection, to divert our attention from what’s really going on. Given Senator Keene’s involvement, together with his knowledge of the real events behind the NYC disaster, he’s got to be a leading suspect.

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And it looks like he’s grooming LG as a patsy too, manipulating him with the real story behind the events of “11/2”. This finally demonstrated what up until now the show has only hinted at – the wider world is still unaware of the deception played on it in 1985 to prevent it annihilating itself in nuclear warfare; but the upper echelons of government have known the full truth for years, and are keeping it confidential.

Written down, that sounds like real tinfoil hat stuff; but Keene had the proof, skilfully manipulating the doubtful Wade into watching the video recording Adrian Veidt had made for then-new President Robert Redford in 1993. Despite Veidt’s apparent contrition (albeit not regret) at the end of the comic, the Jeremy Irons Veidt we saw here seemed just as arrogant and superior as he ever was (and indeed is now). Given the medium involved, the picture was fairly low definition, and shown on small portions of the screen; so it was difficult to tell if Irons had been subtly ‘de-aged’ by the currently vogueish CG means.

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Nonetheless, he did project a confidence that is missing from the present-day Veidt, as he explained how everything had been part of his plan – and that plan was still ongoing. It finally gave an explanation for the ‘squidfalls’, as Veidt detailed how the paranoia about extradimensional invasion would be kept current with repeated “small extradimensional events”.

So despite his captivity, could it be Veidt that’s behind everything – again? If it was a plan he set in motion, with all the complexity and multiple unsuspecting players as the last one, there’s no reason why it couldn’t still be running in his absence. Like a watchmaker, who sets his intricate creation running, then leaves confident in the knowledge that it will continue to run as it should.

And just like that watch, it seems that Looking Glass has been wound up and set running; in this case to take care of the investigation that looks like it’s getting too close to the truth. With LG the focus of this story, we didn’t see much of Angela or Laurie this week, but they’re clearly troubling at least some of the real culprits here – and it’s LG’s task to take them off the board, by setting them against each other. The truth may have been his first reward. But judging by the heavily armed men creeping up on him at the end, his ultimate reward may be something more final.

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Meanwhile, in Veidt-ville…

More questions received answers this week in the usual vignette showing Adrian Veidt’s frustrating captivity. But of course, those answers only led to more questions.

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We’d been theorising for a while that Veidt isn’t being held prisoner on Earth, but somewhere in space. Previous eps have dropped hints as to exactly where – Mars, where Dr Manhattan was seen building and demolishing a house that looked suspiciously like his Manor, or the Moon, neatly crossfaded into last week.

That was apparently more of that cunning misdirection, and this ep showed that we were wide of the mark by more than a few million miles. Finally taking the plunge with his makeshift environment suit and Jules Verne-ish trebuchet, this week saw Veidt following in the footsteps of countless Mr Phillips and Miss Cruickshanks as he was catapulted outside the unexplained bubble enclosing his world.

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The vista into which he emerged clearly was in space somewhere. But judging by the view, it wasn’t either of the places hinted at previously. That huge, reddish planet dominating the skyline didn’t look like Mars or Earth – rather, it looked like the largest planet in our solar system, the gas giant Jupiter. Of course, there’s no guarantee that Veidt is actually in our solar system; but if so, it looks likely that he’s on one of the monster planet’s numerous moons. The presence of actual ice narrows it down, but only a bit – several of Jupiter’s moons are known to have frozen water on the surface, notably Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. The last of those featured heavily in 1984 Space Odyssey sequel 2010, in which the long-speculated on possibility of life underneath all that ice was a key plot point.

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So we know (possibly) where Veidt is now. We also know why he kept hurling corpses through the barrier onto the icy moon’s surface – to spell out a message to a watchful space probe, asking someone to “save me”. Who, I wonder? Dr Manhattan? He wouldn’t need a spaceborne camera to find out, surely?

A new question then. Whoever it is, they’re clearly superior to Veidt; contemptuous though he may have been, he had little hesitation in describing his captor to the still-unidentified (and, significantly, masked) Game Warden as a “god”.

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Godlike this captor may be, but even the Game Warden agreed that (if so) he was a god who’d long since abandoned this creation. That still sounds like Dr Manhattan, and even though his presence has been barely glimpsed in the story so far, I’ve a feeling he’s still got a very big part to play (no, not that big part)…

Episode title significance

This week’s ep was entitled Little Fear of Lightning. All the ep titles have been cleverly presented onscreen, but this one took it to new levels by displaying it backwards on the other side of a one way mirror.

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The title is a quote from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – “if there were no thunder, men would have little fear of lightning”. The use of Verne is significant in at least two ways – Adrian Veidt’s primitive technology is more than a little reminiscent of the contraptions envisaged by the French author, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is particularly remembered for the monster repeatedly fought by the arrogant Captain Nemo in his technologically advanced submarine Nautilus – a giant squid. Draw your own conclusions…

American Hero Story

Absent from the story for the last two weeks (other than verbal references) the show-within-a-show made a fleeting return this week as Looking Glass settled down to watch a snippet of it. In keeping with its inspiration, this scene had strayed away from the violence and into the realm of explicit sex – in this case, a pretty graphic depiction of gay sex between Hooded Justice (he was the top, natch) and Captain Metropolis, another leading member of the Minutemen.

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It’s heavily hinted in the original comic that both men were gay, but just as Ryan Murphy’s AHS lacks all subtlety, so does its equivalent here, so this was far more than just a hint. However, if we’re all correct in believing that Hooded Justice’s real identity was Will Reeves, it’s another bit of misdirection – looks like Petey was right in his opinion of the show as “garbage” in terms of accuracy. Nonetheless, I did notice that Looking Glass didn’t seem particularly put off by a realistic depiction of some fairly rough gay sex – another indication, perhaps, that his sexuality is still rather… fluid?

Callbacks and references

So, so many. Last week was fairly light on the callbacks to the original comic, but given that this week’s actual prologue lovingly recreated one of its most memorable moments, it was obvious that we were getting back into the references in a big way.

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Starting with that very prologue, the thuggish, leather clad gang types who sneeringly accosted poor, innocent young Wade Tillman were Knot Tops – a gang subculture established in the original comic, and responsible for more than a bit of mayhem – including the murder of the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason. Styled in 1985, their samurai-style topknots (hence the name) seem to have predicted the rise of the ‘man-bun’ some decades later…

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As Wade walked through the streets of Hoboken, a rather attractive young man was leaning against a wall reading none other than the original comic-within-a-comic Tales from the Black Freighter. Conspicuous on the back cover was the same ad shown on the original – a bodybuilding course by the very Adrian Veidt who was about to devastate the surrounding area. Called ‘The Veidt Method’, it was designed to recall all those Charles Atlas bodybuilding ads targeted at skinny young comic book readers in the 50s, and boasted, “I will give you bodies beyond your wildest imaginings”.  This intentionally paid off later in a very dark way, as the ad was seen fluttering atop a pile of corpses in the aftermath of Veidt’s faked attack.

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Later, as the unmasked Wade stealthily creeps through the 7th Kavalry base, the last movement of Mozart’s Requiem again plays on the soundtrack, referencing the movie’s use of it as Veidt’s final theme. On the wall, there’s a drawing that looks very much like a giant, one-eyed squid.

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The mystery pills investigated by Wade’s ex turned out to be a proscribed drug called Nostalgia – in the comic, Nostalgia was a scent marketed by Veidt Industries.

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These pills, however, do something different than attracting women. They can install memories in the human brain – potentially quite a range of possibilities for unreliable narration right there. Is the drug connected to the perfume, I wonder? Perhaps an unexpected side effect was discovered…

There were plenty of dialogue references too, particularly in the scene with Wade and Senator Keene. After making the truly dreadful pun “squid pro quo”, the smarmy politician went on to talk of the “Institute for Transdimensional Studies” – the organisation that, in Veidt’s fabricated story, was inadvertently responsible for bringing the monster squid to our universe. In the comic, the establishment was actually called the “Institute for Extraspatial Studies”, but “Transdimensional” better fits with the term used repeatedly in the script. It’s their teleportation tech that the 7th Kavalry are, probably inadvisably, messing about with; tech developed in part from the abilities of Dr Manhattan, hence the trademark blue lightning whenever those basketballs popped into existence.

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Giving Wade the choice of whether or not to watch Veidt’s vdeo message and discover the truth, Keene told him, “I leave it entirely in your hands”. That’s the very last line of the very last issue of the comic, as the bored editor of the New Frontiersman delegates responsibility for a story to his nebbish assistant – with Rorschach’s journal perched menacingly on top of the pile.

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Veidt’s message to President Redford was full of revealing detail, but notable was his description of his vision for the future – “a stronger, loving world”. Sounds lovely – but it’s also the title of the comic’s very last issue, and it’s a (slight mis)quote from a John Cale song called Sanities; in context, it goes, “All so that it would be a stronger world, a strong though loving world to die in”. Brrr.

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As LG watches the message, it’s displayed on a huge wall of monitors. That’s a reference to the memorable image of Veidt watching a similar wall of monitors in his Antarctic fortress, to check on the progress of his plan.

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Referring to his plan, Veidt, in the message, comments about a more powerful weapon than nukes. “That weapon, Mr President,” he avers, “is fear – and I am its architect”. Not coincidentally, there’s an episode of scifi anthology show The Outer Limits called The Architects of Fear, in which a group of scientists, fearing Earth’s desgtruction in a nuclear war, stage a faked alien invasion to bring the planet’s nations together and avert the apocalypse. Sound familiar? Well, I’m guessing Alan Moore had seen it; he even cheekily refers to it towards the end of the comic…

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Alternate realities

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the show’s subtle depiction of its technology having developed differently to that in the real world. This was established in the comic, and largely stemmed from the scientific knowledge of the near omnipotent Dr Manhattan.

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For example, the cars here don’t run on internal combustion. They’re all electric, courtesy of Dr Manhattan’s ability to synthesise lithium for the batteries. You can tell right from the very first episode, as all the cars onscreen move not with a trad engine sound, but an eerie, near-silent hum.

Even more significantly (for story purposes), nobody in this world has smart phones. Or, so far as I can tell, mobile phones of any kind. The police all communicate with old-style radios, and when off-duty, LG is summoned to communicate via a 1980s style pager.

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Why no smart phones? Well, even more significantly, there doesn’t seem to be an internet. Oh sure, there are computers, and some very fancy tech (witness the holograms in the Greenwood Cultural Center). But nobody has a personal computer, and tinfoil hat conspiracies are spread on paper (viz, Rorschach’s Journal, and LG’s newspaper clippings) rather than on the darker corners of the net.

Teleportation, as originally used by Veidt to transfer his monster to the streets of NYC, also seems to be a thing, though it’s flaky. The 7th Kavalry are experimenting with it, transferring basket balls from place to place within their HQ. It doesn’t look like it’s widely available – otherwise, for example, Lady Trieu could have teleported Will out of Angela’s car – but it can’t be that hard to get hold of if a bunch of terrorist white supremacists have some…

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Wade’s ex Cynthia works at a lab called ‘Splice of Life’, which seems to specialise in instant cloning, primarily of people’s pets. It’s notable that the clones appear fully grown straight away – could this be how Lady Trieu “made” the Clarks’ baby? The place is entirely staffed with identical twins, presumably as a marketing gimmick. At least I hope so – if they’re actually clones, I’d hate to think what happens to the rejects, like that poor little dog…

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Outside of tech, we learn from Wade’s ‘date’ with the suspicious Renee (nice to see Deadwood’s Paula Malcomson again) that, in this world, Steven Spielberg didn’t make Schindler’s List. Instead, he made a similar movie, in monochrome with a little girl in a red coat as the only splash of colour, about the 1985 New York disaster. Its name? Pale Horse. Pale Horse was of course the name of the band due to appear at Madison Square Garden on that fateful November 2nd in the comic; it’s also a reference to the fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation – Death. “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him”.

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We also learned that, in this progressive, liberal US under the benign President Redford, tobacco is now a controlled substance. That makes sense from a public health perspective, though it’s also characteristic of such philosophies to have a more liberal approach to recreational drug use than outright bans. In the real world, this leads to such bizarrely paradoxical situations as in Amsterdam, where it’s legal to smoke cannabis inside the coffee shops, but not tobacco. With the emphasis given to the ‘Nostalgia’ drug, and Jud Crawford (a police chief) shown unapologetically using cocaine in ep1, it looks like the same paradox is at play in this world.

It seems that, after the events of 11/2, New York City may have rebuilt, but it’s still looked on as a scary place to visit. The first focus group we see Wade evaluating is reviewing an ad to try and exhort the return of tourism to the city – and yes, that is The Sopranos‘ Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) unwisely referring to calamari right at the end…

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So, just as with the comic, this ep widened the story’s exposition cleverly via flashbacks and conspiracies. Its main focus, though, was on Wade Tillman, aka Looking Glass, and Tim Blake Nelson was as magnetic as ever as the taciturn, conflicted cop. Despite the heavily armed gang presently encroaching on his modest home, I’m hoping that this isn’t the end for him. Watchmen the comic had numerous supporting characters, and some of the issues are actually told from their perspective, as here. It’s a great storytelling device, and I’d hate to lose one of the best supporting characters just as we’ve learned so much about him.

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