Season 1, Episode 5: ‘Little Fear of Lightning’
The nuclear tensions that roil in the graphic novel “Watchmen” are resolved through a mass catastrophe, orchestrated by Adrian Veidt, to draw the world’s attention away from the imminent mutual annihilation of the United States and the Soviet Union. Put succinctly, Veidt drops a giant inter-dimensional squid on Manhattan, killing about three million people to save the lives of hundreds of millions more. The fallout from his actions affects the characters in “Watchmen,” but their impact on society is beyond the scope of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s book. At some point, artists have to choose when to put down the brush.
For Damon Lindelof, however, exploring such enduring traumas is a primary motive for extending the world of “Watchmen” decades into the past and decades more into the future. Just as the legacy of the Tulsa massacre of 1921 has informed the show’s interest in racism and white supremacy nearly a century later, the impact of Veidt’s giant squid still reverberates in the daily lives of those who were affected by it. The great triumph of Lindelof’s HBO series “The Leftovers” was how much it built onto the foundation of Tom Perrotta’s novel about a mysterious, inexplicable event that disappeared 2 percent of the population in an eye blink. Life might carry on after such a catastrophic loss, but for those within the blast radius, one foot will always be stuck in the bog.
The bravura opening sequence flashes back to 1985 Hoboken, N.J., where a young Wade Tillman (Philip Labes) takes a dramatic first step toward becoming Looking Glass, the Tulsa detective who is rarely seen without a reflective mask at least partially covering his face. The Doomsday Clock has tick-tocked to a minute before midnight, and Wade nervously wanders a carnival of the teenage wretched in search of souls to save before the apocalypse. One such soul decides to seduce the earnest rube for sport and leave him naked in the fun house, but the attraction is just protection enough to spare him from Veidt’s squid attack.
Veidt’s act of large-scale misdirection succeeds in misdirecting Wade, too: He came to New Jersey expecting to die soon along with everyone else, and now he is doomed to a life of lingering horror and uncertainty. Over 30 years later, he’s leading a support group for other survivors with “extra-dimensional anxiety” that bears some resemblance to the Guilty Remnant in “The Leftovers,” minus the cult signifiers of white clothes, chain smoking and an eerie code of silence. Just as the Guilty Remnant refuse to carry on as if nothing happened — and make it a point to force others to remember — Wade and other “friends of Nemo” wonder how people can face periodic squid storms by simply pulling over their cars, turning on the wipers and moving on with their day. (“Why isn’t everybody petrified?”)
The episode is a clever subversion of the superhero origin story. None of the Watchmen beyond Dr. Manhattan have real superpowers, but Looking Glass is defined by his weakness and vulnerability, which are not traditionally heroic qualities. Young Wade sought the gift of salvation and now the older Wade has a special talent for reading faces, which has landed him jobs interrogating suspects and observing focus groups, perhaps knowing firsthand what extreme discomfort looks like. His mirror mask is about deflecting attention, but it’s also a security blanket for a grown-up who’s as terrified now as he was emerging from that fun house in 1985. He dashes to his fallout shelter repeatedly because he expects the worst to happen to him again.
What happens after his support group meeting is like the “red pill” moment from “The Matrix,” when Keanu Reeves learns that the reality he knows is a false, palliative construct to cover up darker truths about the world as it really is. Only here, the truth is partly reassuring: The squid blast that has haunted his psyche for so long was a hoax, it seems, to prevent a nuclear holocaust. Other aspects of Wade’s red-pilling are disturbing and will have to get sorted out, like the Seventh Kavalry’s plans for a transport device Senator Keene’s involvement. The phrase that repeatedly surfaces is “keeping the peace” — that was Veidt’s rationale for the squid and other extra-dimensional events, and Keene describes his and Crawford’s roles that way, too.
So where does that leave Wade? The final shots of the episode notwithstanding, he agrees to the “squid pro quo.” Wade doesn’t only see the light at the end of the tunnel — he learns that the tunnel never existed at all. It’s difficult to imagine what such an unburdening of fear might feel like for someone like Wade, who has been crippled by it all these years, but Keene correctly predicts that it’s enough to get him to betray his friend on the force. Accused of covering up the truth about Crawford’s hanging and about the mystery man responsible, Abar is arrested, suggesting a victory for white supremacists or at least for the surely diabolical agenda that Keene is pursuing.
How Wade responds in the future will be crucial: Now that he has been liberated from the past, perhaps he is free to become the hero he has been pretending to be.
The George Michael song “Careless Whisper” dominates the episode, cycling through Michael’s original hit, a cover version and an instrumental rendition on the soundtrack. The couplet in the song worth focusing on here is: “There’s no comfort in the truth/ Pain is all you’ll find.” That may be where the newly enlightened Wade finds himself.
That said, Howard Jones’s “Things Can Only Get Better” is the better jam. “Things Can Only Get Better” is probably the catchiest artifact of his brief ascendence as a synth-pop hitmaker in the mid-80s, but he deserves more credit for bringing New Wave innovation to popular radio. Most of his hits are confined to his first two albums, “Human’s Lib” and “Dream into Action,” but Jones is still making music today, having released the album “Transform” back in May.
Hilarious touch to cast Michael Imperioli, best known as Christopher Moltisanti in “The Sopranos,” as the guy raving about calamari in that New York tourism video. (“You know how we like our squid now? With lemon and a bit of marinara.”)
In this alternate reality, Steven Spielberg still wins an Oscar for an early ’90s drama about mass death, only it’s not “Schindler’s List” but “Pale Horse,” featuring a different girl in red popping out through the black-and-white photography. History may have changed, but dramatic devices remain the same.
Veidt is back to “Who’s this guy? What’s his deal” territory this week with his celestial adventures, which involve contorting the bodies of catapulted servants into a “SAVE ME” message. All will be revealed at some point, right?
Lindelof appears to poke fun at his own puzzle-box trickery through a snippet of background dialogue between Panda and Red Scare about “American Hero Story”: “I’ve watched every episode and I’m telling you, Hooded Justice is Dr. Manhattan.” No fan theory is too outrageous for this reality.