There is a strand of The Leftovers, Damon Lindelof’s previous TV series, in Watchmen’s DNA. The very premise of the show picks up some years after an unexplained, cataclysmic event in which millions of people were suddenly gone, not unlike The Leftovers. Both are at their best playing in the cracks of light escaping from source material. But where The Leftovers used its Sudden Departure to explore the way the rest of humanity responded to being left behind, Watchmen, and in particular the fifth episode “Little Fear Of Lightning,” delves into decades’ worth of trauma and fear, specifically through the character of Wade Tillman.
[Ed. note: this review contains major spoilers for Watchmen episode 5.]
Wade, aka Looking Glass, is the center of this episode. As with Laurie Blake in episode 3, we get a sense of his past from the events of the Watchmen book. Here, that background comes in the form of an opening sequence depicting the book’s climax: Adrian Veidt’s attack on New York.
In November 1985, Wade Tillman is a fresh-faced, teenaged boy from Tulsa on a Jehovah’s Witness trip to Hoboken, New Jersey. This makes a certain amount of sense: If you’re in the business of saving people, New Jersey on the brink of a nuclear apocalypse is a good place to be. Director Steph Green does a great job of immediately conjuring the genuinely grim, mid-’80s feel of the carnival, even before the first of several versions of “Careless Whisper” kicks in.
The opening, and much of the episode, suggests that Wade has lived his entire life in response to this one night. It seems like an absurd wish fulfillment fantasy that this cool, intense girl would want to first drag Wade away from dark-eyed bullies to hear more about the Lord. It seems even more ridiculous to think that she would then want to sleep with him. Really, the situation is right out of a teen movie, as cheesy as Michael Imperioli’s delightful cameo in an ad trying to bring tourism back to the slowly-rebuilding city.
And it is: the girl steals Wade’s clothes and runs out of the house of mirrors, leaving him embarrassed and nude. Literally staring at himself in the mirror, Wade castigates himself for being a sinner, only for the structure to shake as the mirrors shatter. The girl lies on the ground outside, dead, trapped in a scream, blood pooling from every hole in her face. A long shot pulls away from Hoboken, through the ferris wheel, drifts across the Hudson River, and into an absolutely destroyed Manhattan, where “New York, New York” kicks in just as we begin to see the slimy appendages of the squid.
The squid. The squid. The squid.
Effectively depicting the extra-dimensional squid, Watchmen’s second most important one-eyed monster behind Doctor Manhattan’s dick, and the scope of its “attack” on New York is a challenge. The show would be forgiven for merely hinting at it. But they show the whole thing, and it looks great: unsettling, grotesque, like it’s barely able to hold itself together. You can see why everyone was so afraid.
Wade’s life has been structured around avoiding repeats of this experience in any way. He joined the police force so he has a professional reason to wear his mask, made out of a reflective material said to protect against psychic attacks. He leads a twice-weekly support group for people affected by the attack. And his property includes a bunker, complete with log of his squid drills, some sort of certification from the Extraterrestrial Squid Society, and lots of products made by EDS, a company that makes money selling prepper products to people afraid of another extra-dimensional attack.
Tim Blake Nelson is fantastic in this episode, playing Wade Tillman as a man with a craggy, worn body and the soul of a frightened teen boy. His eyes dart to the side when Laurie asks if he’s still scared. When he eats beans out of a can with his mask rolled up, he easily evokes Rorschach in the loose way he carries himself. But Looking Glass is, in his own way, an equally destructive distillation of the times. Where Rorschach was a monster who moved through the world seeing everything in black and white, Looking Glass is painfully naive and unable to see the truth, to disastrous consequences.
Later in the episode, Wade faces a similar instance of being manipulated by a romantic-comedy tropes, this time as a broken adult. A woman named Renee, played by Paula Malcomson, shows up at his support group and they hit it off. Eventually, they share their trauma stories at a bar, smoke, and seem to be on the verge of starting a relationship — when a head of lettuce falls off of her friend’s truck, suggesting it might be the same one used in the cop killing that opened the series.
The episode’s title comes from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, a book referenced in Wade’s support group. (The euphemism for “person dealing with squid-related trauma” is “friend of Nemo.”) “If there were no thunder, men would have little fear of lightning.” It’s a line that is, if anything, a bit too blunt in its application to the episode. Eventually, Wade follows Renee to a Seventh Kavalry compound, where the church from the group’s first video lives as a soundstage, and where the Kavalry experiments with teleportation technology. He learns that there is no thunder; the extra-dimensional attack that has shaped his entire life was a hoax perpetrated by a bizarre old man in a costume.
Senator Keene, it turns out, is the leader of the Seventh Kavalry, and is part of a bigger plot along with Chief Crawford. (He tells Wade, “I’m not a murderer. I’m a politician,” and the episode all but leaves space for a rimshot.) He shows Wade a video Veidt recorded the day before the attack, and asks the officer to help remove Angela from the investigation in what he literally describes as a “squid pro quo.” His plan is going to come to fruition within a few days. (Notably, Crawford’s murder does not seem to be part of the Kavalry plan, suggesting that they’re plotting against Lady Trieu and Will.)
Veidt, meanwhile, brings his own plan to completion: His suit built, he has himself catapulted out of his prison, and into space. We see Jupiter looming large, and the ground is red — certainly, the scene suggests that Doctor Manhattan is keeping him prisoner. Jeremy Irons has a blast with Veidt’s childlike glee at escaping onto the surface, where hundreds of clone corpses lie ready for use as a signal, just in time to be seen by Lady Trieu’s satellite. Veidt’s message spells “SAVE ME D” which could start a few different names: Doctor Manhattan, Dan, or Detective. (The existence of cloning technology at Wade’s ex-wife’s workplace suggests that, at least, this part of Veidt’s prison might not be supernatural.)
Compare the absent god Doctor Manhattan to Wade, a far more human character. Wade tells the support group that “every tunnel ends,” and that there must be a light waiting somewhere, however many miles ahead. As we know, though, nothing ever ends. Consider the earlier scene when Angela is arrested and takes all of the pills, which seemingly contain her grandfather’s memories. Wade sits silently, and puts his mask back on. He knows he has nothing to be afraid of, but — well, it just feels better that way.