By Chancellor Agard and Christian Holub
November 17, 2019 at 10:00 PM EST
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Welcome to EW’s weekly recap of HBO’s Watchmen. Each week, EW’s resident comic book obsessives Chancellor Agard and Christian Holub will be breaking down the loaded drama.

With each episode, Watchmen has thrown question after question after question at the audience, without giving too many answers. Well, tonight’s explanation-packed episode changed all that. Written by Damon Lindelof and Carly Wray, the Wade-centric “Little Fear of Lightning” provided more insight into what happened after Veidt’s 11/2, why Crawford had a KKK robe in his closet, and Will’s pills as it revealed more of the show’s thoughts on the fraught relationship between law, order, and violence. This installment easily rivals episode 3 as one of the best episodes of the season so far. Let’s dive in!

WatchmenSeason 1, episode 5Tim Blake Nelson.photo: Mark Hill/HBO
Mark Hill/HBO

Chancellor: In last week’s episode, the ever-cynical 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. Ergo the mask to hide the pain.” I couldn’t stop thinking about that quote as I watched the excellent opening sequence of tonight’s episode.

“Little Fear of Lightning” begins with a flashback to 1985 that reveals a young Wade Tillman was on a mission trip to Hoboken, New Jersey, when, well, 11/2 happened. A girl lured him into a funhouse, undressed him, and stole all his clothes. As he stood there naked and alone, the psychic blast from Veidt’s hoax shattered the mirrors all around him. Wade’s entire experience on 11/2 speaks to why he picked a reflective mask when he joined the police force (the broken mirrors, but also the material his mask is made of will supposedly protect him from another psychic blast) and, more interestingly, why he basically became a human lie detector. He refuses to be tricked and humiliated by anyone else like that again. In other words, Wade is a prime example of what Laurie said about vigilantes in last week’s episode.

As the cold open indicates, episode 5 is a Wade-focused outing, exploring how the trauma he experienced in Hoboken has shaped his entire life and relationships with people. The episode does this in many ways, but my favorite was obviously (at least to people who know me) the recurring use of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.” The original version of the song was playing when Wade was in the funhouse, but then different versions of it sounded throughout the episode (a moody cover, an acoustic version, etc.), highlighting the ways in which Wade is still haunted by 11/2. It reminded me of how The Leftovers used different versions of “Take On Me” in one of its final episodes. (With the release of Last Christmas and this episode, it’s been a big month for Michael’s music.)

Christian, what stood out to you about Wade’s story in this episode? Did you too feel bad that he was played by another woman (Deadwood’s Paula Malcolmson)?

Christian: This was my favorite cold open of the season so far. As a Tim Blake Nelson fan, I’ve been dying to know more about Looking Glass since the show began. So what more could I want from a new episode than a deep dive into his backstory *and* an honest-to-god depiction of the squid?! This is the first time the Watchmen squid has ever been seen on screen (Zack Snyder’s movie opted for exploding reactors instead, very lame), and I’m pleased with the fantastically gruesome result. As drawn by Dave Gibbons and colored by John Higgins, the squid is quite garish, so I can understand reluctance to adapt it, but without the squid you lose the reference to the kinds of classic comic book mad-scientist supervillain plots that Adrian Veidt was embodying and subverting with his masterstroke.

What I love about the squid in this context is that it’s not just here for show; it’s also a way in to discussing the idea of fake news, expanding Watchmen’s commentary on our current zeitgeist. In our world, years of politicians and other authority figures lying about the Iraq war, the financial crisis, and more have created widespread distrust in traditional institutions that have opened up space for crackpot conspiracy theories like Qanon to take root. I like the idea that the lie about the squid has had a similar effect in the world of Watchmen, becoming the animating force of the Seventh Kavalry terrorists.

I loved a lot of the world-building details we got from Wade’s perspective. The first ad he consulted on tells us that New York City has apparently finally recovered from the squid and is trying to lure back tourists. (One of the Peteypedia documents cited a San Francisco best-seller list instead of the New York Times, which made me wonder if New York had ever recovered. Rest assured: It may have lost its place at the center of culture, but it’s still around.) It’s cute enough that the 11/2 designation compares the squid attack to 9/11 (though every movie or TV show’s attempt to do this usually just ends up underscoring what a unique event 9/11 was), but the show actually goes even further and explicitly compares it to the Holocaust! In lieu of Schindler’s List, the Watchmen world’s version of Steven Spielberg made a movie about the squid called Pale Horse (which, as the woman explains, is the name of the band that played Madison Square Garden that night; real heads know that Pale Horse fans were known as “knot tops” for their distinctive look, and that the woman who stole Wade’s clothes was one of them).

But I think my interpretation of Wade’s story differs from yours. To the degree that Wade’s squid paranoia infected every aspect of his life, I think this woman zeroing in on that in order to reveal the truth will ultimately do him more good than bad. But maybe that’s my journalistic bias showing; I always believe people are better off for knowing the truth. But Wade’s not the only one who gets an earth-shattering revelation this episode: We, the audience, learn that the Seventh Kavalry is literally being led by Senator Keene and (until his death) our dear departed Judd Crawford. A lot of viewers, myself included, were uncomfortable with the premiere episode’s depiction of superheroes working with cops to fight white supremacists, considering the real-life links between police and far-right groups. But this episode reveals the show is well aware of that truth and is in fact leaning into it. Chance, how does it feel to have your suspicions confirmed?

HBO

Chancellor: You know how much I love being right! The fact that this supposed order or situation in Tulsa is inherently corrupt is very fascinating. It kind of reminded me of what I learned about international order in college. Historically, order on an international scale is often created and maintained through violence like war. (Look at how the Thirty Years War led to the Treaty of Westphalia, which put in place the state system as we know it. Plus part of the spread of the international order involved violence against people of color through colonialism and imperialism.) That process appears to have been replicated in Tulsa. While it’s not immediately apparent how long Keene and Crawford have been running the Seventh Kavalary, it’s clear that violence has been one of the main methods they’ve used to create and maintain the status quo they’ve created in Tulsa. As we’ve seen in international politics, no system based around violence can be completely just, and that’s definitely the case, here, except it hits far closer to home.

Several episodes ago, Will told Angela there was a vast conspiracy at work in Tulsa, and now we know what he was talking about. Somehow Will found out that Crawford was running the Seventh Kavalry and decided to put a stop it; however, I’m still not sure if I believe he killed Crawford himself. Even with this answer, though, it still remains to be seen why Will thinks Angela will hate him for betraying her. Perhaps the answer can be found in the Nostalgia pills — a.k.a. memories in drug form — she swallowed at the end of hour right as Laurie went to arrest her.

Before we wrap up, we must talk about the Adrian Veidt asides. After tonight’s episode, I think I’ve joined the camp that believes Doctor Manhattan is the one who imprisoned Veidt wherever he is. After the Game Warden yanked him back from his brief trip to the moon, Veidt started yelling about how their god has abandoned them. Perhaps this is indeed one of the worlds that Manhattan created and then left behind. (Part of me thinks Veidt is trapped inside of a snow globe, too.) Christian, did what we learned about Veidt shape your theories about where he is and what he’s up to?

Christian: I didn’t start to seriously theorize where Veidt was until the last episode, but this week confirms most of my suspicions from then. It turns out the visual transition from clouds in his looking glass to the moon in the sky wasn’t just for show; it really was a hint at Veidt’s location. And yeah, I think we can say pretty definitively that Doctor Manhattan created the prison Veidt is trapped in (no one else has the power), before eventually leaving to go do whatever he’s doing on Mars.

We now realize that Veidt has not just been killing his underlings willy-nilly on failed escape attempts. He was killing and catapulting them purposefully so that whenever he escaped this mysterious “habitat” on the moon, he would be able to use their corpses to spell out a message to people on Earth. He’s done this before. What was the squid attack, after all, but Veidt creating a mound of corpses to save the world and propel himself to the position of presidential kingmaker? In case you need any further parallels, Veidt’s exclamation of “I did it!” after making it to the lunar surface is nearly identical to his “I did it!” moment in the comics after TV news reports confirm that the squid hoax successfully staved off nuclear war. “Propelling yourself to victory on the back of corpses” also describes the protagonist of Watchmen’s comic-within-a-comic Tales of the Black Freighter, who is often seen as a Veidt analogue.

In this episode, of course, it’s Wade who gets a revelation from TV screens. What better way to watch the incriminating video of Veidt confessing his crime than by using a wall of TVs like the man himself famously enjoyed? Personally I don’t know why the smartest man in the world would make such a videotaped confession. Several of Veidt’s HBO brethren would scream at him for this, from Stringer Bell (“Are you taking notes on a criminal f— conspiracy?”) to Danny McBride’s character in The Righteous Gemstones (“You made coins with our names on it that says, ‘We did it?’”). And here we Watchmen readers always figured it would be Rorschach’s journal that spilled the beans about the squid scam. No need when Veidt was hoisted by his own petard like this!

Chance, you’re very much correct about the show exploring the violence that accompanies “law and order.” Keene’s leadership of the Seventh Kavalry may stop them from being the counter-establishment rebels they claim to be, but it doesn’t blunt their racism. The senator and wannabe president has no problem telling Wade that he’ll sic these racist maniacs on Angela’s family unless Wade sells her out. Feeling that he has no choice, Wade does so. It’s an understandable decision, but I’m already mourning him on the prediction that Angela will get out of jail thirsty for revenge before he can explain himself.

Tales from the Black Freighter:

  • Veidt’s video message confirmed Redford was elected in 1992, though he was running in the ’88 election at the end of Watchmen. Sounds like the American people got one more election with ol’ Tricky Dick Nixon before change finally occurred.
  • When Wade’s at home, we see him eating beans like Rorschach often did. But while eating those beans, he’s watching Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis have sex on the Minutemen TV show — a spectacle that would have surely horrified Rorschach, who was prone to express homophobic sentiments in Watchmen.
  • Not sure if it’s touching or horrifying that Doctor Manhattan created a personage to watch over Veidt’s prison in the form of a classic vigilante — not a superhero, but rather the Lone Ranger archetype that preceded it. Sounds like we’ll hear a lot more from him next week.

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