Watchmen has always taken place in a world that resembles ours in nearly every way that matters, other than a few little points where reality seems to have taken a sharp turn along the way. One of the most masterful things the original book did, perhaps even more than its groundbreaking approach to treating superheroes as “realistically” as possible, was how it explored all the ways that the presence of superheroes would affect the world in ways great and small. HBO’s Watchmen TV series continues that tradition with the idea that superheroes have changed culture to such a degree that police officers now obscure their identities with masks and code names, while documentaries about historical figures like Hooded Justice and the Minutemen air on cable television. What both of these things have in common is how they’re treated as simple facts of life in the Watchmen universe, and the narrative barely (if at all) pauses to explain them. But perhaps the most bizarre example comes in the form of the squid rain that periodically falls from the skies.
Yes, you read that right. It rains squid in the first episode of HBO’s Watchmen. Not all the time, but squid rain happens frequently enough (approximately 25 times a year according to official Watchmen supplemental materials released by HBO) that there’s a specific siren to alert the populace, there’s a dedicated cleanup crew employed by cities, schoolchildren have squid anatomy posters up in their classrooms, and most people just treat them as a minor (if gross) inconvenience. We also know that these squid only live for a few seconds once they “arrive” in our world. If you look closely enough at the newspapers on screen, you may note that there’s conspiracy theories and debates surrounding the nature of the squid rain. It’s only natural. Wouldn’t you be suspicious if it just rained squid every now and then?
Fans of the original Watchmen book are probably quite familiar with why squid are suddenly falling out of the sky in the HBO series. But those who aren’t might be wondering about the reasons behind the squid rain. It all begins with Adrian Veidt, a character from the comic who the show reveals was recently declared dead after being missing for years, and is living in some bizarre cosmic exile as played by Jeremy Irons.
Veidt had been the superhero known as Ozymandias, “the smartest man in the world.” Idolizing Alexander the Great and with an enormous fortune at his disposal, Veidt realized that the theatrics of putting on a mask and fighting crime weren’t enough to save the world, especially at the height of the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union locked in an ever-accelerating race to the brink of the kind of war that would wipe out all life on the planet.
“Unable to unite the world by conquest…Alexander’s method…I would trick it; frighten it towards salvation with history’s greatest practical joke.” – Adrian Veidt
Without getting into all the other elements of the Watchmen story which Veidt had engineered, Veidt intended to scare the world into setting aside our differences to unite against a common enemy that didn’t exist. In this case, it was a 100 ft long squid monster, seemingly from an alien world or another dimension. Although, in reality, it was a monster of Veidt’s own devising, carefully designed by science fiction writers and artists, genetically engineered by advanced technology, and containing the brain of a dead psychic. The monster dies on impact when transported into midtown Manhattan, unleashing a psychic wave that kills roughly half the population of New York City.
Those millions of deaths are considered acceptable collateral damage by Veidt, as it sets the US and Russia, at that moment on the brink of launching nuclear missiles at each other on a different path, believing they have a larger, common enemy to confront. As far as the book’s ending is concerned, Veidt’s plan is a success. So then what about the squid rain?
Interestingly, HBO’s official supplemental materials for the show indicate that the original giant squid itself evaporated after 24 hours, just as the mini-squid of the squid rain do after mere moments. That first squid attack, though, has reverberated throughout the Watchmen world for decades. It’s known by the unfortunate acronym of D.I.E. or “dimensional incursion event.” Some people, like Tim Blake Nelson’s Wade Tillman/Detective Looking Glass were so traumatized by the events of 1985 that they keep survivalist bunkers and home alert systems about squid because they suffer from “E.D.A” or “extradimensional anxiety.” It’s also one of the reasons for a certain technophobia that seems to permeate the world, hence why there is no widespread use of personal computers or the internet. It’s also known that while Veidt’s actions were indeed made public via the publication of Rorschach’s Journal, they were never widely believed, and only racist kooks like the 7th Kavalry have taken up arms in reaction to these revelations.
If Veidt’s squid monster was a hoax, then why would it have “squid rain” aftershocks as we see in the show? As revealed in Watchmen episode 5, Veidt knew that people would eventually be skeptical of the official story. As the show points out (and as reality reminds us daily), the “official story” is always going to be questioned. Veidt seemingly built in (or added later) the potential for squid rains to happen at irregular intervals over the coming years to remind everyone that there are other-dimensional entities just waiting to break through to our reality and create the kind of devastation seen in Manhattan on Nov. 2, 1985. His rationale was that this would help “keep the peace.”
Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that the 7th Kavalary, the only people who seem to believe that Veidt was responsible for the tragedy on 11/2, are now cooking up something of their own using similar teleportation technology. Could that be a portent of something worse, and this time, not as engineered or controlled to come? We have four more episodes for Watchmen to answer that question, and executive producer and writer Damon Lindelof has promised that this series will answer everything in its nine episode run.
“I love mystery storytelling and I’ve experimented many times over the course of my career with delayed gratification,” Lindelof says. “Sometimes it turns out, too long, sometimes turns out, too soon. And so you’re constantly trying to get it just right…The good news is there’s nine episodes of this season of Watchmen, and by the ninth episode, you’re going to get the resolution to every single question that the show asks. That’s important to us as storytellers without sort of frustrating the audience.”