This Watchmen review contains spoilers.
Watchmen Episode 5
There used to be (and maybe there still is) a long running misconception in Hollywood that a comic book is pretty much the same thing as a movie. To the untrained eye, a comic book is just a series of kinetic images with some dialogue and occasional stage direction attached. What is that if not a storyboard or even a frame of film itself?
Of course, that is very much not the case. Comics are more nuanced than that. Misunderstanding the difference between the two mediums is how you get abominations like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie, which in adapting the comic frame for frame, completely misses the soul from the original text.
This Watchmen, now over halfway through its run of nine episodes, has been far more successful largely because it recognizes the differences between comics and television. But it also has identified one key similarity. All serialized storytelling, but comics and television in particular, tell multiple stories that once. There’s the story of a particular episode, the story of a particular season, and the story of the entire series. When a TV show and comic series are really humming, all three of those storytelling pursuits feel equally served and complement one another.
Watchmen, dealing with only episodic stories and a season long story (neither HBO nor Damon Lindelof has committed to a second season…yet), has done a brilliant job of balancing both. That’s never been clearer than it is in the Looking Glass-centric fifth episode “Little Fear of Lightning.” This is another satisfyingly self contained installment of Watchmen that also gracefully brings the show’s story past the halfway mark.
In this hour that we spend with the Oklahoma born and bred Wade Tillman a.k.a. Detective Looking Glass, we are entreated to a complete saga of a man suffering through a lifetime of all-consuming fear and how less-than-enviable circumstances relieve him of that fear. Wade, as it turns out, is the only main character on Watchmen that we know of thus far to have been within the range of the “psychic blast” when Adrian Veidt’s squid destroyed New York back on November 2, 1985. Well, Wade was in Hoboken, New Jersey, but close enough. Wade was part of a revivalist Christian church that took a bus from Tulsa all the way to the East Coast to beg the sinner to repent of their sins before the oncoming nuclear war vaporized them all.
The young Wade (played by a talented young actor Philip Labes who shares a fascinating string bean physicality with adult Wade actor Tim Blake Nelson) has a devil of a time even before the squid drops. The cigarette-smoking youths in leather jackets are predictably resistant to his message until one of them, an attractive young woman, takes him into a hall of mirrors. She helpfully removes all of Wade’s clothes off of him while peppering him with questions about sex and the encroaching apocalypse.
“Aren’t you afraid?” she asks.
“No, ma’am,” he responds.
“Are you afraid of me?”
“Then what are you afraid of?”
Then the girl runs off with his clothes, leaving Wade naked and humiliated. Moments later the squid arrives, sending a psychic shockwave out that kills millions of people. Wade walks out from the hall of mirrors (funny that Agent Laurie Blake will one day insist on calling him “Mirror Guy”) and it’s hard to tell what’s more traumatizing: his sexual humiliation or all the bodies in the streets.
Five episode in to its story, it remains remarkable just how well each episode of Watchmen clarifies its theme and raison d’être in the early goings and then goes on to support it. Just think for a moment on some early lines spoken in each episode and how they go on to inform the rest of the episode’s perspective. Episode 1 has young Will Reeves recite “trust in the law. There will be no mob justice today” and then presents a universe of a masked, militarized police force. In episode 2, the older Will Reeves warns Angela of skeletons in her chief’s closet and then goes on to reveal almost literal skeletons in a literal closet. Episode 3 begins with the set up of a joke and ends with its conclusion. Lady Trieu promises that legacy is important in the opening moments of episode 4 and then the rest of the episode does nothing to disabuse her of that notion.
Now in episode 5, a young Wade says he’s afraid of nothing…and then spends half a lifetime being afraid of everything. Fear is like a virus. It infects everything it touches and “Little Fear of Lightning” shows us just how much of Wade’s life has been infected. Wade lives on the outskirts of town, with a bunker nearby stocked to the brim with extra-dimensional security equipment from a company fittingly known as Extra-Dimensional Security (EDS). He leads meetings twice a week for those suffering through the fear of another squidfall, and has to hear about intergenerational trauma (Oh hey! Borrowing a theme from last week) from kids who weren’t even around in 1985. His wife left him in part because “for seven years I tried to convince you I wasn’t gonna run off with all your clothes.” To which mirror guy responds “seven years of bad luck.”
Even his superhero identity revolves around his fear so much that it would put Bruce Wayne and his bats to shame. The mask that Wade wears is made of reflectatine, a substance produced by EDS to protect the wearer’s mind from psychic intrusions. Laurie, omniscient sleuth that she is, knows why he wears the mask immediately. “I’ve heard that people who were in the psychic blast zone still wake up screaming,” she says before casually noting that she’s bugged the cactus on Wade’s desk. “Don’t take it personally, I’m FBI – we bug shit,” she says. As if Wade needed another reason to be paranoid.
“Little Fear of Lightning” is a superb exploration of fear and its corrosive effects. Every moment we spend with Wade is so thematically on point that the episode once again radiates a sense of narrative and exploratory joy, much like the Laurie-centric “She Was Killed By Space Junk” before it. It also certainly helps that the episode is blessed with specific little details like when Wade’s job as a focus group specialist leads to a New York commercial in which Michael Imperioli eats some fried calamari with lemon and marinara. Or when Wade’s ex-wife Cynthia makes an appearance to reveal that Angela’s pills are Nostalgia…right after she incinerates a little dog clone that’s not close enough to its progenitor. Tough couple of weeks for babies and puppies on Watchmen.
Every little detail about Wade’s life works on a storytelling and emotional level. Then somehow it just only gets better when Wade gets back into the vast conspiracy at play. Wade comes across a woman named Renee at his support group (played by longtime TV MVP Paula Malcomson) who he immediately becomes taken with. The two head out to the bar after the meeting where they share the origins of their fears. Renee says her fear comes from the movie Steven Spielberg made about the squid incident, Pale Horse.
“There’s this one scene with a girl in a red coat. It’s a movie in black and white so it really pops you know?” she says, revealing that likely Spielberg made this rather than Schindler’s List.
A little drunk, the two share a kiss and then Renee hitches a ride with one of her friends. When a head of lettuce falls out of the bed of the truck as it peels away, Wade knows what he has to do.
The scenes in which Wade arrives at the abandoned department store that the Seventh Kavalry calls home is electric with exposition. The Kavalry is having fun with portals and they need Wade’s help. That’s where Senator Keene steps in for some helpful midseason villain monologuing.
Senator Keene doesn’t tell Wade or the audience anything that we likely couldn’t have surmised on our own. In fact, most of the Watchmen subreddit had him dead to rights since episode 3. Still, it’s nice for him to clarify that he came down to Tulsa to take over the 7th Kavalry after the White Night, to clean up their act and get focused on more important things. Judd Crawford did the same for the side of the law. Everyone is once again a puppet and there’s not even a blue god around who can see the strings.
Similarly, the video of Adrian Veidt addressing newly-elected President Robert Redford contains nothing radically new for the Watchmen audience. Those who have read Watchmen or at least an article about the comic know that Veidt engineered all these events. That’s why it’s so savvy for the show to present this moment within the context of Wade Tillman’s experience.
For years, fear was a curse for Wade. It effected every aspect of his life. It dominated him. Now Senator Keene has released him of that fear with the truth (in return for the removal of Angela Abar from the board, of course). Only it doesn’t seem that Wade is meaningfully relieved by the truth. The expression on his face as he watches Veidt is pure pain. And when he goes home to find a new EDS system waiting for him, he throws it away…only to come back and fish it out of the trash.
Perhaps the only thing worse than all-consuming fear, is to find out that the source of that fear is absolutely nothing at all. Losing a sense of fear in a sense is like losing a religious dogma. That’s something the Veidt scene in the episode appears to comment on. For when Veidt successfully breaks the atmosphere to write “SAVE ME” on an unidentified planet with Philips and Crookshanks corpses, he still must return right back to a world without a god. Or even worse: a world that once had a god but no longer does.
“Your God’s abandoned ya. And why wouldn’t he? You’re pathetic, every one of you?” he cries to the assembled Philipses, Crookshankses, and Game Warden. Surprisingly the Game Warden agrees. Even he, whatever or whoever he is, feels the absence of a divine plan.
Veidt might as well be yelling across time and space to Wade, Angela, and the rest of Tulsa. Like any good comic or TV show, each episode and each character of Watchmen has presented its theme. Wade’s had his fear, Trieu has had her legacy. Will has had his mystery. Laurie has had her jokes. All that remains to be seen is the theme behind the themes. And God’s abandoning his creation seems as good as any. That is where the fear, the legacy, the mystery, and the ultimate joke all come from.