Watchmen’s cast of masked cops playing at being superheroes were all shaped by different traumas that bowled them over at points in their lives when they were most vulnerable. The show’s spent a significant amount of time unpacking what it is that makes Angela Abar tick, but this week’s episode “Little Fear of Lightning” takes an interesting turn by focusing instead on Wade Tillman, who most often prefers to go by “Looking Glass.”
In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original Watchmen series, the Minutemen are ultimately forced to accept that Ozymandias’ plan to teleport a genetically-engineered psychic squid into New York City did actually lead to the world being a more peaceful place on the whole. By killing millions and lying to the public about the true nature of the squid’s origins, Adrian Veidt gave humanity a singular threat that brought the world’s superpowers together out of a desire to survive in a place where interdimensional dangers were now a real thing to fear.
What’s so powerful about “Little Fear of Lightning” is the way that it presents a more complicated story about what it meant to live in the wake of Ozymandias’ attack. While the world didn’t plunge into nuclear war, that’s not to say that the people who survived the event aren’t still dealing with the mental and emotional devastation related to it. In a flashback, we see a much younger Wade on a missionary trip to Hoboken, New Jersey where he quickly ends up flirting with a girl around his age who leads him into a mirrored funhouse. Though Wade knows that he’s got no business getting hot and heavy with a townie, he’s a hormonal teenager who’s getting his first taste of what it’s like to sin with someone from the wrong side of the tracks.
Just as the girl gets Wade out of his clothes—again, this is all happening in a funhouse—she flips the script on the kid, takes off with his belongings, and leaves him standing there in a hall of mirrors looking like a fool. Wade’s instinct is to beat himself up for being so easily fooled, but as he’s beginning to emotionally spiral, the entire building begins shaking violently and he experiences a blinding pain in his head that he doesn’t understand. Everything about the sequence, from Wade’s humiliation to his stumbling through a maze of shattered mirrors, comes across a little heavy-handed until you remember that this is meant to be Looking Glass’ origin story. It’s overwrought and on the nose, but the sequence works because of the way it’s juxtaposed with the pure devastation that Wade wanders into as he stumbles from the funhouse.
Even though Hoboken is miles from Manhattan, everyone at the carnival who happened to be outside at the moment the squid was teleported into New York City got the full brunt of its psychic fallout. Wade isn’t the only survivor, but they’re few and far between and the sheer horror of seeing so many dead people who were alive just moments before drives Wade to scream, because it’s all he can think to do.
In the present, the story illustrates how, even though he tries to present himself as someone who’s been able to move on from his trauma, that’s far from the case. Wade doesn’t just wrap his head in a reflective mask because he needs a cape identity to hide who he is, there’s part of him that still holds onto the belief that the reflective material will protect him in the event of another psychic squid event. But there’s more to it than just the mask. There’s also the fortified bunker he has in his back yard and the doomsday alarm system he has installed on his property that he runs periodic drills with in order to always be prepared. Wade can’t move on from the moment he stumbled into the post-squid world, and so he puts all of his energy into trying to help others do that for themselves in a support group that he leads. Though he’s able to convince most people that he’s a weird but stable person, Laurie’s easily able to see through his act and zero in on the fact that he’s up to something with Angela that they don’t want her to know about. Also, she, uh, bugged his desk cactus.
Paranoid as Wade is, you’d think that he wouldn’t have been so shocked to learn that Laurie bugged his desk and knows that he’s looking into the mysterious pills that Will hid in Angela’s car. Wade doesn’t like the fact that Laurie’s so willing to invade his privacy, but he isn’t so shaken that he’s willing to give Angela up or reveal what the pills actually are: Nostalgia. Here, Nostalgia is a Veidt-developed drug that was eventually outlawed because of its dangerous side effects. Each pill holds the synthesized memories of a person, but in most cases, people who took the drug ended up dealing with psychosis, and Wade’s ex-wife Cynthia warns him that whoever the pills belong to would do well not to take them.
Wade also isn’t particularly adept at hiding his secrets from Renee (Deadwood’s Paula Malcomson), a woman from his support group who immediately clocks him as being just as scared and neurotic as the other people in the group. Over drinks, the pair commiserate about their respective difficulties getting through day to day life and for a moment, Wade gets the sense that he might be able to forge a genuine bond with the woman. But in a moment that mirrors the night when the girl from New Jersey stole his pants in the funhouse, Wade soon learns that Renee is actually with the Seventh Kavalry and they’ve been planning to lure him into their midst in order to show him part of what they’re planning.
As Wade wanders into what turns out to be a soundstage where the 7K has been recording its racist declarations of war, he’s alarmed to find that the organization is experimenting with the same kinds of portals that the public was told were responsible for the squid teleporting into Manhattan. Unsurprisingly, Republican senator Joe Keene Jr. is also revealed to be a member of the 7K and he attempts to explain to Wade that he’s merely working with the racists because he wants to attempt to keep them in line. No matter what Keene says, though, Wade’s deep-seated fears about psychic squids and the portals that supposedly give them access to the world keep him on edge, and Keene knows that the only way he might be able to get through to the cop is by telling him an important truth.
Watchmen’s tangents into Adrian Veidt’s imprisonment have been some of the least interesting moments of the season so far, but “Little Fear of Lightning” brings Veidt back into the narrative fold in important way. On November 1, 1985, the day before the squid attack, Veidt recorded a video message of himself congratulating Robert Redford on his inauguration as President, something that wouldn’t happen until seven years later. In the video, Veidt explains...everything. He confides in Redford—because Redford’s being elected is part of his grand scheme as well—that the squid was all his doing.
These truths are the kinds of revelations that would have rocked the world if the original Rorschach’s journals were ever widely-published and taken seriously by the public. Wade can scarcely accept what he’s hearing because so much of his life has been defined by his erroneous beliefs about what happened on November 2, 1985. But at the same time, learning the truth also lifts a heavy burden off his shoulders and gives him a reason to have much more complicated feelings about the 7K. Keene also lays pressure on the man to keep Angela “busy” for a while lest he send the 7K to her home to kill her and her entire family.
Being suddenly given this new perspective of the world leaves Wade shaken and he ends up leaving the group’s hideout not really knowing how to proceed with his life. He goes through the day to day motions of his day job and his duties as a cop, but knowing that the world was never really in danger from interdimensional aliens is all he can really think about. Wade’s world has been so turned upside down that all he can think to do is cling to the law. He ends up exposing Angela’s secret to Laurie by making sure that the agent overhears their conversation via the bugged cactus.
Before Laurie can get Angela in handcuffs, she makes the snap decision to take all of the Nostalgia in a single gulp, shocking everyone because they know how dangerous the drugs are. What’s going to be interesting to see is how the Nostalgia affects Angela because you know that it was always Will’s intention that she take the pills and learn deeper truths about him.
Though Wade took Angela off the board as Keene asked, in the episode’s closing moments the 7K rolls up on Wade’s property with guns anyway. It seems as if the 7K has every intention of murdering Wade in his home, meaning that they’re all ready to begin hunting down members of the Tulsa PD, and being in police custody might actually be Angela’s best bet at surviving for now.
Oh, and Veidt’s...not on Earth anymore, which isn’t at all surprising. After countless experiments, he’s predictably successful in his efforts, but again, you can’t help but feel like this plot line’s pulling focus away from where Watchmen’s real action is at: on the ground in Tulsa, Oklahoma. What will happen next with Veidt—who finally made it out of his atmosphere and into space (near Jupiter) to spell “SAVE ME” with the deceased clones—is anyone’s guess.
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