Watchmen: 1.05 Little Fear of Lightning
In a fantastic last episode we were introduced to the enigmatic Lady Trieu and looked at the notion of family and the legacies we leave behind. This time out Watchmen turns its attention to the concept of fear and how we live with it. This is the show's greatest episode so far, no mean feat after the sublime third episode featuring the introduction of Silk Spectre II. It is even more incredible to think it surpasses this by focussing solely on a character who up to this point has been relatively minor. Tim Blake Nelson steps to the fore as Wade Tillman, A.K.A. Looking Glass, the human lie detector working for the Tulsa Police Department. It turns out Wade has a connection going right back to the original comics; it’s affected his whole life and it’s about to cause a big problem for Angela.
The episode starts in Hoboken, New Jersey on a particularly special night. A young Wade Tillman is handing out pamphlets, trying to save the souls of New York’s sinners. Not having much luck with the local teen reprobates, Wade thinks his luck has changed when a girl seems interested in his message about the impending nuclear apocalypse. Alas it is just a ploy to lure him into a funfair hall of mirrors and strip him naked. After the girl runs off with his clothes, it seems things couldn’t get much worse for Wade…. which is exactly when the giant inter-dimensional one-eyed psychic squid turns up.
Yes, it’s November 2nd 1985 and Ozymandias has just teleported a giant monster into New York, killing half its inhabitants. For the first time, we get to see the squid in all its glory. The movie adaptation emitted the creature in favour of blaming Dr. Manhattan for the blast, something I actually found to be more satisfying in the context of the film. I’ll admit it was great though to see the inter-dimensional fiend in all its glory. It is also fantastic to see the show tie itself so closely to the original comics.
Wade survives the psychic blast that marks the squid's arrival but it fundamentally changes the course of his entire life. Suffering a form of PTSD, Wade has an emergency bunker and runs drills to prepare himself for any possible attack. He is not alone in this as we are shown that a whole generation of people have grown up in fear that there will be another dimensional attack.
Wade runs a support group for other sufferers where they express their own fears. It is during these scenes of Wade going about his life, whilst being constantly crushed by the horror of what he’s witnessed, that Tim Blake Nelson shines. Previously Wade had just seemed like a quirky almost comic relief character, especially when being harassed by Laurie Blake. Indeed in Little Fear of Lightning Laurie questions Wade and constantly refers to him deliberately as mirror guy even when he corrects her. This takes on a new meaning now that we have seen Looking Glass’s “origin” in the hall of mirrors. The symbolism of reflections and mirrors actually recurs significantly throughout the episode.
In this alternate world a whole industry has sprung up selling “Extra Dimensional Security” to help those living with the fear and paranoia that a squid attack is imminent. As well as alarms, you can also buy reflective material to shield yourself from psychic attack, a literal conspiracy theorists “tin hat”. It adds a new dimension to Wade when you realise his mask is made of this material as is the lining in his baseball cap. He is living in so much fear that he literally wraps his head almost constantly in the one thing he believes will protect him.
As well as Tim Blake Nelson’s riveting performance that anchors the episode, there are also a lot of little details and more world building that really help to flesh things out. Wade goes to see his ex-wife Cynthia at a pet cloning facility. He has asked her to test the pills that Angela got from Will. She tells him that they are Nostalgia, which if my memory serves, was the name of Veidt’s perfume in the comics and let you experience other people's memories.
Whilst telling him this she is inspecting a couple of cloned dogs and asks him if he can tell any difference. When he replies one looks a bit smaller she casually sticks it in what looks like a dishwasher but is presumably an incinerator. It’s little things like this that add nothing to the story but provide character moments and a sense of alternate-worldliness that really elevate the show. It’s a bittersweet scene, Wade’s marriage obviously failed due to his overpowering fear. “Seven years I tried to convince you I wasn’t going to run of with your clothes.” states Cynthia. “Yeah, seven years of bad luck” replies Wade, another reference to the broken mirrors of the funfair.
Another nice touch is a conversation Wade has with a new member of his support group. She tells him about her love of “Pale Horse”, a movie made by Steven Spielberg about the squid attack. It’s a black and white movie where the only colour is the red of a little girl's coat as she walks through the aftermath of New York. It seems this reality's Spielberg made different career choices. We also get to see some more scenes of Hooded Justice from the Minutemen documentary, that’s been airing which builds yet more atmosphere.
Of course things wouldn’t be the same without a trip to see what Ozymandias is doing and this episode doesn’t disappoint. After ironing out the wrinkles with his trebuchet plan “The Worlds Smartest Man” dons a protective suit and has his clones fire him through the barrier that has been keeping him prisoner. Abruptly he finds himself on what looks like one of Jupiter’s moons. Surrounding him are the frozen bodies of all the clones that have come before him. Hastily rearranging them to form the words “Save Me” he barely gets to see that possibly a satellite has picked up his message before he is yanked back to his prison. His jailer, the Game Warden, yet another masked man is not impressed. I’m wondering if Dr. Manhattan is behind Adrian’s imprisonment and I’m looking forward to whatever that big reveal is almost certainly coming.
One also get a major reveal in this episode that changes Wade’s perception in an instant. Tim Blake Nelson’s performance is incredible as we witness his entire belief system crumble before him. After trailing suspected 7th Kavalry members to their hideout, it is revealed he has been set up. They want him to witness what is occurring and finally learn the truth. For possibly the first time in his career Damon Lindelof isn’t holding back in divulging the secrets of the plot. A 7th Kavalry member removes his Rorschach mask to reveal he is none other than Senator Keene. He, in a nifty piece of exposition, reveals that he is here in Tulsa to steer the Kavalry in a certain direction and that the murdered Chief Judd was doing the same from his side of the conflict.
This explains the klan robe that Angela found hidden in Judd’s wardrobe. Between the two of them they were keeping an informal peace between the police and the klan, making sure another “white night” massacre didn’t occur. Not only do we learn that the race war isn’t exactly what we’ve been led to believe it is, but Keene then lays the ultimate truth bomb on Wade. He plays him a recording that Ozymandias made the day prior to the squid attack where he outlines his plan to reunite the people of Earth and avoid nuclear armageddon. You can see the conflict within Wade as he realises his entire life has been based on a lie, all the wasted years of living in fear. It’s yet another fantastically emotional scene in an episode full of great writing and performances.
Mention too must be made of Trent Reznor’s and Atticus Ross’s score which continues to be evocative and constantly inventive. There is also excellent usage in this episode of more contemporary music including several versions of Careless Whisper and what could be better than Frank Sinatra belting out New York New York as a giant inter-dimensional squid sits atop the ruins of Manhattan?
In my opinion Watchmen is probably the best thing currently being shown on TV. The writing, performances, music, costumes and effects are all excellent and combine to make a wildly entertaining show. Little Fear of Lightning is its best episode so far. Simple as that. We are now just over halfway through the season and if they can keep the quality going to the end, then this could be one of the all time classics.