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Seven years of bad luck, insidious plots, and a “Careless Whisper” inspire fear in latest Watchmen

Tim Blake Nelson
Photo: Mark Hill (HBO)
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Watchmen takes us to ground zero on 11/2, and inside the mind of Looking Glass in “Little Fear Of Lightning.” Religion, PTSD, and that insidious plot give us three new themes to marinade in. Plus, they actually drop the squid! Comic book fans rejoice, we have been avenged.

Debauchery in Hoboken brings a young Wade Tillman from Oklahoma to the East Coast so he can spread God’s word. As he walks along the crowded carnival streets, writers Damon Lindelof and Carly Wray throw out some great Easter eggs. Veidt’s famous interview appears on the back of a magazine cover. The guys and gals with the top knots are not hipsters, but part of a cult-like gang. They wear knots on their heads, have tattoos and piercings, love rock music and scare the living daylights out of the “normal” people. Knot Tops, as they’re referred to in the original comic book, murdered the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason. They mistakenly believed he had freed Rorschach from prison. So, the Knot Top girl sexually luring an innocent Tillman into a funhouse mirror maze and then robbing him didn’t come as a surprise. But that didn’t make the moment any less devastating. Director Steph Green brings a terrifying scale to the aftermath, highlighting both the intense fear that gripped the victims and the casualty count.

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This opening scene communicates that Looking Glass always walked a just line. Truth stands as a core pillar of his identity. Fear fuels the engine that drives him. The doomsday clock young Wade mentions counted down the minutes to Armageddon. Under Doctor Manhattan, the fear of mutually assured destruction, a term used during the Cold War to describe the eventual outcome of a nuclear war, reached near hysteria. Days before 11/2, Manhattan appeared on a television show where a reporter accused him of giving cancer to his ex-wife and former lab partner. Distressed by the news, Manhattan banished everyone from the live studio recording. Panic began to brew. What would the human atom bomb do?

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He went to Mars.

Fear plays a huge role in Watchmen. Those who put on masks fear their true selves. Wade (Tim Blake Nelson), reborn in fear and broken glass, learned to create a tough exterior most could not crack. Remember, dropping the squid meant triggering world peace; the side effect of law and order has been intense fear. If you’re the type of person whose heart stops when you’ve been pulled over—not because of the price of a ticket, but because you may end up dead—this entire episode hits hard. There’s been much speculation about the recent rise in Black police on television. Some go as far as to call it a conspiracy. I think there’s an active desire to understand how Black folks in blue reconcile police corruption and the desire to protect. Bryan Tyree Henry as Miles Morales’ father in Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, Angela Basset in Fox’s 9-1-1, and of course, Regina King as Sister Night—all play cops. Interestingly, Watchmen removes the burden of Black characters having to navigate the waters of fear and justice and gives it to a neutral white man.

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I say “neutral” because Wade does not toe any political party line. Last week, Angela (Regina King) brought Wade the KKK uniform she found in Judd’s closet. “He was a white man in Oklahoma,” Tillman said nonchalantly as he agreed to hide the robes. This week Wade says, “What red-blooded Oklahoma man’s going to admit they’re afraid,” as he works his side hustle as a human lie detector. He’s telling on himself.

Tim Blake Nelson
Photo: Mark Hill (HBO)
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Laurie sees right through him. Hell, she was him a long time ago. I love the way she constantly strips her employees of their defenses. Forcing Looking Glass to remove his mask, compelling Angela to answer her questions there’s no one better to run this precinct. Who understands heroes better than Laurie?

The title of this week’s episode comes from a quote by legendary science-fiction adventure writer Jules Verne. “Our weapons, which were noiseless, were not likely to have any great effect on these natives, who only respect noisy firearms. If there were no thunder, men would have little fear of lightning—although the danger is in the lightning, not in the thunder,” Verne wrote in his 1867 book, In Search of Castaways.

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Wade’s fear, irrational or not, consumes him. After all, if it happened once, it will happen again. Wade only controls his warning systems. Consumed by his terror, Wade checks an emergency alarm system multiple times a day so that he won’t ever be caught off guard again. He pushes the love of his life away because he can’t let go of that impending doom. Many shows have tried to depict PTSD, and get caught up in the hysterics of the disease. Screaming, cold sweats, mood swings present in individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Like most emotional scars, over time, the symptoms become routine. The pain still feels intense, but people get better at hiding what makes them different. Fear can either be a useful primal trick for survival or a spirit-crushing weight around one’s neck. In this episode, Wade experiences both kinds of fear. Knowing the weight of that anxiety, I find myself caring for him as a character in ways I never saw coming.

The women in Wade’s life see his fear most clearly. Men, as Wade earlier stated, do not like to admit fear. An ex-wife, a new boss, and a possible flame all see straight through his mask. They all offer different solutions. Laurie (Jean Smart) wants him to turn rat, and do his job as an officer of the law. His ex wants him to find a nice woman and learn to trust her. The new flame seeks to recruit him to a national power organization. Secrets often mask themselves as power. Linking into a group of politically connected individuals, people with a plan offers comfort to those who feel weak. Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor” plays just before this final impossible option is laid before Wade. I fear we may lose our yellow-bellied, but good-hearted disco cowboy.

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Tim Blake Nelson (left), Jean Smart (right)
Photo: Mark Hill (HBO)

American Hero Story showcases the relationship between Hooded Justice and Metropolis. Last week, Petey (Dustin Ingram) warned us that American Hero Story held wild inaccuracies within its text. In the graphic novel, Larry, the publicist for the Minute Men, confirmed the relationship in a letter to Sally Jupiter. But this front and center sex scene raises some flags. If the relationship existed, maybe it’s the partners involved whose story we have wrong.

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Speaking of the wrong story, let’s pause here to talk about the technology jump. Cloning, as we learned last week, can be done in a lake or a lab. For a world that still relies on pagers, it’s jarring to see easy access to consumer cloning. But, it seems this world keeps technology in labs with highly trained professionals. The benefits of technology are worth the money, but no one brings it home. Even Wade’s security system operates like a WWII bomb shelter. Life contains less value in this universe. Veidt’s clone babies drown in the lake. Dogs, smaller than expected, meet an untimely end in a garbage can. This injustice will not stand!

Medical technology also takes a huge leap this week. The pills in Angela’s glove compartment left by Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.) have a name, Nostalgia. They’re essentially capsulated memories that the legal system outlawed due to their psychoactive effects. Shoving memories insides a person’s consciousness sounds complicated—I wonder if this is Veidt (Jeremy Irons) technology, Trieu (Hong Chau) technology, or something leftover from Manhattan. Seeing as Reeves works with Trieu, and Trieu seemed to be dosing her daughter with a liquid version of the pill, my guess would be Trieu invented the pills. If that’s true, what goal did she hope to achieve through this product? Trieu teaches her daughter the first-hand experience of war and trauma, perhaps developing a distrust of the system that ravaged her country.

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Regina King (left), Tim Blake Nelson (right)
Photo: Mark Hill (HBO)

Of course, they didn’t know just up the street, someone was opening portals. Last week, I predicted that Lady Trieu would be the big bad. But, as one reader pointed out, the show doesn’t seem to care about right and wrong, but about how we make decisions. I don’t know Trieu’s objectives, but I know the devil when I see him, and Senator Keene’s (James Wolk) got horns and a tail for sure. His TV observation room looks eerily similar to the screens through which Veidt watched the world. Removed from humanity, and taking advantage from atop the world, Veidt and Keene both seek power through their humanitarianism. A lack of altruism makes for immediate suspects.

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The number one suspect, Adrian Veidt, isn’t imprisoned on Mars. He’s on one of her moons. “Clair de Lune” plays in the background as he uses the corpses of his former servants to spell out “save me” on the rock’s surface. The Warden pulls him back into their fantasy land and promises to show him, “no mercy.” They also speak of a god. In last week’s episode, Veidt told Mrs. Crookshanks that he was not her creator. The warden tells the servants, “It’s not likely (our god) will return.” The blue man figured out how to create organic life, and used that life to imprison Veidt on a moon.

Back in Tulsa, Wade must make an impossible decision. If he doesn’t betray Angela, her family will be murdered in their sleep. The fact that the senator threatened this action leads me to believe the first White Night was his orchestration as well. Were these the only options available to Judd, too? What will happen to Angela now that she’s under arrest? Who knew there could be even more feelings hidden in “Careless Whisper”? Come back next week, when we’ll try to reach some conclusions. Congratulations, we’re halfway through the season!

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Stray observations

  • At the carnival, Wade describes the importance of pandas as symbols of peace in the kingdom of heaven. I wonder if that’s why Panda chose his mask? He does seem to want to be a peacekeeper over being a police officer.
  • OH MY GOD THE SQUID DROP AND CUT TO NYC PROMO COMMERCIAL! Have you ever seen capitalism so perfectly articulated?
  • Instead of making Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg directed Pale Horse, depicting the horrors of 11/2. This is a creative way of expressing the fear that grips this society.
  • Cigarettes labeled as a controlled substance boggles the mind. What’s that drug trade like?
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About the author

Joelle Monique

A contributor for Playboy and Hollywood Reporter Joelle writes about film, television, and comic books. A speaker, host, and avid podcaster her reviews have been featured on NPR, BBC1, and ET.