‘Watchmen’ episode five: ‘Little Fear of Lightning’ Sometimes, a tinfoil hat is justified

Did Wade Tillman get red-pilled by the Seventh Kavalry?

By the end of the fifth episode of Watchmen, titled Little Fear of Lightning, it certainly seems possible.

In a show that doesn’t shirk on backstories, even for minor characters, Little Fear of Lightning is uniquely illuminating. As Wade, the human lie detector of the Tulsa, Oklahoma, police department, Tim Blake Nelson (who delivers another masterful performance in the upcoming film Just Mercy) alternately shrinks with melancholy and barks out assessments of truth with authoritative assuredness. Little Fear of Lightning shows us how both sides can live within one person: He’s managing the post-traumatic stress disorder that comes with surviving an alien squid attack.

Tim Blake Nelson as Wade Tillman in Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

The knowledge of Wade’s trauma and the lengths he goes to lead a semi-normal life make Laurie’s flippant derision of his costume (like her insistence on referring to Wade as “Mirror Guy”) seem all the more heartless, especially given her own ideas about why people wear masks.

There are so many gems in this episode, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention actor James Wolk’s hilariously earnest assertion as Keene: “I’m not a murderer! I’m a politician!”

Last week, Laurie made a pronouncement to Angela about people who wear masks. They’re driven by trauma, Laurie says, full of confidence. “They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered, usually when they were kids. Ergo — mask. It hides the pain.”

Regina King (left) as Sister Night in Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

That’s almost the case for Wade, although his Reflectatene mask isn’t just a way to hide his feelings. It’s a way to protect himself. Wade leads a support group for those who are still dealing with the PTSD of an alien squid attack that took place 30 years earlier. He’s built a bunker, alarmed his house with an Extra-Dimensional Security (EDS) system that he tests obsessively, and he lines the hats he wears when he’s off-duty with Reflectatene — the fancy tinfoil that 11/2 survivors believe protects them from the psychic attack that accompanied the squid.

Given the cold open of this week’s episode, it’s easy to understand why Wade behaves with the freakishness of a doomsday prepper. As a teenage Jehovah’s Witness, Wade took a trip to New Jersey to save souls. The Doomsday Clock was set to 11:59 p.m., and everyone expected nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviets. Instead of a nuclear holocaust, Wade survived a catastrophe that killed 3 million people, all because he followed a cruel jokester of a girl into a house of mirrors at a fun fair. Despite his protestations, the girl took off his clothes and ran away, leaving Wade crouching, terrified, and quaking with shame as the attack occurred.

Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) temporarily lifts his Reflectetene mask to talk to his new boss, Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) in Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

When Wade emerged, everyone outside was dead or wounded. Some 30 years later, Wade follows a pretty woman into a building, and once again, finds himself duped.

“Way to go, dummy,” Wade says, when he realizes the blond radiologist from his support group is a member of the Seventh Kavalry. “You sure do know how to pick ’em.”

Then we get the major reveal of the episode: The Kavalry, racist cop killers though they may be, are right about one thing. The squid attack was a hoax. A sitting U.S. senator — Keene — has a copy of the tape that proves it. Keene insists he’s not racist, but is making nice with the Kavalry to prevent another White Night, and says Chief Crawford was doing the same.

There are so many gems in this episode, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention actor James Wolk’s hilariously earnest assertion as Keene: “I’m not a murderer! I’m a politician!” Bless.

If there’s anyone susceptible to being red-pilled by the Seventh Kavalry, it’s Wade. They offer him the thing he craves most — truth — in the form of Veidt’s video (recorded Nov. 1, 1985, one day before the squid attack known simply as 11/2) in which Veidt admits to orchestrating the attack and installing Robert Redford as president. It’s all part of his grand plan to build a utopia that will, in Veidt’s words, prioritize “caring for the weak, reversing environmental ruin, and cultivating true equality.” Voila. A liberal autocracy is born.

Jean Smart as Special Agent Laurie Blake, who now leads the Tulsa police department, in Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

The Kavalry might be a murderous gang, but it’s also a church. And for a man with no friends and no family, a man who lost every person he knew from the faith to which he was deeply devoted, the Seventh Kavalry is a beacon of answers, of community, of peace of mind. Wade is exactly the sort of man who is ripe for radicalization by an extremist collective of race terrorists — maybe.

Is it possible to be a squid truther without also buying into the Kavalry’s long-established bigotry? The group’s name comes from the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army (the flag hanging in the Kavalry sanctuary bears a deliberate resemblance to the flag of the 7th Cavalry). The cavalry, led by Gen. George Armstrong Custer — basically the Robert E. Lee of the American Indian Wars, lost at Little Bighorn, where Custer died. Before that, Custer slaughtered a bunch of indigenous people in the name of seizing the West, and the 7th later became part of the 1st Cavalry division that fought in the South Pacific theater of World War II (we’ll come back to that).

“Is anything true?” Wade asks Angela, upon returning to the precinct. You get the sense that he really doesn’t know, and nothing disrupts Wade’s sense of security like not knowing what’s true and what’s real.

Here’s what Laurie gets wrong about Wade and his reason for donning the mask, which he insists on doing when he’s in her company. Wade isn’t obsessed with pursuing justice. He, like Rorschach and the bigoted brigade of adherents who wear his mask, is obsessed with truth. Even though one girl’s deception saved his life, Wade has spent decades perfecting his ability to tell when people are lying in an effort to protect his own heart and dignity. It’s his fear of being humiliated that destroyed his marriage.

As young Wade in the house of mirrors, actor Philip Labes musters up a shattering depiction of self-loathing that makes it instantly apparent this experience will live with Wade forever.

“You dummy,” the naked young Wade says, surrounded by reflections of what his Midwestern naivete has gotten him. “You’re pathetic. You’re a filthy dumb sinner and now you get what you deserve.”

So, yes, Wade considers trashing his EDS when he learns the truth about the squid attack, only to take it out of the trash and back into his house, seconds before the Kavalry descends on it, as a reprise of “Some Enchanted Evening” plays out the episode.

Now for a bit of appreciation of the genius of Liza Richardson’s impeccable music supervision. Richardson has been pulling from musicals (specifically Rodgers & Hammerstein), classical, and pop music traditions that work in concert with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ futuristic, propulsive score. Reznor and Ross also refer to the 7th Cavalry in their score, which includes a track called “Garryowen.” “Garryowen” was the marching tune for the 7th, as well as a nickname for the regiment.

Richardson’s decision to use “Some Enchanted Evening” to underscore how Wade has managed to make himself feel safe, and then reprising it once he’s been at home and is exposed to the truth and no longer needs the EDS is both awe-inspiring and slightly mind-melting. South Pacific is about an American nurse named Nellie who falls in love with a Frenchman, Emile, during World War II while she’s stationed on a South Pacific island. But she breaks up with him in part because he has two half-Polynesian children and she’s racist. Nellie goes through some things, manages to overcome her racism, bond with the children and reunite with Emile. Assuming Nellie’s part of the 7th-cum-1st Cavalry, maybe this is an indication that the Seventh Kavalry of Watchmen can overcome its racism (with Wade’s help!) and simply embrace truth and reject authoritarianism in all forms.

Then again, Seventh Kavalry members live in a community guarded over by a giant statue of Tricky Dick. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Stray, but maybe important observations:

  • The question that I continue to puzzle over is how Wade avoided becoming a raging misogynist given the circumstances of his trauma.
  • Is Wade watching Minutemen porn, or is the scene with Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis just another part of American Hero Story, the show-within-a-show featured in Watchmen?
  • Pale Horse — the fictional film directed by Steven Spielberg that wins a bunch of Oscars in 1992 — is about the squid attack. The scene that Radiologist Blondie describes, about the girl in the red coat walking through a sea of destruction depicted in black and white, is from Schindler’s List. However, “Pale Horse” has a couple of significant connotations. It refers to the horse ridden by Death, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. But it’s also integral to the Katherine Anne Porter short novel Pale Horse, Pale Rider. The novel is about a journalist — some might call her a truth seeker! — named Miranda who lives as everyone else around her is dying. Miranda survives the influenza epidemic of 1918, but when her fever breaks and her delirium clears, she realizes that the soldier who tended to her, and likely saved her life, died. Plus, he probably caught her flu. Miranda, like Wade, is left to reckon with the aftereffects of surviving a horrible calamity that takes an enormous number of lives.
  • The actual film that won best picture and a bunch of other Oscars in 1992 is Unforgiven, which was a western directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. It’s about a retired outlaw, played by Eastwood, who gets summoned to do just one more job, which is necessary because two men get mad and attack a prostitute after she humiliates one of them.
  • Oh, and in 1985 (the same year as the squid attack in Watchmen), Eastwood starred in and directed another western called Pale Rider. These are the most detailed and circuitous Easter eggs I’ve ever encountered. The Watchmen writers room is like a Peteypedia of the Old West and musical theater. It’s nuts.

‘Watchmen’ episode four: ‘If You Don’t Like My Story Write Your Own’ The show introduces a new character and starts picking at scabs of inherited trauma

Let’s talk about trauma — specifically, the inherited kind.

On top of racism, upended power dynamics, the seeming oxymoron that is liberal authoritarianism, vigilantism, musical theater, and the history of the West, HBO’s Watchmen has now dumped epigenetics — the study of how genes are altered because of a person’s exposure to trauma, and how those alterations get passed down through multiple generations — into the bucket of things to consider as we’re watching the show.

“Oh,” you say.

“This is too much to hold in one’s head,” you say.

Damon Lindelof & Co. seem to have an answer to that objection in the form of the title of this week’s episode: If You Don’t Like My Story Write Your Own. That’s not the only bit of meta commentary folded into this episode. This week’s Watchmen isn’t just about inherited trauma; it’s about how it informs the way we think of ourselves, if we choose to engage with it at all.

The new character introduced this week, Hong Chau’s Lady Trieu, appears to be feeding her own Vietnam War trauma to her daughter with an IV drip. Still, she doesn’t seem to appreciate Will’s efforts to do the same to his granddaughter Angela, using a bottle of pills, as we learn during a tête-à-tête between the two in the final minutes of If You Don’t Like My Story.

“The pills — they’re passive-aggressive exposition,” Trieu says. “If you want her to know who you are, just tell her.”

“She’s not going to listen,” Will says. “She needs to experience things by herself.”

“It’s still too cute by half,” she answers, sneaking in a winking critique of the show itself.

This week’s Watchmen isn’t just about inherited trauma; it’s about how it informs the way we think of ourselves, if we choose to engage with it at all.

We’ve got a lot of trauma to unpack, and I want to start with Laurie and Angela. Last week, I theorized that the two women have more in common than they realize. They’re both cops. They both have experience with vigilantism. And they both seem to be having some spiritual issues. Now that Angela Abar’s atheist husband Cal (Yahya-Abdul Mateen II) has met Laurie, he seems to think Laurie might not be Angela’s enemy, but someone who can help her.

Laurie, who is now running the Tulsa Police Department in the wake of Chief Crawford’s death may not know everything about Angela, but she’s making some intelligent guesses. The two are riding together, trying to solve the mystery of how and why Angela’s car was sucked up into the sky the night Chief Crawford was killed, and returned the night of his, err, explosive burial.

Sister Night (Regina King) confronts Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) in Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

“People who wear masks are driven by trauma,” Laurie tells Angela. “They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered, usually when they were kids. Ergo — mask. It hides the pain.”

Laurie was born to wear the mask. Her mother, Sally Jupiter, was the original Silk Spectre of the Minutemen, the crime-fighting cadre from Alan Moore’s Watchmen comic. Laurie’s father, Eddie Blake, also of the Minutemen, fought crime as The Comedian. Eddie also sexually assaulted Sally. Years after the assault, Sally and Eddie had a consensual encounter, and Laurie was conceived. Laurie grew up to go into the family business of costumed crime-fighting, fell in love with Dr. Manhattan, broke up with Dr. Manhattan, and took up with another hero, Nite Owl/Dan Dreiberg.

Well, now Dreiberg’s in federal custody thanks to the Keene Act, a law passed in 1977 that outlawed costumed vigilantism, and he’s been there for decades. Just as Laurie is actually a second-gen Silk Spectre, her former boss, Senator Keene (James Wolk) is a second-gen public servant — the “Keene” of the Keene Act refers to the senator’s father, who drafted the legislation in the first place.

In the wake of the Keene Act’s passage, Laurie retired from being a superhero and joined the feds. Now she’s trying to solve Chief Crawford’s murder in exchange for Dreiberg’s freedom. Laurie’s dealing with some ambivalence about her role in the world. No wonder she’s making phone calls to Mars to an ex-boyfriend who never seems to answer!

Jeremy Irons (left) as Adrian Veidt and Sara Vickers (right) as his clone servant in Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

Angela, on the other hand, carries trauma that she doesn’t fully understand. She’s a descendant of black people who were targeted during the Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma. But she’s looking for more answers, and she finds them by breaking into the Greenwood Cultural Center to take a look at her family tree. Will is her paternal grandfather, but the government has lost track of him and assumes he died in the massacre. Not so. Will, it turns out, became a police officer in New York in the 1940s and changed his last name to Reeves, which he shares with his favorite hero, the black lawman Bass Reeves.

So besides the trauma of the White Night, which is the reason Angela wears the mask that makes her Sister Night, Angela’s carrying the racial trauma of the Tulsa Race Massacre in her genes. And all she wants to do is outrun it. Angela, after all, is the one who proposes sex with Cal in their closet — the same closet where they were having sex when Angela found out that her boss, friend, and mentor had been hanged. The slogan of her bakery is a pun that celebrates historical Alzheimer’s: “Let Saigons be Saigons.” This is not a woman who wants to confront the past, but bury it. And the thing that won’t allow her to do so is a literal lynching — a radioactive recreation of American racialized extrajudicial violence — that has killed a cop with a Klan robe in his closet.

Talk about an irony that’s too cute by half!

And so Will has entered an alliance with the mysterious Lady Trieu, the trillionaire who purchased Adrian Veidt’s company. So what do we know about Lady Trieu? She has a vivarium that’s recreated the ecosystem of Vietnam in the middle of Tulsa. She’s building a giant clock that she asserts is more than just a giant clock, one that she’s made impervious to rising seas and seismic shifts. She calls it the “first wonder of the new world.” And she’s harboring and/or protecting a fully able-bodied Will.

Watchmen introduces Trieu with a situation that exposes both her questionable ethics and her interest in Veidt’s work. Remember how Veidt keeps creating rudimentary clones and experimenting with them? Now that Trieu’s taken over his company, she’s also taken his research into hyperdrive. When we meet her, she’s using a baby she created with genetic material she owns to extort an infertile couple into selling her their house and land in exchange for it. Trieu’s pitch to them? “Legacy isn’t in land,” she says. “It’s in blood.”

This extraordinarily dense episode was about the trauma we inherit with blood — legacy — whether we want it or not. Does that mean the next episode is about what we do with it?

Stray, but maybe important observations:

  • Lube Man? Really!? Some guy in a shiny silver elastic onesie starts running when he sees Sister Night, douses himself with something, and zips into a sewer grate? I am just as confused about this guy and his significance as you are. But sure, let’s slide with it.
  • I found Chau’s construction of Lady Trieu to be instantly bewitching. She’s self-assured, but not pompous. She’s distant, but not cold. I’ve seen Chau’s work in Downsizing and in the upcoming film Driveways. In all these works, she’s created intricate, detailed characters who are completely distinct from one another. Yet another mesmerizing performance that sets off sparks (in Vietnamese!) when Trieu and Angela meet.
  • Trieu Industries owns and operates the phone booths that allow humans to make calls to Dr. Manhattan. So, are the booths really communing with Mars? Is Trieu Industries listening to the conversations and gathering data about the humans who use the booths? Or are they a placebo — a way of reinforcing a false reality marked by interdimensional squid attacks that help keep the peace by providing humans a way to talk about phenomena they don’t understand?
  • Veidt, wherever and whenever he is, says that he’s been imprisoned for four years. It would appear that he’s growing servants to kill, not just for his own entertainment, but also as subjects for experiments. He’s rigged up a trebuchet whose sole purpose is vaulting humans into the atmosphere. Where exactly is he trying to go?
  • As Will stands up, he tells Lady Trieu, “my feet are just fine.” He walks away from her, unaided. He’s stuck his hand into a pot of boiling water without getting injured. Why was Will using a wheelchair he doesn’t need, one that Angela has now destroyed?

Laurie seems to have a deeper-than-usual interest in the Abar marriage. I can’t tell if it’s because she envies Angela’s ability to have a healthy romantic relationship and fight crime, or if it’s something else. Given her personal history, I can’t blame Laurie for being intrigued. Cal is nurturing, loyal, and handsome. He’s not a rapist, he doesn’t wear a mask, and he’s not in federal custody. In Laurie’s world, he’s practically a unicorn.

‘Watchmen’ episode three: ‘She Was Killed by Space Junk’ G-woman vs. vigilante cop: Jean Smart and Regina King face off

Laurie Blake can’t get over her blue god of an ex-boyfriend.

So she keeps calling Mars and leaving voicemails, despite the fact that he never picks up.

What at first seems like another round of inscrutable weirdness from the Watchmen writers turns out to be the opposite in episode three, “She Was Killed by Space Junk.” You just have to be willing to sit and ponder a spell, and also be willing to acknowledge that your theory might be completely wrong.

Jeremy Irons as Adrian Veidt in Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

She’s only just been introduced, but I’m not quite sure what to make of Laurie (the ineffably great Jean Smart), who, 30 years earlier, wasn’t a G-woman, but a vigilante herself. Laurie was the masked hero Silk Spectre, one of Doctor Manhattan’s original acolytes (peep the Warhol-like portrait that hangs in Laurie’s apartment, and the nifty bit of camera framing that puts her face squarely in the fourth quadrant of it). Not only has the great alien squid hoax of 1985 seemingly turned Laurie off the idea of superheroism, she’s now actively fighting it. Episode three begins with Laurie leading a sting in New York to capture some guy in a Batman suit calling himself Mr. Shadow. She and her team stage a bank robbery and tip the guy off, then shoot and arrest him when he shows up.

Episode three has an oddly inspired structure about it, framed by Laurie’s calls to Mars, which also double as prayers offered in a futuristic-looking confessional of an interplanetary phone booth.

While Laurie seems pretty self-assured in her position at the FBI, she’s clearly harboring some doubts about her role in society. For one, she keeps placing calls to Doctor Manhattan, whom she also refers to as Blue God, to tell him jokes that never seem to have a punchline. “Mostly, I don’t give a s— about humanity,” Laurie says bitterly as she interprets the attitude of her ex.

Episode three has an oddly inspired structure about it, framed by Laurie’s calls to Mars, which also double as prayers offered in a futuristic-looking confessional of an interplanetary phone booth. Her prayers/jokes provide much-needed context for the extraterrestrial craziness that’s happening in the show. Alan Moore’s graphic novel ends in 1985, with Smartypants Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (he of the genetically engineered tomatoes and army of clone servants) deciding to take the Machiavellian approach of ending the Cold War by killing 3 million people. He fakes an alien squid attack on New York to bring about an existential crisis from space with the idea that if there’s a bigger, intergalactic enemy at large, perhaps the Earthly humans will stop fighting each other.

Jeremy Irons as Adrian Veidt in Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

The one person who knows the truth and tries to alert others is Rorschach, but because Rorschach is an unreliable source (he’s a psychopath), no one listens to him. Instead, Rorschach ends up inspiring a community of conspiracy theorist truthers, et voila: The Seventh Kavalry is born, no one knows what is true anymore, and they definitely don’t trust newspapers.

Laurie basically recounts this as she’s leaving Doctor Manhattan a voicemail. And just like there’s no guarantee, other than faith, that God, blue or otherwise, actually listens to prayers, Laurie is not so sure Doctor Manhattan is listening to her. Well, until he throws some junk out of the sky in the form of Angela’s (Regina King) car, the one he sucked up with a giant magnet as Will sat in the passenger seat in episode two.

Anyhow, Laurie is dispatched to Oklahoma to investigate the hanging of Chief Crawford, given that the last round of white supremacist terrorism ended in the massacre of nearly the entire Tulsa police department. There’s definitely some deep thinking about federalism going on in this episode, as evidenced by Angela Abar’s choice of song at the Chief’s funeral.

When a Seventh Kavalry suicide bomber shows up at the funeral, Laurie tries to save the day by shooting him. The bomb, which is rigged to the bomber’s heart, begins to tick. Angela quickly drags the dead suicide bomber into Chief Crawford’s grave, then dumps Crawford’s casket on top of him. No one gets hurt, but whatever evidence that is still lingering on the Chief’s body about who might have killed him has been destroyed.

Humph. So far the score is

Will – 1

Agent Laurie – 0

I haven’t said anything about Angela’s choice of undercover detective costume until now, because it looked cool. But there also didn’t seem to be anything to explain why she would choose to be a dominatrix nun named Sister Night when she’s doing police work — well, aside from Angela’s love of beating up white supremacists.

But this episode, with its allusions to faith, confession, and feeling forsaken by the one you love most has me rethinking that. Nuns, according to Catholic catechism, are betrothed to Jesus. Laurie has strayed from her blue god of an ex-boyfriend. She’s not even convinced the universe has a hero. After all, in the joke Laurie offers up on her phone call to Mars, both Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons) and (regular) God end up in hell. Laurie says she kills God after throwing a brick in the air that hits him in the head.

She and Angela are both cops; one just happens to work for the federal government. They both have weird relationships with God(s). Might the two have more in common than seems obvious at first glance? Right now, the relationship between Angela and Laurie is characterized by suspicion and mistrust. But Doctor Manhattan seems to be set on bringing them together by dumping Angela’s car at Laurie’s feet with a crash that should have awakened the whole neighborhood. Subtle move, Doctor Manhattan. Real subtle.

(I really hope the Abars had comprehensive coverage on that Infiniti, because it is completely trashed. Perhaps Doctor Manhattan could learn to have a little more respect for other people’s things!)

I’m inclined to take the title of this episode more figuratively than literally, and if anything has been killed, it’s Laurie’s heart and her faith in Doctor Manhattan. If men are trash, well then, perhaps the Mars-dwelling, levitating Doctor Manhattan is the space junk in question.

Stray, but maybe important observations:

  • On their flight to Tulsa, Laurie makes a retort to her FBI fanboy/lackey, a historian who now works for the bureau, after he pulls out a mask in an attempt to show some solidarity with the Tulsa police department and its murdered chief. “When in Rome,” he says.

“Tulsa’s not Rome,” Laurie responds dryly. “And you’re a federal agent. Not the Lone F—ing Ranger.” It’s true. But you know who might have actually been the basis for the “Lone F—ing Ranger”? Bass Reeves!

  • I don’t know where Veidt is, or who The Gamekeeper is, or even the rules of Veidt’s refuge. But unlike the newspapers that have declared him dead, Veidt seems to be very much alive.
  • The American flag in this show is vastly different from our own. A circle of white stars sits on a blue background, surrounded by red and white stripes.
  • Did Doctor Manhattan make that giant blue vibrator Laurie carries around with her? What a hilarious nod to his penchant for calling attention to his giant blue phallus and his trademark eschewing of clothes.
  • Angela’s funeral dirge, dedicated to her dead boss, is “The Last Round-Up,” made famous by Gene Autry in the The Singing Hill.

The film is about the conflict between what’s good for a rich few versus what will benefit the community. In this case, cattle rancher John Ramsey (George Meeker) wants to buy up a big patch of land for his own use from an heiress. If he does, he’ll eject other traders who have been using the land to graze their cattle.

Ramsey wants the land so he can jack up the rates charged to other cattle traders who don’t own their own land. The move would bankrupt the traders and give Ramsey a monopoly. Autry plays the guy who stands up to the Ramsey and convinces town authorities the deal is bad. The West prides itself on the open range and personal freedom, but in The Singing Hill, the traders need Autry and the government to stand up for the little guy in the face of one rich, selfish muckety-muck. Again, the chief clearly sees himself as the good guy, not Meeker’s character.