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Watchmen wants us to know one thing: We’re all being used by those with power

The show delves into Looking Glass’s past — and revisits one of the most memorable moments from the comic.

Looking Glass prepares something in a kitchen.
Looking Glass seems to have a very full life.

After playing footsie with the original Watchmen comic for four weeks, the new TV show’s fifth episode — “Little Fear of Lightning” — dumps us straight into one of the comic’s most famous moments: the “interdimensional” squid attack on New York that kills 3 million people and does grave psychic damage to even more.

The event, as those who’ve read the comic know, is a plot cooked up by Ozymandias to avoid nuclear war and maybe bring about world peace. Known to the public as an “attack” by beings from another dimension, it manages to bring the US and USSR closer together, leading to the version of America we see in the series, where the Robert Redford administration is nearing its 30-year anniversary but where the tensions of the Cold War no longer seem relevant to the world at large.

As we learn in “Little Fear of Lightning,” it’s a deep, dark secret, held closely by a very small few, that the squid didn’t come from another dimension but was instead manifested right here on Earth. And among the people who were affected by its arrival are Steven Spielberg (who made a very Schindler’s List-esque movie about the squid) and our own Looking Glass, who narrowly escaped death at the squid’s nasty tentacles as a teen, then saw his life scarred by having been so close to such a devastating occurrence.

Just like Watchmen’s third episode, “Little Fear of Lightning” is a character showcase, following Looking Glass for nearly its entire running time. (We check in on Adrian Veidt briefly, and he does seem to be in space, spelling out a message using all of the corpses he’s been generating. This show!) But “Lightning” tells a darker and sadder story about what it means to live in a world where you survived an experience that’s roughly as rare — and even more likely to kill you — as being struck by lightning. It’s about survivor’s guilt. But it’s also about realizing that the world is built atop a lie.

To dig further into that theme, I (Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff) am joined by Vox associate culture editor Allegra Frank and culture writer Constance Grady to break down “Little Fear of Lightning,” from the Seventh Kavalry to James Wolk’s inherent shiftiness to squids galore.

Times Square: Now with 100 percent more squid

Tim Blake Nelson looks through his mail.
Looking Glass takes off his mask for a bit.

Emily: In the build-up to director Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Watchmen for the big screen, all involved agreed to change the ending of the original comic. Despite a slavish faithfulness to the comic’s images (if not exactly its themes) in the rest of the film, it was thought that a giant squid landing in Times Square would be too much for people to process. Instead, the movie suggested that Doctor Manhattan had created some sort of energy pulse that leveled much of Manhattan, thus necessitating his move to Mars.

It honestly wasn’t a bad story shift — it gave Doctor Manhattan a more easily understandable motivation to bail on Earth, at least (if you, for some reason, believe a godlike blue man would have understandable motivations, which I might quibble with). But I’m so, so happy the squid (Squidley? Squidward? Squidbert?) exists in the world of HBO’s Watchmen to destroy this fictional version of New York. True to the spirit of this project, “Little Fear of Lightning” writers Damon Lindelof and Carly Wray (another The Leftovers alum) and director Steph Green pull out resonances with the 9/11 attacks but also the ways we use pop culture to process these sorts of horrors.

What’s most notable, however, is how the opening flashback makes viewers feel the sheer gutting horror of that moment and how it would have reverberated in the decades to come. Allegra: I don’t know how spoiled you are on the comic, but how did you feel about the squid? Was it a bridge too far for you, as the movie’s creative team feared it would be for their 2009 audience? Or are you going to share a recipe for delicious calamari with me, so excited are you by the prospects of a giant cephalopod?

Allegra: I’ve become increasingly “spoiled” on the original Watchmen comic in my weeks-long quest to grasp what’s happening on the TV show. So I was aware of the squid attack — but only in the abstract. This week’s episode visualized what I interpreted as a very bizarre method of mass destruction and proved how terrifying that kind of experience could be.

The cold open rendered a young Looking Glass the equivalent of that classic horror movie trope, the Final Girl: He’s a teenage boy thrust into a situation where he could possibly lose his virginity, but the moment never comes to bear. His sexual anxiety, and the virginal purity that, in horror movies at least, establishes him as a rare moralist, ends up saving his life in the end. Looking Glass finds himself alone after a devastating, sudden, inexplicable mass casualty.

This scene helped to ease me, the sensitive viewer, into the idea of the squid attack because we saw only the aftermath and not the act of the killing itself. It’s still a shocking moment and a horrifying image to see hundreds of dead bodies lying on the ground, but I don’t think the scene veered too far into the ostentatious, as HBO has made no effort to hide how disturbed the show’s version of 2019 Tulsa is.

And on a plausibility level, that all those deaths were the effect of a squid that apparently came from another dimension doesn’t quite phase me — five episodes in, a squid attack feels normal enough for Watchmen, despite its inherent absurdity. It’s the impact of the attack that is meaningful, sculpting Looking Glass into the lonely, sexually repressed man we’ve come to know in the episode’s contemporary storyline.

On the inherent shiftiness of James Wolk

Ozymandias prepares to go on a space walk.
Yes, we’re aware this is technically Jeremy Irons right beneath a subhead about James Wolk.

Constance: I’m coming into this show pretty unspoiled. All of my knowledge of the comic comes from the time a friend who read it 10 years ago summarized it for me, and I came away with a vague understanding of something something giant squid, something something blue penis. But even with minimal knowledge of the comic, the squid attack still lands; it’s a moment of pure Lovecraftian horror, and I absolutely buy that it would traumatize Looking Glass forever. This only makes it all the more heartbreaking when he realizes that this horrific event that has shaped his life forever was a lie.

The other big reveal this episode comes when we find out that James Wolk’s affable gentleman senator Joe Keane is the leader of the Seventh Kavalry, and that he apparently saw his leadership as half of a partnership with the now-dead Judd as the chief of the police. For me, that twist wasn’t exactly surprising, but it was immensely satisfying because it’s such good use of Wolk’s inherent shiftiness.

Maybe it’s because I’m most familiar with Wolk from his role as Mad Men’s Bob “NOT GREAT” Benson, but anytime I see him onscreen, I feel incapable of trusting him. (Well, I trust him to inspire some truly iconic gifs, but that’s it.) Or maybe it’s because he’s so handsome: it only stands to reason that anyone with a face that symmetrical has to be hiding something. (Incidentally, this is why I think Armie Hammer is going to be great as Maxim De Winter in the forthcoming Rebecca. Obviously he has something to hide, because why else would he be so tall?) Regardless, I’ve been slowly going insane watching him slither around the sidelines of every Watchmen scene with his good ole boy accent and his Kennedy-lite posture, so the reveal that he is the man behind the curtains of the Seventh Kavalry is fantastically gratifying.

But the reveal is also thematically compelling because it gets at an idea that seems fundamental to the Watchmen universe: The state and the terrorists are in on everything together. They are run by the same self-interested billionaires who think of the rest of us as their pawns and turn us against each other for their own purposes. All of the systems are corrupt, and escaping them is nearly impossible. All we’re left with is individuals trying to do their best to survive in a broken world.

Allegra, how did the Seventh Kavalry reveal work for you? Do you think there’s any possibility for hope left in the Watchmen world?

Allegra: Before I answer your question, I have to say your read on James Wolk (and Armie Hammer!) has deeply wounded me. But maybe that’s because you’re right about him — I can’t help but trust a beautiful man like Wolk’s Senator Keene when he wants me to believe he’s on the side of justice. That smile! That perfectly combed hair! Those bright, twinkling eyes! I’m a superficial goon, is what I’m saying, easily manipulated by pretty boys.

As such, Keene’s connection to the Seventh Kavalry gutted me. I yelled at my screen as he and other men and women we’d thought were good guys pulled off their Rorschach masks. How is it that so many of the people we’ve gotten to know in Tulsa deceived Angela, Laurie, and Looking Glass so easily and so totally? Their involvement is evidence that Adrian Veidt’s giant squid attack was not an end-all, be-all, but instead the impetus for decades of selfish behavior on the part of uncaring rich men looking to gain control over an unsuspecting public with dwindling resources.

But I don’t think that necessarily dictates a hopeless situation going forward. For starters, tying the Seventh Kavalry reveal to Looking Glass’s storyline — he being a survivor of this sort of selfish behavior in the truest sense — offers the kind of motivation that should undoubtedly empower those who do remain on the side of good.

This mass destruction via cephalopod, whether or not it was justified in the service of preventing a nuclear war, has all kinds of ramifications — from Looking Glass walking out of that carnival hall of mirrors to find hundreds of dead bodies, to Angela learning that her closest friend and mentor was never supporting her cause in the first place. These are devastating truths, but they’re also ones that I very much expect to embolden our heroes in this otherwise nihilistic world.

What about you, Emily? Do you think Looking Glass will find the power within him to share Veidt’s secret about the squid attack with Angela and company?

Will Looking Glass even survive, tho?

Is Laurie in on it?
Laurie and Looking Glass have a chat.

Emily: Before this episode, I wasn’t sure if Looking Glass was one of my favorite characters because he was so inherently compelling, or because Tim Blake Nelson is such a terrific actor. After this episode, I feel comfortable saying: It’s both.

The shattered quality that young Looking Glass carries out of that hall of mirrors moves forward with him into the current Tulsa timeline, and it’s the same shattered quality that is a major part of why he betrays Angela at episode’s end. To be sure, the Seventh Kavalry has revealed to him that much of his life has been based on a lie. But instead of telling his friend about this lie, he betrays her.

Before this episode aired, one of our colleagues was talking about how they didn’t want to see Looking Glass revealed as a secret racist. But what “Little Fear of Lightning” does with the character is almost sadder. Looking Glass isn’t an overt racist. He knows enough to say “woke” things like “He was a white man in Oklahoma” when Angela finds that KKK hood in Judd’s closet. But he’s also bound to something terrible by dint of who he is. In the complicated logistics of Watchmen’s plot, that terrible something is a conspiracy to keep the wool pulled over the world’s eyes.

But on a metaphorical level, the story plays as a muted horror movie about trying to do the right thing and still being roped in with the worst kinds of people because of how structural power works. Which is to say: Watchmen remains a show about whiteness, and Looking Glass is perhaps the most potent example of how you can be a truly kind and compassionate human being and still have a lot to answer for, including stuff that you maybe weren’t even aware of.

That’s what’s so provocative about the Seventh Kavalry being rooted in a truth. One of the details of the original Watchmen that makes me so uncomfortable is that Rorschach — the violent sadist and borderline fascist — is ultimately right about a lot of what he’s saying. It’s just that his methods (secrecy and paranoia) distort the narrative so much that he ceases to be someone worth emulating. He even ceases to be a reliable narrator, despite the fact that he’s often telling the truth.

But this season has revolved around twin secrets buried and kept away from those who most need to know them. The Seventh Kavalry revelation has the most immediate bearing on the plot — in that yes, other characters should probably know who was responsible for that squid attack — but the Tulsa massacre has the most immediate bearing on us in the audience, where words like “massacre” have only recently been applied to what history has often dubbed as a “race riot.” Buried secrets fester and become infected. But we can’t help but bury secrets.

At any rate, maybe Looking Glass won’t have to worry about any of the above much longer. As “Little Fear of Lightning” ends, a whole host of Seventh Kavalry gunmen are entering his house, seemingly to kill him. I hope he makes it through. After all: He’s played by Tim Blake Nelson, and it’s a delight to see him on our screens every week.

Constance: Looking Glass really is a fantastic character because he’s such a good example of how you can be both complicit in oppressive systems, and also the pawn of people with a lot more power than you have.

Looking Glass is obviously being used, and he knows it. He’s been used his whole life, arguably first by the church that sent him out into the world as a teen missionary, then by Adrian Veidt and his squid, then by Judd and the Tulsa police force, and now by Keane and the Seventh Kavalry. He’s a man whose superpower is being able to tell when someone is lying to him, but he has still spent his life being lied to and manipulated by all the people and all the systems that he trusted in.

And by extension, so have most of the other people in the Watchmen universe, including Angela and Laurie. And by further extension, so have we. So the question then becomes: What do we do when we learn that we are being used?

Looking Glass responds by deciding to let Keane and the Seventh Kavalry use him. He doubles down on his complicity. What we have yet to see is how the rest of the characters in this world will react to the idea that the people they trust are using them as pawns — and whether this world allows for the possibility of breaking free of your complicity all together.

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