Wade’s never gonna dance again, his guilty feet have got no rhythm, though he wears his reflectatine, he’ll discover he’s been fooled.
The fifth episode of Watchmen focuses on everyone’s favorite Alice in Wonderland reference – Looking Glass aka Wade Tillman. The man who runs the “racist detector” (as Agent Laurie Blake puts it) is, in his day job, a market research consultant. Wade’s got a sixth sense for the truth, which winds up being painfully ironic by the end of this episode.
We start in 1985, it’s November 2nd in Hoboken, NJ, and a bus of Jehovah’s witnesses has just pulled up to save the souls of the damned. One naïve savior is a young Wade, originally from OK, he’s here to spread the good word until a pretty girl (Roxy, played by Julia Vasi) knocks him off course. She leads him into a funhouse room filled with mirrors where he’s confronted by temptations of the flesh. While he’s struggling with new and scary feelings, she reveals her true intentions: to humiliate him. After stripping him naked she runs off with his clothes and leaves him vulnerable and alone, but it gets worse. So much worse. A few second go by when suddenly there’s a commotion, the mirrors around him shatter and Wade grabs his head. He carefully makes his way through the broken glass to the outside, only to discover almost everyone has died, including his tormentor. Sure, he gets his clothes back, but this psychic trauma will haunt him for the next thirty years, at least.
Wade’s painful past results in a lonely and paranoid present, but it’s not because of the squid, at least not entirely. According to creator Damon Lindelof, Wade’s real trauma is sexual. Lindelof, in an interview, revealed that his sexual awakening wasn’t exactly fantastic; it involved a lot of fear and anxiety – which is what we see in Wade’s experience. While some of that can be chalked up to drinking the kool-aid that is organized religion and all of its negative associations with sex, part of that can be attributed to just being human. I read once that Elvis Presley liked under-aged girls because he believed they didn’t have any sexual expectations of him, so he didn’t have to worry about disappointing them. Whether it’s true or not, it does make sense. Lindelof cited movies like Porky’s, which depict budding young men as overtly confident sex seekers who show little concern for their potential prowess or partners. He decided to use Wade to tell a different story, one he related to, where the budding young man is curious about sex, but by no means confident in his interest or abilities. And, I have to say it’s true. I’ve heard enough stories from guys who felt a lot of pressure when it came to sex, to the point where it negatively impacted their first times. Society may well fetishize women at a young age, seeing them through the male-gaze, but men aren’t immune to this either.
I have to give Watchmen credit here for flipping the script – genuinely. As a rule, people say this phrase and I feel like it doesn’t fit most of the time, but here? You have a comic book show that is dealing with male sexual trauma instead of female, and it does not shy away from nudity or complication. Though Wade is saying he doesn’t want to have sex with the girl, she points out that his body says differently. Granted, I would have appreciated full-frontal, but this scene also doesn’t end the way most sexual trauma scenes in comics do. Watchmen (the comic), specifically, has a sexual trauma storyline that eventually results in a consensual sexual liaison (which results in Laurie!), and ultimately leads to an important plot point. It does not fetishize what happens to Laurie’s mother, even though it appears to. Here we have a similar situation: Wade’s sexual trauma is not merely played for laughs or as prelude to a larger comic-book call-back, instead, it informs his very being from that moment onward. And that’s sad, but also in keeping with this show’s theme of pain.
The rest of the episode coasts along showing us Wade’s everyday life: he runs drills nightly, lines his red “Tulsa Tornado” baseball cap in reflectatine (a material designed to ward off psychic blasts, allegedly), sleeps in his Looking Glass mask, attends (or runs) a support meeting for suffers of “Post Traumatic Squid Syndrome”, and spends lonely nights watching TV and eating beans out of a can. There are two deviations to this routine that add to our overall plot. One is when Wade visits his ex-wife Cynthia (Eileen Grubba) at her job, and the other is when he tries to bond with newcomer Renee (Paula Malcomson) after the group meeting.
Cynthia is a scientist at a company that clones pets. Wade’s given her Angela’s bottle of pills to analyze as a favor; she informs him that they are Nostalgia – a drug that contains memories which was banned for causing psychosis. Her advice? Do not ingest (oh, Angela!). The take away from this scene is that not only did Wade’s fear of sexual trauma cost him his marriage, but his ex-wife is perfectly fine with euthanizing a puppy if it isn’t an exact match – I mean, you couldn’t just adopt the dog, Wade? In her defense, it’s a clone, and it presents a fairly classic sci-fi conundrum, even if it’s just as a throw away moment in a scene. But, seriously, it’s clear from their interaction that Wade and his ex still care for each other deeply; I’m curious if his upcoming knowledge means they’ve got a second chance in their future…
Renee, on the other hand, is what happens when talking to an ex makes you horny. You can’t bang your ex without things getting tricky, so you transfer those urges onto the next viable option: a rando. Renee comes to the meeting late, and after a flirtatious post-meeting pregame, they go full-on proxy date with the promise of a one-night stand. Unfortunately, though Renee didn’t lie about being a radiologist, she did lie about her interest in Wade. She’s a honeypot, the same kind he fell for on 11/2, and just like back then she’s lured him into a deadly situation. Wade has found the Kavalry church that Agent Blake was talking about earlier (she’s done shaking down white people; if you find the church from the video, you find the Kavalry), it’s a set. And his “discovery” is a setup. The Kavalry doesn’t want to kill him though, they want to recruit him. Well, Senator Keene Jr. does.
Now, the question becomes: why Wade? The answer, as with most things in this series, is obvious: he’s the only white member of the detective force. Agent Blake is FBI, so, while she’s the right color, she’s the wrong jurisdiction. Sister Night is black, so duh. Red Scare is Russian, so he’s out. Pirate Jenny is Latina (guessing), so also out. Wade on the other hand is perfect: he lives alone, he’s paranoid, he’s fearful of the unknown, he’s from Tulsa, and he’s white.
This is an important episode with regards to the larger story itself. It reveals that Senator Keene Jr. is a member of the Kavalry (kind of), and confirms that Judd Crawford was one too. It’s odd, since the Senator demeans members of his own society, calling them racists. This leads to the question is Sen. Keene Jr. a member of the Seventh Kavalry? Is there another Kavalry that is worse? Is Sen. Keene Jr. secretly a good guy trying to dismantle the racists from within? He does say that he and Crawford were put in place to prevent another White Night. These are fun questions, which only get posed if you pay close attention to what is said and how it is said. The truth is coming up next episode, a nice change of pace given how long we’ve been made to wait for answers through most of this show.
This episode also fills in some information on Adrian Veidt. Wade is shown a video where Veidt congratulates President Robert Redford on his successful political run (bragging that he predicted the win, as the video is recorded from 1985). In it, Veidt confesses, proudly, that 11/2 was his doing, an act designed to prevent the impending apocalypse. He also has plans to deal with climate change, poverty, and hunger, but Wade’s less interested in those things. It’s in this moment the truth hits: He’s based his whole life on a lie. Allowed fear to rule him for thirty years, allowed it to cost him everything. Ouch. Not to mention, once he makes it home, his troubles aren’t over – a van filled with armed Kavalry members comes a calling.
Other things in this episode:
Careless Whisper is Wade’s theme song, and you’ll notice that for most of the episode it is either the original version or an instrumental version. The only time we hear a cover is after Wade’s world has been blown to pieces. I think this is a beautiful metaphor for Wade’s emotional state. Here’s a man who is haunted by his mistakes, his perceived self-betrayal and weakness, themes in the song, but when he learns the truth the song doesn’t change exactly. His feelings are the same but different…like a cover.
Adrian is trapped on Europa. That’s really all you get from the little Veidt side-story, that, and he’s in trouble with the Game Warden for trying to escape (by spelling “Save me d” in bodies on the moon for a passing satellite to see).
The episode’s title is from a line in the novel “Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” by Jules Verne, and it refers directly to Adrian’s justification for his action. “If there were no thunder, man would have little fear of lightning”. He mentions in his video the need to keep the fear in order to keep the peace – hence the psychic blast and the random raining of squids. The problem with this logic is that man got used to thunder; he harnessed the power of lightning – meaning, fear isn’t a good way to keep people in line. Eventually, people challenge what they fear, maybe not all of them, but there’s always that one defiant soul willing to take the chance.
Lastly, Wade’s betrayal of Angela sucks. I get that he’s put in an impossible situation, but given my earlier discourse on the fact that black people have a hard time knowing who to trust in a white world, this is especially disheartening. And you can see how hurt Wade is to do it, a man for whom trust is the ultimate currency.