lingering questions

14 Big Questions From This Week’s Watchmen

Photo: HBO

Without slowing the momentum of the storytelling, Watchmen has found ways to focus on major characters and bring us into their experiences in a version of 2019 still reeling from a horrific hoax squid attack in 1985. Angela has remained the focus character, but we learned a lot about Laurie in the third episode, and in this week’s “Little Fear of Lightning,” the spotlight turns to Wade Tillman, the market-research expert by day, masked avenger by night, otherwise known as Looking Glass (or, if you’re Laurie, “Mirror Guy”). But unlike with Angela and Laurie, we seem to get nearly all the pieces of the Looking Glass puzzle, from his traumatic 11/2 experience as a young Jehovah’s Witnesses missionary in Hoboken to his fearful existence in Tulsa to an encounter with Senator Joe Keene Jr. that upsets everything he thought he knew about transdimensional squid. And while viewers have been a couple of steps ahead of Looking Glass, there’s still a lot we don’t know or are just finding out (like, for instance, Veidt’s extraterrestrial location). Let’s dig into a few questions we can (maybe) answer at this point.

Where did that big squid come from?

So far, Watchmen has stayed reasonably welcoming to viewers unfamiliar with the graphic novel or who only know Zack Snyder’s 2009 film. But if you are one of those viewers, all the squid talk must have seemed a little baffling. A later scene of Watchmen’s fifth episode, “Little Fear of Lightning,” does a pretty good job of fleshing out the backstory of the giant squid, but here’s the thumbnail-sketch version anyway: The final issues of Watchmen reveal that Adrian Veidt — billionaire, genius, and possible madman — has concocted an elaborate plan to end the Cold War once and for all by teleporting a horrific giant alien squid into downtown Manhattan. It’s a wild idea, but it works. Sensing a threat bigger than each other, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. decide to put aside their differences as peace spreads across Earth.

It’s an ending so strange that the 2009 film didn’t even try to adapt it. But, at least in the context of the comic, it works remarkably well, and HBO’s Watchmen vividly brings it to horrifying life. This is the closest the series has come to mimicking the pages of the source material, from the look of Hoboken’s denizens to the one-eyed squid itself to the horrific tableau of corpses arrayed in the wake of the squid’s psychic blast. Because it’s not the squid’s body that killed so many, but the psychic shockwave it emitted — a shockwave whose aftereffects are still being felt years later. That makes sense since the squid had the brain of a dead psychic. (Look, it’s a strange ending. Just go with its strangeness. And the flashback makes it look more terrifying than ridiculous while making Snyder’s decision to change the ending seem like a failure of nerve.)

By hanging out in a house of mirrors, having been lured there by a seductive knot top (more on them below), the man later to be known as Looking Glass was able to avoid the full brunt of the blast. Apparently, reflective surfaces can do that. So now he covers himself in a substance called Reflectatine when wearing a mask, and wears a Tulsa Tornados caps lined with the same material when he’s out of costume. When it comes to transdimensional squid, you can never be too careful.

What are the Tulsa Tornados?

In our universe, the Tulsa Tornados were a soccer team in the short-lived USL. They played six games in 1985 then disbanded, along with the rest of the USL in June of that year. They might have met a different fate in the Watchmen universe, however. 1985 proved to be a pivotal year.

Who are the knot tops?

Moore and Gibbons don’t spell out much about the knot tops, a youth subculture seen hanging about New York throughout the book. Some like to create graffiti, particularly images of lovers in silhouette that recall the frozen shadows of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some are violent criminals, like those that kill the original Nite Owl, Holis Mason, as part of a robbery. Mostly, however, the knot top hairstyle seems to be a fashion statement in the 1985 of the book, akin to punk or new wave looks in our own 1985. Like those, it’s tied strongly to music, including the group Pale Horse, who were performing a concert on 11/2, the night of the squid drop. And, also like those, the look seems to have drifted away from what it first signified.

What’s the deal with the panda on the front of the newspaper young Wade is handing out?

Wade is trying to hand out copies of The Watchtower, the official newspaper of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. That means Wade believes that, after the apocalypse, 144,000 faithful will ascend to Heaven. Believers who don’t make the cut, however, will still live in an earthly paradise filled with friendly animals. (Wade’s “In the kingdom of Heaven, all God’s creatures live in peace with each other” simplifies that belief a little.) Pandas (and other creatures) are a recurring image in the religion’s art. This detail of Wade’s background is significant for other reasons as well. Veidt’s plan, as he spells out later in the episode, is to create a different sort of earthly paradise. (And he did once have a tame, genetically altered big cat as his companion.)

New York wasn’t entirely wiped out by the squid, was it?

Apparently not. Based on the ad campaign Wade watches after the end of the flashback, the city is trying to lure visitors and attract new residents, though it appears to be met with limited success. Still, one couple does seem genuinely enthusiastic about a much roomier Central Park, and Broadway appears to have survived. You can even check out the smash hit Oppenheimer when you’re in town.

What’s going on in this week’s episode of American Hero Story?

In a word, sex is going on. As Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis share an intimate moment while in costume, Hooded Justice tells his lover that Captain Metropolis will never see his face. The series has apparently yet to reveal Hooded Justice’s identity, even though he narrates the show. Later we’ll hear Red Scare espousing the theory that a time-traveling Doctor Manhattan was Hooded Justice, sparking a related debate about whether Doctor Manhattan can travel through time.

Does Wade have superpowers?

That seems ambiguous at this point. He certainly has an uncanny ability to tell when people are lying and when they’re telling the truth, which helps him at both his day job in consumer research and his work as a vigilante, which involves manning the truth chamber. But is this a superpower? That’s not clear. If so, it might be an aftereffect of exposure to the squid’s psychic blast. If that’s case, does that mean others are walking around with powers?

Has sugary cereal been outlawed?

That’s unclear too. Sugar seems to be strongly discouraged as an ingredient in children’s cereal, suggesting the Redford administration has gotten involved in regulating the sweet stuff. We saw Angela making cookies for Topher’s class in the first episode, however, and it would seem to be a pretty key ingredient for a bakery. Whatever’s going on with the sugar-free kids cereal seems like it might an example of the government placing restrictions on food as an attempt to deal with a public-health problem, a move akin to New York’s sugar ban, which would be keeping with Watchmen’s habit of depicting the Redford administration engaging in some unpopular acts of overreach. Similarly, we later learn that tobacco has been outlawed, though it still appears to be widely available and Wade’s new friend, Doreen (Paula Malcolmson), doesn’t seem all that worried about being arrested for smoking it openly. (Then again, that’s not the only law Doreen violates this week.) Alcohol, however, seems unaffected by any universe-shaking changes. Redford must understand there are limits even to his powers.

Elsewhere, the Watchmen world seems to be figuring out the ethics of cloning. Wade’s ex, Cynthia (Eileen Grubba), casually disposes of an imperfect (but extremely cute) puppy as part of her work in the cloning lab. Also worth noting: The public-facing side of Cynthia’s business appears to be staffed entirely by twins — or are they clones?

What does the movie Pale Horse suggest about Steven Spielberg’s career in this universe?

It would appear to be on a parallel course to his career in our universe, at least through 1992 when he made the award-winning Pale Horse about the tragedy of 11/2. That film, named after the aforementioned knot top–favorite band, sounds like it became the home for many of the ideas he employed in Schindler’s List, including the black-and-white cinematography and an unforgettable scene that used a splash of color — a red coat — to focus on the effect the tragedy has had on a helpless girl.

As a thought exercise, let’s try to imagine the squid’s impact on Spielberg’s career and what led to Pale Horse. Released in December 1985, The Color Purple would likely have remain unaffected. That film established that Spielberg could make serious movies about adult themes after a career that had mostly consisted of action and science-fiction blockbusters (that were often home to adult themes, but that’s another issue). Would he still have made the 1987 film Empire of the Sun? Probably. It seems like the sort of weighty, meaningful film that could find root in the post-squid environment. After that, it gets dicier. Always might have seemed too minor. Ditto Hook, though a third Indiana Jones movie would have probably seemed like a sure thing in any environment. In our world, Spielberg didn’t release a film in 1992, but 1993 was his golden year, the one in which he released both the runaway hit Jurassic Park and the acclaimed Schindler’s List. Maybe in the Watchmen universe that year got fast-tracked, though dinosaurs might seem a little quaint to survivors of the squid attack.

Is Keene telling the truth about his arrangement with Crawford?

That feels like a question we won’t be able to answer definitively for a while, but it does track. He and Crawford knew each other — and Crawford’s wife used to work for Keene — and a scheme in which they kept the peace between the Seventh Kavalry and the police by each ruling over one faction does make sense. But whether Crawford was on board with Keene’s agenda and whatever the Kavalry are attempting to do with the CX9-24 teleportation window remains unclear, as does the question of his personal beliefs.

What are they doing with that teleportation window, anyway?

That also remains unclear. What’s a little clearer, however, is exactly how Veidt pulled off the squid hoax, creating the Institute for Transdimensional Studies and headquartering it in Herald Square, thus making the extra-dimensional incursion plausible after 11/2. Keene tells Wade, “We’re gonna do something new,” but what is it? And is Wade now a convert to Keene and the Kavalry’s cause after seeing the video Veidt made for President Redford to watch in 1993, knowing he’d be elected even before the squid attack? That seems unlikely, even if he does narc out Angela. It’s likely he believes Keene’s threat that worse things will happen to Angela and her family if he doesn’t turn her over to Laurie. He still seems too morally conscientious a character to go to the dark side.

That said, it’s hard to see how he goes back to living like he was after watching Veidt’s recording laying out the squid hoax. Here is a man who grew up believing the world would end imminently — thanks to a combination of Cold War tensions and religious teaching — and has understandably lived in fear since witnessing the events of 11/2, even leading a support group for those with similar fears. And now he’s learned it’s all been a lie. What do you do with that? Maybe he won’t even have time to figure it out since the episode ends with mask-clad Kavalry members heading to his house with guns cocked.

Wasn’t Veidt making that recording for Robert Redford kind of stupid?

It seems that way, doesn’t it? Why would a man who went out of his way to hide his involvement in the squid attack — and to hide anything that suggested it was a hoax — essentially record a confession? This seems like a tremendous blunder on his part, and while the Veidt of present day has maybe lost a cog or two, this was Veidt at the height of his powers. Two possible explanations: Damon Lindelof has fundamentally botched the character (unlikely), or this recording is yet another move in Veidt’s four-dimensional chess game, one in which he’s gamed out every possible outcome and he’s again manipulating events. That’s more likely, but it seems unlikely this Watchmen is building toward a final act that will precisely echo that of the graphic novel, with Veidt revealed as the mastermind behind it all.

A side note: Veidt’s reference to a “a stronger, loving world committed to caring for the weak, reversing environmental ruin, and cultivating true equality” echoes a line from the John Cale 1982 song “Sanities” used as the epigraph to the final chapter of Watchmen. Moore misquotes it slightly, rendering it as “It would be a stronger world, a stronger loving world, to die in.” The actual lines read “All so that it would be a stronger world / A strong though loving world to die in.” Either way, it’s an expression of optimism shadowed by death, which seems appropriate.

What’s going on with Veidt?

At this point, you can cut and paste that question from one episode to the next. We do learn a bit more about what Veidt’s up to, or at least where he is. Having perfected his steampunk spacesuit, Veidt slips beyond the reaches of his atmosphere and we learn he’s been on a moon of Jupiter this whole time. Who didn’t see that coming?

It’s a bizarre development, as his arrangement of the corpses of his servants to spell out “SAVE ME.” Who will see this? And who put him there? The most likely answer: Doctor Manhattan. He has the powers and the motivation and he matches the description of the “god” that created all those poor servants and the world in which they live. He also presumably created the warden who arrests Veidt, presumably with plans to imprison him within the prison in which he was already living, one he’d begun taking steps to escape.

Those Nostalgia pills, what are they?

All we know is that Nostalgia contains memories and Angela surmises them to be her grandfather’s memories. (This sheds some light on what’s going on with Lady Trieu and Bian’s nightmares, too.) Whatever they are, she’s apparently about to find out. And we’re about to find out with her.

14 Big Questions From This Week’s Watchmen