There are moments that split our lives in two. Cleaving life into a unique before and after. Leaving us irrevocably changed in ways we’re still cataloguing years later. For Wade Tillman, most often referred to as his alias Looking Glass, such a moment came in 1985 Hoboken.
Then, Wade was a gangly young man with eyes so wide it was as if he was soaking in the world for the first time. When he pours out of a school bus with his fellow missionaries, he’s intent on spreading the word of God to the “sinners” at a Hoboken fair full of folks reading comics, making out, eating greasy foods, and just trying to capture joy where they can in a world drenched in anxiety and poised on the brink of destruction, with the nuclear armament of the United States and Russia pointed at each other. Wade is undeniably in over his head entering this world so far from the order he knew in Tulsa. A group of goth punks tease his earnest bravado, flinging his pamphlets in the air. It could have gotten worse if it weren’t for the woman in the group, Roxy (Julia Vasi), taking his hand and leading him into a fun house. Their reflections bounce around each other as if displaying an endless array of possibilities, with George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” filling the air. She’s flirtatious. He’s nervous. She slowly starts to undress him despite his feeble protestations. “You don’t want to get nuked before you get fucked,” she says matter-of-factly.
This isn’t a gentle coming-of-age story, but a moment of sexual humiliation, as she runs off with his clothes, her words, “Fuck you, Bible Boy,” leaving a sting in the air. Wade looks at himself in the mirror. Director Steph Green and cinematographer Xavier Grobet frame it with a close-up of him looking directly at the camera as he spits, “You’re a filthy, dumb sinner and now you get what you deserve.” Before he can go any further with the self-flagellation, a piercing noise rips through the atmosphere and the mirrors crack all around him in chaos. Wade wakes to utter devastation. The fair is now nearly silent. Bodies are strewn everywhere. Roxy’s dead body wears a face of absolute horror as blood pools around her head like a halo. The camera tracks through the fair over the darkened city until we see the source of the destruction in New York City’s Time Square: a huge squid monster, its tentacles draping buildings, that Adrian Veidt created and unleashed on the world in order to create peace. Something the public will never know.
There’s a prickly scene early in the episode with Wade at work. Angela is putting pressure on him to find out about her grandfather’s pills, as the split diopter shot with Wade and his desk cactus foreshadows what comes next. Laurie calls him into her office. She needles him, referring to him as “Mirror Guy” instead of Looking Glass to get under his skin. She asks him basic questions about his life, lulling him into some comfort — until she notes how his mask his made of Reflectatine, which protects people from psychic blasts like the one he experienced on 11/2/1985 in Hoboken. Laurie is reveling in her power, ordering the cops to look for the church in the Seventh Kavalry video, prodding the detectives to work outside their typical structure. Just before Wade leaves her office she strikes the final blow. “What pills?” she asks. Wade plays ignorant until Laurie leans back in her chair in self-satisfaction noting she bugged his cactus on his desk and overheard his conversation with Angela.
He’s able to wriggle from Laurie’s trap this time, but it’s clear from the onset that Wade is going to be put in an unenviable position when it comes to the forces encroaching on Angela he’s inadvertently been caught up in. What’s most fascinating about this graceful, moving episode is how it portrays the loneliness that defines Wade’s life and the ways he navigates the residual trauma of 11/2. At some point, that loneliness even becomes a tool to be used against him.
At home, Wade goes from merely wearing the cap with Reflectatine lining it to his entire mask. An old picture of his ex-wife Cynthia (Eileen Grubba) still hangs on the wall. He obsessively runs drills, timing how long it takes him to get into his protected, underground bunker with religious zeal. He wears his mask partially rolled up when he eats beans directly from the can, watching Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis have sex in American Hero Story: Minutemen. It’s a move that clearly harkens back to Rorschach, which is a curious character to draw a visual comparison to Wade. But given the efforts to radicalize Wade later in the episode, such moments are given added weight. Wade’s relationship to his mask holds fascinating thematic weight. It protects not just his identity but his mind from psychic blasts. It reflects others but always hides himself. Mirrors abound throughout the episode — Wade’s mask; the reflective surface in AHS: Minutemen; within the department store later on — but rarely do they reflect what people want to see.
Let’s talk about loneliness for a moment. In her tremendous book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing astutely describes the physical pressure of loneliness. “What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone else around is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged.” Laing is correct to call loneliness a form of hunger, bone deep and yearning. Loneliness is dinners alone and bad habits piling up with no one to stop you from the tunnel you’re walking down. Loneliness is looking at others on the street and believing they have it all figured out in ways you can only dream of. Loneliness is trying to find hope in the bottom of a bottle or in running from your reflection which shows you everything you don’t want to see. Loneliness changes you, making you softer to the harshness of the world. Every touch can draw blood when you’re lonely. But loneliness can also open you up to new wounds and new hurts because you’re so desperate to be touched, to be actually seen, that you’re unable to reckon with who is reaching out.
As we’ve seen through Angela’s story line, notions of familial legacy are also important to Watchmen, but curiously, we learn nothing about Wade’s family life. Even though he lives near where he grew up, there’s no mention visually or narratively of his family, which only makes his life seem more claustrophobic. In the Extra-Dimensional Anxiety group that Wade heads, a man discusses how his mother got the full brunt of psychic trauma from the squid attack on 11/2. “Genetic trauma,” he says, is when something cataclysmic happens to your parents and its locked in their DNA, which they pass down to you. So even though he was never there, he still holds remnants of what his mother experienced. Trauma, in effect, ripples outward. “I was where you are. I thought of that one-eyed fucker all the time,” Wade advises, noting how the squid ended up bringing people together. That through trauma we overcame our differences and worked to make the world a bit better. “Every tunnel ends. It ends with light,” Wade says solemnly. But is Wade — a man who lives such a narrow existence — really out of this tunnel?
Renee (played with spiky charm by the great Paula Malcolmson), who walks into the group with a nervous air, doesn’t think he’s out of the tunnel at all. She beguiles him immediately. His “sad green eyes,” to quote Laurie, continue to rove over to Renee throughout the meeting. They trade stories over drinks. He talks about his work at focus groups helping the moderators parse the truth, since, as Wade says, “focus groups are rife with bullshit.” She tests his truth-discerning abilities lying about what she does. Waitress? No. Working in foreclosures? Definitely. Radiologist? Bingo. They trade squid stories but hers isn’t a direct experience. Instead she’s obsessed with the Steven Spielberg film Pale Horse, a 1992 film named after the band playing Madison Square Garden on 11/2. She describes a scene of a young girl dressed in red in the otherwise black-and-white movie — aligning it with the real Schindler’s List — walking through the devastation on 11/2. She says the only time she’s not petrified is when she’s watching Pale Horse or “fucking,” a flirtatious move that throws Wade off in a way that is exceedingly rare in his life. Their flirtation even leads to a kiss. But just as Wade is flush with the excitement of a new crush, a head of lettuce rolls out the back of the truck that picks Renee up from the bar. The same truck driven by the Seventh Kavalry member that shot the police officer in the first episode.
Wade gets on his walkie-talkie, asks for backup, then tails Renee and her friend to an empty department store watching as they put on their Rorschach masks. “Another kick in the balls coming up,” Wade says to himself. Wade takes a gun from the truck they were in and creeps into the department store. He finds a wall painted with the squid’s eye, and most damningly, the church background used for the Seventh Kavalry video. But as he creeps deeper inside he finds something even worse: The Seventh Kavalry members experimenting with opening up portals to other dimensions, testing it out by throwing basketballs that then reappear in odd places around the store, each time causing Wade to nervously jump. Wade is without protection — the gun is full of blanks, as he learns when he shoots a Seventh Kavalry member coming up behind him. Renee admits this has all been a ruse to get him here.
He’s dragged off to another room lined with televisions when another Seventh Kavalry member, far more polite, tries to comfort him in pleasant tones that are immediately recognizable. “Are you even trying to disguise your voice, senator?” Off comes the mask and it’s Senator Joseph Keene Jr. Once the surprise of this turn wears off, it all makes sense. Of course someone high in the government is involved in Seventh Kalvary and controlling their movements. Of course Judd was also trying to “keep the peace” and was shaping the police force in a way to help any Seventh Kavalry plans. Of course they’d try to get to Wade in order to help push along Laurie’s investigation, since she already suspects Angela. Senator Keene wants Wade to set Angela up for a fall so she’s not in the way of their plans, which involve opening a portal, but to release what it isn’t clear. In exchange, Senator Keene will free Wade with the truth.
The truth fills the television screens with an image of the younger Adrian Veidt in a video to President Robert Redford on his inauguration on January 21, 1993. But the video was filmed before then, on November 1, 1985 — the day before Veidt unleashed the squid he hoped would bring the world from the brink of destruction and usher in a more equitable age. “The only way to stave off mankind’s extinction is with a weapon more powerful than any atomic device. That weapon is fear. I, Mr. President, am its architect,” Veidt says. Veidt didn’t just release the squid, he also set up Redford to be president and intends them to be partners.
What’s most important is how this video affects Wade. He doesn’t wear his Reflectatine-lined cap in the closing moments of the episode, but he does decide to keep the package from Extra-Dimensional Security, which suggests he’s not entirely done running drills and wearing Reflectatine. Most importantly, he serves up Angela as promised, pushing her into admitting the cover-up, which Laurie overhears through the cactus. This forces Angela to down the pills of Nostalgia, which hold Will’s memories, just before she gets arrested.
Like all Watchmen episodes we’re left with a lot of questions. Will Wade survive the onslaught of Seventh Kavalry members darkening his door in the closing moments of the episode? Will Angela survive the experience and possible psychosis of ingesting Will’s memories? But most importantly, who will Wade become in the face of this devastating truth he learned? Will it rework his loneliness, or will he embrace it more fully?
Under the Hood
• For much of the series, the Adrian Veidt sections have left me lost. But with this episode I finally have some ideas about to what’s going on. When Veidt puts on the suit he had been experimenting with, he flies through the sky and ends up revealing not more forest, but that he’s on another planet entirely. It looks like he’s viewing Jupiter as he breaks up the bodies of the deceased clones to form a message of “Save Me” that a satellite picks up before he’s slung back to the dimension with his clones, and a very pissed off Game Warden that knocks him out. At the end of the Watchmen comic, Doctor Manhattan mentioned he would try to create life on Mars. I think Mr. Philips and Ms. Crookshanks are the life that Doctor Manhattan created.
• I was appalled when that cute puppy was incinerated at Cynthia’s job, which is a cloning facility for pets, just because they weren’t a perfect match.