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‘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.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.