"Little Fear of Lightning"—written by Damon Lindelof and Carly Wray, and directed by Steph Green—draws its title from Jules Verne's 1870 sci-fi novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Translations vary—there may be versions containing this episode's title verbatim—but the relevant passage in my edition reads as follows:
"Our arms, which were noiseless, could only produce a moderate effect on the savages, who have little respect for aught but blustering things. The thunderbolt without the reverberations of thunder would frighten man but little, though the danger lies in the lightning, not in the noise."
It is an observation made by the book's narrator, a French marine biologist who witnesses how Papuan natives do not know to fear Captain Nemo's submarine because they have never seen one before. Later in the chapter the natives attempt to board the ship, only to be driven back the moment they touch it by (invisible and silent) thunderbolts: Nemo has electrified the hatches.
The immediate reference to Leagues, of course, is that Captain Nemo battled a giant squid, which is why the members of Wade's support group are called "Friends of Nemo." But, as we have learned to expect from Watchmen, there is other stuff to unpack here as well. Briefly, Captain Nemo—a.k.a. Prince Dakkar—was the son of an Indian raja. His family was murdered by the British, and he himself fled to the sea under his assumed name—which means "No One"—after taking part in the unsuccessful 1847 Indian Rebellion. His final word on his deathbed—in Verne's 1874 sequel The Mysterious Island—is "Independence." He was, in other words, a warrior against white colonialism and oppression (putting him in the company of the hero of Achebe's Things Fall Apart, which we discussed in reference to last week's title). Not coincidentally, Nemo's function as a nightmare of British Colonialism is an element of his character played up by the original creator of Watchmen, Alan Moore, when Nemo appears in Moore and Kevin O'Neill's later series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
None of this is necessarily vital information for enjoying "Little Fear of Lightning," of course. But I think it's a nice reminder that this series has other things on its mind besides giant squids. As we dive into "Little Fear of Lightning"—the first episode seen from the point of view of a white man—it's worth remembering that the oppressive history of white men is very much at the forefront of Watchmen. This is still a show about white supremacy, and I don't think we can view this white man's story except through that lens.
But the important (very much related) point to be starting with is the obvious one: "Little Fear of Lightning" is all about fear. It's about rational fears and irrational fears. It's about fear of danger, fear of the other, fear of the unknown, fear of regret. It is about how fears control us and define us. It's about how fear leads us to accept—and do—terrible things.
And the title warns us that—as much of Watchmen has been—this episode is also about misdirection, because we are often afraid of the wrong thing. Thunder is noisy and scary, but it's the lightning we need to watch out for.
"Aren't you afraid?" — Roxy
"Little Fear of Lightning" is, among other things, a superhero origin story. "People who wear masks are driven by trauma," Laurie told us last episode, and we see evidence to support her theory this week, as we discover what formative traumas drive Looking Glass, a.k.a Wade Tillman.
In the tenth issue of Moore and Gibbons' comic, we briefly see Jehovah's Witnesses in Manhattan, peddling The Watchtower and warning people about the imminent end of the world. Now, Lindelof and Wray riff on those four throwaway panels to imagine young Wade (Philip Labes) as one of these missionaries, sent with a group to convert sinners across the river in Hoboken, N.J. It's November 2, 1985: Dr. Manhattan has left the planet, the U.S. and the Soviet Union are on the brink of nuclear war, and the hands of the Doomsday Clock stand at one minute to midnight. "Tick-tock, Wade," his youth leader says, inspiring him to go out among the heathens and save some souls while there's still time.
I don't want to dwell much on the doctrine of the Jehovah's Witnesses—I'm neither an expert nor particularly desirous of becoming one—but I do think it's important to note a couple of things. The first is that one of the central tenets of the church is that we are all living in the last days, and that the time of "great tribulation," which will result in Armageddon, is imminent. (It has been imminent, it seems, since the church's founding in the 1870s.) The second—and obviously this is the part that resonates more powerfully with the story of Watchmen—is that the Witnesses see Armageddon not as God's plan to destroy the world, but to save it, by eliminating false gods and restructuring human society. "It will not be the end of our planet, since the earth is mankind's eternal home," the church's website states. "Rather than destroying humanity, Armageddon actually saves it, because 'a great crowd' of God's servants will survive." Yes, millions of sinners will die in Armageddon, but it is supposed to usher in 1,000 years of God's Kingdom on Earth, "which will bring great blessings to mankind."
(All of which is to say that the church's version of Jehovah and Adrian Veidt have a lot in common. You can't make a paradise without breaking a few million eggs.)
"Aren't you afraid?" asks Roxy (Julia Vasi), the attractive young sinner Wade has elected to convert. "No, ma'am," Wade says confidently, for Wade is among the saved, the chosen, a dedicated member of the true faith and a follower of its doctrines. But Roxy has led the devout and virginal Wade into a Funhouse of Temptation, and his faith turns out not to be particularly strong: It takes her about 20 seconds to get him naked. (I love how this sequence plays out: First, with Howard Jones' "Things Can Only Get Better" on the soundtrack—"Treating today as though it was the last"—we're suddenly in an '80s teen romantic comedy, as Manic Pixie Dream Girl Roxy takes fish-out-of-water Wade by the hand and runs with him into a music video. Then, she'll seduce him to the strains of George Michael's ode to regret, "Careless Whisper," which we'll return to throughout the episode.)
But then the script flips. Roxy's seduction of Wade—her nearly effortless dismantling of his innocence, faith, and self-image—turns out to be just a cruel joke, as she steals his clothes and leaves him naked to contemplate his own failings. "You dummy!" he admonishes his reflection. "You're pathetic, and you're a sinner. You're a filthy dumb sinner, and now you get what you deserve!"
But the question of just what he "deserves" becomes even more confused, because Wade is saved: Roxy's mean prank, and Wade's willingness to sin (in a hall full of mirrors), turns out to be what saves his life. Blasted by the psychic shockwave of a giant telepathic squid appearing across the river in Manhattan, Wade stumbles from the funhouse to find Roxy—and almost everyone else—dead.
As a superhero origin story, it's almost comically on-the-nose. As Laurie points out, most origin stories of this sort begin with trauma—e.g., the death of Batman's parents, the death of Spider-Man's uncle—and so of course Wade's origin begins on Watchmen's day of global trauma. And it turns out that, on this day, Looking Glass—or, as Laurie calls him, "Mirror Guy"—was almost literally bitten by a radioactive mirror. (As J. Jonah Jameson says in Spider-Man 2—about a guy named Otto Octavius ending up with eight limbs—"What are the odds?")
But, as they have been through all of Watchmen, superhero stories are only the thin container for the ideas in "Little Fear of Lightning." From the first episode, Watchmen has been exploring issues of white supremacy in America, and "Little Fear of Lightning" is not really about vigilantes at all: It's about locating the roots of white supremacy in the fears and insecurities of the white American male. Watchmen is too sophisticated a show to make this sequence explicitly about race—Wade has been sent to Hoboken, not Harlem—but it is impossible not to be struck by the lily-white, buttoned-down conservatism of Wade's group as they disembark in this liberal den of iniquity. ("This is where the sinners are," Wade tells Roxy.) They are terrified ambassadors from the Bible Belt—from rural, white-Christian, God-fearing middle-America—sent as missionaries into this urban jungle of sin.
Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen consistently acknowledged the racist, right-wing reactionary impulses at the root of a lot of superhero stories. (For example, in the novel, the blonde ex-Marine Captain Metropolis attempted to form a new supergroup called "The Crimebusters" in the 1960s. At their first—and last—meeting, he displayed a map of what he thought were the biggest problems facing America, and it showed things like "drugs," "promiscuity," "anti-war demos," "riots," and "black unrest.") Here, however, Lindelof is going deeper into the psychology of white male anxiety, and its roots in a sort of desperate (and desperately fragile) illusion of superiority.
And if "Little Fear of Lightning" doesn't deal explicitly with race, it does deal directly with another aspect of the American white male's psyche: the fear of women.
"You sure can pick 'em. Another kick in the balls comin' up." — Wade
For, in presenting this explanation of Looking Glass's origin story, "Little Fear of Lightning" positions these two traumas as nearly equal in his formation: his survival of the trans-dimensional squid attack that killed of millions of people, and his sexual humiliation at the hands of a pretty girl.
"For seven years I tried to convince you that I wasn't going to run off with your clothes and leave you naked all by yourself," his ex-wife Cynthia (Eileen Grubba) tells him. She is clearly implying that she failed in this goal, and that Wade's mistrust of women defines his life nearly as much as his fear of the squids. He's living a lonely bachelor's existence, eating cold beans straight from the can, watching TV by himself, and hunkering down alone on the sofa in a bunker built for two.
(It's worth noting that there are two songs that haunt "Little Fear of Lightning." The first, as mentioned, is George Michael's "Careless Whisper." The second is Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Some Enchanted Evening," from the musical South Pacific. Both songs sound, at a casual listen, like love songs, but of course they're not: They're each about a failure of love. They're about regret. They're about not trusting something good and ending up alone.)
Until his conversation with Senator Keane late in the episode, Wade's interactions in "Little Fear of Lightning" are entirely with women. Yet, as he mumbles under his breath later in the episode, "I don't have any friends": He's emotionally estranged from all of them. His ex-wife has moved on—and no longer uses his name—though he clearly still carries a torch. His new boss Laurie gently mocks him—calling him "Mirror Guy"—and bugs the cactus on his desk. (And both of these women, significantly, have his number: They both immediately hone in on the fact that Wade spends all of his time afraid.) His colleague Angela is the closest thing he has to a friend, but—dealing with her own shit—she is brusque with him, and leans on him aggressively to follow up on her favor.
So Senator Keane picks the perfect honey-trap in Renee (Paula Malcomson), a woman who shows up at the support group Wade leads for people dealing with "extra-dimensional anxiety." At a glance, she looks like the perfect companion to join Wade in his bunker. She, too, quickly hones in on Wade's fear: He has claimed to the group that he is no longer afraid, and can show them the way out of the tunnel, but Renee calls bullshit on that. ("I don't believe you," she says. "There's no light. You're still in the tunnel. I bet you're just as batshit as the rest of us.") But, unlike the others, she shares his fears, even reinforces them. ("I'm scared all the time," she says. After all, aliens are literally falling from the sky: "Why isn't everybody petrified?") She even sexualizes his fear, explaining how "fucking" is one of the only things that alleviates her own anxiety.
(There's another subtle, even delicate element to this I want to highlight for a moment, because I think it pertains to Wade's white male psyche: the need to feel he has it worse than everyone else. Wade speaks to Renee of the need to "assess your trauma relative to mine," and I think he is relieved to discover that he "wins" the unspoken victimhood competition: He was there on 11/2, while her trauma comes from watching a movie. Earlier, we see a black member of the support group [Ryan Hope Travis] describing the concept of "genetic trauma," or "inherited pain," passed down through the DNA from your ancestors. This is a concept I think is vitally important to Watchmen's overall theme of dealing with America's white supremacist legacy, but I also think—though Nelson's performance is very subtle—that we see Wade scoff at the notion a bit. We have not seen Wade be particularly racist—and we do not know his stand on the recurring issue of reparations—but we might suspect that Wade is standing in for the sort of white American who dismisses the persistent trauma of slavery because no living African-American was ever a slave themselves.)
All told, Renee's is a clever con-job, and of course a longer and crueler version of the same trick that Roxy played on Wade: Once again, he's been suckered in by a pretty face who strips him naked (this time emotionally). But Wade, as we've already learned, spends his life being afraid of women, so he's barely even surprised when Renee turns out to be Seventh Kavalry. "Way to go, dummy," he tells himself, in a reenactment of his self-flagellation in the mirror maze. "You sure can pick 'em. Another kick in the balls comin' up."
"You still scared shitless?" — Laurie
So "Little Fear of Lightning" is a careful study of a white man living in fear. His entire life is governed by fear. He spends his time in his civilian identity reading focus groups, and has to inform his current employers—running an ad campaign encouraging people to move back to New York City—that people are still too scared, no matter what they say. "People buy things out of fear all the time," the ad exec says, quite correctly. But, "not this kind," Wade says. This kind of fear is powerful, even existential, as Wade knows from experience. (Can we read in this, also, a clever metaphor for "white flight"? People have abandoned the dangers and depravities of the "urban jungle," and they're not going back.)
Wade is, admittedly, an extreme example. We have seen Wade's bunker before, but we have not previously grasped the extent of his prepper paranoia. He is so terrified of another squid attack that he's literally worn out his ExtraDimensional Security alarm system running simulated drills on it. And we now realize that his "Looking Glass" mask is merely a symptom of his trauma. "Once they let you yahoos put masks on, you had an excuse to wrap your entire head in Reflectatine," Laurie observes. "Guaranteed protection from psychic blasts." Even the baseball cap he wears in his civilian identity is lined with Reflectatine: Wade is, quite literally, one of the "tin-foil hat" people.
Wade is, then, a barely distorted parody of the real-world phenomena of doomsday preppers and survivalists, who believe—like the Jehovah's Witnesses—that the collapse of society is imminent. It's a movement with its roots in the civil unrest of the 1960s and '70s; it grew in the '80s during the peak of Reagan's cold war saber-rattling; and it got an infusion of new life after the attacks of 9/11 and other extremist terrorist attacks of the 21st century. What exactly these people say they fear differs from group to group, but—and here we come back to the central subject of Watchmen—it's a movement that is predominantly conservative and Christian, and almost exclusively white. It flourishes in rural caucasian bastions like Wyoming, Utah, and the Pacific Northwest, and profiles of these people unearth pretty quickly that they are motivated by open (or barely euphemized) paranoia about race wars and dark-skinned invaders. (A Chicago Tribune piece, for example, finds survivalists vehemently denying accusations of racism, but linking their motivations to an erosion of "American culture" and a desire to escape the "urban crime-scape." One prepper references having lived through the L.A. riots of 1992, obviously joining Captain Metropolis in his fear of "black unrest.")
Like other absurd modern phenomena—i.e., The Trump Presidency—it is almost impossible not to view this movement as the pathetic, extreme vanguard of a white America terrified of losing its demographic majority and historic privilege. And it is almost equally difficult—on a show where every image is placed so carefully—not to see an evocation of Trumpian "MAGA" hats in Wade's red, tinfoil-lined baseball cap.
What Watchmen is doing with this thin metaphor is interesting, and complicated. As I mentioned above, "Little Fear of Lightning" does not explicitly address white supremacy anywhere in Wade's story. But we know that this is the central theme of Watchmen, and Wade is the closest thing the show has to a white male protagonist. (When I think of the way this episode carefully avoids almost every reference to race, I think of all those profiles written about white rural Trump supporters that carefully ascribed their motives to anything but racism: "Christian values," or "social conservatism," or "economic insecurity," or what have you. Pundits urged us to understand their anxieties, while almost desperately avoiding the [white] elephant in the room.)
So what is Watchmen doing, by helping us to understand Wade's anxieties? I think we need to start with Adrian Veidt, and his master plan as it's revealed to Wade in "Little Fear of Lightning." Veidt looked at humanity's fear of the other as the root of all its evils, as so his plan—as Wade discovers in this episode—was to cut the Gordian Knot of humanity's propensity to hate by uniting all of humanity against a common, inhuman other. Americans and Russians couldn't fear each other, he decided, if they were busy being afraid of giant alien squids from another dimension. (And, by extension, this theory would apply to all human enmities, including those of race and gender.) "I envision a stronger, loving world committed to caring for the weak, reversing environmental ruin, and cultivating true equality," Veidt says in his pre-recorded video to President Redford. The squid attack on New York was his Armageddon, which he thought would save humanity, not destroy it. (This video was intended to be viewed in 1993, so Veidt—quite optimistically, as it turns out—thought his earthy paradise would take root in about seven years.)
This is all potentially risky material for Watchmen to tackle. (After all, this is a narrative in which the racist, right-wing 7th Kavalry—basically the Klan merged with 9/11 "truthers"—turn out to be right about their "false flag" conspiracies. The world of this show really is the deep-state liberal conspiracy of their fevered nightmares, a world in which guns, tobacco, and even sugar have all been outlawed.)
But "Little Fear of Lightning" is exploring more interesting aspects of white anxiety than that. Through Wade, it is exploring just how much people—and specifically white American men—need their fear of the other (in whatever form) to define themselves and order their own lives. Wade was born "a white man from Oklahoma," and therefore—as he himself acknowledged last episode—inherently racist. Veidt succeeded in giving him a different enemy to fear, but he didn't fundamentally change the narrative. Wade's white-anxiety prepper paranoia—which in our world has been justified by concerns about nuclear wars, race wars, terrorism, totalitarianism, immigration, or economic collapse, among other fears—just took a new form through Veidt's manipulation. Wade needs that fear so much, in fact, that he goes back for his new alarm system at the end of the episode. Even confronted with the truth, Wade is addicted to the lie. Without it, he wouldn't know who he is, or how he should live.
"Are you ready to hear the truth?" — Wade
And "Little Fear of Lightning" is also exploring how politicians—and for this purpose we include Veidt himself—exploit that need to manipulate people like Wade. Veidt's strategy, in fact, was one leaders have used to control Americans—particularly poor, rural white Americans—since the country's founding: He gave them an enemy to fear, someone to blame for their troubles. "The only way to stave off mankind's extinction is with a weapon more powerful than any atomic device," Veidt says. "That weapon is fear, and I, Mr. President, am it's architect."
And Senator Keane, now, is doing the same thing, exposing the "truth" to Wade in order to manipulate him. (The folksy way in which Keane cozies up to the Seventh Kavalry—while simultaneously pretending to be morally superior to all these "racist Okies"—has definite real-world echoes.)
It is unclear to me whether everyone in the 7K has seen the video Keane shows Wade here, or whether they've just pieced their conspiracy theories together entirely from Rorschach's journal. (It seems unlikely that Keane would have shared the biggest secret on the planet with a bunch of racist Okies.) Either way, what's important, I think, is how the 7K—released from their fear of giant squids—immediately have reverted to their inherent racism. Absent the substitute "other" that Veidt tried to give them to fear, they reclaimed (as Wade does at the end of the episode) the fear they knew.
And I think it is equally important to note that Wade—while still holding onto his ExtraDimensional Security system for comfort—is nonetheless manipulated by Keane into betraying Angela Abar. Freed from his fear of Veidt's unearthly other, and drawing on his own inherent mistrust of females—and perhaps his own inherent racism?—the very first thing Wade does is sell out a black woman. The episode began with Wade asking a woman, "Are you ready to hear the truth?" Now, everything he thought he understood about the world has been shattered, and he is left in desperation for any certainty he can cling to. "Is anything true?" he asks Angela, desperately. "Just tell me, is anything true?" When she can't answer him, he betrays her.
As far as we know, Wade Tillman is—or was?—a relatively good man. But he was raised in a church that told him that he was among the pure and elect, in a world full of sin and destined for catastrophe. He was raised in a culture that taught him that superiority was his birthright, and that every one who didn't look or think like him represented a threat to his way of life. He was raised to believe healthy sexuality was a sin, and spent his life believing that women were temptresses not to be trusted. He spent his life being so afraid of the other that his privilege began to feel like victimhood. In other words, Wade is the white Christian American male, and—for neither the first time nor the last—his anxieties have been exploited in order to turn him against women and people of color.
And perhaps, at the end of the "Little Fear of Lightning"—as armed racists storm Wade's house—the white American male realizes, far too late, that he has been used. For neither the first time nor the last, he has been made to fear things he didn't need to fear, manipulated into acting against his own interests, and sold out by powerful leaders who curried his support while secretly seeing him as stupid, gullible, and disposable. Perhaps he realizes, at the end, that he has spent his whole life supporting the wrong causes because he was afraid of the wrong things.
It is even possible that—deep, deep down—he has always suspected this, and that's why he found it much easier to wear a mirror than to look in one.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- "Little Fear of Lightning" feels a lot like a missing episode of Lindelof's last series for HBO, The Leftovers. And the underground bunker segments—complete with a frenzied man attempting to shut off an alarm—calls back to Lindelof's Lost. One suspects both of these things were intentional.
- I didn't have much to say about the Veidt segment this week. Mostly, it confirms what we'd already figured out: that he is being held prisoner on another world. (Lindelof has confirmed that it is not Mars, where Dr. Manhattan lived, but Europa, a moon of Jupiter. The location is significant only in that it references Veidt as a symbol of European Colonialism, as we discussed last week.) What is most interesting about this is his S.O.S. message, which we only partially see. "SAVE ME" it reads, but there is what looks like a "D" after that. There are only three words I can think of, in context, that could complete Veidt's message. "Dr. Manhattan" is possible—but it makes little sense, since we assume it was Dr. Manhattan who originally imprisoned him. (And why would he communicate this message to a satellite?) There's "Dan," I suppose, but since Nite Owl is in prison, no particular fan of Veidt, and not really in a position to own interplanetary satellites, that doesn't track either. "Save me, daughter," on the other hand, would make sense, and suggest that I was wrong last week about Lady Trieu's identity: She could, in fact, be Adrian's child. (Since she now runs his company, and has a big gold statue of him in her vivarium, this admittedly makes a little more sense than my idea. I think, in fact, I'm going to stop trying to make predictions altogether.)
- "What's with the pandas?" a Top-Knot asks young Wade. That's actually a good question: What is with the pandas? They're obviously significant: There are stuffed pandas scattered all over the Fun Fair, and we have already seen that one of the masked cops in Tulsa (Jacob Ming-Trent) wears a filthy panda-head as his disguise. Beyond the simplistic level of their black/white dichotomy—which echoes the Rorschach masks, obviously—I haven't managed to read a lot into them.
- In this reality, Steven Spielberg didn't make Schindler's List, about the Holocaust, but instead made Pale Horse, about November 2. It's a clever idea: It emphasizes how Veidt's plan worked, to some extent: Instead of making a story about one of humanity's greatest racial and ethnic atrocities, America's most popular director made a story how about all of humanity, united, was attacked by an otherworldly creature. This means, of course, that it's also an example of the erasure of those atrocities, which has been a theme of Watchmen from the beginning.
- Easter Eggs from the Comic: Someone in Hoboken is sitting reading a comic book with an ad for "The Veidt Method" body-building program. This also adorned the back cover of the pirate comic young Bernard was reading throughout the original Watchmen. ("I will give you bodies beyond your wildest imaginings," it promised, quite prophetically.) In the "Come Back to NY" ad, we glimpse a sign for The Promethean Cab Company—"Bringing Light to the World"—where a woman named Joey was a driver. (She was having a fight with her girlfriend at the moment the squid hit.) The multiple TV screens on which Veidt's video appears echo the multiple TV screens he himself liked to watch to get a mass infusion of information. Veidt was in fact standing in front of these TV screens when he triumphantly yelled "I did it!" (about bringing about world peace), a statement he repeats in this episode (about completing his S.O.S. message). And finally, "Nostalgia" was originally the name of a perfume Veidt's company sold; Veidt, anticipating a change in culture following his attack on New York, replaced it with a line of products called "Millennium," an ad for which we also see in the background of the NYC footage.
- I'm not sure we'll get (or need) an answer to this, but I found myself wondering whether any version of 9/11 happened in this reality. I would assume not, but the Twin Towers are not there in the modern-day footage of New York's skyline. (Perhaps they were damaged in the squid attack, or perhaps they were just torn down due to low-occupancy.)
- Does Wade, in fact, have super-powers? In the comic, Dr. Manhattan was the only "hero" with actual powers, but Moore and Gibbons also established that psychics did exist. (Veidt cloned one to make the brain for his squid.) So I'm assuming Wade gained very low-level psychic abilities in the squid attack, becoming a human lie-detector?
- Is Wade killed by the Seventh Kavalry at the end of the episode? We don't know, and we may not know next episode either, since it appears (from the preview) to be entirely about Angela tripping balls on her grandfather's memories. I think this is going to be a good one, and I am optimistic that at least one of my theories—about Hooded Justice—will be confirmed. I guess we'll see.