HBO’s Watchmen was released in 2019 and continues the 1987 DC comic series of the same name. Creator Damon Lindelof described his series as a remix of the original because the show is not simply a reboot or sequel. While the series is set 34 years into the future in the same alternative universe as the original comics, Watchmen explores the social and political ramifications of the original series as opposed to simply “checking in” with the most notable characters. Though several characters from the original comic appear in the series, they are not the focal point. Instead, Watchmen primarily focuses on the Tulsa police department’s attempts to suppress the white supremacist group 7th Calvary. In 2016, prior to the start of the series, the 7th Calvary initiated a nighttime attack against the Tulsa police department and murdered nearly the entire police force—only Angela Abar and Chief Judd Crawford survived. This event came to be known as The White Night, and all subsequent Tulsa police officers concealed their identity with masks or costumes. The television series is very much of its time, and Watchmen explores conspiracy theories, state surveillance, police violence, white supremacy, and the contemporary impact of America’s racial history.
For the purpose of this essay, I am interested in the episode “Little Fear of Lightning,” which follows Tulsa police psychologist Wade Tillman AKA Looking Glass. This episode takes us back to the pivotal and culminating moment of the original comic series— Adrian Veidt’s giant squid attack on Manhattan. In the original comic, Cold War tensions are escalating, and the world is on the brink of a nuclear holocaust between Russia and the United States. The Doomsday Clock is one minute to midnight, and people around the world have begun to accept the world’s imminent destruction. In order to prevent the end of the world, Veidt creates a giant squid that seemingly appears from another dimension and falls on Manhattan killing 3 million people and traumatizing the entire world. The date is November 2, and the event is forever known as 11/2. The world has no idea about Veidt’s involvement with the attack and instead believes it was an alien attack from another dimension. As Veidt intended, the world comes together in fear of an alien threat, and the Cold War ends. The episode “Little Fear of Lightning” explores the social ramifications of the attack, and the PTSD that many people subsequently experienced.
The episode opens on November 2, 1985 in Hoboken, New Jersey at a county fair. A young Wade Tillman joins his missionary group to spread the word of God because, as the missionaries repeat, “the Doomsday Clock is one minute to midnight.” After being bullied by a group of young New Jersians (in typical New Jersey behavior), a young woman seemingly defends Wade, pulling him aside into a house of mirrors. She seduces a reluctant Wade and takes off all of his clothes. She then grabs them and leaves, while saying, “fuck you bible boy.” Naked and alone, Wade cries until, suddenly, a loud noise rocks the house of mirrors, and everything begins to collapse. Wade wakes up with a ringing in his ears. Upon leaving the house of mirrors, he sees pure carnage with hundreds dead. “What happened?” he screams. The camera pans to Manhattan, and we see what happened. A giant squid has fallen on New York City creating a physic blast. 3 million dead and millions more traumatized, including Wade Tillman.
This becomes the defining moment of Wade’s life, and his entire existence is structured by his fear of another squid attack. We get an insight into Wade’s psyche in the next scene. Prior to this episode, we have only known Wade as the masked police integrator Looking Glass. We learn that during the day Wade works as a Market Researcher for various focus groups. It is his job to tell the advertisement agencies what the focus group is feeling instead of telling. Wade watches a group of Oklahomans watching a commercial about New York telling them to “come back.” While the viewers rave about the commercial, Wade says, “They despised it” (10:47). Wade continues, “They told you they loved it because what hot-blooded Oklahoma male is gonna admit he’s scared?” (10:52). Throughout the episode, it becomes clear that Wade is scared. He is a “valued customer of Extra dimensional Security” (20:21). He leads an Alcoholic Anonymous-type meeting for Extradimensional Anxiety. His police mask is made of a mirror like substance that is actually Reflectatine, which Laurie Blake later claims is “guaranteed protection from psychic blasts” (15:11). Likewise, the baseball cap he always wears when out of uniform is covered in Reflectatine.
This episode comes to a climax when Wade is held by 7th Calvary members in their hideout—an abandoned shopping mall. It turns out that the 7th Calvary engineered this meeting to reveal the truth about 11/2 to Wade. They show him a video that all members of congress are shown. The video shows Adrian Veidt speaking to future President Robert Redford, and Veidt explains that 11/2 was “a hoax to save the world” (47:01). In a moment, Wade’s entire existence is changed.
It is impossible not to read the 9/11 parallels with Veidt’s squid attack. Like the real-life tragedy, the extradimensional attack is referred to by its date, 11/2. It is clear that 11/2 rocked the world’s consciousness much like 9/11. Additionally, the people in the Extradimensional Anxiety group all share their “this is where I was on 11/2” story, which is clearly akin to the stories we tell each other about 9/11. The clear difference is that 11/2 led to peace while 9/11 led to war. However, the fictional event clearly parallels the real one.
I am most interested in how both events were used to further governmentality. French philosopher Michel Foucault uses governmentality as a way to explain the full scope of government power beyond legislation. In systems of governmentality, citizens self-govern to uphold the apparatus of governmental control. National tragedies are a way for governmentality to be enacted, and Diane Rubenstein claims that post-9/11 American governmentality operated with “state of emergency prevailing over everyday American life during an unending war on terror” (304). This never ending “state of emergency” enabled laws such as the Patriot Act, which limits individual privacy in the name of protection. As Nathan Sales wrote in the New York Times in 2014, “America needs the Patriot Act because it helps prevent terrorism while posing little risk to civil liberties.” Civil liberties are secondary to terrorism. Governmentality is accepted and embraced in the name of fear, and we see Watchmen lay this system bare. Alex Abad-Santos writes, “HBO’s Watchmen asks how the squid attack preserves the status quo of government power.” Throughout the series, the threat of another giant squid attack determines how people operate their day-to-day lives. Wade’s home is filled with devices that supposedly protect him from extradimensional terror. Characters in the Watchmen structure their entire lives around 11/2, and the giant squid has become a part of the global psyche. Veidt has also continued to orchestrate random, non-violent squid falls where hundreds of squid momentarily fall from the sky. It is easy to read these as an allegory of sorts for post 9/11 terrorism in the United Sates—always less deadly, but a reminder of the fear. Abad-Santos writes, “The squid falls send the message that there’s danger looming, that the government and military could be the only things standing between the average citizen and another attack.” The giant squid attack and squid falls uphold governmentality much like 9/11 does in real life. Unlike 9/11, however, the squid isn’t real. Wade and others do not need to accept governmentality. With this in mind, Watchmen perhaps makes us asks, “what would we be willing to accept if 9/11 was our 11/2?”
Abad-Santos, Alex. “How Watchmen’s Giant Squid Attack Changes Everything.” Vox, Vox, 18 Nov. 2019, www.vox.com/culture/2019/11/17/20964873/watchmen-episode-5-squid-looking-glass. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.
“Little Fear of Lightning.” Watchmen, written by Damon Lindelof and Carly Wray, directed by Steph Green, HBO, 2019.
Rubenstein, Diane. “Did You Pack Your Bags Yourself? Governmentality After 9/11.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 3 no. 2, 2003, p. 303-331. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/ncr.2003.0027. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.
Sales, David. “Do We Still Need the Patriot Act?” The New York Times, The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/09/07/do-we-still-need-the-patriot-act/the-patriot-act-is-a-vital-weapon-in-fighting-terrorism. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.