Warning: Spoilers ahead for Watchmen episode “Little Fear of Lightning.”
Watchmen tells us things are going to get weird fast. Like, roughly 20 minutes into the pilot fast, when teeny tiny interdimensional squid begin falling from the sky, only to disappear in the sunlight. While most people would start screaming their vocal cords raw at such a disturbing sight, the people of Watchmen’s Tulsa, OK shrug. C’est la vie, at least in their timeline.
Something has always felt odd about the intergalactic cephalopods, which add a distinct and intense sci-fi flavor to an otherwise grounded “superhero” series. In HBO’s Watchmen, the masked crime fighters aren’t vigilantes with superpowers, they’re grizzled detectives. People like Angela Abar (Regina King) only need the costumes to protect their identities from traditional white supremacists, one of their reality's truest threats.
Sunday night’s episode, “Little Fear of Lightening,” finally clears up the drama’s squid problem — there is no squid problem at all. It’s all a hoax.
“Lightening” opens on the 1985 day that changed everything, when a supposed interdimensional tentacle monster the size of a city block crash-landed in midtown Manhattan, killing 3 million people. We enter the gruesome scene from the perspective of a seemingly random teen boy (Philip Labes), who is eventually revealed to be a younger version of Watchmen second-string player Wade Tillman (Tim Blake Nelson), aka Looking Glass.
Oklahoma-born Wade is in New York (or, more accurately, across the river in Hoboken, NJ), in an attempt to convert so-called “sinners.” The doomsday clock is seconds from “midnight,” and that means worldwide nuclear destruction is nigh. Wade is tricked into going into a funhouse by a Hoboken punk girl who is fed up with his proselytizing. When the girl gets Wade down to his birthday suit, she runs out with his clothing, leaving him naked in the building.
A terrifying sound causes the funhouse to come crashing down, knocking Wade out in the process. When Wade awakes, he finds hundreds of dead bodies littering the ground outside. Blood is pouring out of their eyes and ears. Wade's world has cracked open.
Then the camera pulls us toward Manhattan, where the city is in chaos. After we pass over Madison Square Garden, we find out the problem. A gigantic monster has crashed, landing in a building with its tentacles spreading blocks and tearing down anything in its wake. The 1980s Watchmen graphic novel, which inspired the HBO show, explains the monster also gave off a psychic blast, killing millions who may have survived the physical carnage.
The tragedy of existential threat caused by the New York monster continues to the present day in the Watchmen universe. The appearance of the squid storms reminds citizens they are still pawns in a cosmic game they could never even try to understand. And, most importantly, that game may kill them.
But it’s all fake.
In 2019, middle-aged Wade is brought into Seventh Kavalry headquarters and shown a tape that Senator Joe Keane (James Wolk) stole from his Senate committee. The tape, from 1993, is the confession tape of Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons). A younger Veidt confirms that he set in motion the events of the day, which marks the inauguration of President Robert Redford (yes, that Robert Redford). It’s a political endgame that started in 1985, as the world teetered on nuclear Armageddon.
“The only way to stave off mankind’s extinction is with a weapon more powerful than any atomic device. That weapon is fear,” Veidt says. “And I, Mr. President, am its architect.”
Vedit then explains that an apparent extra-dimensional monster will land in New York in 24 hours, killing millions and traumatizing millions upon millions more. Yet the monster will not be extra-dimensional. It will have come from Veidt as the greatest hoax ever created, intended to create world peace through unimaginable sacrifice. As Watchmen’s graphic novels prove, Veidt’s plan worked in the moment, and the near-deadly Cold War tensions ended.
Veidt’s plan could not stop there. In his view, a lack of international fear would leave room for the return to previous hostilities. Or, as Veidt puts it, “I’ll have to maintain the peace through additional small-scale extra-dimensional events.” Events like the squid storms.
The only question is, whether Veidt or Lady Trieu (Hong Chau) is behind the current “extra-dimensional events” of 2019. Veidt can barely save himself from his a moon prison (itself a shocking “Lightning” reveal). It seems impossible he could orchestrate storms of interdimensional sea creatures falling from the sky at this point.
If Trieu is keeping up Veidt’s worst secret, what else is she hiding?