Looking Glass and the Torture of Cultural Memory in 'Watchmen'

Season One, Episode 5, "Little Fear of Lightning"

Looking Glass and the Torture of Cultural Memory in 'Watchmen'

During the Cold War, everyone feared the bomb. It was a simpler time. Of course, the 80s comic Watchmen shocked readers when the evil mastermind won and succeeded in destroying New York with a similar bomb. Even more disturbingly, he had justification for his crime, as he used it to unite the world… successfully. This diabolical twist muddled heroism and villainy forever, guiding readers into a new era of ambiguity.

Watchmen the show depicts this genocidal act with a giant squid on November 2nd, 1985. It suddenly invades from another dimension and devastates New York. Of course, in Season 1 Episode 5: “Little Fear of Lightning,” the trauma is dialed up to the highest possible extreme for Wade Tillman, the yokel who will become Looking Glass. He’s so sheltered he’s never left Oklahoma, and the event hits when he’s naked, excited for sex but panicked at the thought of sin when he’s come to spread to the good word. “Careless Whisper” plays, disturbingly and accurately predicting that the people here will never dance again. (The song repeats through the episode, emphasizing all the hauntings that have resulted.) His reflection in the carnival mirrors scream at him for his filthy desires, insisting, “You're pathetic, and you're a sinner. You're a filthy dumb sinner, and now you get what you deserve!” Suddenly, all the mirrors explode showering him in glass. His trauma is thus externalized, reflected and intensified in each blame-filled mirror until they all attack him, like his own reflections striking out against him. When he emerges, everyone lies dead in piles, with the entire carnival turned into a true spectacle of madness. The evil clowns and grotesqueries are monuments to the piled-up dead teens. He is the only survivor.

These piles of the dead evoke the horrific slaughters throughout history, escalating in their depravity and shock. As the music in this show so often does “Some enchanted evening/when you find your true love” provides the perfect disturbing counterpoint for this flashback. Obviously, this devastating introduction to sex traumatizes Wade until he cannot manage a healthy relationship. At the same time, it brings him a mission, which indeed becomes his love and obsession.

Rebooting Watchmen for the screen today adds a new spin not present in the 80s. Dead teens piled all around evokes school shootings, mindless, shocking acts of violence escalating around the country. Beyond this, the New York attack invokes 9/11, the day such a sky attack actually arrived (and indeed brought people closer together). Calling it 11/2 more directly evokes 9/11. It’s soon revealed he keeps a bomb shelter, which he dives into on a moment’s notice. There, he’s run 500 drills, to the shock of the man whose company makes his alarm system. Wade also smashes up the alarm in what seems more than annoyance. His panic is with him permanently, even as he quests to protect the earth from another invasion.

During his experience, Looking Glass developed a super power—sensing truth in others. In other words, he is society’s looking glass and silent judge. Further, his desperately-sought pills are memory pills, linked to trauma in many stories. “They outlawed those 'cause it turns out putting memories into pill form lead to psychosis,” a doctor warns him. Some science fiction tales have people burying themselves in memories of what they’ve lost after this sort of horror. Others only seek a moment’s peace, existing in a world not destroyed by hatred and fear. At the same time, the pills suggest Wade’s responsibility as keeper of memories, one of the very few survivors.

A Holocaust allusion appears with a mention of a Schindler’s-List-style film with a little girl in a red coat. This one is a Spielberg film about the squid called Pale Horse (the name of the band that played Madison Square Garden that night and also a reference to Death itself). Linked to this, the concept of inherited trauma is discussed, a relevant one considering earth’s violent history from the Holocaust to now the repercussions of 9/11 itself. As someone in the episode’s support group gossips, “There's this thing genetic trauma. Basically, if something really bad happens to your parents, it gets locked into their DNA. So, when my mom got hit by the blast, even though I wasn't born until 10 years after 11/2, it's like I inherited her pain.” This is more than science fiction.

Indeed, in America today, there are survivors who feel unable to speak and second generations inheritors of the trauma who wonder whether they even have the right. Marianne Hirsch, researcher of postmemory, explains that the memory of trauma is transgenerational as entire generations pass a communicative memory on to the next three to four generations. Passing on artefacts from a lost time, like the one of lynching and rioting seen in the first episode, is called “cultural memory,” passed on through artefacts and art. In this way, the photos connect viewers with the distant past (32-33). Wade reflects neither of these, but the representation of the original living, unhealed trauma. He speaks for the dead and the traumatized living as he critiques the perky commercial about moving back to New York as shallow and ridiculous, especially tone deaf as a chef gloats over a squid dish: “You know how we like our squid now? With lemon and a little marinara.” Sinatra’s “New York, New York” plays, an upbeat song from another time with no relation to the present. “Sorry, gentlemen, but all your ad does is remind folks that three million people suffered a horrific, traumatizing, and inexplicable death,” Wade has to say.

The Watchmen story, as an alt-history of the United States like The Man in the High Castle, comments on what we are becoming and what we might have been.

"Oddly enough, alternate histories lend themselves very well to being studied as documents of memory for the same reason that most historians have dismissed them as useless for the study of history—their fundamental subjectivity." Speculative accounts about the past are driven by many of the same psychological forces that determine how the past takes shape in remembrance. Biases, fears, wishes, the desire to avoid guilt, the quest for vindication—these and other related sentiments all influence the ways in which alternate histories represent how the past might have been, just as they influence the ways in which people remember how the past "really" was." (Rosenfeld 12).

Do people in the US fear another 9/11? Well, many have embraced bigotry and antisemitism, emphasizing that the repercussions remain.

Near the episode’s end, Senator Keene offers Wade a Matrix-style red pill, showing him a videotape to calm all his fears. In it, Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt confesses that he orchestrated the “11/2” extradimensional squid attack, along with the following smaller “squidfalls.” In this moment, Wade learns he’s not at risk of a repeat attack—his constant terror abates at last.

No such cure for a divided, traumatized America is available, either for the echoes of 9/11 or for school shootings. Blame, defensiveness, and anger continue instead of practical solutions involving counseling and intervention as well as a reduction of gun accessibility and hate crimes.

Works Cited

Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. Colombia University Press, 2012.

Rosenfeld, Gavriel D. The World Hitler Never Made. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Valerie Estelle Frankel
Valerie Estelle Frankel
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