'Watchmen': Tim Blake Nelson Unmasks That "Squid Pro Quo" Reveal

Watchmen Still 5 - Publicity - H 2019
Mark Hill/HBO

[This story contains spoilers for season one, episode five of HBO's Watchmen, "Little Fear of Lightning," as well as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic books on which the show is based.]

"Is anything true?"

The heartbreaking question arrives toward the end of "Little Fear of Lightning," the fifth episode of HBO's Watchmen, co-written by Damon Lindelof and Carly Wray. The episode holds the mirror up to Tim Blake Nelson's Wade "Looking Glass" Tillman, bringing an iconic event from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' original Watchmen comics to life on screen for the very first time: the massive squid attack on New York City in 1985, the climactic crowning moment of the source material. 

Director Zack Snyder's 2009 feature film adaptation of Watchmen eschewed the squid altogether; the event as it exists in the comic book also exists in Lindelof's adaptation, and now, thanks to the first sequence of "Little Fear of Lightning," the massive attack on New York has finally been rendered into live action, as told from the unique perspective of a younger Wade Tillman. Viewers witness Wade as a young Jehova's Witness at a street fair in Hoboken, N.J., on the fringe of the squid's psychic blast radius.

Before the trauma caused by the squid, Wade's life is upturned when a woman lures him into a hall of mirrors, removes and steals his clothes, leaving him naked and alone. When the squid attack occurs, Wade survives the incident, presumably due to being surrounded by mirrors — a notion that informs his modern Looking Glass identity and mirror-lined headwear.

Hear more about the episode in the latest Series Regular: Watchmen podcast.

In the present, Wade surrounds his house with extradimensional security equipment, leads group sessions about extradimensional anxiety and even has a degree in the science behind the dimensional incursion event — and by the end of the episode, he comes to learn that all of it is for nothing. Senator Keene (James Wolk), revealed as the leader of the Seventh Kavalry, shows Wade a video tape recorded by Adrian "Ozymandias" Veidt (Jeremy Irons) on the eve of the squid attack, in which he confesses ownership of the hoax.

"In 24 hours time — seven years ago for you — an extradimensional monster will materialize in Manhattan, unleashing a psychic blast that kills half the city's population, and traumatizes millions more," says Veidt, in a message meant for President Robert Redford's eyes on the eve of his inauguration in 1993. "Yet the monster will not have come from another dimension at all. It will have come from me. A hoax, Mr. President. An elaborate, meticulously engineered hoax to save the world."

Senator Keene doesn't reveal this information to Wade without cause, of course. He wants a favor from the Tulsa Police Department officer in return. ("Call it a 'squid pro quo,'" says Keene, in a line that is sure to find its way onto T-shirts before long.) He wants Wade to find a way to remove Angela "Sister Night" Abar (Regina King) from the playing field, so Keene and his allies can cleanly execute whatever they are planning next — a plot that involves teleportation, but thankfully, not dropping a gigantic squid on Tulsa.

In the end, Wade is left questioning everything in existence. "Is anything true?" he wearily asks Angela, moments before he lures her into arrest. A charitable view of the move sees it as Wade trying to save Angela's life, since Keene threatened her execution should Wade not take her off the board. A less charitable view: Wade's disillusionment puts him in line with the Seventh Kavalary. If that's the case, it adds extra tragedy to the final moments of the episode, in which Wade returns to his home, with armed members of the Seventh Kavalry following close behind. His fate remains unknown.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Tim Blake Nelson about his powerful episode, what he learned about Wade, working with Lindelof on building out the character and more.

When did you first learn about your central role in this episode?

I was told…late in episode 102, I guess, that episode 105 was going to focus on Looking Glass. Late during 103, I was given the script. I had much of 104 [to prepare], even though I had some work to do in 104 to prepare for the character. I certainly needed that amount of time. I wasn't at all expecting so much texture and nuance and sensitivity in the role because when I read it, it just simply didn't feel like television and that [Lindelof] was affording so much time for the character to do and to act in an Aristotelian sense…meaning that in the episode, he doesn't do a lot of talking about himself. He acts, and pursues his life and his needs in ways that expose sometimes subtly and sometimes quite dramatically who and what he is and why he's who he is. Whereas often I think what mars both television and film is that characters overexplain themselves to expose who and what they are. And that's not what Damon Lindelof does. He's about characters in really difficult situations pursuing what they need in utterly surprising ways.

It's a reflection of trust in the actors, of course, but also the audience, to understand why it's so important for Wade to wear the mirror lining in his hat, as an example…

Yes, and why he wears it at home. I was incredibly excited to read the episode and humbled also because I had an understanding of what the challenges were going to be to meet that level of writing, to try and meet that level of writing. Damon metes out information for actors the way that life metes out information for people in that you don't know what's going to happen until it's happening. So even with the hat I wear that's lined with reflectatine because of Wade's fear of another psychic blast, I had always thought that Wade would wear a do-rag. That had been my preference during costume fittings. During episode two, they presented me with a hat that I would wear in episode four. I wrote to Damon and I said, "I thought I was going to wear a do-rag. Is that OK?" And he wrote back and he said, "No, you need to wear a hat for reasons that will become clear." He could have said, "Because it's lined with reflectatine. You have issues." He could have explained all that, but he didn't. 

That's a new way of working for me because I mostly do movies. The contract in a movie is when you sign up, that's pretty much it.... You know, you have your whole character. Damon wants to see what you're bringing to a role before he makes a lot of those decisions. He also wants to hold back information from you so that it won't paint the way that you approach certain moments and situations. And so for both of those reasons, you're getting information really late, again, the way life gives you information. And that's been a great way to work, mainly because I trust Damon so much. And so when I got episode five, it both surprised me to learn what had motivated a lot of the previous decisions I was making over the episodes leading up to episode 105, but it also surprised me because there wasn't a moment I had played that seemed incoherent with this episode that was finally revealing so much about the character. Again, I give a lot of the credit for that to Damon and his writers.

What surprised you the most in terms of what we learn here about Wade?

For starters, I certainly never anticipated he would have witnessed the squid attack of 1985. Extrapolating from there, I certainly never imagined that if he had experienced the squid attack of 1985 that he would associate it with his first sexual encounter, as a devout Christian inhibited by his faith from any arousal whatsoever, until he was seduced by a girl who was going to steal his clothes, who moments later he would see dead on the ground. So, you know, this was all a surprise. But then it just underscored, well, of course he's chosen the police force. Moreover, the part of the police force in which he can wear a mask, not just to affect justice, but also as a structure in which literally he can hide. By hiding, he can re-exert some measure of control over his life, a life that was really taken from him in terms of his belief, his faith and the root aspects of his sexuality, on the cusp of adulthood. Finally, under that mask, he can have some measure of power and self-knowledge, and also finally a way not to despise himself as a sinner.

Near the end of the episode, Keene shows Wade the Veidt video, and promises it will set him free. Do you look at it as freedom, or do you view it as a second trauma?

I look at it as a second trauma. And I think that's the way Damon looks at it. And he does go back out to the trash can [at the end of the episode] and pick up the replacement alarm. It's just more interesting if it's the second trauma. I don't think Damon writes characters for whom there are simple answers or solutions. He writes marred, flawed, corruptible characters, which is what all humans are. That's why Damon is such an effective storyteller. I don't think there's anybody in the show, including Angela, who is truly and thoroughly good. Everyone in the show dissembles. Everyone in the show abuses power. Everyone in the show is to some degree out for him or herself. In this complicated alternate universe, you throw into that racism, vigilantism and an insatiable hunger for power? It's a pretty interesting mix. You really don't want simple answers in this kind of story.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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