In its first five episodes, HBO's Watchmen has connected the dots between the alternate history of the graphic novel and events that have occurred in the real world. Taking place 30 years after the squid attack that devastated New York City, there are plenty of narrative gaps for creator Damon Lindelof to fill in, including the public reaction to this cataclysmic incident. This isn’t his first foray into a television series dealing with trauma, guilt, and grief on a wide scale. Existential questions grounded in a familiar landscape are his calling card. Before taking on Watchmen, Lindelof adapted Tom Perotta’s novel, The Leftovers for HBO. At first glance, the two narratives don’t seem to share much in common, besides the theme of faith versus science, and a reluctant hero at the heart of their stories. But after last week's “Little Fear of Lightning,” the parallels are more pronounced.
From the events that shook the world to the connection between the Guilty Remnant and the Seventh Kavalry, here are the ways that The Leftovers and Watchmen are linked:
After a traumatic incident, a date acts as shorthand for the devastation experienced. These numbers are burned into the consciousness of the public, but not everyone witnessed it firsthand. While some move on with ease, others are not so lucky. In Watchmen, 9/11 didn’t happen, instead, Manhattan was attacked in 1985 by an alien squid with psychic capabilities. 11/2 is the date America changed after 3 million perished in and around the New York City area. Those who weren’t flattened in the ensuing carnage were killed by the psychic blast. Before this, the United States and the Soviet Union had been edging closer to nuclear war, which was soon forgotten after this catastrophic event. On a smaller scale, the violence of the White Night redefined an entire state’s law enforcement practices (not to mention ruining Christmas Eve). For Angela (Regina King), this night of bloodshed was just as impactful as 11/2.
No one actually died in The Leftovers for everything to change, instead, 140 million people (approximately two percent of the world’s population) disappeared on October 14, 2011. They were there and in the blink of an eye, they were gone. At least with a body to bury there is some semblance of closure. For the characters in The Leftovers there was no comfort in looking at a blank space or an empty grave, wondering ‘why them and not me?’
Bad things happen that you can’t control, but there's a difference between a car crash and an extra-dimensional squid appearing through a space portal. Wade Tillman (Tim Blake Nelson) survived the attack in 1985, but has been living with PTSD for more than two decades. On the night of 11/2, he was handing out copies of the Jehovah’s Witness publication Watchtower before he was enticed into a funhouse with the promise of a hookup. Instead, his clothes were stolen and he was left naked, standing in a hall of mirrors, which saved his life. Nevertheless, the sexual humiliation coupled with this horrifying event has left Wade traumatized: he lacks trust in other peopl and in the laws of the universe. If a psychic squid could appear out of nowhere at any moment, how can a person live a normal life free from fear?
Anxiety resulting from a lack of control also ran throughout The Leftovers. Researchers tried to establish why the Sudden Departure occurred, and even why certain people were taken, coming up with hypotheses that never stuck. Providing an answer was never the point, rather, watching these characters grapple with this terrifying conundrum was far more compelling. Without a reason, it meant that it could happen again, and unlike other natural disasters, there was no early warning or time to prepare for the worst. It would just happen and that was paralyzing for some. Miracle, Texas is the one place in the entire world that didn’t lose anyone on October 14, turning it into a holy land for those terrified by the thought of a second Sudden Departure. But even Miracle wasn’t the haven it promised it would be.
The Seventh Kavalry aren’t concerned with Wade seeing their portal device, in fact, they want him to see it. For his entire adult life, he has been petrified of a second squid attack, protecting his home and his head via tin foil and alarm systems. Now it looks like the Seventh Kavalry is weaponizing this device. He refers to it as a “CX924 teleportation window,” which they will no doubt use for something bigger than basketball. It can manipulate space, but is there a time travel or even parallel dimension component? And if so, is Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) going to pop out the other side?
In the Leftovers series finale, Nora claimed she went through the teleportation machine we saw her enter earlier. She told Kevin (Justin Theroux) about her trip to the world of those who departed. The veracity of this claim is left up to the audience to decide, as her journey is not backed up with images. In the world of Watchmen, the manipulation of time, and talk of different dimensions isn’t quite as ambiguous. There are still more questions than answers, but the plans for this device will hopefully become more apparent before the end of the season.
When something earth-shattering takes place, beliefs are broken and formed. For Matt Jamison (Christopher Ecclestone), his faith was strengthened despite the horrors that followed. His unwavering belief after the events of the Sudden Departure and every shitty thing that happened to him, link him to Wade from Watchmen. Wade is no longer preaching the religion that led him to that funfair in Hoboken, but even after he finds out the squid attack was manufactured by billionaire superhero Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) he still can’t ditch his old habits. The security system might be BS, but it brings a certain level of comfort and helps Wade feel in control. Wade gets suckered into entering the funhouse, he gets suckered into following the Seventh Kavalry via the fallen lettuce, which mirrors the many times Matt was taken advantage of. Can he break the cycle?
“People who wear masks are driven by trauma," theorizes Laurie (Jean Smart). She suggests it's often linked to childhood, but those who work for the Tulsa Police Department (and particularly those who survived the White Night) are traumatized by events of their adulthood. The Seventh Kavalry also wear masks, though they are driven by a desire for revenge. However, they would probably argue their emotional wounds are the result of President Redford’s reparations.
Each detective has a unique costume that defines them, whereas the regular police officers share the same yellow mask. Meanwhile, the Seventh Kavalry have taken their look from Rorschach. This de-individualization of these costumes links to the signature white uniform of the Guilty Remnant in The Leftovers. The Guilty Remnant didn’t speak, instead, they communicated their disdain for those that had moved on via handwritten notes and public acts of defiance. By refusing to talk, they acted as a living reminder of October 14. Masks don’t stop the Seventh Kavalry from talking, but a line can be drawn between how emboldened they feel when the ability to read their face is removed. The same goes for the police who turn to violence instead of words when dealing with those they perceive to be dangerous. In both cases, the shared costuming brings out a dangerous pack mentality, which diminishes feelings of responsibility.
Celebrities also disappeared on October 14, including Jennifer Lopez, Gary Busey, and Shaquille O'Neal. Pop culture is still important even when the world is devastated and Damon Lindelof loves a deep cut reference. Perfect Stranger’s Mark Linn-Baker first appeared on the list of raptured before he was later caught alive and wasted in Mexico (he was upset he was the only cast member from Perfect Strangers not to depart). The running gag continued in the final season when he met up with Nora.
Watchmen is set in an alternate world, but Steven Spielberg is still making movies. Instead of Schindler’s List, he made Pale Horse about the night of the squid (Pale Horse was the name of the band playing Madison Square Garden when it was attacked). The girl in the red coat is still a vital visual in this black and white version of events. The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli makes a cameo as himself, trying to lure tourists back to New York City. There was also talk of Ryan Murphy appearing as himself as a nod to Murphy-influenced American Hero Story.
And when it comes to music, Lindelof continues his fondness for different versions of well-known songs. In The Leftovers, “Where Is My Mind?” and “You’re the One That I Want” got the slowed-down cover treatment, whereas Watchmen never wants you to hear “Careless Whisper” in the same way ever again.
Finally, smoking is a controlled substance in the world of Watchmen, which would be devastating to those members of the Guilty Remnant who kept the tobacco industry booming in the United States after the Sudden Departure. A member of the Seventh Kavalry smoking illegally reads like a nod to Lindelof’s other antagonists.
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Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.