“I don’t think the Earth is going to shake on its axis or anything,” Nelson said of the revelation, laughing. “It’s no ‘quid pro quo’ or smoking gun.”
Maybe not. But it does indicate how meticulous Nelson, Lindelof and the rest of the cast and crew have been in crafting “Watchmen,” which takes place 35 years after the events of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s groundbreaking graphic novel. Like Regina King’s Angela Abar (a.k.a. Sister Night), Looking Glass works with the Tulsa police to fight a white supremacist group called the Seventh Kavalry. He’s been a steady presence throughout the season thus far, but remained rather opaque. It wasn’t until Sunday night that we got a real look at the man behind the reflective mask: Wade Tillman.
On the brink of nuclear war, American society in “Watchmen” was irrevocably affected by a catastrophe referred to as “11/2,” after the 1985 date on which it took place. A giant, squid-like creature fell into the heart of New York, killing half of the city’s population and sending a psychic shock wave through the region. We learn via flashback that Wade, then a timid, religious teenager, happened to be at a carnival in Hoboken, N.J., that night. We watch him stagger out of a house of mirrors, where a girl had pranked him by undressing him and running away with his clothes, to find himself surrounded by carnage.
Though Nelson was unaware of this specific backstory when he began to play Wade — Lindelof “allows for the experiencing of a character to be like the way we experience life,” per the actor, who didn’t receive the fifth episode’s script until well into shooting the third — his portrayal of a middle-aged Wade has consistently reflected, as he phrased it, “a guy contending with having experienced unspeakable trauma at an extremely fragile moment in his life, at an extremely fragile age in his life.”
“He’ll forever associate meaningful relationships — and the trust that goes along with meaningful relationships, not to mention his sexual impulses — with catastrophe,” Nelson said. “And he spent his life, now, getting over that. So to me, he gets into law enforcement as a way not only to promote justice, but also as a way to hide inside of a structure, a code and, eventually, a mask.”
The pilot paints Looking Glass as a rather intimidating figure in “The Pod,” a hypnotic chamber he uses to interrogate members of the Seventh Kavalry. His mask gives him a sense of power, slightly stripped away in the third episode when FBI agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) continually reduces him to “Mirror Guy,” and in the fifth when it’s revealed that the mask’s reflective material is a deluded attempt to protect his mind from psychic shock waves. The latter episode, co-written by Lindelof and Carly Wray, highlights Wade’s desperate pursuit of control amid his unpredictably dangerous environment. At one point, his ex-wife notes that he has taken to wearing a cap lined with the material as well.
Nelson’s eyes and mouth are generally exposed while filming scenes as Looking Glass — he often wears a “green screen mask,” transformed into what we see with the help of GoPro footage — but he nonetheless credits the configuration with helping him “imagine my inscrutability.”
“I can do what actors do, which is to use my imagination to trick myself into a reality, meaning that the mask is always reminding me . . . no one can really see what I’m doing with my face,” Nelson said. “If I play that reality, I get all the power and status that wearing a mask is meant to confer.
“There don’t need to be any histrionics, there don’t need to be any demonstrations of power. Everything can happen simply and quietly and with restraint, because the power is just there. What I’ve tried to do as a performer is just aggregate a stillness with Wade that I think is there in the writing.”
But in a rather harrowing episode for Wade — over the course of which he discovers that 11/2 wasn’t actually an extraterrestrial incident but a catastrophe orchestrated by Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) to unite sparring world leaders — that stillness also expresses his anguish. After the Seventh Kavalry blackmails him into betraying Angela, one of his few friends, he merely gazes at her with helpless eyes.
It’s a compelling dynamic, that friendship, and one that wasn’t originally in the cards. Like Angela, Wade is one of many “Watchmen” characters original to the HBO series. Lindelof offered Nelson the role early on but then retracted the offer, worried the actor wouldn’t have enough to do. A week later, his mind made up, Lindelof retracted the retraction, assuring Nelson he’d find a way to properly develop Wade.
At the time, Nelson had a passing familiarity with “Watchmen” as a byproduct of raising sons who were “keenly interested” in graphic novels. He was initially put off by the medium; the dense imagery “felt like a form catering to the illiterate” before he realized “it was actually the opposite of that, and that the keener your mind, and the more assiduous your reading, the more you were going to get out of decoding the images and their relationship to the dialogue.”
Nelson went on to read the entirety of Moore and Gibbons’s “Watchmen” over the course of 12 hours. The themes of power and justice — to which the actor is clearly drawn, given that they also figure into his new films “The Report” and “Just Mercy” — paired with Lindelof’s decision to explore racial status in the television series persuaded Nelson to seize the opportunity.
“Damon radiates so much inventiveness and so much enthusiasm and so much intelligence as a storyteller that of course I said yes,” Nelson said. In the preliminary stages of production, “Damon was responding to what each of us were doing, and allowing that to inform how he was shaping the show. That’s incredibly rare, because even in television, where a lot of writing can go on during a season, Damon lives more dangerously than anyone I’ve met in being unafraid not to know.”
From where Nelson stands, the risky technique paid off. When the time came around to make the fifth episode, he continued, “there was not a single remark, action or response from Wade that didn’t cohere with everything that had preceded in the first four episodes.”
“I really had no issues other than wanting to specify a more Southerly town. That was pretty much it. And then it just became about, as it was with all of us, making sure we were giving this incredible world that Damon was creating and each of our incredible characters, we were giving them their due."