Reviewed by: Neal Bailey
Premiered: March 23, 2021
Written by: Todd Helbing with the teleplay by Brent Fletcher and Nadria Tucker
Directed by: Rachel Talalay
This has been the strangest courtship, and it’s kind of good we’re taking a little break to see how we feel about each other, this show and I. It’ll give me perspective when we can finally get back together to rock.
Things certainly started really weird. Went on a date with this show because a few friends thought we’d be good together. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. We had a good time, the conversation worked out. We laughed. We cried. I realized that there was a lot of depth hiding behind the eyes.
The second date confirmed the initial impressions, deepened my admiration if anything. I thought, here’s something worth spending some time on, a worthy joy to add to my life.
The third date things were already easy, despite the fact that we barely knew each other. I figured hey, this keeps going right, I might go in for that kiss.
Then came the fourth episode.
I showed up in my best tux, leaned in for the kiss when the moment was right, and then my date ripped off their mask, revealed that they were my ex-girlfriend Smallville, then she slapped me and ran away screaming about secrets and lies and whip kicks.
I spent a good amount of time and words wondering what I’d done to my new flame to make it treat me this way. Then I got the call, just a simple line, a message: “Gimme one more chance. I—it was a bad week.”
I’m not one to let a good thing go just because it looked like something that did me wrong. You don’t even want to judge anyone by one bad date, or one bad day. So I showed up one more time, tux on, flowers in hand, and somehow, strangely, the show I fell in love with came back, the same as before. Turns out what I thought was Smallville might have been bad lighting or, more appropriately, a form of temporary demonic possession.
I want to ask what made them act that way, what made them think that behavior made sense, but I’m far more glad to have what I like back, so let’s leave it there and get into it, shall we?
BLOW BY BLOW
We start out with a warning sign that turned out to be nothing—television exposition indicating that Superman’s activity had been on the uptick. At first it made me think they were continuing the out of character rambling of last episode, having Clark decide irrationally to overcompensate for Sam Lane’s disapproval by recommitting to his “duty,” but instead, it’s a throwaway, a setup for the character work that’s about to be done through the device of the Harvest Festival.
The gorgeous cinematography continues, and though I’m getting more used to the vibe of the music, it’s not losing its luster.
The clearly loving and mature relationship between Lois and Clark picks up as if it hadn’t gone through the irrational roller coaster of the previous episode, and it’s a wonderful bit of relief, that. This is where I realized, ah, yes, this show is still here. It wasn’t a fever dream. Adults being adults and in character, A to B to C.
I must admit, I haven’t seen such a drastic shift back and forth in terms of quality in, well, ever. The closest I can think of comparably is the difference in craft between Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker, one being a carefully crafted piece of work where every moment has long-lasting resonance and meaning, the other being Rise of Skywalker.
You sometimes get that in franchise movies, but a show at a certain level of quality almost never jumps from one ladder of quality to another entirely. You’re not going to find an episode of House that isn’t entertaining in a specific way, nor is one of the episodes of Watchmen a turkey. Once you reach the level this show has, it’s rare to just have a show that’s as bad as Smallville was at its worst.
There’s a great scene here, where Jordan is anxious about saying yes to Sarah, then Jonathan steps in to help. I keep getting played by Jonathan, and for the life of me I can’t decide if I want to smack sense into him or hug him. But like any urge to smack sense into a kid when they’re being dumb, the better instinct is the hug, and of all the characters, his cavalier attitude with his privilege driving his arrogance makes me furious with him at times, but he keeps circling back to the right thing.
I have a little meter for Jonathan that almost every episode flips from 0% PHALLUS HEAD to about 50% PHALLUS HEAD, but right next to that gauge is a HEART meter that keeps up with the other gauge. It’s great character work, and it’s absolutely a kid learning to be a man. Still hard to watch those growing pains, especially when they negatively work on others. And this episode had the harshest example of that yet, albeit one that comes with some sympathy, if not any way to condone his behavior.
Phallus Head is actually the worst Radiohead cover band, but it does a mean cover of Talking Heads’ Radiohead. Life is strange.
Sharon Powell’s back, y’all, and she’s got a totally not bought off good attitude toward the sudden return of her son. Lois sees right through it, as does Beppo. Arguably the choice made here with Lois not to go on the rampage about it seems off, but it serves to show that this isn’t her first rodeo—to character—and it also is fantastic to see a low key characterization of her as the seasoned reporter as opposed to the dovetail into irrational behavior we experienced last episode.
I like the subtle touches, the understated bits, like when Derek flinches as a tell, but it isn’t pointed to. The way Sharon all but tells the truth in body language, but doesn’t broadcast it through words. That’s good story.
They don’t screw around, either, leaping right into the story, having Derek set an entire building on fire right before the stinger. It’s not a bad freak of the week fight at the end, we start from the actual inciting incident, not end there.
I’m unsure if this is setting a precedent for new Freaks of the Week, but frankly, if they’re handled like this, do it every week. The inherent problem with the FOTW as a device is that they’re throwaway characters with no connection to the mains who make no impact. Lois is upset that Derek is dead at the end of the show. She really feels that impact. And we do, too, because we’re invested in this character from his first mention, several episodes back. Beyond that, they’re showing with the ending, which was a great cliffhanger, that they’re not just going to do what Smallville did and make them disappear. Not unless they’re dead. And with the resurrection angle, maybe not even that.
The show gives you a real gut punch with the Martha scenes. They were unexpected, and they hit hard and well. I like that they don’t dance around whether Clark was a vigilante or Superboy, they get it out of the way quick. He started fighting crime, realized it would expose him, and departed—perhaps in error. After last week I thought they were setting up The Adventures of Superboy here at first, and my note reads “SECRET ID STUFF?” Which basically means that I was concerned that this would be the start of the slip, where they stopped caring about whether Clark kept his powers away from a place like Smallville, where it would immediately be exposed, as opposed to the other Smallville‘s hot take of “Hundreds of people can die and know your secret and it’ll just be fine, okay, it’s a TV show, jeeze.”
In fact, rather rapidly, they shift to the purpose of the scene, aside from being cool (which it was). It served the purpose of building a reflection between Clark’s dilemma and his mother’s, and how he has a hard choice to make given that he made Jonathan’s mistake himself, reasonably.
Clark was grossly unfair to his mother in the way only a teenager can be, as Jonathan was, and decided to leave town to get away from his feelings. Except Jonathan has no powers to save him (though he does have tons of privilege to keep him over—Sarah is dead right on that front, but I’ll get to that). Clark, on the other hand, has a literal deus ex machina, where HE is the God, in the form of a crystal handed to him that lets him go off and be invincible, with the only casualty being his time with his mother and her feelings. Which is not small. And you can see he knows that, he sees the sacrifice, he appreciates it, and he doesn’t want to have Jonathan repeat the mistake. Not for his own selfish need to be around his son, as much as because he knows what it would cost Jonathan, having so recently lost a loving mother, seeing the time so short.
This is, it should be obvious, character conflict springing from character, and though that doesn’t need to be said to be seen, it should be complimented in a field of television where it’s so infrequent in favor of spectacle and cheap drama.
Small thing. Clark’s flight from the house to the fire is very well done. They could do the same shot every time, but they’re putting a lot of care into changing it up.
There’s symmetry in saving Kyle, because if you recall, in the first episode Kyle came to the aid of Jonathan and Jordan, a nice little nod to the heroism of firefighters, even if Kyle leaves much to be desired, his profession choice is laudable. Sad that he seems to hide behind it, as some do, but it’s still nice to note that Kyle’s heroism exists apart from being a bad dad, and isn’t forgotten simply because he’s a bum to his wife and daughter. That complexity is what I think they were trying to go for last episode having people act out of character, but said complexity actually comes from multifaceted things that seem like they don’t fit, but do, in practice and story, as opposed to a random left turn for drama. At least for me.
Clark doesn’t become Superman and make an excuse to show in Smallville to save Kyle from the fire. He sees the situation, strategically assesses, and solves it with the minimum of risk. This is good Superman writing. He blows out the first, which makes Kyle suspicious, but it can be totally explained away. And he goes in as Clark, because if he’s seen, at least that could be explained away as well. It’s clever. And it didn’t have to be. The audience would accept Superman coincidentally showing up. But it shows the writing wants to be better. That’s huge.
Full 50% PHALLUS HEAD meter when Jonathan thanked his mother for her Cosmo Girl advice. I half expected her to give him a Cosmo Girl backhand, but this is why a well-written Lois is necessarily a stronger person than me morally and ethically. She’s a hero. I still hope he gets taken down a few pegs without harm. Soon.
The Lois and Kyle scene is magnificent. Here I am, again feeling sympathy for this reprobate, because it’s legit for him to worry for his friend, and a dead firefighter in a small town has weight, huge weight, and the story gives it due.
And after, the double-punch of meeting Lex out of his suit. The actor playing Lex is fantastic. He’s keeping it low-key, and making him hard to read. His delivery can be either evil, or simply calm assessment of an intellectual, and I love the way it’s being played. Could be sinister, could be chill.
Comparing it to last week, it’s a case study of how you do a villain compared to how they did Edge. You feel the menace that Lois doesn’t, while hints are dropped quietly, and we wonder if he’s an ally or an enemy, and by the end, when you see that he was in love with Lois, you realize that there’s a whole other layer of tenderness in that scene as well. Very well crafted.
As opposed to, say, Morgan “I see a sexy woman from a small town and I want her, so I’ll unroll my tongue on the table and howl like a wolf in front of her husband because that’s in no way obtuse” Edgelord.
Get this. The show’s doing so well, it doesn’t even irk me or draw me out of things when Lex Luthor himself says Luthor with the ER. I merely note it for posterity.
We get to see excited Clark again when he hears about Jordan’s date, which is probably my favorite character trait he has in the whole show. Earnest dad just proud of his kid, excited to see them grow as a person and get the wonderful things that come with maturity and aging, the joys we as parents get to experience as our reward for every filthy diaper and backtalk and lost private moments.
Still at full 50%, Jordan calls Smallville a backward ass town out of sheer petulant envy, making us want to kick his ass backward, but again, teenagers being teenagers, you can forgive it, particularly later, when he makes up for it. More pointing out the way they’re effectively manipulating us with the way they make him, as opposed to it just being random nastiness. He’s effectively a difficult kid, far more so than Jordan. And that seems a choice—they’re reversing the way things started, with Jordan as the difficult child, Jonathan easy. Now Jonathan’s screwing up, and Jordan has himself straight. It’s a neat dynamic, and continues to be so.
Clark is patient, and continues to display good parenting, when he immediately kens the reason for the outburst, and tries to comfort him about Eliza, and when Jonathan protests that it isn’t, Clark doesn’t get into an argument about it with him, he lets it slide and tries to help him process. I envy his skill, frankly, because I am often not so patient. I know what’s right, but it would take a Superman to be this good.
And yeah, that’s entirely the point of why this works. Superman is the person among us who could be flawed, but chooses and works and succeeds at being better. It’s a story, it’s not necessarily realistic, but it is realized. And we love it for being so.
There’s a great manipulative kid moment in there that shows that frankly made me envious as a writer, because it was brilliant. Jonathan points out that Jordan just did what he wanted to do anyway, so he might as well too. This is good in multiple directions. One, it’s a way that Jonathan knows to torque his Dad, because Clark worries about fair play. Two, it’s Jonathan being absolutely the way a teenager is, fighting with a knife. And three, it reveals Jonathan’s character, what’s bothering him, without saying it direct. He is resentful that Jordan took a gamble that worked out, and wants to be clever enough to manage it himself, and resents that he’s failing where before his good looks and earnestness was enough to get by. He’s realizing that the good life as a jock ends at eighteen, that character must follow or you will suffer, and that abyss scares him. All in a few small lines.
The way they then cut to Clark when he’s experiencing the same pain and frustration for different reasons (he is distressed with Smallville because he has a destiny he can’t figure out yet, but he wants to be more than he is) shows that though their circumstances are different, the difficulties they face have the same veins flowing from their heart. The perils of impulsive behavior when young and how you can miss the wise counsel of a wise and trusting parent if you’re not careful. It’s heartbreaking to watch, because not only did I miss a lot of that in my youth with my rather rough upbringing, but it would be doubly worse if I’d had it and didn’t take advantage. Not sure which is worse, but it makes me ask, which is, broken record, good work.
There’s another brief reiteration of how things are in the Cushing home. Lana valuing a social function over comforting her husband when his close friend is in the hospital, and said husband drinking himself stupid rather than seeking the council of his wife. And meanwhile, Sarah sits there babysitting her parents.
I have a lot of experience with this particular kind of thing, and let me tell you, it’s the reason my note, when Jonathan is being read the riot act by Sarah for his privilege problems, my note is F$(#ING GO, SARAH! SIC HIM! Because look what she’s going through. She’s a secondary character, so it’s not the focus of this show, but I really want to dive in here, too, and see. It also serves to show what a great pair Lois and Clark are.
My fondest hope of the arc, if Sarah and Jordan aren’t to be romantic with each other (though that writing seems to be on the wall) is that she finds solace in Lois and Clark as secondary parents. Surrogates are the way out for a lot of people in her situation, by need or choice, and there’s a lot of drama in how that plays out, and a lot of real world situations to explore in drama. I’m close to it, but I hope some of it sees the light of day here. Brief, but well done in this show. The moment with Kyle singing on the couch is like so many wasted nights in my mostly lost youth, tucking an adult who should know better in while they wallow in self pity rather than live up to the commitment they made in having a child to raise them.
And that pity is how you’re held—the earnest empathy you feel for their inability to grow even past where you are as a teenager is a trap that cinches tight, and holds many in place for their entire lives.
I hope she runs. I did, and it’s the best thing I ever did.
Okay, okay, okay, okay. Did the dude just put the smooch on Lar? I don’t—what do I think of that? Is that anything? (puts hand to ear) I’m being told we don’t know yet.
The single best scene, the most real scene in this show, was the one where Jordan starts getting close with Sarah and it’s interrupted by Jonathan at just the right moment. I rarely get so absorbed that I sit up and go “No. No!” And I did here. I’m about ready, in that moment, to tear Jonathan limb from limb at how selfish he was. And yet as it devolves (and note that Jonathan is palling with the dude that was bullying the other kid for being poor last episode—small but subtle detail work), Jonathan still manages to apologize his way into you feeling a little sympathy for him. Part of you realizes he’s just a kid going through a hard time. It doesn’t excuse ruining what he helped Jordan be part of, but you can see the complexity, and it’s heart-wrenching.
There are multiple levels here, too. Jordan finally getting his shot and failing because of circumstances beyond his control. Jonathan feeling empty and wallowing in self-pity, learning the hard way that how some adults handle their problems with booze often exacerbates the problem. Sarah, who knows this all too well, sees a person treating her well yanked away by yet another drunk frat boy who wants to feel bad about his perfect little life.
So damn good.
The Lois and Clark reaction to the booze, beat for beat, is amazing. If you’re a parent, you get it, but there’s three stages here that are often not seen in drama, or done well. The quiet remark. “Looks like he thinks we won’t see he’s put a hole in the TV.” “Kill him?” “No.” Then ONE TAKES THE LEAD. “Get away from the TV or you will be the first boy to walk on Pluto.” And then the moment after where you pause, go “Did that just happen? It did? Okay.”
Incredulous Bafflement: Verisimilitude in Parenting. They give you a copy on the way out of the hospital. It’s a big time parent secret thing. I can’t say any more or they send agents.
I was so smug and happy with myself when I realized that Clark had again listened in on his wife when he jetted off to the x-Kryptonite MRI machine to stop young Powell, but then I said, no kidding “Drat.” I realized that it was an emergency, legit, and that it fit right into the definition of “I’ve cued myself into when things are emergencies and when they’re not.”
Last episode got me all excited to expose contradictions and continuity errors, and here they are being—shudder—consistent. It’s enough to make the Neal of 2008 Julian and others miss cry.
Don’t worry, I threw a bunch of tires on him and put him in the crusher after last week. I’ll let him out again though, if they do what they did last week. To hell with the Leaning Tower. Evil me with flick peanuts right through your mirror and your plot holes.
I’ve seen some complaints about how all of the fights are taking place in the dark. There’s some weird projection/misunderstanding thing going on in there. “I hate a dark Superman!”
It’s like when people say they like movies about flying men who shoot lasers out of their eyes, but only when they’re realistic. Sounds good, but it isn’t very thought through.
I hate a grim Superman myself. But Superman fighting in the dark isn’t grim. Superman fighting in the dark is Superman fighting in the dark, likely because budget makes it harder to make good effects in the day. It’s not to make him gritty. That’s easy to forgive.
Superman snapping a man’s neck in broad daylight for the edgelord of it all, however, I take great issue with.
The proof is in the cornfield. Look at the construction of the fight, not its darker colors necessitated by the effect requirements. The dude blows through a farm, Clark immediately fixes it. He sets a cornfield on fire, Clark blows it out. Right after, Luthor passes by. It’s intense action for the small screen, it relates, it’s A to B to C. It’s magnificent.
And the minute there’s breathing room, Clark is trying to reason, not punch his way out. He doesn’t kill the dude, the dude literally falls apart rather than be killed by his smooch pal. It’s tragic, and a bummer, and you feel that Clark wanted to save him but couldn’t, instead of “Oh well, that’s the end of that act!” feeling you often get with these shows.
Also, also, also.
That thing you did there, with Luthor having a remote-control car?
I saw that. I saw what you did there.
I liked it.
Subtle homage, not fanservice.
There’s one moment, where there’s an explosion right over the hoedown, that made me giggle. It was such a fun, unique little moment, all these yokels doing the do-se-do while a literal alien is shooting his nemesis from another universe with a rocket in the background, and they’re just boot-scooting on. It’s just… that’s just fun.
And then the moment, right after, I don’t know if it was supposed to be hilarious, but it was. A falafel moment from Avengers. Lois is sitting in the living room, upset someone is dead, worried for her son, and she just goes “Guess Harvest Fest was kind of a bust, huh?”
It’s funny because you’re just feeling for these poor people, and you realize that Clark, who has built up this day in his head, is gonna be way disappointed, but they’re using wry humor to get by, and it’s just a very family thing to do. Akin to taking out the vacuum to clean bright and early for the kid who’s going through their first hangover to take the edge off your disappointment.
Clark handles the drinking well. He grants a one-time get out of jail free card, which is legit good parenting. Let a kid make a mistake and learn from it—punish when it’s a series of choices, not an accident.
He then compounds the goodness of his parenting by being like “Okay, fine, you can go if you really want, but I want you to think about it, and I want you to hear why I think it’s a bad idea, and was for me.” He persuades him, he doesn’t dictate, and that’s how minds are changed and character built. Philosophy 101, you must present an argument your opponent would accept if you hope to persuade.
Such good parents. Honestly.
Then there’s that wonderful moment at the end, where Clark says goodbye to his mother in both the present in the past. It’s hard to watch, it’s so sad. It’s a beautiful, breathtaking character moment. You feel so much for Clark, for Martha, and you know they both followed what they thought was right. That’s a good note to leave on.
Rating – 5 out of 5.
NOW, AN IMPORTANT NOTE.
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Until next week!