Before the first commercial break in the Season Four finale of Smallville, Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk) becomes a killer. (During a tussle, she accidentally stabs bad girl Genevieve [Jane Seymour] through the heart with an ancient Kryptonian stone.) It’s a typical go-go opening for Smallville, but this time the pace is maintained throughout the episode. By the end, Smallville is pelted by a meteor shower much like the one that first brought Clark (Tom Welling) to earth, Lana discovers an alien vessel, and Clark is mysteriously transported to a frozen wasteland that looks suspiciously like the DC Comics location for Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.
The series of events leading up to Lana’s crime is quite complicated: Lana learns she is the descendant of Isabel (uncredited in her only solo flashback, otherwise played by Kreuk), a Middle Ages witch burned at the stake by Genevieve’s ancestors. Isabel has marked Lana as the vessel through which she will get her payback. And Genevieve, Isabel, and the Luthors — Lex (Michael Rosenbaum)and his father Lionel (John Glover) — are all caught up in a search for three stones that impart great power, and are somehow connected to Clark and Krypton.
This detailed and complex plot unfolds slowly, presuming an intelligent audience and saving the show when individual episodes fall short. It also helps to complicate the Superman mythology, and finally gives Lana something to do other than weep and be beaten up by her association with Clark Kent (which she was frequently in previous seasons): she kicked ass often this season, whether possessed by the spirit of Isabel or not.
Other complications of Superman lore on Smallville revitalize the superhero and add much needed ethical depth to his Boy Scout image. In particular is the re-imagined relationship between Clark and Lex. Rather than immediately and always his arch-nemesis, on Smallville, Lex is one of Clark’s best friends, even if Lex does obsess over Clark’s secret. He also envies Clark’s “normal” family, high school popularity, and ongoing (if vexed) romance with Lana.
This desire for all things Clark turned increasingly fraught and increasingly intimate this season, often bordering on the homoerotic. This comes to a head in “Commencement,” with Lex’s vow to Lana that she means more to him than she “could ever know.” As Eve Sedgwick has shown (in Between Men), the triangulation of male-male desire is never free of eroticism, and it’s a small step from Lex’s wanting to be Clark to wanting to have him. The many secrets surrounding the boys’ differing desires and understanding of their relationship makes the whole thing seem awfully closety.
Lies are all part of the game, for the Kents as much as the Luthors. This is Smallville‘s other major complication of Superman mythology. Clark can just as often act out of his own selfishness as Lex can act out of compassion. Neither is simply good or evil (though Season Four moved to solidify these positions, unfortunately), and everyone makes mistakes that can have disastrous consequences. These struggles with selfishness, responsibility, and action are played out generationally as well, in the multiple father-son conflicts foregrounded throughout the show, especially this year.
Here Jonathan Kent (John Schneider) is no simpleton farmer, and Jor-El (voiced by Terence Stamp) is hardly all-knowing and beneficent. In fact, Jonathan can be as manipulative as Lex or Lionel, and Jor-El comes off as some sort of totalitarian monster. From the messages Clark receives, it appears Jor-El intended Clark/Kal-El to come to rule over earth, not be its protector. This complex of intention, destiny, and power causes Clark all kinds of consternation.
The show’s re-imagining, however, is probably remarkable only to those with a pretty deep knowledge of the DC franchise. The likely draw for most of Smallville‘s audience is its depiction of teen-life, more “realistic” than non-sci-fi shows like One Tree Hill or The O.C.. Like Buffy before it, Smallville sets real-life youth concerns against a supernatural backdrop and avoids being preachy or sentimental.
This season, the episodes “Unsafe” and “Pariah” feature the return of Alicia (Sarah Carter), a troubled girl with powers as estimable as Clark’s. Hospitalized in Season Three, she comes back “cured” and trying to woo Clark. In “Unsafe,” she tricks him into putting on a red-kryptonite ring, which has a narcotic effect. They shag all over the place, run off to Vegas, and get hitched. The anti-drug message should be obvious, but when Clark returns to himself, he isn’t all self-flagellating and remorseful. He regrets his hasty actions, but feels he has actually found someone in Alicia with whom he can be open. Their connection is addressed more directly in “Pariah,” as Clark and Alicia agonize over the cost of being “different.” It’s the quintessential teen anxiety, nuanced here without being patronizing.
By far the most poignant teen-issue episode this season was “Forever,” in which mostly average student Brendan (Steven Grayhm) — except for his meteor-rock superpowers — is fearful of the impending end of high school. He recreates Smallville High in an abandoned factory, and kidnaps the more popular kids, hoping to put off what comes next. Not quite adults, definitely not children, and expected to make major decisions on their own, teens certainly experience similar anxieties and wish, however briefly, that things could remain the same forever. Though Clark, Lois Lane (Erica Durance), and Chloe Sullivan (Allison Mack) save the other kidnapped students, Chloe (the overachieving editor of the school newspaper eager to go off to Metropolis University and start her adult life) admits to the appeal of Brendan’s desire for sameness.
It’s appropriate that “Forever” came just before the season finale, “Commencement.” Like its central characters, Smallville finds itself in a transition that has been the death of many a teen-oriented television show (90210, Saved By the Bell). But Smallville‘s dedication to depicting a personally and ethically complicated world for Clark, Lois, Lana, and Chloe is good insurance that it will continue to challenge presumptions about young people’s lives and decisions, as they move into the even more confusing world outside of Smallville High.