Here’s a little-known fact about your author: I’m a closet fan of Superman III. I’ve always held the belief that movies needn’t necessarily be “good” to be entertaining, and as such, I’ve found so much to enjoy in the ill-fated third installment of the Christopher Reeve franchise over the years that I’d be lying if I said I didn’t thoroughly enjoy revisiting it from time to time. Part of the reason for this requires yet another admission: I love evil Superman. Yes, yes, I know this is a terrible thing to say. And yet, I just find the very idea hysterical on so many levels. What could be funnier than ripping open the side of an oil tanker just go score with a ditzy blonde, flicking peanuts needlessly and shattering glass, blowing out Olympic torches just before they’re lit, swigging shots of bourbon as a stunned populace looks on in disbelief, and flirting with Annette O’Toole rather than stopping a big rig from plummeting off the side of a bridge? These are all “bad” things, to be sure, but I’m amused by odd things, I suppose. In fact, as a kid, I still remember being thoroughly confused by the whole Leaning Tower of Pisa incident. Wouldn’t straightening the tower actually be a good thing to do? And to this day, I contend that Supes puts the tower back with more of a lean than he found it. But no matter. Suffice it to say that when I read the synopsis for “Luthor”, I was already predisposed to adore the episode. Could Smallville capture an evil Clark that would rival Christopher Reeve’s manic, over-the-top portrayal back in 1983 (culminating in the peak moment of evilness as he forcefully lets go of the controls after seemingly crushing his helpless good half in a car smasher)? Well no, it really had no chance of topping that. But really, what could? What we did get, though, was a highly-enjoyable episode that presented me with very few of the logic-leaping questions that plagued me last week in “Patriot”. I was expecting an episode that, based on its premise alone, would be a great time to watch. Fortunately, this time, I was right.
For those of you still reeling from my less-than-complimentary review last week, you may want to do yourself a favor and just skip on down to the next paragraph, where I will proceed to slather accolades all over this episode with superfluous zeal. As for the rest of you, know that my only real issues with “Luthor” happened – thankfully – right at the beginning of the episode. There’s a quick expositional scene with Tess receiving a Kryptonian relic from quite possibly the worst actress in this show’s long history (seriously, who speaks to their boss in recap dialog and with such condescension?) which is interrupted by Clark calling Tess to tell her to meet him at Cadmus Labs. I guess at this point, I’m just going to have to accept a few lapses in credibility. I know this is the final year and the race is on now to get all the puzzle pieces in place and wrap up all the loose ends, but why is Cadmus suddenly on Clark’s radar after 10 episodes? It’s as if he suddenly has a lead and is there with no explanation except that supplies are still being sent there. How does he know this? What made him check Cadmus after all this time? What sent up the red flag if not Tess herself from Watchtower? Oh, well. Once they’re at Cadmus, Clark acts completely out of character (and even less like Superman) and essentially develops this heavy-handed bigotry toward all things Luthor right here on the spot because the plot requires it of him. Honestly, I know Clark has plenty of reason to dislike Lex and the Luthor name in general, but Lionel actually wound up on his side in the end if I remember correctly. And regardless, it’s just not in keeping with who Clark has become in the intervening years to say things like “Luthor blood is poison” and “they’re all born this way” in reference to the clones. This sounded almost like racist dialog, which was really unsettling. I know the point is to give Clark an arc so that he can overcome this prejudice by the time we get to the end of the episode, but I really felt like it was late in the game for this level of bias on his part. Clark should believe in the good in everyone and try saving even his worst enemy. That’s what makes Superman special. In fact, this entire scene played out like some sort of Silver K dream sequence to me, and I actually thought it was at first.
Clark discovers that Tess has been keeping one of the Lex clones alive (which is odd since I thought she’d decided to let him die at the end of “Harvest”), and he becomes angry with her. He notices the Kryptonian relic in her purse and, when he activates it, he finds himself in an alternate universe. I have to say that, as much as I love Annette O’Toole as Martha Kent, something felt just a hair off to me when she came back last year in “Hostage”. It wasn’t a bad episode, but I definitely got that feeling when she was onscreen that she’d been away for a few years. It just showed through somehow or another and I can’t put my finger on it. John Glover, on the other hand, just knocks it completely out of the park here. From the moment his Lionel Luthor speaks his first line, it felt as if he’d never been gone from the series for a moment, and I was right back on board with whatever this episode had in store for me. Perhaps it’s my evil side coming out, but I missed Lionel. But more than that, I miss the Lionel we could just unabashedly love to hate, and that’s the version we get in “Luthor”. During the swordfight with Clark he uses as a life-lesson that harkens back to the early scene of John and Michael in Season 1, there’s no doubt at all that this is old-school, mustache-twisting, maniacally plotting, blindness-faking Lionel. And I don’t mind saying that I was all over this immediately.
Making his way back to the farm to try and make sense of what’s happening, Clark runs into the alternate universe’s version of Tess. At first, she mistakes him for her Clark, but quickly discovers who he really is. I like that Tess in this universe shares some similarities with the “real” Tess – namely, her split allegiances. It seems that, regardless of what reality we’re in, Tess is a conflicted character who isn’t an exclusively good or bad character. Even more so than in the normal universe, in fact, this Tess seems very much lost and disillusioned, throwing her love into someone who might only be desirable because he facilitates some way for her to be accepted by her own bloodline. This is a really interesting parallel with Tess’s real-world character arc, and I love how Cassidy plays this version of Tess equally strong. It’s a very distinct variation, yet there are still echoes of the person we’ve come to know. That’s a hard balancing act to pull of, but she gets it spot on. I also like how this Tess winds up being as unexpectedly cooperative with Clark as the real Tess has wound up being in our world. She doesn’t want to hurt anyone, she just wants her own life to make sense to her.
It doesn’t take long for Clark to figure out that pretty much everything about this alternate reality is upside down. He’s pushed Lois away into Oliver’s arms, and Metropolis’s criminals are paralyzed in fear of Ultraman, Clark’s evidently murderous alter-ego. I really enjoyed Tom’s performance in these sequences. I actually felt for him a lot. In Season 10, we’ve seen Clark come ever-nearer to his true calling and embracing the happiness and fulfillment we all know he’ll have when he gets there. It was almost heart-breaking to see his reaction to what his world might be like had he made all the wrong decisions along the way instead. I’d also like to take a moment to comment on the use of color in this episode. It’s a stylistic choice that I think really pays off well. This isn’t the first time something like this was attempted. “Labyrinth”, for example, employed a very controlled color palette in its dream / nightmare sequences, and that was certainly well-done. But de-saturating and darkening the parallel world while contrasting it with the warm glow of the “real” universe was a really great thematic tool in this episode, as demonstrated by the wonderful, full-circle shot where we get our first glimpse of the alternate Clark sizing up things in our reality. This dovetails into a scene with him meeting the Tess from our universe. It was a little strange to me how alternate Clark knew where to find Tess right away (the Tess from the other reality hardly seemed like she’d have been in the same managerial position at the paper as our Tess is), but I’ll let this one slide. Their scene is a good one that tells us a lot about what alternate Clark does and does not know about his new surroundings – and about Tess. Wanting to get out from under Lionel’s shadow, alternate Clark plans to destroy the Mirror Box (the name he gives the artifact that caused the reality shift in the first place) and conquer a reality free of the elder Luthor’s influence. It’s very cool to see Tom playing evil Clark as so calculating and malicious. As much as it pains me to say, his darker, more sinister portrayal quickly dispelled my notion that this was going to be the Superman III of Smallville episodes, but I think in retrospect, that was probably a good thing for most viewers.
In one of the rare moments of levity in “Luthor”, our next scene has Lois attempting to order a black coffee from a humorously unhelpful street vendor. It’s little moments like the ones that play out here that really make me wish we had one more season of this show to look forward to as a full-on Superman series, not just a prequel. These characters are just so much fun now that I’d love to see how they interact in the fully-realized, iconic DC Comics universe that we all know and love. But just when things start getting lighter, Tess manages to get through to Lois on another patron’s cell to tell her to get to Watchtower right away. Evidently, though, Tess didn’t really factor in the whole virtually omniscient thing when assessing alternate Clark’s ability to track them down, because it’s about 30 seconds before he comes literally crashing through the ceiling (in a very cool entrance, I must say). I’m going to cut this episode a little bit of slack here, because I really enjoyed it. I’m going out on a limb and will speculate that Lois was thrown across the room and didn’t get up again because she was smart and didn’t want to be hurt again, not because she was rendered unconscious yet again. This is something I simply must tell myself not to throw something hard and heavy at my television, and I just got a new one. So anyway, moving on… Clark, now having figured out that his Tess didn’t follow him into our reality, tells real-world Tess that if she doesn’t give him the Mirror Box, he’ll kill her. If I have one lingering complaint left, it’s that I do kind of wish that we’d seen more of our universe from this point on in the story, but it’s a bit swept under the rug until the very end instead. Still, what we do get in place of this is worthwhile, so I’m not going to hold that personal nitpick against the episode as a whole.
Back in the alternate world, Tess is combing the Luthor library for any information on where the box might be when she’s interrupted by Lionel. The two have a really great scene here in which we learn a lot about their relationship and how Lionel views her. I think it’s a really clever move on the part of the writers to give Tess a scene like this, even if it’s not, technically speaking, “our” Tess who gets it. I feel like the character – and those of us who appreciate her on the show – deserved this cathartic moment where she actually gets to confront the man who threw her away. It’s an arc that continues to paint Tess throughout this year, and this kind of sequence underscores just how much pain the real Tess is harboring. In a sense, she’s just as disconnected and hurt by her Luthor heritage as this Tess is, and it helps us understand her to see that manifest in this other universe in a tangible way. Clark tries learning more about the box his own way by heading to the fortress, but there he learns that alternate Clark and Lionel have long since silenced Jor-El in this world. Seemingly still believing Clark is his version, Lionel informs him that Oliver has the box and Clark vows to get it back and destroy it. Now, I did momentarily have to wonder a few things here. First, it’s a little strange that we cut directly from Tess’s scene with Lionel to this one – which takes place in the arctic – only to find Lionel in both places. I know it’s just supposed to be a time cut, but it did take me out of the show just for a moment. Also, if alternate Clark and Lionel truly had been scouring the globe for all traces of Kryptonian technology in an effort to destroy it, and Lionel knew where this particular piece was, then why didn’t Clark question that are they only getting around to finding and dispensing of it now? Again, these are minor quibbles after last week, so I’m not going to harp on them too much. They are curiosities, to be sure, but ones that are minor enough to forgive this time around.
As it turns out, Lois and Oliver are having their engagement party on this day as well. I really enjoyed the scene here between the alternate versions of these two. I really appreciate how the alternate world is used in “Luthor” not just as an evil, dark world, but as one that reflects our true characters in telling ways. It’s intriguing that Oliver has many of the same insecurities in this reality as he has in the other, and I got the sense while watching that he doesn’t really belong with Lois any more here than he does there. On the other hand, it’s an interesting dynamic to see them together in this universe since he so wanted them to be as recently as Season 9. This scene reminded me a lot of their scene together at the end of “Crossfire”. I’m not sure if it was intended, but it definitely came off as a parallel, with Lois stopping just short of telling Ollie that she loves him as her reasoning for choosing him. It’s as if, on some level, these two will always be destined to be good friends first and foremost. As if on cue to underscore that very point, Clark super-speeds Lois away just as she’s about to kiss Oliver, and I finally felt that I’d gotten my Chris Reeve evil Supes fix for the evening. That was such a great and (possibly intentionally) hysterical moment that I couldn’t help but laugh. Ah, the things we devious folks would do with God-like powers could we possess them. Clark tells Oliver to bring the box to Watchtower if he wants to see Lois again, which leads into one of my favorite scenes in this episode.
As humorous (and probably wrong) as it is for Clark to be trying to win Lois over by literally snatching her away from her own engagement party, this scene was so well executed that I really can’t fault it. It’s interesting to me that there was no practical need for Clark to make sure that Lois knew what his motives were in this scene, yet he still goes out of his way to make sure she does. At the risk of diving off a cliff of romantic drivel here, I suddenly found the cinematography, lighting, and overall stylistic choices layered all throughout this universe an apt metaphor for Clark’s heart as it would perceive things in this place. Obviously, it’s a simplistic choice to paint a stark, cold world with a stark and cold palette, but I really think there was more to the decision than just thematic undercurrent. Clark has only recently found his place emotionally with Lois, and to now find himself suddenly ripped away from that and thrust into a world where he’s alone once again has got to feel pretty traumatic. When you find the person who makes the world make sense for you, things without them feel as gray and colorless as anything in “Luthor’s” drab scheme would indicate. Clark’s statement of being unable to live in a world where Lois doesn’t love him, I think, comes from a very real place for him at this stage in his life. Clark is very near to becoming Superman as we know him, and if Smallville has kept one thing in mind over the last year, it’s that Superman needs his Lois Lane. And as one of my good friends pointed out, there’s also a terrific and subtle homage to Lois and Superman’s very first meeting in the comic book world here in Lois’s choice of hair style and dress color, which was a really nice touch.
At his meeting at Watchtower, Clark is ambushed by the alternate Oliver, who has been tracking down and is obsessed with killing Ultraman. Bathing the room in Kryptonite, Ollie – in true comic book bad guy fashion, mind you – airs his dirty laundry here in the last reel. Just as the other characters in this universe aren’t exactly the squeaky clean versions we’ve come to know, it seems that Ollie also took a very different road in his life in this reality. He’s turned into everything he hated in the real world, ascending to a ruthless entrepreneur who’s been evicting farmers in Smallville off of their land. I really thought the parallel here that Ollie could just as easily have turned into another Lex Luthor was a thought-provoking one to make. Both of them went through the same school and were raised, essentially, without parental nurturing. But I liked very much how Ollie plays even his villainous role as a man whose heart is conflicted and maybe even a little bit broken. He doesn’t want to be this way, but life and circumstance have conspired to drive his heart away and empower his cynicism and greed to dominant positions. And yet Justin does such a good job that you can see the regret in his eyes, and we can almost sympathize with his need to hold on to Lois, the one person who believes in him despite his many flaws. Lionel shows up at the last moment to stop Oliver from shooting Clark and reveals that he was behind the entire plot to get Clark into this situation. I was glad this happened for a few reasons. One, it makes historic sense for someone like Lionel to play puppet master with something like this. And two, it clarifies one of my questions from earlier about why Lionel would only be sending Clark to look for the Mirror Box now. As it turns out, he had it all along and the whole thing was a test. Classic Lionel! Lastly, his line about no true Luthor allowing him to live this long was positively chilling in light of what happened in “Descent”, and it calls into question more than ever if it was actually nurture, not nature, that created the monster that Lex ultimately became in the end.
Eventually, Oliver begins to understand that our Clark doesn’t belong in his world and turns off the Kryptonite debilitating him. After a few words to Ollie that he hopes will change the course of destiny in the alternate universe, Clark reactivates the box and returns to his own world. This was another of my favorite moments in “Luthor”. I love how Watchtower is totally trashed when Clark gets there as if there’s been one hell of a fight (though I do wish we could have seen more of it). And what I like most of all is that Lois, Tess and Oliver have somehow actually managed to get the upper hand on alternate Clark. That’s a really, really awesome touch by the writers if you ask me. Clark’s powerful, but he’s not invincible, and these are the people who know him best. If anyone in life has the power to take us down, it’s our family and friends. They’re the ones who know our buttons and how to push them. I should also go on record here as saying that I highly appreciated Lois being conscious and still an active participant in the battle for a change. And the silent moment where she has to size Clark up and figure out if he’s the alternate version or not was just inspired. That all-visual moment between the two of them was the perfect way to cap off a show that had been all fireworks up until that point. In the end, it’s how well Lois actually knows Clark and how deeply she can see into his heart that saves him. I also connected with how well this moment tied in with Clark’s earlier statement to alternate Lois about how she could look right through him. That was just such a cool and subtle setup for this particular ending that I had to smile as it played out.
Can I just say how refreshing it is to see an episode that actually takes the time to acknowledge Lois’s implausibly frequent trips to the hospital? I had to laugh as she made the comment about the great coverage provided by The Daily Planet (though it does make one wonder if she’s still using a portion of her weekly paychecks to pay off medical bills from Seasons 4-7). But the real payoff to “Luthor” for me had to be the following scene with Clark and Tess at the mansion. As out-of-nowhere as I found Clark’s hatred (and that’s how it was portrayed, mind you, not just as distaste) for all things Luthor bloodline, even I have to admit that it served to set up a really wonderful scene here at the end of the episode. Tess tells Clark that she only kept Alexander alive because he was the closest thing to family she thought she might ever have. Her unwillingness to let Alexander die as she’d previously indicated she would does make a bit more sense in this context, and I’m glad that an effort was made to explain it a little more clearly. But my favorite thing about this sequence has to be Tom’s easy-going approach to the scene. It’s been a really long time since I can remember seeing Clark resting casually against a wall or sitting on a floor. I know that’s a minor detail, but it seemed to take a ton of weight off of the character and made him instantly more approachable – something that was undoubtedly the right choice for this scene. He tells her that he was wrong about Luthor blood corrupting inherently and that she’s not alone anymore. This really hit home for me personally. Sometimes, what we need most in our lives is for that one person to believe in us despite everything we may have been through or where we came from. I have a feeling that Tess has never really had that. Sure, people have been around who’ve placed massive expectations on her shoulders and caused her to harden herself mentally against the horrors of the world, but never has someone just let her know that she was accepted – or even beautiful – exactly as she is. This is vital for Tess’s growth as a character, and the slight smile she shoots Clark as he says this to her for possibly the first time in her life reminded me of why Smallville has become such an affecting drama.
I have to admit it: I’m guilty of criticizing other shows on television for concocting what I like to refer to as “soap opera moments”. These scenes are rule-changers that seem to exist for shock value alone. I liken these sequences to seasons of Survivor when, suddenly, the contestants are told that the game will be played slightly differently this year. It comes out of nowhere, it isn’t fair, and it pulls the rug out from everything we think we know in a way that’s unexpected but also kind of cheap. The end of “Luthor” is, technically speaking, probably one of these moments. And yet I find myself breaking my long-standing aversion to these things as I sit here writing this review, because I absolutely LOVED this soap opera moment. Eagle-eyed viewers may have noticed that Lionel was running toward Clark as he re-entered our world. Well, as chance would have it, Lionel actually came through as well. Now, true, this twist does call into question why Clark wound up in the same geographic location as he was prior to the switch while Lionel evidently got transported somewhere else entirely, but the payoff here is so worth it that I really couldn’t care less why it happened. John Glover had previously been announced to be appearing in “several” more Season 10 episodes, a piece of news that had many of us fans scratching our heads. But finding a way to bring Lionel back into the fold as a recurring character in the last half of the final season is just such a masterstroke that I find myself giddy at the very prospect of just how all of this is now going to play out. The off-screen threat of Lex getting older and stronger coupled with a Lionel being back in the picture who is the embodiment of clone Lex’s most deeply-felt stereotypes about his late father is just genius on too many levels to count. This ending was so well done that I could easily have seen this being our mid-season cliffhanger. But that’s not until Friday. With as rapidly as the show runners are upping the stakes and breaking the rules this year, I have little doubt that we’re in for one fantastic episode with “Icarus” and that it will set up the second half of Season 10 perfectly. Kudos to Kelly Souders for a debut directorial job well-done. I still really don’t want this series to end, but if it has to, then episodes like “Luthor” are an admittedly terrific way to say goodbye.