It is said that negative reviews are more entertaining to read and to write than positive ones. I can honestly say, though, that I’m truly disheartened at having to pick an episode clean from a critical standpoint when it’s part of a series that is as near and dear to my heart as Smallville. I may have garnered more enjoyment from said criticism back in the old days, but here in the latter half of Season 10, I find it rather heart-breaking to have to admit that any episode didn’t connect well with me on emotional or even visceral levels. But sadly, this is just the case with “Collateral”, an episode that I was looking forward to perhaps a bit too much. A longer-than-usual mid-season break didn’t help to assuage my anticipation, nor did the CW’s inexplicable decision to pre-empt this entry for yet another week just 24 hours before its planned air date. To say that my expectations were through the roof would be an understatement. But sadly, as the minutes ticked away in “Collateral”, I couldn’t escape one prevailing thought: “this is what I’ve waited two months to see”? It’s not that this episode was “bad” per se, it just brought nothing new or interesting to the table (a typically non-fatal drawback that, coming this late in a series wrap-up that’s been ten years in the making, I simply found inexcusable as a fan). With the recent announcement of a two-hour series finale spanning the 21st and 22nd episode slots, Smallville has only ten hours left to complete its long journey – not nearly enough narrative time to suffer “filler” episodes like this one. But enough soap-boxing.
“Collateral” opens with Lois on hold with the VRA trying to figure out what happened to Clark after the events of “Icarus”. There’s a cute little moment where she has to get short with a particularly unhelpful woman on the other end of the phone, but this really amounted to nothing, as Clark almost immediately comes strolling in the door, bemoaning the loss of his powers at the hands of VRA scientists. Now, as we’ll later learn, none of what we’re seeing here is actually happening at all, but even that 20/20 hindsight can’t mask the “been there, done that” feel to any scene in which Clark finds himself powerless. I hate to say it, but Smallville’s simply played that card a few too many times over the years for it to hold any real weight anymore. I will say that, in the context of “Collateral”, this “twist” is more tolerable than it usually is. However, if one thing has bothered me about this series as a whole over the years, it’s the notion that Clark even can lose his abilities. I’m not sure when the verbiage was changed from abilities to powers, but I definitely preferred the former. Clark doesn’t have “powers”. He has abilities which are inherent to the interaction of his Kryptonian genetic makeup with Earth’s yellow sun. That isn’t something you can extract away from him without changing what he is at a molecular level. I didn’t agree with this take on things as far back as “Leech”, and I still don’t. But as I said, in this context I suppose it’s acceptable, however eye roll-inducing I may personally find the notion. Clark begins having flashbacks of Chloe running experiments on him and ordering him to be put “back under”, which leads into the rest of the episode.
Back at his LuthorCorp office, Oliver is obviously very disturbed. Taking a quick glance at a picture he’s stored of Chloe on his phone, he suddenly has a similar flashback to Clark’s and drops the phone on the floor before smashing a glass table. The very next shot has him huddled in a corner unable to function. This is all just as haphazardly shot and inexplicable to watch as it sounds, and we’re not really given a satisfactory explanation for any of it. Sure, there’s a throwaway line later on about Oliver’s equilibrium being messed with, but I can assure you as a clumsy person by nature that I have never once had the urge to smash a table with my bare hands and rock endlessly in a corner due to my inability to do a back flip leap from one tall building to another. Whatever happened to “your abilities are part of who you are, but they don’t define you”? Maybe I’m being a little hard on an introductory scene that’s really meant as an indication that something is most definitely wrong in this reality, but I still think our characters should remain who they are fundamentally. Clark, Lois and Dinah do, so why the huge change in Ollie? I’m not sure, and it’s never really answered, but it was a rather clunky way to start an episode that, well, kind of stayed that way.
Clark shows up at Watchtower and finds Dinah there trying to get more information on what’s happened to them. The two compare flashback notes and discuss the implications of Chloe’s involvement. There’s a line here that I’d like to draw attention to. At one point, Dinah asks Clark if he’s “willing to do what needs to be done” if it’s determined that Chloe has turned on them. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m getting a bit tired of members of the Justice League saying things like this to Clark. He’s been clashing with members of his own group as far back as Season 8 over their immorality and willingness to jump to violence as a solution. I can’t be sure that this is what Dinah was suggesting, but it sure came off that way. Shouldn’t the members of what will very soon become the JLA that we all know from comic lore be a tad more above this kind of knee-jerk reaction to adversity? Are they going to suggest killing everything that poses a threat in the future? I, for one, see that as something of a major characterization problem. I’m starting to get the feeling that Clark is there as more of a babysitter to these people who are constantly trying to get him to rush to the most destructive actions possible than as a leader of a group of heroes that have the true greater good in their hearts. Are these really the people with whom Clark should be associating? I hope this is addressed in a satisfactory way before the series ends. Clark had the morality talk with The Legion two years ago, and that was handled beautifully. I personally think it’s time he did the same for the people he’s chosen to lead in the present.
When Dinah learns that Oliver’s shown up at Metropolis General, Clark goes to check on him. Even within the context of this “virtual world”, I didn’t think this transition was handled particularly well. The last thing we saw of Oliver was his sitting in a corner. I suppose we’re supposed to draw the conclusion on our own that he continued destroying tables or moved on to larger office items, because I somehow don’t buy his being committed to a padded cell in a matter of hours based on one shattered countertop and a slight emotional breakdown. Perhaps on the eventual DVD or blu-ray release, we’ll get the deleted sequence where Oliver’s running around Metropolis like a madman tearing up the city. In any case, he’s certainly not helping his case in this scene, either. When he learns that Clark’s been having the same visions of Chloe that he has, he goes a bit manic in demanding that Clark tell him what he saw and that he not leave him in his cell. I’m really not sure what the writers were thinking in their handling of Ollie in this episode, but man it was weird. But before the next commercial break, Oliver finally gets his tether on reality (or rather, on non-reality) back when Chloe materializes out of his cell wall to explain what’s actually going on.
I don’t think my problems with “Collateral” would be so pronounced and hard to overlook had the structure of the episode simply been handled in a different way. Having Chloe show up here and be so obviously trustworthy didn’t help matters. For the next few minutes, we’re told – in excruciating detail – every last bit of information on what’s happened since “Icarus”. Now, I don’t have too much of a problem with this being spoon-fed to us. It’s a rather huge narrative hole that we’re stuck in at this stage. And at some point, this episode did need to start making some sense, after all. My problem lies in the placement of all of this. It’s established a third of the way in that Chloe’s telling the truth, as demonstrated by Ollie’s mind over matter moment with the straight jacket. Why is this a problem? Well, because it takes everyone else the entire episode to figure out what we as an audience already know. And it makes Clark look like a moron who can’t discern the truly helpful intent of two of his closest allies from a world that has made no sense from the beginning. That’s kind of a no-brainer of a decision if you ask me. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Another issue with this scene is that Chloe’s explanation of what’s happening is, well, pretty much the exact concept of “The Matrix”. Now, this in and of itself isn’t a deal-breaker. “The Matrix” is an extremely entertaining film, and this episode could have lifted elements from it and been entertaining in its own right. No, the real issue is that we figure out that this is Matrix Light about a quarter of the way into Chloe’s diatribe on the matter, and everything thereafter is simply a waiting game to see how long it will take Oliver to understand the rules that we’ve already figured out from years of watching science-fiction films. All the bases are covered here, from the agents (err, virtual officers in black) trying to kill them to Chloe having her own bullet-time moment and taking down two officers simultaneously (presumably just because taking them out one at a time wouldn’t have looked as cool) to the higher-stakes twist of dying in the real world if your mind thinks you’re dead in the virtual one. But I think for me, the greatest issue here isn’t that the premise is a particularly bad one on its own, but that “Collateral” actually seems to be under some delusion that it’s pioneering the idea. If you’re going to lift a concept as well-known as this, the only card you really have left to play is having fun with things. Smallville’s done a terrific job of this in the past, always somehow managing to put a whimsical and show-specific twist on borrowed story elements. This time, though, things are played far too heavy-handed and serious – in other words, exactly how they were played in the film they’re borrowing from. And unfortunately, it just simply didn’t work.
When we catch up with Lois and Clark at The Daily Planet, they’re still trying to figure out what’s going on. Dinah comes in and with – literally – two mouse clicks, she pulls up video feed from MetGen showing Chloe taking out the guards. Now, I know Smallville is notorious for taking liberties with what their computers can do, but this was stretching it thin even for a willing suspender of disbelief like myself. At least show a few moments of typing to give some indication that she did something, show. We get another scene here of Dinah saying things like “criminals deserve to fry” while Clark takes a text message and says nothing. Yeah, these two seriously need to have a talk. I did like that Lois reminded Dinah here of where Black Canary’s allegiance lay when they first met her. It was a nice nod to some rather old continuity, something Smallville’s not always been the best at executing particularly well. As it turns out, Clark’s text was from Chloe, and he goes to meet her on the roof where she and Oliver are waiting for him.
Grabbing yet another story element from a virtual world film (this time, Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla Sky”), we’re told that Clark must take a virtual leap of faith off of The Daily Planet roof to wake up to reality. Evidently, the “trap door” Chloe planted in the programming negates the whole heart-attack from falling without a parachute analogy she cited a mere few scenes prior. Now, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this sequence innately. But what’s so insufferable is that its only function is to tell Clark the exact same information that Oliver just got told a few minutes ago. He questions the same things. And the same things are gone back over yet again just to make sure he fully comprehends them. It comes off not only like a waste of valuable screen time, but as an unnecessary (and frankly kind of insulting) bit of hand-holding on behalf of the screenwriters. It’s as if this episode was seen as so high-concept that we needed it fully explained not once but twice to fully understand just how complex it all was. This, of course, is an acceptable way to tell a story if your plot truly is high-concept enough to warrant it. But “Collateral” simply isn’t. We understood all of this halfway through the first explanation of it. And now, we’re tapping our fingers as an audience, waiting for Clark to get it and trust his friends so that something “real” can actually happen again. But of course, we’re only halfway through the episode, so Clark is required to mistrust both Chloe and Oliver. And so he does.
Ollie and Chloe jump from the roof and Oliver wakes up and is reunited with the real Chloe. It’s revealed that she’s working with the suicide squad and has to get back in to retrieve Black Canary, Clark, and Lois before an armed VRA assault team storms the place. Now presumably, Cyborg, Aquaman and Impulse are also trapped inside, although no mention is made of them in either world aside from Chloe’s “one down, five to go” line (which would still leave one out – but there are too many other things wrong with this episode for me to care at this point). Our next scene has Chloe explaining to Dinah everything she explained to Oliver and then explained to Clark a few scenes later. I honestly don’t even have the words for how terribly this aspect of the show was put together. We do not need the same information said three different times to three different characters! It only serves to underscore just how little is actually happening in this episode, and it’s just plain boring to watch. Even Chloe is beginning to look bored at having to dole out this information, which plays as unintentionally funny. But while we’re on the subject of unintentional hilarity, the fight scene these two have is, well, absurd in ways that it’s frankly beyond my abilities as a writer to fully articulate. Chloe inexplicably does a round-house leap off of the side of a building to get things started (complete with what I swear sounded like a sound effect from The Bionic Woman), and we get a generic-feeling fight sequence that lasts just long enough for Chloe to pause a knife in mid-throw and grab it out of thin air. Keanu would be so proud.
There’s an all-too brief scene in the real world in which Chloe and Oliver discuss the impending threat of the VRA and how little time they still have left to get Clark out of his virtual prison before they arrive. There’s also a nice subplot that’s touched on here about Clark losing his faith in Chloe somewhere along the line. That’s a good plot element that needs to be explored, so I was glad to see it. It occurred to me around this time that the best moments in “Collateral” were – shockingly enough – the things that were, well, actually happening. But let’s get back to the things that don’t matter. In yet another storytelling decision that I simply find perplexing, the one expositional scene that actually means anything to the outcome of this episode (Chloe convincing Lois what’s going on so that she can find a way to reach Clark) is not shown, presumably so we could see all of the other, similar scenes with our side characters instead. What we get as a replacement is, I kid you not, Lois explaining to an increasingly idiotic-looking Clark exactly what Chloe told her. And Clark once before. And Dinah. And Oliver. Clark’s just playing dumb here because the plot requires it of him, and I didn’t like it at all. Every bit of evidence (from Chloe and Oliver jumping from the building to Clark seeing things that aren’t there or possible) points to his world not being real, and yet the shrugs the idea off at every turn, even to the point of every other character trying to get him to see reason. Okay, so Clark doesn’t entirely trust Chloe anymore, and I get that. But common sense has to prevail at some point. I mean, if I didn’t know better, I’d think from watching this episode that Clark had never found himself stuck in a fake world he thought was real before.
In what may be the only scene in the virtual world of “Collateral” that I fully enjoyed, Lois and Clark expound on the strained nature of his relationship with Chloe. I thought this was relatively well-handled (although I’ll admit that Lois’s “she didn’t confide in you, maybe for the first time” line had me vividly recalling a certain subplot involving a Kryptonian death monster). I’m glad that some light is being shed on how different the paths are that Clark and Chloe are now on. I’ve made no secret of not being a fan of where Chloe’s been taken as a character over the last few seasons, and I’m happy to see Smallville acknowledging how far removed her sensibilities have been moving from those of Superman for quite a while now. I was also touched to see Lois so loyal and defensive of her cousin even after all the reasons she has to mistrust her as well. There’s a saying that goes “you can’t control the actions of others, only your reactions to them”. And I like that Lois is dedicated and loyal to family no matter what, even when she has precious little reason to be. Lois has faith in people. She believes in the fundamental good in everyone, even those who have done bad things. This is key to both Erica’s portrayal of Lois and the voice that she brings to the table in her relationship with Clark. I get the feeling that she informs his attitude as Superman greatly, and I’m glad that the writers seem to get that. In the end, she convinces Clark to trust Chloe and the two begin to make their way to the roof.
The next scene is pretty meaningless – almost to the point that I wonder why it’s even there at all. The VRA finally infiltrates the lab, knocks out Chloe (not Lois this week, in a zinger of a twist!), and begin using Chloe’s avatar to stall Clark and Lois from escaping. I say this scene is meaningless because, while the hijacking of Chloe’s avatar could have potentially been a cool left turn to take with things, it’s a thoroughly wasted concept. In fact, she gets out all of four or five sentences before Lois figures out that it isn’t the real Chloe and punches her through a door. It just renders the whole thing needless in the end. And in truth, far too much of “Collateral” felt exactly the same way. It’s there for the sake of being there, but not particularly vital to anything we’re interested in seeing. But I suppose this was just a quick and easy (if ineffectual) way to facilitate Lois and Clark’s speedy departure to the roof for the climax of our episode.
Chloe is quickly rescued from VRA custody by Oliver and the members of The Suicide Squad. And when I say that, I mean all of them. Each and every member has a moment to shine (and again, I guess we’re to assume that Cyborg, Aquaman and Impulse already took off on their own). I’m really not trying to go out of my way to nitpick each and every element of this show, but truly, it simply calls for it, and I’d be neglecting my responsibilities as a credible critic if I didn’t call these things as I see them. This scene is every bit as ridiculous as the Black Canary / Chloe fight scene. It’s hard to go into absolutely every reason this doesn’t work without getting off on a very long tangent, but there are a few key things worthy of significant note here. First, an assault team cannot shoot a man walking toward them while firing two pistols. Second, when ordered to kill someone, assault team members will raise their guns dramatically toward their target as slowly as humanly possible. And third, Cartwheels are the best way to avoid a full clip being emptied at you at point-blank range.
Now, what follows is supposed to be a huge scene. There’s just no doubt about what the show runners were going for here, and (sigh) I simply abhor the decision to frame this scene the way they have. As the Agent Smiths (um, I mean Chloe avatars) begin multiplying and closing in on Clark on the roof of The Daily Planet, we get to hear Lois give him one, final pep talk about how he needs to fully believe that this entire world isn’t real. Seriously, this story element was so ground into the dirt that I’m simply at a loss to explain my impatience with it as the episode drew inexorably to a close. So Clark “flies” off the roof with Lois in tow in what I assume was intended to be the big payoff to our show. But what’s really accomplished by doing this is something truly awful. And it’s awful for two reasons. First, we know now (fully and definitely and unquestionably, I might add) that this is not really happening. As such, this moment holds absolutely no weight for us as an audience or even for these people as characters. It’s trite and hollow when it should be transcendent and wonderful. Secondly, framing Lois and Clark’s first flight together in such an empty way effectively robs this series of showing us that monumental event in the way we’ve all been patiently waiting to see it shown for several years now. I simply cannot fathom why this was handled as it was, and it both angered and saddened me as a fan to see things play out like this.
As our episode winds down, Clark and Chloe have a talk on the farm about trusting one another. There’s some good points made about how sometimes trusting people involves accepting that they have secrets they can’t share with you. This was a nice scene that was probably my favorite of the entire show, if only because nothing about it was poorly-executed. Lois interjects to ask Chloe to be her maid of honor, which leads us into Chloe’s next scene at Watchtower. She and Oliver have a few moments that essentially amount to his telling her how difficult things have been without her and making sure she’s sticking around for a while this time. I kind of feel like Ollie’s reaction was a little harsh, especially considering that Chloe was in the position she was to begin with because she was saving Oliver from The Suicide Squad. I’d like to think that if someone did something that selfless for me, I’d spend a little more time thanking them for saving my life (twice) and looking out for me and my friends by making the difficult choices and doing what was necessary. As it stands, Oliver comes off a bit too much like a wounded puppy here and not enough like the supportive boyfriend who’s just glad to see Chloe alive and well again. But then again, I’ve never really gotten the appeal of this coupling in the first place aside from the creative team seeing two single people on the series that simply needed to start up a romantic relationship for the sake of starting one. And with only a handful of episodes left, I guess this is one element of Smallville that I’m just not going to fully embrace.
Lois and Clark end the show with a confusingly dispensable scene in the barn in which they recant how awesome it was when they flew together (or, rather, how awesome it would have been to fly together had that actually been what they were doing). Lois leaves for a conference call with Perry and…that’s it. An episode that could have been at least partially salvaged by a fantastic closing moment (such as Clark strolling out in his new outfit at the end of “Shield”) just kind of inexplicably fizzles out. Hypothetically speaking, this could have instantly become a must-see episode had this scene dovetailed (as it so easily could have) into Clark picking Lois up and flying away from the barn with her in his arms. And that makes the way things actually do end here all the more underwhelming. As I said at the start of this, I really dislike writing negative reviews. Writing those reviews about Smallville when the show is this close to its conclusion honestly hurts. But “Collateral” just didn’t do it for me on any level. It was a throwaway episode filled with recycled concepts that weren’t even executed in a way that pretended to make them interesting. And what’s worse, almost nothing actually happened in our ongoing story in the process. And with only ten hours left, Smallville simply can’t afford to squander its time on storylines that don’t matter. But hey, even the best of shows suffer the occasional misstep. Let’s hope things shape up this week with “Beacon”. On some level, I’m still an unabashed apologist for this series, and I’m still looking forward to it.