Frank Tells Liz What Happened In the “Smallville” Series Finale
Some background: As you know, I’m a fan of Superman. When I was small, I watched the Christopher Reeve movies religiously and regularly tuned in to the latter seasons of Super Friends. I owned Superman pajamas and wore them publicly on more than one Halloween. In college, I may have written and staged a series of short plays called The Superman Chronicles, in flagrant violation of copyright statute. (I can’t really confirm or deny that at this time.)
Also. I have a tattoo of the “S.” Sometimes I regret getting a corporate logo permanently engraved on my body, but it can’t be helped.
My senior year of college, I watched the first season of Smallville in its entirety. I came to the series with pretty low expectations, but the show actually made some really intelligent and interesting choices right off the bat. Over the course of that first season, the show gradually evolved from guilty pleasure to the brink of being actually good TV. So I tuned in to the second season quite optimistically, but I found it immediately dumb. I kept watching episodes here and there, but by the end of that second season it was clear that the slump wasn’t going to turn around any time soon, so I tuned out. Still, a part of me always wondered how this series with such a clearly established endpoint was going to round out. I guess that’s why, when I heard the show had ended, I went to the CW’s website and pulled up the final episode.
Obviously, you should keep in mind that what you are about to read is written from the perspective of a viewer who has missed well over 80 percent of the series he’s about to discuss. That said, having watched Smallville‘s finale, I can state with confidence that the series is a complete and abject failure.
Here’s what I could gather about the ten (TEN!) seasons of Smallville from the PREVIOUSLY ON segment at the beginning of the show: An alien toddler crashes to Earth in a spaceship and is adopted by a kindly Kansas couple. Twelve years later, rebellious rich kid Lex Luthor could’ve sworn he hit him with his car. Clark loves Lana Lang. His dad dies. He meets Lois Lane and at some point they make out in a newsroom. He gets a job at the Daily Planet and puts on glasses. His best friend Chloe learns his secret identity. Lex Luthor announces, “I am the villain of the story.” Then Lex’s evil dad comes back from an alternate dimension. Lex is dead (maybe?) and they’re trying to clone him. When Clark sent the Kandorians away, he opened the door for something else to come to Earth. (It is Darkseid.) Green Arrow has been possessed by the Omega Force but he doesn’t remember it. He also doesn’t remember finding a gold meteorite, which Lt. Gaeta from Battlestar (this show is very shot-in-Canada) explains could take away Superman’s powers. And finally Clark has a big falling out with the disembodied voice of his dead alien father Jor-El.
When the episode begins, Superman’s pal Chloe is reading a “Smallville” comic book to a young child. (If you’ve seen any of Smallville, Liz, you’ll recognize Chloe as Clark’s pixie-haired female best friend from high school. She and Clark worked on the school newspaper together, and she was angstily in love with him, Joey/Xander/Duckie-style, but I’m sure she’s over it by now.) Chloe’s reading a comic book to her son is sort of a reference to the opening of the Richard Donner Superman and IT IS IMMEDIATELY UNBEARABLE. Chloe reads that the young man from Kansas was “about to face his greatest challenge,” and then we flash back seven years to the present, where a giant molten hell planet is headed for Earth.
“SOMEBODY SAAAAAAAVE ME….!” (My old roommate Jess will be pleased to note that Radiohead’s kind-of-embarrassing friends Remy Zero are still doing the theme song.)
It’s morning beneath the giant, computer-generated spinning globe of the Daily Planet, and ace reporters Clark Kent and Lois Lane are just arriving at the office. It turns out she wasn’t joking last night when she called off their wedding. “Clark, every minute that you spend with me, having dinner, arguing about paint colors, arguing about whether or not to get married, you could be out there saving someone.” Yawn.
Meanwhile, at a small chapel in Smallville, Chloe is busy tying some bouquets to the end of pews (and other bits of pre-wedding TV blocking) along with Oliver Queen, who is also the Robin Hoodesque vigilante Green Arrow (for any of your readers who didn’t watch Superfriends). As far as I can gather, Green Arrow is now Clark’s best male pal, and also Green Arrow and Chloe are in love and married. In this scene, Oliver and Chloe both express relief that their own wedding was so low stress, because it happened while they were magically brainwashed by Zatanna. (I swear, Liz, I’m just typing what they’re saying.) But they both admit that they still would have gotten married even if they hadn’t been under a spell. “It’s the best decision I don’t remember making,” says Green Arrow. Awwwwww….
A side note, returning to the dialogue of a show you haven’t seen in eight years is sort of like coming home after a decade abroad. You understand the language and yet your brain keeps recoiling at the way the words fit together. For example, Chloe: “I’ve called, texted, and emailed Lois, but it’s All Quiet on the Wedding Front.” It’s kind of a trial.
Green Arrow shows her the rings. Then the font of holy water at the front of the church fills with Dark Water.
At the same time in Smallville, at the burned-down ruins of Luthor Mansion, we catch up with Tess Mercer, who is the character who has been running Lexcorp for the past couple of years in Lex’s absence. (I had to look some of this up on Wikipedia.) She’s come here apparently to look at some blueprints, because what better place to do that than in a dark, former mansion? Demonic extraterrestrial presence Granny Goodness materializes out of nowhere. (It’s off-camera, but you can tell from the whooshing sound.)
So by this point it’s clear that the Big Bad for Smallville Season 10 (TEN!) is going to be Darkseid, the hulking, rock-faced, living embodiment of death and destruction, who, in the comic books, was obsessed with uncovering the “Anti-Life Equation.”
Back on Smallville, Darkseid is headed for Earth, riding his giant molten hell planet. A number of his minions are already around, including Granny Goodness, whose name is ironic because she is not a kindly old lady but rather an evil witch who runs an evil orphanage. (At least in the comics. Allegedly, Kirby modeled her on Phyllis Diller. See: apeshit.) Here, Granny Goodness mostly just makes threatening proclamations about the end of the world. Oh! Also, it’s become clear in dialogue that Tess Mercer is really Lex Luthor’s sister, and also she’s been reformed through her interactions with Clark Kent.
Most of the rest of the first part of this two-hour episode is pretty wedding focused, which makes sense because Smallville has always been sort of half-soapy relationship drama. Clark and Lois have a tearful conversation through a door (he can’t see her dress!) and decide that love conquers all and they should go through with the wedding. Martha Kent is disappointed that Lois and Clark intend to sell the old Kent farmhouse to focus on their life in Metropolis. The ghost of Jonathan Kent is also there and he’s also disapproving. Generally, there’s a lot of talk about Clark turning his back on both his Kansan and Kryptonian pasts, both of his dead fathers, etc., but it’s all kind of vague and I zone out a little.
Anyway, the wedding finally arrives. Liz, you’ll be pleased to note that it’s a modest Protestant service with a female minister. There’s a very Sarah McLachlan-y ballad that plays over the wedding montage — it’s nice to see Smallville staying true to its WB roots.
A digression: I know that guest stars are expensive, but I hate when TV shows do wedding episodes and a bunch of the characters’ previously established friends and family members are absent. I find it somewhat implausible that so few of Clark’s old friends are at his wedding. Particularly Lana Lang and Clark’s original male best buddy Pete Ross. To be fair, Wikipedia tells me that when Lana Lang left the series in Season 8, she had absorbed so much kryptonite radiation that she could never be near Clark again. But couldn’t she have at least sent a nice note or something? Wikipedia also tells me that the actor who plays Pete Ross is busy being in jail.
The absence of Lana and Pete also draws my attention to another change on the series. When the show premiered, it actually did some relatively progressive color blind casting. Lana and Pete are both white in the comics, but Smallville cast a Chinese Canadian and an African American in the roles. Season 10 doesn’t feature a single non-white actor as a series regular. (Judging by the promo spots for other CW shows that keep repeating every four minutes on this stupid online player, this vanilla homogeneity is par for the course on the network.)
At the end of the ceremony, Oliver, who is the Best Man, is about to hand Clark the rings, but then Chloe spots that THEY ARE DIFFERENT THAN THE RINGS HE SHOWED HER EARLIER. In fact, Oliver (who is now possessed by Darkseid) has replaced the wedding bands with rings made of Gold Kryptonite, which will remove Clark’s powers forever (see Action Comics #583). Chloe swats the rings out of the way and a big fight ensues, because Oliver is evil super-powered. But eventually Clark is able to talk the evil out of him, and Oliver returns to normal. ["TALKED THE EVIL OUT OF HIM? Oh, god, I totally believe that that is true." -Liz]
In the second part of the episode, the apocalyptic happenings are much more obvious, as the molten hell planet is now clearly visible in the sky, and fireballs are falling to the Earth, etc. Clark’s human ghost dad appears to him and tells him that he needs to suck it up and consult his alien ghost dad for help. Clark runs super fast back to Metropolis.
Meanwhile, formerly evil Tess Mercer, who’s been busy looking seriously at a lot of computer screens, is kidnapped by Lionel Luthor, who is still played by the great John “Touch My Heart with Your Foot” Glover. (Wikipedia specifies that this is not the Lionel Luthor from the early seasons of Smallville, who died in Season 7, but an even more evil version of him who has arrived from an alternate dimension.) Lionel intends to cut out Tess’s heart and use it to revive the clone of his son Lex that’s floating in a tank in the next room. This scene is a lot of Hammer Horror ridiculousness, but it reminds me that this show can actually be sort of fun when there are some good actors on screen. (Cassidy Freeman, who plays Tess, is also very good, and I’m disappointed that she’s spent the whole of the episode up to this point just talking to ghosts and computers.)
Tess escapes and in the process shoots her alternate reality father. Dying, Lionel crawls into the next room to spend his last breath moping over Lex’s comatose cloned form. Suddenly, Darkseid materializes out of a cloud of dark smoke and offers to make a deal, I think. (He’s just a big CGI shadow with glowing eyes, and his voice is so low and filtered that I can’t understand anything he’s saying through my laptop’s speakers.) But it seems like he offers to complete Lex’s resurrection in return for Lionel’s own heart and his undead servitude.
Back at the Daily Planet, Clark and Lois do some unconvincing investigating. (Tom Welling has never been the best actor, but when the show started, he was fairly serviceable as a goofy and naïve teenage Clark Kent. But watching him do even the slightest bit of investigating, it’s painfully clear that neither he nor the writers have managed to grow that teen at all convincingly into a quick-thinking, relentless, idealistic journalist. The glasses don’t cut it.) They discover that half of the Metropolis citizens have invisible Omega tattoos on their heads and thus are under Darkseid’s sway and also answers await back in the ruins of Luthor Manor. Clark super runs back to Smallville. When he arrives at the mansion, the resurrected Lex is waiting for him.
This scene, which marks Michael Rosenbaum’s return to the series after a couple of years away, doesn’t actually reveal any new information, but it’s probably the most entertaining five minutes of the episode, because Rosenbaum’s Lex Luthor was always the best part of the show. Lex and Clark both tell each other that they’re sorry their friendship didn’t work out, but Lex explains that he’s finally realized that the great men of history are defined not by their friends, but by their enemies. They’ve shaped each other’s destiny, etc. I can’t tell how earned any of it is (and I imagine, only moderately), but it’s sort of satisfying to hear Lex declare Clark his archnemesis. Lex tells Clark he should go ask his alien father Jor-El for help (which, for the record, Jonathan and Martha Kent already told Clark like twenty minutes ago), and Clark tells Lex he’s sorry that he couldn’t save him.
Meanwhile, Zombie Alternate Reality Lionel Luthor, now fully possessed by Darkseid (so much so that I can no longer understand what he is saying), catches up with Clark at the Kent farm and they fight a little. After he’s tossed through the air, Clark finally decides to let Jor-El guide him, and time freezes and he has a vision of himself in the Fortress of Solitude, where the disembodied voice of Jor-El (voiced by Terence Stamp) plays him an extended montage sequence of series clips on the ice column walls. (This goes on for at least four minutes.) Jor-El explains that this is a highlight reel of “trials” and now it’s time for Clark to seize his destiny.
Then time unfreezes in the barn and Clark CAN FLY, so he turns in mid-air and punch-flies right through Zombie Alternate Reality Lionel Luthor’s body.
Then Clark flies to the real Fortress of Solitude. And the disembodied voice of Jor-El is there and Ghost Jonathan Kent is there too, and together they present him with his Superman Costume.
Now I want to explain something very important about what plays out here, because it basically sums up the failure of this whole finale and –- by extension –- television series. As I said up top, Smallville is a show that, for better or worse, always had a prescribed endpoint. This is the story of how Clark Kent became Superman. The success of the show would be determined by how he got from that starting point to the ending point, but the ending point was always clear. He was going to put on his blue suit and cape and that’s how we’d know the series was over.
This is how the rest of the episode plays out. Clark is handed the costume. Clark starts to fly away, still holding it. His big red cape starts to flutter around him. In long shot, we see a CGI costumed Superman flying up to the molten hell planet, waving at Lois (who earlier snuck herself onto Air Force One natch), making such an inspiring sight that the Omega tattoos disappear off everyone.
AT NO POINT DO WE SEE TOM WELLING ACTUALLY DRESSED IN THE SUPERMAN COSTUME.
Look, I know it’s more costly to outfit an actor in a superhero costume than it is to just put him in a button-down or a flannel. And I know the Superman outfit can be prone to looking silly if you don’t tailor it just right. And I can even see how it might not seem cost effective to create a whole new costume that was only going to appear in the last ten minutes of an episode. But I guess I feel that if YOUR PROTAGONIST PUTTING ON THAT COSTUME IS THE WHOLE POINT OF YOUR SERIES, YOU MAYBE WANT TO SPRING FOR THE SUIT.
The costume omission is hard to top, but there’s one more extraordinary failure I forgot to mention. Lex returns to Metropolis and his high-rise office, where Tess Mercer is waiting for him. He tells her that he always knew she was his sister, and then he fatally stabs her, to prevent her “from becoming like me.” (This definitely seems unmotivated.) But there’s more! As she’s dying, Tess smears some goo on Lex, and when he’s like, “What’s this?” she explains that it’s AN AMNESIA SERUM that will COMPLETELY ERASE ALL HIS MEMORIES IN THIRTY SECONDS. This happens. We see a very fast montage of everything that’s ever happened to him on the show, and then he stands up, a placid look on his face, his mind an apparent blank. He stands in his giant office and stares dumbly out the window.
I can only guess why this happens. I suppose the writers’ thought process was, “Well, Lex by this point definitely knows that Clark has super powers. But if this show is supposed to turn into the comic book or whatever, Lex Luthor can’t know Superman’s secret identity. You know what? We should just erase Lex’s entire memory of everything that’s ever happened to him.” But I just want to mention that THE WHOLE POINT of this series was supposed to be showing how the young characters’ experiences shaped them into the adults that we know. So if you erase all of one of the character’s experiences, you have, you know, NEGATED THE ENTIRE PURPOSE OF THE SHOW.
Anyway, seven years later, Chloe finishes reading this comic book (who has published this?) to her son, and we see that there’s a quiver full of arrows in the corner of his room because his dad is Green Arrow. Then we cut to the Daily Planet, where Lois and Clark are planning once again on getting married that afternoon (because the ceremony never got completed on account of the gold kryptonite fight, and I guess they’ve found no other opportunity in seven years). And Jimmy Olsen is there, and we hear Perry White (Michael McKean cameo) yelling behind an office door, and before Lois and Clark can finish making their plans, a bank is getting robbed somewhere and he has to run up to the roof, where he opens his shirt just enough to show an “S,” but not so much that they had to make a whole tunic for him. And the John Williams score kicks in, and the lifeless, empty charade is complete.
Congratulations on ten years, Smallville!