‘Hourglass’ is the first Smallville script from Doris Egan, whose IMDb list of writing credits is made up of some of the best and biggest American television shows, including powerhouses such as House and The West Wing – the inclusion of the latter being somewhat ironic given the most famous moment from this episode of Smallville.
Egan’s script utilises another freak-of-the-week and a key guest character with a meteor-induced power, but it is also one of the best episodes of the show up to this point. Yes, it relies on another male antagonist with psychopathic tendencies, this time Harry (played in a dual role by George Murdock and Eric Christian Olsen as his younger self), but that hovering theme hanging around Smallville of destiny that one cannot walk away from comes in for a potent and powerful workout, courtesy of Egan’s teleplay and its interest in character as much as genre-filled incident.
The key component of Smallville so far – and one that would continue to be so for a good deal of its run – is the fact that it centres around characters of whose destiny we are very much aware. Clark Kent will become Superman and Lex Luthor will become a villain, and this idea is always hovering around the edges of the entire series. ‘Hourglass’ is the first episode that puts those eventual destinies under the microscope and deals with these ideas in darkly entertaining ways.
While volunteering at the Smallville Retirement Home, Clark encounters Cassandra (Jackie Burroughs), who lost her vision in the meteor shower but who gained clairvoyant powers as a result. Her visions of Clark and Lex portray exactly what we know about them, but do so in darker ways than one can have ever imagined.
The image of Clark Kent surrounded by the graves of all those he loves is the darkest moment the series has given us so far; an indication that Clark is immortal, a delivery of such information in as distressing way as one could possibly deliver. Six episodes in and the series has gotten the audience rooting for its characters, so to see their gravestones – the first of which is Jonathan Kent, which will have viewers begging the question of whether the series will follow the mythology as closely as the comics and the Richard Donner film from 1978 – is as grim a moment as the series has given us so far, and yet this very hour is going to top it by the end of its run time.
The episode has fun in having Lex ignore giving in to having Cassandra read his future, making one wonder what such a reading could be like since the hero of the series was given a horror movie vision. The episode builds up to one of the visually grimmest moments from any television series in 2001, and remarkable given that the episode was airing while the US, and the world, was still getting over the events of 9/11.
The image of Lex in The White House, then standing in a field of sunflowers that turn to human bones before the sky rains blood on him is a starting proclamation from the series that it will not be shying away from where it has to go, even if we love Rosenbaum and his charm with a touch of shady act so much, but it also gets to the heart of the climate that Smallville was premiering in.
There was a sense that we really wanted to trust our political leaders in the aftermath of one of the darkest days in human history, and with the ’90s paranoid zeitgeist of The X-Files era giving way to an influx of morally complex government agents (Alias, 24, the BBC thriller Spooks) and superheroes which would all be touched by the events of that day (the visuals of Man of Steel, a future Superman production especially), the image of a White House resident being surrounded by human remains and a sky filled with blood was, remarkably, one of dark prophecy not only in its own universe but also indicative of where the real world was going with its wars in the Middle East and controversial election victory a decade and a half later.
That such a moment would come at the end of an enjoyably bonkers, old serial killer turned young again episode, gets to the heart of what makes Egan’s teleplay so good. The freak-of-the-week element is the series doing what it does so well because six episodes in it’s getting that element down to a fine tee, but it also has a brilliant grasp of is culturally famous characters and indicates that when the series will double down on characters and its mythology, as it will have to do, it’s going to do so in very fine style.