There is no doubt that while Smallville is very much a story about Clark Kent and the younger days of Superman, Michael Rosenbaum’s performance as Lex Luthor very quickly became one of the best aspects about it.
From his first appearance in the ‘Pilot‘ episode, Rosenbaum very much owned the role. And while the series has opted to portray one of pop culture’s most famous antagonists as a more sympathetic figure, give or take some questionable morals, the fact the character in this iteration has a darker past as well as moments that hint at the villain to come means there’s a lot of fun to be had here. So an episode that puts that past and the character himself front and centre is to be welcomed.
With Mark Verheidan writing the teleplay, one based on a story by creators Gough and Millar, this is an episode that really gets to have some fun with the backstory to this branch of the DC universe, with a few references to Bludhaven and Central City thrown in for good measure, just to remind you that this is indeed a comic book universe.
We get an in media res opening with Lex in dire straits, tied upside down while wearing a straitjacket which hints at darker things to come, which is promptly followed by a three years earlier flashback sequence involving a shooting in a night club – the events of which one could argue were the fault of Lex and his manipulative nature at that time. While the series has portrayed Lex as unscrupulous in his business, not least the Dynasty-style storyline with Victoria, there is a colder, meaner streak in those eyes in the flashbacks to his partying lifestyle in Metropolis prior to his arrival in Smallville, and even his willingness to take advantage of any help being offered by Sam Phelan (Cameron Dye).
It might only be a small appearance, but it’s a lovely call back to one of the best episodes of the show so far, and one that also relied on a human villain as this one eventually does. ‘Zero’ gives the audience a chance to see Phelan’s role in Lex’s life in the manner that ‘Rogue‘ only parlayed through dialogue, giving fans a great little easter egg and a three-dimensional taste to the show’s developing continuity and mythology.
In media res openings can be hit or miss in television shows. Yes, it can be fun to figure out how a character or characters in a series end up getting themselves into a life or death situation, with the time span of the hour giving the audience a chance to have fun in trying to figure out how A gets to B, but given that so much of that style of storytelling is built around a character – in this case Lex – about to die, we know that the show isn’t going to kill the second male lead of the series fourteen episodes into the first season.
Overall, ‘Zero’ is Smallville on massively entertaining form. Yes, Lana opening The Talon, a new central hub for the characters to hang out in and a new standing set for the series to return for a few minutes each week, is a reminder of Smallville’s status as a teen drama, but even that gives way to chopped-off hands being delivered there in the mail; a wonderful little slice of dark horror that feels more like something from the world of Chris Carter rather than a television series starring Superman.
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Even more entertainingly, we get Chloe looking into the adoption of Clark, with Verheidan’s teleplay never actually resolving the story in this hour, while also proving itself to be very much unafraid to hint at Jonathan and Martha maybe having done something just a little shady in adopting the future Man of Steel, which is a lovely bit of revisionist history in itself.
If there are any failings to be had this hour, the eventual revelation that Lex’s stalker isn’t the very much dead Roy Rothman (Corin Nemec) but a double that just happens to look very much like him, with no Kryptonite backstory either, comes across as equal parts brilliant because it doesn’t rely on green rocks as one is expecting, but also lazy because it means the story ends up with a mere coincidence that the real villain of the story managed to come across a double one day in a greasy spoon and used him in a diabolical revenge scheme.
Other than that, everything else adds up to another entertaining episode, and that final scene involving Chloe not closing her investigation into Clark’s adoption means the series is opening itself up to some potentially entertaining angst in future episodes.