TV discussion

Smallville 1×21 – ‘Tempest’ – TV Rewind

If there’s anything to be gleaned from the teaser sequence to Smallville‘s first season finale, it’s that John Glover has frequently been a valued part of the series. Opening with the character closing the Luthorcorp plant in Smallville via what he claims will be a troop stirring speech, he closes the plant and blames it on the managerial style of Lex. It’s a darkly funny opening in a way, but also leaves one pondering just how much of Lex’s future direction is predicated on the behaviour of others.

There is always that feeling hovering around Smallville that Clark constantly lying and keeping his powers secret from Lex is cementing the journey further into villain territory, but there is also a nature vs nurture aspect to the story going on too. A lot of what has made Lex so likeable over the first season has been Michael Rosenbaum’s performance which has brought considerable nuance, charm and complexities to the character in a way that had never been done on-screen before.

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Gene Hackman very much emphasised a comical nature with his performance in the Donner/Lester films, while John Shea in Lois and Clark was the first live-action Lex to be inspired by John Byrne’s more entrepreneurial villain inspired by the likes of 80s era Donald Trump and Ted Turner. But what has been so fascinating about Smallville‘s approach is how it’s hoodwinked the audience somewhat, brilliantly so, into making us think we’re watching a series about teenage Clark Kent, but in reality we’re also watching at the same time the tragedy of Lex Luthor.

It’s so easy to take a character like this and break him down into a basic villain, but the complexities that should make him interesting and unique have been hardwired into Lex Luthor right from the ‘Pilot’ episode. There is always a threat throughout ‘Tempest’ that Lionel Luthor might fall into a more pantomime-style villain, but even his antics here feel threatening in a way that goes beyond the realm of ‘let’s destroy the city with a mega weapon’ style storytelling.

Instead, he’s threatening jobs and the livelihood of many in the town, even going so far as to try and scupper any potential staff buy-out by taking over the Smallville bank. Rich villains using financial infrastructure like this aren’t new ideas, but seeing that this was six years before the financial crash of 2008, there is something potent and darkly prophetic about the character’s actions here, although any potential grimness is offset by John Glover’s increasingly enjoyable performance and it comes as no surprise that he’ll become a regular in season two.

The Lex/Lionel elements are just one of the many highlights running throughout this finale. Being a final episode of the season means that there is a lot going on here, with many of the story arcs of the season coming to a head, not least Roger Nixon going to extreme measures to prove that Clark has powers, and with it the series throwing in another impressive explosion that proves that no expense was spared. Not to mention the second half of the episode taking place at the teen drama finale stand-by of the school dance.

We know Clark is eventually going to let Chloe down to try and save Lana, but it comes under very dramatic circumstances. With a name like ‘Tempest’ and references to a storm coming in, we know Gough and Millar’s script is going to throw in some impressive for its time and on a television budget CGI, but that they also get to have wonderful variations of scenes involving Clark and his parents, making it a hugely entertaining end to this first season.

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Overall, it’s done everything you would expect it to, and yet there have also been some lovely gentle subversions as the season has gone on. The monster of the week format of the series is the one thing that the first season gets beaten around for, and admittedly there have been some episodes that pretty much functioned in a formulaic manner, but there was also more good than bad. But if the last few episodes had proved anything it’s that Smallville could gain a tremendous creative foothold in playing around with Superman tropes and subverting them. We’ve been given those scenes of the Kent family on the farm, bathed in golden light, an almost purely symbolic representation of Americana, but this being a modern American television series as opposed to Richard Donner’s portrayal of a Normal Rockwell-style life as done in 1978, means that things are never as simple or as picturesque.

That Jonathan and Martha are effectively lying about Clark’s adoption (and let’s be honest, the entire thread of Jonathan and Martha raising Clark is built on a lie they have to keep for their entire lives)  has hung over the season, and it’s about to get explored in brilliant detail in one of season two’s best episodes. In this episode they’re still angling to make sure Lex or Nixon doesn’t know anything, and yet it’s never as black and white as Lex is bad and the Kents are good. Lionel is very bad of course, but any notion of a straight-up portrayal of comic books’ most famous hero/villain dynamic has increasingly given way to something much meatier and interesting.

By the time the episode ends, so many elements are hanging in the air, with multiple cliffhangers. Everyone involved knew they had a hit show on their hands, and with an ending like this you’re very much guaranteed you’re going to come back to season two.

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