TV discussion

Smallville 2×04 – ‘Red’ – TV Rewind

The concept of Clark Kent turning bad wasn’t a new one in 2002. Most famously, Superman III depicted a morally compromised Superman, with Christopher Reeve brilliantly evoking a less charming and more belligerent Man of Steel who took great joy in doing dastardly things such as making the Leaning Tower of Pisa less leaning, and flicking peanuts at bottles of liquor in the bar he was getting drunk in. Yes, drunk Superman – it was a genuinely disturbing thing to watch as a kid.

In recent years Supergirl did its own version of its titular character going bad, and with it a tribute to the bar scene in Superman III, in one of that show’s very best episodes. In 2002, on Smallville, Jeph Loeb, marking his writing job on the series after years of writing the character in comics, runs with a story depicting young Clark Kent being morally corrupted by Red Kryptonite. After dedicating nearly half of last season to stories involving the green version of the rocks, there is something fresh and new about bringing in Red Kryptonite for the series to play with, and with it a chance for Tom Welling to be let off the leash a little, with a vastly more antagonistic version of the character.

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Characters with famously moral high standards turning bad have been a mainstay of many comics and stories in popular culture, and turning a character with such a famous moral code as Clark Kent is something that is fascinating to watch. Loeb himself depicted a Superman who was turned bad in his Batman series Hush which was running around the same time, and with it, of course, a fight to the near-death with Batman himself.

Loeb doesn’t go for anything quite as brazenly epic here, it is after all a Superman series with teen characters, but there is joy to be had in watching the white knight that is Tom Welling’s Clark flirt brazenly with Lana, suggesting a night of partying and drinking, spending obscene amounts of money and charging it to Jonathan and Martha’s credit card and, in the episode’s most uncomfortable scene, using his x-ray vision to ogle Lana and Chloe. The episode does have Pete call him out on that, but it still gives the episode a somewhat queasy moment.

It’s tons of fun, and Welling is clearly having a ball playing the part as a massive jerk.  Loeb, though, doesn’t shy away from the threat a more unleashed Clark can be, and by the time the second half of the episode begins, it’s clear that Loeb’s script, armed with a knowledge of Superman lore and actually having fun with the structure and tropes of the show, is turning its own leading man into the main antagonist of the episode.

There is a story of the week element involving a new student at school who is in witness protection, and where one can see an episode involving Clark helping out in that situation, instead of having Clark have an epiphany and snap out of it, the episode makes him a further threat in a brilliant escalation of the drama, all the while having him start bar fights and taunt the recently blind Lionel Luthor.

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The episode even goes as far as having Clark attack Jonathan in one of its very best moments. Themes of responsibility and doing the right thing have always been at the core of Clark’s development in his younger days, usually dealt with in the space of about five minutes of screen time in every other depiction of the character, but to apply this more morally compromised depiction to the younger days of a Clark Kent who is growing up on the farm and who we’ve watched in a lengthier amount of screen time with his adopted parents stings hard, and the episode never flinches from the potential emotional fallout.

Coming to the final scenes, Jonathan admits that some of Clark’s frustrations expressed here have some basis on truth, but they find a way to try to move past it, although Lana is less willing to forgive him for his antics. This will be the first of many, many, many scenes in which Lana will want Clark to tell her the truth and then walks away when he doesn’t, so if you’re watching for the first time you’d better get used to it because you’re going to be seeing variations of this scene a lot.

It’s still a nicely played moment, and a lovely little sting with which to bring the best episode of the season so far to an end.

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