Last season’s ‘Stray‘ was one of the best episodes of Smallville‘s first year, a nicely put together piece of wish fulfilment for many of Smallville‘s younger viewers who probably wished they could have powers of their own and work alongside Clark Kent. So it’s a lovely surprise that the series gifts us a sequel, and one that is unafraid to shy away from some heavier emotional moments.
There is the possibility that Philip Levens’ teleplay is going to fall into the realm of cruelty a little bit here, given Ryan’s backstory and history of being abused by parents and step-parents, and that he has now found himself in the midst of another toxic environment, only this time its created by the type of medical establishment that really should be taking care of him.
It thankfully manages to never tip itself too much into the realm of exploitation, parlaying into Smallville‘s brand of using the episode’s narrative to compare itself to Clark’s origin story and even hinting at those wonderful ‘what ifs’ that might be a stock in trade for the series at this point but which, as always, work splendidly.
Ryan’s treatment at the hands of Dr Garner (a very boo-worthy performance from Martin Cummins) is a reminder of the type of horrors that might have awaited Clark had he not been found by Jonathan and Martha, and with it there carries a weight of tragedy here that the episode never shies away from.
With its evil doctor, shady medical corporation and the presence of William B. Davis playing the town’s equally shady mayor looking for a bribe from Lex, X-Files comparisons are also kind of inevitable, but never to the extent that it feels as X-Files-like as much of season one did.
Having Ryan die at the end of the episode is a devastating maudlin development that could potentially be an alienating piece of plotting, not to mention one that could distress younger viewers for whom this might very well be one of their first times coming across the Superman story and taking to heart the Ryan/Clark dynamic in a wish fulfilment way. Which of course is part and parcel of so much superhero pop culture and literature; they are characters we wish we could be, or they exist in worlds that we wish we were a part of, and sometimes we might even put ourselves in some of those characters’ places.
The lure and love of comic book literature even come in for exploration here when Ryan and Lex bond over their love of Smallville‘s Superman proxy Warrior Angel, and with it references to how ‘real life is not a comic book’; itself a line that’s priming us for an ending where what we might want to happen and what will happen are two completely different things.
Even better is that Ryan’s death acts as a reminder to our hero and to the audience that he cannot save everyone. It’s a primer for when (or if) the series will go in the direction that so many Superman stories have gone and Clark loses Jonathan to natural causes (unless it’s Man of Steel, and they go somewhere different and a little sillier, and with it completely negate the point that piece of storytelling is meant to make to the audience and the character).
The episode dangles the possibility of Ryan being saved in front of Clark and the audience, but the writing here sticks to its guns and doesn’t shy away from inflicting some pain on both the characters and the audience and is all the better for it.
What’s even more powerful and what cannot be looked away from here is Smallville‘s portrayal of kindness from Clark. He’s the future Superman, he can run fast, punch people with considerable force, and in later life will have the ability to fly, and all the while the show throws in a bunch of cool visual effects taking their cue from The Matrix.
None of that works if Clark isn’t Clark; yes he can save you like the theme music sings to us every week, but what makes Superman and Clark still, to this day, an emotionally powerful character is his ability to choose kindness and love over violence and death any day of the week. The episode may not give him a super-powered villain to punch, but what he can do is give Ryan that one last moment of hope and joy before he dies.
The episode’s penultimate scene might be prone to accusations of being manipulative, and it does feature ‘Angels or Devils’ by Dishwalla playing mournfully over the soundtrack, but it works on such a devastating level that it’s hard not to be affected by the performances from Ryan Kelley and Tom Welling, the latter becoming a more brilliant Clark Kent with each episode and who here reaches a level of empathy and sympathy that could be used as an example as to why the argument that Clark isn’t relatable can be wrong.
The image of the two of them on a hot air balloon, away from the thoughts of the world and enjoying one last moment of being friends and adopted brothers together, is a moment haunted by a spectre of death and inevitable loss, that this is the last time that this will ever be and it’s as genuinely sad a moment that the series has ever done. That it cuts to Clark in an empty hospital room picking up Ryan’s comic books makes the moment even more devasting, with Tom Welling portraying Clark’s feelings magnificently, all without saying a word.
Now if you excuse me, I think I have some dust in my eye.