There is a semblance of a really great episode here, but unfortunately it gets somewhat lost.
The central idea of exploring what might happen if someone as superpowered as Clark/Superman lost control in some sort of emotional way is a fundamental question that has forever been at the heart of so many Superman stories, both on the page and on screen.
Zack Snyder’s divisive Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice featured a Batman/Bruce Wayne consumed by the possibility of a figure like Superman losing his way and posing a substantial threat to humanity, and while ‘Precipice’ doesn’t go quite into the epic territory of that movie, the notion of an emotionally reactive Clark losing control of his emotions and his powers does come in for some exploration here.
It should be a story thread that launches a great episode, and given how on point this season has been, it’s understandable to expect Smallville to really run with this idea, but there’s a lack of awareness to some of this that ends up ringing as something very hollow. Toxic male behaviour is a major component here, both in terms of our leads and the central antagonists, but the script is never nuanced or intelligent enough to deal with these themes in the manner you wish it would.
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That it takes both Clark and Lex and places their characters and emotions through this level of exploration should make for a really good episode, but it loses marks for filtering it through the mistreatment of its female characters and somewhat negating their own experiences in service of the men.
That might sound like a churlish complaint to some. After all this is a Superman and Lex Luthor origin story, and so it makes sense to take those two as the focus. But given the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement in recent years, and more public awareness of abuse of women in various walks of life, ‘Precipice’ cannot help but look somewhat tone deaf in taking assaults against Lana and Helen and then segueing into narratives about how it affects the men in their lives. Not to mention, once again, including as part of the stakes of the story the threat of Jonathan and Martha losing the farm, which feels like a major recurring story for the show at this stage.
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Yes, the episode does feature Lana learning to defend herself and take back control, but like so much of the episode, a lot of it rings hollow. Even some of the stakes that the story raises are all surface, because even though Clark loses control in the episode’s teaser, it’s on someone who deserves it anyway and in the end is also revealed to be faking their injuries, so it’s hard to find any considerable sense of jeopardy outside of scenes that place its female leads in the centre of potential physical and sexual assault.
It ends up being a disappointing way to handle the impact such things can have on characters we’ve come to care for at this stage in Smallville, particularly Helen, who has been a great addition to the series and managed to become so much more than just ‘Lex’s girlfriend’ this season. The whole thing can’t help but leave you with something of a sour taste.