Television shows love to get their characters into period dress. If you have a show set in the present day, doing a flashback to decades of old and getting your cast into period appropriate dress is certainly a fun thing to do for forty-five minutes, and it’s very much something that ‘Relic’ runs with.
I have a real soft spot for Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson’s work on Smallville; they have a great ability to combine superheroics that are part and parcel of its genre wheelhouse with the soapier angle that was a stock in trade with The WB (later The CW). Smallville has always been a series where the past and nostalgia are on the periphery of the stories it’s telling. After all, this is a Superman origin tale, and the Man of Steel has always had some semblance of nostalgia baked into the core of its themes and narratives.
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A wistful look back at past-Americana is something that has gone hand in hand with the Superman story since its inception, particularly in regards to how Clark Kent was raised on a farm in Middle-America. Richard Donner utilised this to a powerful degree with 1978’s Superman: The Movie, and while ‘Relic’ isn’t centred so much on Clark as it is on Jor-El, it still gets to the heart at how much Americana imagery has always been at the core of so much of Superman’s origins.
Unlike Donner’s film, which embraced that golden hills and blue sky flavour of life on American farm with a beautiful, near Norman Rockwell sentimentalility, Smallville continues its subversion of these tropes with verve. Sure, the episode has a lovely golden sheen to its flashbacks, but murder and corruption are rife throughout. In a lovely call back to the series’ own sense of world building, the episode brings back the corrupt Mayor Tate, and with it a return to the series of Canadian acting royalty and genre television legend William B. Davis. The actor having played notorious X-Files villain The Cigarette Smoking Man means that he carries a screen persona symbolic of inherent American institutional corruption and it’s this which the episode entertainingly leans into.
That the character is revealed to have been a Sheriff’s deputy responsible for helping Lionel Luthor’s father get away with murder is a darkly beautiful cap on a tale that increasingly revels and plays with Smallville‘s ongoing concerns over the inevitability of destiny for these characters. The episode might be centred on the past, but as the series and pop culture logic dictates, The House of El and the Luthor clan are inevitably on a collision course with each other, and if the history being portrayed here is any indication, perhaps they always have been.
That sense of destiny even applies to Jonathan and Martha finding Clark in the field the day of the meteor shower. It’s very much implied that Jor-El deliberately sent Clark to them after having been helped by Jonathan’s parent in 1961. This sense of Smallville‘s past being correlated so deeply with its present might make some Superman purists angry or unhappy, but it honestly plays into its core strengths of managing to brilliantly subvert and play with this most famous of mythologies, and six episodes into its third season is also an indication of just how much of a winning streak the series is on at this stage.