You can really sense how appealing a prospect an episode like ‘Onyx’ must have been for everyone at Smallville when it was pitched. Four seasons in, Lex still hasn’t turned to the dark side. Let’s be honest, we don’t really want him to, do we? Michael Rosenbaum has been so adept at making us love the character and buy into his friendship with Clark that the idea of any sort of schism between the pair, and Lex turning into a monstrous form of evil, seems like horrifyingly tragic notion at this stage.
Having said that, since the series hasn’t placed its storytelling within the stages of that emotional turn yet, its reliance on monster-of-the-week plots and ability to deliver very entertaining standalone tales, even amidst a season long story arc that isn’t very good, means that to devote at least one episode to an antagonistic Lex and still reset the paradigm to normality is a darkly welcome one.
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You can sense the influence of iconic Star Trek episode ‘The Enemy Within’ here: an accident of somewhat science fictional nature not only splits a beloved character into two, but also unleashes the dark side that is said to exist within us all. Given that Smallville must inevitably have Lex turn bad, Steven S. DeKnight’s script also acts as powerful bit of foreshadowing down the line for Smallville‘s story.
The Lex we all love is referred to as Lex, his evil double as Alexander, and it’s through the latter we get to see the cruelties and vindictiveness that we associate with one of pop culture’s most famous villains rear its head. It gives Rosenbaum a chance to really flex his muscles here, the charm of his four years on the show so far dissipating as a beloved character becomes the antagonist, using kryptonite against Clark, being horribly inappropriate with Lana, and even shooting Jonathan Kent in the leg. Seriously, Smallville General has to be sick of constantly seeing the Kents at this stage.
It gives the series a wicked chance to finally have Lex and Clark go up against each other in somewhat violent ways. Yes, Smallville has devoted itself to having characters turn antagonistic before; Clark’s run-ins with Red Kryptonite are always a lot of fun, but DeKnight’s script finally allows the series to play devil’s advocate for an episode, at least in pondering what will happen when the emotional arc at the core of the series can no longer just be a game of bluff and double bluff, and when those occasional hints can no longer just be hints but a vital part of the ongoing concerns of the series.
‘Onyx’ is a pleasing suggestion that whenever Lex becomes the villain of the story, there is a lot of potential for the series going forward. That it manages to hint at that promise in the middle of its weakest season makes the episode something of a minor miracle.