The one thing you can always say about Smallville is that it knows how to deliver a grand finale. Every season of the series so far, even the more contentious and flawed fourth season, featured a finale that concluded its respective season in ways that virtually ensured that the audience would come back despite any misgivings in the lead-up to that very episode.
Season five of Smallville saw the series rebound for the most part after the issues that plagued season four. While there is the feeling in the last third that perhaps the possibilities of a shakier foundation lie in wait for season six, ‘Vessel’ sees season five go out in glory. It paves a great way for the future of the series, while once again acknowledging the wonders of Superman in both comics and live-action from the past.
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It’s an interesting thing to watch the series in 2023. In an era populated with so much superhero and comic book-inspired media and how those very things have now turned to nostalgia baiting to keep audiences hooked (both Spider-Man: No Way Home and The Flash featured extended trips down memory lane), it’s interesting to note that Smallville was already doing something similar within the confines of a superhero television series.
It’s not just the guest appearances from Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and Terence Stamp that have seen the series give a nod and wink to the past, it’s also the use of key visuals. There has always been a darkly joking heart in casting Stamp as Jor-El given his iconic turn as Zod in Superman II. Still, the imagery of the Fortress of Solitude and the Phantom Zone are once again direct lifts from the works of Richard Donner and Richard Lester. They’re lovely visuals to have, but what’s most striking here is that the series isn’t simply nostalgia-baiting; it feels organic and genuine to the story that Smallville‘s writers are telling.
The image of Clark encased in the Phantom Zone brings to an end a season of the series that was very transitional. This being the first year of college for Clark allowed it to spread its wings beyond the high school setting of the first four years and with it some welcome and genuinely game-changing moves. While I do have issues with placing Clark, Lex and Lana into a love triangle (and I will have plenty more to say about that when we get into season six), there has also been a move into becoming a more fully-fledged comic book series during the season that it will go further into with the appearance of certain characters in its sixth year.
It’s a great move for the series, and ‘Vessel’ in many ways symbolises not only how much the series has developed, but also how confident it has become in navigating through those very changes. There is also a lot to love here with Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson’s script. They have always been the very best of Smallville‘s writers and here they run riot with some magnificent scenes that finally allow the love triangle to feel dramatic and engrossing in a way that goes beyond mere WB teen soap opera tropes. That it is doing so in an episode that is the very last to air on The WB before its merger with UPN to create The CW feels sweetly ironic.
The global threat that the episode centres around once again feels like a natural shift in the series to bigger themes, ideas and stories. It’s another acknowledgement that the characters and the series aren’t in high school any more and that Smallville itself has gotten that little bit more bigger and epic in the process. It’s only natural the series will embrace its comic book roots even more going into season six by bringing a big-name DC Comics character into the mix, one that will eventually have a profound impact beyond Smallville and onto the very network it’s set to become a part of.