Smallville, “Shield”

I am a massive Smallville fan, but I’m also someone with some perspective on the series. I feel fairly confident in my ability to separate my odd die-hard fandom with the process of evaluating the series on an individual level or as a whole. With that said, the first two episodes of season ten haven’t really instilled me with any confidence that the series is going to feel like it’s coming to an end in the fairly distant future.

“Shield” is a lot like the premiere in its inability to draw everything together into a coherent whole while still having a number of individually great moments. And oddly, for a series that always needs to quickly define its villains and put them out front, this season is still lacking in any true narrative drive outside of Clark’s journey towards the red, blue and yellow (something it is doing very, very well, despite a misstep or two here). I guess in many ways it’s hard to live up to the fairly epic two-episode start to last season — which was probably the best 1-2 punch opening since season three — but I feel like there’s still a lot of meandering involved before we bring the pieces together later and that’s frustrating to watch.

What’s most interesting about the first two episodes is that they are in one way exactly what so many fans of the series have been waiting for: completely Clark-heavy. If there is one thing the tenth season is getting right thus far, it’s the focus on Clark. He’s in almost every scene, he’s speaking the most, he’s proactive, etc. So despite the inability to bring back any of his self-doubt from the premiere (classic Smallville move there), Clark is really on his way to being Superman, and that’s great.

However, and I cannot believe I’m saying this, the intense focus on Clark is almost a problem too because of the series’ lack of main characters. At this point, there are only four main cast members with Chloe gone for a while. What that means is that so many episodes are going to have to rely on a slew of guest stars or returning familiar faces like this one does with Carter Hall, “Cat Grant,” Deadshot, Plastique and the official confirmation of the Suicide Squad. But with Chloe gone and Lois across the world, Clark is oftentimes interacting with people we don’t really care about as much or even know, particularly in the case of Cat Grant, and it’s somewhat frustrating because there is some consistency lacking.

I don’t want to turn into a major shipper because I am really not, but having Lois and Clark half a world apart hurts this episode. I understand the reasoning in her trip and I liked that the episode actually brought up their issues in conversations with other people (especially Clark’s conversation with Tess), but their interactions and chemistry are really the heart of the series at this point, for better or worse, so trying to shove Cat Grant in the middle of that is annoying both because it’s keeping Lois and Clark apart, but also because we know it’s just an attempt to bring in as many DC people as they can for the final episodes.

That transitions into my next point: For episodes with not a whole lot of important stuff happening in the context of FINAL SEASON, these first two efforts have been way too packed. There is a few reasons to continue to pump episodes full of DC names and characters. First, as I mentioned, there are only four cast members and it can’t all be about them, particularly with these four — Tess and Oliver are kind of out on an island sometimes — so there is a need to have more people around, just to deliver lines. And obviously, there is a desire to keep bringing in a random viewer or two who love specific comic characters.

However, when everything just feels thrown in as some sort of winking reference or attempt to gain cred, it doesn’t really work. With that, my most major concern is that this Suicide Squad thing is a horrible idea. Consider the following: Smallville has a tiny budget, even in a final season. We are not going to get a major 10-on-10 hero vs. villain battle. It’s not happening. Secondly, introducing characters individually and then tying them back into the SS makes sense, but also feels like a retread of the Checkmate episodes from last season. And because I’m fairly sure that the two tie together in some way, it makes the mythology even more muddled than it already is.

And what this points out is something that is especially apparent now, but has been true since season eight: Without Lex, Smallville has a villain problem. When Lex was around, there was always something to come back when there was time to pad the season so the main villain arc didn’t flame out at episode 15 (even though most of them did anyway). But since he left, the season-long villain approaches have been hit or miss. Season eight started out beautifully with its execution of the Doomsday story, but then petered out at the end. Last season, the Zod story had its moments but never really could sustain an individual episode, let alone the season, so they had to bring in Checkmate, resulting in some awkward threads and pacing.

This season…I’m not sure. I’m guessing that it’s going to be something like the approach used last year, but the actual “big bad” won’t be implemented into the story until later as to avoid the typical Smallville fading, but I’m not sure how that will play out. I’d actually love to see the series try some more procedural-like episodes that see Clark take on individuals from this group before something major happens. I liked it last year when they did it with Checkmate in episodes like “Charade.” But when you do that, you’re putting all the eggs in the guest character/casting basket that when things don’t really work, kind of like this episode, it’s a mess. I’m not really sure they can do to fix that without Lex, but things feel both overstuffed and undercooked at the same time.

Other thoughts:

  • I see the intent with the whole “price of being a vigilante” story beat but it didn’t really come together in the way the episode thinks it did. I know Clark already had in his mind that he didn’t want to wear the dark colors anymore when he went to put on the actual suit last week, but I don’t buy that anything happening here would actually spur him to somehow make this odd red leather jacket contraption and wear it proudly — especially without going up to the Fortress and trying to get the real suit out of the ice. The whole thing is an obvious external desire of the writers to keep him out of the suit for as long as possible but also pretend there is some sort of progression happening, and that’s unfortunate.
  • Despite my issues with the returning characters, I really do like Michael Shanks’ Carter Hall and he had a few solid scenes with Lois. The hints that he is dying are disappointing though.
  • Gotta love the classic “Explain a character’s absence through endless exposition because the actor has already moved on to something else” scenes with Oliver. So Chloe faked her own death, cool.
  • One thing I really loved about this episode: Clark and Tess. It’s nice to see them have a less adversarial relationship and it’s particularly nice to have the character of Tess not seem so sketchy and untrustworthy. Clark needs a general friend and Tess could be that in a way.
  • Odd that Plastique re-appears in this episode because “Shield” feels a lot like her S8 namesake effort, which was also Clark-heavy, but stumbled to really execute the points it was trying to get across.

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