The accused: Smallville, “Reckoning” (Season 5, Episode 12)
The crime: Sending its lead character on an aimless, never-ending path of self-loathing
How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway? These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with #TVFail, a nexus of television failure, small, large and in-between.
Welcome back to #TVFail, friends. This feature exists to examine failure (obviously), but the degree at which each episode I discuss is a “failure,” varies. Some of the episodes covered here have been pretty obviously flawed and even universally hated (I see you, season two premiere of Friday Night Lights). But most of the previously-tackled episodes have been less overtly awful, or at least less so on the surface. The last entry, the season two finale of Dexter, sucked at the time and has only proven to be indicative of the series’ overall struggles. The point is, I think, that failure comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and is obviously in the eye of the beholder.
Today’s entry, unsurprisingly, hammers that home pretty hard. In my humble opinion, this episode dramatically altered the course of the series for the worse. And yet, this is episode 100 of the series. There were more episodes of the series after this one than before it, and a number of those episodes near the end of that epically-long run were quite good. So, what the heck?
Honestly, “what the heck?” is a great way to describe much of Smallville’s run. The WB/CW series last a still-shocking 10 years and over 200 episodes, but failed to garner much respect from critics and awards, mostly for good reasons. When Smallville was bad, it was horribly bad. And as I’ll discuss throughout this piece, there were a lot of times when it reached those hilarious nadirs (there are at least 40 episodes I can think of that are categorically “worse” than today’s topic, for example). But amid the obvious flaws (mostly writing-related in the early years and budget-related in the later ones), Smallville churned out some episodes and even moderately-long arcs that I still think were objectively “good.” Was Smallville ever Emmy worthy? Of course not.* But seasons two through five (well, the first half, and that’s why we’re here) had a slew of quality episodes and so did seasons eight through ten.
*Well, except for Michael Rosenbaum. He probably “deserved” a Supporting Actor nomination at least once for his stellar work as Lex Luthor.
But that middle stretch? Shudder. And most of that stretch’s problems started with the series’ 100th episode, “Reckoning.” Although I think the series eventually recovered in the aforementioned eighth season, the damage done in “Reckoning” reverberated further, really until the very, very end of Smallville’s story. The series might have improved, but the primary issue caused by this episode remained for far too long.
Let’s travel back to 2005, shall we? After an uneven fourth season* that overreacted too much to the third season’s darkness, Smallville regained traction in its fifth year. Sending the characters off to college brought new stories, but also a certain level of maturity to the characters. The introduction of Brainiac as a college professor Milton Fine worked masterfully and the election story gave Jonathan and Martha Kent and Lionel Luthor a story of their own. The ongoing tension between Clark and his Kryptonian father Jor-El evoked the series’ primary thematic interests (nature vs. nurture, parenting, rebellion, etc.). Whereas most series about high school students falter once college is introduced, Smallville seemed to be thriving.
*To give credit where credit is due, though, season four features a glut of all-time great series episodes: “Crusade,” “Run,” “Transference,” “Unsafe,” “Pariah,” “Sacred,” “Onyx,” “Blank” and “Commencement.” Unfortunately, most of the other episodes around those were pretty bad.
Then came the series’ 100th episode, “Reckoning.” I remember, at the time, rumors were swirling about what would happen. The producers had announced that a main character would die, which was actually a pretty big deal, considering no main character had died for three seasons (Whitney was officially a main character in season one and died in season two, but yawn). Audiences were smart enough to know it wouldn’t be Clark, Lex or Lois, because, well, you can’t kill those three. Most assumed that it wouldn’t be Lionel either because we were smart enough to know that the series was saving his death for a time when Lex was “evil” enough to kill him. Chloe was too popular, and it seemed in oddly bad taste to even think about killing Martha. So, that left Lana and Jonathan. Arguably the two most important people in Clark’s life, it stood to reason that the death of either one of those characters would shake Clark to his core.
Before we get to the bad parts of “Reckoning” I have to give the episode and its writers, Brian Peterson and Kelly Souders (who would become the series’ showrunners during its creative rival years later) a lot of credit: This episode is damn good, especially when you remove all context. Clark reveals his secret to Lana and proposes to her before the opening credits and the episode just feels massive. That’s one great thing about Smallville: It knew how to give big moments their due. Of course, mid-way through the episode, all that happiness comes to a screeching halt when a drunk Lex more or less weasels Clark’s secret out of Lana and then causes her death. It’s one of the most gruesome scenes in the series’ history, and really well-performed by Tom Welling, John Schneider and Rosenbaum. Take a look.
Clark then goes to Jor-El asking him to reverse time (a callback to the films) to save Lana, but his informed that there will be consequences to restore the balance. Time is reversed, Clark doesn’t tell Lana the secret, but she lives. Unfortunately, Jonathan isn’t so lucky. While fighting with Lionel in the barn, Jonathan succumbed to a heart attack. Cue ultimate sadness and more great work from the cast and crew.
Again, there’s no question that “Reckoning” is a good, even great, episode of the series. The emotional heft of the proceedings is substantial and everyone in the cast turns in a tremendous performances. Most importantly, this episode fits perfectly into the entire season’s and series’ narrative. Clark had been butting heads with Jor-El constantly before this episode, oftentimes about the ultimate power of their respective abilities. From the beginning, Clark struggled with choosing well, anything, over Lana, but his relationship with his father was just as important. Smashing all those things together, and creating a situation where Clark is forced to see the consequences of a decision he made, was crucial step in journey towards Superman’s cape. With Jonathan around, Clark was arguably always going to hold himself back. And Jonathan regularly dies in the Superman mythology anyway. It theory, the events of “Reckoning” all made sense, and the writers did a wonderful job of suggesting a subversion of expectations without actually following through.
Unfortunately, what should have spurred on a half-season’s worth of pain and soul-searching turned into more than a half-decade’s worth of pouting and self-loathing for Clark. Although Smallville’s version of CK was always a bit emo-y before “Reckoning,” the events of this episode sent him into a spiral of immature emotional reactions that more or less lasted until the series’ final season. I completely agree with the series’ logic for choosing to kill Jonathan and keep Lana, and I also agree with its logic that this version of Clark would be destroyed over his father’s death and his role in that death for an extended period of time. But I never expected it to stunt Clark’s growth for years.
In the episodes and seasons after “Reckoning,” Clark continuously blamed himself for Jonathan’s death, and that guilt became something like a complex. Each time something moderately bad happened to his friends, or even strangers, the pity party immediately began. Even when Lex turned completely evil and killed his own father, Clark more or less blamed himself, because, golly, he could have been a better friend, or something. In some respects, Clark’s “ability” to take on everyone else’s problems and put it all on his shoulders only further proves that he’s a great hero, willing to help in all situations. It, theoretically, solidifies his humanity. I get that. But Clark also appeared to be initially smarter than he acted for all those years when he was too busy pouting over all the people he couldn’t save.
Clark’s inability to grow up stalled Smallville’s narrative. Casual viewers or diehard Superman comic fans complained about his failure to fly or get into the suit, but I found many more problems with his immaturity and woe-is-me attitude. Not only was it repetitive and stupid, but it made Clark look like a total fool and quickly become less sympathetic or interesting. For years after this episode, Chloe or Oliver or even Lana and Lois had to save Clark just about as many times as he saved them or other people. Sure, the story would have gotten stale if Clark just “won” all the time, but at a certain point, it felt like Smallville was a story about a half-dozen other people before it was about Clark Kent, future Superman.
Again, the path set up by “Reckoning” is one that the series should have taken. It just shouldn’t have lasted as long. When the writers have to craft the series’ 200th(!) episode around another character telling Clark that he needs to get over the guilt, I feel like there might have been a problem with the length at which Smallville would go to keep one bad character beat alive. It took ONE HUNDRED EPISODES (and really even more, considering much of the final season was still about Clark’s various father figures) for Clark to recognize that maybe, just maybe, it’s time to move on. Not to take anything away from Jonathan Kent or Clark’s relationship with him, but that’s just too long and not helpful for an ongoing television series.
Moreover, I would also argue that Jonathan’s death left a hole in Smallville that extended further than just Clark’s development. In its early seasons, Smallville made great use of the Kents and stories about family and parenting as a whole. Those stories weren’t particularly novel or complicated, but they were effective and I would argue, important, especially to create the parallels between Clark and Lex. Without Jonathan around and Clark floating around in a guilt-ridden tizzy, Smallville lost that solid core and some of those core values, just like its lead character. The writers tried to replace that core with more soapy elements in the sixth season, which only made Clark (and Lex, too*) look like an unbelievable dolt. What appeared to be a seamless transition to more adult themes in the first half of season five turned into a few years of aimless plotting and character work masquerading as “adult”: love triangles, pregnancies scares, amnesia, faux-darkness. Those stories have their place, but without rock-solid center Jonathan provided, the series was lost at sea. Again, you could argue that the series’ wayward floating for those middle seasons tied nicely to a similar lack of coherent action by its lead character, but that would require you to mistake poor writing for intentional writing, and I just don’t think that was the case (even if the series tried to make us believe that with the aforementioned 200th episode).
To be fair, Smallville recovered in those final three seasons. The departure of Lex and Lana and the focus on Lois freed Clark from some of the weight the series had placed upon him so many years prior. And in seasons nine and ten, the series used Clark’s darkness and confusion over his guilty conscience to produce engaging, purposeful stories. But even still, there were a handful of times where the character’s issues came to the forefront in the same annoying ways that they had so many times before. Clark, and the series, couldn’t really escape his hang-ups until the very end.
The elephant in the room with all of this, though? External forces. Yes, the writing on Smallville did get quite bad and yes, the creative team should have written better material for Clark along the way. But we cannot discount the fact that the CW kept asking for more seasons of the story, when it was clear that Smallville was never meant to last more than five years, then seven years, and then eight, well, you get the picture. The producers of the series were clearly under a lot of pressure to keep Clark at a certain point because the only real place left for him to go was Superman, so that led to a lot of stalling and a lot of internal waffling. I think they deserve some credit for at least making an attempt to diegetically explain why Clark was stuck in a rut, and there were certainly a few instances where his emotional issues worked well, but the time between what happened in the 100th episode and what happened in the 200th episode was simply too long. And that extended period had detrimental effects on the lead character and the series as a whole, even if there were a bunch of quality moments along the way.