I have been in a very cheery, upbeat, relaxed mood all week. This wasn't perhaps the most appropriate mental state for viewing this episode in. In many ways I wish we had not had a wait before this episode. It picked up exactly where the last episode ended, not so much in a cliffhanger sense as in the emotional tone. But on the other hand I'm grateful because it kept me a little emotionally insulated from it. And such was the profundity and magnitude of the emotional journeys of both Lex and Clark in this episode, I think I needed to be or I'd just be wrecked. Despite the inevitability of this moment, my mind rebelled against it. I can imagine that this episode will get a heap of flak in fandom. But I thought it was magnificently executed (except for a few elements) and it rendered me speechless for quite a long time as it 'settled' with me. At first I wasn't sure how I could write about it because of all Smallville episodes I feel it needs the least exposition because it said everything that needed to be said. And staggeringly, that holds especially true of the final scene, in which NOTHING WAS SAID aloud. That's the kind of television that takes my breath away, and no matter how painful it was, I love this episode for that.
No-one will even remember your name
I've been vidding a lot of Lex scenes recently and I've discovered something that should have been obvious to me a long time ago but somehow I'd never picked up on. I knew that the production team used lighting to reflect Clark's emotional state and to show how in danger or at risk he was; but they also use it to reflect Lex's position. This is particularly obvious in the Luthorcorp offices, which have been gradually dulling and darkening for a long time. I immediately found it disconcerting that the episode opened with Lionel arriving at the Luthorcorp offices and looking up. For so long HE has been the figure looking down on everyone. He's already positioned as the weaker of the two Luthors even before he encounters Lex. We also know he's at his most desperate and despairing (barring that time he tried to kill himself for about three episodes). I was really spooked out by the darkness of his office when he entered and was thinking 'this isn't going to end well', but even then my mind couldn't quite confront what was coming. And that's despite the fact that I have been certain this season would result in Lex killing Lionel for a long time.
Lex's entrance from the shadows was chilling and it was with shock that I listened to the inevitable confrontation between him and Lionel. I had suspected that finding out that Lionel deliberately took him to Smallville the day of the meteor shower would be the thing to finally make Lex lose it with him, but I had expected something more rageful, or else an execution from a distance like Julian's. This was SO MUCH better than either of those options but also way more confronting. Lex was far more visibly distressed than I thought he would be at the time he killed Lionel. He was nearly in tears at places: and massive kudos to Michael for a mindblowingly spectacular performance in this episode.
I think I started to break at 'you sacrificed me for the Traveller'. Once he said it, it seemed like it had always been inevitable that he would draw that conclusion. And it's true! I loved that it came after a long silence between father and son. I got the sense that even then Lex had been hoping for something, something more than just slick pat lines, from his father. Instead, Lionel's silence damned him and Lex seems to be speaking to himself as much as Lionel when he says 'you sacrificed me for the Traveller'. He asks 'why?' which is a profound question that Lex himself can't really answer. But then he follows it almost immediately with 'who is it?', and instantly he's back looking to hear from Lionel confirmation of what he already knows.
Lionel's move to tell Lex that HE is the Traveller was genius: it was the very last line of attack that might have worked. Once. As it is, Lex responds immediately with rage and disdain that all he's getting from his father is more lies. But I do believe that once Lionel's spin might have worked. Lex did want to believe that he had a great future, a special destiny, and he strove to make sense of all the strange coincidences in his life, including his miraculous survivals. If Lex didn't have the Veritas knowledge, Lionel might stand a better chance of persuading him. But with it, Lex has another possible interpretation of events--one that joins more dots than Lionel's attempt here to paint it as always having been about Lex. Emotionally this argument rings hollow and Lex knows it.
When Lex pulls out the gun, Lionel shifts into even greater panic. I think he sees the writing on the wall. He knows what he himself is capable of, so he must recognise this capacity in Lex as well. But he still thinks he can reason with Lex by appealing to him. His 'I can't let you go down that terrible path' seems a ridiculously naive argument to the audience (or to me at least!) because WE already know how far down it Lex is. He's killed already, a great many times. He's killed a brother and a childhood friend. Why stop there?
Lex responds with absolute black determination. He has blocked out Lionel's words completely and is focused not on wrestling with the question of what it means for him that he's willing to kill his father, but simply with the matter of obtaining the key. It's a perfect study of someone so focussed on one goal they're blind to how they're achieving that end.
Lionel's final appeal is to Lex's desire for redemption. That's a strong card, because that need has been desperate--until now. But finding out that his entire life has been orchestrated by Lionel, that from the time he was a small boy, Lionel put all his true energy and focus into the 'Traveller', that Lex was always the second son, a disappointing experiment, has changed things for him once and for all. Redemption seems pointless because there is no chance of ever being seen any differently by Lionel. He's been in a struggle with him since the series began, and he's had opportunities to end it as early as the season 1 finale--then he turned and saved his father because he was still invested in the relationship and in the possibility of being a 'good' man. No longer. It's over, with the following perfect line: 'I was raised in your shadow, now you'll die in mine. No-one will even remember your name.'
Before Lex pushes him, it looks to me like Lionel recognises what his fate is going to be. He barely moves beyond shock before falling, but as he falls his face is strangely serene. Is that a last moment of pride in the son who has become his father, at last? I found it chilling.
The construction of Lionel's death was perfect. Lex never had any intention of shooting him. He planned to push him out the window, to completely physically depose him as the head of the company. Visually it allowed Lionel to fall from those heights and have Lex standing in his place. We have heard Lex talking of wanting to be able to look down on the world below and control it. And that's what Lionel's been doing for years. I thought he was signing his own death warrant when he protested that he couldn't control the fate of individuals: that is exactly what he's been doing, consciously and with great relish, for years. And now Lex has taken his place and exercises the greatest control possible over another individual--in ending a life, Lionel's life.
Even more perfect, visually, was the way that Lionel falling was reflected in Lex's eyes. And this was mirrored later by Lex looking into his father's eye on the steps. They have always been defined in relation to one another--and in the final exchange it is Lex who is the killer, Lionel the victim. While Lionel was at peace with that reflection, Lex was deeply unsettled.
The perfect son
I absolutely ADORED Clark's reaction to the events of 'Descent'. There wasn't one beat of the episode where I wasn't blown away by him (and by Tom's performance which was so eloquent and easy to read). From the first moment he heard of Lionel's death, I knew Clark didn't believe it was an accident. And I love that. Once upon a time I would have hated Clark for moving towards the conclusion that Lex pushed him, but I am now so proud of him for doing so--because he's right. And I don't think that he knew it was Lex at first, but when he saw him ID-ing the body, something in Lex's behaviour didn't add up.
What an incredible scene! Everything about it felt so 'epic', from Chloe and Clark running out of the Daily Planet across the Luthorcorp Plaza, to Lex publicly IDing his father's body in front of a crowd of onlookers. Lex's performance was perfect. The fact that he was visibly distressed worked for him, and I don't believe the Coroner's staff would have suspected anything suspicious from his demeanour--he seemed like a son in shock. Which he was, but just at far more than just his father's death.
I loved the way they showed Lex's shock moving away from his father's body--the slowed time, his laboured breathing, and the first appearance of Alexander. I think it's fitting that he didn't appear until after Lex had killed Lionel. We've seen how well hidden Alexander is these days--Lex has him bullied and cowed. But in confronting what he's done, I think it's natural that Alexander gains a little more 'power' over Lex again--briefly.
But more than anything else in that scene, I loved the way that Clark appeared over Lex's shoulder, as just a shadowy red and blue figure at first. But he's right there--the other person who recognises Lex completely. Clark knows Lex better than anyone. That's what I realised in that moment. And it's a heartbreaking realisation. He is the other person in whose eyes Lex sees his own reflection and recoils. He is exposed before Clark in a way that he is before no-one else in that scene and it feels intensely intimate despite the crowd. Clark looks pained and potentially compassionate, but he receives no signal from Lex that that is appropriate and his expression breaks into one of shock. He doesn't quite know what he's seeing--or doesn't want to believe it. They walk along the barricades, Clark looking anxious and Lex looking annoyed and tired. Lex's last look at Clark seems to ask 'what do you want from me?'
Clark continues to put the pieces together and I totally agree with him that Lionel wasn't the suicide type. Chloe was completely off the mark in that scene. Lionel being distressed and begging her to listen does not suggest that he's about to take his own life! It implies someone with a mission, no matter how crazy that mission is. And why is it odd that Clark would think about the locket? It's a sign that Lionel had something massive at stake before he died--why would he commit suicide if it was still unresolved? In short Clark > Chloe in terms of investigative journalism.
I am very glad that Clark did not utter one word of regret at Lionel's death. He seemed disturbed by it, but not sad, which is appropriate given that Clark too has recently confronted the full extent of Lionel's manipulation. But unlike Lex, Clark did not lash out at Lionel--he simply cut him off emotionally. And a similar restraint and maturity shows in his reaction to his death. He is moved at some level, but his emotions are clearly conflicted. He says that Lionel died 'too soon' and he is clearly unsettled that Lionel's death was unnatural but he seems far more disturbed by what it means about Lex than about losing Lionel. Thank goodness! I couldn't have coped with Clark eulogising Lionel.
I was sure we'd see Clark come to the mansion and confront Lex at some stage during this episode, but somehow I thought we'd see him burst in, as he used to when he had far less proof or reason to suspect Lex of crimes. Instead the scene opens with Clark already inside the mansion. He looks somewhat sad as well as worried when he opens the locket to find the key, and it seems as if for once he wasn't actually intending to confront Lex. What would it achieve? Instead, Lex burst in on him. It's the position of weakness, and this is one of very very few of their exchanges which Lex loses.
It reminded me in some ways of Lionel's confrontation with Lex, with one person attempting to obfuscate, manipulate and 'play' the other, while the other stonewalls and demands something more honest and real. But this time it's Lex using lies and pat lines. Lex does everything he can to emotionally ruffle Clark and to thereby control the exchange. And it's Clark that demands something more real. When he doesn't get it delivers the 'death blow': that he has proof of Lex's crime.
The most heartbreaking line in that scene, and the one where Lex, not Clark, held my sympathy the most, was when Clark said 'they would have felt the same way about you, Lex, if you had of tried'. That was perhaps the cruellest thing Clark could say to Lex because Lex did try, and what he's just learnt is that Lionel's rejection dates back to when he was a tiny boy. What chance did he have when his father had given up on him that early? And far more recently he did try to overcome his baser nature--as he points out to Clark. Clark inspired him when they first met, he thought he'd been given a chance to start his life afresh. And then it all pours out...
Lex blames Clark for rejecting him. 'All I wanted was to be your friend, and you turned your back on me'. Clark meets this with surprising composure. But then he has heard this accusation before. I think he's known for some time that Lex blames him for making him the man he is today. Clark calmly replies that he did try but that Lex only cared about power and control. I think there is truth in both positions: we've seen the tragedy play out and seen how from Lex's perspective Clark's abandonment and rejection was the most devastating thing he could experience. But we've also seen that the seeds of Lex's desire for control had been planted in him firmly before they became friends in Smallville.
It was astonishing to see Lex snap and scream that he had REASON to take control: 'these threats are real'. That is one of the few times he has verbally acknowledged a) that he sees all these things as a threat and b) that he is stepping in to do something about it, that he personally sees himself as Earth's saviour. Clark's call that he's 'lost track of reality' was a brilliant line because it's true (Lex is blind to how much danger there is in this power-hungry behaviour, no matter how he justifies it) but to Lex it's the worst thing Clark could have said. Because from Lex's point of view, it's Clark who is trying to pull the wool over Lex's eyes--and it's Lex who is confronting the 'truth' about the alien threat.
Lex then turns to the thing that eats at him more than anything else: the fact that Lionel accepted Clark as a son, while rejecting Lex. Again, Clark says the worst possible thing from Lex's perspective: 'he just knew he could trust me'. Trust is at the heart of the Clex rift--Lex couldn't trust Clark and Clark couldn't trust Lex. So this is a bitter pill to swallow. He lashes out by bringing up Jonathan. I never thought we'd hear Lex make this call but what a brilliant one it is: 'why was Jonathan Kent so stressed? Was raising the perfect son really so hard? I wonder what strain it put on his heart.' Lex doesn't need to reply to Clark's fury: it's clear that he's ruffled Clark.
Despite that, Clark 'wins' the exchange, at least on the surface level, by saying that he has proof that Lex killed Lionel. And as Clark leaves, Lex's fury shows. He knows he's lost. But I was also proud of Clark that when it turned out that they no longer had the photo, he calmly acknowledged that they couldn't do anything without it. Chloe may have seen Lex in the photo, but they've only got her word and that won't hold up in court.
Lionel's final message to Kal-El was chilling. (And kudos to the props guys for including both Gotterdammerung and Nietzchke's 'Beyond Good and Evil' in Lionel's office.) The torch itself was a beautiful construction--I love the way it projected the Kryptonian symbols onto the wall. It connects Lionel with the legacy of Virgil Swann, as well as Jor-El. But Lionel's message is a disturbing one. While he talks about his greatest achievement being 'protecting and serving' Clark, we know that Lionel was not as selfless as he made out. There are two hidden threads there that disturb me, just as they disturb Clark:
- firstly Lionel glorifies himself in the process (interesting comparison to Gina, who is pleased to play protector to a powerful man)
- secondly it builds a cult of Clark as all-powerful and special, which is not so far distant from the idea that he should 'rule them with strength'. It positions Clark as superior to all others, and I don't think it's really what Clark wants to hear.
Especially since he also draws the (logical) conclusion that Lionel died protecting Clark. Clark calls him 'another person who treated me like a son and died because of it'. More than anything, I am proud of Clark for confronting his own culpability about Lionel's death. And it provides a focus for him reflecting on Joanathan's death at all. Lex may be a murderer, but Clark listened to him when he suggested that Clark was responsible for Jonathan's death, and I think this is the first time he's truly faced that. 'Descent' had a lot of parallels with 'Reckoning' and this one is drawn very deliberately.
Of course, the situations are not identical--Clark is not directly responsible for Jonathan's death. But it is true that Jonathan developed heart problems after taking on Clark's powers--and that he died after Clark begged for Lana's life. Clark's decision resulted in Jonathan's death and I'm glad he feels some responsibility for that. It allows parallels to be drawn between him and Lex, who is also coming to terms with having killed his father (far more directly) but whose instinct is to deny responsibility ('I had no choice').
I kind of hated that Chloe tried to make Clark feel that it was all ok, that it all served some greater purpose. That is far too close to Lionel's own belief in the importance of protecting Clark and how it justifies any actions, however terrible, for me to be comfortable with it. I was glad to see that Clark kind of blocked her out. He was lost in his own thoughts asking 'how could Lex do it?' It feels so terrible for him to realise in retrospect that his very existence resulted in three men losing their lives. So how could Lex choose consciously to kill his father? But in asking 'how does a son murder his own father?' I think he's still asking a bigger question about himself as well. How has HE come to be partly responsible for this and what does it mean that he is? What should he do about it?
I think I'll save addressing that for last--just as the episode did.
It was so obvious that Gina was going to die: Lex opened up to her too much. It was dreadful to see him taking comfort from her--he's so alone that even that she's all he's got. And I loved the immediacy of his reaction to her seeing that he had Lionel's locket. You could seem him thinking 'and now I'll have to kill you too'. But at the same time he was fascinated by her reaction and perfectly willing to use her willingness to cover his tracks for his own ends first.
I gasped aloud when it was revealed that the locket was empty. Lex killed his father for an empty locket. Lionel got the final word even from the grave. And Lex seemed to be sitting there digesting that. His story about the Apollo 11 and 'the right man can make anything happen' fits with him reflecting on his own inadequacies--how he never lived up to his father's expectations; even in their final exchange he wasn't clever enough to check the locket first. I think he rather enjoyed seeing Gina act shocked--he got to be the calm one, instead of the duped. I think he feels he should have expected such an outcome. But in Gina he has someone else to blame and manipulate.
For her part, I found it chilling how happy Gina was at being able to play the part of most loyal and loving minion. She seemed delighted at the opportunity for intimacy that Lionel's death gave her. She's smart and she knows how to read Lex, knows that normally he's far too strong to be interested in any overtures from her. But he's vulnerable in the wake of Lionel's murder and she seeks to exploit that. She rather likes the idea of Lex being dependent on her. And short-sightedly she doesn't see that he would never allow that. Her use of the pronoun 'we' in the scene at the Daily Planet was definitely a step to far.
And as if that wasn't enough to mark her for death, she then discovered Clark's powers. Of course that added an extra twist: she could have told Lex, definitively, that Clark was the Traveller. He's going to be truly pissed when he gets that message! Of course, I don't believe for a moment that Clark doesn't know it's Clark--but I do think he needs someone else to see it, to acknowledge it, to believe it, as well.
Burning the evidence
The mansion is a black silhouette against the sky in the establishment shot before the final confrontation between Lex and Alexander. Lex has entered his darkest period. Alexander says Lex can't run away from him. He doesn't want Alexander's help. 'I have to' (go to Zurich) 'I had no choice' 'it's all I have left'. Alexander offers Lex an alternative--pointing out that he still has him--and Lex's immediate reaction is to deny that completely, to make it true that he has nothing else by drowning/killing Alexander in the flames of his fireplace.
I'm chilled, by the way, at the symbolism of him killing Alexander in that fire. So much has happened in front of the fire. It's a fire that Lex has tended and expressed his hopes in front of for years. It's also where he burnt the evidence of his (fake) child. It is, I realise now, a place where he buries truths, as well as exposes himself. He looks sad and lonely after doing so, there is no joy in it.
The fact that he's buried Alexander clearly signals that he WILL go to Zurich, and that will, as foreshadowed, be the end of the journey for Lex, closing the door on redemption forever.
I love that Lois flipped out at Jimmy in frustration about not being at Luthorcorp when Lionel died. The frustrated journalist is cute! It's also cool that Jimmy can hold his own by having miraculously snapped the shot of Lex killing Lionel. (Though omg, WHAT did he THINK he was photographing at the time?) I also like that Lois was skeptical about the 'blurry blob of pixels'. Because there enters my most hated element of this episode: the belief that somehow the sharpen tool in Photoshop is going to solve the crime. *headdesk* When, WHEN will TV and film writers accept that the resolution of a photo depends not on computer power but on camera settings. And yes, a picture can be sharpened a certain amount by certain programs--and there are high-end tools to do so--but it's not a matter of HOURS OF WORK (what the fuck was Chloe doing at Isis all that time? Pressing 'sharpen' hopelessly over and over?!). The degree to which it can be sharpened is still predetermined by the initial resolution settings. Arrrrggghhh!! (Sorry, it's one of those things that irrits the hell out of me as a suspense device.)
I liked that Lois seemed to be cluing in to Gina in the short period before she got shot. She recognised that Gina worked for Lex and I wondered if she would start to suspect that Lex had a hand in Lionel's death from the overkill-methods that Gina was employing. While her line 'you should have said that before you broke out the heavy artillery' was a play for sympathy but it also made me think she was pondering just why Gina was so desperate to get the picture.
She must have thought that even more after she got shot. (And I loved her shocked exclamation!) It was very Lois that she berated herself for tackling Gina. 'Not the smartest icicle in the freezer' was a cute way to describe herself--I think she feels she misread Gina. I kind of love that Lois DID get shot--she has so much guts and courage but does get herself in trouble because she's only human. And I don't think she'll ever stop putting herself in the line of fire.
Jimmy was adorably comforting, even if he could do little to save Lois. I liked that he clung to an image of the two of them becoming world-famous when they get out of there. It seems like a bond has been forged between the two of them through this, their first case. That vision of the future is tied to Superman as well, and Clark's rescue of them was perfect for reminding us of that. It definitely felt like an iconic Superman rescue, and I love that he unfroze them into their future selves--a future in which they will be at his side.
Chloe felt a bit out of place in this episode for me personally. It seemed kind of constructed that Lionel had given the key to her (how much cooler would it have been if he'd sent it to, say, Martha, for instance?). But I didn't mind seeing her be so completely outplayed by Lex. She seemed to think she had it under control once she'd shredded the envelope--how naive! And she should have kept the key on her, like Lionel did. It was all too easy for Lex to open the drawer.
I'm not going anywhere
At the mansion Clark tells Lex that he's 'not going anywhere'. It triggers Alexander to arise in Lex's mind--not surprising since we saw Clark tell Alexander he would never abandon him. Alexander tells Lex that there's still time, that Clark is his friend.
Chloe tells Clark that 'total absence of love' is the opposite of evil. While I don't really buy that in real life, I think it's definitely the opposition that Smallville has set up. There are so many ways to reflect on that line:
- love was completely absent in Lionel for Lex
- love was completely absent in Lex for Lionel, once he learnt how early Lionel abandonned him (until then I think he felt some last strands of love for his father)
- Clark turned his back on Lex and left him 'loveless'.
Clark's response to Chloe's line is to act. He says he won't let Lex kill any more people, and he leaves to attend the funeral. There have been times in the past, many times, when Clark has turned his attention away from Lex--whether because it's too painful to confront him emotionally or because he's distracted by Lana or because he's busy pursuing some other issue (like rounding up the Phantoms). But I do not think Clark will ever take his eyes off Lex ever again. And that's what makes this episode so incredible. I felt we were seeing the future being written before our eyes.
That last scene is probably now my favourite Smallville scene ever. It was spectacularly beautiful and there was no need for any dialogue--everything was said visually which is always where SV is most articulate. ;) Here's what I loved:
- the backdrop: he Daily Planet and the Luthorcorp building side by side in the centre of the screen, symbolising the future
- the framing: two barren trees on either side of the screen, one on Lex's side, one on Clark's. The two men are both in mourning
- the echoes of past episodes, including Reckoning, when Lex attended Jonathan's funeral
- the shot construction: Clark arrives over the rise of the hill, walks forward and turns to face Lex, on the other side of Lionel's funeral mound. Lex holds the slightly higher ground, which is appropriate since he's Lionel's son, but the two men are also clearly on equal footing and nothing in Clark's demeanour suggests that he's an uninvited guest (even though he is).
At first the two men remain focussed on Lionel, with their gaze on him, rather than each other. Clark stays in mourner pose for longer, but then looks up to meet Lex's gaze, acknowledging that his presence is not really (just) about Lionel: it's about Lex. He meets his gaze with determination and I think there was a strong message in that look. He was telling Lex that he wasn't going to play by Lex's rules, challenging him. Lex could have fought with Clark and told him it was inappropriate to come, but Clark was also reminding Lex that he knew the truth of how Lionel died--and that knowledge builds an intimacy between them. Lex would be arguing from a very weak position if he tried. And Clark was also telling him that he would always be there, always watching, that he would never leave Lex's side.
Lex smiles, slightly, in response and in recognition, and then he turns his face stony again and walks away, leaving Clark to pay his respects to Lionel. That smile and then stony glance at Clark destroy me every time I watch. There was so much being said in that silent exchange. It was both a reaffirmation of their relationship and an end to it. I do believe that Lex liked that Clark came to the funeral, but also that he was angry about it at the same time. He's pleased that he and Clark are tied together in this power struggle dance. Without that, he would have absolutely nothing--and that is worse. But he is also so painfully terrifyingly cut off from Clark--he has turned his back on him (literally). Alexander told Lex that he could, even now, reach out to Clark. But he doesn't--and Clark knows he won't.
Once upon a time this would have been far too difficult for Clark to face. Now he takes on Lex Luthor has his own personal responsibility. These two are no longer just rival sons; they've become their future selves, twinned adversaries who will dog each other's steps forever more.
At which point I start tearing up and needing some chocolate, goddamn it! *cries*