This is the first in a series of seven essays, in which I hope to explore the ways in which Smallville is structured using certain plot archetypes. The genesis of this series of essays lies in conversations with supacat, norwich36 and others, in which I discussed how Smallville is structured as tragedy. This was an instinctive response on my part, as I love the dark themes of the show, but I was prompted to define this response more clearly. While thinking about this I stumbled on Christopher Booker’s recently published The Seven Basic Plots, which gave me both answers and further questions.
The Seven Basic Plots is a brilliantly accessible and compelling exploration of plot archetypes, and I recommend it to anyone interested in story construction. I will borrow heavily from Booker’s analysis in these essays, but I cannot hope to explore the complexities with anything approaching his aplomb or accomplishment. However I hope that it will be of interest as an analytical tool to those of you, like me, who get a kick out of meta.
The following essay contains specific spoilers through S4 Onyx, very general spoilers for S5 and specific spoilers for Superman I.
People often refer to there being only a set number of stories in the world. The number of plot types varies, but all of us are familiar with the idea that there are recurring plots at the heart of stories from myths to high literature or popular culture. Booker addresses this concept head on. He analyses a wide range of material: fairy tales, classic mythology, pulp fiction, films and high literature. He divides them into seven familiar plots:
1. Overcoming the Monster
2. Rags to Riches
3. The Quest
4. Voyage and Return
In the first half of his book, Booker explores the classic archetypal patterns, symbolism, characters and construction of each of the seven plots. He then goes on to analyse what the recurrence of such plots tells us about the human condition and our nature as a species. (Yup! This is big-scale stuff.) He also explores 'failed' versions of these stories and some of the most complex combinations of them in.
I think most viewers of Smallville are drawn to its mythic qualities. That it draws on the classic archetypes of heroes and villains is no secret. This construction is self-conscious and penetrates the entire aesthetic of the show. In its saturated colours and use of shade and light, Smallville draws on our imprinted associations of evil and goodness. It has qualities of the morality tale and of the fairy tale, but is at the same time complex and nuanced.
In reading his work, I expected to find that Smallville used one or two of the classic plots. What surprised me was finding that it uses at least some components of all of them at different times and in different ways.
Smallville's premise is the life of Superman as a young Clark Kent, but it is equally about the creation of his nemesis, Lex Luthor. The development of these two figures in relationship to each other is what makes the series compelling, and I hope here to be able to explain how this achieved and what it means.
Before I begin, I wish to make several things clear. First of all, it's important to note that the combination of several classic plots is not unusual. Booker describes many famous instances of two or more classic plots being intertwined in famous and successful works (The Lord of the Rings is cited as perhaps the most famous work containing all seven plots.) Secondly, I am not arguing that Smallville is completely successful in its realisation of every plot. In fact, the instances where it uses one of the plots in an incomplete form are often the parts of the show where fans have expressed most dissatisfaction. An obvious incidence of this is in the anti-climactic Season 4 'Quest' plot.
Finally it's important to recognise the unique structure of Smallville's medium. The demands of a long-running television serial are different to that of a play, novel or traditional myth. There need to be plot arcs within each season and each episode, as well as in the overall story itself. Therefore I will be jumping up and down these three levels in my analysis. The challenge television presents to its writers is how to show a completely realised plot over a series but also structure each episode with an internal beginning middle and end. Smallville is successful at some levels and not at others.
1. Overcoming the Monster
The first classic plot structure is Overcoming the Monster. It's an instantly recognisable plot that has been used in everything from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Star Wars. Booker describes the plot as the hero being called to face and overcome a terrible and deadly personification of evil. It is sturctured in five parts:
1. Anticipation or 'the Call'
2. Dream stage
3. Frustration stage
4. Nightmare stage
5. Thrilling escape.
The personficiation of evil can take many forms: human, animal or supernatural. But as Booker describes, its attributes include are recognisable: strange, sinister, weird, fiendish, dark, deceitful, depraved, treacherous, etc.
1.1 Overcoming the Monster in Superman I
As we will see, the Superman myth has long relied on this first plot structure. Sadly I don't have the familiarity with comics canon to be able to do justice to an exploration of the plot in its original form (although I'd be fascinated to read one!), so I will use movie canon instead. It's an appropriate place to begin, since Smallville exists in a filial relationship with previous canon. It references comics and movie canon, and much of its power and poignancy comes from its status as 'prequel' to the adult life of Superman and Lex Luthor.
Superman I is an excellent example of the 'Overcoming the Monster' plot in its full realisation, complete with classic myth stereotypes. The first stage ('the Call') comes with Clark Kent's discovery of his true identity as Kal-El of Krypton. He is 'armed' with superpowers, the equivalent of the magic sword or shield that we see recurring in so many myths. He is guided by a wise paternal figure in the form of a hologram of his father, Jor-El, and he emerges from twelve years of education as Superman. In this first phase we also get our first glimmers of lurking danger. As Clark Kent adopts his disguise as reporter at the Daily Planet, the film cuts away to reveal Lex Luthor, in a subterrestrial lair (a traditional site for the 'monster') beneath the city.
In the Dream stage, the hero experiences some initial success, as he prepares to meet his 'monster'. Everything seems relatively safe. This stage is shown in Superman I when Superman saves Lois Lane from a helicopter crash and is publicly acknowledged for the first time. The saving of a heroine from a deadly ordeal has been a frequent feature of the 'Overcoming the Monster' plot, from Perseus and Andromeda onwards.
In the Frustration stage, the hero encounters the monster and appears to fall under his power. There appears to be no hope for escape. In Superman I we learn that Lex Luthor has identified Superman as an alien and has discovered his secret weakness: Kryptonite. Luthor also unleashes his plan to sink the state of California by unleashing a powerful earthquake, and thus turn the worthless desert land he as purchased into 'riches'. Luthor is here in the monster's 'active' role, threatening the community. (Booker outlines two other monster roles: Holdfast and Avenger. The former is where the monster is jealously guarding his 'treasure', the second is when he is provoked into seeking revenge.)
In the fourth stage, Nightmare, the hero encounters the monster and the final ordeal begins. A reversal in the balance of power occurs at the last minute and the hero miraculously escapes. In Superman I Lex Luthor traps Superman with a Kryptonite necklace and sinks him in a swimming pool. However, Superman escapes with the help of Luthor's girlfriend. Here, Luthor demonstrates the monster's traditionally limited perspective: his egotism blinds him into disregard for the feelings of others. His treatment of his girlfriend leads her to sympathise with Superman, who pledges his assistance in saving her family. Again, these are common components of this mythic plot structure: the monster revealing a 'weakness' and the hero receiving unexpected assistance.
In the fifth stage, the Thrilling Escape from Death and Death of the Monster, the hero overthrows the monster and the community is liberated. Booker: The hero emerges in his full stature to enjoy the prize he has won from the monster's grasp: a great treasure; union with the 'Princess'; succession to some kind of 'kingdom.' In Superman I, Lois Lane is killed in the earthquake sparked by Lex. Superman has to turn back time to save her. He thus wins the Princess from the jaws of death triggered by the monster, and they embrace. The state of California is saved. The symbolic 'death' of the monster occurs in Luthor's arrest and in the revelation of his true nature (he removes his wig). The movie ends with Superman flying triumphantly up into the sky.
1.2 Overcoming the Monster in Smallville
As Booker explains, this first plot is so universal that it recurs in partial form in many other plots. Smallville is fundamentally different from the movie canon. In the early seasons Clark Kent is still in the first 'call' stage, and Luthor is not a villain yet. So the site of 'darkness' in Smallville is elsewhere.
1.2A Meteor freaks
In the meteorite freaks we see a recurring 'monster'. The monster may change form each week, but the essential plot remains the same: the meteor rocks have turned an inhabitant of Smallville into a 'monster' version of themselves and Clark must overcome them at all odds. Smallville's meteor freaks often have the following common attributes:
- an exaggerated personality trait (a bug collector becomes part-insect, a girl afraid of aging sucks the life from others*)
- inherent egotism and amorality, often illustrated in them killing their parents or other loved ones
- a driven or aggressive nature (provoking conflict with Clark, as protector of the small community)
- irredeemibility (the freaks may be killed or incarcerated, or the source of evil, Kryptonite, may be removed and the spell broken, but until the actual or symbolic 'death of the monster', they are irrational and unreachable).
This plot device serves to explore Clark's development as a future saviour of humanity. It also serves to give many episodes their internal structure. And it frees Lex from being the 'monster'. However, over time Smallville reveals other Overcoming the Monster plots.
One interesting and complicating factor of the meteor freak plots is that Clark holds himself partially responsible for their creation. The meteor rocks come from his home world and were blasted to Earth with his arrival. As audience members, we learn that Clark has the power to change the course of events on Earth. His influence appears 'alien' and unnatural. Although he uses his superpowers for good, the meteor rocks do great damage. Furthermore, the meteor freaks often resemble Clark in their powers, if not in their outward appearance or driven evil-doing. The clearcut separation of hero and villain does not occur with such crispness in Smallville as it did in Superman I. Clark often identifies with the freaks and their 'outsider' status. We'll get the chance to explore these complexities when we get to the other plot types.
*ETA: Thank you to amandajane5 for pointing out that the girl afraid of aging was one of the few freaks whose origins did not lie in the meteor rocks, since we are told she's been doing this since the 1920s. She shares the attributes of the meteor freaks and functions as that weeks 'monster' but for once is an unrelated instance of 'evil'.
Lionel Luthor serves as the main 'villain of the story' in the season arcs of the first three seasons, and remains as a shadowy, dangerous figure in Seasons 4 and 5. But it is his son Lex Luthor, not Clark Kent, who emerges most often as the hero who struggles with the monster Lionel. Lionel and Clark do have confrontations, and Clark is aware of his dangerous nature when Lionel is in an 'active' phase. But Lionel is often simply in Holdfast form. He has his riches, he has his empire, and guards these jealously from his son. He also lashes out in Avenger mode, when Lex disappoints or attacks him. So it is no wonder that Lex gains much of the audience's sympathy in the first seasons.
As an example, I'll explore one Lionel plot arc to show how this is realised. Lex received his 'call' when he came to Smallville, encountered Clark Kent, and determined to make a success of his life. Season One is a 'Dream' stage for Lex as hero, where he forms a friendship with Clark and is recognised for having turned his fortunes around. Lionel appears periodically in Season One as a threatening figure (Frustration) but it's not until the end of Season One when he attempts to close the Smallville plant that his son runs that we see his true danger (Nightmare). The power seems to lie solely with Lionel, but then Lex organises a buyout, creating his own company, LexCorp. In this he is assisted by his mother's inheritance. This is the 'unexpected/miraculous assistance' which we see so often in myths. It's relatively common in myths for this assistance to come from a female figure (as we saw in Superman I). Season One ends with Lex looking on as Lionel struggles under a fallen pillar in a tornado. It appears that Lex will let him die, that he will kill the monster.
However, Lex is not capable of taking this step. He had no desire to intentionally kill his father; he simply wanted to win a corporate victory. So he helps Lionel to live and the cycle recurs again as Lionel ups the stakes throughout the seasons.
Over the seasons, Lex increasingly takes the place of 'monster' in the plot. At first his dark nature is triggered into existence by meteor rocks. But there is also a gradual accumulation of 'darkness' in Lex himself. Ryan warns Clark of this, and Clark remains wary of Lex, unsure of the extent of the influence of this 'dark' force over his friend. The source of this 'darkness' is Lex's status as a Luthor and the degree of influence that parenting (from Lionel) and destiny exert on an individual's life. In Season 4's Onyx we see the two sources of darkness for Lex combined: Kryptonite triggers a splitting of identity, and Lex's dark half, Alexander, is able to gain control over his better self. Although Clark is able to reverse the splitting, this episode marks a shift. The audience sees that Lex has fallen more deeply into shadown than ever before, with Lex declaring 'I AM the villain of the story'. This moves him closer to becoming the monster of future canon.
1.3 Summing up
As a starting point, Smallville uses the plot structure that the Superman myth was built on: a hero overcoming the personification of evil. However, Superman's traditional nemesis, Lex Luthor, is not the originating point of dark monstrosity. This comes first of all from the meteor rocks that accompanied Clark to Earth and secondly from Lionel Luthor. Even as Lex begins to evolve into a 'monster', the audience sees that the clearcut differentiation of villain and hero is absent. What happens when the hero is partially responsible for the villain's creation? Or when the audience has privileged access to how the villain has been formed? The other plots hold some of the answers.
I'm such a geek. *facepalm*
ETA: Now with less annoying italics!