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19 February 2006 @ 09:15 pm
Smallville: Seven Basic Plots (Part II)  
Part I of this series of essays on plot structure in Smallville is available here

Spoilers through to Season 5 Reckoning.

2. Rags to Riches
The second classic plot outlined by Booker is that in which a young hero or heroine is 'lifted out of obscurity, poverty and misery to a state of great splendour and happiness.'. In evoking the typical transformation that this plot presents to us, Booker writes, 'Few images in the popular storytelling of our time have fixed themselves more vividly in the mind than the moment when Clark Kent, the weedy, bespectacled newspaper reporter, is suddenly transformed into 'Superman', the all-powerful righter of the world's wrongs.' Although we have seen that the basic plot structure of many Superman stories is Overcoming the Monster, the Rags to Riches plot also lies at the heart of its appeal.

In Smallville the transformation of Clark Kent into Superman is far from 'sudden'. While Clark is hardly in 'rags', his situation in Smallville is certainly 'obscure'. Similarly, he is not exactly miserable, but he is inherently unfulfilled. He exists in a fledgeling state, struggling to understand who he is and to balance his twin desires: to live a normal human life, and to be recognised as 'special' for the use of his unique gifts to help others. Thus Smallville centres on the first two parts of the five-part Rags to Riches plot structure.

2.1. Initial wretchedness at home and the 'Call'.
In this first stage, the plot begins with the hero in their original 'lowly' and unhappy state, overshadowed by dark figures who scorn or maltreat them. The Pilot episode of Smallville gives us this exact scenario. Clark is set upon by a group of school bullies, who string him up as that year's 'Scarecrow'. But Clark has just learned the secret of his identity: his parents found him and the spaceship he arrived in during the meteor shower. This represents the 'Call' for Clark. While this phase would usually end with the hero going out into the wider world, in Smallville, this is represented not by a geographical shift, but with Clark beginning his public role: he rescues Lex Luthor

2.2 Out into the world, initial success.
In the second phase, the hero may encounter new ordeals, but is also rewarded with their first, limited success. In the larger plot arc of Clark's life, much of Smallville falls into this phase. The key to understanding this phase is that the success is 'incomplete'. The hero may overcome dark rivals, and he may encounter his 'Princess', but he has yet to reach complete fulfilment. Smallville explores the full scope of this stage, with its many references to the future. Lana Lang fills the role of 'Princess', but the audience knows that she is limited in her role as destiny figure. It is not until Season 4 that Clark's true 'destiny partner' arrives in Lois Lane, and even then he fails to recognise her. Clark's worldview is thus seen to be still limited. At the start of Season 5, he is finally successful in winning Lana Lang as a girlfriend, but this success is limited in the greater scope of his life. He is still to develop his full range of powers and he has not evolved his final identity as Superman.

The later three stages are:
3. The central crisis.
4. Independence and the final ordeal.
5. Final union, completion and fulfilment.

In the plot of Clark's life, we are just on the cusp of beginning these three stages midway through Season 5. The central crisis requires that dark figures return with new strength. The hero is separated from that which is most important in the world to him and is overwhelmed by despair. In Season 5, Clark is close to reaching such a dark 'crisis'. At the start of Season 5 he lost his powers and he thinks he has gained a mortal life, but he dies, and this opportunity is taken from him forever. He loses his father, his first real experience of grief. Finally, he is close to facing a separation from his desired object, Lana. (Although at time of writing they are still technically dating, a break seems inevitable following Reckoning). Simultaneously, we see the rise of a dark figure in Lex. Lionel too is acting in mysterious dark ways. The crisis that will thrust Clark Kent forward in his journey to becoming Superman has begun.

In stage 4, we see the hero exert new 'independent strength' in a final test of strength, usually involving a battle with a dark figure who stands as a rival between them and their goal. Once this is overcome, the hero can move forward to final union, completion and fulfilment. Clark may be a long way from achieving this end, but we see the glimmers of this destiny. As Booker explains, the Rags to Riches plot is built on 'alternating phases of constriction and expansion'. The greater the crisis the hero faces, the greater their developing maturity. Smallville repeatedly alternates phases of cosntriction and expansion as Clark overcomes small goal on his path to maturity. He grows in terms of inner strength and willpower. As Booker explains, self-reliance is the goal for a hero in a Rags to Riches story.

2.3 The dark version
Booker explains how a Rags to Riches hero is essentially good-hearted. Their ascenscion to a state of 'riches' involves their good nature being recognised by others (think Cinderella, David Copperfield, Jane Eyre). However there is also a 'dark' version of the Rags to Riches story, in which the hero is in some way self-seeking rather than good-hearted, yet the story of their life follows the same pattern as that of the standard 'light' Rags to Riches plot, 'but in some way fails to arrive at its fully rewarding conclusion'.

In Smallville, Clark Kent is not the only character whose plot follows a Rags to Riches structure. He is mirrored, or shadowed, by Lex Luthor. When Smallville begins, Lex too is in an impoverished state, not financially but emotionally. The son of a wealthy businessman, Lex has not earned his superficial riches and is deeply unhappy. We learn that he has been living a debauched and empty life. When he is sent to run a fertilizer plant in Smallville, Lex's 'Call' arrives in the form of Clark Kent. Clark saves his life and Lex turns over a new leaf.

The main dark figure in Lex's life is his father, Lionel, and the patterns of constriction and release recur in Lex's ongoing conflict Lionel. At first Lex experiences dreamlike success; then Lionel ups the ante. It's a pattern we watch time and time again. These patterns often mirror the stages in Clark's own life. For example, in the season finale of Season 3, Clark is sucked into the cave wall and Jor-El tells him that he will be 'reborn'. At the same time, Lex collapses poisoned. Both curl up in mirrored embryonic posture. The mirrored poses at the end of Season 3 are typical of Smallville's use of powerful visual imagery. Both characters endure a central 'crisis' before emerging again for the cycle of success and frustration to continue.

So does Lex fit the mould of the dark version of the Rags to Riches story? In many ways he clearly does, but there is one fundamental difference between the dark version outlined by Booker and the plot presented to us in Smallville: Lex Luthor is not inherently self-seeking at the start of the series. Unlike the typical hero of a Rags to Riches story, his essential nature changes as the show goes on. So the shift is not one of society coming to recognise his good qualities, but of the hero gradually coming to reflect the negative projections of society about him.

2.4 The dark characters
Booker argues that the dark figures who overshadow a hero in the Rags to Riches stories fall into four categories, archetypes that we can recognise in the Smallville plots.

1. The Dark Father
An older male figure with power or authority over the hero. In Lex's case, Lionel is the obvious archetypal Dark Father. In Clark's case, things are more ambiguous. Dark Fathers are traditionally often stand-ins for a hero's real lost father (e.g. Copperfield's stepfather) but in Clark's plot it is his real father, Jor-El, who first appears as a threatening figure. However Jonathan Kent often holds Clark back from embracing his destiny, so the structure reflects some ambiguity here.

2. The Dark Mother
Mothers in Smallville are commonly the forces of light, a concept that is explored at the beginning of Season 4, when Martha fights to get her son back. Lex lost his mother, Lillian, at a young age and the implication is that he was defenceless against his father's dark influence. So Dark Mothers are not common. In Season 2's Lineage, Rachel Dunleavy initially appears as a potential Dark Mother. We learn that she took over a 'stepmother' like role after Lillian's death. But she proves ultimately harmless. In Season 5's Lexmas, the vision of Lillian was ambiguous: was she a force of darkness or light? The Dark Mother is perhaps the rarest of the four categories in Smallville. However, she occasionally crops up in the second-tier of characters, Genevieve Teague being the most obvious example. (If anyone can think of other examples, please let me know!)

3. The Dark Rivals
Young characters of roughly similar age and status who act as oppressors. In Clark's life these are frequently 'freaks of the week'. In Lex's life we saw a potential dark rival in Lucas, Lionel's illegitimate son. Dominic, one of Lionel's henchmen, was another dark rival in the early series, competing for status in Lionel's eyes. In the Season 4 plot arc, Jason Teague was a rival of both men, not just for the magic stones but for the 'Princess' Lana Lang as well. Dark Rivals can also be more general in nature: the derision or scorn of the world at large. This is something that Lex confronts constantly. Clark experiences not scorn, but an equivalent in misunderstanding, since he cannot reveal his powers.

4. The Dark Other Half
The fourth and most serious contender that the hero encounters. Usually of the opposite sex, 'this character holds out the possibility of union with the hero but is in fact self-seeking and treacherous or in some other way inadequate.' In Smallville, Clark's Dark Other Half is Lex Luthor, which is perhaps the strongest argument for a slash reading of the show. In the following ways, Lex fits the mould of Dark Other Half:
- he 'seduces' Clark with gifts and with generosity
- he declares their friendship as 'special' and 'destined'
- he promises union: 'our friendship will be the stuff of legends'.
As we explored above, the situation is further complicated by the fact that Lex is not yet self-seeking and treacherous, though we know that he will become so. The Smallville writers are in the unusual position of being able to exploit the audience's privileged knowledge about the character to present this ironical pardadox.

So who is Lex's Dark Other Half? The answer would seem to be Clark Kent. While Clark does not actively seduce Lex, he exerts an irresistable pull over Lex's attention that deepens into obsession. Unlike Lex, he is frequently self-seeking as we see in his pattern of asking Lex for help and giving little in return. This becomes increasingly exaggerated through the seasons. His 'treacherous' nature comes to the fore in Season 3 when Clark lies to Lex about knowing that Lionel killed his parents and about what happened when Lex was in Belle Reve. Although Clark's motives for doing so are complex and not purely 'evil', the result is that Lex remains in danger from another Dark figure, Lionel. So in practice, if not in substance, Clark functions as a Dark influence in Lex's life.

2.5 Summing up
In presenting the young life of Clark Kent and Lex Luthor, Smallville follows the pattern of the early stages of the Rags to Riches plot. It also plays on the audience's familiarity with future canon, encouraging them to project and imagine the completion of that plot in the future. However, Smallville breaks the mould of this classic plot in the following ways:
- one single moment (the car crash on Loeb bridge) symbolises the moment of the 'Call' for too different chracters
- in the 'dark' version of the Rags to Riches tale Lex Luthor is not always evil, but becomes so
- the two lead characters function as the Dark Other Half of each other.
Much of Smallville's appeal and interest lies in these unusual twists on the classic plot structure.
Current Mood: listlesslistless
Kate: Clark and Lex angstmskatej on February 19th, 2006 01:02 pm (UTC)
Chloe's mother could be considered a Dark Mother, maybe?

Also, small thing. You've got spoilers through to Reckoning (Jonathan's death), not Lexmas. *g*

You rock!!
K, Bop or Boppy--take your pick!: Chloe ironicbop_radar on February 19th, 2006 10:40 pm (UTC)
I did think of Chloe's mother. And then I thought it would be distracting to list her as I was concentrating on Clark and Lex, and then I forgot about it! So thanks.

Thanks for the spoiler pick-up. Eep! I try to be good, but I forget.
Naomi: Chloe thinks by chlarklovefrelling_tralk on February 19th, 2006 02:42 pm (UTC)
K, Bop or Boppy--take your pick!: TW grinbop_radar on February 19th, 2006 10:41 pm (UTC)
Thank you! :)
Nora Norwichnorwich36 on February 19th, 2006 08:22 pm (UTC)
I love how the "Dark Other Half" reinforces the slashy readings of SV.

K, Bop or Boppy--take your pick!: Lex hotbop_radar on February 19th, 2006 10:44 pm (UTC)
Trust me, it was better when I had that realisation as I read through the book! They fit *every* characteristic of Dark Other Half except sex/gender. (Booker sticks to conventional tales for the most part, although he does explore subversions later on, so he said that Dark Other Halves have to be of the opposite gender. Remove that sentence and his passage on them fits Clex perrrrfectly.)
Nora Norwich: inner geeknorwich36 on February 21st, 2006 12:23 am (UTC)
Well, I assume the origin of Booker's "Seven plots" is Jungian archetypes. (At any rate, *most* similar types of analysis come from Jungian archetypes). And there the Dark Other Half would be the Shadow, which in Jungian analysis is literally your other half--the parts of yourself you fear/hate/are ashamed of that you project onto other people.
K, Bop or Boppy--take your pick!: Naomi isolationbop_radar on February 21st, 2006 01:44 am (UTC)
Cute icon!
You assume correctly, insofar as it is one of his main origin's, though he also discusses Jungian limitations.
Nora Norwichnorwich36 on February 21st, 2006 03:49 am (UTC)
I am responding solely to the icon comment, because I am proud of it. (It turns out I *can't* get a discount on photoshop, so I'm still making my icons using just Paint. And I saw "Dick" for the first time this weekend--I didn't realize Michelle Williams was in it, and frankly she wasn't really even on my radar before Brokeback Mountain, but she was so *damn* cute with those 60s glasses I had to icon her. I may make it my default, actually--in those glasses and that hair she kind of looks like my mom did, circa 1972.
Nora Norwich: inner geeknorwich36 on February 21st, 2006 03:50 am (UTC)
Dammit! So unused to having multiple icons, I didn't even use the new one when I meant to! And I don't seem to be able to close parentheses if my life depends upon it!
K, Bop or Boppy--take your pick!: Jamie Bamber smrt is sexybop_radar on February 21st, 2006 04:18 am (UTC)
Tee hee! You are getting there. Multiple icons are so awesome when you get used to them, but there are still those minutes where you post and then go 'damn! I meant to use the other one...'

I'm rather fond of this new one of mine! Ain't he cute?!
Nora Norwichnorwich36 on February 21st, 2006 06:29 am (UTC)
Very damn cute!
K, Bop or Boppy--take your pick!: Lee lick herebop_radar on February 21st, 2006 04:19 am (UTC)
I've never seen 'Dick' and Michelle isn't really on my radar either... but she looks very cute. I like the daggy seventies look. So funny!
Nora Norwichnorwich36 on February 21st, 2006 06:29 am (UTC)
Oh, Dick is pretty hilarious: it's about two teenage girls who become presidential dogwalkers in President Nixon's administration and inadvertantly become "Deep Throat" (the source that brought down the administration). But you may need to know a lot about American political history to get the jokes. Though mostly it mocks Woodward and Bernstein, the journalists who broke the story.
K, Bop or Boppy--take your pick!: Smallville Shipsbop_radar on February 21st, 2006 08:52 am (UTC)
I'll have to put it on my list to rent some time!
(Deleted comment)
K, Bop or Boppy--take your pick!: Lex coolbop_radar on February 21st, 2006 10:57 pm (UTC)
That's a really interesting argument. I agree that Lillian is an ambiguous character. My personal reading of the Lillian plot is somewhat different. I don't think Lillian's actions are solely responsible for the rift between father and son. I think there are many indications that things were very unwell in that house before then. For example, in the Pilot, we saw Lionel bullying Lex into being 'brave'. We know Lionel had affairs. We see glimpses or hints that he was emotionally abusive to Lillian (and Lex!) and that this is what drove her to 'protect' Julian at all costs. The act of a mother killing their child most often happens when they feel that they are threatened. The implication is that Lillian felt this from Lionel. Yes, she suffered from psychosis, but even if it was pure projection on her part (and I don't think it was! after all, he'd already killed his parents!), why didn't Lionel get her proper help?

To what degree you read Lillian's act as one of betrayal of Lex depends on how rational you think her actions are. Personally I think it's a form of undeliberate abuse. It's no less abusive, but it's not conscious. She really wanted to protect Lex, but thought he was already 'lost'.

I do agree that Lex idealised his mother and I do agree that it damaged his relationship with his father further.

One of the reasons I didn't list Lillian as a Dark Mother is that she doesn't seem to stand between Lex and his (good) goals. She is dark though. I think her main threat to Lex is passive: it's that he may be overcome by the shadow that she casts.

If you're willing, I'd like to put a footnote to that effect, citing your comment, since it's a good point and one I know people have differing views on.
amandajane: friends buffyamandajane5 on February 22nd, 2006 12:02 am (UTC)
The essential absence of the dark mother figure here makes me think of the Buffy/Angel, and, well actually Firefly too. Okay, so Jossverse where no one has a good father. It seems here, only Clark has a good mother, and that's why he becomes the hero. Or something.

Also? This is much fun!
K, Bop or Boppy--take your pick!: Smallville Shipsbop_radar on February 22nd, 2006 02:00 am (UTC)
Yes, it's interesting. It's certainly very different to Jossverse. Fathers play a much more active role in SV.

I've thought about this a bit and I think that having both father and mother active in parenting him, does make Clark 'special'. It's as if the balance of forces is right. Whereas in other character's lives, there is some essential imbalance resulting in the mother having less role in their lives:
- Lex lost his mother young and both parents had 'dark' aspects
- Lana lost both parents
- Chloe lost her mother to mental illness
- Lois lost her mother.

I really enjoyed the start of S4 when they explored the influence of mothers. And I think it's exciting to see how Clark's relationship with his mother unfolds now Jonathan is gone.

I'm glad you are enjoying the essays! :)
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