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Smallville: Seven Basic Plots (Part V)

Previous Parts here

5. Comedy
The fifth of Booker's seven plots is Comedy, a plot which has evolved historically. (Important note: A plot may contain humour without being a Comedy. The Comedy described here follows a specific model.) Booker tracks it through three stages: Aristophanes, the 'New Comedy' and Shakespeare. Booker equates the Comedy plot to a jigsaw puzzle: at first it seems muddled and confusing, but in the end the pieces fit perfectly together and there seems only one way they could have ended up. There may be four interrelated ingredients:
1. Characters who have become 'dark' must be softened and liberated in some act of self-recognition and change of heart.
2. The identity of one or more characters may have to be revealed in a more literal sense. They are discovered as someone other than had been supposed.
3. Characters must discover who they are meant to be with: they must find their 'other half'.
4. Where there is division, separation or loss, this must be repaired.
As Booker summarises: The one thing of which we can be certain in a Comedy is that the happy ending cannot be reached until everyone has emerged into the full light of day, all disguises are thrown off and the characters no longer seen to be anything other than what they are.

Doesn't sound much like Smallville, does it? Comedy is the first of what I think of as the three most complex and variagated of Booker's Seven Plots. The other two are Tragedy and Rebirth, which I will tackle next. Like the Quest plot, it was not at first an obvious choice to cover, but I discovered that it would be deceptive and incomplete not to cover the way this plot resonates in Smallville. Because it does explain some of the ways we respond to the show as viewers.

After spending two lengthy chapters tracking the variations of the Comedy plot through more than two millennia, Booker summarises the essence of the Comedy plot in three stages. In the first, there is a world of people who have passed under a shadow of confusion, uncertainty and frustration, shut off from one another. In the second, the confusion gets worse under the pressure of darkness, in a nightmarish tangle. Finally, with the coming to light of things not previously recognised, perceptions are dramatically changed. The shadows are dispelled, the situation is transformed, and the world is brought together in joyful union. In some ways, the world of Smallville is similar to the world of a Comedy in the first of the three stages. The reasons for these are threefold, and I explore them below.

5.1. Masked identities
A common trope in Comedies is for people's identities to be masked. The theme of masked identities is a prominent one in the Smallville universe as well. The most obvious instance of this is that Clark masks his identity as Kal-El. Initially this is a truth he must uncover (his parents reveal his true identity to him in the Pilot and he gradually uncovers more information about his heritage). Smallville exploits every aspect of what hiding his identity means to Clark, from being unable to play football to relationship worries. It is interesting that the act of sex is one that Clark is so anxious about, because his anxiety seems to centre on being (or not being) one's true self with the loved one. This is classic Comedy territory: there is no happy ending until the hero and heroine have uncovered their true selves and accepted their mutual destiny together. As explored in Season 5, there is no such happy ending for Clark and Lana, because Clark's identity must remain hidden.

But Clark is not the only character with a masked identity. Here are some other examples. In Season 2, Chloe hides her true feelings for Clark ('I'm the girl of your dreams masquerading as you best friend'). From the beginning, we wonder if Lex hides a darker, shadow persona. The episode 'Zero', for example, raises questions about Lex's motives and past. Do we take his word on events or not? Is his 'Luthor' persona just a mistake, is he a good person underneath it, or is the reverse true: he is a true Luthor with the appearance of being genuine. Lana too, has hidden aspects. She sometimes appears to be Clark's destined Other Half, but sometimes appears to be destined for someone else, and she develops a dark side, being drawn into muddy waters with the Teagues and with Lex, for example. Lois is Clark's true 'other half', but this is completely obscured to all concerned, and Smallville exploits this case of mistaken identity to true comic effect. And it doesn't end there... many other characters, including Martha and Jonathan, have secrets in their past or dark emotions that they wish to hide.

So Smallville shows us a world of hidden selves that could be 'brought up into the light' as Booker describes the typical Comedy plot doing. Smallville often teases us with this possibility, but the ultimate untangling that is part of the Comedy plot's traditional resolution never occurs and we know it can never occur, for Clark's identity must remain hidden.

5.2. The Other Half
Many Comedy plots revolve around finding one's true Other Half. Smallville characters are similarly preoccupied with the redemptive, mythic and fairy-tale aspects of finding one's True Love. Clark is convinced this is Lana for most of his youth, though, as latcxvi has recently pointed out, he may be beginning to doubt this belief. Lex has recently attached this importance to Lana, though previously he had attributed his romantic notions of destiny to Clark. Lana herself has substituted various figures for her 'Other Half', though she is at her most impassioned in believing it to be Clark. In the grip of a major conviction about one's Other Half, the character often asserts that their love was instant ('I've loved you since the day I first saw you') and is eternal ('I've always loved you', 'I will always love you', 'Our friendship will be the stuff of legend'). At times, this appears absurd to the audience, who can see things clearly. In many ways, we are like the audience of a traditional Comedy, who are free to giggle about the hero's professions of eternal love for the 'wrong' heroine. We are in the privileged position of knowing that in fact ALL of these characters are wrong. No matter who we ship, we know that Lex and Clark will become enemies, Clark and Lois will end up together and Lana will end up married to someone else entirely (although it is unclear in the Smallville universe exactly where she will end up, since a union with Pete seems sadly unlikely). So Smallville is a world of characters in the grip of confusion about their destined others.

Once again, the ultimate untangling of these muddled plots is tantalisingly out of reach for both the characters and us as the audience. But just because the Comedy plot is not seen through to resolution, doesn't mean that the Smallville writers don't play with it. Actaully I think they pull on the strings of this plot quite often, exploiting our desires to see things 'work out'. The Asylum/Shattered arc was for me as a Clex shipper one of the most effective uses of this emotional knife-twist. Lex experiences a psychotic break during which he confronts the truth about his father (that he is a murderer) and the truth about Clark (that he's not human). Lionel's 'bad' nature and Clark's 'good' nature are hidden truths that have been lurking in the shadows of Lex's mind for some time. If Lex can retain these truths he too may ascend into the light and achieve a happy ending. This 'carrot' is dangled to us as viewers when Clark attempts to rescue him from the asylum. But this resolution is ripped away from us and from Lex. His memory is wiped and Clark conceals the truth of what has happened in the missing weeks, driving another nail into the coffin of their relationship.

I am sure you can think of other examples of times when Smallville has promised an 'untangling', only to jerk it out of reach (Reckoning was one for the Clana shippers, Tempest for the Chlana shippers).

5.3 The Dark Character and Redemption
The other part of a Comedy plot that Smallville toys with is the dark character who, if he could be redeemed, would trigger the resolution of tangled threads and the 'righting' of the universe. In some Comedy plots, there is a dark figure who dominates everyone else in such a way that creates unhappiness and creates confusion. In Smallville, this figure is seen in Lionel, whose presence and influence is corrupt and damaging. In the early seasons, when Lex appears to be a 'Light' character, it is Lionel who overshadows things and it is his contact with him that creates a rift between Lex and Clark. From the very beginning, Jonathan is suspicious of Lex because of his father, and Lionel also gets between Martha and Jonathan. (Aside: This is another parallel with typical Comedy plots: two generations mirroring one another with tangled love plots in both.) Lionel plays a complex role in the Smallville universe, but at one point he does undergo a change of heart. In Season 4, after switching bodies with Clark in Transference, he claims to have a new 'good' self, which he explores until provoked by Alexander (evil!Lex) in Onyx. This is yet another case of Smallville teasing its audience with the possibility of a Comedic 'happy ending'. In this case, Lionel's redemption comes too late, and tragically his son is the one to reverse things and unlock the darkness in both of them.

In other Comedy plots, it is the hero himself who is the dark figure. He is confused or shadowed by some Dark emotion. In these plots the heroine stands for the ability to see truly and be whole. To reach a happy ending, the hero must 'come to himself' and recognise that his path lies with her. The season 5 exploration of a connection between Lana and Lex reflects this type of plot. The final hope for Lex being returned to Light may lie in Lana and his ability to be honest with her. Together they may be able to help their Light selves to gain strength over their darker aspects... or not. In Lexmas, we see that Lex views Lana as this sort of beacon of light. In some ways this is a simplistic projection, but aren't such Comedy endings always simplistic? The curtain drops on the happy couples and we assume that 'All's Well that Ends Well'.

5.4 Summing up
Except in Smallville that won't be the case and we know it. The ending is not happy. There will be no neat pairing off of couples old and young. There will be threads left unresolved. There will be hope for the future, but also further tragedies in store. As we have seen, the full Comedy plot is never realised in entirety in the Smallville universe, yet the Smallville writers use classic Comedy tropes to explore ideas and to provoke particular emotions in the audience. Using the Comedy plot in incomplete form works as a form of suspense because the audience is drawn into wishing against all odds for that elusive 'happy ending'. I have only touched on come of the instances when Smallville does this, but I hope it is enough to show that the Comedy plot does have a bearing on our response to Smallville.

So if the greater plot arc of Smallville is not a Comedy, what is it? I have two final essays in this series in which to resolve that question. I hope to have time to write them this week, but a work conference looms, so I'll do my best, but sadly can't promise more!

PS. Because I am in a share-the-love mood: the Grey's Anatomy Soundtrack is great and you should all get it.

ETA: Now without the cuttags and tags buggered up!
Tags: 7 plots, smallville_meta
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