The parallels between Oracle and Vessel are obvious. Both episodes pose one central question: is there anything that would make Clark Kent kill? Let's add 'deliberately' and 'with premediation' and 'a non-freak' to that sentence, because let's face it, Clark's caused the death of many a character before now! Chloe, Clark's staunchest supporter, first asks this question aloud in Oracle, but it echoes throughout Vessel as well. In Oracle, Clark's 'goodness' was proved in the moment when he refused to kill Lionel despite all the incriminating evidence he has against him, despite a lifetime of suspicion and mistrust of the Luthors, and (most significantly) despite provocation to vengeance in knowing that Lionel precipitated his father's death. If Clark won't kill a longtime enemy who he holds at least partially responsible for his father's death, who will he kill?
In Vessel, Clark faces a far darker and more difficult dilemma. He is told that he must kill the 'vessel', the human means by which Zod will return. And the vessel is Lex. In Oracle, the instruction to kill appeared to come from Jonathan but proved to be an evil force in disguise. In Vessel, Clark's other father-figure, Jor-El, tells him that he must kill the vessel 'no matter who it is' (implying Jor-El suspects that Zod may choose his vessel deliberately to make Kal-el's job emotionally challenging). Faced with a parallel situation, Clark chooses to believe that there is a 'way out', a way to avoid killing the vessel. He turns the knife on Fine, just as he did in Oracle. And then we see how layered Fine's deception and manipulation of Clark has been--it is by stabbing Fine that Clark opens the other dimension and facilitates Zod's return. Paralleled situations are omnipresent in Smallville plots, but rarely has one been used to such good 'twist' effect, and with such damning consequences to the main character. The subtle message behind this--that Clark cannot rely on one set of actions alone to overcome his adversaries--was also a welcome, if rare (!), complexity.
To kill or not to kill
Vessel was a fast-paced episode, as we would expect with a season finale. There was little time for Clark to dwell on the question of killing Lex. In one scene only does he consciously reflect on his dilemma, and unexpectedly he does so with Lionel. In terms of pace, this scene was out of kilter with the rest of the episode, but it was emotionally extremely significant and successful. Lionel observes that the knife could be the symbol of a 'rite of passage' from a father to a son. (Does that justify violence, Lionel?) Clark then confides in Lionel, who encourages Clark to do 'one evil act' for the greater good. Clark then shares the crux of the issue with Lionel--'even if it's your son?' We see Lionel catch his breath at this and reel back in shock.
I loved the way this scene worked on so many layers. It paralleled Jor-El and Lionel as morally ambiguous father figures and demonstrated Clark's maturity in being able to face complexity. He does not immediately dismiss Lionel's arguments, as he would have once. The fact that the interaction occurs within the loft underlines the fact that Clark is allowing Lionel unprecedented access to his inner world. It also teases out the idea that it is not the rational or moral aspects of the question 'to kill or not to kill' that Clark is most strugging with--it is the emotional aspect. Clark and Lionel are paralleled as 'father figures' to Lex. Later in the episode, Lex accuses Clark of seeing himself as a 'saviour figure' to Lex, as playing a defining role in creating the man Lex is. Lex can point the finger at two men who 'fathered' his current identity--Lionel deliberately and Clark unconsciously. Lex argues that Clark suffers subconsciously from guilt about being a failed 'parent' figure. He also mocks Clark's egotism in seeing himself as so influential, yet we know that the truth is more complex than Lex admits.
For years we have wondered if Lionel was capable of killing his son. He has at times had both opportunity and motive, but has shied away from the final act. His emotional investment in Lex may be abusive, but it is a tie that binds. Clark now has a similarly complex investment in Lex. They may be superficial 'enemies', but their history binds them, and the emotional consequences of killing Lex may be more than Clark would be capable of living with. Chloe may be able to be blithe about the need to kill Lex, but Clark will be damning himself on many levels if he does so.
Lionel argues that there has always been 'a dark force at work' in Lex. That's a nice way of abnegating parental responsibility. Clark could argue this to himself. He could choose to believe that Zod (through Fine) chose Lex for his 'darkness', and that that justifies killing him. But does Clark really believe that, even now? I don't think so. It's a fear he holds, certainly, but I think it's a fear he still hopes will be proved groundless.
I forgave that damn implausible vaccine the moment that Fine turned it on Lex. Yes, I'm very fickle! But yay, cartoon-world greatness! A super-vaccine that gives Lex healing powers? I like it!
I loved the writing of Lex's discovery of his new powers ('I have been given a gift'), and the fact that his first act was to share this news with a shocked and apprehensive Lana. Like Clark in Red, Lex flamboyantly shoots his own hand to prove his invinceability. He doesn't dress the truth up in romance or magic--the contrast to Clark's confession of his powers to Lana in Reckoning could not be greater. Where Clark made his confession a romantic and magical excursion to another world, Lex simply turned up in his own home and demonstrated the truth quickly and violently. He didn't agonise over Lana's understandable shock, he simply presented her with the truth, knowing that that was the quickest way to her heart.
Rise of a superpower
The framing of Zod on the Luthorcorp roof goes down as one of my all-time favourite Smallville shots--the red sky, the full moon, the black coat! Yum! However, before we get to that, I'd also like to say I adored the barn scene. Rarely has there been a Smallville scene shot in such shadow and I loved that Clark's darkest moment, facing hard truths about himself and Lex and putting himself on the line, played out in his own space. Lex and Fine together have penetrated his subconscious and cast a long shadow, but Clark himself is stronger than ever before. Yet Fine cleverly turns Clark's moral 'strength' against him, and the portal is opened for Zod to return.
'You have your father's eyes' was a wonderfully creepy first line from Zod. Nice to know his priorities lie close to Lex's own! (Nice hair… nice eyes… we know!) I was delighted that Zod was such a master of zen calm. No evil cackling or hand wringing to be seen! Just slick and smooth evil, and he sure ruffled Clark quickly. Identifying Clark as 'Kal-el' and reminding him of his family heritage was a good first step. Telling him Lex was dead twisted the knife in further. Clark may not have killed Lex with the knife, but the result was the same, and we see Clark wince.