A long long time ago, Al Gough was asked about his series: ‘how will it end?’
”Badly!” Mr. Gough said cheerfully. “It’s a tragedy—he doesn’t end up with Lana, and he and Lex are mortal enemies. How is that good?”
While fandom is often frustrated with Al&Miles’s seemingly blasé approach to their show, I think it’s interesting to know that the show’s creators are clear that the plot arc of the overall show--across five, going on six seasons--is one of tragedy.
The five stages of tragedy are:
Anticipation stage: the hero is in some way incomplete or unfulfilled and his thoughts are turned towards the future in hope of some unusual gratification--he has found a focus
Dream stage: he becomes committed to his course of action and for some time appears to be ‘getting away with it’
Frustration stage: things start to go wrong, he may be compelled to more ‘dark acts’ that lock him on his course of action more irrevocably; a ‘shadow figure’ may threaten him
Nightmare stage: things are seriously out of control and fate and forces of opposition align against the hero creating despair
Destruction or death wish stage: pretty self-explanatory, yes?!
6.1 Character arcs: Lex, Clark and Lana
The character most readily associated with the tragedy plot arc is Lex. It is easy to see how in Season 1, Lex was in an ‘Anticipation’ stage, and the source of hope and focus for him came in the shape of Clark. Seasons 1 and 2 were, relatively, ‘dream-like’ for Lex: he pursued a friendship with Clark and spoke of his belief in their destiny together. But by mid-Season 3, Lex was firmly locked in a frustration stage. ‘Shadow figure’ Lionel was threatening him more than ever before, and Lex himself had been compelled to more and more ‘dark acts’ of obsession with Clark’s true identity. Seasons 4 and 5 have seen a Lex who is facing his ‘nightmare’ stage. He has articulated a death wish to Clark. In Lexmas he experienced his own death, with his mother Lillian, this time, playing ‘shadow figure’, threatening/manipulating him with the dream image of what his life ‘could be’. His resolution coming out of that experience to pursue power and wealth signifies the finality with which he is now set on his ‘dark path’.
So Lex fits the tragedy mould. But it was not Lex that Al Gough was referring to in his quote: it was Clark. Clark also finds a focus in Season 1--through the revelation that he comes from another planet. But this is not immediately a positive ‘Call’ for Clark. Booker explains:
The great differerence between Tragedy and other kinds of story begins with the nature of the summons which draws them into that adventure. When the hero of an Overcoming the Monster story or a Quest receives the ‘Call’ … we are in no doubt it is right for him to answer it. When the hero or heroine of Tragedy reaches the same point we are uneasy.
It’s exactly this sort of uneasiness that Smallville created with the AI’s suggestion that Clark should ‘rule them with strength’. Over the seasons Clark learns more about his origins and about his destiny. However, in contrast to Lex, this is not a focus that Clark embraces willingly. He see-saws between fascination and a desire to understand himself, and horror and total rejection of himself and his past as presented to him by the AI of his father Jor-El. Seasons 1 and 2 were relatively dream-like for Clark--his powers increased but his parents protected him and he was relatively insulated from the wider world. From season 3 onwards Clark has been far more obviously in a ‘frustration’ or ‘nightmare’ phase, resisting the AI’s demands on him, and meanwhile struggling with the true consequences of his actions. He has embraced a more active ‘saviour’ role, but in Season 5 faced his biggest test yet. Clark temporarily lost his powers but his mortal life was short-lived. Returning his powers, the AI tells Clark that another life must be exchanged for his. In ‘Reckoning’ Lana dies and Clark once again fights destiny, resulting in Jonathan’s death.
In both Lex’s case and Clark’s, it is true that the tragedic plot arc does not end with the traditional resolution of character death/destruction. Although it is certainly interesting that both figures passed through a ‘death’ experience in Season 5. And there is a third figure for whom this also holds true--Lana. Lana’s ‘focus’ is not as clear as Clark’s or Lex’s. She expresses a desire to be ‘free’, to experience happiness in a relationship that is both passionate and honest, and to move beyond the narrow world of Smallville. In the early seasons we have no reason to believe that she won’t be successful, but of later her path has been far darker. In Season 4, she entered a truly nightmarish period, ending in her killing Genevieve Teague. And in Season 5 she faced death twice. Rewatching the episode ‘Relic’ recently it was fascinating to hear Lana articulate the idea that in some ways her aunt Louise was lucky--she experienced a grand love that was cut short by her death, but at least she got to be ‘free’ in the romance with Clark’s father Jor-El, albeit briefly. Lana’s own life could have mirrored that of her aunt Louise, had Clark accepted her death in the episode ‘Reckoning’. Clark’s gift of life to Lana is not necessarily a happy one for her--in the short term she experiences the collapse of their relationship and she seeks out a dangerous near-death experience of her own in ‘Void’. This near-death experience is a turning point for Lana, as it was for Lex and Clark. Season 5 ends with her aligning herself with Lex, now a figure of darkness.
Booker writes: ’It is the very essence of Tragedy that the hero or heroine should become, step by step, separated from other people.’ In the episode ‘Hourglass’ we were given a vision of the future of two lonely individuals: Clark and Lex. In each of their visions they appeared alone in a cold and desolate landscape. Many fans interpreted Clark’s vision as one of longevity--that he would outlive all those he love (and whose gravestones surrounded him). We are told that Lex likewise will end up alone, though his solitude may be self-created. No equivalent image of the future has been shown for Lana, but she’s already lost many of the important figures in her life--indeed death overshadows her whole life. In Season 5 she lost not only another high-school sweetheart in Clark, but also a best friend in Chloe, who protects Clark’s secret.
As the hero or heroine embarks on a tragic course, they draw away from their network of relationships. Often they separate themselves in the most violent way possible--by causing other people’s deaths. Booker outlines four classic types of victim who are particularly likely to suffer as a result of the hero’s reckless course. They are all recognisable from the Smallville universe. They are (with examples from SV):
1. the Good Old Man (Jonathan in Clark’s plot)
2. the Rival or ‘Shadow’ (Jason Teague in Lex’s plot)
3. the Innocent Young Girl (Kyla, Alicia, potentially Lana, in Clark’s plot)
4. the Temptress (Helen in Lex’s plot).
Some of these deaths are ‘accidental’ yet they are all traceable in some way to the actions of the hero--they all result because of a collision between that character and the hero’s plot trajectory.
Tragedy traditionally ends with ‘an incomplete, egocentric figure who meets a lonely and violent end’--and as Booker points out this figure, once the hero, resembles the Monster of earlier plots. With the knowledge of future canon, viewers of Smallville may be resigned to the idea that Lex’s endpoint is as Monster. But surely that’s not what Al Gough was suggesting for Clark? or for Lana? Possibly not, but I actually think there’s a lot of ambiguity in this aspect of the Smallville universe. Clark’s capacity for greatness, for saving humanity, is explored, but so too is the ‘dark’ side of that power--the necessity of constant deceit and the resulting breakdown of relationships (with Lex and Lana), the self-sacrifice, the guilt associated with responsibility on such a great scale, and the possibility of great wrongs. When Clark says to Chloe in Season 5, ‘I think I have made a great mistake’, he acknowledges that his own actions have led to the death of another. At the very least, Clark’s tragedy is that he must live with that knowledge for the rest of his life.
And Lana? Could she end as an ‘incomplete, egocentric figure’? Yes, I think she could be. As we’ve seen in exploring the ways she figured in the earlier plots, she was often set up for union with the hero figure (Clark) after darkness was overcome--this resolution will not come. There are already signs that her path is increasingly egocentric and obsessive. It is hard to imagine a happy ending for Lana that would work within the framework that Smallville has set up.
6.2 Final observations
There are two observations I’d like to make before ending this essay and moving to the final plot: rebirth. The first is that while both Clark’s journey and Lex’s journey can be read as tragedic, there is one significant difference between them: that of agency. Lex has free will. Yes, an incredible series of circumstances result in leading him on a path of darkness, but he’s self-aware throughout the journey. In this way he’s the far more traditional tragedic hero--struggling with his conscience while being inexorably drawn into obsession and darkness. Clark’s tragedic path is thrust upon him and he rails against it--or is it the very railing itself that creates the tragedy? If Clark had submitted to Jor-El’s ultimatums much tragedy would have been avoided--or would he have become a tyrant? Fandom opinion is divided; the show itself is ambiguous. But the result is a hero who is just as tormented by his conscience as Lex, but not even the audience is always sure which is the right path to ‘goodness’. Unlike Lex, Clark denies his own agency--he lacks self-awareness and so his journey is more like that of someone stumbling through a forest in the dark than someone making clear but difficult decisions that result in dreadful consequences. But the results of Clark’s stumbling are just as dreadful as that of Lex’s conscious decisions. Who is the greater ‘Monster’--the self-aware decision-maker or the guilt-ridden, responsibility-avoider? It’s more a matter of audience perception than you might at first suspect.
The final observation I wish to make is that I think it’s fascinating that a show like Smallville is constructed as Tragedy. On the surface this is a show obsessed with romance, beauty, perfection, the American ideal. It’s light-weight entertainment with classic heroes and villains… isn’t it?
Up next, the final and perhaps most fascinatingly relevant plot: Rebirth.