Ok, it may be early to call it, but I'm nominating this episode as worst of Season 6 for a myriad of reasons. I found it agonising. Let's start with the premise. When BtVS adopted this plot (the 'maybe I'm just insane and have hallucinated my life' plot), many of my friends loved the episode in question finding it original and clever. I found it cliched and transparently obvious--I think because I'm a sci-fi/Trek watcher, and this is one of the oldest premises around in sci-fi. It CAN work--but if you've seen it on a few different shows, you need it to be well-written and preferably have a fresh twist. BtVS's version wasn't fresh, but it sure as hell was better written than this episode. So I groaned at the premise but was prepared to tough it out.
However, it quickly became apparent that the writers had made a fundamental structural mistake. For an episode of this sort to work, the central character (Clark) needs to be the viewer avatar--his reactions need to be those of the viewer. However, the alternate reality was so implausible that I experienced a massive disconnect from Clark's reactions. Take the first scene in which Clark is mocked for making up 'phantom zoners' and 'krypto-freaks'. If this was a genuine therapy session, why would other patients be allowed to mock his psychosis?! Clark responds at first by flailing at his fate, screaming 'why am I here?!' This was forgiveable as first shock and also as a melodramatic opener. But it didn't end there.
Clark declares 'I'm not crazy' but at no time does he consider even baselevel possiblities like 'could this all be a dream?' And it's not as if Clark has not experienced alternate or altered realities or mind control before! We've seen some really successful examples in Slumber and Splinter. But Clark's first (only) assumption in this instance is that it's Lex who has set him up. And while that created some amusing dialogue ('Lex is part of your fantasy world'/'He's always wanted to get me under his microscope'), it also makes NO SENSE because Lex is not privy to all of this information that Clark has supposedly poured out--he doesn't know that Clark is the son of Jor-El and he doesn't know about the Zoners. So how could he have created this set-up?
And there were all sorts of things that did not ring true about the supposed 'reality' being sold to Clark--the doctor says his birth parents died in the meteor shower. But if Clark is not the son of Jor-El, there is no good reason why there would have BEEN a meteor shower. And Clark did not know about his true heritage until he was a teenager--so the idea that it was a 'make-believe' world invented by a traumatised kid doesn't wash. All of this is just sloppy writing. It would have been far more convincing to have changed details only from the point when Clark found out about his heritage onwards. Even so, if Clark had reacted with the same incredulity as the reader experienced, he could have functioned as a more successful viewer avatar. Instead, he bought into this new reality ridiculously early, long before Lana got pulled out as his supposed emotional greenK.
Another failure of this episode, for me, was in the lack of classic Smallville iconography. With the whites and greys, the aesthetic was markedly different from (for example) Belle Reve, but to no purpose--it didn't symbolise anything (other than the fact that it COULD have tipped Clark off that he wasn't in the 'real' reality!) Visually, there were some spectacular shots--like running across the snow--but they were meaningless. They didn't serve any purpose. This is so unlike Smallville. Snow could have been used (for example) to evoke memories of his father's death. One of the only instances where they employed classic imagery was in Chloe's plot with the expanded wall of weird. That was a nice touch. Other than that, it was ridiculous. And when we saw all the props in the institution that Clark had supposedly drawn on to create his reality, they were really basic too. Jorel as soap?! Please! Oliver as 'employee of the month'?! But that is NOT HOW CLARK SEES HIM. That scene COULD have been clever and instead it was just farcical and I totally felt as if the ep was written by people that had no real grasp of classic Smallville imagery or symbolism and that makes me very, very unhappy.
Of all the people Clark encounters, I thought Chloe was the only one who was potentially interesting. The idea that she was also an inmate could have worked, because it reflects the fact that Clark and Chloe are 'alone against the world' protecting a secret. I liked that Clark connected with her as an ally, but it didn't really go anywhere. And I really hated that Clark 'protected' Chloe by not telling her that she was a mental institution patient in his dream--I get that he didn't want to remind her that mental illness runs in her family but a) mental illness should NOT be a stigma Clark--get that through your thick skull! and b) YOU WERE A MENTAL INSTITUTION PATIENT TOO!! Arrrgh! And that line about really appreciating her just annoyed me because he doesn't tell her that normally--only when he's feeling bad about having imagined her as insane. GRR.
I thought Kristin and Michael acted their little hearts out ... for nothing. Lex's scene was instantly compelling, but it was purposeless because it too MADE NO SENSE. This is a common mistake in episodes using this premise, but even though the accident happened five years ago, Lex appeared to be still as emotional about it as if it had happened a week ago. Dramatically that's ok, but only if you don't really analyse it--only Clark and the viewer are supposed to be questioning everything. *flails around in anger* The lead-in to this scene was ridiculous too (Chloe tells Clark to be careful and he goes straight to confront Lex EVEN THOUGH HE HAS NO POWERS), as was the cut-away:
Lex: OMG, my life has been ruined by you!
Clark: Huh. ... I'm gonna go check out the Talon now.
By the way, it seems that Clark REALLY hates disability and cripples, eh?! Because he was SO OVERJOYED that Lex really had legs that he was able to be civil to him and smile at him serenely in the Talon. Dude, Lex is your ARCHNEMESIS! Way to mindfuck him with the line 'good to see you out and about'! Except it wasn't a deliberate mindfuck, it was just prejudice.
Clark fails to use anything beyond level 1 deductive reasoning throughout the entire episode. At best he only gets as far as asking a question: 'why are you in my barn, Lana?' Actually Clark behaves as if he is a paranoid schizophrenic--but for no good reason--there was no exposition at the end to explain that the alien had created Splinter-like paranoia in Clark. Yet everytime Clark tried to 'make sense' of the reality he was thrust into he responded with simple paranoia. And this makes no character sense to me because Clark's deductive reasoning under normal circumstances has been improving this season. He's capable of drawing conclusions and making decisions independently of Chloe... but not in this episode. We're right back in dependent-Clark-land here and it made for very frustrating viewing. Not to mention the incredibly obviously manipulative devices provided by the vision--Lana always having loved him? They pushed that too far. Martha married to Lionel: legitimate fear, but Jonathan's death (for example) was unexplained.
Furthermore, once Clark finally escaped (not through any real mental breakthrough of his own), he still responded purely with emotion and no logic to what he'd gone through. He didn't learn anything from the experience, he didn't discuss with Chloe the fact that Zoners may be able to mentally manipulate him in the future, so perhaps he should learn to watch out for that. And he didn't talk about his rescue by Jon Jonzz--that infuriated me! You'd think he'd be slightly curious. But no! What we got instead was the (shock!) realisation that Clark is still in love with Lana. BIG SURPRISE.
This episode could have explored so much--it could have been a 'what would Smallville have been like if Clark wasn't an alien' episode, a 'what if Clark really COULD lead a normal life' episode--instead the only revelation we got was that the Clana still exists. And not even in an interesting way! I could actualy get behind the Clana (more than most people, I suspect), except that Clark did the stupidest thing possible which was mention his 'dream' to her. Only last episode Lana was begging him to show her it wasn't over, and here he is telling her that he had a dream about proposing to her as a small child? MINDFUCK. Nice, Clark, real nice! (As with his call to Lex, I would have been ok with it if the mindfuck had been deliberate, but it was unconscious: apparently Clark is an imbecile now.)
Other random things that made no sense or otherwise annoyed me:
- Clark was bizarrely weaker than the security guards to begin with but then gradually gained strength--was this supposed to reflect his conviction increasing? him gradually adjusting to having only human-level strength? UNCLEAR.
- Why did the institution's guards wear BOWTIES?! If anything screams 'dreamscape' to me, that does!
- Chloe's new haircut first appears in the vision reality, and then in the show. That's just sloppy. We could fanwank that Clark's already seen it, but the viewer doesn't know that, so there's a disconnect moment when she appears for real.
- Who the hell would buy that being conscious while a steel drill was inserted in your head was a legitimate therapy? But was it THAT that clued Clark off? No. It was a frigging DOG BARKING. *despairs*
- Oh and Shelby was not even the same dog--that's probably unavoidable but it still contributed to my disconnection from the episode.
This is what I got out of this episode:
- Clark is very pretty
- Jorel as a soap brand is HILARIOUS.
Yes. I am premenstrual. But this episode was still SHITE. *cries*