My viewing of 'Promise' was punctuated by a lot of startled exclamations, ranging from gasps of shock to bursts of laughter. I loved some aspects, I hated other aspects. It was... odd. Visually it was absolutely spectacular, and I'd give it some points for plot twists. The three-part structure and the final reveals worked for this unspoiled viewer. I think I approve of its intentions. However, some of the execution was clunky.
On the other hand, Tom looked absolutely spectacularly beautiful. Oh, Tom, I've missed you! *happy sigh*
For once I'm going to get the complaining over with early.
- Chloe, WHAT THE HELL? Sorry, you do not agree to be Maid of Honour if you think your best friend is marrying a 'monster'. And you get NO POINTS for pulling that two-faced shit, reassuring Lex that she'll show after all and then making emo-face when she does. You think she shouldn't marry Lex? Maybe you should think about YOUR conscience for once, rather than Clark's or Lana's and open your trap and TELL HER THAT. NO LOVE.
- The sudden reappearance of Nell was improbable in the extreme. They suddenly desparately needed Lana to have a parent figure to confide in (to balance Lex confiding in Lionel and Clark in Martha) and so they dredged her up. Great. Pity you couldn't have done that all those times in the last couple of seasons when she might have actually been useful. *eyeroll*
- Martha, WHAT THE HELL? You too get NO POINTS for doing a ridiculous backflip in characterisation and suddenly implying to your son that he's just a bit commitment phobic. This despite you having been supportive of his initial break-up with Lana and then, far more recently, giving him a 'snap out of it already' speech. Oh, and then you have the nerve to show up at the wedding. NO LOVE.
- Lex, I give you slightly more leeway because I love you and I do buy that you're very vulnerable today. Also, because your speech about looking down and wanting to be able to pull strings and make people do what you wanted was wonderfully delivered. But honestly? Talking to your father? Biiiiiig mistake. Thought we were past that. I'll hand-wave that as Lionel having done a superbly good job of fooling everyone that he has changed. HA! No.
Some random observations:
- Apparently Lana really clarts on the lippy in Clark's dreamscape.
- I liked Clark taking his angst out on the barn (and the bales of hay).
- I love how Clark totally doesn't need an excuse to bust into the Luthor mansion. Chloe doesn't even tell him she's trapped before he appears. What if she just needed verbal advice, Clark? Huh?! Oh, that's right. You don't do verbal. Also, you really needed to work out some aggression and better the Luthor mansion than your own barn, right?
- Proposing to Shelby? TOO FUNNY.
Lana Lang: tragic heroine
Much has been written about the way Lana is objectified in the Smallville universe, and this episode potentially compounded that, with Lex obtaining the 'trophy' of Lana, stealing him from his enemy Clark. Alternatively the hero (Clark) could have overcome the ultimate obstacle and saved Lana from the 'monster' (Chloe actually uses this language early in the episode). In many classic plots, the hero uniting with the heroine in marriage ('happy ever after') is a symbol of the 'righting' of the universe. All is back in order, the struggle is over, the obstacles overcome. But nothing is 'right' in this universe.
I've always argued that Smallville is a tragedy. Lex's journey most obviously fits this mould. Clark's story is one of great sacrifice; he becomes a hero, but at what cost? His is a life of great loneliness. I could see, I could feel how Smallville was continuing to frame both their journeys as tragedies. However, I was always less sure of how this would work for Lana. In 'Promise' they really showed me how she fit within the tragic structure. Yes, it was ridiculously melodramatic. And I suspect a lot of fans are going to react with a 'meh, it's Lana, why should I care?' response. However, the meta geek in me really really really loves that this part of the triangle has clicked into place at last.
Very few episodes of Smallville have done a good job of putting me in Lana's perspective, but this one did. I've always been aware, as a viewer, of how rarely I have a good handle on Lana's view of things. The vast majority of the time we see things from Clark's perspective (the creators have discussed how even the lighting can reflect where we are in Clark's emotional landscape). We used to be in Lex's perspective more often, but this has been rare since Season 4. We're occasionally in other characters' perspectives (Chloe, Martha, Lois) for the purpose of plot. By structuring this episode in three parts--Clark, Lex, Lana--she was given equal status in this episode as a 'perspective' character, not just an objectified ideal.
But it was more subtle than just structure. Having recently attempted to vid from Lana's perspective, I am super-conscious of how incredibly rare it is for the director, for the camera to put us in Lana's perspective. And yet, they did so on multiple occasions in this episode. Even before we reached Lana's official 'third' of the episode, the director had done a good job of making Lana sympathetic to the audience. We are introduced to her in this episode with a gorgeous shot of her face, so vulnerable and tender, as she watches the ultrasound image of her child. This reminds us that she is being manipulated, since we know there is something suspicious about the pregnancy. We next see her gasping as she's laced into her corset--such a great metaphor for the way her relationship constrains her. It's an hint of what's to come.
Lana's section of this episode is the third of three times that we are led through the day of the wedding. Hers is therefore the 'reveal' section, and this privileges her character. This is Lana's story. This is her tragedy and her sacrifice. We relive scenes from Lana's perspective, seeing the other side of the experience: her conflicted feelings, her uncertainty, her joy, her fear. And then we're shown Lionel's manipulation of Lana, which will explain what is to follow, though Lex and Clark are ignorant of it.
There are so, so many ways in which Lana's story is tragic, some of them immediately obvious, others more subtle:
- Clark feared telling her the truth about his secret would endanger her. He withholds it, loses her, she finds it out anyway and it's still dangerous to her.
- Lana's finally grown to the point where she can tell Clark that he doesn't 'owe' her the truth (and I believe she's genuine in that sentiment, for we've seen her reach that place with Chloe too), yet now's the time when he really would have told her.
- Clark shows at the Church, so that Lana must face him while she says 'I do' to Lex.
- Lana truly loves Lex, I believe that. But due to the manner of the manipulation, she enters the marriage not in a spirit of love. Yet she does want to love him, she doesn't blame Lex for this. I think that's why she manages to summon up some real anger when Clark asks what Lex as done, and certainly why she's able to tell Clark that she loves Lex. But even if the scary pregnancy was out of the picture, it would be so hard for this marriage to be truly happy now.
- Lana (like Lex and Clark) has long been judged on surface level. She was introduced to us as a little girl in fairy princess costume trying to turn a frog into a prince. She's far from perfect, but she's continually viewed that way by others. That's her tragedy. Underneath, her life is full of toads not princes. In the final scenes of this episode, with Lex and Lana leaving the church, the surface level image traps Lana as it always has. She puts on a smiling face, a beautiful 'princess' of a bride, but underneath she's manipulated and devastated. Lionel's trapped her in a picture frame forever.
- In hiding in the wine cellar, Lana gains the chance to observe the truth about not just one best friend, but two. While the emphasis was naturally on her getting complete and unequivocal proof of Clark's powers, she also saw another side to Chloe. She hears her call Lex a 'monster', she hears her say she'd wish that Clark would 'save her' from a terrible life. That's pretty confronting--it leaves Lana in an extremely lonely position. She'd recently rekindled her friendship with Chloe. Now that illusion has been shattered.
There is one key reason why I was finally sold on Lana's plot here. Her sacrifice is voluntary. She has every reason to fear Lionel, and no reason not to believe that what he says about being able to kill Clark. The stakes are set too high for her to risk it. She could lose everyone if she did: Lex and Clark. And it costs her. I do believe that. She walked down that aisle for Clark, to protect him. Supposedly the most selfish character in the Smallville universe, she made a great sacrifice in the belief (mistaken) that she was protecting a great hero.
Lana Lang, this one's all yours! *toasts*
Paralleling Clark and Lex
However absurd it was at a textual level (and it WAS absurd) Lex and Clark are paralleled as equally possible husbands in this episode. We see Clark looking out a suit (a black, funereal outfit), we see Lex toying with a ring. Later we see Lex suiting up, ready for the wedding, and then Clark toying with a ring. Clark digs out a photograph of him and Lana at the ball--in formal outfits, it's as close to a wedding photo as he could find. Both men wore black and white predominantly in this episode. They are dressed surprisingly alike, and at different times black or white costuming was used to indicate their potential 'goodness' or 'evilness' (e.g. Lex white and pure in Clark's dream, Lex in dark suit murdering someone in reality).
This episode was surprisingly 'kind' to Lex. He killed someone with his bare fists in cold blood in a fit of rage. On the journey towards full villainhood, that's got to warrant a mention. However, this act was completely overshadowed by Lionel, who stepped out from behind a curtain and revealed himself once again (where are we? Season One?) as the puppetmaster. Not only has he manipulated Lana into marrying Lex, but he even covers up Lex's killing, gaining yet another advantage over him.
We were in imagery overload with a dead body in the crypt, the bridegroom washing blood off his hands, a spot of blood left on his cuff... Lex's glory moment, walking down the stairs of the church with Lana, is undermined, just as Lana's is. Superficially he gets what he claims to have wanted--Clark there on his wedding day to see him 'win'--but like Lana, he's actually putting a 'brave' face on it. He's just sold himself into Lionel's hands once and for all.
Nightmares: prophecies and recollections
Clark's dream is prophetic. By trying to steal his fiancee on his wedding day, he stabs Lex in the back. Lana then tells him that she loves Lex. He doesn't believe it, but while he's protesting, Lana sacrifices herself and her child, impaling herself on the same knife that stabbed Lex in the back. Their love for each other is what hurts (kills) Lex. It couldn't be clearer.
I love, love, LOVED Lex's dream of his scary freak baby on the big screen. (Oh, Lex!) The baby's image initially appears normal, but Lex is studying it in great detail (zoom in). Suddenly the baby turns towards Lex in a move of acknowledgment that it's being viewed. It's eyes fly open revealing it's vacant, alien status. Lex wakes with a start. Is this dream prophetic in any way? My hunch is it is, and as nightmares-of-one's-own-creation go, that one tops all.
Lana's dream is a memory, one that has recently resurfaced. She relives her moments in the tornado when she thought she'd merely imagined Clark saving her. She'd convinced herself, for years, that this was just a dream. In this episode she acknowledges that it was no dream, but reality.
Fear and reality are intersecting in these dreams. The dream world is no longer one in which the characters face their fears, so they're strong enough to overcome them in reality. Instead, at best, the characters experience a presentiment in their dreams of what is to come. There is no escape--we really are in tragedy territory here.
This episode opened with a song about loss, which clashed awkwardly with the warm opening scenes of wedding preparation. It ended with an uplifting song of exaltation, belieing the tragedy of the wedding. Smallville reminds us once again of the tragic gap between surface reality and hidden truth.