Smallville 9.21: "Hostage"

I mentioned at the end of the review for the previous episode that I thought the CW promotional department may have completely spoiled the big twist in this installment. And of course, that’s exactly what they did. And that’s too bad, because the twist is actually a promising development. Unfortunately, this is an instance where foreknowledge undermined the episode on a fundamental level.

It’s now revealed that Martha Kent is the Red Queen. It’s also revealed that the Red Queen is actually not a part of Checkmate, but rather, the head of a rival effort to prevent Checkmate from achieving its goals. This is actually a nice touch, even if it will rankle the sensibilities of those devoted to the DC comics continuity. It gives meaning to Martha’s quick sendoff to Washington earlier in the series.

For quite a few seasons, it’s been known that government task forces existed to study the potential threats of alien incursion, and that many of those efforts were based on the Kryptonian presence. Lex tapped into those resources during his poorly-plotted stint as a man bent on preventing an alien invasion, and Checkmate was essentially an evolution of those elements into an international package.

With Clark barely able to wrap his brain around global concerns in the past several years, it makes sense that his allies would work to fill that void on his behalf. Chloe’s efforts have been a part of the series’ DNA for a little while, but the presence of the Red Queen helps to explain why Clark was rarely on the Most Wanted list. The notion that the Red Queen was so secret that even Chloe didn’t know about her until recently conveniently explains why this layer of protection was never mentioned in the past.

Of course, this presents a few logic problems. While one might accept the idea that a Senator might have the means and resources to prepare and fund such an organization, Martha Kent never demonstrated the kind of ruthlessness that such a black ops project would require. Sure, a mother will kill to protect her child, but this is very different. The writers try to insert enough suggestion in this episode to make it clear that Martha has the intelligence and cleverness to pull it all off, but it just seems way beyond her skill set.

After all, the red herring in this episode was Tess Mercer, whose background was built over two seasons. Her skills, training, and cunning are an essential part of her character. Even then, it was obvious that Tess wasn’t the Red Queen, because her interactions with Checkmate made it very clear that the covert organization had her outmatched. The idea that Martha Kent would be capable of something Tess Mercer couldn’t reasonably do is a bit ludicrous.

Part of the problem is the lack of definition for Checkmate. The organization was never given a proper introduction, so the various inter-relationships were never clear. I’m still not sure I understand the full extent of their goals and reach, and they still feel like a tacked-on addition to the season. It’s very much like Veritas in the seventh season: a great idea that never seemed to get the attention and time it deserved.

Still, I like the idea of making such a bold choice for the Red Queen, which is why it was so mind-boggling that the network would spoil it so casually. It took the wind out of the sails of Tess’ subplot, since it was clearly an illusion, and it undermined the whole point of the distracting relationship between Martha and Perry White.

For that matter, the Perry/Lois subplot seemed to be used as a means of delivering necessary exposition on the Book of Rao and the Red Queen, because these plot devices were never properly introduced or explained in previous episodes. Perry had enough pull to get Clark and Lois their jobs back, but otherwise, his presence seemed unnecessary, except as a red herring for Martha’s presence in the story.

A good chunk of the story was devoted to Lois’ decision that she can’t handle her relationship with Clark while trying to reconcile her desire to make a difference in the world, based on her work with the Blur. It’s a moment that builds on previously established tensions, and it also points to the possibility that Clark will reveal the truth to Lois in the season finale.

The problem there is that the writers have played this game so many times during the Clark/Lana era that it just doesn’t work. Either Clark will chicken out at the last minute, or Lois will learn the truth, only to have it wiped from her memory by the end of the episode (or early in the tenth season). I’ve liked the Clark/Lois interplay, especially when Lois maintains her strong personality and self-interest (a quality Lana increasingly lacked), so this trite retread promises to be disappointing.

In essence, the entire episode unraveled once the shocking twist was prematurely revealed. But even taking that into account, and trying to look at it with an objective eye, there were storytelling problems. The “red herring” just wasn’t convincing, because it flew in the face of established information. Martha’s purpose for being in Smallville with Perry touched on nostalgic moments, but otherwise seemed unnecessary. And the Clark/Lois breakup seems headed in an all-too-familiar direction.


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