Smallville 9.20: "Sacrifice"

Just when I was convinced that the writers were going to deliver another late-season collapse, they manage to produce one of the darkest hours in the entire series’ run. There are moments in this episode that I never thought I would see on “Smallville”, and while I’m sure a number of fans will be turned off by some events, I thought this was essential to raising the stakes.

A number of minor plot elements come together in brutal fashion in this episode, strongly suggesting that the writers were intentionally threading the pieces throughout the season. While this works beautifully and displays a level of forethought that has been missing from previous seasons, it doesn’t mitigate the weaknesses of those earlier episodes. For example, as substantial as Zod’s war against Checkmate might be, Checkmate as an organization was never well enough defined.

Similarly, while the schism within the Kandorian camp was referenced here and there, we never got to see it evolve on-screen. Just as Tess’ various machinations were all discussed in passing, making them nearly impossible to track, the politics of the Kandorians were elusive at best and incomprehensible at worst. This was likely a problem of budget and time, but Faora’s tragic end could have been so much more potent.

For me, at least, it took a while to realize how this was quickly and methodically changing the game and setting up the inevitable Clark/Zod battle royale. Checkmate’s assault on Watchtower made me wonder if I had missed an episode. Now it’s obvious why the writers wanted to drive a wedge between Clark and Lois; realistically, Lois had to be out of the way for all of this to unfold as it did. Otherwise, given her character traits, she would have been knee deep in the bloodletting.

The loss of Watchtower is a disturbing sign for Chloe Sullivan. Her role as the keeper of the nascent Justice League’s central hub was the perfect evolution for the character, especially after the events of “Doomsday”. Now, unless she is able to get the systems back up and running in record time, Chloe is expendable. (Why Chloe wouldn’t have remote backup data storage is a nagging question.) The writers have constantly flirted with her potential demise in past seasons, and this feels like yet another scenario where the popular character could be fodder for drama. (And it would leave Clark as the sole remaining original character on the series.)

The assault on Watchtower might have been the centerpiece of a typical “Smallville” episode. But the stakes just continued to escalate from there. Chloe’s moral meandering suddenly became a vital matter of concern in her dealings with Tess. The pace of the episode forced Chloe and Tess to resume their verbal sparring all too soon, but Tess’ reaction to her resuscitation was intense, to say the least.

I was also shocked to see that Oliver was actually wounded so badly, even though it was clear that Zod was on the warpath. The equal brutality of Checkmate was also surprising, especially when they were prepared to wipe out the peaceful Kandorians, Tess, and Chloe. Of course, this was necessary to set up Clark as working with the same humans who were willing to kill the Kandorians, no questions asked.

While it wasn’t plotted out particularly well, it’s clear that the writers intended to show that Zod’s final step into villainy was a combination of many forces. They made it clear that the loss of his son was a huge factor, and his feeling that Jor-El betrayed their friendship. It was easy enough to see that Clark’s decision to push the Kandorians to assimilate fed those tensions. Checkmate was really the final straw; Clark told them that peace with humanity was necessary, but humanity declared war on the Kandorians without the slightest attempt at negotiation. On at least some level, Zod is justified in his attitude.

His actions, of course, are a matter of choice. The point of showing Zod’s background on Krypton earlier in the season was to show that Zod was once a good man. At least in principle, Zod could have been a good man again (though the writers never seemed to capitalize on that notion). It all came down to Zod’s choices, and Zod chose the darker path.

All of which made Zod’s decision to kill Faora all the more tragic and brutal. Zod had been shown as merciless to traitors in the past, which set up this scenario all too perfectly. The fact that Faora was pregnant with Zod’s child, and most likely a son that could have led Zod back to his former self. Callum Blue’s performance during the crucial scene, as he listened to his unborn child’s failing heartbeats, was stunning. One could see what little remained of Zod’s compassion drain with every faltering thump.

“Smallville” has used the death of an unborn child to chilling effect in the past; the end of the second season is a perfect example. The plot device was used much less effectively (and, in fact, quite insultingly) in the sixth season, when Lana’s pregnancy was retconned out of the story. Yet this could be one of the most horrifying moments in the series, even more so for being earned. Zod’s first loss of a child began his descent, and his murder of his second child, however unintended, completes it.

“Smallville” has excelled when it has focused on development of villains that give Clark’s heroism scope and meaning. When Lex finally took the step into full-fledged evil in “Descent”, it paid off a long and laborious process in thrilling fashion. That episode was great because it was so anticipated, and stood as the highlight of a terrible seventh season.

But this episode came out of the blue, delivering one of the darkest tales yet for the series. And it may just be that it was all the more powerful for it. “Smallville” doesn’t often manage to meet the high standards set by the best in the genre, but when it does, it soars.

One final note: it appears that the CW promotional department may have dropped an enormous game-changing spoiler into the preview for the next episode. It may have been some intentional misdirection, but if not, I’m not sure what I think of this development. On the one hand, it would be a bold choice, and I like it when the writers stake out unexpected plot territory. On the other hand, I’m not sure it would be a well-earned plot twist. I suppose only time (and the next episode) will tell.


1 comment

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May 14, 2010 6:21PM EDT

it is better that they change a bit of the episode, not just lois which isbeginning to be annoying, nice to see an episode without lois so you can really follow up what the series is up too.

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