As we ready ourselves with trembling anticipation (or mild indifference, depending on where you stand) for the finale of long-running superhero epic, Smallville, it seems high time to take stock and reminisce on how we got here.
Let’s not kid ourselves, there have been many, many lows over the last ten years, but there have also been some wonderful moments of adrenaline-fuelled clarity and heartbreaking poignancy, all of which caused those faithful fans to sing the praises of their little show about the early years of Clark Kent.
Other incarnations have been more credible, more high profile, and more successful, but Smallville has survived the entire decade with varying levels of consistency.
Here we’ll look at the triumphs and what made them so special. Be warned, severe spoilers lie ahead.
Commencement (season 4, episode 22)
The fourth season of Smallville remains, to most people, the most disappointing era of the show, but the finale really is something to behold. It may stand out simply because it manages to make such convoluted storylines as Lana’s metamorphosis into a witch and Clark’s football career into a poignant and action-packed finale, but even watching it as a standalone episode, it proves it still has the whack to be counted as one of the show’s best outings.
Commencement involves Clark, Lana and Chloe’s graduation day and, to symbolise their moving on, a second meteor shower arrives to destroy the whole town. At various points throughout the episode, we have a running countdown to the event itself, and this keeps the adrenaline flowing right up until the last moment, when Clark throws the fortress crystal right at the screen.
There’s tears, blood, death and destruction, and we’re not quite sure whether most of our characters are alive and well by the climax. More happens in four minutes than has been accomplished in the previous four years and this, of course, adds up to one super episode.
Rosetta (season 2, episode 17)
Still in ‘freak of the week’ territory back in season two, fans of Smallville didn’t go in every week expecting Superman. But in Rosetta, that’s what they got, and then some.
The episode is most fondly remembered for Christopher Reeve’s excellent guest role as Dr. Swann, but this doesn’t give enough credit to Smallville‘s writers or Tom Welling himself.
What we have is the first episode to truly embrace its heritage in the same way that Clark is trying to, and the small town trappings of the show are largely kept to one side.
It’s also the first time we see the Kryptonian language outside of the caves, the first we hear of ‘Kal-El’, and the origin of Clark’s now-familiar ‘last son of Krypton’ angst.
Now that we have an entire cast of DC characters and superheroes running around, it’s hard to remember how exciting and refreshing this was at the time, John Williams’ Superman score and all.
Memoria (season 3, episode 19)
Season three was really Lex’s year to shine. And I don’t mean bland evil genius Lex of later years, but the guy we fell in love with from the beginning. The finest episodes of the year, Shattered (season 3, episode 8 ) and Memoria, feature Michael Rosenbaum’s billionaire almost exclusively and benefit greatly from that fact.
The seeds of his compelling descent into darkness are sown here, and the true nature of his brother Julian’s death is revealed. The Luthors provide the most riveting scenes in any given Smallville episode, but in a slightly weaker year, the scenes between Lex and Lionel sparkle even more brightly on screen. The final scene between them here could be the greatest face-off of the entire run, surprising as it doesn’t even feature Clark.
The themes of the episode actually seem too vast for a teenage Clark Kent to be a part of, so, apart from a cottoned-on encounter with his mother over an embarrassing Evanescence track, our super-boy is largely sidelined in favour of a more mature outing.
Phantom (season 6, episode 22)
The build up to the final episode overseason six was Smallville‘s most effective run. Characters were divided, relationships torn apart, and we finally had an effective overarching villain to break out for the finale. The opening sequence is the closest thing the show has ever gotten to body horror, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d tuned into the wrong show before Lex turns up.
This is also the episode where Lana finds out Clark’s secret, something they’d been dragging out for six years. And, if we ignore the fact that her death doesn’t end up sticking, here she’s less fairy princess than tragic heroine caught between two powerful rivals.
The scene in which she leaves Lex is particularly brutal, and the ‘death’ of Lois is both shocking and bloody. All of this makes it one of the most fast-paced and exciting finales of the whole ten years, and it hasn’t been matched since.
Descent (season 7, episode 16)
Is this the greatest teaser in Smallville history? Not many programmes have the guts to kill off a main, and much loved character before the credits roll, and for a show as slow and ponderous as it gets, it seems an even greater feat.
Lex’s testament to Lionel that “no one will even remember your name”, is chilling and has a finality refreshing for such a long-running series.
The rest of the episode dials back the pacing in favour of discussions on fatherhood and motivation, a welcome decision concerning a character as ambiguous as Lionel Luthor and, if viewers weren’t sure Lex had turned to the dark side before, this episode well and truly confirms it.
Lionel’s funeral is also a stark contrast to the crowded and emotional service of Jonathan Kent’s two years earlier, with two sons silently standing their ground at opposite ends of morality, serving as the show’s moment of tribute to one of its most enduring characters.
Reckoning (season 5, episode 12)
So, Clark takes Lana to the fortress, reveals his secret and proposes to her, all before the opening credits? Surely, this won’t go well.
Reckoning is a significant episode, first and foremost, because it contains the first of many deaths of a regular character. Jonathan Kent’s passing was written from the very start, just as Clark’s superhero status and Lex’s villainy were set in stone. So, the genius of its execution isn’t what happens, but how.
Because this was the 100th episode, we could also expect some fireworks, and who couldn’t get some twisted kick out of seeing Lana die? But just as we thought this would just be another ‘reset button’ episode, something real happens, something that the characters are still trying to come to terms with now.
We’ve seen many funerals by this point, along with Clark’s ritual earth scattering, so it’s a rush to know that this is the first, and that knowledge gives the episode greater power when watching in retrospect.
Salvation (season 9, episode 21)
Like Phantom, Salvation was the climax of a rare set of ongoing plotlines and themes. Season 9 sent the show up a gear with the introduction of Zod as a regular, and the ramifications of Jimmy’s death turned most of our characters a little darker across the year.
The colour was turned down several dials but, like Clark’s suit in the teaser, this episode signalled some light at the end of the tunnel. You can’t get much darker than your hero effectively committing suicide, but it sets up one hell of a cliffhanger for your upcoming swan song.
There’s a conviction to Clark’s sacrifice, both from him and Chloe, that’s a little disturbing for such a usually good-natured show. But the holy imagery is alive and well in the final shot, and the savoir metaphors are more than alluded to.
Overall, this was as adult as Smallville has ever been, and it was all the better for it.
Abyss (season 8, episode 9)
Clark’s relationship with Chloe is one of the most important in Smallville, but after the events of Abyss it never is quite the same.
To a lesser extent than Lex, Chloe-centric episodes can still always pull the tragedy out of the bag, owing largely to Allison Mack’s ability to break hearts with a single glance. Her horror at losing those precious memories of Clark match those experienced by their devout fans (including this writer), but with their relationship remaining pretty static since their kiss in Vessel (season 5, episode 22), a major shake-up was way past due.
Season eight was a turning point for both characters, and their friendship had to change in aid of this. So, to have Clark give up his best friend in exchange for her sanity and happiness was a stroke of genius.
It really is the last we see of their interdependent connection, but at least we finally got to see their first kiss, which was recounted by Clark way back in season one.
Tempest (season 1, episode 21)
A tornado hits Smallville in the first season finale, as Clark takes Chloe to the spring formal and Lana says goodbye to boyfriend, Whitney. Looking back now, this was the simplest of endings, with no allusions to Krypton or Clark’s heritage to be seen.
It was early days, so the drama here is character driven. Chloe’s dream date with Clark is ruined at the last minute, Lex is torn about saving his father, and a journalist threatens to expose Clark to the world. We also glimpse the lengths that Jonathan will go to in order to protect his son, but it’s largely the relationships that have been cooking all year that are brought to a boil by the end.
It’s precisely this simplicity that gives the episode its charm after all this time, as we get to see the youth of our characters without dealing with meteor-freak attacks or the suffocating plot structure of early episodes.
10. Homecoming (season 10, episode 4)
Season ten’s Homecoming takes us back to Smallville High for a 200th episode to remember. Unlike Reckoning (100th episode) or Descent (150th episode), this episode reins in the drama for some back to basics nostalgia, even without any of the original regulars around.
Flashbacks to Chloe’s ‘wall of weird’ and Lana’s girl next door innocence nicely take us back to the feeling of early seasons, as Braniac takes Clark on a tour of his life, past, present and future.
Every final season needs a compilation episode, but this doesn’t feel forced or unnecessary. Past experiences are there to remind Clark and the audience how far they’ve come, and a glimpse into a future where Clark and Lois are married and working on the Daily Planet’s eighth floor is a thrilling peek at how the show ties into more familiar territory.
With the darkness of past seasons becoming tired and the show drawing to a close, this is a rare sweet-natured tribute to all that’s gone before.