Judge Jennifer Malkowski was happy to see James Marsters show his dramatically sexy face on Smallville this season, though she was somewhat less than hotted out by his brown hair and American accent. She was more inclined to go straight for Spike.
Our reviews of Smallville: The Complete First Season (published November 24th, 2003), Smallville: The Complete Second Season (published June 9th, 2004), Smallville: The Complete Third Season (published December 15th, 2004), Smallville: The Complete Fourth Season (published October 19th, 2005), Smallville: The Complete Sixth Season (published October 3rd, 2007), Smallville: The Complete Sixth Season (HD DVD) (published October 24th, 2007), Smallville: The Complete Seventh Season (Blu-Ray) (published September 26th, 2008), Smallville: The Complete Eighth Season (Blu-Ray) (published September 3rd, 2009), Smallville: The Complete Ninth Season (Blu-Ray) (published September 7th, 2010), and Smallville: The Complete Tenth Season (Blu-ray) (published December 22nd, 2011) are also available.
Officer: "What the hell is this, Sheriff?"
Spoiler alert! If they're your TV kryptonite, back away slowly now.
What better way to spice up a supernatural TV series than adding James Marsters? It worked for both Buffy and Angel; now Smallville gets a crack at him, too. Season Five brings not only Marsters' Kryptonian villain, Brainiac, but also a slew of major plot developments: Clark and Lana actually get together, then actually break up; creepy romance buds between Lex and Lana; Chloe officially enters the I-know-Clark's-secret club; Clark chills out in the Fortress of Solitude, and perennially patronizing patriarch Jonathan Kent bites the rural Kansas dust.
Facts of the Case
By Season Five, I'm guessing we all know the basics, but here's a quick review: Clark Kent (Tom Welling) lives out his teen years—now into a first year of college—in his adopted hometown of Smallville before embarking on his better-known adventures as Metropolis's spandex-clad protector, Superman. Parents Martha (Annette O'Toole) and Jonathan (John Schneider) instill good morals in him while exploiting his super-speed and strength as the ultimate farmhand. His first love Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk) and his best friend Chloe Sullivan (Allison Mack) assist him—the latter more so now that she knows "his secret"—as he deals with the meteor-rock-spawned "freaks" who misuse their strange powers. More often these days, Clark must also battle the profit-driven corporate villainy of tortured soul Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) and his ambiguously evil father Lionel (John Glover). Finally, a blast from Clark's future, spunky soon-to-be reporter Lois Lane (Erica Durance), rounds out the cast.
This set contains all 22 episodes of the fifth season:
As you can probably tell from my evaluation of individual episodes, I found Smallville: The Complete Fifth Season to be full of high highs and low lows—or, more accurately, a great central story arc with a lot of crappy filler episodes in between. The writers are smart enough at this point to make sure there are emotional stakes for our central characters in the freak-of-the-week self-contained episodes, but almost all of these still fall flat. Part of the problem is in the casting. While the season boasts some important guest stars—Marsters, Carrie Fisher, Tom Wopat—the casting people seem to rely on pretty faces and muscular abs rather than acting ability or charisma for most of these single-episode parts. The hot, young blocks of wood featured in "Aquaman" and "Vengeance" come to mind.
Luckily, the series has acting talent to spare from its regular cast. While Welling and Kreuk both look pretty and act well, the show's best performances come from the cast members who are less often written out of their clothes. This was a big season for Michael Rosenbaum, Allison Mack, and John Glover, as Lex, Chloe, and Lionel all had lots of well-played character development. I am continually impressed with how gradually and subtly the writers on Smallville have developed Lex's transition to the dark side—paced as a leisurely stroll across the line between good and evil rather than a definitive step—and Rosenbaum is the guy who actually pulls it off on screen. I don't think there is any single moment one can point to in the series and say "There! That's when Lex went bad!" and even as late as the fifth season Rosenbaum is still playing him as a guy struggling against his upbringing to do the right thing, even as he starts to become more powerful and immoral than the father who brought him up so badly. But by now, his rationalizations of the means to the end and even the "goodness" of the ends themselves have slipped into morally dubious territory. "Lexmas" is a particularly chilling example when Lana's forecasted death makes Lex conclude that the best way to care for the people you love is to accumulate enough money and power to "protect" them. But we also see Lex engaging in acts of outright villainy—still spun as being for the greater good—such as his torture of Aquaman and his painful, dishonest exploitation of the kid in "Cyborg." He even lets out a more casual cruelty, directed in particular at Chloe with biting comments like, "I hear it's very time consuming being a third wheel." Yet we still believe that Lex truly cares about Lana and that he wants to be the right guy for her.
While Lex's dark side grows, his conniving father seems to be enjoying something of a moral renaissance—and the key phrase, as always with Lionel, is "seems to be." Yes, he threatens Jonathan and initially lies to Martha, but he also knows Clark's secret for most of the season and doesn't really do anything destructive with that information, even helping him as an oracle for Kryptonian messages. The worst you can really say about him at the close of the season is that he is trying to get into Martha's well-ironed pants. Building on four seasons worth of deliciously deceitful performances, Glover is still able to keep us guessing about Lionel's every motivation—mostly because in this season we begin to suspect those motivations might not always be utterly selfish and cruel.
But the stand-out performance of the season comes from Allison Mack, who has managed to make a crush on Clark Kent truly captivating for almost a hundred hours of television. This season, she channels that love into a role of quiet heroism as the best support system a superhero in the closet has ever had. Once she can finally tell Clark she knows his secret, she uses that information to selflessly bolster the troubled hero in times of crisis, including those of the emotional variety. She understands and appreciates the kind of superhuman humility that is Clark Kent's real secret power better than anyone: "You save people's lives and take zero credit for it. To me you're more than just a hero: you're a superhero. I'm serious, Clark. If more humans were like you, the world would be a better place." This season she's even mastered the fine art of sustaining an unrequited love without being unrealistic or too tortured about it. We know from the big kiss in "Vessel" that she's still way into this guy, but she's a good friend to him when he is dating Lana and when he persists in saying emotionally dimwitted things like, "You have no idea how hard it was to see [Lex and Lana together] that way." No, how could Chloe possibly understand seeing someone she loved kissing someone else? Amidst all this touchy-feely friendship and love, she still gets the best little witty lines on the show—which, combined with the blond hair and investigative spunk makes her a precursor to Veronica Mars. Pointing out that hacking is harder than it looks, she tells Clark, "I can't exactly search for a file called 'My Evil Scheme.'" Let's just hope that now that she knows Clark's secret, she doesn't get exiled to Wichita like poor old Pete—but the Smallville folks usually find interesting storylines for their white characters, so they'll probably keep her around.
As for the other characters, most of their arcs this season were pretty satisfying. Lana recovered slightly from the bout of incredibly irritating personality disorder she suffered last season amidst episodes about her silly boyfriend Jason and her much sillier ancestor Countess Isabelle. She is immanently reasonable with Clark when they are finally in a real relationship, so much so that one really wishes he would just tell her! I didn't really buy into the whole "Reckoning" theory that Lana will handle the information so poorly that she'll be killed instantly, and she makes a great point about how all the men on the show treat her while talking to Lex:
Lex: "Because there are some doors that can't be closed once they're
Unfortunately, the strong feminist stance Lana takes in scenes like this are diluted by the fact that she is so desperate for "the truth" that she'll believe whatever little scraps of information are thrown to her, including lies. She has to be one of the most impressionable characters on television.
Martha's role as state senator is kind of fun to watch, although I giggled a lot at the weary face she made when Clark was still assuming she would be whipping up apple pies every evening while serving in state government. This patriotic job for her also goes well with my theory that the directors try to show Martha Kent in the same frame as an American flag as often as humanly possible. As she says this season, "Nothing says America like the ol' stars and stripes." The whole plot about Jonathan running for senate, though, profoundly violated the continuity of these characters. Why would a man whose stated primary goal in life is to protect the secret identity of his son put himself under such intense public scrutiny?
Lois doesn't have a whole lot to do this season except randomly date all the wrong guys, wear bikinis, and punch Clark in the shoulder, but she's still a pleasure to have around. One long-term problem of the series is that the writers have not yet convinced us that Lois is the woman Clark should really be with. Forget the whole tortured Lana thing—what we all really know is that he's meant to be with Chloe! So unless they kill her off, the writers are going to have to start doing more than just dropping us little hints. Although some of the hints are nicely written and very nicely delivered by the talented Erica Durance, like this one uttered while giving him advice about Lana: "You've gotta tuck your feelings away until it's the right time—like stuffing dollars into a piggy bank for a bike you can't quite afford…you never know, Clark. Maybe when you finally crack open that piggy bank you'll find that all this time you haven't been saving for a bike, you've really been saving for a Harley."
And then there's our favorite super-man, the lovable Clark Kent. Clark has a rough year in the fifth season, starting with the opportunity to be just a normal guy that is then quickly taken away. This transformation puts him in a position to hurt Lana more than ever, leading to that unbearable moment in "Hypnotic" when he looks her in the eye tells her the biggest lie of them all: "I don't love you." As always, Clark cares about Lana too much to put her in danger, but the human side of him also loves her too much to just stay out of her life. Contact with him will probably land her in therapy for a good long time. Losing Jonathan meant losing both a father and a role model to Clark—kind of a windbag role model, but a good guy nonetheless—leaving him feeling morally lost in the midst of a lot of tough ethical decisions. In the end, he has to decide whether to kill Lex to save the world. The only father figure he has left, Lionel, advises him, "Clark, the real test of a hero is knowing when the greater good will be served by an evil act. To save the earth, the cost of one life is the price that must be paid." We know that letting Lex live will probably cost a huge number of human lives in the long run, which makes the moment of decision all the more compelling. But perhaps killing him would have cost even more lives, as engaging in that evil act would have fundamentally changed Clark. Buffy was once heard to remark, "I don't know how to live in this world if these are the choices," and once your hero gets that disillusioned, she or he might not have enough spirit left to keep fighting. By not killing Lex, Clark does preserve the idealism and faith in people—however misguided—that compels him to live this self-sacrificing life of civil service in the first place. But lest we think our hero is too shiny and pure, let's let Lex have the last word on Clark's developing moral code, as he brings up a pretty fair complication to this portrait of ethical perfection:
Lex: "I used to think you had this strong inner core—you were so virtuous. And yet you lie all the time—to me, to Lana, to all the people who cared about you. What kind of sick person would do that?"
Technically and stylistically speaking, this is a great transfer of a series that pays an awful lot of attention to aesthetics. Visually speaking, this was one of the show's strongest seasons, capped off by a gosh-wow stunning and creepy shot of Lex on top of the Luthorcorp building, framed as the villain he is slowly becoming, surveying the chaos he has created:
Throughout the set there is beautiful color saturation, with the rich, warm tones of the Kent farm contrasting to the cold, metallic blues of Luthorcorp—a subtle tonal reinforcement of the nature of these two very different families. The episodes sound great, too, and the crew gives us plenty more car crashes and people thrown through windows to listen to.
The special features are above average for Smallville: The Complete Fifth Season. Lots of deleted scenes are provided, though they vary greatly in quality. Sometimes the only one will be something like Lex looking at a computer screen for 15 seconds, while other episodes have had some surprisingly meaty scenes cut. Toward the end of the season, for example, there was apparently a minor plot about Martha becoming like a mother figure for Lois. O'Toole and Durance had several nice, but not particularly exciting scenes together that we are now privy to on the DVDs. There's also a nice joke on the "Thirst" deleted scenes—Chloe wakes up in the hospital yelling for Clark; Lex is there instead and corrects her, "less hair, more money." Two commentary tracks are provided, though the choice of episodes is a little bizarre: "Thirst" and "Splinter." The first one is amusingly justified with the explanation that a poll of the writers determined this to be the worst episode of the season, so they thought they should explain, "what the hell [they] were thinking." Being used to commentary tracks that gush about the brilliance of the material, it was actually fun and refreshing to hear an admission of mediocrity and an analysis of why the work wasn't better (apparently network demands for holiday-themed episodes and an inadequate budget were the biggest problems). We also get some interesting tidbits about how much the different effects cost—X-ray vision is pricier than super-hearing, which is why Clark seemed to rely on the latter for a long string of episodes in the fourth season. James Marsters joins in for the second commentary, on "Splinter," and tells some good stories from the set—albeit in his creepy American accent. But the best morsel to come out of the commentaries is this one:
"We finally ended [Clark and Lana's romance] this season…I think we ended it in about four different episodes. In case you're just tuning in and didn't see us end it, we'll end it again next week."
Chloe's "chronicles" from previous sets were replace this time with Vengeance Chronicles about the contact lens-shilling masked vigilante from "Vengeance." In six or seven short episodes, she works with Chloe to break a story about Luthorcorp's experiments on Smallville's meteor freaks. Again, this actress is not really talented enough to pull off the role and the production quality is clearly a notch below Smallville's. But it's fun to see a little more of Allison Mack and as a special feature, it's pretty creative and enjoyable. The excerpts from Look Up in the Sky are brief, just under five minutes, with sound bytes from Singer, Dean Cain, Annette O'Toole, and a few others. Lastly, there are some trailers for the collection of different Superman series and movies that came out this summer (with a Superman Returns trailer tacked on the end), the upcoming Justice League: Heroes video game, and Season Six of Smallville (no new footage).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The main aspect of Smallville I really have a hard time getting past is its consistent sexual prudery. Sure, they love to show hot young actors and actresses in skimpy outfits, and Clark and Lana do actually "do it" this season, but a general sex negative attitude hangs in the air like a nasty cloud of meteor dust that just won't dissipate. Jonathan's reaction to finding out that Clark and Lana were having sex was absurd and was not really discredited or disapproved in any serious way. Considering that these people are in college and have been in love since the beginning of time, I find it really insulting that any character upheld as a truly good parent would get angry with them for this act of consensual, loving, safe sex in the context of a relationship. From the series itself, it strikes me not only as a bad message, but also as a hypocritical one. They want to be a sexy show and get the entertainment value of lusty, underclad characters, but they always channel it into some meteor-rock induced personality change or unrealistic romance. When Lois shows an interest in Aquaman, we know it must be for his sculpted, muscular body rather than his non-existent personality—Durance even plays it that way initially. But by the end the writers have to contain this dangerous lust in a silly tacked-on romance between the two when it's pretty clear that they would realistically have just wanted a sexy little fling. And what's one of Clark's biggest clues that Lex is bad news in a previous season? That he finds out Lex has had a lot of casual sex.
"Somebody save me" from Jonathan's moral high horse! If you can ignore that along with the midseason string of particularly dull freak of the week episodes, you'll really enjoy the significant character development and sumptuous visual of Smallville: The Complete Fifth Season.
Judge Jennifer Malkowski finds Smallville: The Complete Fifth Season guilty of not having enough material for a completely good fifth season. But how can she convict a show that consistently makes the most cardboard superhero compelling and likeable? Strong performances from the regular cast and the crew's meticulous attention to style rescue this uneven season.
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• Commentary tracks on "Thirst" and "Splinter"
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