Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A moving Superman & Lois still has some growing pains

Illustration for article titled A moving Superman & Lois still has some growing pains
Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW

Narratively, “Holding The Wrench” is a John Henry Irons episode. It starts with Irons in military custody, threatening to kill Superman no matter what. And it ends with him newly freed, embracing his civilian identity, and setting off to forge a new life on Earth-Prime. He’s not quite onboard with the idea of working alongside Superman yet, but he’s accepted that this Earth’s version of the Man of Steel isn’t a threat either. It’s a great outline for a compelling redemption arc. The problem is that “Holding The Wrench” doesn’t really give him one.

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That’s because, emotionally, “Holding The Wrench” is a Lois Lane episode. It opens with a therapy scene where she starts to share everything she’s been holding inside and how much it’s been affecting her. There are two big things that cause Lois to spiral this week. The first is learning about the alternate universe version of herself that married Irons and had a daughter name Natalie. And the second is watching Jonathan nearly die in an RV boobytrap before Clark swoops in to save him at the very last second. (It’s a chilling setpiece, and the best piece of action in the episode.)

An understandably overwhelmed Lois lashes out at Jonathan for snooping around Irons’ RV without her—going so far as to tell him that if he had died it would’ve been his own fault. But it turns out Lois is just covering up her own sense of guilt and shame. Jonathan’s near fatal accident brings up the trauma of a miscarriage she had some 13 years ago, when the twins were about 18 months old. Lois threw herself into work and parenting to cope, and never really gave herself the time to process the loss of a baby she and Clark planned to name Natalie. So—as often happens with unprocessed grief—the pain eventually bursts out as anger. Lois is still looking for someone to blame for a tragedy that was ultimately no one’s fault.

Ostensibly, it’s that experience that allows Lois to break through to Irons and stop him from killing Superman with a Kryptonite spear the DOD has on hand in “Room 7734.” But the problem is that “Holding The Wrench” doesn’t spend enough time with Irons—or on his relationship to this version of Lois—to really make that climax land emotionally. “Holding The Wrench” goes out of its way to drill home the idea that even after years of processing and even with the help of a supportive husband and a great therapist, Lois still finds it incredibly hard to unpack her trauma and forgive herself for her perceived failings. That makes it really hard to believe that Irons can go from wanting to stab Superman in the chest to fully letting go of his anger in the blink of an eye.

Illustration for article titled A moving Superman & Lois still has some growing pains
Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW

After patiently building up to the Irons reveal all season, it’s weird how quickly “Holding The Wrench” rushes through his redemption—especially when this scattered episode makes time for an extended subplot about Sarah’s talent show audition, of all things. While I’m sure Irons will be back before the season is out, why wrap up this portion of his arc so quickly? Why use Lois’ journey as a stand-in for his own, rather than giving both characters a chance to shine? Why would you want less Wolé Parks, when he’s already emerging as one of Superman & Lois’ most compelling players—certainly more so than General Lane or the random X-Kryptonite-infused DOD soldier who gets involved tonight?

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Given that interviews after last week’s episode confirmed that the John Henry Irons idea didn’t come about until the writers were already working on the season, I’m wondering if Superman & Lois might have gone through some dramatic retooling over the course of these early episodes. And perhaps the occasional clunkiness of “Holding The Wrench” is the result of that. Clark is so casual in the way he mentions that Lois suspects Morgan Edge is uploading alien sentience into his X-Kryptonite subjects that I barely had time to write “huh?” in my notes before the show had already moved on. These first eight episodes have already cycled through what feels like half a dozen potential Big Bads, and Superman & Lois now lands on “Evil Kryptonians” as its latest threat—sending Irons off into the sunset in the process.

But I’m just not sure Superman & Lois needs a conventional Big Bad in the way the show clearly thinks it does. The best moments in this episode are the ones that feel closer to This Is Us than Smallville. Bitsie Tulloch is gut-wrenchingly great in Lois’ therapy scenes, and it’s nice to see a mainstream superhero TV tackle a topic that’s often unfairly treated as a social taboo. Lois’ therapist rightly points out that even though miscarriages are common, they can still be traumatic. And the scenes of Lois processing her grief and guilt are incredibly compelling—as is the scene where she tearfully apologizes to Jonathan and opens up about the difficulty of being a non-powered person in a family of superheroes.

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Illustration for article titled A moving Superman & Lois still has some growing pains
Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW

On rewatch, Clark has a nice subtle emotional arc in this episode too. He clearly knows that the name “Natalie” is a trigger for Lois, and he finds a way to be a supportive partner without putting pressure on her—reminding Lois that it’s okay to ask for help and encouraging her to find it in a professional if she’s not able to confide in him. It’s also refreshing that he’s immediately willing to change his approach with Irons once he understands more about his foe’s past. You can see Superman’s empathy in action in the fact that he doesn’t hold a grudge; he changes his mind with new information.

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With so much to like in “Holding The Wrench,” perhaps I’m being too critical of the episode’s narrative failings when it’s first and foremost trying to work on an emotional level. Again, Tulloch is so incredibly moving that it basically justifies the whole thing. But, ideally, a successful episode of television has both emotional weight and some semblance of narrative cohesion. And while “Holding The Wrench” nails one side of that equation, it drops the ball on the other.


Stray observations

  • Another abrupt shift: The Kent boys quit football when that once felt like it was going to be the heart of the show.
  • There’s some really dark Jonathan-related stuff in this episode. He watches a video of his Alt Universe dad murder his Alt Universe mom, and then immediately decides to try to arm himself with a weapon. I’m worried about what the future holds for our sweet little Kent twin!
  • I love that the first thing Lana did after getting her new job with Morgan Edge was get a serious businesswoman haircut.
  • Just to praise Tulloch’s performance some more, I particularly love the way she plays Lois’ apology to Jonathan. She starts out in put-together mom mode, but almost immediately loses it and basically ends up begging for forgiveness in a way that feels so deeply vulnerable. It’s great, great work.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. She loves sci-fi, Jane Austen, and co-hosting the movie podcast, Role Calling.