Superman & Lois lets its characters act like grown-ups

After last week's climactic episode, "Fail Safe" smartly slows down and prioritizes character over plot

Superman & Lois lets its characters act like grown-ups
Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW

The beginning of “Fail Safe” had me nervous. After last week’s climactic fight for Superman’s soul, this episode seemed primed to be logistics-focused filler that stretched out the hunt for Leslie Larr ahead of the final two episodes of the season. But while “Fail Safe” is focused on the fallout from last week’s episode, it smartly prioritizes emotions over plot. This episode returns to the slower, character-centric pace of the beginning of the season, but with all the weight of the show’s recent incident to back it up. And that turns out to be a combination every bit as thrilling as any conventional action scene.

Writers Jai Jamison & Kristi Korzec (who were individually responsible for the great one-two punch of “Man Of Steel” and “Holding The Wrench”) zero in on some incredibly smart character insights while also challenging the show’s main players in new and interesting ways. That starts with Lois’ central dilemma, in which the pull to protect her family butts up against her commitment to bringing the truth to the people. As Clark hilariously lampshades, he and Lois have handwaved away their fair share of journalistic ethics when it came to protecting his secret identity. But this time around Lois finds herself actively complicit in a massive government cover-up designed to lie to the shaken, battle-scarred people of Smallville about what really went down with Edge’s Kryptonian brainwashing. That’s a pretty big step down a slippery slope.

What’s great is that you can see both sides of this episode’s journalistic argument. It’s understandable that Lois would want to protect her family from a story that could bring prying eyes and unwanted questions to Smallville. (Although, to be fair, it actually is just a coincidence that Clark and his long-lost Kryptonian brother wound up in Smallville at the same time for two very different reasons.) But it’s also understandable that the Smallville Gazette’s intrepid editor Chrissy Beppo would want to get to the bottom of what actually went down the night half of the town was possessed by evil aliens and flew into the sky. In the absence of the real story, Smallville has become a hotbed of paranoia and frustration—with the Cushings taking the brunt of the blame. And Chrissy thinks she can use the power of the press to set the story straight.

The single best thing about “Fail Safe” is that it lets its characters resolve their problems like adults, which is a quality that not enough live action superhero properties embrace. Chrissy finds the courage to challenge her idol and call Lois out on an obvious lie. And Lois listens to her editor’s concerns, rethinks her position, and apologizes. She realizes that hiding the truth might not actually be the best answer, and encourages Chrissy to hunt for the story on her own. Lois realizes it’s better to let the chips fall where they may rather than try to control a narrative that’s destined to spin out of control. It’s a difficult decision, but a decidedly mature one too.

That same thoughtfulness colors Clark’s story this week, in which he does a full 180 on his anti-Kryptonite stance. While General Lane is eager to dispose of his Project 7734 weapons stockpile (not to mention several warehouses full of Kryptonite itself), Clark makes the sort of rational argument that too few live action Superman properties are willing to admit: It makes total sense to have a fail-safe against a godlike being who could destroy the entire planet in the blink of an eye. You can’t just trust in his boy scout mentality alone; Superman needs checks and balances, just like everyone else.

It’s refreshing to see Clark operate in such a logical and egoless way. While Lois tries to fall back on the hokey comic book argument that Clark’s heart is stronger than any mind control could ever be, Clark knows that he has his limits too. “Fail Safe” returns to the really compelling self-restrain theme from “Broken Trust,” emphasizing just how much control it takes for Clark to keep his powers in check at all times. When General Zod briefly inhabited his body, Clark got to experience what it felt like to throw off those shackles of restraint and use his powers to their full extent. It was a feeling so good, he can’t guarantee he won’t one day be manipulated into trying it again.

Though Lois is shocked and more than a little pissed off at her husband’s total change in position, even at the height of her frustration, “Fail Safe” still lets her act like a rational adult. The scene where she yells at Clark that she’s sorry for yelling at him but has to maintain that level of anger to go deal with a rule-breaking Jordan is a perfect screwball comedy joke with real emotional depth behind it. Clark and Lois prove the strength of their marriage in their moments of conflict as much as in their moments of connection. Lois is willing to hear Clark’s point of view and change her mind based on a new perspective, although she also pushes for a compromise too: They’ll leave the Kryptonite supply with John Henry Irons, rather than the DOD. In an ironic twist of fate, Irons is now once again the Superman-killing fail safe he set out to be, only in a much different—and more reluctant—context.

There are all sorts of fascinating threads woven into this episode—from the question of where Irons goes from here to the hint of camaraderie he unexpectedly finds with Jonathan. (I can’t wait to see that explored further.) Even the Kent twins get in on the grown-up perspective this week. Though they’re both struggling to deal with the fallout from everything that’s gone on in the past few weeks, they’ve got good heads on their shoulders. Jordan gives Sarah an incredibly sweet pep talk that helps steady her against the ostracization her family is experiencing. And Jonathan finds the courage to stand up for himself and his family’s integrity, even in the face of the girl he’s been crushing on.

Though it’s ultimately a pretty minor subplot, I really like how the Jonathan/Tegan story plays out—mostly because Kayla Heller is so great at playing a very particular kind of confident, flirty teenage girl. I don’t think Tegan is totally lying when she says she’s sort of interested in Jonathan. But he’s certainly not wrong that she’s equally interested in shaking down gossip she can spread to the rest of the school too. As with so many elements of this episode, multiple things are true at once.

With its lack of plot and action, I suspect that “Fail Safe” is the sort of episode that won’t please all Superman & Lois fans. But regular cutaways to Edge stewing in his Kryptonite prison at least provide some sense of larger narrative momentum. While the flashbacks to Edge’s youth aren’t the most compellingly acted elements of the episode, they flesh out Edge’s story by driving home the cruel environment in which he was raised. In a surprisingly tragic moment, Edge ends the hour by letting go of his independent streak and embracing his dad’s original plan that he become the Eradicator—seemingly sacrificing himself in the process. The image of EradiEdge getting a superpowered sun charge is an evocative one to close out the hour, but it’s the character-centric stuff in this episode that truly shines.

Stray observations

  • I’ve been pretty neutral on Sarah and Jordan’s romance so far, but their kiss tonight was so sweet!
  • Clark and Irons’ fist bump was also super cute.
  • We get official confirmation that the Cushings have lived in Smallville for generations (and were originally from Mexico). So I ask again: Where is Kyle’s Southern accent coming from??
  • Teen Edge mentions that his pod contained a crystal hologram of his mother, although his dad forbids him from activating it. I wonder who Superman & Lois will cast to play the (non-Lana) version of Lara Lor-Van, whenever she makes her climactic appearance to help save the day.
  • So Lana is going to wind up running for mayor, right? I hope the first thing she does is deal with Smallville’s power-mad police force! (What were Jordan and Sarah even arrested for??)
  • Superman & Lois is taking another quick hiatus before returning with its final two episodes of the season starting August 10th.

Join the discussion...