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

Superman & Lois uncover the dark side of Smallville

Superman & Lois is slowly emerging as one of the twistiest, turniest series in The CW superhero canon

Illustration for article titled Superman & Lois uncover the dark side of Smallville
Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW

Superman & Lois certainly has no shortage of ideas. What once looked like it was going to be a simple, adult-focused remake of Smallville has emerged as one of the twistiest, turniest series in The CW superhero canon. Each week, Superman & Lois seems to introduce a new Big Bad, or at least a new riff on one of its existing baddies. Just two episodes after revealing that the seemingly villainous Captain Luthor was actually the heroic John Henry Irons, Superman & Lois reveals that maniacal businessman Morgan Edge is actually… Superman’s brother!?!

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I’ll admit, it’s a reveal that made me go “hmmm” more than “wow!” mostly because this show is built on such shifting narrative ground that it can be hard to get your bearings. Last week’s episode pretty casually introduced the idea that Edge was uploading Kryptonian consciousness into his X-Kryptonite subjects (or “subjekts” as they’re apparently called), and this episode doesn’t really do much to expand or explain that idea. Where are the Kryptonian minds coming from? Why are they evil? Wouldn’t it be a much bigger deal to Clark that members of his long-lost home world are still alive? Why is he so casual about the whole thing during his investigation with Lois?

Maybe something got lost in the shuffle of the pandemic production halt, or maybe there’s some weirdness around the fact that this show was originally meant to debut after Supergirl’s final season had aired and now has to write around whatever status quo that show ends on. Regardless, even though “Loyal Subjekts” weaves together a whole bunch of dangling threads from throughout the season, it doesn’t play as a satisfying reveal so much as a strange swerve into new territory.

On the other hand, I never really cared for Morgan Edge as a character anyway, and Adam Rayner seems better suited to playing a theatrically over-the-top Kryptonian than a sleazy businessman. So maybe it’s a swerve for the better. The reveals of “Loyal Subjekts” at least re-anchor the show around Smallville. It turns out the reason Edge set up shop in the town isn’t just because of its supply of X-Kryptonite. It’s because living around that X-Kryptonite has made Smallville’s residents uniquely able to accept the Kryptonian upload process. If Edge wants to build an alien army, he has to build it out of Smallville’s best and brightest.

One of the most effectively eerie elements of “Loyal Subjekts” is the idea of Smallville being sucked into a cult. Episode writer Andrew N. Wong does a great job mimicking the sort of empty “be your best self” platitudes that can sometimes mean someone just went to too many leadership seminars and other times indicate they’ve been seduced into a terrifying multi-level marketing scheme. It’s incredibly creepy to watch the desperate residents of Smallville turn to shady means of self-improvement and then claim it’s just the result of some fun camaraderie-building breakfast meetings. And this episode does a nice job of subtly hinting that Kyle has joined the program before the big climatic reveal of his heat vision.

Illustration for article titled Superman & Lois uncover the dark side of Smallville
Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW
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The idea of families like the Cushings and the Phans being torn apart by Edge’s “process” is potent stuff for this family-focused series. And, of course, the reveal that Edge is inhabited by Clark’s brother certainly ties into the family theme as well. But I have to admit that I’m still finding Superman & Lois to be much more compelling when it sticks to small-scale character stuff rather than big narrative plot twists. In fact, my favorite part of this episode is the subplot about Jordan getting a (literal) cold when the synthetic Kryptonite gas from last week turns out to have lasting effects on both Clark’s strength and Jordan’s newly developing ice breath.

As with the cult stuff, it’s eerie to watch Clark get bruised up by bullets from some bank robbers in Mexico, and even eerier to watch Jordan almost freeze to death from the inside out. Anxious parents often hem and haw over whether their kid is sick enough to need emergency medical care, and Superman & Lois offers a superhero riff on that same idea. What starts as a funny gag (Jordan blows his big moment with Sarah thanks to an inconvenient bodily reaction! His room is an ice cave!) gets serious real fast as his symptoms suddenly worsen. Clark has to make a last-minute decision to rush his son to “the emergency room” (a.k.a The Fortress of Solitude.) And then he has to hold his hand through an intense and painful laser treatment.

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Like many a parent who’s passed on a health condition to their child, Clark feels incredibly guilty about what Jordan is going through—especially since his son’s powers manifest so differently than his own. (Clark’s never been sick a day in his life.) Lois, meanwhile, feels like she’s failed because she’s no longer able to keep her boys inside the protective bubble of ignorance and innocence that once kept them safe. Superman & Lois’ exploration of parenting continues to be its most consistently compelling throughline, and “Loyal Subjekts” offers some really solid stuff in that department.

Again, however, this episode suffers from an overabundance of ideas. It turns out the reason Jonathan can reassure his mom that everything will be okay is because he’s got a secret stash of guns hidden in the family barn (never a good sign). And he goes so far as to use one of them on their Kryptonian attackers. It’s a truly shocking moment, yet it passes by almost without comment because the show is in such a rush to get to the double reveal of Kyle’s abilities and Edge’s real identity. While Superman & Lois could and probably will explore the fallout from Jonathan’s Rambo moment next week, I’m not sure this series has found the ideal balance between its episodic storytelling and its ongoing narrative yet. It’s too often in a hurry to move onto the next thing instead of living in the moment of some of its action beats.

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Illustration for article titled Superman & Lois uncover the dark side of Smallville
Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW

Now, I don’t want to fall into the trap of arguing that the only thing that matters about a TV show is its plot. When it comes to its acting, themes, and especially its visual effects, Superman & Lois is easily one of the best superhero offerings on The CW—and, admittedly, those things are sometimes a little harder to find space to praise in an episodic review like this. But I also think that Superman & Lois’ impressive “prestige” aesthetic makes its plot wonkiness feel more glaring than it would on The Flash or Supergirl, where a certain level of silliness is inherit to the worldbuilding. Superman & Lois has set a high bar for itself over the course of these first nine episodes. The challenge is in leaping it in a single bound now that its latest villain has been unmasked.

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Stray observations

  • Back in my review of the season premiere, I predicted that we’d get a surprise twin reveal somewhere down the line, and I’m counting this Edge twist as close enough!
  • I get why Jordan had to bail on the talent show, but couldn’t someone have at least texted poor Sarah to let her know that he wasn’t going to be able to make it?
  • While it was immensely satisfying to see Jonathan stick up for his family, I’m still finding it really hard to care about anything involving General Lane. He’s a rote character who always feels like he’s pulling focus from the show’s more original elements.
  • Eric Dean Seaton brings some stylish direction to this episode, particularly in the opening montage of Lois putting together her crack investigative team.
  • So what’s up with Tegan Wickhem and why is Sarah so adamant that Jonathan stay away from her?
  • More importantly, why are Jonathan and Jordan’s lunch bags so huge??
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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.