Saturday, December 5, 2009

Christmas TV Episode #1: "Smallville"

1.) "Smallville" 5.9 Lexmas (Watch it now here, or for more choices, try here.)

This list has has been dedicated to counting down what I believe to be ten of the most unexpected and fantastic Christmas Episodes on semi-contemporary television. There are a lot of great shows on this list, a lot of shows ten thousand times better than "Smallville," (I mean, "Six Feet Under" is ten thousand times better than most shows) but Lexmas is a rare and singular example of a true Christmas episode, an episode of television that uses Christmas as, not only an active setting for its characters to run around in, but also as a catalyst for specific events, themes, and tensions that end up playing a large role in the continuity of the series.

Lexmas is easily the best episode of "Smallville," and uncontested as the greatest Christmas episode I have ever scene. It's affecting and incredibly sad, the story of a Lex Luthor that could have been, a story of difficult decisions, love and loss, and heartbreak. Lex Luthor's life has been an accumulation of broken promises and myriad casualties, and he's frail because of it, broken down and shredded, with pieces missing, and he is haunted by the cold, immovable fear that he will always be alone, and that this, in the end, is what will drive him to destruction, to evil, to the Lex Luthor we have come to know as, not morally ambivalent or vulnerable or young, but Superman's arch nemesis, the man who cannot control his own fate and so seeks to control the world's.

"Smallville" might, to the casual observer, seem to be all about Clark Kent, the mere identity crises, confusions, and tribulations of a strapping, young Superman. It is, in fact, much more complicated than that, or, much simpler, depending on your perception, as "Smallville" is really about choices. It's about the choices we make every day, to leave someone behind, to reveal a secret, to betray a friend, to get married, to have children, to leave home, to come home, to kill, to forsake our families, to trust, to run away, to love with our whole hearts, to give up, to keep going, to disobey, to do the right thing--It's about all these choices and more, and the people that we become because of them. In Lexmas, which is a sort of modern-day adaptation of It's a Wonderful Life, only in reverse, Lex is faced with a choice. The choice he makes in this episode decides much of the man he is to become.

Up until now, we've seen Lex do terrible things, seen him make terrible choices, but there's always been hope for him. He and Clark have tried to be friends, and sometimes it seems they really are. We know he values Clark's friendship, but he's also insatiable and suspicious, and he cannot trust. We know he's terrified of becoming his father, of becoming the very embodiment of the greed and the bitterness that he's been surrounded with his entire life, and we know he's afraid, or unable to love. In episode 4.10 Scare, a deadly neurotoxin is leaked from a lab in LuthorCorp, a toxin which causes its victims to enter a perpetual state of their worst nightmare. When Lex is infected, his nightmare, we learn, is particularly terrifying: We see him standing in the middle of a stark, post-apocalyptic world, surrounded by death, and smiling. Lex's worst nightmare is to find joy in the act of causing pain to others. Of causing death. Scare, I think, imbues Lexmas with a very interesting and complicated resonance. We know Lex's worst nightmare, and now, we must sit and watch as he allows it to become him.

Lex stands so close to the darkness, to real evil, and yet he's always staring back through some window into the life he's always wished he could have, at the seemingly lost possibility of righteousness, wondering what happened and how he can scratch his way back in. Lexmas allows for a real manifestation of that window, and now, the window is open. After getting shot by a couple of bad characters in an alley in Granville, Lex nearly dies, and in his state of near-death, he is ushered into an alternate reality by an apparition of Lily, his dead mother. This reality, she promises, can be his should he make the right choice in the end. We then navigate this reality with Lex, who's baffled but quickly adapts to its inherent happiness. This is a reality wherein Lex has forsaken the Luthor family and fortune, seven years in the future. He is married to Lana, and they have one son and a baby on the way. They're living the middle-class American Dream in a country home in Smallville, and it's Christmas Eve. He is good friends with Clark (which, we're reminded, is very important to him), and Clark's father, Jonathan Kent, has been elected Senator. Lex and his son Alex buy a Christmas tree together. It's learned that Chloe's book, an expose on LuthorCorp, (pioneered by an "anonymous tell-all source"--obviously Lex) is being published in January, and Clark is a reporter at the Daily Planet. Later that night, at the Kents' Christmas Party, Jonathan reveals that the governor has chosen Lex to be the recipient of the Kansas Humanitarian Award. Jonathan even gives a toast to Lex. "Ladies and gentlemen," he says. "I give you Lex Luthor, the finest man I know."

After the toast, Lex goes out to the porch and his mother appears to him. "I can't remember ever being this happy," he says. "This has been the best day of my life." She tells him that he can have everything, all of this, if only he'd "follow [his] heart, not [his] ambition." So much hope and saturated golds and Christmas reds and greens imbue each shot in Lex's alternate reality, that we can't help but wonder if, somehow, he will make the right choice, and he'll come out of this thing, not only alive, but better, a better man, "the kind of man," Clark tells him out there on the porch, that "[Lana] could love." He doesn't make the right choice, however, and the reason for that is not something I'll reveal to you here. If you've seen the episode, then you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, you should watch it, because Lexmas is an episode that tries to make us understand the plight and descent of not just an icon or a character from popular culture, but a man. "Smallville" has done such an interesting job humanizing its characters, turning the idea of Lex Luthor and his many appropriations and all-too farcical contrivances into a man. The best characters are the ones that we can recognize from all angles, the ones that exist in our memories, as not just notions, but as walking, talking human beings.

Lexmas is a landmark in the downward spiral of Lex Luthor, his deterioration as a man, and his final true pitch into corruption and evil. The choice that he makes at the end of Lexmas is not sudden. It is the culmination of countless tensions and events orchestrated perfectly up to this moment. This choice has been swimming beneath the surface for five seasons, and now the writers have chosen this moment, Christmas, for it to rear its tragic head. This development is devastating in a lot of ways, as it diffuses any hope we may have had for Lex Luthor, hope we hold on to even though we know that the path he must take is inevitable. We all know how it ends. "Much like Ebeneezer Scrooge," Lex says at the end of Lexmas, "I realized that what I want more than anything is to live happily ever after. And do you know what the secret to living happily ever after is? Power. Money and power. See, once you have those two things, you can secure everything else...and keep it that way." Michael Rosenbaum's Lex Luthor is stoic but uncertain, right on the edge of vulnerable. The range of emotion that he uses with Lex is what, I think, makes his Lex Luthor the best and most dynamic Lex Luthor of all. Oh, this is a Christmas episode for the ages.

Here ends the Best Christmas TV Episode Countdown. Maybe, someday soon, when you're feeling merry and yule-happy, or maybe when you just need a forty-five minute break between shopping and baking, you'll find some use for this list. So happy watching. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. Of television.

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