Superman & Lois – Season 3 Episode 11
Superman & Lois progresses Lois to the next stage of her treatment as Peia’s illness reaches the point of no return and Sarah’s mental health takes a downward turn.
I’ve repeatedly mentioned in reviews of this show that one of its major strengths is powerful emotionally driven storytelling. Its characters deal with real and relatable problems that ground the fantastical superhero elements. The coverage of these issues is often sensitive and moving with a strong grasp of the reality of dealing with them. What keeps me engaged as a viewer is the mature approach to the characters adding weight to the necessary spectacle that comes with a superhero TV series.
Mental health was one of the first things this show covered in detail. The narration that opened the first episode referenced Jordan being diagnosed with social anxiety. Later in that same episode, Sarah opened up to Jordan about her mental health struggles. It has been a consistent pillar of the show with both characters navigating the complexities of their mental health in their own ways. For Jordan, it’s linked to his developing powers and Sarah’s experience is very much a human one but both are rooted in reality. Arguably opportunities to connect particular developments to the ongoing mental health arcs for these characters aren’t always taken advantage of but it’s a foundational part of their characters. There is no cure, they simply have to find a way to manage it.
This episode does take advantage of the opportunity where both characters are concerned. Lois’ operation ends up being a trigger for Jordan that results in a strong panic attack. Attached to that panic attack is the manifestation of his X-ray vision so it’s the perfect merging of reality and the fantastical and reinforces the connection between Jordan’s powers and his mental health. His powers are as much a part of him as his emotions and one feeds into the other. This makes Jordan’s powers an extended metaphor for his mental health struggles that highlights the impact of his panic attack in a gloriously unsubtle way. Panic attacks represent a complete loss of control because your entire body betrays you when being overwhelmed by something it has no healthy outlet for. Adding superpowers to the mix is a visceral example of how severe a panic attack can be. The visual of uncontrollable X-ray vision is a powerful example of the lack of control associated with a panic attack as it’s something tangible that the viewer can latch onto to enhance their understanding of what Jordan is experiencing.
Jonathan stepping in to help him manage it is a great showcase of their relationship. Managing Jordan’s social anxiety is something that is part of the norm in their family so it makes sense that everyone is well-practiced in techniques that help support Jordan in weathering it. Jonathan is calm, measured and reassuring in contrast to Jordan’s heightened state. He represents a fixed point of support that can help Jordan regain control through breathing techniques and not giving into the overwhelming nature of the panic attack. It’s beautifully done because it expertly links Jordan’s mental health issues to his relationship with Jonathan as well as the well-cultivated familial norm created by Jordan’s diagnosis.
Their later reflection on the panic attack and manifesting X-ray vision is interesting as well. Jonathan encourages Jordan to consider himself lucky as such a painful attack resulted in the appearance of a new superpower whereas everyone else -such as him- has to deal with there being no upsides to being in a bad spot. It highlights the unique position Jordan’s in but doesn’t diminish what he is dealing with even if there’s a positive development whereby he gains extra superpowers.
The visceral example with Jordan allows for the transference of the understanding gained through witnessing it to Sarah. Mental health issues are often referred to as an invisible illness. A stigma was created because it’s easily dismissed by people who don’t see any physical evidence of illness or don’t consider it valid because they have no direct experience of how debilitating a mental health condition can be. The episode puts the work in to draw a connection between Jordan and Sarah by having Jordan experience an intense physical reaction to a mental health event so the more subtle coverage of Sarah has more weight.
It’s more subtle where Sarah is concerned but no less clear. Her trigger point comes after she tries to clear the air with Jordan and has her attempt shot down by him. The previous episode brought the challenges that come with being exes remaining friends to a head and created a significant rift between them. Jealousy is a typical obstacle for exes trying to be friends after the romantic relationship ends and Jordan still fails to take responsibility for allowing those feelings to contribute to the fracture in their relationship. Sarah tries to meet him halfway and Jordan throws it back in her face as if it’s her fault that he was jealous of her being friends with another guy. This triggers her spiral that is motivated by other factors but their conversation is the figurative straw that broke the camel’s back.
Of course, it’s not as simple as Jordan being selfish and possessive because his social anxiety is a consideration to be factored into his behaviour. Crucially, that doesn’t make his behaviour acceptable as there is still a rational lack of awareness that he is being unreasonable. He’s hurt and blames her for it so is looking to hurt her in return. It’s an understandable and natural reaction but far from a mature and helpful one. Making things worse is Sarah being so overwhelmed by her mental health struggles that she stops recognising any fault on Jordan’s part and entirely blames herself for damaging or destroying their friendship. Part of the problem is that her ability to be objective is diminished and she is stuck in a spiral that renders her unable to see any way to resolve her problems.
She is stuck in the belief that her choices have ruined her life. The DUI on her record will be there for five years and make applying for college more difficult if not impossible so her perception is that the consequence of her mistakes is the irreparable unravelling of her future. She specifically states that she’ll never get out of Smallville so she sees herself as completely stuck and unable to do anything about it. The fact that Sarah is so open about it with Lana shows that her ability to manage her mental health isn’t entirely diminished even if she rejects the notion of talking about it. A classic reaction to being overwhelmed by circumstances you feel are outwith your control is to think that talking about it won’t do any good. Sarah has been through therapy and clearly recognises the value in it but she has spiralled to the point where she feels that discussing it won’t improve her situation which means that something has to be done to get her out of that mindset.
Lana recognises the signs and is worried about her so enlists Kyle to help her deal with it. She tells Kyle that she hasn’t seen Sarah act like this since her suicide attempt so a united front is needed to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. The resulting conversation is very well done as it focuses on helping Sarah while reinforcing Kyle’s effort to be a better person and showing that it has paid off. He opens up to her about his own mistakes and unhealthy coping mechanisms as an example of something he doesn’t want to see happen to her. It took hitting rock bottom for him to make changes in his own life and the powerful motivation ended up yielding positive results but Sarah is unable to see the parallel as she isn’t an alcoholic like he was and doesn’t feel like she has hit rock bottom while being actively terrified of things getting worse. The best advice Kyle can give is that she has to take control of her life in small ways to begin with which leads to her taking on the waitressing job at the diner. It may not be much but it’s a decision she made that gives her control of an aspect of her life so that the rest can come later. It’s important that she doesn’t isolate herself and surrender to the notion of her life being ruined by her choices. It’s brutally real and very sensitively handled.
Drawing attention to Kyle’s improvement as a person ties into his handling of learning the truth about Clark in relation to Chrissy. Kyle learning the truth about Clark and pivoting away from his relentless campaign to learn the truth about the mysterious -to him- powered good samaritan intervening at local fires is an anti-climax. It was something that was built up over a period of time and is now closed off by him simply becoming another holder of the Kent family secret. There may be more to come on this but it appears to be over because Kyle now knows everything he wanted to and has reacted in a supportive way. The obvious question is why so much time was spent framing Kyle as an antagonist of sorts closing in on the truth if the resolution would be simple acceptance that puts an end to that tension. That time could have been better spent if the payoff was to be so underwhelming.
Kyle’s argument with Chrissy over her lack of honesty shows that his progression from the person he was to the person he is now isn’t without its blips. There are times when he will fall back on old habits and failing to understand why Chrissy felt the need to lie to him is one of those. Ultimately he accepts that she was dishonest because it wasn’t her secret to tell and they are back to where they were before Kyle learned the truth. It resolves along expected lines but the end point at least makes sense and their chemistry is used well to facilitate it.
This episode features Lois’ much-talked-about double mastectomy procedure. It’s treated as a grim inevitability that she has to emotionally prepare for which she does with a final night of freedom and frivolity surrounded by people she cares about. The procedure itself is relatively mundane in that it’s something that has to be done to her while other things occur. Once Lois puts herself in the care of the surgeon and those assisting she ceases to be a participant in the episode as her fate is in the hands of others. It loosely ties into Sarah’s need to take control of her life in that Lois is doing so by surrendering control to others in order to increase her chances of survival.
It more explicitly connects to Peia’s powers spiralling out of control after Bruno’s magical cure fails to render her healthy. There’s a lot going on here that affects multiple characters. For Peia, it’s about accepting the inevitability of her death and not fighting the idea that there’s nothing more that can be done. It’s something she initially refuses to do as things are looking up with the plans to disappear with her family and start a new life. Her powers are a clear metaphor for her cancer and the widespread destructive impact it has beyond her. She loses control of her powers just as she has no control over the cancer and her dogged refusal to accept that is the final hurdle she needs to overcome in order to save everyone around her. She continues to suffer from a disease that is killing her and her family suffers as they cling to the futile hope that they won’t lose her. Cutting back and forth between Peia’s accidental rampage and Lois’ operation is a reminder of Lois and Peia’s connection built on their dealing with cancer. The suggestion is that there may come a time when Lois and her family have to accept the inevitability of her death.
A magical solution for Lois is ruled out by the failure of the cure which reinforces the idea that some things can’t be solved by the fantastical elements that the show has access to. It doesn’t entirely put an end to the potential desperation that could come for the Kents if Lois’ condition deteriorates following her operation. It’s possible that denial could overpower rationality and questions could be asked about whether it’s possible that Lois will have a better reaction. If handled well it could be an interesting challenge to overcome but for now, it seems inevitable that Lois’ fate is in the hands of conventional medical science which aids in making this story a relatable one.
The action climax isn’t resolved by Clark fighting Peia, the solution comes from using the power of his empathy to help her along the path towards accepting her fate. He tells her that it’s ok for her to let go and carries her into the sky so that the resulting explosion doesn’t hurt anyone else. He helps free her from the burden of the damage she is doing both to herself and her family which shows how heroic Clark can be simply by using words. He may one day have a similar conversation with Lois, something that is perhaps hinted at in their later conversation.
Peia’s death is unquestionably a tragedy on a number of levels. An obvious one is that a compassionate person who loves her family lost her life to an unforgiving illness. The fact that she has murdered people and committed heinous crimes is definitely not to be ignored but the show has made it abundantly clear that Peia is not a bad person and certainly didn’t deserve to come to the end she did. The tragedy extends to Matteo and Bruno losing her without having the opportunity to say goodbye. It was too dangerous for them to be near her so her death happened when they weren’t there to see her pass. They are forever robbed of the opportunity to say goodbye which will make the grieving process more difficult.
Matteo’s desperation to save his mother sets up how difficult the grieving process will be for him as he steadfastly refused to accept the possibility of her death. This comes across in his interactions with Natalie after she defies John’s instruction to stay away from him. John’s conversation with Natalie presents him as being more understanding than he has previously and adds texture to the recent dialling up of his overprotective nature where Natalie is concerned. He talks to her about the Mannheim’s going into hiding meaning that she will probably never see Matteo again so will never achieve the kind of closure on that relationship she wants. He understands what it’s like to be unable to let go of something that is already lost and doesn’t want the same to happen to her. This connects to the Mannheim’s because that’s what they’re doing with Peia and sets up the possibility of Matteo heading down the path of struggling to accept the loss.
Witnessing Bruno and Matteo lose Peia snaps John out of his fear-driven hatred of Bruno. He connects their loss to his own and sees them as people who have lost someone close to them. It’s an important shift in perspective that feeds into the importance of empathy routinely championed by this show. It leads to mutual respect between John and Bruno that allows them to trust one another under particular circumstances. John gives Bruno his word that Matteo will be looked after and Bruno knows how sincere that promise is.
Bruno taking responsibility for everything he’s done and coming clean in order to benefit Matteo is a strong development. There’s a suggestion that Bruno has no fight left in him now that Peia is gone and only cares about securing his son’s future. Sacrificing himself is the only way to guarantee that and it’s something he’s willing to do. It could be that he’s lost motivation to maintain his empire now that Peia isn’t by his side helping him do so. His priorities have shifted and the motivation is no longer there without her.
There are a few options as to where this could go. Matteo could end up following in his father’s footsteps driven by grief or he may end up rejecting the family business and struggle to deal with the loss. It’s notable that he lost his mother and father on the same day albeit in different ways so he’s in a very fragile position. It’ll be interesting to see what the show does with him next and what direction things will head in if Bruno has been taken off the board as a threat.
An excellent episode that delivers a moving and sensitive exploration of mental health and provides a strong climax that reinforces the show’s commitment to empathy.
- attaching Jordan’s panic attack to the manifestation of his X-ray vision reinforcing the connection between Jordan’s powers and mental health
- the uncontrollable X-ray vision being a powerful example of the loss of control associated with a panic attack
- Jonathan helping him manage it being a great showcase of their relationship and Jordan’s condition being a reality within the family
- interesting reflection from Jonathan after the fact
- Jordan’s visceral example of mental health allowing for the transference of the understanding of the severity to Sarah’s more subtle example
- clear trigger points where both are concerned
- Sarah spiralling because she believes that her choices and mistakes have ruined her life
- a brutally real showing of how defeated Sarah feels
- Kyle opening up to her about his own mistakes helping her get perspective
- Sarah taking control of her life in a small way for now
- treating Lois’ procedure as a grim inevitability she has to emotionally prepare for
- highlighting that her fate is in the hands of others
- connecting Lois’ procedure to Peia’s powers spiralling out of control as a suggestion of a similar future for her
- Peia’s out-of-control powers acting as a metaphor for the cancer being something she can’t control and the widespread impact of denial
- the action climax being solved by Clark’s empathy and setting up the potential for a similar conversation to be had with Lois in future
- Bruno and Matteo being robbed of the chance to say goodbye to Peia
- the suggestion that Bruno has no fight left in him after losing Peia
- John likening this loss to his own and letting go of his fear-driven hatred after seeing the Mannheim’s as people
- removing Kyle as an antagonist of sorts closing in on the Kent family secret being an anti-climax
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