Superman & Lois – Season 3 Episode 2
Superman & Lois faces the Kent family with circumstances that can’t be solved with superpowers as the Bruno Mannheim conspiracy deepens.
One of the strengths of this show is grounding superhero stories in relatable family drama. Clark being Superman is balanced by having to deal with common family problems which positions his superhero alter ego as a demanding job that takes time away from his family. Superman becomes a metaphor for the demands that life puts on people and how there is no easy answer to how to find that perfect balance. The fact that it’s a constant struggle to maintain the balance suggests there is no actual answer and that every day is its own challenge. Feeding into that idea is problems manifesting that Clark can’t use his powers to deal with. The eternal conflict that Clark faces is living a Human life when he is a superpowered alien capable of doing things that others can’t.
Often added to that conflict is being faced with a challenge that renders his superpowers useless. A common example of that is losing his father to a heart attack, something this show briefly covered. It also covered the loss of his mother to natural causes in more detail. The point is that Clark has to face the mortality of those he cares about and accept that his powers have limitations. When it comes to loss and grief he is as helpless as the rest of us. It’s a very powerful character detail that humanises Superman in a visceral way.
Lois’ cancer diagnosis is another example of a problem that Clark has to deal with like any Human would. It’s possible that in episodes to come, he’ll take Lois to the Fortress and ask his mother’s A.I. to cure the cancer which will likely be met with some kind of excuse as to why that isn’t possible. This would be an act of desperation on Clark’s part where he desperately clings to the idea that nothing is impossible in his world because of all he has seen. He has had examples of why that isn’t the case but it would still be a perfectly reasonable reaction in the face of such an overwhelming loss of control. That doesn’t happen here as this episode is the beginning of the story where next steps haven’t yet been explored. It’s all about the initial reaction to the diagnosis and the emotional toll that takes.
The episode opens with an excellent montage of Lois undergoing medical tests intercut with her day-to-day life. It’s silent save for the score setting the tone. The lack of dialogue draws attention to Elizabeth Tulloch’s body language indicating the fear Lois is experiencing as well as her clear attempt to emotionally detach from what is happening to her. She carries on with her routine but her mind is elsewhere so she is sleepwalking through life. Even without knowing why that is, it’s a powerful opening that sets up that something significant is happening and highlights the personal stakes associated with it. The contrast between the relative mundanity of work and family time with the gravity of the medical tests hanging over it is striking.
Lois doesn’t open up about the diagnosis until late in the episode and the reveal doesn’t come from a conversation she has with Clark. I’ve frequently criticised other superhero media for manufacturing drama by having a character keep a secret for no other reason than to delay the reveal of the truth. Lois not immediately opening up about her diagnosis isn’t an example of that as it’s an understandable reaction to such personally earth-shattering news. She doesn’t tell her family because doing so would make it real and that’s not something she’s initially ready for. People taking time to internally process something so monumental is fully understandable and Clark dismissing it instantly when Lois apologises for not telling him sooner shows he understands that.
The handling of this was excellent. Lois revealing her diagnosis to Judge Reagan (Karen Holness) in order to literally talk her off a ledge made for a strong and emotionally devastating scene. She reaches out to Judge Reagan with empathy to highlight she understands being caught up in a situation she has no control over. Both are life-threatening in different ways as Judge Reagan is connected to the Bruno Mannheim plot in an as-yet-unknown way but it’s clear she doesn’t feel safe and thinks taking her own life is the only control she has against what she is facing. Lois understanding how Judge Reagan feels creates a natural connection between the villain plot and the cancer diagnosis. This syncs up the emotional stakes in a very clever way and creates the opportunity for the Bruno Mannheim plot to have greater depth than a standard villain threat. The title “Uncontrollable Forces” is multi-layered as it refers to the cancer as well as being associated with Bruno Mannheim. He is a powerful individual with a lot of influence so being on the wrong side of him is akin to a serious illness as there is no control over your fate when in his crosshairs. It’s an interesting comparison that the episode uses wonderfully.
Clark’s reaction when learning about the diagnosis makes for a beautiful moment. Saying nothing and embracing Lois as a declaration of unconditional support is another example of the strength of their connection. This is expanded in their conversation where Clark promises that this won’t change the way he sees her and vows to face this as a family. Ending the episode with breaking the news to Jonathan and Jordan is a firm declaration of the intent to develop this story rather than wasting time withholding information to manufacture drama. It’s an effective scene where the score once again takes focus away from dialogue and allows the body language of the actors to do the talking. It’s a poignant ending that shows exactly where the focus of this show is.
The Bruno Mannheim plot receives some attention. One scene is a reminder of criminals being resurrected and given powers while showing that there are complications with that approach. Onomatopoeia seeing John despite being the one to kill him raises the stakes by putting him in Mannheim’s crosshairs as does the attack on Lana. It’s notable that Henry Miller has a terminal illness that secured his release from prison and Lois is dealing with a potentially terminal illness. Whether the link will be exploited is unknown but it’s another connection between the two plots that suggest a cohesion that will do neither of them any harm. I speculated earlier that Clark may take Lois to the Fortress in the desperate search for a cure. Another possibility is that he goes to Bruno Mannheim for the same reason.
Clark has a direct interaction with Bruno Mannheim that recalls similar interactions Superman has with Lex Luthor in other adaptations. Superman going to Lex and landing on his balcony to establish their antagonistic relationship is something that happens early in many Superman stories. For those familiar with other iterations of Superman, this subconsciously puts Bruno Mannheim in the same league as Lex Luthor and for those not in the know it’s impactful by itself. The interaction is interesting for a variety of reasons. Bruno Mannheim isn’t afraid of Superman in any way because he feels that he has covered his tracks so well that he is invincible. He mentions repeated attempts to link him to crimes that never stick so he confidently believes that he has absolutely nothing to worry about. Clark keeps pushing him to betray his involvement but Mannheim never flinches. The dynamic is compelling because both are powerful men who are invincible in their own ways. Mannheim knows he’s protected by the law as there is no evidence that he has done anything wrong so Clark as Superman is powerless to take action.
Their conversation also covers a very compelling talking point. Bruno Mannheim sees himself as a hero looking out for people and can evidence this with things he has put in place that benefit the less fortunate in society. He thinks he’s an agent of change and seems to genuinely care about the people in Suicide Slums because he comes from the area and can now use his wealth to help others in ways that were unimaginable to him in his youth. There isn’t enough information to determine whether he has a genuine desire to benefit that community or if he’s justifying exploiting them in his own way but for now at least he seems genuine and that makes for a strong basis for his attack on Superman as a hero. He accuses Clark of not changing anything in the world and doing nothing more than putting out fires. All Clark can fall back on is declaring that he helps people but Mannheim’s point about Superman doing nothing that could be regarded as lasting change is difficult to dispute.
Putting out fires is one example of what Superman does but he’s more reactive to situations rather than proactively working to change the world. The obvious counter-argument is that Clark doesn’t believe it’s his place to dictate how the world should be so is content to be a protector but that isn’t something he brings up here. It makes sense as Mannheim’s accusation was likely a shock to him and he had no prepared rebuttal. Perhaps this is the start of an examination of Clark’s approach to heroism that will encourage him to consider how much long-term good he’s doing. Heroes having their ideologies challenged and examing their underlying motivations is often fascinating, especially where Superman is concerned as there is a wide perception that he is too powerful and too self-righteous to be relatable to audiences. Clark being encouraged to analyse how he approaches being Superman and define why he’s relevant as a hero is an excellent way to answer those common criticisms.
I mentioned in my review of the previous episode that there seemed to be a defined attempt to address the shortcomings when it comes to characterising Natalie. This episode suggests that this promise wasn’t an empty one as she receives significant attention. Having no life outside of her father and associated heroics is the starting point for her development. Sarah practically drags her to a party out of a desire to be normal teenagers. The setup of meeting the doppelgänger of a boy she had a crush on in her universe is clumsy but it certainly accomplishes getting them to the party and starting the process of developing Natalie as a character.
Her conversation with John highlights how dependent they have become on one another and how that needs to change if they are to truly feel at home in this new universe. It’s clear John is at a loose end when Natalie has plans that don’t include him and Natalie’s passionate appeal for him to let her do this comes with a reminder that he wants her to interact with people her own age. Going to parties is what teenagers do so he has to let her do that otherwise he’ll never get what he wants. There’s a reluctance on Natalie’s part that suggests she is also trying to convince herself that this is the right thing to be doing. John having dinner with Lana starts to push him in the direction of forging meaningful connections outside of Natalie so work is being done to make up for previous shortcomings.
The party scenes wouldn’t be out of place in a teen drama like One Tree Hill or The O.C. but that’s why they work so well as there’s an authenticity to them that helps further ground this show in relatable human drama. It doesn’t go to the lengths of tarnishing any of the characters by one of them getting too drunk or finding themselves in trouble they aren’t prepared for but as an opportunity for them to be normal teenagers it works well. Natalie spends most of her time talking to Matteo (Spence Moore II) who expresses that he is attracted to her. There is an odd mention of him remembering her from her one day at his high school several months ago but that can be put down to teenage awkwardness and Natalie calls him out on how ludicrous she finds that recognition. It’s refreshing to see Natalie so nervous in an interaction as she is typically unflinchingly confident. Tayler Buck plays Natalie as physically uncomfortable and self-conscious as she navigates this unfamiliar situation. Using Natalie’s need to live a fuller life with more to it than spending time with her father and the Kents as well as getting involved in heroics is a good basis for an arc and it’s pleasing to see the show committing to it.
Natalie and Sarah’s friendship also receives some attention. They haven’t interacted on screen many times but the actors do an excellent job selling that their friendship is something both feel comfortable with. Sarah recognises that Natalie needs to be pushed out of her comfort zone and takes responsibility for doing so. All major steps forward Natalie takes are because Sarah pushes her into taking them. It’s a good dynamic aided by the transparency that now exists between most of the main characters. There are no secrets so Sarah has an understanding of why Natalie would be reluctant to take certain steps and is content to help her along.
Sarah is also proactive in dealing with the tension that exists between her and Jordan. They have an open conversation about the awkwardness Jordan feels when around her and outlines what she wants from him in order to clear the air. She apologises for assuming that he would be innately aware of the nature of their relationship and makes it clear that she wants to be close/best friends which gives Jordan the clarity he needs to defeat the awkwardness he has allowed to infect their relationship.
Jonathan’s involvement in the rebellious teenager plot is less strong. His key scenes are built around his former relationship with Eliza (Yasmeene Ball); his girlfriend when he left Metropolis who broke up with him because long distance was too much for her. Jonathan’s scenes rely on the viewer investing in this connection without having any reason to. Eliza hasn’t been mentioned since the first season so there’s nothing tangible to latch onto. She attempts to rekindle things with Jonathan despite him having a girlfriend who receives only marginally more attention in the show and he knocks her back even after she insists to not tell anyone about what could happen between them. It seems that this is all designed to give Jonathan something to do but the bedrock of the drama isn’t anywhere near as strong as the content surrounding Natalie, Sarah and Jordan.
In theory, everything that is presented here could be strong content for Jonathan but effort needs to be put into properly establishing these things otherwise they are empty filler just as his scenes in this episode are. With more work, Jonathan could be reminded of his life in Metropolis and realise how much he misses what he had when living there. Hints of this exist such as Eliza’s dismissive reaction to Jordan being at the party. If Jonathan had fit right into the party because he knew the person throwing it along with Eliza and others in attendance then that would at least form the basis for him to remember what his life used to be like. It wouldn’t solve the problem of his relationship with Eliza being poorly developed but it would at least be something unique to him that could be explored in these surroundings.
An excellent episode with an abundance of powerful emotional moments that excels in grounding the show in relatable human drama while expertly weaving in the teenage challenges.
- the excellent opening montage
- using the reveal to connect Lois’ diagnosis to the villain plot in a meaningful emotional way
- Clark’s reaction to learning about the cancer as a showcase of the strength of their relationship
- the conversation they have about handling it together
- grounding the show with a problem that Clark’s powers can’t solve
- Clark’s interaction with Bruno Mannheim
- both coming from the point of view of being invincible in different ways
- Mannheim challenging what long-term good Superman has done
- committing to developing Natalie as a character
- Natalie being uncomfortable and self-conscious as she navigates taking to a boy who is attracted to her
- Sarah and Natalie’s natural friendship
- the interaction that clears the air between Sarah and Jordan
- Jonathan’s key scenes being built around things that haven’t received any prior attention meaning they come across as empty filler
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