As part of our ongoing series on the final season of Smallville, Kiel and I discussed the character of Tess Mercer at some length when we covered the “Isis” episode and I imagine we will again this week when we tackle “Abandoned,” as she hit another couple key milestones. Before we get there, I wanted to do a little musing of my own about Tess.
Tess Mercer was introduced in the eighth season of Smallville ostensibly as a replacement for Lex Luthor in the role of the show’s main villain, as Michael Rosenbaum had chosen to move on to other work. However, over the course of the past three years, Tess has been portrayed as a complex individual with a capacity for great good or evil who seems to switch sides regularly and at last count was working with Clark Kent and his heroic allies.
But sometimes it seems Tess is too complex for the character’s own good.
In many ways, I’d imagine Tess seemed a godsend for the writer and producers of Smallville. During the show’s early seasons, its interpretation of the Superman mythos could be somewhat liberal at times, from Pete Ross and Lana Lang going from white to black and Asian respectively, to Lex Luthor growing up in Smallville (a change taken from the Silver Age comics and later restored to current continuity), to so far as Clark having a personality slightly more befitting the lead of a WB (later CW) prime time soap opera than a comic book secret identity. Still, certain personality traits and character relationships seemed set in stone particularly among the core cast central to the Superman legend (we were never going to find out that Lois Lane was really from Krypton or Pa Kent had secretly sired Green Arrow).
Initially, new character Chloe Sullivan presented some wiggle room as far as untapped directions for the story, but even she is somewhat ingrained at this point, having recently entered the DC comic book Universe. I maintain one of the most brilliant maneuvers the show ever pulled was having Jimmy Olsen on for several years, him learning Clark’s secret identity and subsequently die at the hands of Doomsday at the end of season eight, an outcome few saw coming since he was considered a “safe” character in terms of being crucial to the comics, but then pulling the big swerve by revealing the “real” Jimmy was that guy’s little cousin at his funeral. It was a bold, clever move that somewhat bucked the inherent predictability of certain things on Smallville, but the gymnastics around the move also demonstrated in large part how tight the crew’s hands were tied.
So enter Tess Mercer.
When Tess first came on the show, she was part of a regular cast that also included Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Oliver “Green Arrow” Queen, Chloe Sullivan and the kid who turned into Doomsday; of that list, the last character had his origin revamped but was always a short-term concept and the rest (aside from Jimmy, whom I covered) were more or less untouchable. Since then, Jimmy, Chloe and Davis have all left the show, so it’s down to an ensemble of four, three of whom are iconic DC characters who have all been around for seven decades, and Tess, who has existed for a couple years.
So the bottom line is that whenever a major revelation needs to be made about a character’s past or a layer added to somebody’s back story, you can put pretty good money on Tess.
Need Ollie to have a lost love to add depth to his motivation? It was Tess. Want to get Zod back on the show via somebody having a secret obsession with Krypton? Tess is your girl. You’re introducing Checkmate and want to tie it more firmly into your established mythology by having a character be a former agent? Guess who.
In “Abandoned” alone, we got the double whammy of Tess having been raised in an orphanage run by Granny Goodness and that she’s in fact Lex’s long-lost sister Lena Luthor. So in a fairly short amount of time, this has gone from being a blank slate character to one with significant ties to Green Arrow, Krypton, Checkmate, Apokolips and the Luthors to name a few; can you think of many character from the actual comics with issues upon issues of stories to their name who are spread that thin?
To bring it back around to comics, Tess actually reminds me of—of all characters—Red Tornado. If you go back to the Justice League stories of the 60’s, 70’s and even more recent vintage, a big problem is that nothing really significant could ever happen to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, etc. because they all had their own solo books; Reddy, however, was more or less always the sole property of whoever was writing JLA, and thus the prime candidate to be killed off, brought back, secretly revealed to be a wind elemental or whatever. Ditto for the Pyms over in Avengers: you didn’t see Captain America or Iron Man lose control of their powers (for more than a couple issues) or deal with spousal abuse, did you? In fact, now that I mention it, characters like Red Tornado, the Pyms and their like were the only ones the team book writers got to marry off.
In short, like Red Tornado or Hank Pym, Tess Mercer is the shiny toy that the writers of Smallville don’t have to share with the other kids, so they tend to play with her all the more.
This of course is not inherently a bad thing, as lots of people like Red Tornado and Giant Man; on the other man, lots of other fans will tell you they can’t get too invested in Reddy or Hank because they know whoever is writing JLA or Avengers next will want to leave their own mark and muddy the waters that much more.
I actually like Tess and the actress who portrays her, Cassidy Freeman. I definitely think she adds a much-needed unique element to Smallville that sets it apart from its comics counterpart and keeps it slightly more unpredictable, plus I just think she’s fun. However, it’s tough to deny that everything I just wrote about her isn’t something of a knock against being able to accept her as part of the show’s larger tapestry. Honestly, there have been so many disparate elements incorporated into Tess Mercer at this point that trying to understand (let alone explain) her motivations and actions is no easy task.
She also seems more or less earmarked to die before the show ends to the point where I’d be pleasantly surprised if she makes it out alive.
At this stage in the game, there’s really nothing that can be done to solve the Tess Mercer problem if one exists—they can’t undo her various entanglements and if they tried it would take up far too much of the final episodes’ time—but I did feel it was worth ruminating on.