With “Holding the Wrench,” Superman & Lois proves it won’t be going through many growing pains in its first season. This show doesn’t need to find its footing, having mastered how to tell a long-form story with just enough forward momentum to make each episode crucial to the arc. At the same time, each tells a story of its own, with themes and character development that feel complete and part of a bigger whole.
Superman interrogates a captive John Henry Irons, but Sam Lane may not have the patience to wait for him to get through to the prisoner. Lois investigates Irons’ RV, which triggers a past trauma. Jonathan struggles to feel useful without any superpowers. Kyle encourages Sarah to try out for the school musical revue.
“Holding the Wrench” quickly reveals the meaning of its title, as Clark repairs the family pickup from the damage caused by the scuffle with Irons. Jonathan hands his dad a wrench, but Clark waves it away as he asks Jordan to use his burgeoning super strength to hold the front grill in place while he melds the metal. The significance is clear as day; Jon feels like his father doesn’t need him while his brother can help. So, when Clark flies off to deal with superhero problems, Jon offers to help his mother instead, naturally clinging to the parent the former football star probably never thought he’d identify with more.
The setup to “Holding the Wrench” has several instances like this: Lana tells Kyle Morgan Edge won’t give him one of the assistant positions, so he resolves to help Sarah instead; Sarah doesn’t believe she can sing on her own, and she’s ready to pass up a second opportunity to prove herself; Superman gets nowhere with Irons, so Sam decides to intervene and possibly use torture; Superman also learns that his evil doppelganger was once as noble as he, and questions whether his moral uprightness will be enough to keep him from abusing his power; Irons remembers the family he was unable to save and is now stuck doing what he can for a world that isn’t his. And, in a shocking reveal halfway through, Lois lost a child in a miscarriage and is extra driven to protect her boys in the wake of her failure to save her daughter. These people are all holding the wrench, stuck in situations where they feel powerless and, ultimately, worthless.
It doesn’t help that everyone around them screws up and makes the wrench they’re holding feel even heavier. Jon almost gets himself killed in Irons’ RV, and Lois blows her top, destroying what little self-esteem he has left. Kyle follows Lana to work and learns that she denied him the job for which Edge suggested him. Kyle also misses the musical revue tryouts, sapping the confidence he’d given a petrified Sarah. Sam sidelines Superman in favor of himself and, if need be, a torture expert. Irons refuses to let Superman’s history of good deeds convince him that he won’t turn one day.
The exception is Clark; he’s the only one who sees someone’s wrench, in this case, Lois’, and urges her to seek help from her old psychiatrist (played by Wendy Crewson!). And because Clark helped her, Lois is able to help Jonathan through empathy and truth, explaining to him that she holds the same wrench. Sam is the one to help Clark, and it’s when he shows Irons his unwavering belief in Superman. Sam is standing in for the audience here, begrudgingly accepting that he lives in a dark world full of ambiguous morality but clinging to the hope that Superman brings, using him as the beacon for all that is good. It’s the belief others have in him that helps Superman believe in himself, and, in the climax, Lois’ belief in Superman that allows Irons to think past his hate.
That Sarah and Kyle aren’t as lucky reinforces the importance of a close, loving family. Kyle never gets the opportunity to make his negligence up to Sarah because Jordan – a Kent – does it for him, giving Sarah the confidence her dad said he would. (That Jonathan spurs him on to do this furthers the bond between the brothers being at least as strong as the one between father and son. And, as I observed was the case before, he does it with a jab instead of a hug; in consigning Jordan to the “friend zone” with Sarah, Jon is actually pushing his brother to break out of it, which he does.) Unfortunately, Kyle doesn’t have a Kent to lean on, and he ends “Holding the Wrench” worse off than his daughter or the family he despises.
“Holding the Wrench” succeeds thematically in part because none of these characters are all bad. It would be easy to turn Kyle into a disinterested father, but he genuinely loves Sarah and believes in her; his lousy job prospects and insecurity get the better of him, but he means well. Lana means well too, and her decision to lie to Kyle is morally murky. She knows him well enough to understand that he won’t listen to her if she warns him that accepting Edge’s offer is a bad idea, but it still isn’t her right to decide for him. She takes the path of least resistance and ends up hurting her husband and her daughter. This contrasts with the Kent/Lanes, who are honest and open with each other, and their family is stronger for it; the trouble they face this week is caused by Lois hiding a truth from her sons and is remedied when she finally reveals it.
And, once more, the series demonstrates how well it knows Superman. “Holding the Wrench” is another lesson in how to make an invulnerable man vulnerable. The Kryptonite weapons are the physical tools to do that, but what really cuts Superman in half is the thought that he could harm the innocent. At first, he balks at Irons’ insistence that he can’t be trusted, but learning that the evil Superman from Irons’ dimension was once a good man too is what gives him pause. His morality never wavers, but his trust in himself does, and that’s how Superman truly bleeds. The resolution shows the symbiotic relationship Superman has with humanity, being reassured when the most hard-headed, morally flexible realist he knows expresses honest, unshakable trust in him. Superman’s powers make him a danger, but his humanity makes him a hero.
The one thing that annoyed me in “Holding the Wrench” was Lois’ meltdown scene. I think they went too far with it, trying so hard to express how badly Lois is losing it that she says some cartoonish things to Jonathan; “Get out of my face” is what ruined it the most for me. I know superhero stories have to be arch, but this was too much. There’s plenty more good than bad, though. Despite the poor dialogue in that scene, Elizabeth Tulloch is sensational in her therapy session, especially when she reveals the miscarriage and again when she tells Jon what happened. The fight between Superman and one of Edge’s fake Kryptonians is fun and inventive, with the Kryptonite gas weakening both of them until what begins as two gods hammering at each other devolves into a couple of guys in a sloppy brawl. It’s a neat way of showing the effects Kryptonite – a synthetic one in this case, which takes away a Kryptonian’s powers without actually killing him – has on Superman, making the extraordinary painfully ordinary. And the resolution to the conflict between Superman and Irons is handled just right; it’s not over yet, and these two are far from friends, but they’re starting to trust each other. Irons shutting down his AI and resolving to wander a bit is the perfect way to leave him at this stage. “Holding the Wrench” is another winner.
“Holding the Wrench” adds to the staggering win column Superman & Lois is accumulating. The John Henry Irons storyline reaches a strong checkpoint, new family dynamics are explored, and Superman is once again humanized in a way consistent with his character.