For the first half of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (Is every episode this season named after a movie? Must remember to investigate further), I was settling in for a decent but kind of blah episode – more Lois’ cancer, more teen and relationship drama, lots of talking about these things, with a little criminal investigation mixed in to keep us awake. But the second half – or the final third, more accurately – picks up considerably, with some big steps in the Intergang storyline, new wrinkles to the questionable morality he brings to Superman’s world, and a tease for the eventual appearance of a certain alliterative arch-villain.
Lois has a change of heart about the Bruno Manheim story, so Clark and Chrissy investigate without her. Matteo invites Natalie to meet his parents, with John Henry unaware of the dangers involved. Jonathan makes some headway at the firehouse, only to have his future jeopardized by Jordan. Lana can’t find anyone to go to a concert with her, which is surprisingly more interesting than it sounds… eventually.
The opening scene of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is a good representation of what the season has been like so far; as the score strikes a serious tone, Lois receives a chemotherapy treatment, Clark and the boys clear a room for her hospital bed, and Clark carries her through the house, helping her to sleep. It’s a good scene, well-staged and almost creepy in the way all of this is treated so mundanely. That’s a reality of cancer: the hardest and most painful aspects become routine, with everyone pitching in as though it were normal spring cleaning. Clark’s lingering looks at Lois are sad and relatable for anyone who’s had a sick loved one, and we’re once again reminded that this is something Superman can’t fix. Why is this representative of the season as a whole? Because it’s necessary, it’s good in itself, but it’s also getting tedious. I understand you can’t introduce a plot element like this and not deal with it every episode, but I’m growing tired of wallowing in it. They’ve more than made their points by now; I’d’ like to see a few episodes where it’s mentioned here and there but doesn’t take up these big chunks of screen time without advancing the story.
Fortunately, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” does add some new elements to the cancer plot, as Lois admits to having her mood and attitude influenced by her illness. When Chrissy arrives to tell her and Clark about new information she found concerning Manheim and Peia, Lois demands they drop it, throwing her weight around as co-owner of the paper. (Chrissy must feel like a million bucks being ordered around about the newspaper she founded and ran alone for years.) Clark later convinces Lois to simply stay out of it while he and Chrissy look into Peia’s Manheim connection. But it’s Sam who gets Lois back to form, helping her sift through the files that she risked everything to obtain from Manheim’s treatment facility. And when the fire ignites in Lois Lane’s heart, nothing will put it out; she finds some important stuff in the files and is suddenly back on the job, explaining her outburst as a result of the cancer. This is good, and I like that she’s beginning to recognize how the disease is affecting her; I also like that it’s Sam who breaks her out of her funk, being a dad, no matter how grown his daughter is.
This is the template for much of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner;” characters have a conflict with each other till someone else sets them straight. Jonathan is made a junior firefighter and allowed to go on a call with the team, but strictly as an observer (Licence to Kill flashbacks imminent). But while standing by the truck as instructed, Jon sees Jordan rush into the fire to save an old man, and when he runs over, Kyle blames him for leaving his post. The conflict here is that Jordan’s superhero work is causing trouble with Jon’s real-world hero work. This is in line with Clark trying to teach Jordan how to save lives without making things worse, like when he almost collapsed a building earlier this season. An argument ensues, with Jordan saying something he really shouldn’t have, and Sarah gets him to see it from Jon’s perspective; Jordan may not be wrong for saving that man, but it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge that Jon unfairly caught the fallout. It’s a little silly the way the fight escalates, but the point is made, and it takes an outsider’s perspective to help Jordan.
Jordan then pays it forward – or back, I suppose – to Sarah. Earlier, Lana received a notice on her phone about concert tickets she bought for herself and Kyle, but since he’s no longer an option, she needs someone to go with her. She asks Sarah, who rebuffs her in the most insulting way possible because she’s Sarah. But Jordan makes her see that it’s not about the music (to which Sarah also has a snotty, condescending response because the show is determined to confound us as to what Jordan sees in this selfish brat); it’s about her mother wanting to spend time with her. The flip side is Lana trying and failing to find someone to go with her (Clark’s reaction to seeing The Cure made me laugh; Tyler Hoechlin is great in the doofy Clark moments) until she runs into Sam, who pushes her to make a new life for herself, to move on from Kyle and find someone she’d like to go with rather than someone who’ll take the ticket. These scenes are hit and miss, with the one between Lana and Sam being my favorite; not only do they feel like grownups on a show that rarely knows how to write them, but they feel like real people, two lost souls who ran into each other at a diner and had a nice, helpful conversation nobody else was equipped to have with them.
That’s all fine for what it is, but it doesn’t make for an especially compelling episode of a superhero show. That’s when the real story – or what should be the real story, if the writers and producers would get with the program already – kicks in, and it starts with the titular dinner. Natalie goes to Metropolis to meet Matteo’s parents, who, as we learned last week, are Bruno and Peia Manheim. Dinner is going great – if a little corny – until John Henry learns from his doppelganger’s sister that the restaurant is an Intergang front. (Manheim is kind of cheap “paying” for dinner at a restaurant he owns, isn’t he?) But when John Henry shows up, the cat jumps out of the bag and claws up the furniture. The action isn’t spectacular here, despite the eventual presence of Superman, but the sense of danger is palpable as Manheim has the other patrons – who are all his henchmen – jump John Henry and beat him. This is important after last week and the first half of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” which humanized Bruno and Peia Manheim considerably. Now, we see the monsters they are deep down, the ones who are perfectly willing to murder the father of their son’s new girlfriend simply because he wants his daughter out of danger.
That becomes the moral dilemma that will haunt Superman and his allies in the coming weeks. Superman rushes Peia, who strains herself almost to death using her sonic voice powers, to the medical ward at DSI headquarters, and he wants to keep her there for observation. But John Henry disagrees; she’s evil, she’s a murderer who almost killed him, and beyond saving her life, they owe her nothing. What are the limits of mercy and leeway when someone has a terminal illness? Should we feel bad for Peia? Is she off the hook because she has cancer? Logically, she shouldn’t be, but there’s a part of you that wants to chalk it up to the illness and see her cared for, even though we know she was like this before the cancer. This extends to Bruno Manheim, who is helping his community and furthering cancer research but also brutalizes and murders innocent people. How much can the good outweigh the bad in a man like this? And finally, this theme finds its way to Lex Luthor, who we learn is in jail for killing Moxie, Manheim’s predecessor at the top of the Intergang ladder. Thanks to Clark’s super hearing, he and Lois have discovered that Luthor is innocent of that crime. Does it matter that someone as evil as Lex Luthor is in jail for one of the few things he didn’t do?
With that, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” ends on a strong note. Now that these threads are being introduced, I hope the rest of the season focuses more on Manheim and less on Lois being sick. I’m not saying to ignore the latter, but maybe put it on the back burner for a while and let us enjoy the good stuff. I think we’ve earned it.