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Lex's turn to evil

I said something rather incoherent in reponse to a comment by latxcvi about Lex's turn toward evil, so I'm writing this mainly to clarify my own thinking. Spoilers through "Fanatic".



I've seen a lot of people writing about this episode saying that it seems like Lex is taking a step back from the decision that he made in Lexmas, which most people see as his decisive turn toward villainy. I'm not sure this is necessarily a step back. Lex, of course, has never really been a *good* person on the show. His intentions in seasons one and two were generally good, but his methods were very bad. We know he had a bad boy past ("Zero"), and that his encounter with Clark led him to desire a fresh start, but he has been manipulating people from early first season, starting with Roger Nixon and then moving on to Victoria Hardwick, Carrie Castle, Dominic, and many others. In his own mind (and probably in the minds of most viewers) this was justified because he was never the aggressor in the situation. Nixon tried to blackmail him, so he blackmailed Nixon in return; similarly Victoria, Dominic, and Carrie Castle all were trying to use him, so he used them back. When it came to innocent bystanders and people he had taken under his circle of protection (like the Kents), he didn't resort to such manipulations, even though he certainly did things that most of those people would have seen as dangerous or underhanded (like funding Hamilton's meteor experiments, and investigating Clark).

I think over the course of season 3 and 4, the lines he drew in seasons 1 & 2 had started to erode, partly because of his deteriorating relationship with Clark and his deteriorating trust in the goodness of other people. He was repeatedly betrayed by people he trusted--by Desiree, by Helen, by Clark (in the Shattered/Asylum arc), by his mother (retrospectively, in Memoria)--and so by late season 4/early season 5 I think those he classifies as "innocent bystanders" and "under the circle of his protection" is small indeed. He's also become more aggressive toward those who threaten his interests (such as his actions toward Chloe in Commencement and Arrival, or his actions toward Aquaman in Aqua). But he hadn't lost his desire to do good completely; in fact, "Onyx" showed us that his desire for good was still there, albeit very dangerous, because he is still using very questionable means in the attempt to do good. The beginning of "Lexmas" also shows he still has the desire to be a philanthropist.

I think the real transformation we're supposed to be seeing, post-Lexmas, is NOT that Lex is now completely evil, but that the circle of his protection has basically shrunk to himself and Lana; no one is an innocent bystander anymore; and he's decided it's ok to use manipulation not merely in self-defense or in pursuit of a (somewhat) altruistic goal, but solely for his own ends. He still, at this moment, has some moral lines: he distinguishes between himself and Lexfan, and probably also between himself and Lionel, based on the fact that he doesn't sanction killing in pursuit of his ends. Not yet, anyway.

I said in a comment at bop_radar's journal that there was Lex was, in a sense, deceiving himself. What I meant is that he's convincing himself that he is justified in using blackmail and manipulation to secure his own power, and therefore his own happiness. He had, in the past, been seeking out love (romantic or familial--Helen, Clark, the Kents, Lana) to serve as a moral barometer for him, because Lionel's upbringing hadn't provided one. (This quest was probably doomed from the start, because it's asking too much of someone to make them your moral anchor). I think the significance of Lexmas is that he's given up that quest altogether, seeing its futility, though he misunderstands *why* it is futile. From now on, even the people he loves are just going to be objects he wants to control, rather than subjects enabling him to be a better person, but I am not sure he fully realizes that. He has embraced the path of power because love has, he thinks, failed him, but he is still deceiving himself in thinking that power can bring him happiness or allow him to control his world and avoid being hurt.

And now that even the people he loves have become objects of control rather than subjects with their own agency, it's going to be a lot easier for Lex to cross those final lines and start killing people with impunity--but he hasn't gotten there yet.

Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
bop_radar
Jan. 14th, 2006 03:33 am (UTC)
his deteriorating trust in the goodness of other people
This gets to the heart of Lex's development for me. He used to believe in an ideal or purity, embodied at different times by the Kents, Clark or Lana. That has been shattered time and time again. In Season 4 he lost any remaining illusions about them. It's taken him some time to emotionally process that, but he's very much 'godless' now, in the sense that he has nothing left to revere but himself. Even his mother's memory, previously idealised, has a dark edge for him now.

I agree with you that he does still have another line to cross--that of killing to get what he wants. It's significant. I see what latcxvi is getting at about self-deception and I think perhaps he does delude himself as to the extent to which he is already 'evil', but I do think that taking a human life through ambition is very different to blackmail, no matter how harmful. There are degrees of 'evil', although blurry, and Lex is pushing through them slowly, expanding the circle of behaviour he considers legitimate. I think this episode gave us some clear signals about where he was in that development.

Yes, I think he is self-deceiving now. I am saddened by that because I wanted a fully self-aware villain. But I understand how and why it has happened and there are compensations in the fascinating forms his self-deception takes.

From now on, even the people he loves are just going to be objects he wants to control, rather than subjects enabling him to be a better person, but I am not sure he fully realizes that.
Yes, this is very interesting. I don't think he does realise that. The conflating of love/control is fascinating because it taps into why Clark can never share his secret with him. What's ironic is that Lex has only reached this stage now. Now he genuinely would aim to control Clark's powers for his own ends. But Clark/the Kents have projected this fear onto Lex for a long long time, and I believe that there was a time when this was not true of Lex. To what degree we believe his fate could have been changed partially dictates to what degree we view the show as a tragedy. As you know, I do, and one of the reasons I do is because the show continually sets up situations where timing, misunderstandings and very human failings perpetuate a path to evil for Lex (and to sorrow/loss for Clark and Lana).
norwich36
Jan. 14th, 2006 03:48 am (UTC)
You notice how I said I was not going to be replying to comments this weekend and then when you were sleeping I went and spammed lj all over the place with comments, and no less than three entries on this episode? I am so weak! (Though I did manage to get one important project completed today).

I think I might be missing the point about what LaT and you mean, exactly, by a self-aware villain. Do you mean, self-aware in the sense that he knows what he is doing is wrong, and does it anyway, enjoying the fact that it is wrong? Because I guess for me, that is a little too close to the mustache-twirling school of villainy. I don't even think Lionel the sociopath chooses evil simply to do evil; he chooses it because he has a kind of Nietzchean sense that rules are for lesser men. Similarly, I think Lex is self-deceiving in the sense that he thinks his choices are justified (when objectively speaking, they are not).

I agree with you that there was a possibility that Lex's turn to evil could have been averted, in part if people had not treated him as if he were evil from the start, and that's what makes this a tragedy. On the other hand, even though I am deeply sympathetic to Lex, typing up that list above just reinforced for me exactly how *much* of his background, training, and inclinations he would have had to fight against to truly be a good person.

bop_radar
Jan. 14th, 2006 04:09 am (UTC)
Ha ha! Yes... you have given in to the urge to comment! Hooray! I'm only just starting my usual trawl back through my flist retrospectively after an ep airs. It's a lovely afternoon here though so I can't think of a pleasanter way to spend my time.

Hm. Well I can't speak for LaT, but yes, that wasn't exactly what I meant by a self-aware villain. Let me see if I can explain. In fact, I meant someone a lot closer to the Lionel school of villainy, not a true sociopath. Lex is emphatically NOT a sociopath, because he does feel compassion for others even if he represses it in an effort to be 'strong'. When you mention Lex losing faith in humanity, that was the real point where I felt the potential for a Lex who was both villainous and self-aware. A Lex so in despair about the world and humanity, and so lacking a moral compass, that he genuinely felt the only way to react to others was to deal with them on an equal basis--so if they hurt him, he'd hurt them back. If they lied to him, he'd lie too. To me, this really came out in Season 4.

To me, the one word that sums that sort of Lex up is 'godless'. I don't mean that in a strictly religious sense, but there's something in that word that resonates with me to imply the sense of anarchy and free reign that Lex has when he loses faith in humanity. There was a chance, I believe, that he would have worshipped Kryptonians/Clark as more powerful beings (his awestruck response to seeing Clark in Shattered) but that chance was lost now that he's interacted with them in ways that showed how dangerous they were. Basically I imagined a Lex that was aware that he was acting outside of moral boundaries but considered that that was just what life was about. That, essentially, he was a god among men and would act accordingly. If he proved more powerful than others, so be it. He sets himself up as his own god in the absence of any other love-giving godlike figure (parental or otherwise). This is all coming out in a bit of a blabble by the way...

We *sort of* have that Lex, or are approaching that stage, but he's still uncomfortable with the full extent of what that will mean. Lex is a deeply layered person and while he has a lot of resolve, he also has self-doubt and all his life he wanted to be accepted and loved as a 'good' person, so I think that's where his subconscious creeps in and deludes him into thinking he's still partially that person. I don't have as much problem with it as others, I think, though, because I want him to still be complex. It's character regression, perhaps, but it's also real and messy and interesting.

I have no idea if any of that made sense! I should get a coffee...
norwich36
Jan. 14th, 2006 04:33 am (UTC)
Ok, I see what you're getting at with the "godless"/moral anarchy bit. There are no rules other than his will, or at any rate, rules are for lesser beings. That is definitely where Lionel is at, but I agree with you that Lex is not quite there yet.
(Deleted comment)
norwich36
Jan. 14th, 2006 05:16 am (UTC)
If you're specifically talking about that scene where Lex tells Samantha that he would never hurt the Kents, then I agree that Lex is being disingenuous, and on some level he must be aware that he *is* hurting the Kents, and that's a choice he (on one level) ought to acknowledge, at least to himself. (And Samantha, his willing disciple, sees his self-deception there not as true self-deception but as plausible deniability).

But I think I parse the difference between Lionel and Lex's moral codes a little differently than you do. I would say Lionel is a sociopath with a high degree of social functionality, in the sense that he can understand other people's motives and manipulate them, but to him other people are just puppets, ultimately; he is the only *real* person in his universe, so anything he does to the puppets surrounding him is as justified as anything a child did with her Barbie dolls. Because he is very intelligent, he recognizes the need to justify his actions, overtly, with appeals to Nietzchean morality.

I don't think Nietzschean morality is necessarily sociopathic, btw, but it is a moral code that can certainly be used to justify any amount of self-serving behavior. So Lionel has taught Lex that conventional morality is what lesser beings promote to serve their own self-interests and to cripple the truly great, but the ubermensch knows that he needn't be bound by those petty rules, but in fact must defy them to be truly great.

Presumably Lillian provided some traditional morality to counterbalance to the Nietzschean framework Lionel taught Lex, but it doesn't seem to me that Lex internalized that framework to any great extent, or he wouldn't always be looking to Clark and other people to be his moral compass. So my sense is that when Lex rejected love for the will to power in Lexmas, explicitly rejecting Lillian's world for Lionel's, he was also rejecting the traditional moral frame for the Nietzschean one.

And by that framework, what Lex is doing to the Kents is *not* wrong, because "right" and "wrong" (like all other social rules) are concepts for lesser men. Since I strongly disagree with the Nietzschean value system, I would classify what Lex is doing as self-deception (from my moral framework, he his deceiving himself into thinking he can *control* the harms done to the Kents by his minions--a classic Lexian error) but within his own framework I'm not sure he's *capable* of seeing what he's done as wrong. He's a Luthor, so the rules don't apply to him. That's what his father has been teaching him all his life, and that's the message he embraced in Lexmas.

And for me, *that's* what makes him truly a villain. If he was still operating in the traditional frame of moral values, but choosing to do wrong out of self-interest, I'd classify him not as a villain but a bad person--the difference being that presumably a bad person could still change back into a good person, by altering the choices he is making. But the villain is working from an entirely different set of values that are not open to challenge from traditional morality, because by definition he dismisses the values of traditional morality as something that only applies to lesser beings.
juxtoppozed
Jan. 17th, 2006 01:33 am (UTC)
So Lionel has taught Lex that conventional morality is what lesser beings promote to serve their own self-interests and to cripple the truly great, but the ubermensch knows that he needn't be bound by those petty rules, but in fact must defy them to be truly great.

Yess, yes and yes. You articulated something I've been thinking about for a while wrt Lex and his descent, that I hadn't developed. This mentality has always lingered on some level as early as the first season and picked up speed. When he used the David/Uriah example in Exposed to defend David's conduct and a few eps earlier (thirst) had used "laviathan" to name his latest ambition-spurred project...couldn't help think of Hobbes, his idea that that one ruler is not beholden to any mortal, rules above all-- that he's only held accountable by God...and then I thought, literal translation of "Kal-El.." is "all that is God" or something like that..the only one there to keep Lex in check in the future...
woo this isn't coherent yet but your ubermensch thoughts helped expell those thoughts :)

Howdy, followed a link too and had to friend ya.
norwich36
Jan. 18th, 2006 11:41 pm (UTC)
Thanks! The Hobbes parallel is an interesting one--I hadn't picked up on that. (The Biblical parallels of course have always been there in the Superman story--the parents putting Kal-El in the ship is a parallel to Moses in the basket, and the SV folks made Clark explicitly a Christ figure by putting him on the cross--though I hadn't encountered the literal translation of Kal-El before.)

*Friends you back.* Nice to meet you!
frelling_tralk
Jan. 14th, 2006 11:52 am (UTC)
I followed your link in bop_radar's journal, and wow that was really interesting. Thanks for helping me to look at the episode in a different way.

And I've friended you, hope you don't mind :)
norwich36
Jan. 14th, 2006 06:59 pm (UTC)
Not at all, I love to be friended! *Friends you back.*
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