If the season premiere was hobbled by the need to cover too much and explain away some of the cast changes, then this episode was the course correction the season desperately needed. Almost immediately, I noticed a different tone to the familiar storytelling, including alterations to the visual palette, that gave the episode a more confident appearance. The story was classic "Smallville", but there were a few key changes.
The show will never abandon its iconic color scheme, but the new producers seem to have a mission. A number of scenes were filmed in a more realistic manner, particularly any scene filmed on the site of the bus explosion. I found that subtle change to be a lot more engaging than the usual hyper-saturated style of past seasons. (I know this is not necessarily a new technique, but it was used better in this episode than I've noticed for a long while.)
Perhaps it was a matter of balance. In the past, the focus was so much on the sloppy writing that the visual advancements were barely noticed. But the writing was stronger in this episode, particularly in terms of characterization. Tess Mercer felt more natural in her post-Lex role, now that the preliminaries are over and her own agenda can be advanced. The introduction of Davis Bloome was well done, and made sense within the context of the episode.
The writers are focusing on their version of Clark's evolution into adulthood, and I think it's already working. Clark and Lois are struggling to find a comfort zone, and their attraction is more acceptable in the absence of Clark's obsession with Lana. Chloe's evolution keeps her in Clark's world without interfering with his new career. While Lex can never be replaced, I think the new status quo will give the writers room to breathe.
For one thing, Tess is taking the usual LuthorCorp initiatives and moving them forward. Lex was looking for a way to create a super-powered army to combat alien threats, and Tess appears to be pulling together a superteam of her own for similar purpose. There's little doubt that this will turn into a league of super-villains, thus forcing Clark to work more closely with his erstwhile Justice League companions.
This, in turn, should finally bring the series back to where it was in the sixth season, when Oliver Queen was trying to get Clark to see beyond his small-town concerns to global needs. At the time, he was mired in relationship issues. Now, Clark's smaller circle of friends should provide less distraction, and he's roosting in Metropolis. Sooner or later, Clark will have to take that step towards the bigger stage. This episode is a firm step in the right direction.