Tom Welling, <EM>Smallville</EM> Tom Welling, Smallville

Last week, WB's Smallville (Thursdays at 8 pm/ET) finally pulled the trigger on its much-trumpeted 100th-episode death, as John Schneider's Jonathan crossed over to that big farmhouse in the sky. Seeing as Clark's pop all but died at the hands of Lex's own dad, is one of comicdom's all-time great rivalries ready to rumble?

"It's a turning point," says Tom Welling, Smallville's young Man of Steel. "The episodes we're doing now are even better, I think, than what we've done in the past. From [here] on, the show is going to be very different from what it's been. We're finally going to be what the audience wanted the show to be."

What many Smallville fans wanted the show to be was darker, more brooding... less about coeds in angst and more about a superhero's genesis. "In the past, it was all different shades of the same ideas or characters going, 'We got in an argument last night. Let's get in another argument,'" Welling observes. "Now we've come to a point where these characters are saying, 'Let's start moving forward. Let's figure out why we're not getting along. Let's see if our relationship works.' Or, in cases like Clark and Lex, saying, 'You're not who I thought you were.'"

Indeed, in light of recent and imminent developments, Welling says, "We're going to start seeing the Lex Luthor and Clark Kent rivalry. It's going to explode a lot faster than it has in the past."

In doing so, the meatiest bits of Superman mythology will at long last take flight, even if Clark himself doesn't. "I find it much more interesting to concentrate on the development of [Clark] and show what happened in his life to make him the Superman that we all know him to be," says Welling. "To put on the cape or put on the tights and start flying around... makes things too easy for Clark."

Besides, suiting up and getting airborne would give Welling's alter ego a bit too much in common with Brandon Routh's Man of Steel, swooping into theaters this summer in Superman Returns. How the film might impact TV's Smallville  whose place on the CW fall schedule isn't guaranteed, although you have to figure it's pretty close  is a topic that leaves Welling at a loss. "I wish I had a better answer than, 'I don't know,' but I really don't," he shrugs. "It's got everything going for it. We'll have to see what happens."

Just as we'll have to see what happens to Smallville's favorite son now that he must face life without his adoptive Earth father. Saying goodbye to Schneider "was very bittersweet," Welling says. The Dukes of Hazzard alum was "looking forward to a little time off" to pursue projects he has in the development pipeline [Schneider himself talks about his send-off in the new TV Guide, hitting newsstands now], "but when the day came [to tape Episode 100], he was on set just kind of looking around, going, 'Yeah, well, I guess this is it.'"

Losing an original cast member, Welling notes, "is part of the industry we're in, and we know that." He then adds, "Luckily, when a person is killed off the show, they don't actually die in real life, so you're able to continue that friendship."

Besides, as Superman lore has shown time and time again, what doesn't kill Clark Kent only makes him stronger, a quality that will become invaluable as things reach a boil between him and his bald bud, Lex. "The producers, the writers, even some of the directors, they're all like, 'It's time to grow up a little bit.' We're all feeling that," says Welling. "It's a natural progression for an actor to want his character to evolve."