[This is a review of Supergirl season 1, episode 16. There will be SPOILERS]
Well, this is a shame. After delivering one of the most pleasant surprises in its previous episode – dispensing with the subplot of dishonesty in one of the show’s most powerful scenes to date – Supergirl returns to tell one of the most well-known superhero tales of all time. Not a problem in itself, but the number of significant developments that occur as a direct result, not to mention the break-neck pace, make this a strangely disappointing endeavor in the grand scheme.
In “Falling,” directed by Larry Teng and written by Robert Rovner & Jessica Queller), Kara has a run-in with red kryptonite that brings out the very worst in her, damaging her relationships with everyone around her – and forcing her biggest ally to turn the city against her. As the stakes are raised, J’onn J’onzz (David Harewood) has no choice but to reveal himself as a Martian among the DEO.
Fierce… But Familiar
There’s no question that seeing a superhero turn bad, briefly, is a compelling twist. Or, at least, it was when it was first conceived. Since then, the overall trope has become too telegraphed for almost any writer to resist – as evidenced by “Falling” following an almost identical character arc to Spider-Man 3‘s injection of an alien symbiote, The Flash‘s introduction of enraged mind control, or even Smallville‘s own experiences with, you guessed it, red kryptonite.
The reasons are clear here, as well, since Melissa Benoist brings a newly likeable, self-confident and completely justified twist on the meek and mild Kara Danvers. But as entertaining as it may be to finally see Kara stick up for herself, put her CatCo competition in her place (rightfully so), or poke fun at the self-serious aspects of the show that fans discuss with a snicker, the fact that it isn’t really Kara doing it of her own free will adds an asterisk to the entire affair. It’s a distinction that won’t be a problem for some, since it’s exciting, or thrilling to see Kara get what she truly deserves under any circumstance. In the name of fun, it’s harmless. But things change when the “mind control” twist starts actually damaging the dynamics that the showrunners have spent months developing naturally.
Things Get Out of Hand Fast
Even as ‘evil Kara’ entertains and delights the viewer (showing Melissa Benoist has more tricks up her sleeve than the character has shown thus far), the formula demands that she take her darker side to its conclusion – fast. But what could be used as a break from the larger story, or even a device to finally get some hard truths out in the open, instead turns into a deus ex machina of sorts.
No matter how rude or arrogant Supergirl may act in the presence of Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), it’s hard to believe she would accept the 180-degree turn without question. So if the show was sticking true to its character motivations and alignments, James and Winn’s explanation that Supergirl isn’t herself should be all the reassurance needed. Especially since Cat has been Supergirl’s most honest and outspoken ally. Yet the plot demands she discredit her – despite now knowing that framing her as a traitor or menace is unjust – and Cat follows suit, claiming it’s necessary for people to protect themselves… from something they have absolutely no chance of protecting themselves against.
Sadly, the clumsy reversal of Cat’s beliefs leads to a showdown – skipping completely over the appearance of Maxwell Lord (Peter Facinelli), which feels more like a contractual obligation than a logical story beat – in which Kara laughs maniacally, hurls attacks at her closest friends, and forever changes the direction of her story. All, we would remind, under the influence of a mood-altering – and apparently, aversion-to-harming-loved-ones-altering – substance.
How Did We Get Here?
Again, there’s no reason why these character moments, confrontations, or even arguments couldn’t have been arrived at naturally. Once the dust settles, the current lay of the land seems inevitable: Kara and Alex (Chyler Leigh) need to re-examine their personal and work relationship, J’onn J’onzz was forced to reveal himself, and James and Kara discover that finding love isn’t simple.
But as fair and earned as the destination may be, getting there feels more like a game of Whack-a-Mole played with character beats and reckless plot twists. Why would red kryptonite make Kara not just bolder or recklessly honest, but claim things an audience would have a hard time believing she actually feels? Why wouldn’t J’onn just flee the scene once Kara was subdued? Why would his assistance get him handcuffed? What was Maxwell Lord’s plan with the red kryptonite to begin with? How did he apparently walk into a covert military base without alerting anyone?
It’s a backhanded compliment to say that there are enough twists and building payoffs here for at least three different episodes, perhaps dragging out Kara’s growing aggression and resentment for just as long. And we’re willing to bet that based on the show thus far, there will be more than enough forgettable threats that fans would have been willing to see cast aside in favor of doing these events justice.
The action was satisfying, and well-directed, and Kara’s battle with J’onn is worth watching on any night – not to mention a commitment to the comics mythology that fans will appreciate. But as Kara lays distraught, sobbing in the DEO medbay begging her sister to believe that her behavior wasn’t real, or genuine, or worth measuring her by, there isn’t a single viewer who isn’t on her side. In truth, it’s one of Benoist’s most powerful, and most memorable performances to date (with her similarly-gifted co-star right there beside her).
But just like Kara, we’re left wondering: Why? Why would a substance arrive without warning, forcing her to say things that were clearly out of character, yet were taken as genuine, and forever damaging the relationships in her life? As the episode’s end sees Kara (astonishingly) back at Cat Grant’s side, wondering how this lapse can most easily be forgotten, and how things can just get back to how they were progressing before they spun so wildly out of control, we’re left wondering the exact same thing.
Supergirl returns with “Manhunter” next Monday @8pm on CBS. Watch a preview below: