Last night’s Supergirl (Season 2 – Episode 15: ‘Exodus‘) is likely to end up categorized as a seasonal highpoint for fans – a fast-paced, action-heavy episode after several more grounded installments that moved the needle on multiple story threads (is this the end of CatCo and Kara?), brought CADMUS’ big scheme into focus, introduced the next two big villains and gave “SuperCorp” shippers a live-action version of the carry-shot they’ve been doodling fanart for all season. But it also opened with a nerve-wracking sequence that, for many viewers, was equally likely to hit a little close to home (or, at least, too close to reality): a seemingly ordinary family is pulled over for what they think is a traffic stop, only to find themselves being snatched up by a team of armed thugs and dragged off for “deportation” – because they’re alien (re: extra-terrestrial) immigrants.
From the very first episode of season 2, Supergirl has boldly staked out its own niche apart from the other CW superhero series; set in a more “normal” feeling universe than the comic-book omnipresence of The Flash or Arrow’s grim urban dystopia and uniquely politically-minded and dialed-in to current events – specifically the emerging global controversy over the rights of immigrants and refugees. In the world of the series, alien immigrants living (mostly in secret) on Earth is a publicly acknowledged fact of life. Supergirl (an alien immigrant herself) champions their amnesty and integration while Lilian Luthor (Lex’s mom) and her heavily-armed hate group CADMUS work to purge the planet of alien life wholesale.
But while in some ways season 2’s focus on this particular real-world analogy (and it would be difficult not to focus on it, given that Superman and Supergirl’s stories are both fundamentally American immigrant stories) couldn’t be more timely, in other ways ‘Exodus’ shows that it’s in real danger of falling out of step with this carefully cultivated alignment with reality.
To be clear: regardless of how far in advance it was written and filmed, it’s difficult not to draw a connection between the episode’s multiple scenes of aliens being entrapped and abducted and the ever-increasing number of stories about U.S.-residing immigrants being grabbed up without warning by authorities in the wake of controversial new anti-immigrant policies ordered by newly-installed President Donald Trump – to say nothing of the reveal of CADMUS’ ultimate “forced deportation” scheme’s unmistakable similarity to the “send `em all back!” rhetoric of real-world U.S. anti-immigrant groups and the so-called “deportation force” promised by the President during his campaign. (The episode also featured less subtle allusions, like Lilian Luthor ironically dropping a Friedrich Nietzche quote or Snapper Carr reprimanding Kara’s reliably-sloppy reporting with “one wrongly-attributed quote, you [could] put a fascist in the White House!”)
And yet, whether by design or not, the parallel breaks off from its reality connection in a fundamentally key respect: CADMUS is itself an illegal terrorist organization, operating in the shadows, while Supergirl (via her alignment with the pro-alien D.E.O. agency) are operating both on behalf of the government and with the explicit endorsement of Lynda Carter’s (secretly-alien) President Marsden. Whereas, in reality, immigrants and supporters are now worried about a lack of support from some parts of the government – if not what some see as outright persecution from others.
So, while CADMUS still “works” as a Supergirl-universe stand-in for anti-immigrant vigilante groups like The Minutemen (remember them?); the series’ current status quo of the government agency charged with monitoring immigrant aliens as the justice-seeking “backup” of the happy-smiley superheroine who protects them is suddenly so starkly the opposite of the real-world scenario to which it was meant to draw parallels. It may even feel something like a tasteless joke to people currently facing (or fearing) deportation, travel-restrictions, or the forced breakup of families. Lilian Luthor isn’t running ICE, the U.S. Government is – and Supergirl definitely doesn’t work there.
Of course, it would be silly to suggest that a TV show primarily concerned with the work/life/relationship struggles of a flying alien superhero should stand up as a mirror of society, it was Supergirl that first made these demands upon itself by putting its topical bonafides upfront from the start. And as has been clear since November – and discussed previously – the series’ overarching season 2 dynamic (Supergirl as the Presidentially-endorsed “reformer-face” of a benevolent pro-immigrant agency, CADMUS as vigilante bigots working against those same aims) was built in anticipation of paralleling the prospective presidency of Hillary Clinton… and instead has found itself caught flat-footed by the emergence of the Trump Era.
It’s not entirely clear what Supergirl can do (assuming the producers opt to do anything at all) about this in the short-term. While it’s true they’ve staked their “topical” claim on being an immigration-controversy metaphor, it’s also true that – if the ending on ‘Exodus’ is any indication – the series is about to take a hard pivot away from the CADMUS storyline in order to introduce a pair of new alien villains (played by Terri Hatcher and Kevin Sorbo) seemingly connected more to supporting character Mon-El than anything going on between Lilian Luthor and he D.E.O., so it’s entirely possible that real-world parallels will take a back seat to more cosmic/superheroic storylines for a time.
But whether or not “topical” subject matter shows up again in the mains story, this will be a challenge Supergirl’s creators are unlikely to get a break from grappling with any time soon (and not only because new bad guy Sorbo is currently better known to some for incendiary anti-immigrant social media posts than he is for his 1990s TV shows.) The series built a lot of its personality around being an optimistic vanguard for issues like LGBTQ representation, immigration, and more, but if it means to still confront those topics in decidedly pessimistic times where its titular heroine’s stances would make her an insurgent voice rather than an ally to power, it may need to become a different (perhaps less “sunny”) voice itself.