[WARNING: This is a review of Supergirl Season 1, Episode 9. There will be SPOILERS]
After leaving fans hanging with a cliffhanger delivered in the middle of a Kryptonian fistfight, Supergirl returns from its winter break (for one week) picking things up where they left off. Unfortunately, meaty plot lines and fantastic moments of fan service - once again - are forced to share time with oddly paced Teases of larger threats, strongly implying that the idea of "less being more" is a theory completely unheard of among the show's overseers.
In "Blood Bonds", written by Ted Sullivan and Derek Simon, Kara (Melissa Benoist) watches as the head of the DEO Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) is kidnapped by extremist Kryptonians, demanding the release of Astra (Laura Benanti) in exchange. Elsewhere, the efforts of Maxwell Lord (Peter Facinelli) to cover up the skirmish raise suspicions of Team Supergirl, and Kara is forced to choose which is more important: keeping her secret from Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), or her job.
Keeping Up With The Kryptonians
With the midseason finale concluding with Kara facing off against Astra's second-in-command, Non (Chris Vance), things pick up the exact moment they left off. It truly is just a dose of superpowers fisticuffs, inserted to serve the plot needs of getting Hank Henshaw into the hands of the enemy. Aside from the change to the status quo, the overall plots or conflicts aren't progressed: Astra remains in DEO custody, the Kryptonian plans are unknown, and the motivations across the board are either generic, or messy. That isn't to say the writers don't return to the most promising elements of the Kara/Astra dynamic. Specifically, the insight into Kara's mother's true nature, and how the two sisters' fates were intertwined with that of Krypton.
Again, unfortunately, the pacing and time spent away from this developing drama (mandatory trips to the CatCo office, or moments of quiet doubt) makes the payoff(?) almost impossible to follow. Kara had her faith in her mother shaken by Astra, who claimed her mother was complacent, punishing her sister's extreme actions instead of heeding her warning... before it's revealed that Alura did heed the warnings, and was actually trying to solve the same problem without resorting to terrorism or murder.
The fact that all of these revelations, and contradictory implications come from the same person - Astra - clouds the actual character work the writers are attempting. To make things worse, the journey Kara must take - learning that Alura was more than just her mother, and either refused or failed to prevent Krypton's destruction, before accepting it, and coming to learn the truth instead of running from it - is divided not only across a winter break on CBS' part, but a handful of far less important subplots.
The lack of focus or actual character development (Kara goes from having faith that her mother was good and intelligent, to doubting it, then having it explicitly confirmed once more) is really a disservice to Benanti and Benoist, since they're more than capable of adding weight and emotion to the dynamic. Kara growing afraid of the truth about her mother, being tempted by anger once again, and eventually learning that a hero doesn't hide from the truth, but seeks it out could have been an impressive story - and the surface level beats ate still here. But the clear decision that such an arc couldn't fill out an episode (or two) on its own blunts its impact.
Especially when the show can't take a week off from its lighter, comic tones, either...
Curiosity Killed The Cat (Her Theory At Least)
Like in all comic book TV shows, the suspension of disbelief is stretched to the breaking point when Kara is defeated, sees her DEO ally and Alien comrade kidnapped, and her aunt in lockup, and realizes she's late for work. It was foolish to hope that the writers would take a week off from the technicolor slapstick to give the family drama its due, but it still would have been nice. Again, that isn't to say that the show is worse at the remarkable office drama of CatCo than alien superheroics; heat vision-ing coffee to the boiling point is as satisfying as one would expect and Calista Flockhart is continually charming and entertaining as the show's most complex character. So entertaining, that seeing her obsession with Supergirl have to compete for screen time seems like two halves of a show, instead of separate wholes coexisting.
The potential means it's a good problem to have, and Cat Grant's assumption that Supergirl really shouldn't have a day job when people need saving speaks to common sense and the evidence seen in the show itself. The ultimatum - admission, or resignation - packs as much of a punch as it can, putting what is arguably the strongest female link in the show (fictionally and critically) in jeopardy. But just when it seems that Kara is completely cornered, the events of the episode conspire to deliver not just a clever solution, but a glee-inducing moment of fan service, when the shapeshifting Martian Manhunter arrives to help her out of her jam.
It's moments like these that it becomes clear much of the same talent behind Supergirl helped shape the sense of humor of The Flash, and is carried off just as well as fans would hope. But if our continuing criticism of certain aspects of the show's still-forming identity - and shameless enjoyment of others (more heat vision gags, please) - show anything, it's that Supergirl's path to success may not lie in trying to follow in the footsteps of other comic TV shows. Instead, we would dare Supergirl to be truly different.
The drama between Kara, Astra, and her mother seems too important to balance well with CatCo hijinx, Maxwell Lord's intimidation, or General Lane's childhood reminiscing? Then give it the spotlight, since fans will wait.
Worried that an episode set inside the offices of CatCo without visions of Krypton or text messages from Superman will drag? Don't be, because from what we've seen, it won't. But we won't know until Supergirl tries.
Supergirl will return with "Childish Things" on January 18 @8pm.