[This is a review of Supergirl season 1, episode 20. There will be SPOILERS]
After delivering a season of high highs and low lows, the two-part storyline bringing the first season of Supergirl to a close got off to a rocky start. Turning to familiar, and often awkward threats and plot twists, the fact remains: you don't plot a season of a Supergirl TV show without saving your biggest moments, your biggest action, and biggest emotional payoffs for the final instalment. Or, in this case, deliver a mixture of undeniably cool moments and laughable ones, and leave us feeling like a second season is still a leap of faith for CBS (one most networks would choose not to take).
In "Better Angels", directed by Larry Teng, with story by executive producers Andrew Kreisberg and Ali Adler, and teleplay by Robert Rovner & Jessica Queller, Kara (Melissa Benoist) executes her plan - with the help of Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) and Max Lord (Peter Facinelli) - to free the citizens of National City from Kryptonian mind control before an even larger threat emerges. Can she keep the heads of humanity un-exploded, or will she truly be the queen of "a dead Earth"?
When arriving at the end of a show's first season, it's hard not to look back to the beginning; to a time when many superhero fans viewed the prospect of a Supergirl show with nothing but pessimism. The questions are old by now: how do you make a Supergirl show without Superman in it? How do you adapt those kind of superpowers or action on a TV budget? Are you just making this show to market a leading lady (a question partly answered by the show's initial "not a bird, not a plane, not a man" tagline)? Will a "feminist" superhero show appeal to a broad audience?
But where some doubted, we weren't so fast: after all, a superhero serial with a woman at its heart instantly defined itself as unique, opening up new plotlines as well as audiences - let alone one coming from some of the minds behind The Flash, CW's runaway success. The first episodes of the season were a mix of good and bad, as the show struggled to find its footing. But a (mostly) strong cast, a clear emotional heart and family theme, and love of the "Superman" mythology showed all the potential in the world.
Potential that, with the season now over, was ultimately left untapped.
Since those most interested in the show have already seen the finale - seen Kara break through the decades-in-development 'Myriad,' the Kryptonian master plan, with a reminder that love and happiness exist, and watch as she saves the day by catapulting Fort Rozz into space - we won't spend too much time breaking down the shoddy logic, plot holes and completely unanswered questions. Questions like: wasn't Alex a fugitive? The DEO left an alien prison ship completely un-monitored? Why didn't Martian Manhunter rescue (help?) Kara, instead of the unforgettably ludicrous image of Alex piloting a Kryptonian pod etched into our memory? Is a new office and hiring a replacement before getting an actual job normal practice at CatCo?
The show's writers spent plenty of time escaping from corners only they seemed to believe they'd been painted into, but to balance things out, conceived a threat so massive, there was virtually no chance of it ever coming to pass. Some might call the shift from Myriad being a 'mind control ray' into a 'brain-exploding wave' clever, or raising the stakes, but either way, it's a hard thing to take seriously (in a show following a flying alien, that's saying something). Yet even that can be forgiven in the name of fun, since, for better or worse, it led to some satisfying fight scenes and a memorable victory for Supergirl.
But through it all, "Better Angels" seems determined to pay off only the "Superman" mythology, or even 'comic book' storytelling on the broadest scale - as opposed to the character arc and emotional growth of the one character we're, you know, supposed to be here for. It's here where things get truly staggering: where the show began by exploring truly powerful ideas - that Supergirl, unlike Superman, believed in getting help from friends... and was consumed by anger and fear for having lost her family - the finale sees Kara as a one-note martyr, sacrificing herself.
Or, more accurately, sacrificing herself in the exact way anyone would imagine a superhero would.
Sure, J'onn J'onzz is there to tear apart Indigo, and Kara looks pretty angry when she lets loose her Heat Vision, but the finale - the conclusion of the season-long story - wasn't actually about those ideas. Kara didn't have to counter fear or anger among National City residents, just mind control. And there was no time to put aside anger or fear before saving the day all by herself (minus a sister in a space ship). The lasting impression, then, is that the things that actually made Kara Zor-El, and Supergirl unique ended up being... well, not all that important to the story. At the end of the day, it was her being 'super' in the same way any hero is, that made all the difference.
While disappointing, given our hopes, that in itself isn't a condemnation, since another superhero TV show is all that some viewers may ask for. And in an age when fans of Arrow are already openly criticizing the show's direction and quality, a Supergirl show that just gets the job done may seem like a ray of sunshine. But what's worst is that in nearly every scene, at every turn, Supergirl can't help but show how much better it could be, if it (read: the showrunners) recognized the talent and potential being pushed to the side for the sake of an over-the-top, oftentimes goofy superhero story.
It's bad enough that this season dashed our early hopes that Jeremy Jordan ('Winn Schott') would become a key player, or that the showrunners would realize the total lack of chemistry (or actual story investment) between Kara and James (Mehcad Brooks) and respond accordingly. But after twenty episodes, the fact that nobody realized the people on Kara's side were infinitely more deserving of time than those against her is astounding. And that's ignoring the fact that Chyler Leigh's 'Alex' made it possible for both Danvers sisters to take on impressive, powerful roles... if she was actually given more than a few moments of action to shine.
Having delivered some of the most lighthearted and comedic moments of the superhero season during her crossover with The Flash, and some of the most emotionally convincing, it's a disservice to Melissa Benoist above all others. It's a problem with the writing, requiring Kara to throw lines like "please don't kill everyone" to the villain, and when faced with the fact that humanity's heads will start exploding in hours, her first thought being to tell her friends, not stop it. She shines in the places she's allowed to, but even the lead falls victim to a comic book plot by the season's end.
With the first season down, it's hard to claim Supergirl explained why it needed to be made, and downright impossible to claim it made the most of the talent in front of the camera, and purportedly behind it. Still, Melissa Benoist succeeded in saving the day, and playing the hero. The problem is that she really was just another hero - and the fact that she was a woman didn't matter in the slightest. Some might claim that it shouldn't, and might be right. But... in today's world, it kind of does. Or did.
It may have gotten more action-oriented and overtly 'inspirational' as the season progressed, but it came at the price of its cast and subtler storytelling. It's the missed potential that seemed, at the time, too obvious to pass up that remains the biggest disappointment. And on its own, that decision - to prioritize the 'comic book' formula over what could actually have made this a great show, let alone a comic book one - casts more than enough doubt on those making it for the network to (possibly rightly) decide if they haven't gotten it by now, they're not going to.
Supergirl is still waiting on a second season order from CBS.