When I first sat down to review Krypton last summer—way back when the only General Zod we knew was an Amazon fresh off the shores of Themyscira, and the only supervillain in town was a false god hiding under a clunky golden face-helmet like some kind of weird, cult-y mascot—I came to the conclusion that, at least that early in its run, the mythologically ambitious Superman prequel wasn’t one show, but two: Up in the Guilded halls of Kandor City, Jayna-Zod (Ann Ogbomo), Lyta-Zod (Georgina Campbell) and Nyssa-Vex (Wallis Day) prowled around the moodily-lit corners of a tense and slow-burning political drama, ready to leap into The Expanse’s prestige-y shadow the first chance they got. (8.4/10; would watch.) Down in the dirt-caked Rankless slums, meanwhile, Earth’s wise-cracking, time-traveling, zeta-beam-wielding Adam Strange (Shaun Sipos) was dragging series lead Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe) and his best friend Kem (Rasmus Hardiker) into one campy comic caper after another. (7.2/10; would watch, but probably only while catching up on email.) That the series had big ideas about what it wanted to say was clear. Whether it would be worth keeping up with as it found a compelling, cohesive way to explore them all was, shall we say, less so.
Well, as of the foundation-shaking final minute of the latest episode, “A Better Yesterday,” (more on that big [SPOILER] in a minute), Krypton is officially in the back half of its second season. And friends, the days of prestige and camp fighting for control over the series’ tone are long gone. Late last season, sometime between the Voice of Rao getting possessed by Brainiac and Dru-Zod (Colin Salmon) revealing himself to be Lyta-Zod’s future son, Krypton became the single, wholly confident show it was always aiming to be. It accomplished this not by landing on the side of either prestige or of camp, but rather in the remarkably solid middle ground between them. Against all odds, Krypton is now a serious, ideology-heavy sci-fi romp—yes! romp!—whose grim interest in the toxicity of classism, zealous ambition and the will to conquer isn’t undercut in the least by the inclusion of a green-skinned AI supervillain, a chalk-white self-regenerating intergalactic bounty hunter or a scrappy time traveler from Detroit armed more with dick jokes than good ideas.
Even a casual reader of comic knows, of course, that the exploration of complex ideas and the swanning around of a feverishly zealous supervillain wearing epaulets swathed in spiky black gemstones are not mutually exclusive. What plays on the printed page, though, doesn’t always translate smoothly to the screen. Actors are limited where illustrated characters aren’t; production budgets are limited where artists’ imaginations soar. Even with the best cast, best crew and best intentions, striking that perfect balance between gravity and camp is never a guarantee—you have to be able to find something else, something specific to the small screen format or specific to the humanity of live actors. Do that, and you can survive even the comickiest of comic book embellishments.
For its part, Krypton has gone the humanity-of-live-actors route, using the exquisitely controlled performances Ogbomo, Cambell and Day have been putting in since the pilot as Jayna-Zod, Lyta-Zod and Nyssa-Vex as the core around which to weave its messy human entanglements. With those three women steering the ship, so to speak, the more banal roles Cuffe, Sipos and Hardiker were originally given stuck with have grown more complex. Seg, Adam and Kem’s half-cocked (dick joke) boyish snark is still present, but now in levels that support rather than lead their more complex emotional arcs. With Salmon’s ideologically impelled Dru-Zod, Aaron Pierre’s defeated but determined Dev-Em and Ian McElhinney’s return from the Phantom Zone as Seg’s grandpa broadening Season Two’s narrative landscape, the humanity (er, Kryptonian) propelling Krypton onward gets more compelling each episode.
(If you’re not caught up on the series, consider this your final warning to tap out. SPOILERS BELOW.)
Now, if you’ve watched this week’s episode, “A Better Yesterday”—specifically, if you saw the shocking last-minute execution that left fans reeling—you’ll know that Krypton is putting this whole theory to the test. Fiercely unyielding in her defense of Kryptonian tradition but just as fiercely compassionate to Kryptonians not belonging to guilds, Lyta-Zod has been key to the series’ emotional credibility from the start, and while the motivations behind her turn to tyranny as Dru-Zod’s right hand this season have been fairly opaque, there’s never been a suggestion that her character’s journey was finished.
Comic readers and sci-fi fans alike are savvy enough to suspect the finality of her globally broadcast execution at the hands of a laser-eyed rebel leader (already shots have been fired re: the rules of time travel), but whether the death sticks or not, the emotional fallout it leaves across the web of Krypton’s core characters will. At this still fairly early point in any sci-fi series’ storytelling, such a major character death could easily be dealt out solely to bomb a hole in the plot. By working so diligently to humanize Lyta’s impact on everyone in her orbit, Krypton has instead made her death the kind of existential problem that goes beyond a plot bomb.
This all might seem a bit heavy for what I so fervently claimed was a summer sci-fi romp, but we live in a time of willful contradiction. Lyta is dead, sure, but Adam and Kem are over in their corner flipping each other off, and Brainiac is over in his, pulling Seg’s mental strings to turn him into Kandor’s elitist and most put-upon sharpshooter—and that’s after Seg spends the first half of the episode listening to Dru-Zod’s too-familiar nativist rantings and spitting back the perfectly acid analysis that Dru’s “must be a pretty shitty vision, if you have to change people’s brains to get them to buy in.” That’s entertainment, folks!
So whether Lyta stays dead or not (it’s a superhero show, people, c’mon), Krypton is at home in its dark sci-fi romp groove. The Kryptonian water is, well, it’s irradiated and half-full of space bounty hunter blood, but at least that means it’s warm.
Krypton airs on Syfy on Wednesdays at 10 pm. Season One is available to stream on DC Universe.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.