We’re all guilty of hiding things. Facts about ourselves, skills we don’t want to own up to, feelings that make our lives complicated. But what’s the value in hiding? And how do we know what things hurt us when they’re hidden, and what things help us?
Supergirl doesn’t really have an answer for us, but it’s certainly an interesting question. Credit where credit is due: Supergirl excels at thematic writing. Posing a question or theme at the outset, and then working to pull A, B, C, and D plots, character development, and even dialogue together to address a specific idea is no easy task. This is particularly true because it does tend to muddy the waters. We often go to television for simple answers. Black & white guidance for a grey world can be comforting, encouraging, and even empowering. So what then, can we take from an episode that doesn’t just reinforce the popular opinion that we should be proud to be ourselves, to share who we really are with the world?
It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that “Childish Things” has less to do with the appearance of Toyman then it does with the concepts of hidden identities. The very first conversation between our leads features Hank shooting down Kara’s suggestion that he take up the mantle of J’onn J’onzz fulltime. What’s good for the pretty blond superhero isn’t necessarily good for the green, seven foot tall Martian. It’s not an unfair point, and one that tonight’s episode repeatedly returns too when Hank is pressed to use his powers.
Still we live in a world of show, don’t tell, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Hank is ultimately put in a position where using his powers is absolutely necessary. What’s perhaps less expected is that instead of feeling liberated by the opportunity to “be yourself”, Hank ends up violating his own moral code. He’s put between risking exposure or ruining someone else’s life, and in the end uses the very powers that make him unique and special to harm another person. You could argue that he didn’t have a choice in this matter, but in the end that’s not where Supergirl is aiming. For Hank, the simple act of being J’onn puts him in an untenable situation. Being himself is not only hard, it’s dangerous. He’s a time bomb waiting to go off; all it takes is the right combination of bad luck and lack of choice.
It’s interesting to note that J’onn’s plot line is pretty much exactly Winn’s worst fear. While much of his story revolves around the danger of bottling up emotions and hiding who you are, just as frequently Winn talks about his fear that he himself is a time bomb. The reveal that the Toymaker is Winn’s father is certainly dramatic. I still want to know where anyone gets the parts to construct a murder yo-yo in prison. Still, it’s Winn’s own fear that, in being himself—in letting himself express strong emotions like anger and love—he will accidentally slip into his father’s insanity. Winn’s defense mechanism for this is to hide these aspects of himself, but it’s clear from his father’s own choices that hiding yourself away, “being a coward,” doesn’t protect you from anything. It simply makes the inevitable explosion all that more messy and volatile.
So we’re left with two opinions. Winn decides in the end that hiding himself isn’t helping. He does himself a credit by owning his emotions and his past, and gives himself greater control over his future by doing so. This is the convention we’re often advised towards. Be yourself, own your thoughts and feelings, and don’t fear what other’s knowing them will bring.
Then there’s option two. J’onn J’onzz, the last child of Mars, knows that his thoughts, feelings, and powers are dangerous. He believes he does more good to the world as Hank. And, really, who are we to disagree? We aren’t privy to all of J’onn’s life, and what uses of his powers we have seen do seem to fluctuate dramatically between helpful and harmful. So maybe it’s a good idea to hide away parts of yourself; those things that make it difficult to function in an already difficult world.
Supergirl isn’t ready to give us an answer just yet. Well, maybe there is a little bit of a hint. Kara and Alex may want to encourage all of their loved ones to be themselves, but there is a cost to that kind of exposure. Every once in a great while, some narcissistic scientist with ill-kept facial hair may just want to do you harm. And while it’s awesome to be able to be who you truly are, sometimes if you’re a superhero, being yourself can make you a moving target.
Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based freelance writer and director and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website, or follow her on Twitter.