“I hate this.” I’m quoting myself here. Twice. Twice last night I said this out loud. And you may be asking me then, “Why the 10 rating? If you hate this, how does it merit a 10?” Well it’s not a typo. Last night’s episode, at least from a story perspective, earns it. That doesn’t mean the viewing of it comes anywhere close to enjoyable. Let me explain.
Last night’s episode focuses on a DC universe favorite: Red Kryptonite. It’s one of those well established plot devices that is completely lacking in consistent rules or origin. It’s kind of the ultimate DC dues ex machina; affecting Kryptonians in whatever way the plot requires. It’s a lot lazy. And the reveal that Maxwell Lord is responsible for its existence verges on the almost laughably simple and absurd—because I don’t care how super intelligent you are, it’s going to take you more than six weeks to synthesize an alien element. Particularly when all you know of that element is that it glows green and weakens Supergirl.
Add to this that even after a much higher than average awareness of the many mind and body altering creatures and substances hanging around, it still takes us until past the halfway mark for Kara’s friends to finally reach out to each other to discuss an intervention. Prior to this, Kara rebels from, snarks at, and blows off them off. And maybe if her bad behavior ended there, waiting it out would be a bit more understandable. What it actually takes is her letting a bad guy free, practically assaulting James, and actually throwing Cat out of a window before their concern gets any traction. Add to this that she gives herself an evil, sexy makeover—the female equivalent of an evil goatee—and it really begins to make me question at the very least Wynn’s nerd cred. Don’t even get me started with James, as I’m about 100% sure he’s gone through something similar as Clark’s sidekick.
The bratty acting out and more impulsive behavior Kara exhibits under Red Kryptonite should be familiar to a lot of superhero fans. Arrow, Jessica Jones, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have all included plot lines where a character loses control because of an outside force. Except this time it’s a bit different. In these story arcs, outside influences have taken over the minds and wills of our heroes, forcing them to do things they would never consider otherwise.
Supergirl does the opposite. It doesn’t shrug off Kara’s negative behavior as not being “really” her, and pretty bluntly takes these behaviors into much more complicated and difficult storytelling territory. And as many times as I may say “I hate this,” I have applauded Supergirl for this kind of depth in the past. I can hardly fault them now.
The thing is, underneath tonight’s lazy plot device, Max Lord scapegoating, and slow reaction time on the part of Kara’s friends, we’re not really talking about something as straightforward as mind control or personality manipulation. Supergirl is doing what science fiction does best: giving us a forum to talk about something difficult and scary without saying it out loud. Creating a safe space to explore the parts of ourselves we can’t always own up to. Tonight, Red Kryptonite becomes a metaphor for something all too real: depression. And for such a difficult topic, Supergirl is almost excessively blunt in its portrayal of the damage something so very mundane can do. So when I say “I hate this,” it’s because watching someone systematically rip their own life apart is a bit heavier material than I want out of a Monday night superhero show.
Granted, depression isn’t stated blatantly, but the hints are there. Cat Grant causally name-drops Lexapro, a popular antidepressant. Kara’s actions appear selfish and spoiled to her friends, but ultimately play out more apathetic to the world than purposefully cruel. Once free of the Red Kryptonite, Kara is immediately aware of the horrible things she’s said and done, and admits that the thoughts and feelings were her own magnified. These are just a few of the typical depression behaviors and reactions that can be found in last night’s episode. There are many more, and they are all heartbreaking.
Still as is often the case on Supergirl, it’s a simple conversation that proves the most important. In the last scene, Kara admits that her brain was altered. While that term may sound a bit clinical, it’s an important codifier separating the realities of mental illnesses like depression from their more fanciful counterparts like mind control. Kara is not a different person when under the influence of Red Kryptonite. She doesn’t have the convenient out of being brainwashed into violence or hypnotized into compliance. There isn’t an evil agent in control of her body, forcing her to do things she would never even consider. It’s just Kara, Kara with a bit of altered brain chemistry, that does all the damage in the episode. And that’s the scariest thing about mental illnesses like depression. You can practically destroy your whole life with just a few bad decisions, decisions that in the moment may be completely out of your control, but that you must accept are still part of you. How do you even begin to go about healing the damage? Cat tells us it won’t be easy. But what she also says, the more important thing she says, is that it’s not impossible. It’s not impossible to win back the people you hurt when you’re in an altered state of mind. It takes courage and patience and work, but if Supergirl can do it, maybe it gives us mere mortals a bit more hope. Hope that if faced with our own Red Kryptonites, maybe we can undo the damage we cause too.
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.