It never fails, if you’re having a bad day, feeling sick or already tired, that will be the day absolutely everything goes wrong. Life, or whatever unknowable cosmic forces drive it, has a funny way of piling it on at the worst possible time. Obviously, this wouldn’t be any different for a superhero.
What starts as a good plot outline for “Kara’s Day Off” quickly slides downhill, starting with an all too human cold, and things only get worse from there. It’s not a new premise for a superhero story. It’s so unoriginal that James even jokes about how Superman has a nickname for power burnout enforced downtime. But as usual, it’s what Supergirl does with the much recycled plot line that makes tonight’s episode shine. Instead of creating a ticking clock plot where we spend most of the episode waiting for Kara to get her powers back, though there are certainly elements of that, tonight’s episode uses Kara’s power down to ask what makes a hero and, maybe more importantly, what does it take for those of us without powers to be heroic?
It’s not an unreasonable question. We’re living in a new age of resurgent superheroes. Between film, television, and a growing comic book market, more people look to superheroes as role models than ever before. But human psychology is complicated, and while the hope may be that superheroes inspire us to live up to our greatest potential, they can just as easily become a scapegoat for inaction. Just like the people of National City seem to have lost some of their agency—their willingness to take responsibility for their own lives because they now have Supergirl to rely on—so those of us living in a world without superheroes may end up doing nothing in the face of being literally “only human.” Sometimes it’s easier to shrug our shoulders and give ourselves an out. If we had superpowers of course we’d feel obligated to look out for and inspire our fellow man. Of course, if we could fly, we’d rescue a busload of children. Of course, if we were bullet proof, we’d go around stopping robberies whenever we got the chance.
Tonight instead of waiting for her powers to reemerge, Kara asks us one simple question: So you don’t have powers, so what? Considering that this episode accounts for a pretty emotionally and psychologically complex story for our heroine—it’s the first time she’s had to accept that, even for all her good intentions, she can’t save everyone—the writers aren’t content to rest on a “Kara realizes how hard it is for humans” story. Instead they focus on her realization that, just because she lacks powers, it doesn’t mean she’s powerless.
It all comes to bear in what will probably go down as one of the most beautifully crafted scenes in superhero television. As Cat Grant gives us a monologue meant to counter Lord’s message of panic and indignation, Kara puts her life on the line in a very real way for the first time. Yes, there is always the risk of death when a superhero goes into battle, but their having powers serves as a nice security blanket. And even if they are defeated, they’re superheroes! They come back from dramatic, glorious in-the-heat-of-battle deaths all the time. So it’s quite a different thing to see Kara, not Supergirl, face down a gunman robbing a store. Watching a young girl with a broken arm, and nothing but a well-tailored costume and a lot of bravado face down a man who could kill her in an instant creates a new kind of tension. It’s a mixture of pride and fear, because there is no glorious warrior’s death in being shot by a scared man in a convenience store—which means there’s no miraculous survival. We know this because people die this way all the time.
It’s easy to be cynical here. To say that Kara only survives this because it’s a television show, and killing your title character is never a great idea. We live in a cynical world, and sometimes we comic book fans can be the most cynical critics when things seem too easy. So instead of snarking at this moment, and instead of giving ourselves the out of being “only human,” let’s take a minute to be inspired by the scared, broken human girl who chooses to be brave in a dangerous situation. Let’s admit that, had her plan not worked out, had Kara died in a convenience store on the seventh episode of Supergirl her death would have still been a glorious one, deserving of a miraculous resurrection. Because in the grand scheme of things, kindness and hope, and a willingness to reach out to someone who is scared or hurt is brave in exactly the same way that inspiring our fellow man, rescuing a school bus full of children, and stopping a robbery with a bullet proof chest is. In fact it’s braver. It takes more to be a person doing the right thing who doesn’t expect anything in return, than it takes to be a superhero fighting to save the world. It’s the everyday things that come harder—the little things that we shy away from out of laziness or fear. Those are the choices that Supergirl asks us to make. And it’s hard to not love a show that lets us know that this is all we need to do to make ourselves super.
Also that Martian Manhunter reveal was amazing! Mind. Blown.
Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based writer and director, and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website at www.KatherineSiegel.com or follow her on Twitter.