With the pilot well in our rear view, Supergirl leaps (over tall buildings) forward this week with some improvements, but much like Kara herself, there are a few stumbles.
Kara starts this week by recapping her first week of Supergirl-ness, ending with “I might have a handle on this.” She is then immediately (and a bit predictably) undercut as a missile flies by her head. It turns out to be the DEO putting her through her paces. While I’ll agree with Henshaw that this is obviously about her being an alien, not about her being a woman (and even I rolled my eyes at that automatic assumption on Kara’s part), their training tactics inspired me to do a little research. And I do mean a very little research, because if you Google “how much do U.S. military missiles cost?” the first answer you get is $1.41 million. And that number sounds accurate, so I’d really appreciate it if my tax dollars didn’t go to testing the skills of an alien superhero. Just saying Henshaw, I would not want to be part of your budget review panel come next year.
Kara is soon pulled away to take care of a fire at the port, and here is where we hit the episode’s first trouble spot in the form of some pretty glaring tonal inconsistencies in the dialogue. This is not to say that the show’s dialogue is poorly written. It’s more that the writer’s can’t seem to decide what kind of show they’re writing. It swings between a few different genres—the first being Lois & Clark-style dialogue, which borrows heavily from the comic books of the ‘30s. For example, “This looks like a job for Supergirl.” CW standard is another favorite. You know CW standard—where they’re trying just a little too hard to make every character seem like they have full awareness and facility of every teenage turn of phrase. For a CW example, please see every episode of Gossip Girl, and for a Supergirl example: Kat Grant’s #TerribleGirl. I swear if they make Calista Flockhart say “on fleek” I may never forgive them.
They also mix in a bit of modern superhero dialogue, which tends to be heavy on the military and scientific nomenclature, as if using such technical language somehow makes a show feel more gritty and real. It doesn’t. What it does do is make your characters sound like microwave instructions. And finally, there are some good old fashion clichés—some of which are used really well, like when Kara responds to Astra’s doom-y save the earth message with a “funny I was going to say the same thing.” And for the first time ever a villain takes that phrase as the snarky throw back it’s meant to be, and doesn’t give the hero an open window to strike out a fight-changing blow. Other times it’s not nearly as charming. Kat Grant’s “a woman needs to be twice as good as a man” speech comes to mind, but more on that later.
Still, the fire did set us up for one nice recognition moment. Kara is not good at this. It’s really honest in a way. Often heroes succeed on their first missions out. Sometimes they only manage this through pure luck, but succeed they do. It’s nice to see a hero who messes up, whose good intentions exceed her skill, because that’s how we all are when we try something new.
Which brings us to Supergirl’s PR problem setting a few things in motion this episode. Beyond the aforementioned #terriblegirl, Kat wants an interview with National City’s new heroine, if only to control her brand. It also gives us a brief video introduction to Maxwell Lord who you can pretty much guarantee is going to cause problems if not because of his clearly comic book name, then because he’s being played by Peter Facinelli—the same Peter Facinelli who is a member of the infamous Cullen clan, and the guy who played Max Dexter in Can’t Hardly Wait.
It takes a long time for Kara to warm up to the idea that maybe she’s not ready for the big league’s quite yet. James “Romantic Pep Talk” Olson doesn’t get through to her. Alex beating the crap out of her doesn’t really make it sink in. But third times the charm it seems, as Kat Grant’s Queen B routine finally gets through to our wayward heroine. I’m a bit torn when it comes to Kat’s speech. I love that Kat is so unrepentant in her opinions and behavior. It’s really cool to see an aggressive woman portrayed in such a nonjudgmental and unapologetic fashion. Supergirl often uses her vocal nature to be a sounding board for hard truths. I’m 100% behind this and I think her point to Kara about how Supergirl should be starting smaller fits in really well with the content of tonight’s episode. Still, the beginning of the scene is clumsy, and while there’s a lot of truth to the “twice as good as a man” speech, it’s a bit of a cliché to lie out so verbatim. It’s also something we’ve all heard before. This is a case where I’d much rather the writers found a way to show me instead of telling me. If Supergirl is going to have to work twice as hard as Superman to gain acceptance, showing us that journey will make it resonate more, and not feel like some trite cliché thrown in to milk every ounce of feminist sentiment from a show that already appeals to the feminist in all of us.
This is especially true, since character development is becoming one of the things this show does best. The montage (a bit of a lost art in television) certainly seems to be a tool the Supergirl production team loves to use, and they do so to great effect. Watching James and Winn help Kara with superhero practice adds a lot to this episode’s value. It’s a great “show, don’t tell” moment and it does everything such a moment should. And it also does a lot to reinforce the value of asking your friends for help, because we see the result. So later when she offers to help James by giving Grant the interview, her words don’t ring hollow or feel cliché because we’ve seen this truth in action.
This scene between James and Kara is also interesting for a few more reasons. It allows us to see a glimpse into Kryptonian values and society. Looking at such cultural contrasts is an important part of any immigrant story and in this universe, Kara is uniquely qualified to do so. Additionally, we get the opportunity to see where Kara’s upbringing and philosophy differentiate her from “Him.” I mean really everyone you’re just making his presence even more ominous by sidestepping calling him Superman, especially now that we have it confirmed that James knows his secret identity. Still, Superman operates on a “one man; alone” philosophy to crime fighting and world saving. It’s a very traditionally masculine view of the superhero, whereby their deeds read as somehow diminished, the hero somehow not strong enough if they require too much help. Kara takes the opposite point of view, whereby asking for help and using your community are viewed as good things to do. While teamwork obviously isn’t an exclusively feminine concept, it definitely allows her to stand apart sharply from the lone wolf hero of more traditionally written comics.
Where tonight’s episode really falls flat is in its more action-oriented B-plot. There’s not much to say about it except that it leads to Astra kidnapping Alex and Kara learning that her aunt is alive before Astra launches straight into a “Come to the Dark Side” pitch. It’s rather disappointing, not so much for its content as for its presentation. Once again the writers fail to decide what kind of show they’re writing. The result is that scenes involving Alex, Henshaw, and the DEO tend to vacillate wildly from the technical, cold feel of more “realistic” comic book movies to the scenery chewing melodrama more common to The Avengers of 1961, rather than 2012. Overall, Supergirl is a show full of good ideas even if some of the execution is still a bit clumsy. Only time will tell if the writing team can settle on a tone, and if some of the other character and dialogue hiccups will right themselves. Still, here I sit saying that while tonight’s episode may not have been very good, the show’s potential, much like Kara’s, is limitless.
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.