I’m not crying. You’re crying.
Seriously, what was that, Supergirl? What was that?! I didn’t even realize I had such strong feelings about Mon-El. Mostly I just found him goofy. Apparently, I was attached.
I’ve often remarked that pilot episodes are hard for writers. Now it’s time to talk about what’s hard for viewers: the dreaded season finale. No longer dreaded because you’ll now have to navigate the dregs of summer programming—Netflix basically rescued us from that abyss—but dreaded nonetheless.
Season finales mean the completion of some crucial step in our hero’s journey. Crucial steps often mean crucial losses. We got by easy last year. With the move to The CW still a far-off concern, only villains passed on with any kind of permanence. Astra was a little tough, but no one was really mourning Non or Indigo. It was just villains and that one randomly introduced friend of Kara’s we never mentioned until Supergirl needed someone to not save. Heather? I think. Let’s go with Heather.
So we should have suspected that a heavy loss loomed in “Nevertheless, She Persisted.” Mon-El is still alive, but unless we discover a way to extract ionized iron from the atmosphere, he’s ostensibly been written off the show. And this is going to sound a little harsh, but I’m grateful. It could have been worse.
With the number of characters who made sure to show up there were quite a few faces on the line. Not least of which my own, beloved Maggie. I started this episode with a serious concern that it would be Cat Grant’s last for the exact reason Cat lays out for Kara in tonight’s conclusion.
Supergirl is so very clearly living through Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. And there is a point in every hero’s journey at which his or her mentor dies. We’ve been spared it this season, but let’s take a second—let’s take stock—and see if we can figure out just how far into the 12 steps of the hero’s journey Kara Zor-El has ventured.
This one’s pretty straightforward. What are the realities of our character’s day-to-day life? You know that pre-episode monologue Kara has? That about sums it up. Alien girl sent here from a dying planet to protect her cousin, but thanks to some seriously bad luck, she’s now living on Earth as his younger cousin and hiding her real identity. Check and check.
This one’s a little tougher. For Kara, this step actually happens when she first arrives on the planet. You remember—all that pubescent do-gooding that will eventually lead to Alex being kidnapped. That’s her call. It’s the first time she realizes that she has a higher purpose. It’s a feeling a lot of us can empathize with, because, as a general rule, we begin to realize our individuality and self worth as teenagers. If life were easy, we’d all start our great journeys right then and there. We’d all become brilliant world savers in high school or college. We would, except…
This is the icky part. We so badly want to start our journey, to be ourselves, to save the world, but something gives us pause. Something stands so firmly in our way that we recoil and refuse to go any further. The worst part is that the thing that causes our refusal usually presents itself in the form of something positive. That little voice that doesn’t want us to be a social outcast, the survival instinct that keeps us out of harm’s way, or our well meaning adopted Dean Cain who gives us magic tech glasses to help us hide our identity from the outside world.
You know who’s pop culture’s most famous mentor? Obi-wan Kenobi. You know what happens to Obi-Wan Kenobi? Spoiler: He dies.
Mentors are so central to getting our heroes on the right path, it’s a shame their fate is pretty much guaranteed. The mentor usually shows up just as the hero is getting comfortable. The hero settles into the idea of a completely unimpressive, quiet existence, then WHAM! The mentor appears and reignites that fire in their belly. Shows them—sometime unintentionally—the person they were born to be. For Kara, this is pretty obviously Cat Grant (with a little James Olsen on the side). Since James recently embarked on his own journey, I’m going to place all my concern on Cat if it’s all the same to you.
We can be heroes. So we are. Crossing the threshold is usually pretty easy. Some event makes it impossible for the hero to stay “normal” anymore. After days, weeks, months or years of ignoring their purpose, something hits just a little too close to home and they have to act. For Mulan, that meant cutting her hair and joining the imperial army. For Frodo Baggins, that meant finally leaving the Shire. For Kara, that was saving Alex’s plane from falling out of the sky. We don’t always get to choose the moment we cross the threshold, but it’s not a step you can easily miss.
This step, lovely readers, is where television shows live for most of their run. It’s the time our hero spends learning about her powers (laser eyes) and her weaknesses (all of the multiple and varied forms of Kryptonite). Often, this information is gleaned through a battle or challenge, the completion of which brings added respect.
Sometimes, even new allies: Alex, James, Maggie, J’onn, Winn, Mon-El, Lucy, Lena, etc. Or new enemies: Non, Rhea, Lillian, Siobhan, Indigo, LiveWire, etc. Still, every time, something new is gained. Every episode, another piece of the puzzle falls into place that will help the hero at their journey’s end.
In plays, novels, and movies this step is a bit more condensed. What makes writing for television different, harder even is holding an audience’s interest through years of this step and ideally bringing all the resources the character has gained to their final confrontation. As this is pretty difficult most writing teams approach these plot points with the immediate season as the priority, and future seasons to be considered as the show moves on. So what we tend to get in season finales is a bit of a false ending, only going as far as steps 7 and 8.
It’s not a literal cave. Well, not always. Usually it represents a moral dilemma for our hero. An extreme situation in which they have to weigh what they want against the greater good, and in doing so we learn more about their flaws and fears. They become all the more relatable and real to us.
For Kara, this is the fear that she can’t actually keep the amazing life she finally feels is coming together. Is it possible to have it all, or are we doomed to lose it just as things are looking up? Unfortunately, just asking this question aloud pretty much guarantees that Kara has to give up someone or something valuable to save the Earth. 43 minutes in and Mon-El’s fate is sealed.
This is the time for action. And, unfortunately, sacrifice. The ordeal means facing death. Either metaphorically or literally. It’s the part that will make you cry.
Kara chooses between Mon-El and Earth. We know who she is, how she thinks, so there was never really a doubt that it would go down this way. While I’m grateful that Supergirl didn’t kill off Mon-El outright, the death of their relationship, of Kara’s happiness, is just as hard to stomach. It makes for quite a downer ending.
And this is why. Strictly speaking steps nine to 12 are the triumph steps of the hero’s journey—Seizing the Sword, The Road Back, Resurrections, Return with the Elixir.
They include all the good things. We’ve suffered, and now here is how the world is a better place. But these steps also mean the end of the story, which Supergirl isn’t anywhere near. Hopefully. So we’ll have to trudge on through angst-ridden season finales. Partially because marketing research shows that we’re more likely to return to a show next season if it leaves us just slightly unsatisfied, but also because the story always, eventually, has a happy ending. Which you can take comfort in, even if your heart is feeling a little bit broken right now.
I mean, who knows what could happen next season. Besides the oblivious Satan cult Krypton baby. That’s a no brainer.
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 or follow her on Twitter.