Episode Title: Stronger Together
Original Airdate: 11-3-15
Momentum. That’s what serialised television is all about. The pace at which story, character and narrative arcs occur, and whether or not a show can maintain the enthusiasm established in its opening episode. Given how much story was crammed into Supergirl’s pilot episode, would the series’ second episode maintain that momentum, or would it revert to a more leisurely pace to allow development with the core elements of an ongoing, 22-episode season?
In terms of pure Supergirl mythos, this season’s second episode delivers as much world-building as its immediate predecessor, if not more. Kara (Melissa Benoist), having defeated Vartox in the previous episode, is finding the going tougher than expected as Supergirl, often causing more problems than she solves in her relative inexperience in the role – in trying to rescue an oil tanker from a burning dock, she accidentally causes a massive oil spill, and courts negative public opinion. Her boss, Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), demands the team get her a sit-down interview with the girl of steel, and pressures Superman’s “best pal” James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) to use his contact with the Man of Steel to achieve it. Meanwhile, a new villain – the Hellgrammite – is in town, searching for a food source from the city’s power plant. This leads Kara to discover the arrival of her aunt, General Astra (Laura Benanti), who is also a recent escapee of the crashed Fort Roz, and who has powers equal to Supergirl.
“Stronger Together’s” touchstone moment comes as Kara and James (I really struggle not to call him Jimmy) discuss Kara’s Kryptonian heritage, and the dual meaning of the “S”, and in this simple scene atop the CatCo building the series has cemented itself a raison d’etre in a way that many series struggle with over multiple seasons. It’s a great little moment of quiet in an otherwise action-packed episode. Kara’s sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) attempts to demonstrate to Kara that her exuberance shouldn’t be mistaken for experience, and a brief moment inside a Kryptonite-radiating room where the two come to blows (“training”, it’s called) and DEO head Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) still doesn’t trust the young heroine.
Echoing the opening of last episode, “Stronger Together” pauses momentarily to give us a glimpse into Kara’s Kryptonian past, as a piece of handy plot-specific dialogue between her and her now-deceased mother provides information to us, the viewer, that would otherwise be relatively clunky exposition. It’s a brief flashback that allows us to start to see the bond Kara had with her mother, a bond I suspect will only grow as the series uses this as a “flashback” mechanism to provide backstory to whatever mystery, villain or scenario the adult Kara will face in a given week. It also gives actress Laura Benanti the opportunity to play both nice and nasty, as she occupies the dual role of vengeful General Astra – a part teased at the very end of the previous episode. To be honest, Astra’s arrival in episode 2 was a surprise, since I figured any Kyrptonian characters would be held over towards the finale as a “big bad” boss-level conceit for Kara to face at season’s end.
Kara’s idea of needing to win over public perception of her is also something I can see going south very quickly – as it does in the Superman comics – when Kara’s powers cause her to harm others, even accidentally. Henshaw’s stated distrust of Supergirl and her abilities propagates the modern thinking that beings from another world are never altruistic, something Man of Steel delved into at a mostly superficial level with General Zod. It’s a problem Batman never really has to face because Batman doesn’t give a crap about public perception. Supergirl, as somebody who lives in the storm of the public eye, by default will have her detractors and her fans, although you get the sense that, unlike events in Man of Steel (or, as is hinted at in this episode, the unseen years Superman’s been active) where powered beings tear the crap out of Metropolis almost daily, in National City its denizens will be less accusatory and more conciliatory. At least, that’s something I think the show is aiming for.
The show’s relational aspects continue to falter throughout this episode: Kara’s relationship with her sister, as diametrically opposed as they are, is manipulated to provide a continuing sense of rebuild following the revelation that Alex is working for the DEO (a frosty relationship at best, for Kara), while the Cat Grant factor continues to bubble away as Flockhart’s portrayal almost – almost – becomes Lex Luthor-esque. Her treatment of her employees, with the constant threat of unemployment should they step out of line, is going to quickly become tiresome if the show perpetuates this archetype. Not to mention that Grant directly references working for Perry White, and not in the fondest terms, but you’d think that the way she was apparently treated at the Daily Planet would make her a better boss at CatCo, not an evil, belligerent dictator.
“Stronger Together’s” weaknesses lie in its often awful dialogue. Where the performances carry the show breezily along, with winnings miles and a sense of burgeoning exploration, the writing is possibly the weakest aspect. The constant referral to “my cousin” or “the big guy” or “man of steel” instead of just using the name we all know, Superman, bugs the hell out of me. Unless the show has a limit on the number of times they can say “superman”, then just say Superman, dammit. The initial burst of stated feminism in the pilot episode becomes exceptionally overt here, as Cat and Kara discuss the way in which the business can monopolise the monetary gain to be made from Supergirl’s arrival; we get it, Supergirl is a female superhero in a male dominated landscape, but instead of constantly reminding us all the time, just show us how cool a female superhero can be.
The dialogue between Alex and Kara is also often forced, as if the writers need to continually give the pair some angst or sisterly grist to combat. Frankly, I think Chyler Leigh’s delivery of said dialogue is mostly to blame, as if she’s having a hard time believing what she’s contractually obliged to say. I don’t think Leigh has a handle on who her character is supposed to be; to be fair, it’s probably the least defined character of all in the show thus far, being a third wheel to Kara’s primary protagonist and the five or six secondary characters in her harem of friends. Kinda reminds me of Iris over on The Flash, who took her time developing her own identity throughout that show’s first season. I suspect Alex’s role in Supergirl will follow a similar route.
Fans of the character who were pleasantly surprised (like me) at the quality of the visual effects in the first episode, will possibly wonder what the hell happened here. “Stronger Together’s” action-packed final act, in which the Hellgrammite appears, and Kara battles her superstrong Aunt in a warehouse (really…. they can fly and they choose to fight in a darkened warehouse?) lack the crisp ferocity of the début episode. In fact, some of the effect here look positively awful, a fact we can possibly put down to the network TV budget finally starting to show. Kara’s flying looks nice, and the “super” stuff she does is generally okay, but the writers have obviously decided to hide a lot of the budgetary limitations in darkness and night-shoots. This weakens the scope of Supergirl’s impact, and serves to highlight that if you’re going to go into a show featuring superpowered beings, you need to have a budget to back that up. Already, in episode two, the cracks are showing.
But, all things considered, Supergirl’s second episode does what I hoped: it maintains the propulsive momentum established in the previous episode. Fast paced and nothing if not shooting for the skies, Supergirl’s sense of fun and anti-darkness remains solidly in place. Although it missteps on key aspects of the pilot’s established strengths, the sophomore episode begins to show us the scope the season is going to bring, and that anticipation is key to driving the show’s success in these early weeks. The early exposure of General Astra, the revelation that something is going on with Hank Henshaw, and the coming together of Team Supergirl will give us plenty to think about in the weeks to come.