Annnnnd we’re back! Tensions start high in tonight’s episode as the epic battle promised to us in the midseason finale gets in a few hits before fizzling out. The fight ends pretty quickly, with Non kidnapping Hank “Martian Manhunter” Henshaw. It’s important to note here that for an action adventure, comic book show, Supergirl does have a tendency to shy away from fight scenes. Action scenes abound, but actual battles tend towards the short and are a bit perfunctory. And rarely does any combatant seem to fight until they have nothing left. We never really get the kind of epic, near death fights that one would expect. That would be my biggest criticism of this show. Well, that, and once again subjecting me to walking mouthpiece General Lane, but I guess he’s a necessary evil tonight.
Still, it’s hard to get mad at Supergirl for stepping back from the fighting. There are only so many minutes in an hour, and what we lose in fight time we certainly regain in the show’s exploration of how people (and even some super people) cope with everything life throws at us. If the original purpose of science fiction and fantasy writing is to give us a comfortable space to discuss uncomfortable topics (i.e. the corruption of innocence in Star Wars: The Force Awakens or rape and PTSD in Jessica Jones), then Supergirl gives us a hero who so wants to be normal that we are better able to explore universal truths through her struggle.
Tonight’s example? “Blood bonds us all.” Yes, it’s a bit cliché, and feels typical of the kind of weighted comic book dialogue that can often result in quite a bit of melodrama. But that’s not to say it isn’t true. Blood does bond us. We are bonded to family through actual blood (Kara and Astra), but also to our friends through a kind of recognition of each other’s blood (Kara, James, and Winn). And certainly, no one would deny that soldiers fighting together have a blood bond that strengthens them and helps pull them through the darkest of times (Hank and Alex). Those are the upsides of being bonded by blood. We have communities to draw strength from, a sense of belonging and our place in the world, and the knowledge that we are not alone, even if it sometimes feels that way.
But Supergirl won’t just stop there. Because there are downsides to this bond as well. And that’s where the crux of tonight’s episode lies.
How much strength can you draw from a community that tries to manipulate you? While I’m always a fan of Cat Grant, and certainly agree that she wouldn’t take too long to figure out Supergirl’s real identity, the plot complications and thematic content such knowledge requires feels more like a season six or seven arch than season one. Still, it’s a hard move to take knowledge away from a character like Cat without resorting to the dues ex machina of alien brain manipulation, or a concussion-inducing bump to the head. Both of which this show is better than.
Luckily by combining Kara’s super hearing, Hank’s shape shifting, and Alex’s lack of volume control, Supergirl creates a plausible exit for Cat’s investigative side, because the old “have you ever seen Batman and Bruce Wayne in the same place” argument fails to hold up once you actually do see them in the same place. The one thing Cat would never be able to hand wave would be seeing Kara and Supergirl together, so that’s exactly what Hank and Kara give her. It’s a great move, keeping the integrity of Cat’s character intact while gently writing the show away from a very complicated plot point. It also gives us the added benefit of a little Kara/ Hank bonding time, which is nice since they’re the only aliens we see on a regular basis who don’t have plans to take over the earth.
How fragile is our sense of belonging when it’s built on the actions of others? One of the most interesting things about Supergirl is the relationship built between Astra and Kara itself, much closer to mother/daughter than aunt/niece. We can’t deny that Astra’s criticisms of Alura, of Kara’s memories and perception of her mother, take a traumatic toll. It is human (and apparently kryptonian) nature to sanctify those who we love once they’re gone. We forget that people are complicated, a messy juxtaposition of qualities and feelings. Kara builds much of her existence—her loyalty, code of ethics, compassion, drive, and idealism—on her memories of he mother, so Astra challenging Kara’s memory of her sister undermines our heroine’s confidence in her choices. It’s a real dick move.
But there may be hope for Astra yet. By finishing a story that doesn’t show Alura as a saint, but doesn’t condemn her nearly as far as Astra has lead Kara to believe, Astra reaches a turning point. It’s an interesting way to resolve tonight’s conflict, and gives us a moment rarely seen in comic book shows. Often we get a chance to see our hero fall from grace, and do something less than heroic, but much less common is the reverse. When Astra tells Non’s men to stand down, we are seeing a more complicated villain than we have before. She still believes in her cause and maintains her ruthlessness, but for just this moment, Astra makes the compassionate choice. Not to manipulate or to please the one good guy she cares about, but because it’s the right and honorable thing to do. We can see some of the blood bond between her and Alura in that moment.
What good is not being alone if we still feel that way? Kara’s darkest moment this episode sees her taking on Astra’s rage. She’s well on her way to giving in to her violent Maxwell Lord murdering impulses when she’s stopped by Winn, but it seems even their bond may be working against Kara. Her bond with James makes her afraid, her bonds with Cat and Alura make her confused, and her bond with Astra, angry. It’s a bad combination. A violently bad combination. And if Kara gives in to her feelings, she’ll make a decision that will likely cost her her friends, and more importantly, her self. But when all those bonds are pointing you to the simplest answer, why not just give in? We know Lord is bad—mostly because Peter Facinelli is to skewed morality as Sean Bean is to character death—so why should he get to stay alive? Why fight the impulse to haul off and take care of the problem once and for all? Why be different from Astra or Non? It’s Winn with the answer.
“You have to be.”
And that’s the problem with bonds. As much as they help us get through the tough times, they can be the cause of those tough times as well. Fighting against fighting for those we love is hard. It’s impulse to protect our family and friends, brothers and sisters, but sometimes we have to find another way. We have to negotiate, have compassion and faith; be prepared to stand down when our first impulse may be to lash out. We have to choose not to fight. Huh… so just maybe there are enough fight scenes in Supergirl after all.
Oh, and one last thing. James, Winn, closing the door to keep a secret from a superhero doesn’t really have the same dramatic or secretive effect when the door is glass.
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.