Monday, October 15, 2018

Supergirl 4x01 Review: "American Alien" (Afraid of Americans) [Contributor: Deborah MacArthur]

“American Alien”
Original Airdate: October 14, 2018 

Previously on Supergirl: Oh, please don’t make me recap what happened last season on Supergirl. I swear I’ve given more hours of my life to describing last season’s plot than a woman should ever have to give. Mostly because it was the same plot undone and redone multiple times, since the writers had about ten episodes’ worth of content to stretch across a 23-episode season. There was Reign, who was Sam, who was Kara’s new friend, and then there was no Reign, because Sam was not Reign, but she’s still Kara’s friend. That’s the basics.

In hindsight, I’m starting to suspect season three of being a bit of a throwaway. Why are the third seasons of these DC shows always so bad? Are there studies on this pattern?

It’s a fresh, shiny new season of Supergirl, though. We’ve gotta go in with positive thoughts. Brush away those negative season three vibes, everyone, and welcome to season four!

Oh, wait. Everything about the season’s promotional info has indicated that it’ll be darker and more miserable than last season, or any other season. The season four trailer ended with Supergirl wearing the superhero equivalent of riot gear. The season’s main arc is about xenophobia and hatred spreading in National City, thanks to a villain declaring himself a true patriot by hating aliens who come in and “take our jobs.”

I’m going to be sad a lot this season, aren’t I?


For some reason, Superman being off-world means Supergirl has gone international and is saving everyone, everywhere. How does Superman’s absence have any effect on Supergirl’s jurisdiction? Why wasn’t she retrieving stolen paintings in Madrid or stopping runaway trains in Russia before? Kara’s also back to being an ace reporter and has a position of authority at CatCo, so she thinks she “finally” has everything in her life under control — which just means it’ll all come crashing down on her immediately.

As I mentioned before, this season’s all about anti-alien xenophobia, so the pressure point for Kara is going to be her faith in humanity. Our introduction into the anti-alien plot starts with an alien support group run by J’onn J’onzz and Fiona (who is played by the same actress who played Vicky on The Good Place, which I found amusing). One of the group members is a pointy-eared, tusk-armed scientist named Dr. Vose, who later gets attacked at his research facility.

The attackers, a man and a woman both loaded down with a lot of fancy tech, cut off Dr. Vose’s arm tusks and use one of them to open the door to his lab. Dr. Vose hits a button on his phone to call Supergirl (do you think all citizens have that?) and she crashes through the window, but before she can pull off a heroic rescue, the two villains hit her with a blast of high-pitched audio, cuff her, and send her plummeting back to Earth.

Brainy, who has taken Winn’s place at the DEO, arrives to uncuff Kara so she can at least try to stop the bad guys. They do get away in the end, though. Not only have they assaulted Dr. Vose, but they’ve also stolen a high-powered EMP device capable of taking out a power grid.

J’onn shows up at the crime scene and tells Kara he suspects the attack on Dr. Vose was motivated by an anti-alien movement growing in the country. Kara dismisses the idea, since her experience has been all gratefulness and warmth, and the country’s even about to celebrate the anniversary of the Alien Amnesty Act. J’onn doesn’t explicitly say that Kara’s experiences differ from other aliens because she presents as a pretty, blonde-haired, human young woman, but you can read between the lines.

The EMP thieves/alien racists are sibling duo Otis and Mercy Graves, according to information Brainy can pull up. At first, I was really pleased by the show introducing Mercy Graves into its canon but let me just say that she was a lot cooler when she was snarky, animated, and not so xenophobic. Brainy tracks down an address connected to the Graves: a warehouse (villains love their warehouses, amiright?) that Kara learns is an epicenter for an underground anti-alien movement. Regular suburban parents are calling in for information on how to blow up aliens attending their kids’ schools, chat rooms full of slurs, and a planned attack on the Alien Amnesty summit the president is hosting.

J’onn is, convenient to the plot, a pacifist now. That means it’s Kara’s responsibility to deal with the anti-alien threat against the Summit alone. Well, alone plus Alex and the DEO. The Danvers sisters have to do a lot of juggling in order to keep the president safe, and they manage it pretty well. Kara has Brainy restore the power when Mercy and Otis use the EMP, Alex takes on Mercy and stops her from setting off a bomb in the building, and Kara is almost — but not quite — able to capture both the Graves siblings. Mercy shoots her brother (who’s wearing Kevlar, so he’s unharmed) and Kara’s heroic nature means she has to let one Graves go free to make sure the other Graves doesn’t die.

With Otis Graves in their possession and the president still alive, Team Supergirl is mostly okay with the way things turned out. Until news footage shows the president briefly flickering into her alien form after being attacked, which will spark some outrage in America. Apparently the big-picture goal for the Graves (and their masked leader) wasn’t to assassinate the president but to prove she’s an alien in disguise.


This wasn’t a bad episode. Everyone had something to do, the story was exciting, Kara seems to be in a unique place of confidence at work (and the fact that she’s actually doing reporter things at all is a blessing), Alex’s subplot with Brainy was entertaining, and Lena’s subplot with her mother — getting dirt on the Luthor family to trade for the charges raised against James last season being dropped — will definitely have repercussions I’m interested in seeing.

However, the reservations and criticisms I have are for the season-long arc, which is clearly being presented as a heavy-handed parallel to real life xenophobia in the United States. Supergirl has never shied away from topical stories, and for good reason. The Super stories (whether it be Superman or Supergirl) have a history of dancing the line of parable, making good use of the moral paragon of these Kryptonian characters, and no story is as relevant to them as stories of immigrants, of a nation’s irrational fear of the Other. Supergirl taking on a story like this should be a perfect fit, but something is... off in the way it’s being presented.

It almost feels lazy. As if the show knows it should talk about important topics so it throws those topics into the narrative without much thought or care, hoping those heavy-handed parallels are enough to do the job. I’ve always viewed the topical plots Supergirl has dealt with in the past through a lens of cheesy sincerity.

Supergirl’s heart has always seemed to be in the right place, and its corny morality always felt genuine and true to comic book form, but this season’s arc feels like the ethical equivalent of a cash grab, more than a sincere attempt to send a message the show believes. I really hope I’m proven wrong on this, though. Only time will tell.

Other Things:
  • Sam moved away! Guess she, Lena, and Kara aren’t BFFs after all.
  • Lena and James are still dating. That remains a thing.
  • Kara meets her new reporter underling, Nia Nal, who is an awkward chatterbox just like Kara used to be around Cat Grant. I actually like the potential in this dynamic, since I know Nia is a superhero (or at least will be one) and the show could really do something cute with her trying to hide her secret identity from Kara the same way Kara used to hide her secret identity from Cat.
  • “Let him who desires peace prepare for war.” Sigh. This Agent Liberty guy seems pretentious, which is remarkable for a dude in a mask that stupid.
  • Brainy is winning me over. He’s very weird and awkward but the actor’s doing a good job making that awkwardness seem... real, I guess? More of a genuine flaw in the way he interacts with the world than just a funny quirk for TV.
  • Somewhere under a train, the mysterious copy of Kara punches a rock.


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