Thursday, May 24, 2018

Supergirl 3x19 Review: "The Fanatical" (Identity Crises) [Contributor: Deborah MacArthur]

“The Fanatical”
Original Airdate: May 21, 2018 

While last week was a real pebble in the shoe of an episode, this week is more like... when you’re walking, and that seam on the toe of your sock is kinda crooked, so you can feel it every time you move your foot a certain way? It’s annoying, but not so annoying that it’s worth taking your shoe off to fix it — and anyway, it’s only when you’re conscious of the sock seam that it bugs you, so if you’re distracted by other stuff it’s all fine and you can ignore it. “The Fanatical” is that kind of episode. Because this is clearly a filler episode that makes little advancement on the Reign front, but it’s trying hard enough with character development and thematic ideas that it’s easier to ignore a glaring truth: This is the nineteenth episode of the season and the writers have, barring a few cursory mentions, hit "pause" on the main arc. Again.

In this latest episode, Supergirl explores the power of truth. Truth: it eases burdens, it increases burdens, it hurts people, it helps people —  yes, truth’s versatility knows no bounds! Especially when it comes to faking narrative depth in a primetime comic book show.


Sometimes I think the writers made James become Guardian because they knew if he didn’t get a superhero costume and vigilante name, he’d literally cease to exist as a character. I mean, as it is, his role on the show amounts to occasionally saying some encouraging stuff to the other characters. Can you imagine how bad it would be if he didn’t even get to punch people in the face while wearing a metal helmet?

James is kind of stuck in the middle of the Lena/Supergirl feud that’s going on right now, so after Lena tells Supergirl off for chastising her about making some sort of blocking device that shields Kryptonian X-ray vision, Kara goes to James to complain. Lena is mad at Supergirl, but still BFFs with Kara. Kara wants Lena to like both her personalities, but she can’t convince Lena to like Supergirl without giving a good reason — i.e., telling her that Supergirl is Kara. She can’t tell Lena that Supergirl is Kara because it might make Lena hate both Supergirl and Kara, and that would be bad.

Since James was the one who told Lena about Supergirl sending Guardian in to search for kryptonite, and since he’s dating Lena and friends with Kara/Supergirl, he’s the one who has to bounce between both parties and listen to complaints. Kara is up first, but her moral quandary/identity crisis is interrupted by a woman named Tanya, who’s carrying Thomas Coville’s journal full of Kryptonian Cult craziness. Because, again, James Olsen is the link between Supergirl and everyone. Isn’t it weird how important that sounds, yet the show never has anything for James to do?

Coville has disappeared, but his followers have turned fanatical in his absence and started worshipping Reign instead of Rao. Tanya thinks she’s come across something in Coville’s journal that might be a recipe for a bomb, but she doesn’t know what they plan on doing with it.

The fanatical (title drop!) Reign cultists catch up with Tanya at the CatCo building. While James it trying to talk to Olivia — one of the old Church of Rao members who seemed to have turned away from worshipping Kryptonians at the end of that episode — others grab Tanya. James suits up as Guardian and goes after them on a motorcycle, even dodging a rocket launcher strike. Why do the cultists have a rocket launcher? Because it looks cool when Guardian zooms through the explosion on a motorcycle, that’s why!

Eventually catching up with the cultists and Tanya in a warehouse, Guardian gets into a fight and gets unmasked for his troubles. When the police show up to arrest the bad guys, they instead turn suspicious of the two people of color in the room (James and Tanya) and James has to throw a smoke bomb so they can escape. Unfortunately, the cultists capture James’s unmasking on camera and are using the footage to blackmail him into turning Tanya and the journal over.

And this leads to the big emotional dilemma for James in this episode, and perhaps for his future as a masked hero: As he tells Lena later on, the first time cops put cuffs on him, he was seven years old and playing around a hotel with his cousins, the oldest of whom was eleven. He was marched into the lobby of a hotel room, handcuffed, because cops didn’t think black children belonged near such a nice hotel. Being able to put on a mask allowed James to be judged by his actions, rather than his looks, and he’s enjoyed the freedom of it. To add to that, the truth of Guardian’s identity as a black man could potentially limit or completely eliminate his ability to be a hero, but James is a hero through and through. He could never trade Tanya’s safety for the security and liberty his mask brings him.

Like Kara’s issues with Lena, James is faced with a problem of truth and identity. There are good reasons why he should keep his identity as Guardian a secret, and good reasons why he should tell the world. A lie of omission is still a lie, and James is a moral person — so is his lying morally wrong? Is Kara’s lying morally wrong? In one scene, Kara asks this question to Mon-El, and Mon-El’s answer is that lying about a superhero identity protects loved ones, which...

Look, I’ve never really bought the “we lie about our identity as heroes to protect our loved ones” idea when it comes to superheroes. In my opinion, a far better excuse is the selfish excuse: keeping the identities apart allows people like Kara and James to live as Kara and James, and not as Supergirl and Guardian. Even in a perfect world where perception isn’t negatively changed when Guardian is revealed as a black man, James loses a part of himself when he stops wearing that mask. Once a hero unmasks, their “human” selves — their normal, everyday, nine-to-five job selves — cease to exist.

Anyway, the decision is taken out of James’s hands. Tanya turns herself over and they use her to infiltrate their secret hideout. When Team Supergirl discovers the end goal of the cultists is to use a certain kind of stone to make a new Worldkiller (it’s seriously that easy?) Kara goes to interrupt the ceremony. Olivia has volunteered to become the Worldkiller, but Kara manages to talk her out of it, learning in the process that the Worldkiller creation stone is another thing that can potentially hurt her.

Not sure what the criminal charge is for trying to turn yourself into an alien overlord, but hopefully Olivia will move on from her culty inclinations and do something with her life. Meanwhile, the existence of a stone that can turn a human into a Worldkiller has given Team Supergirl and Lena an idea for reversing the Worldkiller-ness and curing Sam. Kara and Winn set out in J’onn’s spaceship car to get another one of the stones from a distant asteroid. Meanwhile, Reign is adapting to the kryptonite being used to subdue her.

Other Things:
  • Ruby and M’yrnn bonding was cute. In fact, Ruby was pretty good in this episode. She’s a nice character when she’s not being an idiot and endangering herself.
  • Why did Mon-El wait so long to signal Supergirl during the ending battle? It's like he was doing the cop show thing where the cop has to confirm the suspects are doing illegal stuff before anyone can arrest them, but... that was unnecessary.
  • I sort of loved how messy the climactic battle was. I don't think I can fully explain why, but just the idea of Supergirl panicking about how to save Olivia and then heat-visioning the poor girl's hand felt unique for one of these shows.
  • Ugh, I think next week is going to be a Kara/Mon-El relationship episode.


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