REVIEW: Supergirl Season 1 Finale, “Better Angels”

After an excellent season, the finale for Supergirl is underwhelming.

“Better Angels” is much more subdued compared to last week’s episode, “Myriad.” Last week was more focused on action and suspense: all of National City, including Superman, is controlled by Non (Chris Vance) and the Brainiac unit Indigo (Laura Vandervoort), who have deployed the mind-controlling device Myriad, which can also be used to overwhelm human brains until they explode. Yet in this week’s episode, even before the show’s title card, Supergirl already frees all of National City with a message of hope. There seems not to be even a bit of gentle self-awareness that this is too clean a resolution: Kara (Melissa Benoist) overcomes the mind-control with a message of hope, and Non does not bother to try mind control again, whether on National City or another location.

The benefit to this lighter touch is that it becomes an episode that, in many ways, suits all of Season 1: it allows the characters to decompress from mind control and the ramifications of not just this episode but the entire season, whether that includes Kara and James’s (Mehcad Brooks) feelings for each other, Maxwell Lord’s (Peter Facinelli) currently tense temporary alliance with the Department of Extra-Normal Operations (DEO), or Kara’s own conflicted emotions around the traumatic experiences, including the destruction of Krypton and the potential need that she sacrifice her life right now. Yet all of this can be underwhelming for a superhero show: at a certain point, I want superpowered people in capes performing feats no mere human can accomplish.

I did receive that superhuman feat, however, in an unexpected way with how Kara’s message of hope resonates with all humans: Lord’s pseudo-scientific explanation about appealing to the parts of the brain stimulated by positive emotions is too laughable for me to take seriously, but it is suitable for this series, so steeped in the Silver Age of Comics that not only does Supergirl provide the Fortress of Solitude but even the dwarf star key to open the Fortress’s front door.

The subdued nature of the episode also influences how the antagonists fight the protagonists: when Non decides not to try mind-control again, Indigo, in full Lady Macbeth mode, persuades him to just kill all humans from the inside, overwhelming their brains. This is at least a suitable fight for a subdued episode: the fight is inside the body, not from outside. It will not be enough for Supergirl to punch her way through this battle. In fact, it is a battle more suitable to J’onn’s (David Harewood) strengths as well, seeing as he is a telepath.

Yet even as the episode overall is subdued, even its climax feels underwhelming, hardly drawing on what I just pointed out about not punching your way to a solution–as Supergirl pretty much just punches something into space, which I’ve seen time and again (that was largely her introduction to the Bruce Timm Superman animated series).

On the other hand, if this were a Zack Snyder film–and thank goodness it is not–I would expect this finale to include actual images of the violence inflicted by Myriad. While I would not want this episode to become like Scanners, reducing human bodies exploding for the sake of aesthetic pleasure, I find it unrealistic, after last week’s episode proved Supergirl cannot save anyone, that there was no loss: none of our heroes die or face obvious, significant injuries, physically, emotionally, or mentally.

The same cannot be said of the villain, as Kara’s incapacitating of Non is certainly graphic: her eyebeams seemed to have blinded him, perhaps even affecting his brain, making this interpretation more in line with his portrayal in the comics and films, that of someone who is lobotomized, and also alluding to how Superman (or an alternate universe version of him) disabled Doomsday in the Justice League animated series. In contrast, the violence inflicted onto J’onn, even as it was last week with a stab by Indigo, did not resonate with me: as a shapeshifter, J’onn likely can recover quickly, and as she is a techno-organic being who was rebuilt already, Indigo’s supposed death can be easily overcome whenever the writers want to rebuild her and bring her back into the series.

Even as I can find this episode to be subdued for a season finale, that does not negate its serious approach to Kara’s death drive. This season has focused on her feelings of trauma, not only the loss of her family and Krypton but also her rage, and such anger has caused her to put herself and others into danger, whether against Red Tornado or against herself under the influence of Red Kryptonite. Such anger seems to reach this conclusion in the season finale where, like many of cases of depression, it is turned inward and made into Kara deciding that she may have to sacrifice her life to save others.

Supergirl as a television series has not been shy to hit viewers over the head with symbolism, usually supplied with a good dose of snark courtesy of Cat Grant to make it go down more easily. However, I give this episode substantial credit for having other characters recognize Kara’s depression and willingness to sacrifice herself far earlier. While Maxwell Lord’s sympathy is empty–the dude has killed people to further his means–the awareness that Winn, James, and Cat all have that Kara is sounding like she is ready to commit suicide is appreciated, especially when James tries to have Lucy (Jenna Dewan Tatum) intervene and speak directly to her.

The problem is that the season finale is setting up its problem–“Will Supergirl be willing to sacrifice herself to save humanity?”–when the answer is obvious: “Duh.”

Of course she is going to be willing to, but of course she is not going to die. Her name is in the title, and even if the series had not been renewed for a second season, the mission statement of Supergirl has been that hope beats fear, and that people are willing to sacrifice themselves for others: after all, the Superman story starts with Jor-El and Lara sacrificing themselves for their infant to be sent to Earth, and that story is repeated with Kara’s parents Alura and Zor-El doing the same for her.

Therefore, the enjoyment of the episode as to be how we move from that question to that answer, and it is less enjoyable for me when the stakes still seem low. After J’onn tears apart the obviously-going-to-be-rebuilt Indigo, Kara has to lift all of the grounded satellite Fort Rozz, which is broadcasting Myriad, to throw it back into outer space. And of course she will, because the Super Family, time and again, has been shown capable of lifting such immense weights. Perhaps I am jaded by that very fact: I’ve seen Superman and other superheroes lift that much weight before. Kara’s feat should be seen as a bookend to her struggle to safely land one plane in the very first episode, so I can at least appreciate that the writers were not hitting me over the head to make that parallel far more obvious.

The resolution to this episode is also rather clean: her sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) happens to avoid the vacuum of space to pull Kara back into the very rocket that brought her to Earth. (And I can’t resist reading some gynocentric about one woman bringing her sister into the womb-like rocket and back to Earth for a re-birth.) Even the post-climactic resolution is clean and overly dependent on exposition: General Lane (Glenn Morshower) relays a message from the President of the United States that J’onn is exonerated and reinstated as head of the DEO, Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) rewards Kara’s hard work with her new office and some vague job that’s up to her to figure out, Dr. Danvers (Helen Slater) reaffirms her and her daughters’ goal of rescuing their father, and Kara and James are now a couple.

At least this finale has one significant plot point that could be interesting–and I am not talking about the pointless “What’s in the Kryptonian rocket?” cliffhanger. That moment is so akin to the ending of Pulp Fiction, or makes me think I’m going to hear Brad Pitt screaming “What’s in the box?!” that I am too jaded to enjoy that ending. At this point in the distribution of entertainment, when viewers are as apt to watch a series one episode per week as they are one episode after the next on a Blu-Ray/DVD set or streaming online, it is pointless to set up a mystery that will ultimately be unfulfilling. As happens with almost any current television series, a poorly written cliffhanger leaves it to viewers to predict the resolution on their own–and, much as Non hijacks humans’ brains to form a hivemind to best solve the Earth’s ecological and societal problems, the Internet has been able to predict resolutions since The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and now with Agents of SHIELD and Gravity Falls, or, unfortunately, come up with far better, more interesting resolutions before they are Jossed.

No, the more interesting detail, and one that is allowed to pass by quickly, is during J’onn’s monotonous hero speech about “no more secrets.” While we do not get to hear the response of J’onn’s employees–many of whom I have to imagine are not going to be pleased working for someone who kept a pretty big secret, despite J’onn’s work to make sure his department is not simply full of xenophobes, we do see Lane handing Myriad the Omegahedron to Lord. Whatever happens is at least going to be far more interesting than what is in that Kryptonian pod, and it is an appreciated Easter Egg to fans, based on how Lord’s comic book counterpart gains mind control abilities, and now Lord has handed him the very object for mind control.

It is also a small moment that does not need much set-up or explanation: it shows rather than tells. Lane has expressed time and again distrust of Kara, J’onn, and the DEO, so of course he is going to set up a fail safe. Unfortunately, and this part is cliche, Lane is trusting mind-control equipment to Maxwell Lord, a cartoonish cardboard cutout of anti-government libertarianism, Men’s Rights Activists, and misogynists–all of which deserve to be mocked but which make for an uncomplicated villain. Yet Season 1 has also tried to make Lord into a character I am supposed to sympathize with, and it has not worked. I cannot fault Facinelli’s acting so much as the writing, in which he is given a cliche backstory–his parents died, so that should justify his actions, when, really, it comes across as the poorer qualities of writing in the Silver Age (and current age) of Comics, rather than the goofy parts of that Silver Age.

Overall, “Better Angels” is an enjoyable 40-something minutes of a superhero story that, while having problems within the logic of its own comic book science, at least holds to a core value I have taken from the Superman stories, that there has to be another way to help others rather than only sacrifice the others or sacrificing the self–and I don’t think that answer is hope, as Kara preaches, but community. That is one detail “Better Angels” and an ensemble show like Supergirl accomplishes. It is to the credit of Greg Berlanti, who is behind the television adaptations of not only Supergirl but also Arrow and The Flash, that he makes sure the series is invested in the titular protagonist and their development based on the team that is surrounding them.

Such ensemble casting can become a bit annoying, should those characters overshadow the hero or make them seem far less superhuman when they depend on others. But it is also why an ending, with Kara having dinner in her apartment with her family, friends, and allies, is far more interesting a conclusion to me than whatever is in that Kryptonian pod. It’s a cliche I go back to, as I did when writing about The Avengers: the image of an idealized family, especially a family that is hardly traditional, seems far more in kind with escapism in superhero, and hence a more fitting way to end a story. That ending provides a better bookend to me: the season started with Kara as isolated from Krypton, her own cousin, and her own human family; this finale shows how far along she has come, not by being a lone superhero, but by remembering that she contributes to a larger community. Just as she would save Alex, so would Alex risk going into the Kryptonian pod to save her. I hope that this series remembers that detail whenever they reveal what is in that new pod.

Stray Observations

  • We get another episode with Superman being right there, his boots on screen as his unconscious body lies prone in the DEO, and still no actor cast as him. At this point, I have to assume Superman is just a faceless character with really stylish boots.
  • When Myriad is about to overwhelm the brains of all humans in National City, images are shown of General Lane holding onto his daughter Lucy, and Lord and Alex holding hands. The former works in terms of a parent and a child overcoming disagreements in the face of death. The latter works far less for me: Supergirl has tossed so much ship-bait for Lord and Alex while reminding us, yes, Lord has killed many people to further his agenda–I don’t ship it, not even as Foe Yay.
  • I could be wrong, but I don’t think this is the first time Supergirl has identified that the President of the United States in this series is a woman. Of course this mention is a product of its time: in the middle of this election year, where Hillary Clinton is running and in which this show has been more than willing to mock the xenophobia, misogyny, and other prejudices of the Republican Party, I expect the President of this fictional universe to be a woman. It also fits with regard to a show that repeatedly has women in positions of leadership, not only Kara, Cat Grant, Lucy, and Alex, but also Senator Crane (Tawny Cypress). However, it is also a fun bit of foreshadowing, since Linda Carter, Wonder Woman herself, is confirmed as cast for the President in Season 2. That, for me, is enough to want to watch the next season.

EDIT, April 19, 2016, 5:23 PM: Lane gave Lord the Omegahedron, not the remnants of Myriad.

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