Supergirl's fight scenes are normally the weakest part of this series, an airbrush of action and physical denouement that polishes off an otherwise arresting human drama. But this week, we saw more than the usual random Swiss Army extensions of Supergirl's various abilities. We saw her absolute core.
In "Red Faced", Supergirl is forced to address her inner rage. The narrative devices used to set up these insights into her emotional state might be clumsy, but they work. In the opening scene, she confronts a road rage nut who almost kills a bunch of kids. Supergirl is provoked by the man's subsequent complaints about damage to his BMW, his idiotic sense of entitlement. She hurts him. A media frenzy ensues.
The story is no longer about a rich fool almost slaughtering a sixth grade soccer team, it's about a woman losing her temper. Maxwell Lord (a recurring tech mogul semi-villain) is on hand to castigate her actions as the headlines blare, "Supergirl Scares Young Children".
This week's monstrosity is military robot Red Tornado, an old DC Comics favorite, though seemingly reduced here to automaton, rather than a merger of alien weather spirit with android. There's not much in the way of subtlety with this fellow. He's crimson with glowing eyes of pure hate. He twists and contorts in order to create whirlwinds that render unpredictable devastation. When overbearing military bullies force Supergirl to spar with Red Tornado, she loses her shit and beats the crap out of it.
The best angry scene is reserved for Supergirl's alter-ego Kara. Boss Cat Grant is visited by her thoroughly nasty mother, who puts her daughter down at every opportunity. Mother is a successful book editor who mixes with a literary elite. Cat is a populist proprietor of vulgar magazines and television stations. Mother places the dagger where it hurts, belittling Cat's place in elevated society.
So when Cat responds by yelling at her meek assistant Kara, she gets a surprise. "Don't talk to me like that," snaps Kara. "Why are you so mean?" Such is Grant's formidable nature, we understand immediately that Kara's anger has taken her into truly dangerous territory. It's one thing to dismember a highly militarized death-robot, quite another to talk-back to the "Queen of all media."
But if there's one thing Cat understands, it's anger. She takes Kara for a few martinis and tells her some home truths about why it's never a good idea to get angry at work, especially for a woman. "Everybody gets angry," says Cat. She remembers the days when media bosses (all men) were admired for public displays of toxic rage.
If it's true that such things are frowned upon today, it's also true that women have never been permitted to express anger in public, and they are not entirely alone in this regard. In a boxing gym training session with James, Supergirl talks about her frustrations. James replies that "it's not like black men are encouraged to be angry in public."
The side-plot involving Red Tornado is a bit of a yawn. Its British inventor goes postal when his creation is rejected by the military. To be honest, the Tornado looks a bit rubbish, like it was stolen from a depot holding 1970s Doctor Who monsters. The fact that it cost "a billion dollars" sounds about right. In the world of military research, that sort of money buys you a new kind of screwdriver.
The interesting part about all this is that the buffoon General in charge of the program is none other than Lucy Lane's dad. Lucy is his legal adjunct, quite clearly under his thumb. He disapproves of her relationship with James, because James fraternizes with aliens like Superman. Lucy is forced to make a choice. It goes badly for the General.
But it's this idea of alien-ness that's at the center of Supergirl's own anger. Once again, the show gently reminds us that this is a young woman who was crammed into a spacecraft at age 13 and sent away from her exploding planet. She has lived her whole life as an outsider, quite literally, as an alien.
General Lane compares her to the winged, horned, acid-spewing aliens locked up in the Department of Extra-Normal Operations dungeons. "The only difference is, she's blonde," he scoffs. It's a reminder of feminist ideas about women being treated as aliens in all walks of life, and of women being cast as witches and as satanic possessions.
So, in the final fight against Red Tornado, Supergirl lets out a scream of rage and directs her laser-eyes at the indomitable personification of anger, the robot. This finely shot action piece is a thoroughly convincing snapshot of a superhero who is so much more than the sum of her powers, or a simplistic Hulk-like epitome of a single emotion.
Red Tornado explodes and all is well, though it's somewhat disappointing that Supergirl now believes her anger is a force that she can channel, rather than a poison that she must guard against. This cop-out is the sort of thing those old bastard bosses in the media business used to say, to justify their desk-thumping tantrums. Perhaps Supergirl is also deluded, blinded by her own power.
At the end of this episode, Supergirl cuts her finger and is astonished to find that she bleeds. It looks like she's in for a reality check.
You can read all Polygon's Supergirl coverage here.