Supergirl is about a pretty young woman who can fly. But the show also poses arresting questions about the assertion of identity and individuality in a world that is most comfortable with conformity. Fear, rage and hate are its thematic backdrops.
In recent episodes, Supergirl/Kara Danvers worked through her own anger. We saw the damage she does to herself and to others when she loses control. On one occasion she poured her rage into combat so fully that her powers temporarily disappeared. From that startling point, the show walked us through the mental damage wrought by the loss of her home planet, the death of her mother and the erosion of a cherished idea that her mother was a paragon.
In recent weeks, core characters like Kara's boss Cat Grant and her sister Alex have also come in for some psychological analysis, both of whom are working way too hard to make a point to parents who are oblivious to their needs.
A yearning to reveal
In "Childish Things" last night, two seemingly grounded figures were revealed to be seriously messed up, and for very different reasons. Kara's romantic admirer Winn and her Department of Extranormal Operations handler Hank Henshaw both carry dark secrets and anxieties. Like Supergirl, they fear the wrecking ball of their own potential, while yearning to reveal themselves fully
Winn was the main plot this week, so let's take him first.
The show opens with a man escaping from prison, making use of dastardly shuriken yo-yos. This fellow is Toyman, serving life for sending an explosive device to his boss, a wealthy toy manufacturer who stole Toyman's ideas. The bomb missed the boss but killed his assistant, as well as some bystanders. Toyman, it turns out, is Winn's father. (The sins of parents is a trope that enjoys full use in Supergirl.)
Much of this show centers on the FBI and Supergirl trying to capture Toyman, who ropes his son into a vicious scheme to bomb a toy convention and wreak final revenge on the old boss. As Supergirl foils the plot, we are treated to some Five Nights at Freddy's-style creepy animatronic moments, but in truth, these are all fairly pedestrian.
The characters involved are more interesting than the action. Winn is a meek, goofy fellow who is terrified that he will grow up to be like his father. Dad was once a stuffed shirt who allowed himself to be exploited. He bottled up his feelings until the moment when he could no longer stand to be stamped upon. He exploded.
Unfortunately, the writers make a dreadful mistake by conflating this fear of the inner monster with Winn's crush on Kara. During a moment of intimate friendship, Winn makes a love-lunge, with predictably miserable results. During the fall-out, we hear how Winn's secret feelings for Kara are like an emotional time-bomb. Unless he lets out his feeling, he might explode, just like Dad. He needs to share and be honest.
Although not the writers' intention, this all sounds a tad blue bally to me or, at best, a stretch. In general terms, any attempt to compare a convention hall bomb plot with a romantic interest with a co-worker is going to end badly.
The Real Martian
So now we turn to the much more imposing figure of DEO head Hank Henshaw, who is secretly Martian superbeing J'onn J'onzz. When Henshaw was kidnapped by evil aliens in the previous episode, it wasn't at all clear why he didn't just turn into J'onn J'onzz and do his thing.
J'onn J'onzz is vastly more powerful than any alien we've seen in this show, including Supergirl and Superman. He can shape-shift and walk through walls. Most of us would pick those gifts over flying and freezy-breath, any day of the week.
Henshaw solves the mystery by explaining that he's hiding in plain sight as the head of an anti-alien government agency. "I can't head the DEO if I'm an alien." Supergirl makes the somewhat breezy point that she has been so much happier since she "came out." But one person's experience is not the same as another's. Supergirl is blind to J'onn J'onzz's reality.
J'onn J'onzz has been on Earth a lot longer than Kara Danvers. He's lived through an age when non-conformity didn't just make morons uncomfortable. It was life-threatening.
When Alex tries the Supergirl comparison on Henshaw he makes reference to the way Supergirl looks, specifically a racial characteristic. "Your sister looks like a pretty blond cheerleader," he says. In his real form, J'onn J'onzz frightens people. He creates "panic and hysteria." These are concepts familiar to our world, where "aliens" do not come from other planets and your skin doesn't have to be green to inspire a fear of the other. In this context, it would be interesting to see Supergirl explore why the human form J'onn J'onzz has chosen is that of a black man.
But when he does decide to just be himself, in order to help the general good, he comes to grief. J'onn J'onzz shape-shifts into evil tech entrepreneur Maxwell Lord in order to break into Lord's offices and find out his nefarious schemes. A bumbling security guard uncovers the plot. J'onn J'onzz removes the man's entire memory.
The denouement is somewhat perplexing. J'onn J'onzz is afraid to be himself because the way he looks frightens other people. But his powers are so significant that there is always a serious likelihood that he will do actual damage to any semi-innocent people who get in his way. By the end of the show, it's clear he thinks he's made a mistake, that he ought to have suppressed his real self.
Meanwhile, one person who is never afraid to be himself is the slimy Maxwell Lord. He bugged potential love-interest Alex's home and in the final scene he finds out that Alex and Supergirl are sisters. Soon he will have the power to unmask Supergirl and turn Kara's life upside down. She may have some tough choices of her own ahead.
You can read all Polygon's Supergirl recaps here.