Supergirl this week continued on what is surely the apotheosis of its mission to grapple with weighty issues. She went to the Death Camps.
Unfortunately, while the show ought to be commended for its desire to reflect the darkest human deeds back to a prime-time family audience, it once again plumped for a trite, bland ending.
J'onn J'onzz is the last of the Green Martians, hiding on Earth as Hank Henshaw, director of the Department of Extranormal Operations. The main plot this week focused on a White Martian, come to wipe him out.
J'onn J'onzz's flashback to his race's extermination is an all too familiar tale of extreme barbarity. Motivated by their hatred of anyone other than themselves, the White Martians used their technological advantage to round up the Green Martians, intern them in camps, separate them from their families, and finally, genocide.
J'onn J'onzz's entire family, including two daughters, were murdered. Remarkably, his reaction to the White Martian's arrival is not one of rage and a passionate desire for revenge. He is filled with survivor's guilt. He weeps. In a television show that has consistently dealt with anger and its consequences, this is a stimulating reaction.
But when Supergirl finally downs the White Martian, when Henshaw has his tormentor at his mercy, it's clear that every part of his being truly yearns for revenge. Quite naturally, he wants to destroy this murderer.
The White Martian taunts Henshaw. "I watched your children burn."
Supergirl tries to argue that the right thing to do is to put the White Martian through the established justice system. She falls into line with our modern sense that all criminals face trial and (in the vast majority of countries) they are punished with long custodial sentences if found guilty.
Supergirl has developed a habit of transposing her experiences onto the crises of her friends.
It may be that killing unrepentant genocidal racists is uncivilized, but Henshaw is not a civilized society or an established legal framework. He is an angry, grieving man with his knife at the throat of his family's murderer. It makes no sense to me that he would stay his hand in that moment, that he would be persuaded by Supergirl's flimsy arguments.
Supergirl makes the point that she too is angry, because everyone she knew was killed in the destruction of her home planet of Krypton. As we saw last week, Supergirl has developed a habit of transposing her experiences onto the crises of her friends, particularly Henshaw.
But the death of a people due to environmental disaster is not at all the same as the death of a people through genocide. It is outrageous for Supergirl to pretend otherwise, to Pollyanna her way through this moment.
I did not want Henshaw to kill the White Martian because I felt this was the just thing to do, or because of any belief in the death penalty (I despise it.) I wanted it to happen because it would have been satisfying in a narrative sense. The crime against J'onn J'onzz was so vast that seeing the White Martian locked up in a DEO cell (which has proven less than entirely secure in recent weeks) felt like a dramatic cop out.
More interesting to see Henshaw satisfy his lust for revenge, and then face the consequences, both internal and external.
She is a preposterous and populist figure who wants to build a dome
When the White Martian first comes to Earth, it shape shifts into the body of vicious politician Miranda Crane (pictured above) who grandstands against those aliens who live on our planet. She is a preposterous and populist figure who wants to "build a dome" to keep the aliens out.
Supergirl's writers are joining up the soundbite racism of modern politics and the murderous racism of genocide. They are both mutations of self-regard, twisted into something that might just as well be self-hatred. The right-wing extremist politician and the genocidal fanatic are the same.
But once again, Supergirl plays nice at the end. When rescued by alien Supergirl the politician understands that not all aliens are bad and that she ought to reconsider her position. This seems to mistake hatred as a political idea, rather than a deeply held conviction of superiority over others. Very few people recognize themselves as racists. Hatred is not a position that one arrives at following introspection and thought.
Based on the real world, it seems more likely to me that the politician would dust herself off and state that this new series of events "doesn't change the basic facts" of her own unpleasant belief system. She would return to the comfort of her congregation and their votes. If Supergirl is going to wrestle with difficult subjects, it ought to do so honestly.
To be fair, there is a moment of truth at the end when the enraged White Martian warns Supergirl that it represents just one of many more like-minded entities who can't abide the existence of beings unlike themselves. There are "thousands and millions of us," it says, and they are coming.
Supergirl says she's ready for them, but I'm not sure the rest of us are.
Note: Apologies for the late arrival of this recap. I was off sick for a few days. You can read all my Supergirl recaps here.