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Supergirl's evil side is the real heart of darkness

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Recent episodes explore a damaged superhero, on the edge

It's been a few weeks since our last Polygon discussion on Supergirl, and for that I apologize. Not least because this has been a rollicking fistful of episodes featuring plot shifts, character revelations and inter-species intrigue.

I don't mean the rigmarole of aliens being thwarted by super-duels and team-work. That stuff's mostly a yawn. The likes of Indigo and The Master Jailer are already fading from my memory, (though dedicated fans of these characters may feel differently).

No, the big stories have focused, as they always do, on the people who surround Supergirl, her support network. Supergirl is a show that squeezes pyrotechnics into tight spaces between character and relationship development.

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The last major event I covered was the slaying of Supergirl's eco-terrorist aunt Astra. In a way, everything since then has connected to her death, particularly the relationships between Supergirl, her sister Alex, and Department of Extra-Normal Operations chief Hank Henshaw.

Hank's decision to claim that he (and not Alex) killed Astra, in order to protect Supergirl's feelings, was a bad idea. It backfired, as lies tend to do in the world of fiction. It put a strain on all their relationships. But this move was entirely in keeping with Henshaw / J'onn J'onzz's character. He believes in honor. He is a father who has lost his own daughters. He keeps his promise to protect the daughters of his friend.

But still, this was an error. Alex and Supergirl have lived almost their entire lives wading through the treacle of deception. They expect honesty from their allies.

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The writers had Supergirl spectacularly unravel due to some guff about a chunk of "red kryptonite" messing with her brain. But I think this was a useful shorthand for someone who has reached the limits of her own emotional pain, and self-destructs. Having Supergirl actually go on a booze and drugs rampage would have been impossible to write convincingly, so this substitute is called upon to do the same job.

And what a treat for the rest of us. The sight of "bad" Supergirl running amok in National City was an absolute joy. From hurling Cat Grant off a building (only to frighten her) to doing the Superman 3 thing of flicking bullet-powered peanuts at bottles in a bar, she basically turned herself into a villain, overnight.

The sight of bad Supergirl running amok in National City was an absolute joy.

Many of today's superheroes are presented as complex characters with a "dark inner life." But these dark sides are often precious self-justifications for what is, almost always, vigilante violence. Batman wants to hurt bad people, but so what? A real dark side, as most of us know, is an unstoppable urge to hurt good people.

Core Supergirl is mostly a goodie-goodie, albeit one with a nasty temper and a needy lack of self-esteem. What I like about evil Supergirl is that, when she falls, she falls hard. This is not some yin and yang thing, a balancing of auras. This is the dark, secret other, lurking inside, waiting.

And then, of course, comes the bill. Supergirl does serious damage to her own reputation, but the people around her are the ones who really have to pay. She is cured only by Henshaw being forced to reveal his true self, as a monstrously powerful Martian. This is a premium price.

Once returned to her normal self, Supergirl is immobilized by shame and grief for what she has done and for what she has lost. There is no suggestion that this evil part of her, released by red kryptonite, contributes to the overall good. It is pure darkness.

A real dark side, as most of us know, is an unstoppable urge to hurt good people.

Last night's episode spent a lot of time in damage control, flashback and interrogation. As knuckle-headed military types attempt to uncover and destroy J'onn J'onzz, we stepped through a mansion of flashbacks and origin stories.

We saw Supergirl's first days on Earth, as a dorky alien girl. We saw Alex's father come to grief in the jungle. We saw J'onn J'onzz getting to grips with his early days on Earth playing Predator.

We also saw Alex's origins, as a promising scientist done down by, you guessed it, mind-altering substances. In a nod to the red kryptonite thread, she does shots in a bar and dances wildly to a song. The lyrics tell her to "party 'til you lose your mind." She is saved by Hank.

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But these episodes, and last night's particularly, are also an orchestration of the themes that Supergirl's writers have sought to explore. They are the familiar liberal pieties of our times, for sure. But that doesn't make them any less unappealing and it certainly doesn't make them untrue. The are woven into the characters and into their relationships with one another. They entertain us within the context of the failures of the characters and their fraught interactions.

Supergirl is about an acceptance that we are all different and we are all messed up. It allows for mistakes, but not for malice. It scorns exceptionalism and fear-mongering while embracing individual liberty and collective responsibility.

Don't miss next week's recap of The Flash crossover episode. Meanwhile, here's all the other Supergirl episode recaps.