For the better part of its relatively new run, Supergirl floundered on an unsteady, unbalanced mix of super-heroics, and family/relationship drama, and leaden, on-the-nose dialogue, leaving fans of superheroes, DC or otherwise, repeatedly frustrated, especially considering that the creative team behind Supergirl, Greg Berlanti and company, are far from newbies to the superhero genre. Over the last five years, they’ve brought viewers two critically and commercially successful shows: the Nolan-inflected Arrow and the Silver Age-influenced The Flash (the latter arguably superior to the former), but stumbled, sometimes badly, from the second episode on (the pilot had its share of problems, mostly due to the diverse, sometimes conflicting constituencies it needed to address to obtain a series order). Finally, however, that may be in the rear view, at least for one episode, as the episode 7, “Human for a Day,” (near) perfectly mixes drama, super-heroics, and even an uplifting speech or two, courtesy of Supergirl’s biggest fan (girl) and brand promoter, Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart).
“Human for a Day” takes a superhero trope familiar to even casual fans, a temporarily depowered superhero, to explore what being a superhero really means, both to the depowered superhero grappling with his or her humanity, to the general public that’s come to rely on the superhero to save the day and, on occasion, save the world. For Supergirl’s Lex Luthor stand-in, Maxwell Lord (PeterFacinelli), an Elon Musk-inspired tech billionaire, Supergirl represents a narcotic, an excuse to sidestep or shake off responsibility and embrace do-nothing complacency in the face of real-world problems that one or several superheroes can’t fix with their “might is always” right approach (punching objects or super-villains can only do so much good, little of it permanently positive in Lord’s perspective). When a narratively convenient earthquake hits Metropolis 2 (aka National City), Kara/Supergirl (MelissaBenoist) is literally powerless to help, giving Lord the perfect opportunity to speechify in front of the nearest camera while handing out medical supplies or emergency kits to the wounded and injured.
Kara finds that being human for a day can be more than just a minor nuisance or distraction. In just a few hours without her Kryptonian super-powers, she gets a nasty head cold (blowing out your super-powers destroying a billion-dollar destructo-bot in episode 6’s “Red Faced” will do that to you) and promptly breaks her arm when the earthquake hits and James “Please Bro, Don’t Call Me Jimmy” Olsen (MehcadBrooks) pushes a suddenly frozen Kara from the path of an oncoming motor vehicle. It’s a poorly, sloppily staged scene, especially when the camera cuts to a wide shot to reveal the crashed car is nowhere near Kara or Olsen. Not every episode of a weekly series will have top-notch visual effects or artfully choreographed set pieces (Fargo, however, counts as the exception to the rule), of course, but haphazardly, clumsily staged action seems to be a semi-permanent Supergirl problem. Even with that caveat in mind, however, episode 7 excels, not where a depowered Supergirl is concerned (minus a heart-tugging scene where Kara talks a looter out of violence by appealing to his better, human nature), but where and when the episode shifts its focus to Kara’s adopted sister, Alex (ChylerLeigh).
Episode 7 contains the equivalent of a Big Reveal, the first alien with the potential to become Kara’s ally in a mini-justice league of her own in her corner of the DC TV universe, J’onn J’onzz, a stranger in a strange land, the last son of Mars, the shapeshifting Martian Manhunter. Martian Manhunter gets a familiar origin story, albeit all of told second hand by Hank Henshaw (David Harewood), the head of the DEO. In a development literally weeks in the making, Henshaw isn’t really Henshaw. The Martian Manhunter took the face and skin (not literally, thankfully, otherwise we’d be in a horror series, not a superhero one) of his one-time pursuer, all part of a promise he made to Alex’s slowly dying father years earlier. Apparently, bringing Alex into the DEO, getting her trained as a field agent, and sending her out on dangerous missions involving super-powered aliens constitutes keeping Alex safe and out of harm’s way in the Martian Manhunter’s mind. A stretch, sure, but also par for the genre course (the less we think about narrative gaps and plot holes, the better in the grand scheme of superhero things).
Thankfully, though, the Big Reveal involves Alex, Henshaw, and disposable DEO agents (several lose their lives with barely more than a passing line of dialogue to mark their respective deaths), courtesy of an escaped mind-sucking alien, Jem (minus the Holograms), who escapes the DEO’s temporary holding cell during the same earthquake that shakes up National City somewhere nearby. It’s extremely odd, however, that a super-secret, government-funded facility presumably created with the primary task of serving as an alien prison has poor back-up systems, literally leaving the DEO facility in the dark while Jem wanders around, picking off stray DEO agents and mercilessly taunting Henshaw. On the plus side, Alex gets to show her tactical and strategic skills, though all of her training and weaponry proves to be useless except as a means to slow down Jem before Henshaw saves Alex’s life. For all of its feminist leanings, Supergirl could certainly use fewer saves of its female cast by men, human or otherwise. Hopefully, now that Alex knows Henshaw’s secret and his true loyalties, she’ll repay the favor and save him once or thrice before the end of the first season.