In “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” the 14th episode of Supergirl’s uneven first season, a new super-powered player suddenly arrives in town. He doesn’t call himself the “Master Jailer,” but the promos – not to mention his comic-book origins – certainly do. It’s an incredibly unimaginative name for the Supervillain of the Week, but who are we to argue with a character’s comic-book origins? But if we look at him another way – as judge, jury, and executioner – he looks and sounds remarkably not like another DC or Marvel character, but Judge Dredd, the British import who’s made two two middling big-screen appearances in the last two decades. Armed with future-tech, including power gloves and literal chains, the Master (Blaster) Jailer captures and executes the alien prisoners who escaped the Fort Rozz prison ship. He shows no mercy, using a space-age guillotine to separate the criminals’ heads from their bodies.
The Master Jailer’s MO (modus operandi) puts him at odds with Supergirl/Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist) seconds after she learns about him. His execute first, dispose of the headless bodies later approach contrasts sharply with Supergirl’s more benign “capture and hold indefinitely” approach to super-powered aliens or meta-humans, but Supergirl’s approach, as well as the DEO’s (Department of Extra-Normal Operations), finally comes under scrutiny, not to mention much-needed discussion when Supergirl’s permanent crush/conscience stand-in James “Only my mother calls me Jimmy” Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) raises the issue of Maxwell Lord’s (Peter Facineilli) seemingly endless detention. Lord might have committed multiple felonies in his misguided, if somewhat well-intentioned, attempts to stop Supergirl and her fellow Kryptonians from taking over the Earth and turning humans into second-class citizens (or quite possibly, worse), but in Olsen’s opinion, Lord deserves due process, his day in court as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. After all, Supergirl is still learning the superhero game.
Supergirl (the series, not the character) sides with Olsen without reservation or qualification – even a certain offshore prison on the coast of Cuba gets a literal shout-out – but then manages to bungle the resolution with Lord simply walks out of DEO HQ, dropping history (mutually assured destruction [aka MAD], the Cold War) before making a non-dramatic exit. He’ll be back, of course, if not in episode 15, then somewhere down the line. In the meantime, Supergirl’s writers take the path of least, unsubtle resistance, spelling out ideas, themes, and subtext in surface-deep dialogue, the better to get their points across to anyone who might be nodding off between Supergirl’s fight scenes. They’re all-too-brief, as usual, though episode 14’s director, Lexi Alexander, known as much for her vocal online presence and the championing of women directors in Hollywood as she is for directing the hyper-violent Punisher: War Zone, handles the set pieces with unsurprising economy and competency.
Alexander, however, can only do so much with on-the-nose dialogue and by-the-book plotting. It’s not Alexander’s fault that the series’ writer/producers flip-flop from week to week when it comes to Kara’s boss, Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart). She’s the head of one of the most powerful media empires in North America, if not the world, but she seems to spend most of her time lecturing Kara – who, if we’re going to be honest, can’t get out of her own way as Cat’s executive assistant – about women’s issues/rights, the media landscape, and in this week’s episode, lectures James about “good journalism, good people,” an admirable speech if we didn’t get the repeated impression that Cat’s all about building and maintaining the CatCo media brand, not “good journalism” (muckraking by another, archaic name). It’s Cat who spurs Olsen’s crisis of conscience and decision to confront Supergirl about Lord’s indefinite detention and Supergirl’s values and ideals, values and ideals Supergirl has repeatedly compromised in the interests of doing good and protecting the world.
While the Master Jailer vs. Supergirl conflict, not to mention Supergirl’s values, gets properly sorted out in this week’s episode, it’s back burner time for the season-long arc involving Supergirl vs. the Fort Rozz Kryptonians, now one Kryptonian short after the unexpected demise of Supergirl’s aunt, Astra (Laura Benanti), supposedly at the hands and Kryptonite-enhanced knife of Hank Henshaw/Martian Manhunter (David Harewood), but really at the hands/knife of Kara’s adopted sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh), a lie that once revealed, will have major repercussions on the Kara and Alex’s sibling relationship. With Astra gone, her husband/second-in-command, Non (Chris Vance), takes leadership over the Kryptonians hiding out on Earth. He calls for a temporary, two-week truce between Supergirl and the Kryptonians, not out of compassion or generosity, but out of respect for their traditions of mourning, in effect giving Supergirl (both the series and the character) a chance to catch her super-powered breath before the end game begins.