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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A flashback-heavy Supergirl heads back to Riverdale… er, Midvale

Photo: Supergirl (The CW)
Photo: Supergirl (The CW)
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“Midvale” plays like a backdoor pilot for a series about the teenage Danvers sisters solving murder mysteries in between calc assignments—a sort of Smallville but for Supergirl by way of Riverdale. Only it’s not, at least not to my knowledge, which makes the show’s decision to set almost this entire episode in 2007 a really bizarre one. Present-day Kara and Alex head back home to Midvale to get some breathing room as they process their respective breakups (something that’s far fresher for Alex than for Kara). But the episode then pivots to a flashback story all about the teenage tension between the two Danvers sisters. Though Supergirl tends to be strongest when it’s focusing on Kara and Alex’s relationship, this is a really weird place in the season to do so. I’m not saying I needed an episode full of nothing but Alex wallowing in bed, but I’m also not sure I needed an episode full of mostly teenage angst and murder mystery solving either.

To be fair, this is far from the worst high school flashback episode I’ve seen in a TV series (Gilmore Girls“Dear Emily And Richard,” I’m looking at you). In fact, Izabela Vidovic and Olivia Nikkanen are both fine actors and uncanny matches for Melissa Benoist and Chyler Leigh. But the mistake this episode makes is in asking those flashbacks to carry not only character drama but plot as well. Because as much as I care about young Kara and Alex, it’s really hard to get invested in the mystery of who murdered the hitherto unmentioned character Kenny Li.

Oh yeah, did you know that when Alex and Kara were teenagers, not only was their dear friend brutally murdered by a corrupt local sheriff, but Alex was almost killed by that same sheriff twice? And that’s not even mentioning the teacher/student affairs and (gasp!) pot smoking going on at Midvale High. Given just how major the events in this episode are and how formative they appear to be for Alex and Kara’s present day relationship, it’s hard to believe they’ve never come up before on the series. And it’s also hard to believe just how calmly everyone in this episode processes the fact that a small-town teenager was shot to death and left on the side of the road. I’m still feeling deeply traumatized by sweet Kenny’s death and I only knew the guy for five minutes. What the hell is going on in Midvale that this isn’t a major crisis for the community? A good flashback episode should feel like it’s filling in the gaps with satisfying and surprising answers. This one just feels like it raises too many questions.

Like, for example, does the timeline of this episode make any sense? I’m not even talking about the fact that Alex was somehow still in high school only 10 years ago (so present-day Alex is only 28 at the very oldest?), I’m talking about the timeline of Kara and Alex’s relationship. The rough sketch of their sisterhood has always been that Alex initially struggled to adjust to Kara’s addition to the Danvers household before eventually growing to love her. I’m just not sure I buy that that transformation didn’t occur until Alex was late into her high school years. Assuming she’s the same age as her 17-year-old friend Josie, that means Alex only had a year (maybe two) with Kara before the elder Danvers sister left for college. After apparently constantly being at each other’s throats for three years, did all their sisterly bonding happen in one year?

Perhaps I’m being too nitpicky about timeline details that ultimately aren’t that important. Or perhaps we’re meant to believe that Jeremiah’s departure caused Alex and Kara’s relationship to regress after the earlier progress they’d made. But my larger point is that because this episode spends nearly all its time in the past, I’m forced to engage with the details of the flashbacks in a way I might not have been if the show had intercut those scenes with present day ones. Though Kenny’s death is genuinely shocking, the whodunnit angle just isn’t compelling enough to hold my focus (Sheriff Collins is too suspicious from the start), so I’m left to wonder about things like why Kara and Alex share both a bathroom and a bedroom in a house that looks like a small mansion.

Thankfully, while the flashback scenes don’t have much relevance to Alex’s third season arc, they do at least somewhat relate to Kara’s. One of the central themes this season is Kara’s post-Mon-El identity crisis over whether she views herself as a aloof, godlike Kryptonian or an emotional everyday human. And that theme is present in both present-day Kara’s chat with Eliza and teenage Kara’s decision to fully embrace being “Kara Danvers.” This episode’s most interesting character angle is the reveal of just how much of Kara’s identity is shaped by Alex. After years of struggling with the idea of hiding her powers, teenage Kara finally does so after she realizes that trying to be a hero could lead to Alex getting hurt. And of course, eight years later, it’s the threat of Alex getting hurt in a plane crash that finally inspires Kara to reveal herself to the world.

But again, I think teenage Kara’s identity issues could have been more powerfully explored if this episode weren’t stuck completely in the past. That would’ve allowed the episode to ask bigger questions about whether Eliza and Jeremiah’s decision to have Kara hide her powers was the right one. Instead we get a fairly tone deaf scene in which J’onn disguises himself as Kara’s dead mother because apparently watching her planet be destroyed, being stuck alone in space pod for 24 years, and having her one and only human friend be murdered and left on the side of the road wasn’t enough trauma for one lifetime. I think we’re supposed to see J’onn’s not-Alura impersonation as a sweet, fatherly gesture, but given the complicated feelings present-day Kara has about being forced to hide her abilities for so many years, it’s hard for me to see that scene simply as a “win.” Plus the emotionally manipulativeness of it is really, really icky.

Despite all my nitpicks, I’ll be the first to admit that “Midvale” has its heart in the right place. The moments of sisterly teenage bonding are charming and even the murder mystery stuff isn’t completely terrible. It just doesn’t particularly feel like Supergirl either, and it really doesn’t feel like a natural progression for this season’s storytelling. Instead “Midvale” feels more like an attempt to rush past the most emotionally raw parts of the Alex/Maggie breakup without having to depict them onscreen. In which case, a small time jump might have worked just as well as a magical nights sleep in Midvale.

Stray observations

  • Here’s Maureen Ryan’s piece on the sexual harassment allegations against Flash and Supergirl co-creator Andrew Kreisberg, and here’s Melissa Benoist’s response:
  • I’ve been critical of Helen Slater’s acting in the past, but I thought she was really great in this episode. I particularly liked her scene on the porch with present-day Kara.
  • I don’t understand why young Kara leapt through the woods Twilight-style rather than using her Flash-like abilities to get to Kenny’s body, but at least she wasn’t asked to deliver the line, “You better hold on tight spider monkey.”
  • I’m glad the episode had teen Alex explicitly refer to Mr. Bernard and Josie’s relationship as statutory rape (that’s something Riverdale didn’t do with its first season student/teacher relationship). However, much like the details of what happened to Sheriff Collins once Kara burst through the wall to save Alex, the Mr. Bernard subplot just entirely falls off the map .
  • Kara gets Kenny’s laptop photos processed by Clark’s friend “Chloe,” who’s a tech genius with a “Wall of Weird.” That’s a reference to the Smallville original character Chloe Sullivan. Chloe was played on the series by Allison Mack, who, by the way, has recently been accused of recruiting for a sex cult. It’s been a weird week…

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.