Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Supergirl does give a damn about her bad reputation

Illustration for article titled Supergirl does give a damn about her bad reputation
Photo: Bettina Strauss (The CW)

This impressively ambitious season of Supergirl has a lot of balls in the air as it heads into its final run of episodes. A lesser show (or a lesser season of this show) could easily collapse under all of that narrative weight. Instead, “Crime And Punishment” is unshowily effective proof that Supergirl is more than capable of juggling everything it’s put into play.


Everything has shifted since Red Daughter’s attack on the White House. Not only does President Baker name Supergirl as public enemy number one, he declares martial law and establishes a country-wide curfew. It’s heavy stuff, which Supergirl acknowledges in a chilling sequence in which Kara tries to rescue an injured driver only to be shot at by an angry National City resident. Kara can’t believe the public would be so quick to forget all her past good deeds, while Lena rails against the frustration of being accused of a crime you didn’t commit (she’s got some personal experience there). But the episode isn’t entirely on their side. “Crime And Punishment” delves into the question of whether Kara occasionally lets her supersized ego get in the way of her selflessly heroic impulses.

Kara and Lena head to Stryker’s Island, hoping to find clues about Supergirl’s mysterious double in Lex’s cell. What Kara gets instead is a dose of humility. Lex’s prison neighbor is Steve Lomeli (Willie Garson), a whistleblower who exposed illegal drone warfare at the Department of Defense and was thrown into prison for it. Far from seeing Supergirl as a fellow patriot, he accuses her of being a “belligerent narcissist.” As Steve sees it, Kara’s desire to be seen as a hero leads her to take a bull-in-a-china-shop approach that can leave a lot of unintended destruction in her wake.

“Crime And Punishment” dramatizes that idea in a couple of strong action sequences set in Stryker’s. The first is a hallway fight in which Kara makes short order of the prisoners Otis Graves sets loose to attack her. (It’s like a much less brutal version of the Punisher prison fight from Daredevil’s second season.) It’s always fun to watch Kara modify her powers to take out a string of opponents who are no real threat to her. But the episode makes even better use of those prisoner characters later on, when the National Guard shows up to take down Supergirl with no particular concern as to who else gets hurt in the process. Watching Kara rush to save the prisoners who were moments ago trying to kill her is the perfect distillation of the core Supes ethos. It also echoes the truth of Steve’s point: Kara doesn’t always think long-term before she leaps into action. Supergirl is a bit of a hammer and she does tend to see every problem as a nail.

Thankfully, Kara has more than just superhero strength on her side. One of the best moments in “Crime And Punishment” is when Kara buys time to recover from her Kryptonite poisoning by disguising herself as a mild-mannered reporter midway through her prison fight with Otis. It’s a funny gag—particularly Kara and Otis’ exchange about how the press fails to cover prison reform with enough nuance—but it also allows Kara to recognize the power of the non-hammer side of her persona too. Steve will open up to Kara Danvers the righteous journalist in a way he won’t with Supergirl the righteous superhero. It’s a duality Supergirl has played around with before, but it feels especially purposeful here. With the whole country out to get her, this really is the perfect time for Supergirl to lay low and let Kara Danvers take center stage for once.

Elsewhere, Brainy and Alex grapple with their own questions of strategy and morality. Alex attempts to convince Colonel Haley that it’s immoral to follow Ben Lockwood’s orders and help him arrest Supergirl for a crime she didn’t commit. Alex’s quest to figure out how to appeal to Haley is one of the clunkier aspects of the episode, but I was still pretty moved by Haley’s final speech about trying to do the right thing for her daughter in an increasingly complex world. This season has struggled to figure out how to use Haley effectively or even write her as a consistent character. That monologue comes the closest to digging into the compelling potential beneath her authoritative exterior. Haley’s a loyal soldier who’s spent her life believing in the importance of prioritizing the greater good. Now she’s finally starting to reckon with the cost of the collateral damage that approach leaves behind.


Haley’s monologue about her daughter’s missing alien teacher is one of the areas in which this episode delves into some really dark territory. That’s especially true of Brainy’s subplot, in which he must decide whether deleting the DEO’s alien registry will protect the alien community or bring more retaliatory harm to it. Storylines about oppressive government agencies demanding lists of minority groups brings up some incredibly upsetting real-world parallels—both historically and in the present day. Supergirl is well aware of that weight, but finds time for lightness in Brainy’s story as well. He channels Ethan Hunt to get access to the alien registry in the first place, and there’s enjoyably zippy chemistry to the later scene in which Brainy turns to Nia for help deciding what to do with it. Yet it’s also very moving to watch Brainy accept the full risk of being a hero by downloading the sole copy of the database into his own brain for safekeeping.

On paper, there’s not much actual plot in “Crime And Punishment.” Lena and Kara’s investigation into Lex’s cell is largely a stall, and the stuff at the DEO feels like a small step forward rather than a big one. Emotionally and thematically, however, there’s a ton of great stuff going on in this episode. Given the way last season started out strong only to bungle its ending, I’ve been a little nervous about the potential for this season to go off the rails too. That could still happen, of course, but “Crime And Punishment” gives me hope that Supergirl might just keep this season’s hot streak going right through to the end.


Stray observations

  • Alas, a compelling “James deals with PTSD” storyline becomes a less compelling “James deals with superpowers” storyline faster than you can say “Please don’t bring back Guardian.”
  • There were some noticeably lingering glances in Alex and Kelly’s meet-up. It’ll be cute if Supergirl winds up with a different Danvers/Olsen pairing than the one the show initially intended.
  • I love when Supergirl gets creative with Kara’s powerset. In this episode, she catches some bullets (a nod to Richard Donner’s Superman movie?) and uses a shockwave clap to efficiently subdue the rioting prisoners.
  • Lex taunts Lena with an image of Adam, the patient she killed with her Harun-El testing back in “Rather The Fallen Angel.” I was wondering if this season had forgotten about that storyline.
  • Lex blows up Otis and then has Eve bring him back from the dead… again!
  • Relatedly, Otis is a great tertiary villain for this season. He brings personality to his conflicts with Supergirl (“Heeere’s Otis!”), but he never feels like he’s pulling focus.
  • “You’re not the only one who’s friends with a Luthor.”

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. She loves sci-fi, Jane Austen, and co-hosting the movie podcast, Role Calling.