For the first 10 minutes of “The Gauntlet,” I was worried we were in for a classic late stage Supergirl episode filled with expositional overload and the sort of “let’s just get through this!” energy that can often define the show in its weakest moments. Sure watching Jesse Rath impersonate a Kryptonian witch in order to jazz up an exposition dump is fun, but is that really the most the show has to offer in its final run of episodes in its last ever season? Thankfully it’s not! Instead “The Gauntlet” surprised and impressed me with its ability to refocus the season back on its leading lady and where she is in her journey. And it did so by calling back to the show’s first ever action scene: Kara’s impressive plane rescue from the show’s pilot.
Seeing Kara revisit that memory immediately grounded this episode in how far Kara has come since her first public debut as Supergirl. And while “The Gauntlet” never fully explains what Kara should’ve done to pass the emotional test the Totem of Courage was trying to force her to confront, just raising the question is enough to make this one of the most thematically interesting episodes of the season. What are the values that Kara embodies? How have they grown and changed since her earliest days as a novice superhero? And what lessons are still ahead for her to learn, particularly about things like truth, destiny, love, dreams, hope, and humanity—the qualities that make up the other six totems of the AllStone?
To be fair, those descriptors themselves might not actually mean much. This episode takes a rather, er, broad view of the concept of courage. A blast of the totem’s 5th Dimensional energy gives Alex “the courage to be optimistic” and J’onn “the courage to openly express your feelings,” which really seems to be stretching the definition. But when it allows Chyler Leigh and especially David Harewood to turn in some of their funniest performances in the show’s history, I’ll give it a pass. In fact, across the board, this episode recaptures the earnest, wholesome, unabashedly goofy energy of Supergirl’s first season as well as any episode of the show’s CW era. (Lighting-harnessing scientist Dr. Lahr even feels like a riff on season one villain Livewire.) And that makes it easier to coast along on the hour’s charms without thinking too deeply about its weaknesses.
The best choice “The Gauntlet” makes is to put the overly complicated expositional stuff second and a simple, emotional story first: When the Totem of Courage (a.k.a. the slingshot David used to slay Goliath) is split in half during a museum heist, Kara and Nyxly must race to pass its test of courage and win the other half for themselves. While Kara revisits that aforementioned plane rescue, Nyxly revisits the moment that her father stopped his children’s attempted coup and her brother chose to side with their dad over her. Like Kara, Nyxly fails her initial test by making an action-focused choice (she kills her dad out of vengeance). Unlike Kara, however, she gets it right on her second try by opening up to her brother about how much his betrayal destroyed her emotionally.
It turns out that what the totem was looking for from Nyxly was the courage to be vulnerable. And, indeed, that newfound vulnerability also makes Nyxly far more interesting as a character as well. While it’s been fun to watch Peta Sergeant vamp it up as a confident imp, she’s equally impressive when playing more emotionally rich material. And giving Nyxly more dimensions helps make her feel like a worthy adversary for this final season—especially now that she and Kara are psychically bonded and able to sense one another’s emotions. While introducing these totems so late in the game initially seemed like a desperate attempt to give this loosey goosey season some semblance of structure, I’m now actually really looking forward to seeing how the show’s final seven episodes will use them to explore Kara’s personality—and the personalty of everyone around her.
Indeed, pretty much everyone gets a nice character beat or two this week. Without taking up too much screentime, Williams gets an arc about overcoming some gunshot related PTSD (who knew!) and deciding to embed himself among the Super Friends. Elsewhere, the show acknowledges the depth of what Kelly went through last week while moving her relationship with Alex forward as well. And maybe most importantly, “The Gauntlet” puts Kara and Lena’s friendship front and center in a really lovely way. In addition to some mid-day pep talks, Lena even gets the honor of filling in for Alex at one of Kara’s classic “eat and debrief” living room scenes—where she quickly comes clean about the whole “Surprise, I’m a witch!” thing, a reveal that Kara takes in stride.
Even visually, this episode has a lot more to offer than what the show was capable of delivering in its early COVID filming days. The big lightning storm climax actually looks decently cool. And while that’s mostly just thanks to canted angles, some wind machines, and the occasional sweeping camera shot, I appreciate the show’s attempt to do what it can with a clearly very limited budget. Though Kara doesn’t pass her courage test, she does display strength of a different kind by prioritizing stopping the storm over keeping her half of the totem. Kara essentially loses the battle to win the war (or at least to save a bunch of people from an immediate crisis). Just like when she smashed that mirror back in the Phantom Zone, she has faith that she and her friends will be able to find a different solution to the seemingly impossible problem that lays before them. Kara might not have courage, but she definitely has hope—and hopeful is exactly how I’m feeling about this show’s final run of episodes.
- So how was Kara supposed to pass her test? By telling Alex something? By letting Alex die?? Whatever it is, I assume it’ll tie into the endgame this season is building for Kara.
- I sort of brushed it aside up there, but Brainy impersonating Vita the Kryptonian witch was actually very, very funny. (“What are these, his nipples?” killed me.) I also really enjoyed the moment he realized with horror that he’d been guesstimating all day.
- It feels wildly convenient that the first totem just happened to be in National City.
- It was very sweet of Nia to notice that William was stressed and give him a tip about where to find the Super Friends—even if it did kind of backfire on her in the long run.
- I wish we’d seen a little bit more of what Kara tried on her second attempt at the Gauntlet trial. Just saving more people throughout the city, I guess?
- “Have portal, will travel.”