One of the smartest choices Supergirl made in its elder statesmen years was to add Nia Nal to its ensemble. As Kara grew in confidence, Nia was there to harken back to her more insecure days as a burgeoning reporter and hero, all while bringing her own specific lived experience to the table too. And Nicole Maines very much follows in Melissa Benoist’s footsteps as a performer who’s as adept at comedy as she is moving emotionality. So it makes sense that an episode of Supergirl that puts those two women front and center would emerge as such a compelling hour. Placing Nia and Kara centerstage gives “Nightmare In National City” a sense of focus that some of the other episodes of the season have been missing. And it allows the show to put character-driven storytelling first and totem exposition second, which is definitely my preferred mode.
Best of all, “Nightmare In National City” finally (finally!) follows-up on the Supergirl thread I’ve long been waiting for the series to return to: Nia’s relationship with her older sister Maeve, who last appeared way back in the season four episode “Blood Memory,” where she threw some horrendous transphobic hatred at her little sister after Nia inherited their mother’s dream powers over her. It was a dark moment for a show that often likes to keep things sunny—and it felt even heavier the longer the show left it unresolved. So “Nightmare In National City” smartly turns the weight of all that time into fodder for a complex look at sisterhood and family hurt.
Most importantly, Supergirl doesn’t let Maeve off the hook. When Nia’s quest for the Dream Totem inadvertently leads her to her sister’s door, Maeve tosses off a half-hearted apology for what she said. Yet it’s clear she’s spent the past few years thinking far more about her own pain than the pain she caused Nia. And though Maeve eventually delivers a much more earnest apology by the end of the episode—once she’s finally allowed herself to be impressed by all that Nia can do—Supergirl doesn’t simply grant her immediate redemption. Nia agrees to give Maeve a second (and final) chance, but she also makes it clear that she doesn’t forgive her sister for what she said.
It’s a moment that feels honest about the unfair comprises that trans people often have to make when it comes to complicated family situations. Supergirl lets Nia and Maeve’s semi-healed relationship exist in a grey area that the show doesn’t often embrace. There’s some welcome catharsis—particularly in the standout Dream Realm monologue where Nia finally gets to unleash the full weight of her anger at Maeve, which is another breathtaking performance moment for Maines. Yet that catharsis is balanced by melancholy too, as characterized by the final shot of Nia slumping into Brainy’s arms at the end of her long, complicated day.
That sense of melancholy also exists in Kara’s story, which is about the huge amount of pressure she feels to be all things to all people at all times. While it’s a shame that Kara hasn’t had the strongest overall arc in this final season, “Nightmare In National City” comes close to tying together a whole bunch of her disparate storylines. Though Kara doesn’t directly reference the post-Phantom Zone PTSD she experienced back in “Welcome Back, Kara,” she does explain that ever since she arrived back on Earth and started facing off against Nyxly, she’s felt perpetually one step behind in life.
Between her high-pressure superheroing and her high-pressure job, Kara is experiencing a severe form of burnout. And more so than anything that’s directly referenced in the script, it’s Benoist’s performance that conveys that idea. When Kara discovers that prioritizing saving the city has caused her to miss an important on-air interview with the political heads of Kaznia and Corto Maltese, she’s literally shaking with anxiety. It’s a massive mistake, one that no tossed-off alibi can forgive. And it forces Kara to take stock of what she actually has the time and energy to prioritize. For now, at least, that means quitting CatCo to become a full-time superhero.
Though the question of “Can a superhero have it all?” is one of the oldest in the book, there’s something about the way Supergirl frames Kara’s dilemma that’s very modern. For me at least, the feeling of having a never-ending to do list, not enough hours in the day, and a sense of exhaustion at the thought of waking up to face it all again is deeply relatable. And the way Kara explains that she doesn’t have the luxury of having a bad day is deeply connected to the specifics of her situation as a superhero and the pressure she puts on herself to be a literal savior—which makes it especially fascinating that she chooses to discuss it with William, the one person in her life who doesn’t know the full extent of what she’s talking about.
Indeed, it’s kind of a shame that Nia and Kara’s stories don’t dovetail in some way in this episode, even as they function as parallel tales of the difficulties of being both a superhero and a person. As for the hour’s actual plot, it’s fairly perfunctory. While there’s tons of potential to the story of the Super Friends erecting a massive dome to contain a Nightmare Monster and then facing public pushback for it, that throughline never really gets going because the episode doesn’t have enough screentime to devote to it. (I was also expecting a little more from Kara’s on-air apology.) Outside of the character-driven stuff, Nia and Maeve’s Dream Realm adventure is memorable mostly for the cool production design of the “dream spires.” And I’ll have to wait until next week to properly assess whatever the hell was up with Nyxly’s voice-only version of herself and however Lex is involved in it all. (Good to see you again, though, Jon Cryer!)
Still, character-first and plot-second is the way I prefer my Supergirl. And by that metric, “Nightmare In National City” is a success. Of course, that opinion could always change based on what happens in the final run of episodes. I’m intrigued by the fact that even this close to the end, I still have absolutely no idea what the Supergirl finale is going to land on as its status quo. But with four episodes left, this feels like an appropriate “darkest before the dawn” moment for Kara—and a fitting celebration of Nia too.
- Esme’s drawings of the Super Friends were freakin’ adorable!
- The special effects for Dreamers’ powers are pretty spotty, but my god if Nicole Maines doesn’t sell it with her commitment to Nia’s graceful hand motions.
- I also very much enjoyed how she delivered the line, “My boyfriend, he’s a twelfth-level intellect.”
- David Harewood mentioned on Instagram that while filming the second half of the season he ruptured his Achilles tendon and couldn’t walk, which could explain why J’onn has been so sidelined lately.
- I strongly considered devoting this entire review just to the scene of Brainy in his full-green look, wearing a half-buttoned shirt, and making spinach pancakes. Truly incredible!!