Well color me surprised! Last week, I wrote off the story of brothers Orlando and Joey Davis as an episodic parable the show resolved way too easily. But it turns out Supergirl was just getting started. “Still I Rise” returns to the Davis brothers to explore how difficult life can be for formerly incarcerated folks, whose past can make it hard to find jobs and whose lack of jobs can make it impossible to find stable housing—and vice versa. It’s a vicious cycle that doesn’t lend itself to permanent “happily ever afters,” and Supergirl seems poised to use Orlando and Joey to explore that cycle this season. As Brainy points out in one of Jesse Rath’s best Balcony of Deep Thoughts scenes: “The fight for systemic chance often feels never-ending. All we can do is keep showing up.”
The good news is that means more of Jhaleil Swaby’s truly excellent performance as Orlando, which goes a long way towards making the character feel lived-in and specific. The bad news is that in using Orlando and Joey more as symbols than as major point of view characters, the Supergirl writers run the risk of getting stuck in soapbox mode. While I have a famously high tolerance for Supergirl’s blunt socio-political commentary, even I was finding this episode just a little bit hard to swallow in how overtly it laid out its messaging. There’s a fine line between weaving a relevant social issue into your narrative drama and just releasing a PSA.
Supergirl at least seems to know that it has the tendency to lean too far towards the latter, and lampshades it with a really fun scene of Supergirl and Brainy recording a hilariously awkward PSA about the importance of eating your vegetables. While it doesn’t entirely make up for the episode’s more unsubtle moments, at least it winks at them. Elsewhere, the closest “Still I Rise” comes to using its social themes for actual character drama is in the idea of Kara going all-in on advocacy. Now that she’s realized how much of a difference she can make by weighing in as Supergirl, Kara’s starting to become obsessive about calling out as many social injustices as she can. But that frenetic approach coupled with her impulse to frame things from a detached reporter’s point of view leads to a fairly disastrous CatCo live stream that only winds up undermining her case.
The idea of Supergirl doing a social media takeover is such a fun and original one, that I wish Supergirl had built an entire episode around it. Instead, it’s just one small stepping stone on the way to this episode’s bluntly stated thesis: Sometimes powerful public figures like Supergirl need to use their platforms to amplify other voices, rather than centering themselves. A great lesson to be sure, just not one that Supergirl manages to dramatize particularly well. In fact, pretty much everything about Kara’s attempt to stop National City’s City Council from selling the Ormfell affordable housing building to be used as headquarters for cloud computing company Orquoia was forgettable at best and tedious at worst.
“Still I Rise” attempts to spice things up with a whole bunch of different subplots—from Kelly training to be Guardian to the surprise return of Mitch the cosmic menagerie hunter from the time travel two-parter. But the most intriguing elements of “Still I Rise” belong to Nia and Nyxly, respectively. Though I’m still not sure exactly how Nyxly got stuck in the dream world while hitching a ride back to Earth, it’s fun to watch her repeatedly pull various iterations of the con she first used to appeal to Kara: Pose as a powerless, put-upon victim and then turn the tables on anyone who believes the sob story. It’s how she goes from being Mitch’s prisoner to using him as a pawn in her plan—which is to trick Kara into giving her the heat vision boost she needs to get her powers back. And while that twist doesn’t quite make up for how lackluster this episode’s big action climax is (shouldn’t Kara be able to quickly fly those people out of danger before stopping the freeze bomb?), at least it’s something.
It’s actually the Nia stuff that works best this week, as she’s treated to 24 hours of tough love from her mom Isabel (a returning Kate Burton). This is probably the closest Supergirl has come to nailing the “dead parent returns from the grave” storyline it keeps insisting on returning to. And it’s fascinating to watch Isabel hold her daughter accountable for her mistakes while still doing her best to empower her in the process. Isabel points out that Nia has a tendency to flee from her dreams rather than fully experience them, which ties in to her tendency to run when things get tough. And while I’m not sure the running thing is something Supergirl has really established before, I’m glad the show is finally circling back around to Nia’s sister Maeve, who we last saw in the fourth season episode “Blood Memory.”
Though Supergirl hasn’t put too fine a point on it, Nia’s inability to control her powers is tied up in her sense of guilt that she “stole” them from her big sister, who spent her whole life preparing to inherit them from their mother. If Nia wants to get a handle on her abilities, she needs to confront the pain she’s been holding onto ever since she parted ways with her once supportive sister on a horrible note. As Supergirl sets about wrapping up all of its various dangling threads in this final season, I’m glad the show hasn’t forgotten about one of its biggest ones.
On the whole, “Still I Rise” actually makes some intriguing big picture storytelling choices, particularly in its willingness to engage with the show’s long and short term continuity and to complicate its heroes’ wins with some losses. Not only does Kara make a new enemy in Councilwoman Jean Rankin (Kari Matchett), Nyxly winds up vengefully destroying the Ormfell affordable house building anyway, leaving Orlando and Joey out in the cold again. But for all those smart big picture choices, “Still I Rise” just isn’t hugely engaging as an hour of TV in its own right. And while I’ll aways take a so-so episode with good social intentions over a so-so one with no social messaging at all, ideally Supergirl will find a better way to blend its activism with artistry.
- What’s up with The CW not airing promos this season? Ah well, at least the return of Thomas Lennon’s Mister Mxyzptlk serves as an effective tease for next week!
- I get that Kara is trying to make systemic change, but given how personally invested she is in Orlando, couldn’t she also directly help him get an apartment too? Sometimes direct aid is the best form of activism, and surely tons of places will rent to the Davis brothers if Supergirl is their co-signer.
- The scene of Kara and Kelly training together while working through their frustrations is a nice little callback to the time that Kara and James did the same thing way back in season one.
- There’s something rather poignant about Mitch’s deep desire to reconnect with Naxim, who fled Earth last year. I wonder if that’s a throughline the show will return to again.
- “Sweetheart, you’ve unleashed a force of hell on Earth.”