Over the past six years, Supergirl has gone from a flagship CBS production with some impressive special effects to a CW series with action scenes that sometimes look more like a fan film uploaded on YouTube. Budget cuts, COVID restrictions, and scheduling issues have hit the series especially hard this year. Yet there’s a part of me that just doesn’t care. I have such a deep affection for this series that I tend to take a “glass half full” view of its limitations. Whatever Supergirl lacks in visual splendor, it makes up for in heart. Indeed, Supergirl has always worked best when it embraces the cheesy vibe of a ’90s genre series like Star Trek: The Next Generation or Xena: Warrior Princess. And there’s nothing more ’90s than a parable about environmentalism filled with shaky visual effects.
It helps that, unlike with the bizarre Argo City arc from season three or the Leviathan stuff from last season, it doesn’t feel like Supergirl is lost at sea with its storytelling. “Welcome Back, Kara!” is very much a transitional hour designed to ease us out of the Phantom Zone-centric stuff from the first chunk of the season and into whatever comes next. And though the series doesn’t have the production values it once did, it lands on some interesting ideas to kick off this final run of 13 episodes. At the heart of this midseason premiere is the story of the PTSD that Kara is facing from her time in the Phantom Zone. In classic Supergirl fashion, she initially tries to paper over the experience with her trademark positivity. But that imperfect coping mechanism falters whenever she’s trigged by a memory of what she went through—which proves especially difficult when Andrea assigns her a story about the phantom attacks on National City.
But Kara isn’t the only one struggling this week. After a goofy opening cake mission for Brainy and some incredibly sweet hugs among the Super Friends, we learn that no one is quite as okay as they’re pretending to be. Alex is still haunted by the fear of losing Kara, while Lena is processing her mom-related horror movie experience from “Fear Knot,” and Nia is missing her own mom more than ever. Even Zor-El is dealing with his own post-Phantom Zone insecurities and anxieties, which he channels into an obsession with solving Earth’s climate crisis in order to prevent the planet from being destroyed the way his homeworld was. And since the oceans were the tipping point on Krypton, he’s horrified to discover a flaming toxic trash island not far off the coast of National City.
The environmentalism stuff serves as both a potent real-world parable and a bit of a random threat-of-the-week, although it works well enough for an hour that’s more concerned with setting up character arcs than focusing too much on plot. The Kelex-based monster that Zor-El accidentally winds up creating while trying to clean the oceans is one of the better-looking effects in the episode. (It’s really just the satellite rescue sequence that’s truly bad.) And the attempt to tie Oscar the Trash Monster into the show’s history of DEO alien encounters is fun. (Dominators, Daxamites, and Coluan shrinking tech all get name-dropped.) Plus the celebration of the power of Earth’s unique melting pot of alien cultures is a nice callback to the immigration focus from season four. Still, it’s a little odd that an episode that starts with an “Earth is dying!” panic ends with Kara throwing some trash into the sun and everyone seeming to wash their hands of the issue.
Indeed, on the whole, the weakest parts of this episode all have to do with Zor-El—a character who hasn’t worked since he was introduced with bizarre casualness back in “A Few Good Women.” For a show that can be so good at pathos elsewhere, Supergirl has had a really hard time finding any emotional weight to either of Kara’s reunions with her Kryptonian parents. Zor-El’s brief appearance in disguise as “Uncle Archie” doesn’t lead to any particularly funny or meaningful comedy. Nor do his insecurities add all that much to the episode before he disappears off to Argo City. At least the scene where he tells Kara that she’s allowed to be human is sweet.
While Supergirl stumbles in some of its episodic plotting this week, it’s smarter in its big picture storytelling choices. The fact that CatCo is floundering adds some much-needed stakes to that side of the show’s world. Plus I can’t believe it took the series this long to come up with the idea of CatCo profiling Supergirl and her Super Friends. Though “Welcome Back, Kara!” seems to pivot away from William’s romantic relationship with Kara (he’s now dating a pediatrician named Mary), it also casts him as the Lois Lane to her Kryptonian hero, which will hopefully be a fun dynamic for the series to play around with. And given that this final season has been anchored around the idea of Supergirl’s legacy, it makes sense to use CatCo to explore that question as well.
But the heart of this episode belongs to the Danvers sisters, which is a reassuring sign that Supergirl knows which elements to center in its final run. The scene where Kara and Alex tearfully open up about their respective traumas is some good, old-fashioned Supergirl storytelling; simple, earnest, and openhearted. Alex realizes that in trying to protect Kara from dwelling on all the bad stuff that happened to her in the Phantom Zone, she was inadvertently helping her sister down a path of unhealthy repression. And Kara realizes that it’s okay to not be okay—and to not carry the weight of the world on her sunny shoulders all the time. While I’m sure Kelly will be well-equipped to help the sisters process everything further, I like that “Welcome Back, Kara!” lets this throughline start as an Alex/Kara story first. Now that the Danvers sister are committed to healing together, it’s time to bring on Nyxly!
- Lena tells Nia that she’s off to visit the place she was born. I’m hoping that’s setting up a Lena-centric episode, and not an indication that Katie McGrath is leaving the show for a while.
- The Arrowverse has felt especially disconnected this year, so it’s nice that Kara references an article Iris West-Allen wrote over on The Flash.
- Why did Nia wait until they were in the elevator heading into CatCo to tell Kara about the cover story she made up to explain her absence???
- I’m not sure if it’ll be relevant later in the season or if it’s just a bit of extra worldbuilding, but before Andrea starts the CatCo staff meeting, we glimpse a TV news report with the headline, “City hall votes on proposal to defund police.”
- Since time doesn’t pass in the Phantom Zone, Zor-El is now going to be decades younger than his wife, right?
- I can’t believe Brainy uses a computer virus to stop a bad guy without lampshaping the fact that that’s exactly what they do in Independence Day too.