For the first third of its runtime, I was worried that “Phantom Menaces” felt too much like a retread of last week’s episode. Between Kara monologuing in a cave in the Phantom Zone, Lena trying to one-up Lex, and the rest of the Super Friends dealing with a loose phantom, it all felt pretty familiar. But about halfway through, “Phantom Menaces” pivots to become an episode not about plot but about feelings. All of our heroes have a lot of them this week, and Supergirl ultimately argues that the best thing you can do is to feel your feelings without letting them control you. It’s a new kind of battle for our heroes to face, and one that lets Supergirl’s talented cast do some particularly stellar work.
Lena and Brainy deliver the most interesting interpretation of the central “feelings” theme. As the two Super Friends who were closest to Lex, they’re the ones who most viscerally feel the sting of his acquittal. They know just how unjust it is that Lex literally got away with murder. Especially when he uses his newfound freedom to set the children’s wing of a hospital on fire as part of his twisted cat and mouse rivalry with his sister. Given that Lena already killed her brother in one reality, it’s certainly no small thing when she claims she wants to do it again in this one. But even more shocking is the way Brainy takes her angry idea and runs with it.
Last season Supergirl could never quite convey exactly what it meant for Brainy to take off his personality inhibitors, but this episode helps clarify (and/or retcon) the idea. Brainy is now feeling all of his emotions at once, and since that’s a new sensation for him, it feels impossible to get a handle on it. He thinks it would be easier to just soothe his rage by murdering Lex. But Lena helps him realize that he can’t actually compartmentalize his emotions the way she once told him too. The healthier thing is to let his rage out and then let it go. Left to their own devices, Lena and Brainy might have run the risk of going off the vengeance deep-end. But together, they’re able to keep each other in check—mostly because Lena recognizes in Brainy the anger that almost destroyed her once before.
The core thesis of “Phantom Menaces” is that we need other people to help us get through the bad times, which is exactly the sort of earnest but meaningful idea that Supergirl is uniquely designed to assert. For the Super Friends, that means leaning on people they love and trust, but for Kara that means trusting a new ally. She and her dad are separated when their attempt to catch a phantom goes wrong, While Jor-El is kidnapped by evil space pirates, Kara is rescued by a fifth-dimensional imp named Nyxlygsptlnz (Peta Sergeant)—a princess banished by her tyrannical father. And the two stranded women must quickly figure out if they can trust one another.
As with the Phantom Zone stuff last week, the beats of this storyline are a little rushed, presumably because Melissa Benoist’s filming schedule was limited due to her maternity leave. Nyxly has such swashbuckling confidence when she’s first introduced that it’s confusing that it takes Kara’s big motivational speech to inspire her to throw off her father’s (literal) shackles. But, in the abstract (and assuming there’s not a bigger rug pull coming, which there might be), it’s a lovely salute to Kara’s ability to see the best in other people, and to inspire them to see the best in themselves too. Plus the idea of Kara traveling through the Phantom Zone while collecting friends like Dorothy Gale is just inherently fun—and fitting since The Wizard Of Oz is Kara’s favorite movie.
What’s most exciting about “Phantom Menaces” is that instead of seeing this season’s COVID production restrictions as a limitation, Supergirl seems to be trying to use them as an asset. This episode features virtually no external locations and very few non-main cast members, but provides lots of room for characters scenes that really breathe, like the lovely ones between J’onn and Alex. And for a show that’s had an iffy track record with romance, “Phantom Menaces” manages to deliver two incredibly romantic scenes back to back. J’onn and M’gann have a lovely exchange on The Tower’s Balcony of Deep Thoughts that reaffirms the wonderful maturity of their pairing. And Alex and Kelly get perhaps their most romantic scene to date as Alex thanks Kelly for being her rock and then asks her girlfriend to move in with her. Again, the extra room to let the performances breathe really helps Chyler Leigh and Azie Tesfai do some wonderfully emotional work together.
Even the action scenes use the episode’s production limitations well. While the final phantom attack on The Tower isn’t the most exhilarating sequence in Supergirl history, it conveys a clear sense of where the characters are in relation to one another and what they’re each supposed to be doing, which isn’t always a given on this show. Alex’s dramatic costume change is legitimately cool, and it’s fun to see the Super Friends work together as an actual team, with Alex, Brainy, Lena, Kelly, and J’onn each playing a crucial role in saving M’gann. It’s an action climax that’s simple but clear, which allows it to build up some genuine tension as M’gann starts to turn into a phantom.
Though, visually, Supergirl’s sixth season can’t compare to its former CBS glory days (or even its early CW ones), it’s nice to reflect back on how much the show has grown since its simplistic “girl power!” era. “I do hate you,” Lena tells her brother after she announces that she’s quitting LutherCorp and withdrawing from their toxic feud, “I just love me more.” Six seasons in, Supergirl’s feminism is more confident and casual, and its optimism more earned. “Even in the darkest times, we can always find a glimmer of hope,” Alex tells Kelly. I give this show a lot of credit for continuing to embody that philosophy even as it pushes through a tough production period.
- The scene where Kara breaks her leg is an eerie reminder of just how powerless she is in the Phantom Zone.
- Kara explaining her life story to Nyxly felt like an homage to when Supergirl used to open with Kara’s voiceover detailing her origin story.
- I’m very intrigued by Nyxly’s mention of the weird false memories she’s been experiencing since the Phantom Zone fractured. Are those leftover effects from the Crisis multiverse merge or is something else going on?
- It was genuinely upsetting to hear Alex say that if she’s not protecting Kara, she doesn’t know what her life’s purpose is. It also made me very curious about how the season finale is going to leave Kara’s status quo.