Taken together, “Medusa” and last week’s episode “The Darkest Place” offer a helpful case study on Supergirl’s strengths and weaknesses. Last week’s episode was overstuffed and choppy with a frenetic visual style, but it was also filled with compelling action sequences and a fun “anything can happen” energy. “Medusa” is tighter and more focused, with particular attention paid to the human side of Supergirl’s storytelling. But it’s also a little bit undercooked with a lack of whiz-bang action to liven things up. Neither are particularly stellar episodes of Supergirl, but they offer two very different types of mixed bags.
Personally, “Medusa” is much more in my wheelhouse than “The Darkest Place.” I love an absorbing action sequence as much as the next lady, but character drama is always going to come first in my book. And “Medusa” keeps its threat-of-the-week storytelling deeply embroiled with its characters. Family is the big theme this week, which fits the episode’s Thanksgiving setting. And while there are plenty of heartwarming moments to go around, Supergirl also digs into the darker side of familial connections as well. And it does so by positioning Kara and Lena as foils for one another; two women struggling to forge their own paths under the looming shadows of their families’ legacies.
For Lena, that shadow is obvious. Her brother is one of the world’s most famous supervillains, and—as she learns in this episode—he didn’t fall far from his mother’s tree. Lena has to decide whether to join the villianous family business and perhaps earn her mother’s love in the process, or to continue striking out on her own as a force for good. Lena briefly appears to cross over to the dark side, agreeing to help her adoptive mother spread a virus that will kill every alien on Earth. But it turns out her villainy was merely an act designed to thwart Cadmus’ plans. It’s fun to watch Katie McGrath try out a more nefarious character for a bit, but for now Lena remains firmly on the side of the angels.
Kara, of course, is never in danger of going bad (as long as you keep that Red Kryptonite away from her), but her relationship with her family is arguably even more complex than Lena’s is with the Luthors. Kara’s parents aren’t supervillains but they aren’t exactly heroes either. Both were flawed people who made tough choices they thought were necessary to protect Krypton. Kara already knew that her mother hid the extent of Krypton’s ecological damage from her people, but now she learns that her father was responsible for creating a xenophobic biological weapon as well. The Medusa virus was designed as a failsafe for an alien invasion. It instantly kills anyone who isn’t Kryptonian, leaving the planet with a brutal but effective way to defend itself. And even worse, Kara’s father never even thought to develop a cure. He had no empathy for anyone but Kryptonians.
The reveal of Medusa’s origins is brushed over a little hastily, but Kara gets more time to process the revelation on the DEO Balcony Of Deep Thoughts (filling in for the CatCo version, which has been absent for a while now). Kara used to think of her parents as heroes, but she’s now begun to realize that they were deeply flawed people. That realization has rocked her sense of self—as it does for a lot of young people as they grow up—and it takes J’onn, her surrogate father figure, to provide some perspective. Whatever their mistakes, Alura and Zor-El also raised a daughter who has become a champion for selfless heroism. She can’t change the choices they made in the past, but she can carry on their best qualities in her own life.
Supergirl is often heavy handed with its optimistic messages, but the one at the heart of Lena and Kara’s stories is more nuanced than most: You can learn from your family without being limited by their worldviews. Lena is a savvy businesswoman like her mother and brother, but she’s channeled those skills for good, not evil. Kara has inherited her parents’ protective instincts, but applies them to all living creatures, not just Kryptonians. Kara and Lena don’t have to reject their families entirely in order to reject their flaws. Supergirl is optimistic but not Pollyannaish about complicated family legacies.
In an episode filled with flawed parents, Eliza Danvers easily picks up the “mother of the year” award. Not only does she help get to the bottom of the Medusa virus, she also cures Mon-El of it, fixes J’onn’s White Martian infection, and casually calls Supergirl “sweetie” in front of everyone at the DEO. But most importantly of all, she handles Alex’s coming out like a champ. Considering Supergirl already did a “family member is supportive but awkward” storyline with Kara, I like the choice to have Eliza immediately issue unconditional support of Alex’s newfound sexuality. Alex’s many mentions of Maggie plus her nervousness allows Eliza to put the pieces together herself. And she offers one of the most openhearted, enthusiastic speeches I’ve ever heard from a parent in a coming out scene.
I continue to be massively impressed with the slow, patient way Supergirl is telling Alex’s coming out story. Rather than have one big “very special episode” and then move on to stories in which Alex is openly gay, the show acknowledges that coming out really is a process, especially for someone coming out later in life. It was easier for Alex to admit she had a crush on Maggie than to acknowledge that that crush may be part of a larger identity shift. But Alex is now more comfortable with her sexual orientation than she’s ever been before. And she’s rewarded for that newfound inner peace with a big kiss from Maggie, whose motivated by her own near death experience to act on her feelings for Alex. After seeing Alex so dejected just a few episodes ago, it’s hard not to feel giddy for her happiness here. “You’re not gonna go crazy on me, are you?” Maggie jokes. “Probably,” Alex responds with a smile.
Though there are strong scenes and moments throughout, unlike the best episodes of Supergirl, “Medusa” isn’t greater than the sum of its parts. While the Hank vs. J’onn fight at the end of the episode is great, the rest of the action is rather short and perfunctory. There’s a moment at the end of the episode in which our heroes seem to have failed in a catastrophic way—J’onn even welcomes death as the virus rains down on National City—before Lena reveals she’s pulled a switcheroo with her isotope. But that moment doesn’t land with the poignancy and solemnity it should. We barely get a moment to register Kara’s failure before Lena reveals her double cross.
Though the climax ostensibly puts every alien in National City at risk, “Medusa” works better as an smaller-scale family drama than as a big mid-season finale (the Medusa virus, for instance, seems more like an impromptu scheme than something Cadmus has been building to all season). But I continue to be impressed with Supergirl’s character work this season. The cheery opening Thanksgiving sequence—with Alex casually stealing Winn’s beer and Mon-El bringing couch stuffing instead of the edible kind—made me realize I’m genuinely going to miss this show on its winter hiatus. And that’s something I couldn’t always say last year.
- Did the episode explain why the Medusa virus doesn’t affect humans (who would be considered aliens from a Kryptonian’s perspective) or is that a massive pothole?
- Mon-El, delusion from the Medusa virus, kisses Kara, which he may or may not remember when he wakes up later (he says he doesn’t, but he looks at her awfully longingly). Though I like Chris Wood a lot, I remain uncomfortable with the show ditching Kara’s black love interest only to immediately saddle her with a white one. Especially because the show didn’t find any real motivation for Kara’s breakup with James. That’s the one thing keeping me from fully enjoying the otherwise adorable budding Kara/Mon-El romance.
- The fact that J’onn is suddenly cured of his White Martian blood feels anticlimatic. Why introduce that story only to immediately undo it? At least we got to see him as a green White Martian.
- I seriously couldn’t stop smiling during that final Maggie/Alex scene. But maybe my favorite part is that Alex instinctively grabs a gun whenever someone knocks on her front door. That’s my girl.
- The final few moments of this episode officially introduce this week’s four-part CW crossover spectacular. Barry and Cisco jump over into Kara’s universe to ask for a favor, and I leave you in the capable hands of Scott Von Doviak for tomorrow’s Flash follow-up.