Photo: Supergirl (The CW)

One of the trickiest things TV shows have to deal with is real-life scheduling issues. Whether an actor is shooting a film, pregnant, injured, or simply ready to move on to other roles, TV writers don’t always have the luxury of telling exactly the stories they want to tell with exactly the people they want to tell them with. That’s a reality Supergirl has grappled with before with Calista Flockhart’s departure, and it’s one the show has to grapple with again tonight thanks to Floriana Lima’s similar decision to move on from the series. (For the record, the writers would’ve been happy to have her stick around.)

Within that framework, I think Supergirl does as good a job as anyone could’ve hoped for in breaking up Alex and Maggie. The show doesn’t add yet another shocking lesbian TV death to that very lengthy roster nor does it have one character uncharacteristically cheat on the other. Instead, the series centers Alex and Maggie’s breakup around one of the most real-world issues imaginable—their differing desires on whether or not to have kids. It’s an issue that has split up plenty of real-life couples and it allows the show to depict a devastating fact of life: Breakups aren’t solely the result of a massive fight or lengthy fizzle. Sometimes breakups happen between two people who love each other very much but realize there’s a fundamental incapability between them. It’s a mature idea and by utilizing it, the Supergirl writers allow Alex and Maggie to go out on a relative high note without transforming either character into a villain.

“Sanvers,” as they’re lovingly called, is a pairing that means a lot to many Supergirl fans, especially LGBT viewers who see themselves represented in the pair. And Supergirl respects that by giving the couple (and by extension the audience) time to process the breakup. While Kara, Lena, and Sam are off fighting corporate corruption, Alex and Maggie are in a grounded, two-person drama about love and loss. They dance, they kiss, they sleep together one last time, and they come to the same conclusion they’ve always come to: Alex needs to be a mom and Maggie needs not to be one. Their breakup serves as a sad, sweet tribute to their relationship, and it kicks off a whole new era for Alex.

Of course, the end of Sanvers is actually the B-plot of “Damage.” In the episode’s main storyline, a slew of mysteriously sick kids causes a panic in National City and a whole lot of trouble for Lena Luthor. When it comes down to it, the A-plot of “Damage” is a simple one: Lena is accused of accidentally poisoning a bunch of kids with her anti-Daxamite lead machine from “Nevertheless, She Persisted.” Kara and Sam do some research to prove that she’s being framed. And the real culprit, Morgan Edge, manages to up his villainy while eluding legal repercussions. It’s a story structure that’s been repeated in dozens of superhero stories before, and anyone with even a passing familiarity with genre storytelling likely knew from the beginning that Lena was innocent. But what the episode lacks in plot originality, it at least somewhat makes up for with strong performances and a couple compelling scenes.

The moment in this episode that sticks with me most is Lena’s drunken, self-pitying rant to Kara. It’s jarring to see the normally put-together Lena in such a state of despondency. She’s spent her whole adult life trying to reclaim the Luthor name for good and the idea that she might have accidentally done something even more villainous than Lex is almost more than she can bear. She’s not just regretful over the idea of having made a terrible mistake, she worries she’s fulfilled some dark destiny that was always meant for her. She can’t muster the will to defend herself because on some level, she’s always feared this was coming.

Kate McGrath has been a great addition to the Supergirl cast and, this season especially, she’s helped fill the void left by Cat Grant’s departure. In McGrath’s hands, Lena is a fascinating mix of charming warmth and corporate coolness, and tonight we see new vulnerabilities as she faces her toughest emotional crisis yet. But there’s one scene in this episode that just doesn’t quite sit right with me: After learning that Edge intentionally poisoned kids in order to frame her, Lena sneaks into his office, pulls a gun on him, and suggests that the only fair punishment for his crime is a summary execution. It’s an intentionally dark moment in which Lena begins to embrace her Luthor side, but it feels like it comes out of nowhere. Even weirder, the episode never references Lena’s near-murder again once she’s kidnapped by Edge’s bodyguard and stuck on a plane. Perhaps if the episode had found a way to humanize its kid victims a little more, I could’ve more easily related to Lena’s intense need for vengeance on their behalf (she claims she would’ve deserved to die too if the blame had actually been hers). But since it never feels like those kids are actually in any danger of not recovering, it’s hard to viscerally relate to Lena’s quest for justice.

Thankfully, the episode’s final action scene is so good, it’s easy to overlook that misstep. Though the show’s visuals are limited by its TV budget, the show’s ambitions aren’t. Kara must both rescue Lena from a crashing cargo plane and ensure the dangerous chemicals onboard don’t cause an ecological crisis. And when the plane splits in two, Kara has to decide whether to save her friend or the people of National City. (Having once lifted an entire Kryptonian prison ship into space, I don’t believe for a second that Kara would actually struggle to hold two halves of a cargo plane, but I guess I’ll go with it.) Though Lena’s willing to let herself die to ensure Supergirl stops the chemicals from hurting anyone else, Kara instead encourages Lena to climb to safety. It’s an emotional moment in which Lena rediscovers her fighting spirit, although, again, it’s a little hard to square with her earlier gun showdown, which seemed to fulfill a similar, if darker, beat. Still, both McGrath and Melissa Benoist sell the hell out of Lena’s rescue, and it’s exciting to see Supergirl casually throw in the sort of big action setpieces the show used to reserve for premieres and finales.

Elsewhere, “Damage” doesn’t do much to rise above its genre conventions. Edge feels like just a slightly different iteration of Maxwell Lord, and his tense final conversation with Kara even feels like a specific retread of a similar conversation Kara and Lord had back in “How Does She Do It?” Plot elements like Kara and Sam’s investigation or the casual way Sam notes that LCorp has “synthesized an antidote” to cure all the kids are paint-by-numbers genre storytelling. None of it is bad, per say, but it’s not particularly inspiring either. Still, after delivering yet another week of refreshingly female-centric storytelling and handling a complicated breakup with grace, I’m willing to cut Supergirl a little slack in the originality department.

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Stray observations

  • Check out Alex McLevy’s great For Our Consideration about last week’s episode.
  • The mystery of Sam’ abilities is a great slow burn to tie this season together. Tonight, she gets a cool Unbreakable-esque moment when she realizes she got shot with a bullet and didn’t even notice. Speaking of bullets, having James get hit with one only to immediately recover was a pretty lame mid-episode cliffhanger.
  • Lena name drops Flint, MI as an example of a health crisis in which bureaucracy got in the way of aid. It took over three-and-a-half years for Flint residents to get clean running water following a lead crisis in 2014.
  • Sam mentions that she’s known Lena for a “long time.” I wish we knew more about their relationship as it might make Sam’s admittance into Kara’s friend group feel a little less rushed.
  • Looks like we’re officially headed towards a romantic relationship between Lena Luthor and James—excuse me, Jimmy—Olsen.
  • The pilotless cargo plane reminded me of Spider-Man: Homecoming and Kara having to choose between two halves of the plane reminded me of Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man. Maybe I just have Spider-Man on the brain.
  • Those “lock her up” chants, man…

Next week: Kara and Alex take a road trip back home to Midvale.

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