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Supergirl wins the battle but loses the war of public opinion

Photo: Sergei Bachlakov (The CW)
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Supergirl is a show that likes to ask tough questions and then answer them in earnest, somewhat simplistic ways. So when “Bunker Hill”—which functions as the show’s midseason finale since next week’s episode is part of the Arrowverse crossover—started to wrap up a whole bunch of plot threads, I was worried we were in for something simplistically triumphant. I knew this episode would leave some plot threads dangling (that’s what a midseason finale is supposed to do, after all), but I assumed it would at least affirm Kara’s “fight evil with empathy” strategy. But though “Bunker Hill” ends with Agent Liberty exposed and arrested and Manchester Black detained, Kara doesn’t necessarily end this episode with the moral high ground. Like the Revolutionary War battle after which the episode is named, this might very well be a case of Kara winning the battle but losing the war.

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But before we get into the stuff I liked about “Bunker Hill,” I do have a few concerns about the overall structure of the season, particularly in these last two episodes. After fairly methodically plotting the first chunk of the season, it feels like the Supergirl writers suddenly glanced at their calendar, realized the midseason finale was coming up way sooner than they expected, and doubled down on their storytelling speed. That was an even bigger problem in last week’s well-directed but sloppily plotted episode, “Rather The Fallen Angel, but it’s apparent here too. After weeks of barely teasing Nia’s sleep issues, this episode suddenly goes all-in on revealing she’s an alien from the planet Naltor who has a genetic predisposition to dream premonitions of the future. (Brainy also has some kind of connection to her in the 31st century and at one point calls her Nura.) Then we go from that initial confession to Nia being able to control her powers well enough to dodge bullets by the end of the episode. It’s not that it’s not engaging to watch, in fact I continue to be blown away by how great Nicole Maines is in her first major acting role. But it’s also a lot of story ground for one episode to cover.

I have similar concerns about how fast Manchester Black’s story has been moving in these past two episodes. Like Maines, David Ajala is such an inherently compelling performer that I never have a bad time watching Manchester’s storylines. (Ajala is also amazing at fight choreography.) But his arc is lacking the strong foundation that would really elevate it. His actions are all rooted in the loss of Fiona, but it’s hard to invest in Manchester’s quest when it’s based on an emotional connection we never saw in action. One happy photo does not a compelling relationship make. Similarly, this episode hinges on J’onn trying to serve as the psychic angel on Manchester’s shoulder, including a pivotal scene in which J’onn visits Manchester in prison to explain that he hasn’t given up on saving his soul yet. But rather than feeling like a major emotional payoff, it just kind of seems weird that J’onn is so deeply invested in this guy he barely knows. Their big emotional connection ostensibly comes through Fiona, but once again, J’onn’s friendship with Fiona happened almost entirely off-screen too.

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Outside of those big structural issues, however, “Bunker Hill” is a really fun episode to watch on a scene-to-scene basis. Kevin Smith returns to helm his fourth episode of Supergirl, which perhaps explains the notable uptick in pop culture references. There’s a really enjoyable hangout vibe to the Kara/Nia/Brainy storyline, which, like the LCorp attack in “Fallout,” has fun playing around with the idea that Nia doesn’t know about Kara’s secret identity. Kara’s obvious attempts to get kidnapped by the Children of Liberty and Briany’s all-around awkward flirtations with Nia are jokes that likely wouldn’t work without such an insanely charming cast to bring them to life. (Brainy’s “Hey girl” pratfall made me laugh out loud.) And this season has really stepped up to the plate when it comes to finding new, creative ways to use Kara’s powers beyond just hand-to-hand fighting. I particularly loved her forehead flick technique and the little scene of her casually lifting up a sofa to look underneath it.

But it’s in its final few scenes that the episode really snaps into focus. Just as I was rolling my eyes about how many episodes this season have nullified Kara’s powers, “Bunker Hill” delivered a fantastic reversal of the trope. Injured by moon dust and trapped in Nth metal, Supergirl takes the opportunity to show off the full scope of Kara’s powers. “I’m not struggling, I’m flying,” is up there with the most inspiring moments in Supergirl history. (The line looks kind of silly written out, but leave it to Melissa Benoist to absolutely sell it.) And lifting up an entire warehouse to smash her way out of the strongest element in existence is some pretty damn great Supergirl action.

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Then there’s the episode’s terrifyingly subversive ending, where Ben’s arrest and exposure don’t make him a social pariah, but instead turn him into a martyr. This episode confirms that Ben Lockwood is a million times scarier than Agent Liberty. For instance, even in the midst of being taken away by the police, Ben thinks to spin his arrest into a “human rights” violation and cast suspicion on Supergirl instead. The single most terrifying idea in this entire episode is that rather than being horrified to learn that her husband is a murderous terrorist, Lydia is almost immediately on his side—leading protest chants in his honor. Supergirl may make the argument that Manchester’s killing mission was the wrong tactic, but Supergirl doesn’t necessarily agree.

If there’s an upside to these past two episodes rushing through so much story, it’s that I genuinely have no idea where the season goes from here. Ben is exposed and imprisoned but potentially more powerful than ever. Kara, meanwhile, achieves her goal of stopping Agent Liberty, but clearly hasn’t stopped his movement of hatred. In fact, she loses her position at the DEO because of how effectively Ben shifts the conversation and makes her secret identity a point of contention. Unlike in previous midseason finales, there’s not an immediate physical threat that needs to be resolved when the show returns. And that only makes me even more interested in tuning back in.

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Stray observations

  • My endless thanks to LaToya Ferguson who swooped in at the last minute (on a holiday weekend no less!) to review last week’s episode for me. She’s truly my own personal Supergirl, and I loved getting to read her perspective on the series!
  • I’m not entirely sure why anyone would think Supergirl has a secret identity at all. Couldn’t she just tell them she’s Kara Zor-El from Krypton and that she works full-time as Supergirl? I guess they might still demand to know where she lives and stuff.
  • It must have been the plan from the beginning, but the “Nia is an alien” reveal still somehow managed to feel like a weird retcon. It also raises a million questions the episode just kind of breezes past. How long has she been on Earth? Was she born here? Where are her parents/family?
  • I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but Ben’s Agent of Liberty costume has a real strong Captain America in Avengers: Infinity War vibe to it, which is particularly apparent when he’s not wearing the mask.
  • I can’t decide if I loved or hated Manchester Black referring to himself as “the intolerant left.”
  • One of the most incisive bits of political commentary Supergirl has ever delivered is President Baker priding himself on the fact that he will
    protect the constitutional rights of aliens even though he doesn’t personally view them as people. It calls to mind any number of Democratic politicians who speak that way about gay rights or pro-choice issues.
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Heads up Supergirl fans: As I mentioned, next week is the big, annual Arrowverse crossover spectacular, which means normal scheduling has been rearranged. The Flash is airing on Sunday, Dec 9; Arrow is airing on Monday, Dec 10; and Supergirl is airing Tuesday, Dec 11. That being said, going by last year’s crossover, it will likely play as one three-part story without much show-specific distinction. But Tyler Hoechlin is returning as Superman and Elizabeth Tulloch is debuting as Lois Lane, so there’s definitely plenty of Supes stuff in there! And if you want a guide to what the hell was happening in that episode-ending Earth-90 stinger, Entertainment Weekly has you covered.

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About the author

Caroline Siede

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.