Photo: The CW

“Triggers” answers the question of how Supergirl will approach Kara’s post-Mon-El funk going forward: No, her smile at the end of the season premiere wasn’t meant to indicate she magically fixed the major emotional trauma that’s plagued her for the past six months. But she’s not just wallowing in her misery either. Kara is more herself than she was in the premiere, and she’s taking the long, hard road to recovery one step at a time. On paper, this episode allows Kara to realistically mature as a character without bogging down the show in needlessly bleak drama. In practice, however, “Triggers” leaves a little something to be desired. It’s a perfectly fine outing, but it lacks that extra bit of oomph to really make it sing.

The biggest problem with “Triggers” is its lackluster villain. Yael Grobglas (a.k.a. Jane The Virgin’s Petra, because The CW loves its crossover casting) guest-stars as Psi, a psychic thief who uses fear to subdue those around her. It’s a concept rife with dramatic potential, but Supergirl just doesn’t do enough with it. We get some standard visions of snakes and bees and a whole lot of shots of Grobglas starring menacingly, but that’s about it. Although Grobglas is consistently great on Jane, she’s just not asked to do enough here to really make much of an impression. It should be terrifying that she’s able to take out so many guards without even raising a finger. Instead it’s kind of boring.

But the real reason to introduce a fear-manipulating villain is to explore the fears that make our central hero tick, and Supergirl quickly sets about doing just that. At first Kara thinks Psi is subjecting her to visions of the time Kara spent in her pod following her escape from Krypton; a time when she felt alone, isolated, and genuinely terrified. But it turns out Kara’s visions are actually about Mon-El, not herself. As was briefly hinted at last week, Kara is worried that sending Mon-El away from Earth was a death sentence for him. And that mixture of fear and guilt has crippled her with anxiety ever since his departure.

Giving the Girl Of Steel a villain who attacks mentally rather than physically allows Kara to test her mettle in a way she hasn’t since way back in season one, when she was still figuring out how to be a hero. And watching Kara experience a debilitating panic attack at the mere thought of facing Psi drives home just how devastating Psi’s psychic powers really are. But like so many things in this episode, it’s an interesting idea that doesn’t work quite as well in execution. Since Psi’s mental attacks don’t lend themselves well to impressive action scenes, Supergirl needed to find some other kind of visual interest to spice up the episode. And unfortunately “Triggers” just doesn’t. Kara’s point-of-view shots from the kryptonian pod feel like they’re straight out of a 1990s computer game, and that robs the episode of dramatic weight in the same way Psi’s awkwardly stagey attacks do. In the end, it feels like too little story has been stretched across too much run time, even if individual moments work well and the overall concept is solid.

Supergirl rounds out “Triggers” with subplots for Lena Luthor and our new character Samantha Arias, both of whom are starting new jobs that turn out to be more interconnected than they first appear. Lena takes over as CatCo CEO, and though she’s a softer boss than both Cat Grant and Snapper Carr, she’s no less hands-on. Part of what made last season feel so lopsided is how little investment Supergirl seemed to have in the CatCo half of its storytelling, and placing Lena in charge of CatCo is a smart way to reshuffle that balance. For instance, she immediately begins to butt heads with James in a pairing that will hopefully help ground both characters and give them a stronger sense of purpose (especially James).

What’s great about Lena is the way she subverts expectations about both potential supervillains (the Luthor name is always going to be hanging over her head no matter how many times she proves herself) and women in power. In other words, the most revolutionary thing about Lena is that she’s consistently, well, nice. Even when she’s calling out Kara’s lack of professionalism or butting heads with James, she doesn’t cross over into mean girl territory, which is a refreshing change of pace in the genre TV landscape. And it’s a credit to both the writers and to Katie McGrath that Lena’s sense of warmth is just off-kilter enough to remain interesting rather than treacly. Her quip about Luthors usually having minions, not friends, is both funny and telling.

The other major thread of the episode centers on Samantha Arias and her intensely curious daughter, Ruby. They’re vaguely stuck in the plot of Unbreakable as Ruby tries to figure out just how her mom was able to conjure up the necessary super strength to save her at the waterfront. How much you enjoy this subplot likely depends on your tolerance for vaguely annoying TV kids (mine is pretty high), but the episode gets a decent amount of mileage out of the mystery inherent in Samantha’s story. (As I mentioned last week, more info about Odette Annable’s role has already been announced, but for now I’m sticking with just what has been revealed in-universe.) So far, Samantha’s storyline is unfolding with a slowly purposeful pace Supergirl hasn’t really used before. This show tends to be all about the quick reveals, but whatever’s going on with Samantha looks like it might take a while to fully unravel. And the shot of Samantha trying and failing to bend a crowbar captures an evocative tone I hope Supergirl continues to use going forward.

One nice thing about “Triggers” is just how many female characters it puts front and center. That Supergirl can build an episode around Kara, Alex, Psi, Lena, Samantha, and Ruby and still have a few supporting female characters left on the back burner is an impressive feat in and of itself. But though it reaffirms what Supergirl does well (including some really nice Kara/Alex stuff), “Triggers” just doesn’t push the show to new heights.

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Stray observations

  • Also M’gann M’orzz is back and wants J’onn to join her on Mars. More on that next week, I presume.
  • This episode also sets up hints of a conflict between Alex and Maggie about whether or not to have kids.
  • I enjoyed the twist that Samantha is actually starting her first day of work as Lena’s replacement at LCorp as it brought those two storylines together quite nicely. But based on Ruby’s behavior, I feel like this episode also implies Samantha’s been out of the workforce for a while. Jumping right in as LCorp CEO is quite the leap, right?
  • The scene of Alex silently intimidating Winn was wonderful in every way.
  • At this point I feel like it goes without saying, but Melissa Benoist is really, really fantastic in this episode.
  • I’m pretty sure Winn scans Kara’s chest with a barcode scanner during his medical tests.
  • Odette Annable is a compelling actor, but screaming in panic isn’t one of her strong suits. Let’s hope she’ll have to do that less in the future.

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