Photo: Supergirl (The CW)

While the most recent string of Supergirl episodes has had its moments, what the show has been missing lately is a sense of focus. The last few episodes in particular offered a hodgepodge of interesting ideas and storylines that worked individually yet never quite gelled together. But what a difference a Luthor makes. Or, rather, what a difference two Luthors make. Supergirl returns to the prickly mother-daughter duo we haven’t seen since the winter finale. And their presence gives “Luthors” a much-needed sense of cohesion.

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What makes the Luthors such effective antagonists for this show is that their villainy touches every aspect of Supergirl’s life. Lillian’s trial is a major story for reporter Kara to cover for CatCo. Lena’s involvement in the trial brings a concerned Kara back into her friend’s life. And the duo’s escape is a major threat for Supergirl to contend with. Though Supergirl still has yet to find the perfect balance between the D.E.O. and CatCo halves of its world (the first season was too CatCo-heavy and this season is too D.E.O.-heavy), “Luthors” offers the best balancing act we’ve seen so far this season. Kara is equally invested in the Luthors as a journalist, a friend, and a superhero, which allows the show to explore its central story from all sorts of different angles.

“Luthors” is a more dialogue-heavy episode of Supergirl, but unlike last week, where much of the dialogue was clunky or underdeveloped, “Luthors” actually manages to pack some nuance into its dramatic material. The central theme of the episode is faith, not in a religious sense, but in the sense of trusting other people. Who do you put your faith in? Who do you feel comfortable being vulnerable with? And who do you support even when the odds are stacked against them?

For Kara that question is easy: Her faith in Lena is unwavering throughout this episode. Even when video evidence suggests Lena stole Kryptonite and gave it to Metallo in order to free Lillian, Kara stands by her friend. Her conviction is almost Pollyanna-ish at times, and to be honest, I can’t quite decide if that’s a strength or a weakness of the episode. On the one hand, it does feel very Kara to put blind faith in her friends. On the other hand, she doesn’t know Lena that well, and claiming Lena has to be innocent because she told her so “on record” just makes Kara look silly. Her faith is borne out here, which makes me think we’re not supposed to question Kara’s unwavering loyalty. But the episode also makes it clear there’s still a chance Lena might betray her down the line, so perhaps we are.

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While Kara’s belief in Lena is a byproduct of her optimistic demeanor, the notion of faith is far more interesting when it comes to less sunny Lena. She’s a woman who’s always defined herself in opposition to her adoptive family. But that rock-solid worldview is shattered when Lillian reveals that Lena actually is a biological Luthor: She was the product of one of Lionel Luthor’s extramarital affairs. And while the Luthors initially paid off her mother to disappear, they wound up taking Lena in as their adoptive daughter once her mother died.

Lillian cites this strange dynamic as the reason she’s always had such a cold, distant relationship with her daughter. For one thing, Lionel actively stopped Lillian from bonding with Lena. For another, Lillian admits she couldn’t look at Lena without being reminded of her husband’s infidelity. Though Brenda Strong never quite settled into the cackling villain role she was initially slotted into at the beginning of the season, she excels at playing this more personal, emotional material. She’s earnest enough that it’s possible to believe her story but just detached enough that there’s room to doubt it. Should Lena have faith in her mother or is the sob story just an act?

Admittedly, it’s not the most original of comic-book storylines, but the show smartly has Lena retain her skepticism throughout the episode so that she’s on the same page as the audience. She’s cautiously optimistic but not naïvely won over, which strikes me as a reasonable worldview for a woman literally raised by supervillains. When Lillian casually notes that she needs a Luthor’s DNA to access Lex’s “break in case of emergency” vault of weapons, it plays less like a betrayal than a confirmation of Lena’s worst fears.

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In as much as Lena considers going along with her mother’s evil plan, she’s motivated by fear and isolation rather than faith. After busting her daughter out of prison with help from low-budget Tom Hardy, Lillian proves to be a master emotional manipulator as she plays upon her daughter’s insecurities. She suggests the Luthor name carries with it a presumption of guilt, and there’s no one who cares enough about Lena to see beyond that. Only, it turns out Lillian is wrong, of course. Kara does have faith in her friend. And while Supergirl and J’onn physically save the day (from the second nuclear explosion in as many weeks, I might add), it’s nice to see Kara get the credit for once for being Lena’s unexpected hero.

But while Kara demonstrates complete loyalty to Lena, she has trouble putting the same faith in two of the men in her life. The James and Mon-El portions of this episode feel the most extraneous—as they have for good chunks of the season—yet the episode’s strong core winds up helping them, too. Though the Guardian storyline remains phenomenally stupid (again: why the hell doesn’t James just apply to be a D.E.O. agent?), it at least allows for some interesting dramatic scenes between James and Kara this week. He directly calls her out for putting more faith in Lena than in him and reminds her that Clark once put a lot of misplaced trust in Lex, too (for more on that, you can watch all 10 seasons of Smallville). The show is clearly struggling to find a place for James after abruptly dropping his romantic arc, but “ideological foil for Kara” is actually a fairly strong one. It’s a role James previously held in “Truth, Justice And The American Way” and one Mehcad Brooks plays far better than brooding vigilante. Here’s hoping that removing the angst from the Guardian storyline will finally allow it to fit more naturally into Supergirl’s world.

As Kara reaffirms her faith in James, she also places new faith in Mon-El. Kara admits that she’s far more comfortable being a protector than making herself emotionally vulnerable, which isn’t quite something the show has articulated before, but which makes sense given her tumultuous childhood. After keeping her in some sort of will-they/won’t-they dynamic for over a season and a half, it’s a relief to finally have Kara take a concrete step forward with Mon-El. Of course, Supergirl could always pull the rug out from under us again. But I, for one, am choosing to have faith.

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“Luthors” isn’t the flashiest or most action-packed episode of Supergirl, and it’s got its plot holes and missteps. (Protip: When Kryptonite is involved, just send J’onn in the first place). Yet a strong thematic through-line, some nuanced character work, and a compelling villain or two elevate it into one of the strongest outings this season.

Stray observations

  • I’ve never really felt the Lena-Kara romantic tension so many viewers have talked about this season, but, holy shit, their final scene together was one of the flirtiest things I’ve ever seen on this series.
  • The image of Lillian sitting serenely as Metallo destroys the court room around her is one of the most effective images of villainy this show has ever produced.
  • Alex comes out to her co-workers, which is something I’d assumed had already happened. Cue J’onn: “Of course I knew. I’m psychic.”
  • On the one hand, the CGI in this episode was notably bad. On the other, I appreciate that Supergirl isn’t letting that hold it back from big-scale action moments like Kara saving a group of bystanders from a giant falling crane.
  • Little Lex and little Lena were both great, and I would definitely watch a spin-off about their strange, twisted childhoods.
  • Kara taking out her emotions on a giant block of concrete was a nice call back to her anger in “Red Faced.”
  • “You’re an arrogant dude-bro, and I’m the personification of the American way.”
  • My Kryptonite? Chris Wood casually hopping over a flight of stairs.

Next week: Mr. Mxyzptlk breaks free from the Q Continuum to cause trouble for Kara.

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