Tonight’s Supergirl presents a world where no one questions that women can be strong leaders, where gay people are openly supported, where climate change research is a top priority, and where humans and aliens of all races realize they’re stronger together than they are apart. “Changing” is ostensibly a horror movie homage, but its world looks awfully appealing right about now. Supergirl aired a more overtly political episode earlier this season, but there’s a lot of comfort to be had in returning to the show’s optimistic world for an hour this week.
Acceptance and denial are the big themes in “Changing” (and maybe something about parasites? I haven’t quite been able to link that thematically yet). When he’s infested by an ancient alien slug in Arctic Norway, climate change scientist Dr. Rudy Jones (former Lost star/Tom Cruise cousin Willian Mapother) sets about taking down those who deny the relevance of his work. Meanwhile, Alex, Mon-El, and James begin to accept parts of themselves they’ve long been denying. And since Kara knows a thing or two about how hard it is to hide your identity, she’s leading the acceptance train this week.
“Changing” is kind of a weird episode of Supergirl. Party that’s because there’s the horror-movie angle that runs through the first half of the episode (it’s equal parts The Thing and the X-Files episode “Ice”). But it’s also because Supergirl is still making some big shifts in its sophomore season. Last season, each episode tended to split its time between Kara’s professional/personal life at CatCo and her superhero life at the DEO. This season the show is clearly more interested in superhero crime fighting teams than it is in the idea of Kara balancing a double life. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but it does feel like Supergirl is losing some of its originality to better fit into the Arrow/Flash/Legends Of Tomorrow mold.
That’s especially obvious in the James storyline, which is once again a weak link. James officially debuts as The Guardian tonight, which means that rather than arguing that people can be heroes in all sorts of different ways, Supergirl is now just piling on the physical fighters. That doesn’t entirely seem like it’s keeping in line with the show’s ethos and the machinations to get James into his super suit are especially tiring (the suit isn’t ready yet! the suit’s ready now!). On the other hand, the concept of giving James and Winn something to do beyond serve as love interests and sidekicks isn’t a bad one. And Mehcad Brooks and Jeremy Jordan have nice chemistry in their budding partnership. But Supergirl still has a lot of work to do to sell James’ big transformation. The idea that he wants to help people makes complete sense to me. The idea that he’s wanted to be a literal crime fighter since the moment he met Clark Kent just seems like a retcon.
If James has been holding back the heroic side of himself for years, Mon-El is just beginning to discover he has one at all. He’s willing to train with Kara (who’s now become a teacher after learning from Alex last year), but he’d prefer to work as muscle for hire than a not-for-profit superhero. It takes a push from both Danvers sisters to force Mon-El to accept that there is a part of him that wants to help people. Chris Wood continues to bring a lot of personality and charm to what could be a rather bland role, and it’s nice to have a hero on this show who’s a relatively good person but not a full-on goody two shoes.
As has been the case for a lot of episodes this season, the villain is slightly underdeveloped this week. Yet once again that continues to not bother me too much. I was excited to see the show feature an alien threat that wasn’t just a big powerful being, so watching Dr. Jones transform into a giant monster was especially frustrating. But Parasite works in that he provides something for everyone to fight against but doesn’t take up too much screen time. And the fact that he so effectively wipes out Kara and J’onn adds stakes to the moment Mon-El and James try to take him on by themselves.
But what really elevates “Changing” has nothing to do with superheroing and everything to do with character drama. Chyler Leigh has always been a highlight of Supergirl, but Alex’s coming out arc has allowed her to show off the vulnerable humanity she so often brought to Grey’s Anatomy. We’re used to seeing Alex as the protective older sister and competent badass, but watching her struggle with her own identity reveals previously unseen shades of her character. I don’t know if anyone on the Supergirl writing staff is pulling from personal experience with Alex’s storyline, but it feels incredibly real. If the show continues to favor on-the-nose dialogue over subtext, the specificity of Alex’s experience coupled with Leigh’s acting chops easily elevates the material.
After accepting that she does indeed have feelings for Maggie, Alex begins to realize just how much of her life has been spent in denial. She can suddenly recall past female friendships in which her feelings were more than just platonic. But she denied those emotions even to herself, choosing to go with the heteronormative flow and never stopping to question her own unhappiness. (Given that women are often taught not to expect complete satisfaction from their relationships, it actually makes a lot of sense to me that they might be more likely to come out later in life.)
At first I was a little annoyed with the writing of the Kara/Alex coming out scene. Kara’s initial hesitancy around the whole thing felt like a fairly dated take on coming out, and she’s such an inherently empathetic character that it seemed odd when she didn’t immediately rush to reassure Alex of her love. But the show manages to recontextualize Kara’s discomfort when Alex confronts her about it.
Kara isn’t uncomfortable with her sister’s sexuality, she feels guilty that she never gave Alex space to talk about her feelings when they were kids. Hiding her powers was such a massive part of Kara’s life that it didn’t occur to her that Alex had secrets of her own. She was so used to being taken care of, she didn’t stop to think that Alex might need some caretaking too. Yes, Kara is arguably making Alex’s coming out a little too much about herself (and would it have killed her to immediately say “I love and support you” after Alex initially told her?), but her eventual excitement at hearing Alex talk about how much she likes Maggie reaffirms just how wonderful the Danvers sisters relationship is.
And it makes it all the more heartbreaking when Maggie accepts Alex’s kiss but tells her it would be best if they were just friends, since they’re in such different places in their lives. Maggie is utterly gracious, but the rejection sends Alex into a tailspin, leaving her to question whether coming out was the right choice. And the moment she sobs in Kara’s arms about how humiliating it was is one of the most real, human moments Supergirl has produced so far.
From the beginning, Supergirl has never been afraid to shake things up in a constant attempt to improve. From rushing through storylines other shows would’ve dragged out to revealing secret identities at a rapid fire pace, Supergirl has been remarkably fluid in its storytelling. That experimentation continues this season and while not every shift has been successful (moving Winn to the DEO: yes; giving James a super suit: no), the fact that the show isn’t resting on its laurels still gives me hope. Because for every clunky Snapper Carr scene, we get moments like Alex’s coming out. And in the long run, I have a feeling that’s going to matter a whole lot more.
- What’s a bigger deal: Alex coming out to Kara or the fact that we finally get to see Alex’s apartment for the first time EVER on this show? Just kidding, it’s obviously the apartment. (Just kidding.)
- Mon-El is kidnapped in one of the most random kidnapping plots I’ve ever seen. How did Cadmus know he was going to stop to help that homeless man? That doesn’t even seem like something a superhero would do.
- Everything about Kara getting drunk for the first time was perfect. “I’m not flyin’, that’s for sure.”
- Dr. Jones’ climate change research is mostly just there to give the show an air of topicality (Supergirl seems to be doing that a lot this season, gun control got a mention last week). But given that tonight’s episode discussed the issue more than any presidential debate this year, I’ll take what I can get.
- J’onn gets a transfusion of some of M’gann M’orzz’s (secretly) White Martian blood, which may or may not have some bad side effects down the road.
- Willian Mapother will always be Ethan from Lost for me so that’s what I called him in my notes, including once he’d actually transformed into Parasite (“Ethan goes on a rampage and throws a car”).
- The moment where Kara says “I’m sorry” right before she blows up Parasite with plutonium made me unexpectedly burst into tears. What a lovely touch.
- I’ve spent the week rewatching Smash, which has a.) made me really appreciate Jeremy Jordan’s acting on Supergirl, and b.) made me super hopeful that he’ll get a solo in the Supergirl/Flash musical crossover episode. Because holy hell, that boy can belt.