Photo: Supergirl (The CW)

One thing Supergirl doesn’t get nearly enough credit for is its unexpected narrative swerves. Because of its bright, optimistic tone and because it trades in so many familiar tropes, it can seem like the kind of genre series that’s incredibly predictable. But in practice, I’m not actually sure that’s the case. I can think of half a dozen times I thought I knew exactly where the show was going only for it to take an unexpected turn instead. For instance, I was sure the writers would use Astra’s murder to drive a wedge between Alex and Kara just as I was sure that Winn’s unrequited crush on Kara would ruin their relationship and/or drive him to supervillainy. But in both cases the show resolved its storylines with quiet emotional maturity rather than over-the-top melodrama. Even when it seems to be barreling towards an obvious dramatic climax, Supergirl isn’t afraid to pump the brakes and head in an entirely different direction instead.

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Similarly, Supergirl has also shown an impressive willingness to readjust its storytelling on the fly. The show is almost merciless about exorcising what doesn’t work and rearranging what does. The most notable example is ditching the Kara/James romance after spending so much of the first season building it up. But there are subtler examples too, like the way the show has woven Mon-El more naturally into its ensemble after arguably featuring him too prominently earlier in the season. Too many shows will stick bullheadedly with plots that clearly aren’t working, but Supergirl is refreshingly willing to adjust mid-storyline, even when the shifts can be a little jarring.

Case in point, “City Of Lost Children” could also be called “Yes, we realize the Guardian story isn’t working and we’re sorry.” But rather than simply unmaking James a superhero as easily as they made him one, Supergirl uses its narrative misstep to fuel a really great James-centric story, the first one we’ve had in ages. And that starts when James openly admits that his Guardian storyline is kind of a mess. Or, rather, he acknowledges that his Guardian persona isn’t the symbol of hope he intended it to be. The people of National City aren’t grateful for his work as a masked vigilante, they’re terrified of him. And that forces James to question his choice to become a helmeted crusader in the first place. Writers Gabriel Llanas and Anna Musky-Goldwyn turn a metatextual critique into a fascinating in-world character examination. And while “City Of Lost Children” isn’t quite strong enough to retroactively justify the existence of the Guardian storyline, it does go a long way towards rehabilitating James Olsen.

But “City Of Lost Children” isn’t just a course correction for a weak storyline. It also serves as a beautiful examination of mentorship within marginalized groups. In his attempt to track down a telekinetic alien who attacked National City, James befriends her young son Marcus. And the two immediately connect because they see something of themselves in each other. Marcus is a scared, lost little boy, which is how James used to feel while dealing with racist bullies at his school. And James is a confident, successful black man, an example of what Marcus could grow up to become if he can find stability after spending so much of his childhood in turmoil.

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Though Supergirl is most famous for its feminist undertones, it also has a subtler history of exploring the black male experience as well. J’onn has frequently discussed how living life as a black man has shaped his understanding of humanity. And one of my favorite moments from the first season was Kara and James bonding over the fact that both women and black men are more harshly policed for showing anger. “City Of Lost Children” offers the show’s most overt examination of black masculinity yet and it’s an episode that passes the Racial Bechdel Test with flying colors (like The Bechdel Test does for female characters, the Racial Bechdel Test requires at least two characters of color to talk about something other than a white person). It’s also an episode that explicitly celebrates the power of black mentorship as James uses his emotional connection to Marcus to break him out of a destructive telekinetic trance.

Of course, because this is Supergirl nothing about the James/Marcus dynamic is particularly subtle. The show openly and earnestly discusses the connection the two have as well as the pressure James feels about being thrust into a position with so much responsibility. But the episode also contains some quietly beautiful imagery too, particularly the moment Marcus first sees James’ face after he takes off his Guardian mask. Just as the image of little girls looking up to Supergirl doesn’t have to be viewed solely through the lens of gender, Marcus’ admiration of James doesn’t solely come down to race, a point J’onn makes explicitly. But Supergirl still recognizes and honors the power of representation too. And given the dearth of superheroes of color in the live-action superhero market, it’s a point well taken.

But the James/Marcus pairing isn’t the only mentor relationship in the episode. “City Of Lost Children” also explores the nature of female mentorship too. Rhea and Lena both find in each other something they’ve never found in their families. Rhea is the supportive mother figure who pushes Lena to be better rather than just chiding her for failing. And Lena is the adoring daughter figure who listens to Rhea’s advice rather than rebelling against her. There’s a palpable joy in their interactions, which implies neither is used to having an ally they feel such a personal connection to. And that makes Rhea’s ultimate betrayal all the more chilling.

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Supergirl’s second season has tended to include A and B plots that are largely separate from one another, like Winn and James stopping art thieves while Kara and Mon-El meet his parents in “Star-Crossed.” And at first it seems like ”City Of Lost Children” is following that pattern with its two storylines. But it turns out Lena and Rhea’s anion experimentation is what’s sending Marcus and his people into their violent telekinetic trances. It’s a tidy way to connect the two storylines on a plot level as well as a thematic one. And while James manages to save the Phorians through the power of love, Rhea is still able to complete her master plan and bring the Daxamite survivors through the portal in order to establish New Daxam on Earth.

Though it kicks off the intergalactic conflict that will likely anchor the final two episodes of the season, the best thing about “City Of Lost Children” is that it gives James a real sense of purpose again. Supergirl started as a show that recognized that people don’t need to be crime fighters to be heroes. And after losing that thread for a while, it finally returns to the idea that James can help people without literally (and illogically) becoming a masked vigilante. Finally given strong material to work with, Mechad Brooks turns in his best performance of the season. And Supergirl once again proves it’s not afraid to shake things up when it needs to.

Stray observations

  • This has to be the most Kara-lite episode of the series, right? Nevertheless, Melissa Benoist makes the most of her limited screen time. I love how gently she reassures Marcus after he comes out of his trance mid-air. Also of course Kara’s OTP is Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.
  • Winn makes a subtle reference to Batman (a.k.a. Superman’s scary frenemy), which I think is the second Batman nod this season.
  • Lonnie Chavis is great as Marcus, which won’t surprise anyone who watches This Is Us, where he regularly kills it.
  • The shot of Kara watching the Daxamite ships stream through the portal was gorgeous and appropriately chilling.
  • Rhea is one of the most masterful gaslighters I’ve ever seen, and Teri Hatcher sells the hell out of everything she’s given in this episode.
  • I didn’t think he was actually going to shoot her, but the scene where Mon-El pulls a gun on Rhea was genuinely very tense.

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Next week: Cat Grant’s back and I couldn’t be more excited!