Photo: Supergirl (CBS)
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Supergirl’s winter finale swings dramatically from showing off the series at its bubbly best to highlighting its biggest flaws. We’re a little less than halfway through Supergirl’s first season, which means the show should ideally be finding its feet soon. While it’s definitely doing that in some areas, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

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First of all, it’s concerning that Supergirl seems to think the potential destruction of Earth and Cat Grant’s PR issues carry equal dramatic weight. And it’s even more concerning that the lower-stakes side of “Hostile Takeover” ends up feeling more compelling. This episode wants to neatly separate Kara’s work life from her superhero one, but that rings incredibly false. Not only is Kara apparently the world’s best emotional compartmentalizer, even a massive city-wide battle isn’t enough to distract the public from the exhilarating reveals of a CatCo email scandal.

Yet what works here is the CatCo stuff, mostly because Supergirl has found exactly the right tone for the scenes at Kara’s day job, which are bright, colorful, and funny with moments of real pathos. Supergirl has spent a lot of time fleshing out the people who populate Kara’s office and I have a fairly good sense of who they are even when I find them a little frustrating (I’m looking at you Winn).

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Kara, James, and Winn are assigned to comb through Cat’s leaked emails for possible snafus and later set about conducting their own corporate espionage when Kara uses her alien ears to overhear CatCo board chairman Dirk Armstrong (Black-ish’s Peter Mackenzie) brag about deposing Cat. It’s a lot of fun watching Kara, Winn, and James play spy as they hack Dirk’s computer, and James even gets a great character beat when he gets caught in Dirk’s office but plays it off as a conspiratorial visit (he should really teach Kara a thing or two about improvisation). Even if I don’t quite buy that James and Winn are willing to risk their jobs to help Cat, I suppose they’ll just do anything Kara asks at this point.

But what really makes this half of the episode work is Cat herself, who has slowly emerged as Supergirl’s secret weapon. The email hack plotline allows from some jokes about Cat’s love of Jekyll & Hyde the musical and the fact that she called Dirk the “walking personification of white male privilege,” but it also adds a compelling new element to her backstory: Cat has an older son named Adam Foster who was born while she was still furiously climbing up the corporate ladder. When her ex decided to move away with Adam, Cat put up a short legal fight but eventually decided that separation might be the best thing for her son. Now she sends him financial help and Christmas cards, but has otherwise fallen out of his life. When she realizes that the press might drag his name through the mud thanks to her emails, Cat decides to take a “graceful and lucrative” exit from the company to protect him.

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The Cat scenes carry a lot of weight because they feel like the culmination of all the character development she’s gone through over the past eight episodes. She’s proud of her success but regretful that she had to sacrifice her relationship with Adam to earn it. Cat’s emotional reveal doubles as a lovely showcase for the Cat/Kara relationship, as Cat details all the reasons a parent might choose to separate from their child—a question Kara still asks about her own parents. Cat has slowly grown from tyrannical boss to something like a mother figure for Kara and their closeness feels earned in “Hostile Takeover.”

What doesn’t feel earned is the other half of this episode. It’s telling that Kara engages in several massive fights with her Kryptonian relatives yet I’ve spent the majority of this review talking about CatCo. The Astra confrontation should be the biggest thing Supergirl has ever done, but it mostly winds up feeling like an afterthought.

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While it doesn’t help that the fights look embarrassingly bad at times (mostly in the mid-air close-ups), the real problem is that Kara’s Kryptonian family drama hasn’t been a major through-line this season the way her relationship with Cat has. Astra’s barely been mentioned since she appeared in “Stronger Together,” there’s been no focus on Kara’s training sessions with Alex, the AI Alura has been woefully underused, and we’ve gotten virtually no flashbacks to Kara’s youth on Krypton. This episode tries to cram in all those elements, but it would have been far more powerful if they had been playing out all season.

“Hostile Takeover” also highlights this show’s DEO problem: More often than not the government organization winds up limiting Supergirl’s heroism, not aiding with it. After barely escaping from Astra’s clutches in the opening scene, Kara is perfectly happy to follow the DEO’s suggestion that she rest up and let them handle it. It’s one thing for Kara to take orders as a lowly assistant, but it’s bizarre to watch Supergirl take them from the government. The fight against Astra should be incredibly personal and driven by Kara’s need for closure. But the DEO is an awkward (and bland) third wheel that keeps the drama from soaring.

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There are a whole bunch of non-starters in the Astra half of the episode, like Alex’s weird insistence that Kara must murder her aunt, which mostly goes nowhere other than to throw a little shade at Man Of Steel (“Superman doesn’t kill”). And that leaves little room to explore what should be the heart of this episode: The Kara/Astra relationship. A captured Astra explains that when no one would listen to her warnings about Krypton’s impending ecological collapse, she and her husband Non (Chris Vance) turned to terrorism to get their message across. Since they were both involved in the murder of a guard, Alura had them arrested—using Kara to lure her aunt into a trap.

Though Melissa Benoist sells the hell out of Kara’s betrayal upon learning all of this, I’m not exactly sure what she feels betrayed by. I buy that a child might not grasp why her beloved aunt needs to go to jail, but surely 24-year-old Kara can understand that her mom felt the need to lock up a violent criminal. Alura didn’t frame Astra, she simply arrested her for her crimes. That hardly seems earth shattering.

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Or perhaps the betrayal is that Alura didn’t do enough to stop the destruction of Krypton, but honestly I’m not sure what she could have done. Did Astra have any ideas beyond committing acts of terrorism to draw attention to her cause? Is there a master plan that can save Earth from the same fate? Why doesn’t Astra just explain what it is? The flashbacks to Krypton should flesh all that out, but they just wind up feeling like stilted Masterpiece Theatre.

Thankfully both halves of “Hostile Takeover” at least wrap up relatively strongly. Cat finally puts her investigative skills to work and figures out that her caring assistant is moonlighting as National City’s most famous hero. While the “face blindness” explanation for Kara’s secretly identity never particularly bothered me, it’s nice to see Cat piece together the clues that have been hiding in plain sight. Hopefully that reveal will add one more layer to the show’s best relationship.

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And while anyone who’s seen a superhero movie likely knew that Astra had purposefully allowed herself to be caught, that twist did lead to a high-stakes final fight in which her crew of Kryptonians and Fort Rozz aliens callously murder a team of DEO agents. Thanks to their Kryptonite-inhibitors, they’re a seemingly unstoppable force, even if Kara does have Martian Manhunter on her side. But we’ll have to wait a few more weeks to see how she’ll punch and/or talk her way out of this one.

Stray observations

  • In as much as these things matter, I would have made last week’s excellent episode (and its Astra-centric cliffhanger) the show’s winter finale.
  • Did Astra purchase that clip-in streak of white hair at a Kryptonian Claire’s?
  • While the Kara/Astra battle looks okay in long shots, it’s a total mess in close-ups.
  • I absolutely loved Henshaw’s casual reveal that he’s telepathic.
  • It’s weird that normally blunt Supergirl leaves the gendered elements of Cat’s Adam-related fears unspoken. While the revelation that a male CEO has an estranged son would hardly make headlines, I could see the press viciously digging into a story of a high-powered woman choosing career over family.
  • “Jump out the window and I’ll catch you.”
  • UPDATE: I had this listed as a C+ for all of 25 minutes, but upon further reflection decided it deserved to be a B-. Excuse the switcheroo, all part of the live reviewing process.

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