Photo: Supergirl (CBS)

Supergirl’s secret identity doesn’t just keep her private life out of the public eye, it also allows her to express two very different sides of her personality. As National City’s hero she’s fearless, brave, and commanding; she can respond to a threat with a terse “Let them come” that would send chills down the spine of even the most terrifying supervillian. But as twenty-something assistant Kara Danvers she’s nervous, easily flustered, and prone to fits of giggles. While Melissa Benoist can seamlessly weave together the two sides of Kara’s personality, Supergirl can’t seem to do the same with its two settings. The bright, bubbly, character-focused world of CatCo often clashes with the dark, moody, action-focused world of the DEO. Even when both halves are strong, as they are tonight, the show still struggles to make them feel cohesive.

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When a genocidal threat from his home world appears in National City, Hank Henshaw has to grapple with his tragic backstory and decide whether or not to seek revenge on a homicidal White Martian posing as bigoted Senator Miranda Crane (Heroes’ Tawny Cypress). Meanwhile, Cat Grant is also dealing with tough familial history as her estranged son Adam Foster (Glee’s Blake Jenner) shows up at her office for an awkward family reunion. The stakes of the two plots are so drastically different that it’s jarring to jump back and forth between them. And even though “Red Faced” made a good argument for why Kara needs a regular life to keep her grounded, it’s hard not to feel like she’s letting National City down every time she stops to deal with her boss’ personal life instead of confronting the murderous alien on the loose.

That juxtaposition is especially noticeable tonight because “Strange Visitor From Another Planet” offers up far weightier material than Supergirl usually tackles. Hank reveals that his race of Green Martians were attacked by core-dwelling White Martians and forced into internment camps where the men performed hard labor while the women and children—including Hank’s wife and two young daughters—were burned to death (“I will hear my family’s screams until the day I die”). Supergirl manages to invoke Holocaust imagery in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or exploitative, but its odd to jump from that harrowing reveal to a scene in which Cat is upset because she had a fight with her son over dinner.

Yet tonal whiplash aside, both halves of tonight’s Supergirl are compelling and more thematically linked than they have been in past episodes. “Strange Visitor From Another Planet” centers around themes of family, loss, and regret with Kara as the moral fulcrum of both stories. Though she still struggles with feelings of abandonment, losing her home planet helped Kara zero in on the most important things in life. She risks her job in order to reach out to Adam on Cat’s behalf, arguing that those lucky enough to get a second chance to reconnect with their family should take it. Meanwhile, she helps Hank understand that the best way to honor his fallen family is to live an honorable life. Kara doesn’t take center stage the way she did in “Red Faced” or “Human For A Day,” but she’s well-used in an episode whose focus mostly lies elsewhere.

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Instead Hank Henshaw and Cat Grant are the stars of tonight’s episode, allowing David Harewood and Calista Flockhart to add new dimensions to their excellent performances. Harewood gives Hank a barely-contained rage coupled with deep survivor’s guilt. Meanwhile Flockhart lets us see the cracks beneath Cat’s competent facade as her reunion with her son brings out unexpected vulnerabilities.

Supergirl still has a dialogue problem, but mercifully there are at least one or two emotional beats in the Cat storyline that aren’t over-explained in dialogue (I particularly like the way Cat lashes out at Kara on the balcony only for Kara to respond with sympathy). Unfortunately, just about every facet of the Hank storyline is spelled out in long expository monologues that could have easily been replaced with more subtle storytelling. For instance, rather than have Hank state, “Now members of my team are dead because of me” before launching into his story about the concentration camps, the show could have easily shown his reaction to those deaths and let Harewood’s acting convey how this new tragedy brings up memories of a past one. If Supergirl is going to trust its audience to handle the emotional weight of a Holocaust allegory, it should trust them to pick up subtext without constant handholding.

Yet what saves the DEO half of the episode is its thrilling action sequences, the best Supergirl has produced yet. The show seems to have wisely used a big chunk of its budget to convincingly render the White Martian, who looks fairly realistic even in bright daylight. The Martian flashbacks are equally impressive, with the fully computerized images allowing from some particularly cinematic sweeping shots. But the White Martian’s escape from the DEO is the episode’s stand-out sequence, equal parts thrilling and terrifying with a kinetic energy the show was sorely missing last week.

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Supergirl is always going to be a sunny show, but “Strange Visitor From Another Planet” finds an optimistic conclusion that doesn’t betray the darkness that’s come before. With Kara as their therapist, Cat and Adam finally have a real moment of connection in which Cat admits that she’s not as perfect as she pretends to be. In fact, giving up Adam haunts her everyday. Meanwhile, Kara’s impassioned plea to Hank helps him realize that no amount of murderous or suicidal vengeance will bring his family back. The only way to honor their memories is to live a life that would make them proud and that means forging emotional connections to those around him. Hank started out as a gruff authority figure for Supergirl to butt heads with, but tonight he finds his true place on this show: As a father figure for the Danvers sisters.

Though Supergirl is still an uneven show when it comes to balancing plot and delivering exposition, it’s been remarkable consistent with its thesis statement: The strongest superpower is empathy. Even Senator Crane does a 180 on her anti-alien stance thanks to Supergirl! Now let’s just hope the mysterious second Supergirl flying around National City doesn’t mess that up…

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Stray observations

  • “Strange Visitor From Another Planet” opens with Kara saving a family from a forest fire. Little scenes like this are a great reminder that Kara is a hero first and a fighter second. Plus it’s nice to see her operating outside of the DEO sometimes.
  • I love how Supergirl is handling the fallout of Winn’s love confession. He’s distant but not rude, while she’s initially overeager to return to their status quo before realizing she needs to give him space and time. Very mature all around.
  • James mostly takes a backseat in this episode, while Lucy gets exactly one line. That said, I deeply love the fact that James updated his Super Watch to contact Kara instead of Clark.
  • Adam Foster is played by Melissa Benoist’s real-life husband (and former Glee co-star) Blake Jenner. He comes across well here, finding the humanity and charm in a character who could feel frustratingly petulant.
  • Senator Crane is a pretty lame Donald Trump stand-in who wants to build a dome around the Earth to keep out (literal) aliens. Okay Supergirl, we get it.
  • Is it weird that neither Adam nor Cat mentions Cat’s second son, Carter?
  • For the record, J’onn J’onzz is 317 years old.
  • “There’s no shame in surviving.”
  • I love the scenes where Kara and Alex sit around eating junk food and talking about boys, but I wish those weren’t their only scenes together.
  • #WhereIsPerd

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