The first rule of fight club? Always wear formal wear. At least that seems to be the case in National City’s secret alien cage match, which serves as entertainment for the city’s rich and powerful. Run by Dichen Lachman’s slinky, champagne-loving Veronica Sinclair a.k.a. Roulette, the alien fight club is the main focus of “Survivors.” But while the episode has some high points when it comes to dealing with both alien-on-alien violence and survivor’s guilt, “Survivors” is a bit of a step down after the strong first three episodes of the season. That’s partially because Kara takes a bit of a backseat this week, which is always a bummer, but it’s also because the show is going through some growing pains in its new CW-era.

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After all, it’s a pretty big shift to go from the “Supergirl battles Fort Rozz escapees” set-up of the show’s first season to the “aliens as a struggling subculture in National City” set-up of the second. While the “alien as other” concept opens up a lot of fascinating storytelling possibilities this season, the sudden proliferation of aliens in National City is a bit jarring. The show didn’t really grapple with the idea of alien civilians in its first season, but tonight one turns up dead in the trunk of a car and neither Alex nor Kara act likes it’s particularly out of the ordinary for the DEO to be dealing with this kind of problem. It’s not a retcon exactly, but it is some quick fire world building.

And as was often the case in the show’s first season, that world building works better on a thematic level than it does in the details. Theme is perhaps what Supergirl does best and “Survivors” has a lot of interesting ideas to explore. While the President’s Amnesty Act has theoretically turned aliens into protected American citizens, prejudice can’t be wiped away with an executive order. The aliens who can’t blend in as easily as Kara and Clark are forced to forge lives for themselves in less savory ways, like competing in underground fight clubs as entertainment for National City’s elite. Roulette’s assertion that people care more about animals than they do about marginalized groups is an incredibly pointed one.

Conceptually, the fight club storyline is a thoughtful (and incredibly literal) examination of the way oppression can force members of minority groups to turn against one another. In fact, these aliens have grown so used to the idea of beating each other up for money that when Kara and the DEO arrive to shut down the fight club, the aliens actually rally to defend Roulette. That allows Kara to give a big speech about the need for the alien community to lift each other up rather than tear each other down. Though most obviously a metaphor for immigrants, Supergirl’s aliens can be read as stand-ins for a whole bunch of different marginalized groups. Which means Kara’s critique of the “there can only be one” mentality resonants on a variety of levels, including a feminist one.

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But while the overall theme is both strong and culturally relevant, the episode struggles to find that same finesse on a plot or character level. M’gann M’orzz is ostensibly our “in” to the world of the fight club, but she doesn’t get enough screen time to gel as an actual character; instead she’s just a cipher for J’onn’s emotional angst. J’onn’s climactic assertion that M’gann joined the fight club as a form of punishment for her survivor’s guilt is interesting, but it doesn’t really build on anything we’ve seen from the character before. It feels like another bit of exposition rather than a major shift in our previous understanding of M’gann. The far more interesting reveal is that she’s actually a White Martian posing as a Green Martian, but that’s just set up for the future for now.

Without a strong Kara storyline to anchor the episode, “Survivors” is overstuffed with subplots. Maggie and Alex team up with more flirty banter as they investigate the alien fighting ring. Meanwhile, Mon-El gets his own team-up with Winn as the duo hit the town for some Halloween drinking and arm wrestling. It’s an oddly comedic montage in what is otherwise a fairly serious episode, but Chris Wood and Jeremy Jordan bring a whole lot of charm to their budding friendship. Mon-El also learns that adjusting to life on Earth won’t be as easy as he thought it would be, especially since his newfound powers basically make him a god among men.

Again, the show makes some smart thematic links around the idea that Mon-El, Kara, J’onn, and M’gann are all dealing with survivor’s guilt in different ways. But the clunky dialogue blunts the impact of those connections. Kara explains that she initially pushed Mon-El away because he reminded her of her parents’ inability to save Krypton (and, in turn, Daxam) from destruction. But having pushed J’onn to connect with M’gann, she realizes she has a unique opportunity to connect to Mon-El too. She offers to take him under her wing as the young superhero she never go to nurture in Clark. And while, again, the concepts are solid, just a little subtext would go a long way towards elevating the material.

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Last season generally soared during the CatCo scenes and struggled during the DEO stuff, but this season has pulled a drastic 180. CatCo now feels like the perfunctory location, and this episode spends just enough time there for the thinest of subplots about Kara’s attempts to pitch a story to Snapper. Kara’s ultimate decision to use Supergirl as a source in her story is a fun one, but Snapper’s one-note grumpy mentor act will only go so far. The show needs to either commit to a Cat Grant-less CatCo as a major location or cut it entirely.

Looking back, this review sounds a little more negative than my actual experience watching “Survivors.” That’s because the stuff that makes Supergirl enjoyable is often hard to capture in a review. It’s little moments like Kara trying to explain dragon soccer to Winn or Mon-El exploiting Winn’s desire to be a superhero costume designer or the loving familial relationship between Kara, Alex, and J’onn that make the show engaging to watch. I like spending time with these characters and I remain impressed with the thematic material Supergirl wants to explore, even when it struggles to execute it flawlessly. It’s just that there’s nothing above that competent baseline—either character-wise, story-wise or visually—to elevate this episode into something special.

Stray observations

  • Roulette is a little one-note as a villain, but Dichen Lachman sells the hell out of the role. I’m glad she’ll be sticking around for a bit. Who knows, maybe she’ll even change clothes at some point!
  • I do think the show is legitimately building to an Alex/Maggie romance (just look at Alex’s disappointment when she finds out Maggie has a girlfriend!), but I’ve now begun to read attraction into just about every same-sex pairing on this show. Lena and Kara? Yep. Mon-El and Winn? Totally. Mon-El and that blonde prince on Daxam? 100%.
  • Speaking of which, what was up with that opening flashback to Daxam’s destruction? I’m assuming we’ll return to it at some point because otherwise it seems like largely unnecessary backstory. But, also, it totally seemed like Mon-El and the prince he was guarding were lovers right?
  • I think it was just a matter of moving the scene along, but Maggie not introducing Alex to her girlfriend seemed super rude.
  • Mon-El is more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings, but he doesn’t have other Kryptonian powers like x-ray vision and super breath. I think that that’s a smart way to set him apart from Kara and Clark.
  • James was completely absent from this episode, but it looks like he’ll be taking center stage next week.

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