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Jon Cryer’s Lex Luthor makes his Supergirl debut in an overstuffed episode

Photo: Sergei Bachlakov (The CW)
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Given that Lex Luthor is arguably the most iconic comic book villain of all time—not to mention a frequently name-checked element of Supergirl’s own lore—it makes sense that the show would pull out all the stops for his arrival. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is one of the most bombastic, jam-packed episodes of the season, if not the entire series. A lot happens in this episode, including the permanent (at least I think) death of a major season-long antagonist. Yet it’s probably telling that the part of the episode that resonated with me the most was the small runner about Nia and Brainy processing their guilt and trauma. That storyline was grounded, focused, and flowed naturally from the arcs those characters have been following all season. For as much fun as “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” has with its more bombastic storytelling choices, I’m not sure I can say the same about the rest of the episode.

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Ostensibly, this episode is built around the question of whether James will survive his gunshot wound—although you’d be forgiven for forgetting that, given that it feels like the fifth most important storyline. Rather than open on last week’s James-centric cliffhanger, this episode gets right to the pomp and circumstance of Lex’s debut. We open with a flashback to four years ago, when Lex was first arrested for turning the sun red as a way to take down Superman. In the present day, a gravely ill Lex receives a medical furlough to visit Lena, hoping to see how her research on the Harun-El is coming along. In what feels like a pretty big retcon, it turns out that Lex has been supporting Lena’s research all along, hoping she’ll be able to cure the cancer he accidentally gave himself in his own attempt to experiment with Kryptonite. The reveal is meant to explain her abrupt breakup with James in “Menagerie” (she didn’t want him to find out she was working with her brother), but it feels more like a clumsy rewrite than a satisfying reveal.

Thankfully, Jon Cryer and Katie McGrath are compelling enough together that it mostly makes up for the plot wonkiness. I wasn’t hugely blown away by Cryer’s take on Lex in the opening flashback, but he locks into a much more successful tone in the present day stuff. Cryer is a fairly mannered actor and Lex’s illness gives him plenty of mannerisms to play up. The best parts of the episode explore the complex brother/sister dynamic between Lex and Lena. He argues it was his judgmental nature that pushed her to greatness before offering a more genuinely sentimental compliment too. She agrees to work with him on the Harun-El serum without going so far as to say she actually trusts him, although his sudden but inevitable betrayal clearly still stings. Cryer sells the hell out of Lex’s final Watchmen-inspired “I took the cure 10 minutes ago” monologue, and his climactic escape sequence is a really fun bit of supervillain action.

In fact, the Lex stuff would’ve been more than enough to carry this episode, with James’ life-threatening injuries providing emotional stakes. Yet for some reason, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” decides to throw in a really elaborate Manchester Black subplot too. The J’onn/Manchester Black storyline is downright confusing, not just because of its magical staffs and Biblical Martian prophecies, but more so because of its emotional arcs. I thought that J’onn’s commitment to being a “man of peace” meant not fighting at all, not just not killing, in which case, he already broke that vow last week. Yet in this episode he’s still debating whether or not to break his code, even in the midst of battling Manchester.

Manchester’s arc is even harder to track, in what seems to be his farewell episode (although given last week’s bizarre fake-out death, I’m not entirely sure). He claims he’s still trying to win J’onn over to his side, but it feels more like he’s trying to provoke death-by-Manhunter. If that’s the case, I wish the episode had focused more on his mental state than his plot machinations. Actually, what I really wish is that Supergirl had just saved this whole storyline for another episode.

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Photo: Sergei Bachlakov (The CW)

Because it packs so much in elsewhere, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” also misses out on an opportunity to deepen James and clarify his relationship to the rest of the characters on the series. There’s a strange lack of stakes to his life-or-death storyline. It doesn’t help that James’ military psychologist sister Kelly (Jane The Virgin’s Azie Tesfai) is bizarrely nonchalant about the whole thing. With Kara tied up with the Manchester Black stuff, Alex, of all people, is left to anchor the James story, which mostly results in her being weirdly adamant about Lena using her untested research on James. (Alex’s diehard belief in Lena’s abilities is another thing that feels like it comes out of nowhere.) Even weirder, James’ eventual survival is wrapped up in a comedic scene about how much he doesn’t want to talk to his mom on the phone.

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Perhaps I’m not giving enough credit to the visceral pleasures of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” There’s definitely something exciting about watching the show go this big and bold, while offering so many game-changing twists in the process. (Otis Graves is alive and Eve Teschmacher has been evil all along!) Director Tawnia McKiernan creates some compelling visual sequences—including that aforementioned Lex escape, a weird but effective nightmare sequence featuring zombie versions of Kara and Alex, and an exhilarating cross-cutting climax between J’onn’s battle with Manchester and Lena’s experiment on James. This is definitely an Event episode with a capital E. But it’s hard not to feel like there’s a level of nuance that gets lost in all that excitement.

Maybe more so than any other episode this season, I’m struggling to figure out exactly how I feel about “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” And I suppose that makes sense, given how many questions this episode leaves dangling for future episodes to explain. After a season built on slow and steady worldbuilding, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” doesn’t just rearrange the board, it seems to rewrite it entirely. It’s a bold but risky move, and we’ll just have to see if it pays off in the long run

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Stray observations

  • This isn’t Jon Cryer’s first experience playing a Luthor. He previously played Lex’s comic relief nephew Lenny Luthor in the much-maligned
    Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.
  • Azie Tesfai is joining the Supergirl cast as a series regular next season. I can’t say Kelly made a huge impression on me this episode, but I’m willing to see what the show has in store for the character. And it’s always nice to see Supergirl add more women of color to its main cast.
  • It passes quickly, but I loved the little detail that Lena arrived at the hospital worried Kara had also been hurt in the CatCo shooting.
  • Having Brainy’s Speed-inspired relationship philosophy be refuted in the moment would’ve been a cute button to the Nia/Brainy storyline, but having it legitimately prolong their will-they-won’t-they dynamic is kind of frustrating. Their relationship is clearly based on way more than just a shared traumatic event! Glad we finally got a kiss though.
  • Among the emotional stresses Brainy struggles to process: All of his ancestors were evil and Mon-El was fond of deploying micro-aggressions.
  • I can’t tell if this episode is trying to imply that Lex is only seven or eight years older than Lena (he says he was seven when he met her kindhearted biological mom), but let the record show that Jon Cryer is 17 years older than Katie McGrath.
  • I fear the countdown to James getting superpowers has begun.
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About the author

Caroline Siede

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.