Vanessa Hudgens, Christina Kirk (Photo : Evans Vestal Ward/NBC)

Dating is the pits in our universe, so imagine the added level of red flags to watch out for if you throw alter egos into the mix. That’s Emily’s problem here, as the impossibly chiseled nice guy she meets on a girls’ night out with Wendy and Jackie turns out to have a question-mark T-shirt under his normal clothes. Yes, “Emily Dates A Henchman” sees Emily, indeed, dating a henchman, the noted Batman villain The Riddler no less. It’s a chance for Powerless to flesh out its odd little corner of the DC universe and for Vanessa Hudgens to do a little more than be the spunky go-getter she’s been playing for three episodes. If the results on both fronts are relatively innocuous, they’re also pretty amusing, especially when, as part of the episode’s B-story, you get Alan Tudyk in a rubber Robin suit.

Powerless had a rough road to TV, with some major retooling along the way. That may account for the fact that the episodes (and the characters, for the most part) exist in marked isolation from each other. (That the screener number for last week’s third episode—the best of the young season—appears to have been planned for a bit later suggests that, perhaps, a strong outing was needed to shore up viewership.) Like that one, “Emily Dates A Henchman” has plenty of Tudyk to keep the reliably funny Van squirming for our enjoyment, but it also lets Hudgens show a few more colors than her usual team cheerleading and chipper befuddlement at the eccentric workings of Wayne Security.

For one thing, Emily is revealed to have a love life, although a stagnant one, since her cheating ex is marrying the model he cheated on her with. “She only does print,” exclaims Emily, attempting to put the best face on things, even though she’s buying them a pizza stone because they invited her to the wedding, and that’s protocol. Dragooning Jackie and Wendy out for margaritas and man-watching, she meets handsome and funny doctor Dan (iZombie’s Robert Buckley), who, after charming Emily, is revealed to have a Riddler victim tied up in the back room, alongside other hench-people in matching uniforms. Again, dating’s the pits.

Back in the office, her worldlier workmates twig to Dan’s secret pretty quickly, what with the ski mask he drops, and the fact that he has a facial contusion shaped exactly like Green Lantern’s ring, and whatnot. That Teddy, Ron, Wendy, and Jackie are relatively blasé about their discovery is the most intriguing narrative thread of the episode, an encouraging sign that Powerless is going to continue to examine just what life in Charm City is like when superpowered types are just another damned thing to deal with. The show hasn’t truly bonded this group together in any meaningful way (again, one looks to the show’s chaotic birth), so the fact that the team lets Emily find out for herself that Dan is a practitioner of the henching arts makes more sense than if they were all best buddies. As Christina Kirk’s ever-unimpressed Jackie states, Dan’s hardly a supervillain, so dating a mid-level henchman is more like “dating a bass player.” Adds Danny Pudi’s Teddy, “Either it will flame out or he’ll die.” (“Just like a bass player,” chimes in Jackie.)

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Meanwhile, Teddy, Van, and Ron Funches’ Ron bond over the fact that Two-Face’s latest bank vault caper left behind one of Batman’s coveted batarangs, sending them all scurrying to meet the Bat for their own reasons. Finding that there’s a GPS on the batarang (Batman never lets his tech fall into the wrong hands), Ron camps out on the roof with milk and cookies, theorizing that no one’s really ever seen Santa and Batman in the same place, and that they both like rooftops. Van—still stewing over that time the Batmobile took off his $30,000 sideview mirror just to save an orphanage from a truck full of nuclear warheads—wants a note to his insurance company. Oh, and he also wants to be the new Robin, something Ron and Teddy surmise when they hear the bulky, muscle-molded rubber costume squeaking under Van’s clothes. (“Why are your nipples protruding?,” Ron asks, regarding Van’s choice of a Batman And Robin-style, anatomically correct costume.) Teddy’s more along for the ride, something Powerless should remedy soon, as Pudi’s snarky sort-of jerk act remains pretty one-dimensional. (He and Funches do make a fine comic team, however, as when they banter about how Ron wearing a Jason Bateman shirt to meet Jason Bateman went over. Says Ron, “He was kind of befuddled, but that’s sort of his schtick.”)

When the guys head out to Charm City’s darkest alleys, thinking that that’s a more Batman-friendly environment, the inevitable mugging (from a scary clown-thug, naturally), sees the three playing off each other just as well. Van remembers to spring into action as Robin would, but forgets that the coffee he hurls into the crook’s face is of the iced variety. (After caving in to the clown, Van crows, “Jokes on him! I only had $2,000 in my wallet!”) The person who saves the day is Batman, unseen except for some offscreen heroics with his bat-ropes, leaving the guys down one batarang, but with their wallets returned. The three do a little dance, chanting that they just “met Batman,” showing that, even in Charm City, it’s pretty exciting when the big guns make an appearance. (Ron’s continued delight at living in this world remains, well, delightful, as he excitedly asks Van “Who’s your top 10?” once he thinks Van is a huge Batman fan.)

Van, springing into action. (Photo : Evans Vestal Ward/NBC)

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Van’s desultory return to Wayne Security winds up inadvertently saving the day (the henchmen flee, even though Van’s carrying takeout), which is good, since, after confronting Dan about his henching, Emily and Jackie wind up tied to chairs in the stereotypical “looped back-to-back” posture while Dan and his buddies do The Riddler’s bidding. (They’re there to steal the indestructible cellphone cases the lab geeks made so he can bust into Arkham Asylum with a bulletproof tank—it’s a whole Riddler thing.) Here, there are some amusing jokes about how bad guys always tell their plans to their captives for some reason, and Buckley manages to squeeze some menace out of Dan (actually Reggie)’s still-charming announcement that he, regretfully, has to toss Emily and Jackie in the river, as per the boss’ orders. (Emily accidentally helps him figure out The Riddler’s riddle instructions, prompting Reggie to smilingly assert that he always admired Emily’s brains.) While Emily gets saved (albeit accidentally) by Van, Hudgens has a few good earlier moments, when, after figuring out her boyfriend’s secret, she angrily musters up the rudeness to ask Jackie to judge the relative offensiveness of “jagoff” versus “jackoff.” Hudgens, like the rest of the cast, hasn’t soared far above Powerless’ premise, but her arc tonight is a start.

Stray observations

  • No point in playing Name That C-Lister tonight, as the only heroes or villains mentioned (but never, ever seen) have all appeared in major motion pictures at one point or another. Batman fights Two-Face and The Riddler, and Green Lantern gets a mention, although we don’t know which one. Jack O’Lantern gets name-tagged as per usual, but he remains more of a Charm City annoyance than a major threat.
  • In this DC continuity, Ron states that at least two Robins are suspected to have been killed in action. No way to know at this point, but it seems Jason Todd and Stephanie Brown are the likely, unlucky fallen Robins.
  • Van sees the constant sidekick turnover working in his favor, even though, as Teddy notes, Van recently threw out his back sneezing.
  • Two-Face foiled Wayne Security’s high-tech bank vault cameras by putting paper bags over them. “We can’t think of everything,” explains Ron.
  • “The acceptance of a racist grandfather is still my white whale.”
  • Jackie, after Emily expertly susses out the shortcomings of all the men in the bar: “You’re like Jason Bourne, if he were destined to die alone.”
  • Jackie, bailing soon after: “I can still get home in time to not be here.”
  • Dan/Reggie likes the Gilmore Girls, admitting he’s “Team Jess.” That’s a henchman for you.
  • Teddy, after saying that he’s taking his grandfather back to the puzzle room on the weekend, explains, “No, it’s just what he calls the nursing home. He solved it again.”
  • Charm City’s version of Buzzfeed boasts the clickbait, “Five Signs You’re Dating A Henchman.”
  • Emily finally realizes Dan’s real job once she says aloud the details of their big romantic getaway at his boss’ house on Skull Mountain, complete with shark tank and ruby laser that shoots all the way to the moon. Which is as good a reason as any to leave you with Jonathan Coulton’s amazing supervillain love song, “Skullcrusher Mountain.”

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