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Spiders and Sean Astin lend a spooky flair to a solid Supergirl

Photo: Dean Buscher (The CW)
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As the title suggests, “Blurred Lines” is all about blurry boundaries. Nia is struggling to set healthy limits with Brainy’s performative outpourings of love, Alex wants Kelly to be less open with strangers in a world where a shapeshifting alien is out to get her, and Kara is still figuring out where she and Lena stand now that her secret identity is out in the open. But “Blurred Lines” is also an episode about hypocrisy. Lena’s ultimate goal is to modify the human brain to rid it of its impulses towards lying, violence, and manipulation. Yet in order to do that, she’s totally fine with manipulating the hell out of everyone around her.

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“Blurred Lines” really demonstrates the power of positioning Lena as a not-quite-evil, not-quite-good foil for the season. It’s riveting to watch her emotionally manipulate Kara in their first post-reveal lunch. Anxious to make things right, Kara flies to Paris, Milan, and Dublin to buy all of Lena’s favorite treats. Lena cheerfully responds, “I have really been missing out on the perks of having Supergirl as a best friend!” But she’s actually talking about something other than scones and cappuccinos. Lena manipulates Kara into breaking into a government base to steal Lex’s childhood journals. And creepiest of all, she does so while making Kara think the whole thing was her idea. (Lena claims she wants to use the journals to help process her trauma surrounding Lex, but she actually wants the Q-wave research that’s hidden inside them.)

That leads to one of the episode’s best conversations as Alex and Kara hash out the blurred lines of their DEO work. As Kara points out, she technically breaks the law all the time as Supergirl. Alex argues there’s a big difference between breaking the law “to serve justice” and breaking the law to help a friend. But “Blurred Lines” is refreshingly willing to acknowledge the uncomfortable ethical murkiness that sits at the heart of even the sunniest of superhero stories. Kara points out that Alex herself is the ultimate master of blurred ethical lines. That’s driven home in a rather ominous sequence that demonstrates the expansive facial recognition software at the DEO’s disposal.

Photo: Dean Buscher (The CW)

Yet the character grappling with hypocrisy in the biggest, most painful way is J’onn. After running up against the limits of science, J’onn enlists Nia to use her dream powers to help him gently unlock his long-buried memories. It’s a smart, creative use of Nia’s abilities and a great way to utilize her character as well. For as much as Nia is a bubbly, dorky cub reporter/fledgling superhero, she’s always had an old soul quality too. That emerges beautifully when she’s paired with a 500-year-old alien. Nicole Maines and David Harewood are fantastic together, and it’ll be fascinating to see what happens now that Nia and J’onn are bound together by such a major secret.

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While last week’s episode left me confused as to which parts of J’onn’s past were supposed to be a mystery, “Blurred Lines” puts its audience on steadier ground. J’onn’s younger brother Ma’alefa’ak (or maybe Malefic?) was born with what amounts to a Green Martian birth defect. He’s unable to connect to the Martian hive mind, but he can “incept” others and control their brains. That combination of power and isolation made Ma’alefa’ak a threat to Green Martian society. And—as so many religious people have done over the years—M’yrnn made the mistake of trusting an abstract religious force, rather than channeling his religious beliefs into practical aid and support. M’yrnn and J’onn allowed Ma’alefa’ak to be locked away and told him to pray to H’ronmeer to be healed. That cruel abandonment eventually motivated Ma’alefa’ak to side with the White Martians—a turn of events that sent M’yrnn spiraling into regret.

Again, there are some details that are a bit confusing (I’m not exactly sure where young Ma’alefa’ak was locked away, for example), but the storyline works because it allows Harewood and a returning Carl Lumbly to dig into the complex emotions of the central hypocrisy theme. J’onn is initially aghast at a memory that implies M’yrnn erased Ma’alefa’ak from the Green Martian hive mind, thereby going against their religion and committing the greatest sin imaginable. But J’onn’s frustration at his father’s hypocrisy only further reveals the hypocrisy of his own actions. It turns out it was actually J’onn who wiped Ma’alefa’ak’s memory from the hive mind—partially out of a genuine desire to ease his father’s pain, but even more so out of a desire to return to a status quo in which his father was a moral rock, not a scared, desperate man.

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The Martian flashbacks definitely could’ve used way more room to breathe, but they at least ground the Ma’alefa’ak storyline in something much more tangible than last week’s episode did. And that’s not even getting into the Sean Astin of it all yet! The Goonies/Lord Of The Rings/Stranger Things icon makes a surprisingly low-key (and previously unpromoted) guest appearance in this episode, portraying Ma’alefa’ak in the guise of Pete Andrews, an old military patient of Kelly’s. This episode seems to imply that Ma’alefa’ak is able to take on people’s memories as well as their forms. That gives Astin the chance to play something more grounded in his portrayal of a troubled human veteran before going into full genre theatrics in a Martian brother vs. brother showdown with J’onn. Both sides of his performance are a whole lot of fun, and it would be cool to see Astin return as the real Pete Andrews later in the season.

Photo: Dean Buscher (The CW)
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With so much going on elsewhere, writers Lindsay Struman & J. Holtham make the smart choice to treat their villain-of-the-week as a minor C-plot. Ex-solider-turned-spider-alien-host Caroline O’Connor allows the episode to meet its action quota, but “Blurred Lines” doesn’t get bogged down in overexplaining who she is or how her powers operate. That leads to some nagging questions (how was James able to stop her web-slinging powers?), but it doesn’t really matter when the fight scenes themselves are so fun to watch. Director Eric Dean Seaton has a real flair for adding horror-tinged tension to his beautifully shot action sequences. That’s especially true in the brief scene where Ma’alefa’ak controls Kelly like a puppet (kudos to Azie Tesfai for selling that physicality so well). For the most part, however, Kara’s little “ew” towards the captured alien spider is the perfect way to treat a villain that does its job without getting in the way.

After two episodes that somewhat inelegantly laid out the pieces of the season, “Blurred Lines” effectively snaps them into place. There are still plenty of questions to be answered, like what William Dey is up to and who assassinated Caroline before she could spill the beans about who hired her. But those are clearly intentional mysteries, not vague plot points. “Blurred Lines” also deepens the generic “technology!” theme of the season by adding an additional, interconnected focus on trauma.

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Lena handwaves away Kara’s suggestion that she needs treatment for her Lex-related PTSD, but that’s actually a sharp insight into what Lena is going through. Ma’alefa’ak similarly uses the guise of trauma as a means to getting the Q-waves he needs from Kelly, even as it’s clear he would actually benefit far more from a session with her. J’onn, too, could desperately use a good therapist. That makes Kelly’s work with Obsidian North feel like more than just an excuse to get her into the same building as CatCo. It’s too bad she’s fleeing National City just when its residents need her the most.


Stray observations

  • I’m so used to Supergirl being terrible at romance that I almost can’t wrap my head around how fun, sweet, and genuinely moving it is to watch Brainy and Nia as a couple (or ex-couple, as the case may be). Also, Nicole Maines looked absolutely adorable in Nia’s wet hair/robe combo.
  • You could make a solid drinking game out of the number of times J’onn describes something as “the worst sin in Martian culture.”
  • This was a stealthily great episode for James. It turns out that positioning him as Supergirl’s charismatic investigative sidekick works so much better than using him as her serious CatCo boss. Alas, that welcome shift comes to an end as he decides to head out of town with Kelly in order to hide her away from Ma’alefa’ak—who she can now spot even when he’s in a shape-shifted form.
  • Props to the simple but effective idea that the Martians appear in human form in J’onn’s memories because Nia is processing them in a way that makes sense to her. It’s a smart budgetary workaround, and—more importantly—a way to let David Harewood and Carl Lumbly play out their emotional scenes without hiding their faces behind CGI. Harewood was particularly great as a younger, more naive version of J’onn.
  • I’m not usually onboard the “Kara and Lena are in love” train that motivates a big chunk of Supergirl’s fandom. But, man, that scene of Kara hovering outside of Lena’s window while moody music plays was pretty damn romantic.
  • It looks like Q-waves are going to be to Supergirl what nanoprobes were to Star Trek: Voyager. That’s further proof of my theory that this is the season where Supergirl fully morphs into ’90s-era Star Trek.
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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.