Photo: Supergirl (The CW)

There’s an all-time great episode of Supergirl lurking around the edges of “Alex.” Tonight’s outting has an interesting set-up, strong thematic material, interesting relationships, and a nice sense of tension and pacing. Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t quite manage to pull all of those pieces together into a truly top tier Supergirl adventure. But it’s still a very strong entry to the Supergirl canon, and one that nicely shakes up the familiar dynamics of the show’s second season.

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Supergirl has spent a lot of time focusing on romance this season, from the trials and tribulations of Kara and Mon-El to the trials and tribulations of Alex and Maggie, not to mention the Winn/Lyra stuff and the J’onn/M’gann pairing. It’s hard to say whether all that romance is a result of the show’s move to The CW or if more romance was always in the cards for the series as it moved forward. But if Supergirl’s somewhat scattered sophomore season has had any cohesive through-line, it involves matters of the heart. Yet while “Alex” has its fair share of romance, it puts a platonic pairing at its center. When Alex is kidnapped, it’s up to Kara and Maggie to put aside their differences and save the day.

Digging into the Kara/Maggie relationship is a great example of Supergirl using its large ensemble in smart ways. It can be easy for shows to fall into ruts that explore the same relationship dynamics over and over again, as Supergirl did with Kara and Mon-El for much of the middle of this season. A quick and easy way to shake up that repetitiveness is to select two characters and ask what might drive them apart and what might pull them back together again. In this case, the tension in the Kara/Maggie relationship is largely professional, not personal. Though law enforcement appreciate having her around to save the day from alien attacks, it turns out Supergirl is something of a headache for National City’s police force and Maggie in particular. Kara’s brash methods may stop crime, but they also cause a lot of collateral damage. And criminals have even begun using a “Supergirl defense” as a legal loophole to worm their way out of punishment. Supergirl is the brawn while Maggie is the brains. And Maggie’s detail-oriented skills are going to waste with Kara around to end each conflict with an inelegant but effective solution.

Naturally, what forces Maggie and Kara to set aside their differences and come together is the one thing they have in common: Alex. They’re the two women who love her the most (well other than her mother, I suppose). And when she’s kidnapped, they’re the ones most dedicated to getting her back by any means necessary.

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It’s a smart, interesting set-up that “Alex” doesn’t quite follow through with as well as it could. For one thing, the villain-of-the-week is largely underdeveloped. Kara’s former Midvale classmate Rick Malvern (David Hoflin) spotted her youthful superhero antics back when they were kids and correctly guessed that she’s now operating as Supergirl (a fact that only serves to pretty make every other character on this show, and especially Cat Grant, seem really, really stupid). And Rick starts a ticking clock towards Alex’s death unless Kara frees his murderous father Peter Thompson (Gregg Henry, a.k.a. Scandal’s Hollis Doyle and Gilmore Girl’s Mitchum Huntzberger). But Rick is just a little too all-knowing to be a believable threat. Not only has he somehow found a way to block J’onn’s mind reading abilities, he’s even come up with a back-up plan in case Alex cuts a tracking device out of her own skin, attaches it to a camera, and transmits the camera’s IP address to the DEO. Rick isn’t even presented as some kind of genius like Maxwell Lord. He’s just a small-town guy on a mission, which makes his insane level of planning all the more unbelievable.

The other disappointing thing about “Alex” is that its ultimate resolution—Kara convinces Peter to help them stop his son from committing murder—could’ve happened at literally any point in the episode. Kara speaks to Peter while trying to stop Maggie from breaking him out of prison. But it’s entirely unclear why she and Maggie didn’t simply visit him earlier and make the same emotional plea about preventing his son from becoming a murderer. God knows I’m not above forgiving Supergirl for a plothole or two. But the resolution of “Alex” feels noticeably sloppy in a way that’s hard to ignore. Even Kara’s ultimate plea that the one thing Peter did right was raise his son rings false given that his son is an obsessive stalker who kidnaps innocent women in order to blackmail their loved ones. (Yes, okay, that’s largely due to his abusive upbringing at the hands of his mother, but, again, there’s just not enough time to make Rick feel cohesive or believable.)

Still, within its imperfect structural framework, “Alex” finds lots of strong character moments for Maggie, Alex, and Kara. Maggie is the character with the biggest arc tonight, as she goes from being somewhat self-righteous about Supergirl’s destructive tactics to willing to break the law herself in order to save her girlfriend’s life. The ending is so rushed it doesn’t all land as well as it could. But it’s nice to see the show explore the Alex/Maggie relationship from Maggie’s point of view for once. Alex’s devotion to Maggie has been well established, but seeing just how far Maggie is willing to go for her girlfriend proves that their dedication is mutual. And the episode is smart about distinguishing the Alex/Maggie relationship from the Alex/Kara one without undermining the latter.

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When Alex gets a chance to place a call to the outside world, she of course wants to speak to her sister. But Maggie is the one she specifies that she wants to speak to alone. Even more so than their official exchange of “I love yous,” that private phone call establishes just how serious the Maggie/Alex relationship has become. At some point in a relationship, your significant other becomes the person you put first and foremost in your life. And that phone call proves that Maggie isn’t just Alex’s girlfriend, she’s become a real partner too. And rather than use that as a cheap source of tension between Maggie and Kara, Supergirl has Kara understand and respect the importance of her sister’s relationship.

All that being said, I also would’ve been okay if “Alex” had just been 45 minutes of Alex MacGyvering her way out of a cell. Director Rob Greenlea maintains a dark, tense tone that ups the stakes of Alex’s captivity. And the episode finds some surprisingly unique riffs on well-trod hostage territory, like Alex using her pants to create a makeshift inflatable device once her cell starts to fill with water. Alex Danvers has become one of Supergirl’s most compelling characters this season. And even stuck in a glass case of emotion, Chyler Leigh manages to be one of the best things about this episode.

Stray observations

  • In this week’s B-plot, Lena and Rhea become best gal pals. Also Lena almost immediately figures out that Rhea is an alien, which, again, calls into question why she can’t figure out that Kara and Supergirl are the same person.
  • It sounded like Floriana Lima lost her voice while filming this episode, so props to her for powering through.
  • Though brief, I really enjoyed the J’onn/Kara scene on The DEO Balcony Of Deep Thoughts. Also, I feel like J’onn has been really underserved this season.
  • I know Alex was in a stressful situation, but she calls her sister “Kara” not “Supergirl” while talking to her through her cell’s intercom. Good thing Rick already knew about Kara’s secret identity…
  • No James tonight, for those keeping track at home.
  • It’s so cool to watch a superhero show whose ensemble allows for an episode that centers on five major female characters.

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Next week: Rhea gets her revenge.