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Supergirl bids farewell to James Olsen in a fittingly lackluster episode

Photo: Dean Buscher (The CW)
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Last season, Supergirl managed to turn a silly deus ex machina about Alex using plants to bring Kara back to life into a genuinely moving moment of sisterhood. That’s because Kara and Alex’s relationship has been a fundamental cornerstone of Supergirl since its very first episode. The series can get some incredible emotional mileage out of pairing the two of them together, even when the storylines themselves are a little bit weak. For some reason, “In Plain Sight” assumes it can create that same level of poignancy in a Martian brother relationship we’ve known about for exactly three episodes. It’s not hard to imagine a version of the J’onn/Malefic brotherly conflict that evolved slowly and gradually across the course of a season before eventually building to an emotionally rich climax. As it stands, however, Supergirl rushes to an endpoint that feels empty and unearned because it lacks a foundation.

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On the other hand, sometimes all the screentime in the world isn’t enough to salvage something that just doesn’t work. Despite being reimagined multiple times across multiple seasons, Mehcad Brooks’ James Olsen never quite found his place on Supergirl. I still wonder about what might have happened if the show’s second season had actually committed to making him Kara’s love interest. Their tortured will they/won’t they dynamic in the first season never really worked, but I almost feel like “blandly supportive boyfriend” might’ve been the perfect role for James. Once Supergirl decided to permanently take romance off the table, however, James was left as an outlier on the series, even as Supergirl desperately tried to weave him more firmly into both the CatCo and DEO sides of its storytelling.

Poor James doesn’t even get to be the star of his own farewell episode. His road trip with Kelly to their old hometown is rather awkwardly tacked onto an episode that’s mostly about the J’onn/Malefic conflict as well as Kara’s investigations into William Dey. James and Kelly arrive in Calvintown (where they lived with their Aunt Vi after their dad died) to find a haunting economic depression and a giant new prison. “In Plain Sight” brushes up against some dark real-world topics as a local homeless kid named Simon Kirby explains that the cops, judges, and lawyers are all participants in a system designed to keep the prison full and their own pockets lined.

It’s a welcome critique of the prison-industrial complex that ultimately winds up feeling pretty toothless by the end. For one thing, Simon seems like he stepped out of a community theater production of Oliver!, which undercuts the horror of his situation a bit. For another, the big heroic gesture of James buying the small town local paper (Andrea can’t stop him from writing for a newspaper he owns) is fairly nonsensical. How is writing stories for a local community who already knows how bad things are going to help? This seems like a story that needs national attention. Or, you know, maybe the help of a powerful senator.

Still, even if I’m willing to go with Supergirl’s optimistic logic on that one (which I mostly am, the journalism on this show has never been tied to the real world), it’s strange that James spends so much of his final episode detached from the rest of the ensemble. Even if he never really worked as a character, his lengthy tenure on the show would at least seem to lend itself to some poignant nostalgia, which “In Plain Sight” only barely touches on in his final goodbye scene at the bar. Still, I suppose it’s only fitting that James leaves the series with the same kind of extraneousness that has long defined his character.

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Photo: Dean Buscher (The CW)

The portion of “In Plain Sight” that works best is Kara’s investigation into William Dey, mostly because it gives Kara and Nia a chance to team up for some CatCo-based super sleuthing in the way Kara used to do with James and Winn back in season one. (Talk about a missed opportunity to evoke some James-themed nostalgia!) Thanks to a combination of her astral-projection powers and reporter connections, Nia proves to be a very effective “girl in the chair” for Kara. A trip to Mexico City, a fake dead body, and a broken encryption later, Kara finally uncovers the truth: William still works for The Times Of London and he’s actually deep undercover as part of his investigation into the criminal corruption of Andrea Rojas and her family. His asshole demeanor—and his wife—are both an act designed to protect his cover.

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To the show’s credit, it’s a twist I didn’t see coming. And it doubles as a fun meta rug pull for those who were worried that Supergirl was gearing up to give Kara a condescending, married love interest. It turns out William is actually a super nice guy who’s wildly impressed by Kara’s writing and hates having to play an asshole at work. Well, maybe he his. Kara doesn’t seem totally sold on William’s explanation, and it’s a bit of an open question as to whether it’s actually true or just another manipulation. In either case, I’m not sure Kara winds up coming across particularly well. Faced with a situation where William is either an evil crime lord or a noble undercover reporter, Kara remains weirdly hung-up on the fact that he was rude to her at the office, which seems like it should be the least of her concerns at this point.

The William story is left to be resolved another day, as, indeed, is the Malefic one. After freeing Alex from Malefic’s mind control powers and trying and failing to make an emotional appeal to his brother, J’onn zaps him back to the Phantom Zone. Only it turns out Lena used her new role as a Superfriend to manipulate DEO tech to her advantage. She adjusts the Phantom Zone Projector so that it transports Malefic to her lab, where she’s hoping to team up with him in order to use his inception powers to fuel her own mind-manipulating machine. Unfortunately, the mere fact that Malefic is still out there as a player for the season doesn’t make this odd four-episode arc work any better in retrospect.

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Last week’s outing at least had some exhilarating action scenes to sweeten the deal. The action in this episode very much feels like an afterthought, and it borders on downright silly with the reveal of the bomb strapped to Alex’s chest—a crisis that’s resolved as casually and randomly as it’s introduced. While scenes between J’onn, Alex, and Kara are usually emotional gold for Supergirl, they just fall flat here. All in all, there’s a sense that no one’s heart was entirely in this one, which is a disappointing but perhaps ultimately fitting way to send off James Olsen.


Stray observations

  • There’s a strange disconnect in the subplot that’s introduced as “Brainy and Nia have broken up,” but then resolved as “Brainy and Nia got through their first fight as a couple.”
  • Look, I may not have won two Pulitzer Prizes for my investigative reporting, but it does seem like if your undercover assignment involves playing yourself at a new job, maybe don’t needlessly invent a fake wife when you don’t actually have one?
  • There’s a throwback reference to Hank Henshaw and the weapon he designed to kill Green Martians. Be on the look out for Chekov’s Verdex Blaster to return later in the season.
  • Another element of this episode that could potentially return later in the season: The wind-controlling super villain Kara fights in Mexico City and then drops off at the DEO. (I did laugh at Kara getting thrown off a balcony and then remerging as Supergirl: “Hey, you really could’ve hurt that lady!”)
  • I was actually rather touched by the final coda in which James takes Simon under his wing and finally owns his Jimmy nickname. Showrunners Robert Rovner and Jessica Queller have said they’re open to having James periodically return to National City, so perhaps this isn’t actually the last we’ve seen of Mehcad Brooks.
  • So where was Aunt Vi?
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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.