Photo: Diyah Pera (The CW)
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After a two-week hiatus (which came right on the heels of a five-week hiatus), Supergirl returns with a belated celebration of Valentine’s Day and an even more belated homage to Tom Hardy’s Venom. Okay, to be fair, I’m not entirely sure Menagerie’s role was actually a nod to Venom, as the symbiotic alien villain has been a DC comics character since 2001 (although the “We are Menagerie” line certainly felt like a direct riff, right?). Sadly, there’s not much time to parse those nuances because “Menagerie” offers a lot to unpack elsewhere. This episode features two Valentine’s Day parties, multiple characters making game-changing life choices, and Nia’s first official appearance as Dreamer. Throw in some presidential politics, a multi-tiered approach to our threat-of-the-week, and the return of Ben Lockwood, and “Menagerie” definitely tosses us back into the deep end of Supergirl’s world.

On a micro level, “Menagerie” has some really fun scenes, particularly when it comes to playing around with the Valentine’s Day theme. And on a macro level, the episode rearranges the show’s narrative threads in several potentially intriguing ways as we head into the back half of the season. Unfortunately, it’s in tying the macro and the micro together that the episode drops the ball. There’s something a tad clunky about “Menagerie,” both when it comes to its plot and especially when it comes to the emotional arcs of its characters.

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The main threat of the episode is the titular Menagerie, a snake-like symbiote who crash lands on Earth and bonds with a jewel thief named Pamela Ferrer. Menagerie steals hearts while Pamela steals jewels, resulting in a win-win scenario for both of them. The episode is largely structured around uncovering the Menagerie mystery, which is a little bit too convoluted for its own good (including a weird detour into the potential affair of the Director of Alien Affairs, who winds up murdered and then immediately forgotten). I did appreciate that once the pieces start falling into place, Brainy almost immediately guesses that Menagerie has bonded with Pamela. It’s nice when characters are allowed to be as genre-savvy as their audience.

The Menagerie mystery mostly serves as a framework for Supergirl to check in on the new Kara/J’onn/Alex status quo, wherein Alex doesn’t know that Kara is Supergirl. There’s definitely some good stuff there. Having J’onn and Kara team up as a superhero P.I. and a superhero journalist is endlessly fun (this new, more relaxed P.I. version of J’onn is so great!) and it makes sense that the show would eventually want to circle back around to Alex’s desire to start a family. Again, however, there’s a clunkiness to the episode’s emotional storytelling..

For one thing, I don’t understand why Kara and J’onn are so shocked by the “unforeseen consequences” of Alex’s mind wipe. In fact, they seem like entirely foreseeable consequences and the natural outcome of Alex making such a massive change to her mental state. (And just what exactly does Alex remember from the past four years, anyway?) The storyline eventually becomes about how Alex put her personal life on hold because she was so focused on protecting Kara. But I don’t think Supergirl needed Alex to be mindwiped in order to explore the Danvers sisters’ semi-codependent relationship. In fact, it probably would’ve been more effective to see them hash out the issue directly. “Menagerie” also has a problem with stakes. Granted, Alex’s arc is explicitly about figuring out how to compartmentalize her stressful job in order to make time for a personal life. But there’s a difference between finding the ideal work-life balance and stopping mid-murder investigation to chat to an old date at a Valentine’s Day party.

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Still, that pales in comparison to this episode’s most baffling storyline—Lena and James’ out-of-nowhere breakup. The abruptness is meant to emphasize Lena’s general distrust and cynicism, but it plays more like Supergirl accidentally deleted a handful of crucial scenes that would’ve gotten us from point A to point B. Again, I don’t hate the idea of Lena reluctantly agreeing to give her research to the U.S. government, and I don’t hate the idea of James and Lena breaking up. It’s just that the journey to those endpoints is way too underdeveloped.

Part of the reason “Menagerie” has to take so many shortcuts is because it’s trying to tell a lot of stories at once, and that includes weaving Ben Lockwood back into the fold. The ongoing focus on the Children of Liberty has been both a strength and a weakness of this season. On the one hand, their presence offers a sense of cohesion and has led to fewer episodes that feel like standalone filler. On the other hand, the show’s commitment to showing how the Children of Liberty interact with each new alien threat has cut back on the amount of screentime Supergirl has for its main players.

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Still behind bars, Ben encourages his young teenage son George to pick up his mantle and lead the Children of Liberty on a war against Menagerie. In fact, the Children of Liberty even wind up taking credit for stopping her rampage at the National City Heart Association masquerade ball, which is partially accurate (the Children of Liberty tracked her there and George delivered the not-quite-killing blow) and partially not (Supergirl was the one who first weakened Menagerie and the DEO were distracted trying to save the Children of Liberty). Supergirl is still mixing real-world metaphors with genre twists in a way that complicates one-to-one analogies. But this week’s Children of Liberty storyline is an effective exploration of the way hate can be passed from one generation to the next. Unfortunately, the fact that Ben Lockwood is just randomly released from prison by the president at the end feels like another one of those clunky storytelling shortcuts.

For all its plotting weirdness, “Menagerie” is still a fun episode. The stuff with Brainy and Nia is as delightful as ever, as is Nia’s arc about fully embracing her superhero identity. “Menagerie” isn’t as thoughtful or emotionally rich as the previous Nia-centric episode, but it’s an enjoyable enough way to welcome us back into the season. This episode is bit like a Valentine’s Day marshmallow bouquet—a fun treat, just maybe not the most substantial meal.

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Stray observations

  • After the season seemed to shift Colonel Haley into a full-on villain, this episode is back to presenting her as a more sympathetic character, particularly with the detail about flying back to help her daughter with a school project. I’m not really sure what to make of that.
  • CatCo got a redesign! I’d call it more of a lateral move than anything truly revolutionary.
  • I’d completely forgotten that James is photographer until he gave Lena that photo of herself.
  • I’m very excited about the return of Nia’s roommate Yvette. I’d definitely watch some kind of Friends/Three’s Company reboot where Brainy moves in with the two of them and tries to figure out life in the big city.
  • Menagerie’s snake minions are called “symbeasts,” but I originally thought Kara called them “symbies,” which would’ve been way cuter.
  • Congrats to Melissa Benoist and Chris Wood on their recent engagement! What a lovely tie-in for this Valentine’s Day episode. Also congrats to Melissa Benoist on this excellent Instagram video, which I’ve watched about a hundred times:

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Next time: Supergirl is off again next week and then back with an episode in which Manchester Black’s Elite square off against Supergirl’s Super Friends.