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Supergirl digs into Martian lore with a brotherly twist

Photo: Dean Buscher (The CW)
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As is usually the case with Supergirl, the second episode of the season serves almost as a second half of the premiere. The spider-filled promo for next week’s episode implies the series will be back to more episodic outings soon. But “Stranger Beside Me” is interested in laying out the major themes, storylines, and relationships of the season. That leaves it feeling both exhilarating and overstuffed. As the title indicates, it’s an episode all about characters getting to know each other on a deeper level—either literally meeting each other for the first time or just seeing one another in a new light. But “Stranger Beside Me” favors breadth over depth, which leaves everything feeling just a little bit too surface.

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The most exciting thing about “Stranger Beside Me” is that it indicates J’onn is going to be a major player this season. That’s a relief after last season largely punted what could have been a fascinating storyline about his life as a private citizen/private detective. But “Stranger Beside Me” also demonstrates Supergirl’s weakness when it comes to doling out mythology. Instead of mining J’onn’s Martian past for pathos, as the show has done before, “Stranger Beside Me” takes a clunky “tell, don’t show” approach that’s confusing rather than compelling.

To be fair, at least some of that confusion is intentional. As Kelly discovers while trying to treat a medical ailment brought on by a Martian curse against brother-on-brother violence, J’onn is missing large swaths of his memory. He doesn’t even remember having a brother, let alone that his brother betrayed the Green Martians to the White ones, which is how he ended up in the Phantom Zone as punishment. We’re clearly meant to be left with a lot of questions, but it’s hard to separate the intentional ambiguity from the poorly handled exposition.

The episode’s imagery isn’t much help. “Stranger Beside Me” goes out of its way to overexplain basic visuals—like the fact that a blank book in J’onn’s mind palace represents a missing memory. But then it rattles off Martian customs, curses, and history as if they were common knowledge. Martian lore has the potential to be a really compelling element of Supergirl’s worldbuilding, it just needs way more screentime if the writers want it to land as more than mumbo-jumbo. “You’re still in the dark, brother,” J’onn’s as-yet-unnamed sibling intones. That’s pretty much how I feel too.

Photo: Dean Buscher (The CW)
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Elsewhere, “Stranger Beside Me” contrasts this season’s two new romantic relationships. Alex and Brainy are both anxious about the new ladies in their lives, mostly because their feelings for their respective paramours are so intense. Alex and Brainy are terrified of messing things up, so they wind up pushing too hard. Alex prepares an elaborate homemade breakfast without thinking to check in on her girlfriend’s dietary restrictions (it turns out Kelly is deathly allergic to blueberries). Brainy, meanwhile, hits it out of the park when he surprises Nia with breakfast burritos, but then takes that as a sign that he must continually re-up his grand gestures in order to make each day the best day ever.

The Alex/Kelly dynamic takes up more screentime, as Alex must eventually suss out that J’onn’s brother is impersonating her girlfriend. But the Brainy/Nia dynamic is the more interesting one. For one thing, we’ve seen far more of their relationship play out onscreen, which makes it easier to invest in them as a couple. Kelly wasn’t introduced until fairly late into last season and it was with the pretty clear intention of being Alex’s love interest, so she still doesn’t entirely feel like a three-dimensional character in her own right. She also plays into Supergirl’s penchant for idealizing Alex’s relationships. Kelly and Alex end on a portrait of pitch-perfect domestic bliss that’s actually far less interesting than the slight note of ambiguity in Brainy and Nia’s dynamic.

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Lena is another character discovering new things about someone she thought she knew. It turns out it wasn’t Leviathan who kidnapped Eve at the end of last week’s episode. Lena abducted her former assistant in order to use her as a test subject in her latest project: Re-programming humanity to rid the brain of malicious traits like violence and betrayal. Lena initially wants to use Obsidian’s contact lenses as a means of applying her upgrade, but when Andrea finds out that Lena is modifying her tech, she cuts off her supply. So Lena decides to upload her A.I. Hope into Eve’s body in order to come up with a new plan.

The return of the Eve/Lena dynamic helps flesh out Lena’s worldview. For one thing, it’s a pointed reminder of just how many people have betrayed Lena over the years, which puts her refusal to forgive Kara in a larger context. For another, it demonstrates the fine line that Lena walks with her morality. She takes Eve’s plea that she wants to become a better person as permission to “fix” her by any means necessary, including uploading a whole new personality into her body. It’s an interesting example of the Luthor family’s myopia and egotism aimed in a different direction than just power grabs. Lena may claim her aim is “non nocere” or “do no harm,” but by the end of the episode, I can’t imagine Eve would agree that she hasn’t been harmed.

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Photo: Dean Buscher (The CW)

It’s a shame we don’t spend more time on Lena’s storyline, as it’s one of the strongest elements of the episode. But the final reveal of the Hope-Eve (Heave?) hybrid is an appropriately chilling image in an episode full of them. One of the most successful things about “Stranger Beside Me” is the amount of tension director David McWhirter mines from Dana Horgan & Katie Rose Rogers’ script. The scene where Kara, Alex, and Briany track J’onn’s brother to a sewer calls to mind any number of horror movies, as does the one where Andrea is just inches away from discovering the secret prisoner Lena has locked in her lab. “Stranger Beside Me” even ends with an eerie acoustic cover of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” which effectively implies that not everything is hunky dory in National City.

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That includes the fact that Kara is struggling to fit in at a new version of CatCo where her boss and co-workers expect her to (gasp!) do her job in a timely and professional manner. She accuses William of being a saboteur, and he certainly doesn’t win any points for calling up an old NSA contact in order to track her. Yet the final shot of William volunteering at a soup kitchen implies he’s still a stranger Kara doesn’t fully understand. No doubt the many pointed mentions of his wife will play a bigger role this season too.

“Stranger Beside Me” lays out some interesting ideas and themes for the season to explore, it just doesn’t entirely function as an episode in its own right. It lacks the seamlessness of the best Supergirl outings, even as it proves willing to shake things up in potentially intriguing ways.

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Stray observations

  • For his post-CatCo career, James is deciding between becoming the media director of the Smithsonian and running for Senate. Umm, okay!
  • Rather than give J’onn’s brother a human persona, the show seems to be having him rotate between various human disguises when he’s not in his Green Martian form. That leads to a great action sequence where Kara fights “Alex,” which I have to imagine was an absolute blast for Melissa Benoist and Chyler Leigh to shoot.
  • Part of the reason Andrea wanted to buy CatCo was so that the media company could provide free advertising for Obsidian North tech. The two companies are now (literally) connected by a spiral staircase that links Andrea’s office to the Obsidian offices one floor down.
  • Brainy says “Q-rays” aren’t discovered until the “Late Dark Ages,” but it turns out Kelly has already been working with them. Does that mean we’re currently living in the Late Dark Ages?
  • William attempts to follow Kara only to run into Supergirl instead. I’m glad that Supergirl is still keeping up the double life element of Kara’s story even though Lena is now in the know.
  • J’onn’s brother deflecting Kara’s heat vision with a side-view mirror was a fun image.
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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.