Photo: Bettina Strauss (The CW)

One of the most fascinating things about watching Supergirl for the past three seasons has been tracing the evolution of its politics. When it launched as a CBS series back in 2015—a month before the debut of Netflix’s Jessica Jones and two years before Wonder Woman’s trailblazing big screen debut—Supergirl was content to engage in the simplest of “girl power” feminism. Since then, however, the series has grown both more explicit and more nuanced in its handling of social and political issues. “American Alien” feels like a culmination of where Supergirl has been headed for a long time. The fourth season premiere picks up the aliens-as-opposed-minorities metaphor that was a central part of the show’s second season. And it draws crystal clear, impossible-to-miss parallels to America’s current political landscape, especially when it comes to immigrants. You couldn’t call “American Alien” a subtle episode, but considering how unsubtle real-world political villainy has become lately, I don’t mind our superhero stories tackling these issues so directly. After all, comic books have a long history of doing just that.

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“American Alien” is an episode about Kara coming to terms with just how bad things have become. Her busy world-saving schedule (Superman is “off-world” visiting Argo City) and limited perspective have allowed her to assume that the moral arc of the universe is easily bending towards justice. Kara’s inherent optimism generally serves her well in her superhero-ing, but it’s also blinded her to the rise of anti-alien sentiment that has building ever since President Marsdin signed the Alien Amnesty Act two years ago. J’onn—who’s spent his DEO sabbatical immersing himself in National City’s alien population—tries to warn Kara about the shocking rise of prejudice and hate crimes. But she doesn’t fully believe him until she stumbles upon a room full of computers connected to the dark web and sees all that hatred in action for herself. As Kara later points out, this radicalization of everyday people is a whole new kind of villainy that’s different than anything she’s faced before. The people she’s trying to fight are interspersed among the people she’s trying to defend. How do you defeat an evil that nebulous and far-reaching?

The “Supergirl discovers 4chan” montage in this episode is likely going to be a make or break moment for some viewers. It’s definitely very on-the-nose, but as someone raised on the “everything is a social metaphor!” storytelling of Star Trek and X-Men, I’m pretty much always in the bag for unsubtle analogies. And while the dialogue itself may be unsubtle, Supergirl is actually exploring some fairly nuanced socio-political issues. As J’onn points out, this radicalization isn’t at odds with the general population’s growing acceptance of aliens—it’s a specific backlash to it. As the saying goes, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” One of the most relevant elements of this episode is Kara and J’onn’s conversation about how best to fight for a better future—by focusing on just how bad things have become, or by holding on to the optimism that things can get better and that people are fundamentally good. I know it’s a conversation I myself have had many, many times over the past two years.

“American Alien” is less so an episode in its own right and more so a statement of purpose for the season to come. After a fairly disastrous second half of its third season, this episode feels like Supergirl taking a deep breath and starting over again with a clean slate. And though it remains to be seen how well all of this will play out, “American Alien” at least offers some solid setup for the rest of the season. Most importantly: CatCo is a major location again! Making Kara a Cat Grant-like mentor to a burgeoning reporter is such a smart storytelling choice that I can’t believe it took the show this long to think of it. Though I don’t quite buy the idea that Kara has become a masterful reporter over the past two years (for one thing, she asks a question of the President of the United States and then chit-chats with James during her answer), it’s fun to see her take on a different kind of role at work as she establishes an enjoyable rapport with cub reporter Nia Nal (Nicole Maines). Maines is immediately winning in her first major acting role, capturing the bumbling awkwardness and palpable enthusiasm of a young Kara. And it’s nice to see Supergirl return to a version of the series where Kara gets to express her empathetic worldview both as a superhero and as an everyday person, which she does when she encourages Nia to acknowledge her fear but not let it stop her from going after what she wants.

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Photo: Bettina Strauss (The CW)

Elsewhere, Alex is adjusting to her new role as DEO Director (and her new relationship with Brainy) while J’onn is adjusting to life as a peace-minded civilian. Meanwhile, Lena is still a fundamentally good person who can’t shake her Luthor instincts to go behind the backs of those she cares about, even if it’s to help them. (In this case she records intel from her imprisoned mom and trades it to the DA’s office in exchange for dropping all Guardian-related charges against James.) In addition to the mysterious Russian, er Kaznian, version of Kara from last season, this premiere sets up several other major threads for the season to explore: There’s Lena’s image-inducing tech, which allows aliens to project human faces and sets up a major theme about assimilation and civil rights. Elsewhere, siblings Mercy and Otis Graves (Rhona Mitra and Robert Baker, respectively) are leading the “Earth First” anti-alien crusade with a well-stocked arsenal and a mysterious masked figure on their side. Plus things are about to get a whole lot more complicated now that President Marsdin has been exposed as a secret alien.

All things considered, “American Alien” is a strong start for Supergirl’s fourth season. This show has had enough ups and downs that, like Kara, I’m tempering my optimism with just a little bit of caution. But I did feel immediately reassured by the episode’s great opening montage in which Kara zooms around the world saving people, makes it to a press conference on time, and stops to return a lost balloon to a little girl. Like Kara herself, Supergirl still has plenty of room to grow, but it’s nice to see the show get its core ethos so right.

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Stray observations

  • I continue to feel very adamant that Brainy should be appearing in his full-on alien look and not his human disguise, but I did enjoy his little scene about trying to become Winn.
  • Nicole Maines, who plays Nia Nall, is transgender, which is a huge win for trans representation in the Arrowverse. I still wish Supergirl would do better with its representation of women of color. “American Alien” kills off J’onn’s friend Fiona (The Good Place’s Tiya Sircar) and presents the episode’s only other woman of color as Nia’s privileged workplace rival.
  • Alex has happily entered the dating pool but hasn’t found anything serious yet. Meanwhile, Kara seems to have moved past the sadness of saying goodbye to Mon-El. In terms of tying up other loose threads: Sam and Ruby have been shipped off to LCorp’s northeast branch, where they’re living happily ever after.
  • Robert Baker, who plays Otis, had a relatively big role in Grey’s Anatomy’s sixth season so seeing him with Chyler Leigh was a real treat.
  • I can’t tell if the DA’s threat about arresting Guardian if he appears in public is a sign that we’re in for a big Guardian storyline this season or a sign that Guardian is going to be permanently retired. Please let it be the latter.

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