“What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, And The American Way?” is my favorite kind of Supergirl episode: Thematically meaty and aesthetically goofy. It’s an episode that features gloriously campy villains reveling in their fashion choices, but also raises genuinely challenging questions about political polarization. It also feels like the first episode in a while to fully recapture the promise of the beginning of the season. “What’s So Funny” succeeds by taking a lot of disparate elements of season four and retroactively making them feel cohesive and purposeful. Even Kara’s armored suit—which I’m all but certain was introduced as a way to hide her face and work around Melissa Benoist’s schedule—gets brought back in a cool and unexpected way as a space suit that allows Kara to stop a deadly satellite laser. “What’s So Funny” arguably bites off more than it can chew and therefore speeds through its storytelling a bit too quickly. On the other hand, that seems like an encouraging sign that the Supergirl writers still have plenty of big ideas left for the rest of the season.
The big hook of the episode is that it features Supergirl and her Super Friends squaring off against Manchester Black and The Elite. In terms of bringing back disparate threads, The Elite includes not only the symbiotic Menagerie (Jessica Meraz) from the previous episode but also the invisible Morai from “Suspicious Minds.” Plus it introduces a really fun new character named Hat (Louis Ozawa Changchien), whose powers include teleportation, owning a magical weapons-producing bowler, and speaking in a ridiculous Cockney accent. Absent since the mid-season finale, it’s great to have David Ajala back onscreen as Manchester Black. And his delightfully campy performance sets the tone for the rest of The Elite to match or surpass as they live-stream their way through bloody revenge missions against the humans leading the anti-alien crusade.
If the Children of Liberty are Supergirl’s answer to the racist, facist alt-right (Manchester Black even refers to Ben Lockwood as the “Grand Wizard” of the organization), then The Elite is the show’s take on Antifa (or, as Manchester Black has previously put it, “The intolerant Left.”) As always, I’m hesitant to put too much weight on those real-world parallels because, while they’re clearly there, at the end of the day I just don’t think Supergirl is a smart enough show to really dig into them in a meaningful way. But one surprisingly intelligent aspect of this episode is Kara’s struggle with her position as a public figure and symbol of hope.
In one of the episode’s most moving scenes, Kara shows up on Alex’s balcony as Supergirl, desperate to get her sister’s opinion on the bind she’s in. In the minds of the public, the Children of Liberty and the Elite have come to represent the two stances on the alien refugee crisis—either violently attack aliens or violently attack humans. Kara doesn’t believe in either extremity, but she knows that any action she takes will be read as being in support of one or the other. Kara wants to be her own person with her own measured value system, but these two extreme factions have dominated the conversation to the point where that doesn’t even seem possible anymore.
It’s a smart insight into the way political polarization can impact public perception. And Supergirl is ultimately much better equipped to tackle questions about social symbolism than substantive political issues. That’s also true in a subplot about the way Ben Lockwood is starting to lose control of the Children of Liberty. As Lockwood tries to go legitimate by accepting President Baker’s offer to become his Director of Alien Affairs, his more militant followers accuse him of being “neutered.” Lockwood’s mask was initially a symbol designed to bring people to his side, but now it’s a symbol that’s out of his control. Lockwood has unleashed a demon he can’t simply put back in the box, and while he temporarily subdues his loudest naysayer, it seems unlikely he’ll be able to keep the Children of Liberty in check forever.
Particularly since it moved to The CW in season two, a central tension in Supergirl’s storytelling has been whether it wants to be a show about Kara as a solo hero or a show about a team of superheroes, of which Kara is a major player. It’s been a bumpy road at times, but “What’s So Funny” probably comes the closest we’ve ever seen to getting the balance just right. It definitely leans more on the side of this being a show about a team of heroes, with Brainy, Nia, J’onn, and later Alex all joining Kara in the big Devils Tower showdown against The Elite. But this feels like the right team in a way past attempts to integrate Mon-El or Guardian into the show just didn’t. Each of Kara’s teammates have their own compelling storylines and their own compelling relationship to her too.
Moving forward, I’d love to see just a tad more focus on Kara and her individual arc, but “What’s So Funny” at least gives her the question of symbolism to mull over while making time for her team and two separate sets of antagonists. It’s an impressive balancing act by writers Eric Carrasco and Aadrita Mukerji, and it makes me more willing to forgive some plot contrivances like how fast Nia is learning to use her powers or the pretty big leap of President Baker having a destructive satellite system just ready to go. (Given Colonel Haley’s surprised response, that one is at least supposed to be a shocking bit of escalation, I think.) There’s still some overall storytelling clunkiness, particularly in Alex’s memory-wipe storyline, which mostly just feels like a way to inject some easy drama into the season. But that clunkiness at least leads to some genuinely interesting storytelling shifts too—like Lena moving into the DEO or Kara squaring off against President Baker in the Oval Office.
Given how much it rearranges the season’s structure, you could call “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, And The American Way?” a table-setting episode, but I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. In between its plot restructuring, it’s full of great character beats, humor, and action. The opening prison break and the final Devils Tower showdown are both standout action sequences that showcase a bunch of different fighting styles while maintaining plot momentum and a focus on character. Though Alex’s last-minute appearance wasn’t a surprise, it still got me a little choked up to see her swoop in to save the day and (unknowingly) her sister.
From the way this episode establishes the Fortress of Solitude as a home base to the way it ends with Alex turning over a new leaf in her distrust of the government, it almost feels like Supergirl is moving towards ditching the DEO entirely. I don’t know if that’s actually the case, but “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, And The American Way?” certainly proves Kara can form a great superteam without them.
- There were lots of great little lines in this episode. I particularly enjoyed Kara announcing her story was “hot off the laser jet.” Manchester Black’s “I’ve got bigger fish to murder” was fun too.
- Lena and Alex bonding over their mutual love of science really made me think of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner doing the same in The Avengers. I never would’ve expected the show to pair up those two characters as allies, but I’m really looking forward to seeing more from them.
- I get Brainy not wanting to tell Nia about future events, but I don’t get why researching her Naltorian heritage would be off limits?
- Kara got pretty lucky that randomly pushing that GIANT SPACE LASER re-aimed it at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and not a crowded D.C. street or, like, downtown Baltimore.
- The Briany/Kelex rivalry was a cute idea that felt a little lackluster in execution. On the other hand, I really enjoyed Brainy comparing and contrasting Nia’s dream abilities with his own skills at differential calculus.
- Alex casually stitching up her own forehead was pretty badass.
- Since this episode offers the perfect excuse, let’s all revisit the delightful “Super Friend” number from the Flash/Supergirl musical episode: