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Supergirl finally lets Kara Danvers, ace reporter, take center stage

Photo: Diyah Pera (The CW)
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One of the greatest joys of Supergirl’s fourth season has been watching the show embrace the storytelling potential of Kara’s double life. It’s something Supergirl initially steered away from in its move to The CW. In seasons two and three, the goal seemed to be to fit Supergirl into the mold of other CW superhero shows, with the DEO as a central base for almost all of the characters and Kara’s secret identity more of a backgrounded status quo than a device used to drive story. Some of that is still true; the show still connects all of its main characters to the superhero side of the story and there are no CatCo-exclusive characters anymore. But it’s been wonderful to watch this season find a middle ground between embracing what Supergirl has become on The CW and bringing back a little of the spark it had on CBS.

That network shift is on my mind because “American Dreamer” really feels like a callback to the show’s first season. It pushes the earnest sentimentality as far as it can go without breaking (and arguably goes just a tad too far at points). Dreamer’s big on-air inspirational interview feels like a direct callback to Supergirl’s inspirational on-air broadcast in the first season finale “Better Angels.” And, in many ways, this episode feels like it finally fully delivers on the promise of Cat Grant giving Kara a promotion way back at the end of the first season. We’ve seen Kara act as a journalist plenty of times before, but it’s never felt quite as purposeful or engaging as it does here.

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I know there are viewers who disagree about the storytelling value of Kara leading a double life. I see regular calls to have Kara just reveal her Supergirl identity to Lena, as well as popular fan theories that Lena already knows and is just pretending she doesn’t. And I understand that point of view. Supes family face blindness always feels pretty silly in live-action, and it’s definitely weird that all of Kara’s other friends know while Lena doesn’t. (Maybe wiping Alex’s memory is the show’s attempt to even the scales a bit? I still have no idea what that storyline is supposed to add to the season.) On the other hand, I also think that if you’re pulling from a superhero mythos that heavily involves a secret identity, it’s a lot more interesting to embrace the storytelling potential there rather than back away from it.

Superman stories often look at how Clark Kent balances his double life romantically, Supergirl examines how Kara balances her friendships. She’s been spending plenty of time with Lena lately, but because most of it was as Supergirl, Lena thinks Kara’s been ignoring her. It’s an interesting dilemma that offers unexpected payoff when Lena takes inspiration from Nia’s bravery and finally opens up to Kara about the fact that she spent four months secretly working with Lex. Kara takes the news very gracefully, partially because she’s an empathetic, forgiving person, but also because Kara knows better than anyone the burden of keeping a secret from the people closest to you. That’s a smart understanding of how Kara’s double life shapes her worldview.

Putting more focus on Kara’s secret identity also allows the show to get more creative with her powerset. The beginning of the season offered that hilarious LCorp lockdown scene. This week, Kara cleverly uses her super speed for typing, file searching, and other streamlined investigative tasks. Since she’s committed to keeping Supergirl in hiding, Kara also has to get creative when it comes to using her powers without blowing her cover—like “accidentally” knocking over a mugger with her elbow or using her coat in place of her cape. It’s a fun change of pace from Supergirl’s usual action template.

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Keeping Supergirl underwraps also inspires Kara to think outside the box when it comes to heroism. In addition to investigating Lex’s evil plan, she realizes that what National City needs is a hero to inspire people in these increasingly desperate times. (The swiftness with which Supergirl’s world descends into fascist martial law—complete with Lockwood’s agents wearing SS-style armbands—is genuinely terrifying.) And while Supergirl has served as that inspiration point before, this time around, Kara realizes that Dreamer is the perfect hero to step into the spotlight.

Supergirl has definitely rushed Nia from trainee to full-on superhero a little too quickly. But her dream energy powers are fun to watch, and Nicole Maines does a great job adding just a touch of awkward uncertainty to Dreamer’s heroism, particularly when it comes to delivering sleep-related puns. The “American Woman” scored fight sequence and Nia’s inspirational on-air broadcast are Supergirl at its most, well, Supergirl—incredibly on the nose and wholly unembarrassed by their earnestness. Nia’s big speech crosses over into being a little too openly sentimental at times. On the other hand, it’s pretty damn incredible to live in an era where a major network TV show features a trans woman superhero proudly celebrating her lived experience while fighting for the rights of immigrants.

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Photo: Diyah Pera (The CW)

The one thing dragging down this episode is, unsurprisingly, James’ storyline, which isn’t bad, exactly, it just feels like it belongs in a different episode. As the Harun-El attempts to “cure” his PTSD, James suffers dangerous panic attacks that trigger Kryptonian-esque powers. Brainy suggests they use a “mind palace” to track down the source of James’ mental trauma. It turns out his anxiety stems not from any of Lex’s kidnappings, but from a truly horrific repressed childhood memory of missing his father’s funeral because some bullies locked him inside a coffin. It takes Kelly making peace with her brother to help James process his trauma and let the Harun-El work with his body, rather than fighting it.

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It’s an intriguing idea for a storyline, but it feels disconnected from the rest of the episode. The general theme of “American Dreamer” is fear and hopelessness and how we combat it, so I guess it’s connected in that sense. But James’ story of fear is both so specific and so random (and so horrific!) that it doesn’t feel particularly linked to the general political hopelessness of National City nor to the sense of dread the other characters are experiencing. Kara’s investigation and James’ trauma are both jostling to be the A-plot of the episode, which leaves “American Dreamer” feeling overcrowded, especially when you throw in a big Dreamer storyline and Lena’s emotional arc as well.

Overall, however, “American Dreamer” strikes a nice balance between moving the season-long plot forward while giving us some complicated episodic character dynamics to dig into. Ben Lockwood takes center stage more than he has recently, and he’s the most terrifying he’s ever been. With a murdered wife and a turncoat son, things could very likely get even more brutal from here. I have absolutely no idea how Supergirl is going to wrap up its many, many dangling threads in just three more episodes. But it definitely feels like the show is purposefully building to something, and I’m very excited to see what it is.

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Stray observations

  • This episode was directed by David Harewood, so congrats to him on that! I suspect J’onn’s random two-episode trip to Mars was designed to give Harewood time to prep and shoot this episode.
  • Lena has never sounded more Irish than when Katie McGrath was asked to deliver the line, “That nostalgic bastard.”
  • At first I assumed James’ superpowers would be the new norm for the show going forward, but now that it’s clear just how powerful he is, this doesn’t seem like something that will remain the status quo forever.
  • Last week’s Grey’s Anatomy also featured a storyline about a guy using therapy to process PTSD he assumed was from violent combat, but which turned out to be hidden childhood trauma from his dad’s untimely death. Weird.
  • This is such a cute episode for Brainy and Nia! His little facial reaction to Nia saying she likes “nerdy boys who think too much” was utterly adorable, and there was tons of chemistry in their back-to-back fight sequence. Plus, “What does love feel like?”
  • Give Melissa Benoist An Emmy: As much as I try to make a point of praising her in my reviews, it never feels like I devote nearly enough space to discussing just how fantastic Melissa Benoist is on this show. I’m going to start a new running segment to highlight a favorite line reading or acting choice each episode. This week, I loved her hilarious delivery of, “Franklin... you saved me!” Feel free to share your own favorites in the comments!
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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.