Oh Supergirl. I just don’t know what to do with this show, which sometimes makes bizarre missteps yet does them with such earnest enthusiasm that it feels cruel to fault it for trying. “The Darkest Place” maintains the stylish cinematography and delightful character interactions of the show’s much improved second season. But it falls back on the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” storytelling approach of the messier first season. It’s an episode full of reveals that will have a major impact on the show going forward. But everything is so disjointed that it’s hard to feel the emotional impact of it all.

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For one thing, “The Darkest Place” is weirdly structured. There’s no real A, B, or C plot so much as a bunch of storylines running in parallel to one another. We open in media res with a Kara/J’onn showdown (or so we think), but then the show flashes back to focus on a story about James doing battle against a murderous vigilante who is besmirching the Guardian’s good name. But then we catch up to the opening scene surprisingly quickly as the episode shifts back to a story about Kara coming face-to-face with Cadmus. Also J’onn learns M’gann is a White Martian, Alex deals with some personal problems, Hank Henshaw is a cyborg, and Jeremiah Danvers has apparently been operating as the Phantom Of The Cadmus for the past 15 years. But don’t worry you guys, Winn figured out the identity of National City’s murderous vigilante and his name is Phillip.

Needless to say, it’s a lot to take in. And the strangest thing is how little of it really lands. The worst offender in that regard is the reveal that Hank Henshaw is still alive and has been transformed into a cyborg by Project Cadmus. It’s been forever since the show even discussed the original Hank Henshaw—the vindictive DEO leader who was responsible for Jeremiah’s supposed death as seen in the flashback episode “Manhunter.” So when Kara immediately realizes the man fighting her at Cadmus is actually Hank, not J’onn, it’s more confusing than revelatory (especially given how many shapeshifters have appeared on this show). Even worse is his proclamation that he’s now called Cyborg Superman, which is one of the most awkward comic book name drops this show has ever done.

The Jeremiah reveal at least has the benefit of being immediately clear on a visual level (I may or may not have screamed “Dean Cain!” at my TV). But then again, it also feels like it’s been a while since the show mentioned the fact that Jeremiah is in Cadmus’ clutches. I appreciate that this episode didn’t telegraph his return, but laying a little emotional groundwork might’ve made it resonant more. In particular, it seems like Kara’s story about Eliza comforting her when she first came to Earth should’ve been a story about Jeremiah.

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The James stuff is once again the weakest part of the episode, which is a bummer because I’m really rooting for the show to find a place for Mehcad Brooks. But vigilantes grappling with other vigilantes over moral codes is one of the most overdone stories in the superhero genre. And while Batman, Daredevil, and Arrow at least have time to find some nuance within that framework, there’s not enough time for James’ story to hit anything but the broadest beats. The James/Winn friendship continues to be delightful and there’s some nice hand-to-hand combat during James’ battles, but it all mostly winds up feeling like an unnecessary departure from the show’s empathetic thesis statement.

What works better is the J’onn J’onzz portion of the episode, which grapples with ideas about prejudice and hatred far better than the Krypton/Daxam rivalry the show has been trying to sell this year. That’s because Supergirl has shown rather than just told us about the dark history of the White Martian/Green Martian conflict, most specifically in the strong first season episode “Strange Visitor From Another Planet.” And the stakes of J’onn’s hatred aren’t just abstract like they are for Kara and the Daxamites. The White Martians not only committed genocide against the Green Martians, they specific killed J’onn’s wife and young daughters. That’s heavy stuff and it gives J’onn’s prejudice a weight that Kara’s lacks.

It’s easy to sympathize with M’gann because her rejection of her White Martian identity seems so complete. But even if she did eventually flee her job at the internment camp, this is essentially a story about a Nazi deserter seeking forgiveness. So I’m glad that despite its core of optimism, the show is in no rush to have J’onn offer that absolution. It’s a wound that will take time to heal, if it ever does. Then again, the fact that M’gann’s blood is turning J’onn into a White Martian is likely going to complicate things.

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I also liked Cadmus’ plan to coerce Kara into “solar flaring” (i.e. draining all her energy via her heat vision like she did in “Red Faced”) as a way to make her mortal. One of the problems with having such a powerful protagonist is that it can be hard to think of new ways to raise the threat level against her (remember that terrible quicksand trap in “Childish Things”?), but this is one of the most creative solutions the show has come up with yet. Especially because it relies on Kara’s inherent desire to help others. She agrees to give up her powers to stop Cadmus from killing Mon-El with lead bullets, which are lethal to him. And it feels very true to Kara’s character that she would both put herself in harm’s way to help a friend and actually trust that Cadmus would keep its end of the deal.

One of my favorite scenes this week (besides Alex immediately pressuring Winn into confessing that James is the Guardian) is the one Kara and Mon-El share in their respective jail cells. She asks him to tell Alex that she wasn’t scared, while he jokes that she can tell everyone he was terrified. Melissa Benoist and Chris Wood continue to build a nice, easy chemistry between Kara’s do-gooder and Mon-El’s playboy, and I like that Supergirl is giving us more non-expositional character interactions this year.

And those sorts of low-key character beats ensure that even though tonight’s episode is a little bit of a mess, it’s never a slog to watch. Director Glen Winter returns with his ever-moving camera and some exhilarating fight sequences to spice up the visuals. Plus the cast continues to paper over the show’s weak spots with the sheer force of their charm. The Dean Cain reveal really is a whole lot of fun, even if Jeremiah’s unexpected return and immediate disappearance feels a bit like a narrative cul-de-sac. There’s just something about Kara and her adoptive father openly expressing their love for one another that perfectly encapsulates what makes Supergirl’s tone so special.

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Stray observations

  • The mysterious Cadmus Doctor finally gets a name (Lilian Luthor) and some motivation (she blames Superman for propaganda that turned the world against her brilliant son). She also has a plan that involves using Kara’s blood to break into the Fortress of Solitude and get information on something called “Project Medusa.”
  • Chyler Leigh is finally given a monologue about Alex’s coming out that’s so clunky even she can’t make it work. But after some back-and-forth, Maggie and Alex end the episode on relatively good terms with a pool game in their future.
  • On the one hand, this is an incredibly sunny, family-friendly show. On the other, there was a moment in this episode when Kara melted the flesh off a man’s face with her heat vision
  • Apparently Superman and Batman have teamed up in this universe, unless Kara was referring to another masked vigilante with personal demons (to be fair, there are a lot of them).
  • “Is Kara mated to someone?”

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