It’s been one week since Supergirl last offered its unique blend of interesting ideas and imperfect execution. And if you didn’t sing that opening sentence to the tune of “One Week” you’re clearly less of a Barenaked Ladies fan than Alex Danvers (or the Community study group for that matter). BNL references aside, “The Martian Chronicles” offers the patented combination of highs and lows that has defined Supergirl pretty much from the beginning. Only this week it does so in convenient bottle episode form.
Well, kind of. The term “bottle episode” refers to an episode shot on the cheap using existing sets, few non-regular cast members, and limited effects to keep costs low. “The Martian Chronicles” is actually a pretty CG-heavy episode, given the sheer number of Martians, both White and Green, running around. But it otherwise fits the bill of a more dialogue-heavy episode set mostly on existing sets. At their worst, bottle episodes can feel like cheap and inessential filler. But at their best, the limitations give the writers a boost of creativity that produces great episodes like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s “Duet” or Community’s “Cooperative Calligraphy.” As it does with most things, Supergirl somehow manages to split the difference.
The part of “The Martian Chronicles” that works like gangbusters is the most overtly “bottle episode” portion of the episode. With a shapeshifting White Martian on the loose, J’onn is forced to put the DEO on lockdown. From there paranoia—not to mention the threat of a nuclear reactor explosion—shifts the episode into high gear. To be clear, there are a lot of phenomenally stupid things about the DEO lockdown. For one thing, why does the DEO even have a deadly nuclear reactor core? (I found myself echoing Sigourney Weaver in Galaxy Quest: “It makes no logical sense, why is it here?”) For another, why does Kara prioritize a heart-to-heart with her sister over stopping a nuclear reactor from killing everyone within a 10-city block radius in 15 minutes? But if you’re willing to shut your brain off, the DEO lockdown is a tight, tense bit of suspenseful sci-fi storytelling.
That starts with the moment M’gann M’orzz causally walks into a room she just entered minutes before with Hank. It’s a confusing but compelling visual to kick off the DEO lockdown portion of the episode and from there Supergirl gets a lot of mileage out of classic body-swapping horror tropes. Tempers immediately flare as everyone begins to suspect everyone else around them. And a simple flame test ratchets up the tension even further. Having Winn deliver a bunch of quippy one-liners is a nice way to throw us off the scent that he’s actually a White Martian in disguise. And Jeremy Jordan relishes the chance to both play a villain and shoot a flamethrower.
But what really elevates the lockdown storyline is the addition of a second twist. I was so busy rolling my eyes about the fact that Kara and Alex were having a heart-to-heart during the middle of a life-or-death situation that it didn’t even occur to me to wonder if there was a second White Martian on the loose. But regardless of whether you guessed Alex wasn’t who she appeared to be, the reveal works dramatically because it carries so much weight for Kara. She pours her heart out to someone using her sister’s form against her and that makes their battle a more personal one. The reveal adds a horror movie twist to the openhearted emotional core of Supergirl, which is an unexpected but effective subversion. And like Jeremy Jordan, Chyler Leigh clearly gets a kick out of playing a bad guy.
Some quibbles aside (and we’ll get to a big one in the Stray Observations), the DEO portion of the episode is tense, well acted, and full of compelling close quarters action sequences. It’s far from original and occasionally outright cheesy (particularly the instant suspicion that forms between the two DEO agents), but that tone fits comfortably within both the horror movie tradition its homaging and Supergirl’s own semi-cheesy tone. Unfortunately, what lets the episode down is everything surrounding that tense DEO sequence.
I personally would’ve preferred if the entire episode had taken place inside the DEO, but “The Martian Chronicles” pads out its runtime with character drama. And that‘s where the bottle episode seams really start to show. In addition to the lockdown, the episode explores the emotional ramifications of Barenaked Ladies superfan Alex ditching her sister for a concert. And it digs into the budding but short-lived romance of Miss Martian and Mr. Manhunter.
There are interesting core ideas in both storylines. And I appreciate that they both acknowledge the serious emotional trauma this show’s characters have been through. To deal with their survivor’s guilt, M’gann and J’onn both hardened themselves to the outside world, choosing lives of isolation. Meanwhile Kara admits that she still has severe abandonment issues over the fact that her parents sent her away without really telling her what was happening. Unfortunately, the writing on Supergirl just isn’t quite strong enough to sustain such extended beats of pure character drama.
For instance, rather than allow the J’onn/M’gann relationship to develop naturally, the show rushes a doomed romance between the two, which never quite gets enough room to breathe. Supergirl seems to put a permanent end to M’gann’s tenure on the show as she decides to return to her home world in the hopes of showing her people the error of their ways. Sharon Leal’s choice to give M’gann a stately, heightened speaking style winds up hampering some of the emotional drama. And though David Harewood is great as always, the M’gann/J’onn relationship just hasn’t had enough time for their breakup to fully resonate.
The Kara/Alex relationship does have the weight of history behind it and their reconciliation scene is a lovely celebration of their sisterhood. But their conflict throughout this episode also feels a little forced, something Alex directly acknowledges when she nudges Kara about what’s really bothering her. It turns out Kara’s not really upset about Alex ditching her for the dulcet tones of BNL, she’s actually upset about Mon-El.
I’m more of a Mon-El fan than some critics, but the problem is that Supergirl has told this “Kara’s friend falls for her and she doesn’t know how to respond” story two or three times now. This is basically just a rehashing of last year’s Winn storyline and to a lesser extent the James one too, which is starting to make Kara’s love life feel less like a compelling source of drama and more like a running gag. The Mon-El stuff is backgrounded enough that it’s not a huge detriment to this episode, but I’m hoping Supergirl finds a new angle on their romance and that it does so fast.
Since its stellar second season premiere, Supergirl has had a hard time telling stories that feel fully cohesive. “The Martian Chronicles” fits squarely within that uneven mold, but its bottle episode premise at least makes it one of the more memorable outings this season. Though Supergirl generally succeeds when it tells emotionally resonant stories, “The Martian Chronicles” proves far more effective at action and horror than pathos. The exhilarating final showdown has a fun B-movie flavor as J’onn and M’gann take on a White Martian while Winn bumbles his way into stopping a nuclear reactor meltdown. The shots of M’gann leaping into the air to land a slow-motion deathblow or Alex arriving just in time to take out a bad guy and deliver a quip about her gun are pure schlocky superhero fun. And that goes a long way to peppering over this episode’s weak points.
- So there seems to be a pretty major plot hole in this episode: When J’onn enters the DEO with fake M’gann, a bunch of DEO agents including Winn and Alex (who I think is already a White Martian at that point?) are in the room. J’onn then fights fake M’gann, she disappears when the lights go out, and all of the sudden J’onn is certain that she’s disguised herself as one of the people in the room. But how could that be possible? If Winn was already in the room, how could fake M’gann have impersonated him? When did she have time to knock him out/stash his body? It seems like a pretty major oversight, but given how quickly the episode barrels past it, I’m choosing not to hold it against it too much.
- There was so much technobabble/explaining of White and Green Martian powers in this episode that I felt like I was watching an episode of Star Trek. It was oddly comforting. I particularly liked J’onn announcing, “No, they can read minds too!”
- One of the White Martians hunting M’gann is her ex-husband Armek (Terrell Tilford), which is meant to add dramatic weight to the episode but basically amounts to nothing.
- I love that Kara just refers to it as “Earth birthday” rather than “my Earth birthday.” Also happy 13th year on Earth, Kara! Mazel Tov!
- The Lego Batman promo that premiered during tonight’s episode really made me laugh:
Next week: The Luthor ladies are back, baby!