Photo: Supergirl (CBS)

So far Supergirl has taken a more-is-more approach to its storytelling, throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. That’s yielded mixed results over the course of its first 13 episodes, and while “Truth, Justice And The American Way” feels similarly overstuffed, it also pushes Supergirl in a darker, more mature direction. For all of its minor missteps, this episode has a thematic boldness that makes for a very refreshing and very welcome change of pace.

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Though “For The Girl Who Has Everything” ended with Kara happily surrounded by her friends, she’s not quite as chipper this week. Tensions are high at the DEO, where Kara (incorrectly) blames Hank for murdering her beloved aunt. And they’re even higher at CatCo now that Cat Grant has passive aggressively hired a new assistant named Siobhan Smythe (Italia Ricci) to supplement Kara’s position. Plus Non makes nice at Astra’s funeral just long enough to tell Kara that he plans to kill her after the requisite two-week Kryptonian mourning period.

So, yeah, normally sunny Kara isn’t in a particularly generous mood when James points out that keeping Maxwell Lord locked up in the DEO’s secret prison without due process isn’t exactly emblematic of Supergirl’s values. Lord’s a dangerous criminal, Kara argues, so why shouldn’t she circumvent the criminal justice system that he will surely exploit to his advantage? After all, the DEO gave him Netflix!

The legality of justice is an interesting topic for Supergirl to explore, especially when it puts Supergirl on the less-than-moral side of the argument. That theme is reflected in tonight’s villain-of-the-week, a surviving Fort Rozz guard named Master Jailer (Jeff Branson) who sets about executing his former wards in his own twisted form of vigilante justice. As he puts it, “By breaking the law you have forfeited your right to exist.” In other words, he makes Judge Dredd look positively empathetic.

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Unfortunately, while the core idea is sound and Master Jailer is a compelling villain when he keeps his mask on, “Truth, Justice, And The American Way” is little sloppy with its execution (pun very much intended). It teases out a mystery about Master Jailer’s identity only to reveal that he is… one of two new characters introduced in the beginning of this episode! A quick switcheroo (“He’s that cop! No wait, he’s that cop!”) and a fake-out Alex death mostly feel like filler. And the climax in which Alex and Hank race to find a kidnapped Kara is perfunctory at best (“He’s not in the house. No wait, he’s under the house!”).

Also filler: Basically everything that happens at CatCo this week. Lucy is mad that James is friends with Supergirl, James is upset he can’t be honest with his girlfriend, and Cat is giving Kara the cold shoulder because she broke up with her estranged son (after three dates!), which is frustrating given all the good work the show has done in building up the Kara/Cat relationship. Even more frustrating, however, is Siobhan, who embodies all of the “bitchy female rival” stereotypes the show so effortlessly subverted with Lucy Lane. Comic book fans may have a clue where Siobhan’s arc is headed, but regardless of her future storylines she should still feel like a three-dimensional character here. Unfortunately she barely manages that, announcing the clichéd line, “I’m not here to make friends,” to justify her rudeness.

Thankfully, Punisher: War Zone director Lexi Alexander brings some cinematic style to the episode’s visual compositions and an extra spark to its fight scenes. Though at times limited by the show’s budget, the hand-to-hand combat sequences feel more confident than they have in the past. And even if Master Jailer doesn’t make a completely believable physical threat (I don’t for a second believe he could battle Kara with those chains nor that he could kidnap her), he’s at least an interesting thematic foil. His chilling guillotine execution of prisoner #2444 sets him up as a ruthless villain, and his bloody vigilantism is one extreme of the dark side Kara is teetering towards by stripping Lord of his civil rights.

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That said, I’m not sure exactly what Kara learns this week. She’s always been one to reach out with empathy and to try to see things from multiple points of view, so learning that Fort Rozz escapee Professor Luzano isn’t completely a bad guy (he smuggled drugs to try to make money for one of his sick wives) doesn’t really challenge her worldview very much. And it’s particularly odd not to show Master Jailer’s final fate after making so much fuss about the DEO holding illegal prisoners. Will he similarly be thrown in DEO jail without a trial? Did Kara kill him with that neck pinch? (I don’t think so, but we don’t see him again after that.)

And though it’s presented as a “win” that Supergirl decides to release Maxwell Lord, it’s immediately undercut by the reveal that the DEO has evidence of his criminality, which they are using to blackmail him into keeping Supergirl’s identity a secret. To be fair, the episode might want me to feel uncomfortable with that threat; Alex doesn’t mention the “mutually assured destruction” angle until Kara leaves the room. But in general the idea that Kara lets a dangerous psychopath back out on the streets (he kidnapped and killed multiple women while creating Bizarro!) without even attempting to stop him legally is really questionable.

Had this episode cut back on the DEO procedural stuff, the CatCo character antics, or the Lucy/James drama, it might have had room to explore its heroine’s worldview a little more thoroughly. Instead Supergirl once again goes for quantity over quality, which leaves everything feeling a little lacking. Kara tells Hank, “There’s always another way.” But if that other way involves putting the public at jeopardy can she still claim the moral highground?

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Still I’m inclined to cut the episode a whole lot of slack for even trying to address such a complex topic head-on. Any other week Kara would be the one voicing concerns about justice and freedom. But pushed to her breaking point, it’s James who has to act as her conscience in the episode’s best scenes. Kara briefly tries to become the kind of hero who does what needs to be done no matter the cost. But James reminds her that that isn’t Supergirl’s way. Instead she’s all about truth, justice, and, well, you know the rest.

Stray observations

  • Why doesn’t Kara tell a prying Siobhan that James is dating their coworker Lucy?
  • I like that Cat and James get a bonding moment about ethics in journalism, but her monologue about failing to expose an abusive celebrity just didn’t work for me. Calista Flockhart delivered it well, but I think the reveal that the actor went on to murder his wife just felt like too much of an escalation.
  • “I thought masks were only big in that other city.” Guesses on what Kara meant? Is Supergirl alluding to other comic book properities in general (a nod to Gotham City perhaps?) or specifically setting up that upcoming Flash crossover episode?
  • After getting flack for casting mostly white women in its main cast, it feels tone deaf for Supergirl to add yet another white woman to its cast.
  • “Ooh, I’ve wanted to catch a corrupt cop ever since we binge-watched The Wire.” This line is okay on paper, but Melissa Benoist’s delivery of it is all kinds of adorable.

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