Photo: Jeff Weddell (The CW)
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More so than maybe any episode since the show moved to The CW, “Stand And Deliver” really reminded me of Supergirl’s first season. It’s earnest, optimistic, and incredibly unsubtle in ways that still felt really moving in the moment (I teared up when Kara joined the pro-alien protest). Yet it also relies on emotional shortcuts, confusing plot mechanics, and metaphorical connections that fall apart the longer you think about them. This episode hinges on the idea that the most uplifting thing in the world would be to see a white supremacist and a member of an oppressed minority group come together to help each other in a time of crisis. And while there’s no doubt that such an image probably would get a lot of positive play in the press, I’m not actually sure it does represent a radical step forward. People fighting for oppression and people fighting for equality aren’t actually two sides of the same coin, as this episode seems to suggest. Well, at least not in our world.

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In other words, welcome to another edition of “your reviewer tries to figure out how to treat the allegorical nature of Supergirl’s fourth season!” This episode continues the season-long problem of the fact that powerful aliens don’t represent a one-to-one metaphor for real-world oppressed groups. It’s a problem Supergirl could at least try to mitigate by showing more of the “everyday” alien refugees Kara is always talking about, which this episode kind of tries to do with alien CatCo journalist Frank. For the most part, however, Supergirl only ever seems to briefly mention those everyday aliens in passing before zeroing in on the powerful alien heroes and villains who are constantly wreaking havoc around National City. The in-world situation is, uh, complicated to say the least, but I can’t decide if that makes the simplistic “Let’s put aside our differences and agree to disagree!” endpoint better or worse.

Thankfully, “Stand And Deliver” also features a much insightful moment where vitriolic anti-alien heckler Quentin (Mean Girls’ Jonathan Bennett) warmly greets Supergirl, confident in the fact that she’s not like the “other” aliens he’s complaining about. It’s the episode’s smartest allegorical moment, one that offers a direct parallel to the way successful individuals within an oppressed group can be used by oppressors as tokens of faux progressivism. And it fuels the episode’s most powerful image, which is Kara joining the protest march not as Supergirl, but as Kara Zor-El, refugee of Krypton and citizen of Earth. It’s a sequence where the show argues that leaders embracing the fullness of their identities is a radical, necessary act. On the other hand, the fact that that’s really all it takes to get Quentin to change his mind feels like it’s own kind of dangerous myth. I believe people can learn to leave behind their bigotry, I just don’t believe it can happen in the span of 30 minutes—especially not to a guy so bigoted he’s happy to publicly hurl verbal attacks at alien strangers.

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Photo: Jeff Weddell (The CW)

Beyond its imperfect allegorical storytelling, “Stand And Deliver” is a bit messy on a structural level too. Though Supergirl’s decision to move away from largely episodic storytelling in favor of something more serialized has been a welcome one, the show is still experiencing some growing pains in that shift. The Quentin story unfolds way too quickly in order to give “Stand And Deliver” some kind of episodic closure. Yet the ongoing Elite storyline has a different kind of pacing problem. There’s a lot of confusing lead-up to the Elite’s attack on Ben Lockwood’s anti-alien rally/the peaceful pro-alien counter-protest (I could barely follow what was happening during Manchester Black’s fake death by glowing door). But then the attack itself kind of just peters out, with J’onn swearing to get revenge on Manchester another day. A lot happens in the sense that Menagerie, the Morai, and Hat are all captured and handed over to the DEO, leaving Manchester as the sole remaining member of the Elite. But that feels more like clunky plot mechanics than a satisfying episodic story.

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As always, however, Supergirl benefits from incredible performances from its immensely talented cast, who help elevate the material and make it feel more seamless than it actually is. Melissa Benoist, Chyler Leigh, Jesse Rath, Sam Witwer, and David Ajala are all standouts, but this week’s MVP is David Harewood. Harewood has been a consistently stellar presence on Supergirl since the beginning (and one I don’t celebrate nearly enough in these reviews!), but he’s locked into his performance on a whole new level in this recent run of episodes. Not only has Manchester provoked J’onn out his life of non-violence, he’s also brought out his “Manhunter” instincts in a way we’ve never really seen before. J’onn’s righteous fury is a real wildcard for the back half of the season—something that could motivate him to do good or lead him down a dark path. Either way, I’m looking forward to watching Harewood sink his teeth into the role with refreshed gusto.

Equally gusto-filled are director Andi Armaganian’s stylistic choices. Sure, setting a moody montage to Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ cover of “Mad World” is hardly the most original thing in the world. Yet it’s an emotional cheat code that effectively conveys the broken yet not entirely unhopeful space Supergirl has been operating in this season. If the ultimate “enemies become allies!” resolution is a little too pat, the look of anguish on Kara and Alex’s faces in the midst of the chaotic outbreak of violence around them is far more impactful.

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That also goes for the episode’s unexpected final moment in which James becomes the victim of a seeming assassination attempt. The image of James bleeding out on the floor certainly offers a stark counterbalance to this episode’s more Pollyannish impulses. And it raises a lot of questions about where James’ story goes from here. Maybe it’s just Kara’s Kryptonian optimism rubbing off on me, but despite four seasons of evidence to the contrary, I still have hope that this show will one day figure out how to use James effectively. Perhaps a near-death experience is just what the character needs to radically reshape him in a more interesting direction. Either that or Lena is going save his life by giving him superpowers, thereby making Guardian a full-time superhero. I’m a little bit worried that’s where we’re headed, but for now, let’s choose to hope for the best, shall we?


Stray observations

  • Between “Mad World” and “Stuck In The Middle With You,” this was a very needle-drop heavy episode. I want to say that’s another thing that made it feel like a first season episode, but now I’m doubting my memory of Supergirl’s pop song usage over the years. Were there more in the first season than in other seasons?
  • Everything involving Nia in this episode was absolutely adorable. It’s especially sweet that Kara knows how to coach her protĂ©gĂ© through her overeager newbie superhero phase because Kara herself went through an overeager newbie superhero phase (including sleeping in her supersuit because she didn’t want to take it off!).
  • The idea of James embracing photojournalism as his true superpower? Great! The actual photo that supposedly made such a big cultural impact? Very mediocre.
  • I feel like Kara usually refers to her cousin as Clark, but in this episode she refers to him as Kal (maybe to hide his secret identity from Nia?), and I found it very sweet.
  • Alex having to work security for Ben Lockwood as he fights to repeal the Alien Amnesty Act was an intriguing setup that didn’t offer enough payoff.
  • Brainy’s negative space fighting style continues to lead to some really great, innovative action choreography. Also, I hope he hangs on to Hat’s hat. It suits him.
  • Since this episode name-dropped the Women’s March, I can’t not share Melissa Benoist’s amazing photo from it:

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Next week: Jon Cryer’s Lex Luthor makes his auspicious debut! Also James maybe dies of a gunshot wound?