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Supergirl meets her Soviet sister in a jam-packed penultimate episode

Photo: Sergei Bachlakov (The CW)
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If you’re looking for bang for your Supergirl buck, “Red Dawn” more than delivers. This is an almost preposterously overstuffed episode; one with game-changing events on so many fronts it’s hard to keep track of them all. It doesn’t all work and much of it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, but “Red Dawn” is such a propulsive thrill ride that it’s hard to care all that much. This episode is like Supergirl on steroids, and while that’s probably not a pace the show could sustain long-term, it’s always fun to watch Supergirl go for broke every once in a while.

After a season of leading parallel lives, Kara and Red Daughter finally come face-to-face when Red Daughter is sent to assassinate Kara. In a great genre subversion, Red Daughter scoffs at Kara for trying to deliver the classic “We’re not so different, you and I” villain speech. Though Red Daughter is clearly conflicted about being a pawn in Lex’s plan (she’s been full-on stalking Kara in National City and living a mirror version of her life), she ultimately maintains her loyalty to Lex’s collectivist vision over Kara’s individualist attitude. I would’ve loved for the episode to spend even more time digging into the complicated dynamic between Kara and Red Daughter—two women who are inversions without being polar opposites. But “Red Dawn” has way too much on its minds to zero in on any one thing for too long.

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The heart of the episode belongs to Alex finally (finally!) regaining her memories of her sister’s secret identity. Alex’s memory wipe has been one of the weakest elements of the season, and the logistics of how its resolved are a bit of a stretch. Alex’s failed adoption from last week begins to trigger memories of her childhood with an adoptive superpowered sister. So even though J’onn warns Kara that telling Alex about her secret identify could drive her insane as she tries to rectify two different realities, Alex manages to get her memories back through… the power of love? I guess?

It’s a pretty blatant attempt to manufacture some Danvers sisters pathos for the end of the season. And Raodamnit if it didn’t totally work on me. Supergirl has done such a wonderful job building up Alex and Kara’s relationship over the years that even just the first clipshow image of Alex’s memory montage (their through-the-glass hand touch from the second season episode “Exodus”) was enough to make me teary. Throw in Chyler Leigh’s absolutely stunning performance during the scene in which Alex thinks Kara is dead, and I’ll even forgive the absolutely ridiculous plot device of Kara being healed by magical grass. Photosynthesis for the win!

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There are times where Supergirl’s go-for-broke storytelling can be a huge misstep, like all the Argo City stuff from last season. Yet there are also times when Supergirl is able to tap into an openhearted spirit that can transform even its rockiest stories into something special. Though “Red Dawn” doesn’t retroactively make the Alex mindwipe storyline anymore interesting, at least it ends that lackluster throughline on an emotional high note.

As if all that weren’t enough, “Red Dawn” also takes a massive, unexpected swing with Brainy’s character. He’s taken captive while on a mission with Nia and J’onn to infiltrate the base where Lex is draining aliens to power his Project Claymore weaponry. Through some sort of combination of torture, ancestral memory, and misplaced emotional compartmentalization, Brainy is “rebooted” into a version of himself that aligns with his ruthless ancestors, who he describes as being “collectors and conquerors.” Brainy emerges as a callous, humorless version of himself—one willing to risk the lives of both J’onn and Nia to find out where Lex transports his alien prisoners.

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Photo: Sergei Bachlakov (The CW)

The showy mid-torture monologue sits somewhere between compelling and unintentionally goofy, but Jesse Rath’s subsequent performance as this coldhearted version of Brainy is unnervingly captivating. I’m curious to see if Brainy’s transformation is something that will be resolved in the season finale or left as fodder for next season. In the comics, Brainy (a.k.a. Brainiac-5) is a descendant of Brainiac, who is one of Superman’s iconic villains, so it’s possible Supergirl might want to use Brainy in an antagonistic role for a while. For now, however, this is just one more stumbling block on the road to Nia and Brainy’s superhero love story.

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But wait, that’s not all! Elsewhere, Lena helps Ben Lockwood realize that his rise to political fame was all thanks to Lex’s manipulations. Lillian stabilizes James’ Harun-El powers by giving him more Harun-El. Otis Graves dies—again. And Lex successfully pulls off his false flag operation by defeating Kaznia’s invading army and killing “Supergirl” a.k.a. Red Daughter. Or at least he seems to. I’m hoping that’s a fake-out as it doesn’t feel like Red Daughter’s story is complete yet. Regardless, next week’s season finale seems to be bringing Lex back into the mix in a big way, which is definitely something to look forward to.

For all its moments of clumsiness, “Red Dawn” crystallizes the kind of logic-be-damned emotional storytelling that Supergirl does best. It also allows Kara to fully articulate her philosophy of “hope, help, and compassion for all.” Here’s hoping the season finale offers that same emotional clarity, no matter what the plot has in store.

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Stray observations

  • Sam Witwer’s performance has been a huge highlight of the season, and his portrayal of Brainy posing as Ben Lockwood was next-level great.
  • I love when Supergirl finds ways for Lena to lean into her Luthor tendencies while still fighting for good—like buying Lillian’s for-profit prison and then giving her mom a 24-hour poison-based deadline. (Cue Lillian: “Couldn’t you have just waterboarded me like a normal person?”)
  • Colonel Haley’s reluctant ally arc would have been so much more effective if “Suspicious Minds” hadn’t randomly written her as a full-on villain for one episode.
  • Nia’s eagerness to use the “Wookie gambit” to sneak into Lex’s base was adorable. I especially enjoyed her delivery of, “Brainy, tell me the odds.”
  • Kara and Red Daughter’s Midvale showdown was clearly limited by budgetary restrictions (it also bizarrely cut from day to night mid-fight, unless that was supposed to be a side effect of Red Daughter’s “evolved” electricity powers), but the rest of this episode’s fight sequences were great and it was fun to have so many of them in one episode.
  • Both Eliza Danvers and Lillian Luthor pop up in this Mother’s Day episode. Lillian even makes a truth-seeker-induced confession that she genuinely loves Lena!
  • Someone in last week’s comment section speculated that the episode namedropped Cat Grant to prepare us for an upcoming Calista Flockhart cameo. I have no idea if that’s the case, but this episode also makes a conspicuous reference to Miss Grant too.
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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.