Photo: Supergirl (CBS)

Welcome back Super Friends! “Blood Bonds” picks up right where “Hostile Takeover” left off, with Kara battling her Uncle Non as he tries to rob Lord Technologies. Yet rather than take a propulsive leap forward, “Blood Bonds” mostly feels like a step back. By the end of the episode Supergirl has returned to its status quo: Evil Twin Astra is once again at large to continue her semi-justified ecoterrorism; Cat no longer thinks her meek assistant is Supergirl; and Kara has reaffirmed the importance of both the DEO and CatCo in her life. The only real shift is that Kara now knows about Hank Henshaw’s alien origins and even that kind of feels like an afterthought.

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So the question remains: Is “Blood Bonds” entertaining enough to justify its inconsequential plotting? Well, yes and no.

On a macro sense, Supergirl is kind of a mess. Even at its best this show is fairly choppy as it tries to cram in a bunch of storylines and service its huge cast of characters. James’ attempt to break into Lord Industries felt especially perfunctory and a fairly convoluted way to find something for Kara to rage about later in the episode.

But on any given week, Supergirl also delivers at least two or three fantastic scenes that rival anything else on genre TV at the moment. From Kara’s rage-filled destruction of Red Tornado to her attempt to stop a robbery without her powers to her complex relationship with Cat Grant, there’s always something to truly love about each episode of Supergirl. It’s the kind of beautifully written, meaty character stuff other shows dish out every few weeks yet Supergirl is consistently nailing. The show’s lows are low but its highs are stratospheric.

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Continuing that trend, there are a couple of stand-out scenes in “Blood Bonds.” When Kara feels her whole world crumbling around her she lashes out—first with sadness as she breaks down in Cat’s office, then with anger as she snaps at Winn and James, and finally with acceptance as she goes to speak with Astra. Each week Supergirl adds more and more dimensions to its central heroine, and Melissa Benoist always proves more than capable of handling whatever the writers throw at her.

“Blood Bonds” goes a long way towards clarifying why Kara chooses to lead a double life when it would ultimately be much simpler to work for the DEO as Supergirl full-time. CatCo gives her a sense of normalcy and community that is even more important to her now that she’s got so much on her plate. James and Winn ground her large-scale heroism with their smaller-scale humanity and Cat serves as her moral guide and surrogate mother figure.

It’s a little frustrating to see Supergirl walk back Cat’s big discovery from last episode, but it’s hard to be completely annoyed given how entertaining the storyline is. I laughed at Cat’s methodical attempts to get Kara to reveal her identity, and I thought Hank posing as Supergirl to throw Cat off the trail was a fine enough solution. If nothing else, it gave us the delightful image of Kara and Supergirl standing side by side.

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But it’s the scene where Kara makes one final emotional appeal to Cat that justifies the narrative retread. That scene recontextualizes the Kara/Cat relationship while still feeling true to what we’ve seen before. Kara’s always quick to defend Cat and it’s true that despite her gruff exterior, Cat has made a point of taking Kara under her wing—from sharing tips on workplace anger over martinis to explaining why a mother might make a tough choice for her child.

There’s a heartbreaking innocence to Kara’s plea that she be able to keep her job without having to confirm her secret identity. She explains, “Whenever I’m confused or overwhelmed I come in your office and you somehow sense it—like your superpower. I know I’m not going to be your assistant for the rest of my life, but I do know whatever I do next will be easier because of everything you taught me. And the truth is I need you now more than I ever have.” It’s a lovely summation of their relationship that reveals new vulnerabilities in Kara. It also feels right that Cat isn’t won over by it.

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Unfortunately this week’s other big relationship focus—Kara and Astra—doesn’t work nearly as well. On a scene-to-scene basis both Benoist and Laura Benanti do nice work, but overall Astra remains frustratingly opaque. The clunky Kryptonian flashbacks are meant to explore her motivations, but they’re more interested in theatrics than character development.

I still have very basic questions about Astra’s goals, both on Krypton and Earth. Was her terrorism merely designed to draw attention to her cause or was it in service of a larger plan, like permanently shutting down the Kyrptonian power grid? Had she ever tried more conventional means of outreach and if so why were Kryptonians so unwilling to listen to her message? Sure I could imagine answers to fill in those blanks, but I shouldn’t need to invent the entire backstory for the show’s central antagonist. Especially when Astra has literally no reason to be vague about any of this stuff. It’s to her advantage to be completely blunt with both Alura and Kara yet she can only speak in vague platitudes about “the greater good.”

And why the hell is she keeping it a secret that Alura believed in her cause? That seems like a surefire way to pique Kara’s interest. Astra continually asks Kara to join her side without ever explaining the logistics of what her side wants in this “war” they seem to have no interest in ever launching. (Surely a half-dozen Kryptonians could have taken over Earth long ago?)

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So far the rule of thumb with Supergirl is that everything connected with CatCo is zippy and well-developed while everything connected with the DEO is bland and vaguely confusing. While the Alex/Kara relationship was initially positioned as the heart of the series, Alex has increasingly taken a backseat to Cat in recent episodes. I thought she might get some more development tonight as she’s elevated to DEO director following Hank’s kidnapping, but that’s almost immediately undone when General Lane (ugh) returns to take over the rescue operation, leaving Alex to once again feel like Kara’s obedient sidekick not a fully-developed character.

There are nice beats throughout “Blood Bonds” that feel true to the Supergirl spirit, including Winn and James teaming up, Kara proving that trust trumps torture, and Astra revealing some innate compassion. But a TV should be greater than the sum of its part. It’s frustrating to see Supergirl cruise at low altitude when it could be soaring.

Stray observations

  • Maxwell Lord is experimenting on a young woman who shares a bit of a resemblance with Kara. Could he be trying to create his own super girl? The show’s off again next week so we’ll have to wait until January 18th to find out.
  • The Astra torture scene was effective; General Lane’s monologue about The Day The Earth Stood Still was not.
  • I wish James had crawled through those laser beams Entrapment-style.
  • I loved the visual of Kara protecting Alex from an explosion with her cape, but I’m not sure why Kara still thinks her aunt is redeemable after Astra sent a bunch of DEO agents into a near-fatal trap.
  • The idea that Kara regularly chats with Clark at least kind of explains why he doesn’t show up in National City when a bunch of Kryptonians are on the loose.
  • “I stopped by that food truck you like.” “The one in Chicago? You are my favorite person.”

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