A general rule of thumb is that the more interesting a character’s motivation, the more compelling they are. And by those standards, Supergirl’s post-Crisis take on Lex Luthor is one of the most fascinating characters in the show’s history. After playing coy for the past seven episodes about just what this new “heroic” version of Lex is actually up to, “Deus Lex Machina” finally details the hows and whys of Lex’s post-Crisis behavior. And while, on the surface, Lex is driven by a desire to seize control of the Earth and protect humanity the way he sees fit, in actuality, he’s even more so motivated by a Kryptonian inferiority complex and an obsessive need for his sister’s affections.
In what’s become something of a go-to structure for Supergirl, “Deus Lex Machina” flashes back in time to show us everything Lex has been up to since he first woke up in his new post-Crisis universe. Surprisingly, his first thought is for his family. The Luthors’ twisted but genuine love for one another is a great foil for the sunny found-family vibe that characterizes the Super Friends. And since Lillian is just about the only person whose opinion Lex will actually listen to, he pulls back on his instinct to go to war with the Kryptonians. Instead, Lean-In Lillian convinces him that the best way to take over the world and bring his sister back into the family fold is with slow and stealthy manipulation.
“Deus Lex Machina” really emphasizes the idea of Lex Luthor as a super genius able to think 15 steps ahead of everyone else. His ultimate plan is to use Leviathan to his own ends and then wipe out the ancient alien organization itself—all while killing his Kryptonian enemies and gaining access to the Fortress of Solitude in the process. But Lex’s deep-seated need to be loved and admired (and to punish those who don’t love and admire him) keeps butting up against his rational thinking. His unending belief in his own infallibility is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. The idea that Lena might love Kara more than him is too much for his ego to bear.
In my previous review, I talked about seeing the seams in how that Alex-centric episode was clearly designed to give some of the other major players a break in their filming schedules. But this Lex-centric outing is much more purposeful in its limited use of the main cast. “Deus Lex Machina” reveals that Lex has been behind everything from Richard Bates’ hack in “Reality Bytes” to Amy Sapphire’s terrorism in “The Bodyguard.” In “Deus Lex Machina,” it’s like we’re seeing behind the curtain of a standard episode where Kara, Alex, J’onn, Kelly, and William work to stop a big crisis only to be frustrated in their attempts to tie Lex to the villainy. At one point the camera literally pulls back from what would traditionally be the A-plot to show Eve spying on the Super Friends as Lex’s plan unfolds right on schedule.
Elsewhere, there are a couple of moments that feel eerily relevant to our new challenging/uncertain/unprecedented times. One is the scene where Alex, Kelly, and Kara agree that the best way to process grief is to accept that life is out of your control and chow down on dumplings. The other is the way Obsidian North responds to a world-ending crisis by immediately putting out ads advising people to “Escape the event and find comfort in Obsidian Platinum VR!” Two months ago, I might have written that off as a lazy plot device. Now it feels more plausible than ever.
Structurally, “Deus Lex Machina” suffers from the same problems that have characterized all of these flashback episodes: an expectation that the audience remembers far more details about the show’s timeline than is reasonable, and the need to shoehorn in a big climatic action scene where one doesn’t really fit. (The CGI battle against a Sun-Eater is especially egregious, but great to see you again, M’gann!) Still, those missteps are easier to forgive when the character stuff in “Deus Lex Machina” is so strong and the performances are so uniformly great. This episode marks Melissa Benoist’s first time in the director’s chair, and in addition to turning in an all-around confident episode, she gets some fantastic performances from actors who are clearly eager to do right by their star.
That starts with Jon Cryer, who continues to deliver one of the best versions of Lex Luthor ever captured onscreen. When things are going according to plan, there’s a charismatic self-deprecation that makes Lex genuinely appealing. But he can also be downright terrifying when the mask slips and his angry jealously bursts through—like when he reels at the sight of Lena making amends towards Kara. Lex’s villainy is most apparent in his treatment of poor Eve Teschmacher, who’s really put through the wringer in this episode. When Lex first finds her, she’s unhappily working for Leviathan, who murdered her father and threatened her mother in order to force her to become their assassin. Lex enlists her as his double agent and then purposefully encourages her to fall in love with him—the better to eventually punish her for betraying him in an alternate universe she doesn’t even remember.
The best and most shocking moment in this episode is that reveal that Lex tricked Eve into murdering Jeremiah Danvers. It retroactively wipes away any concerns I had about Jeremiah’s demise feeling like a random addition to the season. And it massively ups the stakes for how Kara and Alex will respond when they eventually learn the truth about their father’s death.
The other two standout sequences are musical moments that reinforce our understanding of Lex and his motivations. The first is a montage of his Obsidian Platinum world tour set to David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World.” The lyrics echo Lex’s sales pitch: Obsidian VR provides users the chance to control an imagined world. And that also reflects exactly what Lex wants to do to the real world too. The episode then ends with Lex teleporting into the Fortress of Solitude as an instrumental version of “My Way” plays. It’s a song Supergirl has long associated with Lex, and it takes on an even more loaded meaning here. Lex doesn’t just want power, he wants total control over every element of life. At the end of the day, however, the hardest thing to control just might be himself.
- Brenda Strong and Cara Buono are both fantastic in this episode. (“Once the masses are in VR, I’ll kill ’em all with a flick of my wrist.”) We also see Gemma’s godlike form for the first time.
- Two great outfits: The crisp suit J’onn wears to Lex’s crime scene and the stunning maroon pantsuit Lena wears to the Fortress of Solitude.
- This episode is working overtime to make William likable, and, honestly, it kind of worked! He delivers three different kinds of homemade baked goods to the grieving Danvers sisters.
- I’ve had mixed feelings about this season’s “Brainy reluctantly works with Lex” storyline, but this episode comes closest to making it genuinely compelling. I like the more understated way Jesse Rath plays Brainy’s frustrations.
- As far as I can tell, this season was originally supposed to feature 20 episodes, but due to coronavirus shutdowns, the plan is now to wrap up an episode early while incorporating some of the material from the partially shot finale. That means we’ve only got two episodes left this season, with the makeshift finale set to air on May 17th.
- My biggest critique is that we didn’t spend nearly enough time with Lex as a long-haired bartender/hacker.