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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled emSupergirl/em’s 100th episode takes a magical jaunt through show’s past
Photo: Katie Yu (The CW)
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For its milestone 100th episode, Supergirl cleverly pairs a nostalgia trip through the show’s past with forward momentum for its protagonist’s emotional arc. “It’s A Super Life” is part clip show, part alternate universe adventure, and a whole lot of fun throughout. That all stems from the return of The Magical Mister Mxyzptlk, who’s dropped his Peter Gadiot wooing disguise to reveal he actually looks like comedian Thomas Lennon. Thanks to a fifth dimensional court-ordered restriction on his magic, Mxy can only use his powers to help those he’s “wrong-ed.” So he sets about making amends for stalking Kara by giving her a chance to undo her rift with Lena. Yet like George Bailey before her, Kara learns that rewriting history doesn’t always pan out the way we hope it will.

This isn’t the first time Supergirl has taken a walk down memory lane this season. The Lena/Andrea-centric “Confidence Women” also flashed back in time, and as in that episode, it’s occasionally a little confusing to recall the exact plot points Kara is dropping into here. But Mxy adds an appreciably madcap meta energy as he pulls up past adventures on “Myxflyx” and complains about buffering problems and an over reliance on exposition. His commentary and the ease of his powers helps keep the episode bright and breezy in a way “Confidence Women” wasn’t. And while I’m not sure it entirely makes sense to revisit the show’s past in a post-Crisis universe (wouldn’t a lot more stuff be different?), this is such a confident hour of TV that I don’t mind rolling with the enjoyably nostalgic punches.

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Kara’s first two attempts to change the past establish the rules for Mxy’s powers and also drill home just how deep Lena’s trust issues go. Kara first tries revealing the truth just before Mercy Graves’ attack on L-Corp in the early season four episode “Fallout” and then again amidst Reign’s arc in the late season three episodes “Trinity” and “Shelter From The Storm.” In both cases, however, Lena is emotionally devastated and—more importantly—there are unforeseen consequences, including Kara dying under Agent Liberty’s Kryptonite-poisoned sky. (The scene of alt-universe Alex visiting Kara’s grave is particularly gutting.) Kara is at least able to use Mxy’s powers to get a quick pep talk from season three Mon-El, who sweetly advises her, “You should know that you deserve the same compassion that you show others.” Unfortunately, he, Lena, and Sam all wind up dying in that timeline so it’s a no go as well.

The first half of “It’s A Super Life” is a fairly standard don’t-mess-with-time episode, enlivened by the lighthearted tone of its central conceit and the joy of seeing old faces return. (Hi Odette Annable and Chris Wood!) But it really picks up steam in its second half, as Kara realizes she needs to take bigger swings if she truly wants to rewrite her history with Lena. She goes all the way back to the origin of their friendship in the beginning of season two (although she technically revisits a scene from the flashback portion of “Confidence Women”) and confesses her secret identity almost immediately. In one of Katie McGrath’s most charming acting moments to date, Lena is giddily delighted by the trust Kara places in her and their partnership gets off to a beautiful start.

Illustration for article titled emSupergirl/em’s 100th episode takes a magical jaunt through show’s past
Photo: Katie Yu (The CW)
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It turns out Lena was right that she and Kara could have done amazing things if they’d been working together from the get go—including eradicating crime and spreading bangs inspo across National City. It’s bittersweet to glimpse this sunny alternate timeline (which Mxy recaps in an old-timey newsreel voice). But it turns out Kara was also right about the risks of letting too many people in on her secret identity. In a clever riff on themes from seasons three and four, the Cult of Rao is even more powerful in a timeline where Thomas Coville can point to the massive achievements of both Supergirl and Lena Luthor. Meanwhile, Ben Lockwood becomes radicalized not because of bad interactions with aliens but because the Cult of Rao suckered in his family and caused their deaths. So he decides to use Supergirl’s love for Lena against her.

Admittedly, some of the cause and effect in “It’s A Super Life” is rather random. Lockwood kidnaps Lena, forces Supergirl to publicly reveal her identity, and then somehow tracks down and kills all of her friends—including Cat Grant. For this to make sense, you have to assume the Children of Liberty are a much more unstoppable threat in this timeline than they were in the original one. (It also undercuts original flavor Winn’s sweet speech about how Kara has taught the Super Friends to look after themselves.) But in such a madcap episode, I’m mostly willing to accept the butterfly effect of it all. Especially because it’s thrilling to watch alternate universe Kara reveal her identity at a press conference as our Kara watches on Mxy’s magic screen. The idea of glimpsing what would happen if you finally did the one thing you’re most afraid of is a deeply relatable fantasy, even for those of us without superhero secret identities.

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Kara’s last gambit is to write her friendship with Lena out of existence entirely, which results in the darkest timeline of all—and gives the episode some actual stakes as Kara and Mxy wind up stuck in an alternate universe where a fascist version of Lena has harnessed all the fifth dimensional energy. Because Kara wasn’t there to stop the assassination attempt against Lena in the second season premiere (which I’m not sure entirely make sense, but whatever), Lena was subjected to two years of isolation, trauma, and experimentation at the hands of Lillian. That eventually led her to murder Lex and rule National City with an iron fist born out of a twisted desire to protect its people from harm.

The Darkest Timeline is largely just an excuse for some action scenes, which we get courtesy of Lena’s “enforcers,” Reign and Brainy. But it also serves as a warning about what the future could look like if Lena and Lex are able to pull off Project Non Nocere. Lena’s “do no harm” ethos can easily slip into fascist extremes if she doesn’t have the right people to keep her in check. So while the image of Lena peeling back her jacket to reveal a Kryptonite Metallo weapon is chilling, the most haunting moment of all is when she calmly asks, “Who’s Kara?”

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Illustration for article titled emSupergirl/em’s 100th episode takes a magical jaunt through show’s past
Photo: Katie Yu (The CW)

Thanks to a deus ex machina bowler hat and Kara’s ultimate decision not to alter history, “It’s A Super Life” runs the risk of feeling like a nostalgic filler episode. But the writers use Kara’s trip to the past to create some concrete forward moment on a character level. Kara frees herself from the quagmire of guilt she’s been stuck in and finally decides to hold Lena accountable for her own actions. Given that Lena’s “woe is me” shtick can get a little exhausting (even just within this episode), it’s great to see it finally challenged. Supergirl often gets storytelling mileage out of characters acting like teenagers, but Kara finally deciding to act like an adult smartly shifts the Kara/Lena conflict without either resolving it or bringing more melodrama into the mix.

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The icing on the 100th episode cake is Thomas Lennon, who knows just how to play in this heightened genre sandbox while bringing an impressive level of pathos to the final monologue where he talks about how his time with Supergirl has inspired him to be better. Mister Mxyzptlk made a rather uneven impression is his first appearance, but I wouldn’t mind if Lennon’s version becomes a recurring player in the Supergirl universe. He’s learned the most important lesson Supergirl has to teach: We’re “stronger together” than we are apart. It turns out Kara does have a catchphrase after all—one she’s been proudly living by since the show’s second ever episode.


Stray observations

  • As she’s been for the past 99 episodes, Melissa Benoist is absolutely wonderful in “It’s A Super Life.” She really is the heart and soul of this show, and her performance sets the tone for its sunny, steely, empathetic world. One particular highlight is Kara’s speech about waking up every morning terrified of her friends getting killed because of her work as Supergirl.
  • J’onn saying “Hey girls!” as he walks into Kara’s apartment with pizza is one of his cutest dad moments ever.
  • It’s fun to get a glimpse of Sam just living her life in Metropolis.
  • In addition to Odette Annable, Chris Wood, Jeremy Jordan, Chad Lowe, and Sam Witwer, we also revisit Betty Buckley as Sam’s mom, Robert Baker as Otis Graves, and some old images of James Olsen and Cat Grant. Great to see them all!
  • It’s interesting that in the Darkest Timeline, the Super Friends are essentially fighting to wipe themselves out of existence. You could easily make a whole episode just about that dilemma.
  • The show manages to do some okay work with Melissa Benoist’s no-bangs wig for the scenes where she’s got it pulled back as Kara, but the Supergirl wig is just unspeakably bad.
  • For all two of you who are nostalgic for J’onn’s Staff of Kolar, this episode has you covered!
  • A lot of the Supergirl cast have been posting old photos and reflections on social media ahead of this 100th episode. It’s well worth a look, especially this “pet project” from season three.
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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.

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