Supergirl isn’t just a superhero show with a female lead; it’s a show that sets out to explore super-heroics through an explicitly female lens. Though Kara has a couple of male sidekicks, her most important relationships are with women: Her supportive older sister, her powerful boss, her angelic holographic mother, and—someday down the line— her power-hungry aunt. “Livewire” introduces two more female players into the mix and deepens its existing female characters by examining the women who raised them. After all, nothing brings out mother/daughter tensions like a Thanksgiving feast.
It’s rare to see mother/daughter (or even mother/son) relationships explored in comic book properties, which are overwhelmingly obsessed with men and their daddy issues. Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Thor, and Peter Parker all have complicated relationships with their fathers (or father figures). Arrow’s Oliver Queen carries around all sorts of paternal baggage while Barry Allen has three or four different father figures running around The Flash on any given week. The fact that Supergirl focuses on mothers and daughters isn’t just a win from a feminist point of view, it’s a welcome change of pace for anyone longing for a fresh take on a common comic book trope.
Interestingly, Supergirl doesn’t use its mother/daughter theme to explore Kara, who gets a little lost in the shuffle this week. Instead that theme complicates the women around her, including the show’s most memorable villain yet.
Livewire (True Blood’s Brit Morgan) was a snarky radio host named Leslie Willis before some Kryptonian-flavored lightning gives her the ability to manipulate electricity. Now she’s dead set on taking down the mentor who scorned her: Cat Grant. Morgan brings the right level of camp to Livewire and the show finds some neat visual flourishes for her powers, like the ability to manipulate whips made out of lightning. The fact that Livewire winds up captured, not dead, leads me to hope she’ll be a recurring villain for the series.
In addition to just being a lot of fun, Livewire is also an important foil for Supergirl. While Kara stays positive and optimistic in the face of Cat’s assertiveness, Leslie mistakenly tried to outmatch her boss’ cattiness. Inspired by Cat’s tough critiques of Supergirl, Leslie rips apart National City’s heroine on everything from her outfit to her sexuality to her annoying “adorkable” personality. The idea is that Leslie was turning into a villain long before she got her powers and a lot of that can be blamed on her twisted mother/daughter relationship with Cat.
Continuing its trend of course correcting weaker elements each week, Cat really snaps into focus for the first time tonight as she acknowledges that her frosty demeanor is both intentional and potentially flawed. Not only does she decide to make amends by teaming up with Supergirl to stop Livewire, she also takes a more human interest in her put-upon assistant.
Without losing the character’s edge, Calista Flockhart finds the vulnerability and humanity under Cat’s bravado. She’s genuinely shocked to learn Kara grew up in a foster home because her parents died when she was 13. That in turn inspires Cat to open up about her own difficult childhood. Mrs. Grant raised her daughter with a healthy dose of tough love—something Cat struggled with and yet also credits as the source of her success: “She was never satisfied with me, so I was never satisfied with myself.”
When Cat pushes her employees to be perfect, she’s echoing her mother’s parenting style. And she’s finally starting to realize that might not be a good thing. Though Cat claims she wants to run a feel-good Thanksgiving story as a way to sell papers, it seems that Kara’s infectious positivity (not to mention Supergirl’s good influence) has rubbed off on her. While Cat and Kara don’t exactly have a mother/daughter relationship yet, they do move one step closer to becoming, well, friends.
Cat’s difficult relationship with her mother is echoed in this week’s other mother/daughter pairing: Alex and her mom Eliza (former Supergirl Helen Slater). Dr. Danvers visits National City to celebrate Thanksgiving with her daughters and quickly falls back into old patterns: She’s nothing but supportive of the alien child she adopted and nothing but critical of the human daughter she raised from birth.
The Eliza/Alex scenes capture a complicated relationship that probably resonants with a lot of mothers and daughters in the audience: Eliza wants Alex to be better than her, but more often than not winds up pushing her daughter away rather than inspiring her. Unfortunately, Slater just isn’t a strong enough actor to project the emotional nuance necessary to make the Eliza/Alex dynamic feel real. Chyler Leigh does what she can to bring pathos to their scenes, but Slater remains a blank slate throughout. While it’s sweet that Greg Berlanti shows pay homage to previous superhero properties in their casting choices, the gimmick isn’t worth a weak performance. The fact that despite my complaints I nevertheless teared up when Eliza told Alex, “You’ve always been my Supergirl,” is a testament to how far Supergirl’s dialogue has come in a very short amount of time.
It remains to be seen whether Slater’s performance problems will also plague former Superman Dean Cain, who pops up as Daddy Danvers in flashbacks this week but doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time. Rather than explore Kara’s Kryptonian childhood as it did in “Stronger Together,” Supergirl flashes back to a night on Earth when Kara took her big sister joy riding through the sky. That was also the night Hank Henshaw turned up on the Danvers’ doorstep demanding they hand over their new alien guest to the DEO. Jeremiah offered his Superman expertise in exchange for Kara’s freedom, and Eliza finally reveals to her daughters that she believes her husband died at the hands of Henshaw, not on a plane crash as she was told. That means Alex and Kara can now add Hank to the long list of things to be worried about in National City. (That list also includes aliens, “metahumans,” evil twins, and stranded snakes.)
The Henshaw reveal once again proves Supergirl is refreshingly willing to burn through story at a remarkably fast pace. That confidence, coupled with Supergirl’s uniquely female perspective, makes this a standout episode. The overt feminist declarations are toned down, the dialogue feels more natural, and the villain adds a genuine spark (pun intended) to the proceedings. Those are all things to be thankful for in my book.
- In the spirit of transparency I’ll admit I’m still trying to figure out my grading scale. I think last week’s episode should have been a B and this one is a true B+.
- Perd Watch: Perd Hapley (a.ka. Jay Jackson) makes not one but two appearances tonight, filling in National City on Leslie Willis’ coma and a citywide blackout.
- National City is celebrating Thanksgiving a week early because CBS switched around its episode order in light of the attacks in Paris (the original fourth episode centered on Kara thwarting a terrorist threat). The swap is fairly seamless except for the fact that James and Lucy are back together in this episode even though she just arrived in National City last week. It’s unclear if the original fourth episode, “How Does She Do It?”, will air next week, but the previews seem to suggest it will.
- I loved Kara using her heat vision to finish cooking the Thanksgiving turkey.
- Orphan Black, The X-Files, and Ghostbusters all get shout-outs tonight. ARE YOU HAPPY NOW, NERDS?
- Cat Grant is ready for #Hillary2016.
- For anyone who thinks filming a TV show is glamorous, let Jeremy Jordan tell you otherwise:
- Speaking of Jeremy Jordan, I still have no idea what to make of Winn. Tonight Kara calls him her “best friend in the entire world” (uh…okay) and he kind of tries to confess his feelings. While I’m still unclear if I’m supposed to be rooting for him, Kara’s horrified look when he kisses her on the cheek has given me hope that maybe Supergirl knows exactly what it’s doing with this “friendzone” plot.
- Oh and for those who are curious about Winn’s incarcerated father (and don’t mind comic book spoilers), here’s what’s up with that.