When it rains it pours on Supergirl. The big issue with “Reality Bytes” is that it has two equally compelling but tonally different storylines vying to be its central focus. In one, Alex and J’onn investigate a missing person case tied into Obsidian Platinum VR, and in the other, Nia discovers that a bigot is targeting the trans community in the hopes of drawing out Dreamer. Both storylines easily could’ve carried their own episodes, and they’re somewhat diminished by being crammed together—especially because they don’t really dovetail in any meaningful way. Still, having too much of a good thing is probably better than not having enough. “Reality Bytes” may be a bit overstuffed, but it carries on the same confidence from last week while using the show’s superhero lens to shine a light on crucial real-world dangers facing the trans community.
Since there’s more to dig into on the Nia side of things, let’s get the Alex/J’onn stuff out of the way first. They get a new case courtesy of bar-owner Al, who pops by to ask them to look for his missing brother Trevor (High School Musical’s Corbin Bleu). In a sort of horror-movie riff on Ready Player One, it turns out Trevor is being held captive in a virtual escape room by computer programmer Richard Bates (Jesse Moss), the husband of the woman Trevor had been having some “harmless fun” with in the VR world. The whole thing raises questions about the moral and ethical lines of virtual spaces. (Is virtual romance cheating? Is virtual torture attempted murder?!?) Even pro-technology Kelly is concerned because Richard was able to manipulate a glitch that should have been fixed months ago.
Alex’s trip into the Obsidian Platinum program is a welcome new visual world for Supergirl, and one I suspect we’ll see again. You can’t tease a retro-flavored Virtual Las Vegas with a (truly) all-you-can eat buffet and just leave it at that! We also get some intriguing teases about what sort of “experience options” Alex’s subconscious wants to explore. For now, however, her heroic trip into Obsidian Platinum gives her a chance to take control of a virtual world in the way she’s been struggling to in the real one. Since the episode is so overstuffed, however, there’s little room to really dig into the pros and cons of VR or to explore why Trevor withdrew from his brother in favor of virtual relationships. Still, it’s nice to see Alex and Kelly both play meaningful roles here.
The same is true of Nia too. Nia has been a fantastic addition to the Supergirl universe, one who always shines when the show gives her its focus. In many ways, Nia is following Kara’s hero’s journey from the first few seasons of the show, and it’s great to revisit some of these early themes with Kara in a mentor role this time around. Yet Supergirl is also careful to emphasize that as much as Nia’s journey echoes Kara’s, she has her own unique story too. Nia not only faces anti-trans bigotry in her increasingly public role as Dreamer, she also feels tremendous pressure to use her powers to protect the trans community, who are too often forgotten or actively ignored by law enforcement.
While superhero and sci-fi shows often explore bigotry via metaphor (i.e. mutant prejudice in X-Men), “Reality Bytes” demonstrates the power of tackling real-world issues directly, even within a genre context. Supergirl cites the real-world stat that over 24 trans people were murdered in the U.S. in 2019 (which probably under represents the true number of cases as well). And the show emphasizes that trans women of color are particularly at risk when Nia’s lovable roommate Yvette (Roxy Wood) is catfished and viciously attacked by the Dreamer-hating Gregory Bauer (Pierson Fode). In one of the episode’s most well-earned moments, Nia tells Kara that this isn’t a problem she can just tackle with a big speech about hope, optimism, and the power of redemption.
Though Nia and Alex’s storylines both go to some dark places, the Nia throughline carries much more weight because of its real-world connections. Supergirl doesn’t shy away from the horrors of Gregory’s violent bigotry, which centers on the misguided idea that Nia is “tricking” people with her gender and that she’s not “the right type of role model.” Yet it’s here where the episode’s bifurcated structure starts to become a hinderance. (It doesn’t help that the two generically named white guy villains feel a bit interchangeable.) We jump through major beats in Nia’s emotional arc without always seeing the connective tissue between them. I would’ve loved to spend more time in her headspace as she eventually decides to lure out Gregory with the intention of killing him.
Nia’s arc is held together by Nicole Maines, who’s long been a Supergirl MVP, but who gets tasked with her biggest acting challenge yet in this episode. Maines is genuinely terrifying (in a sort of Batman/Daredevil way) in the scene where Nia nearly kills Gregory. And she’s utterly heartbreaking in the moment Nia breaks down on the CatCo Balcony of Deep Thoughts. She’s horrified that she nearly committed murder and that part of her still wants to. In the end, it’s only a plea from Kara that stops her from going through with it.
As Kara sympathizes, being the good guy sucks sometimes; yet it’s a hero’s refusal to sink to the level of their enemies that sets them apart and allows them to serve as an inspiration to others. Again, however, I would’ve loved to spend more time in Nia’s headspace leading up to this moment. Though the mention of her mom’s death is a welcome moment of continuity, I’m actually unsure if Nia is talking about her sister or Brainy when she says the person who supported her since day one just broke her heart. (If it is Brainy, the idea that Nia drew validation and a sense of self from their relationship feels like a brand new idea.)
Still, more works here than doesn’t, and the overall effort is so well-meaning that I’m inclined to look past the weaker moments. Kara’s role as a mentor brings out a whole new side of her personality and demonstrates just how much she’s grown over the past five seasons. Her line about how easy it would be to just wipe out her enemies is a reminder of how powerful Kara truly is and how much her heroism comes from restraint as much as from action. And the way Kara helps Nia deal with her frustration and anger calls to mind the way Cat Grant once did the same for her.
In fact, from its zippily upbeat opening scenes to its somber emotional moments, “Reality Bytes” really reminded me of Supergirl’s first season. For every clunky beat, there’s an idea that’s wonderfully earnest and unique, which is a balance Supergirl often struck in its early days. The episode even ends with a callback to a character we first met way back in the show’s pilot. After being on the run since the second season episode “Exodus,” Jeremiah Danvers is finally discovered dead. It’s a jarring reveal that sets us up nicely for next week’s Alex-centric episode. Hopefully that one will have a touch more focus.
- The opening of this episode makes such a big deal about Kara and William’s first date and then we barely get to see how it goes. In his few brief scenes, however, Staz Nair is the most likable he’s been all season.
- I’m utterly delighted that Nia’s apartment has its own little Terrace Of Deep Thoughts. That’s definitely a priority in National City real estate.
- Grey-haired Leviathan agent Margot seemingly kills Richard and then stores his body in some sort of floating corpse facility. Creepy!
- This is a really nice episode for Brainy, who doesn’t blow his unemotional cover but immediately focuses on investigating Gregory’s anti-trans hate group and then turns its members’ names over to the police. “The DEO takes threats against out sister superheroes seriously.”
- Love that literally indestructible Kara can still get jump scared by Alex.