I’m not sure I’d be doing my job properly if I judged each Supergirl episode based solely on how much it made me smile. But at the same time, I’d be lying if I said that sort of gut reaction doesn’t shape how I view the show. When it comes down to it, “Crossfire” is a pretty slight episode that lacks a compelling villain and has subplots that come out of nowhere. It’s scattered and on paper it looks a bit like a filler episode designed to check in on the season’s big themes and introduce some upcoming storylines. Yet in practice “Crossfire” has a warm, enjoyable humanity that so many of the show’s first season episodes were missing. Supergirl has become a series I enjoy much more with my heart than with my brain, which maybe explains why I had so much fun watching tonight’s episode even as I can see its flaws

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Because goddamnit was there a lot to like in “Crossfire.” Kara tries to force Mon-El to be her chipper, sweater-wearing clone. Alex realizes she cares about Maggie as more than just a friend. Winn beefs up his comic relief role. And there’s even a swanky cocktail party where Kara has to pull a Mrs. Doubtfire before battling jewelry thieves with intergalactic weapons. What more could you ask for from a slightly campy superhero series?

Well, a compelling plot for one thing. “Crossfire” is light on substance, focusing on fun character beats over dramatic tension. Given that I’m the kind of person who always prefers character to plot, I have to admit I actually don’t mind that too much. But the best episodes of Supergirl are able to balance their plot and character elements a little better than “Crossfire” does.

The episode begins with Kara’s attempt to remake Mon-El as CatCo’s latest, totally human intern. Meanwhile Supergirl has to face-off with a group of increasingly aggressive thieves who using powerful alien weapons to rob National City’s financial institutions. The latter plot in particular ties in with this season’s big themes of prejudice, xenophobia, and alien immigration. Kara quickly figures out that Cadmus is funding the thieves in order to use them as part of its anti-alien propaganda. They want to prove that no one is safe so long as aliens keep coming to Earth and bringing their weaponry with them. And it turns out to be an effective strategy; public opinion on the President’s Alien Amnesty Act shifts dramatically following the attacks.

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But while it’s an ostensibly weighty turn of events, “Crossfire” mostly keeps things light. Despite their hi-tech weapons, the thieves never really seem like too much of a threat. And they’re even defeated in an appropriately nonchalant way as Lena and Winn basically push some buttons under a table in order to disarm them. The thief plot keeps things moving, but this episode is far more interested in comedy than drama.

It’s nice to see that CatCo can still function as a location on this show, even without Cat Grant around (Snapper Carr is notably absent too). The past few episodes have downplayed the CatCo angle, but it returns in force tonight as a space for chipper comedy and light character work. Kara sets her sights on turning Mon-El from a selfish frat boy into a hardworking intern. But while she can lead him to water (not to mention cut his hair with her eye beams), she can’t make him drink. Mon-El is gonna Mon-El, which means seducing Eve Teschmacher and immediately ignoring all of his responsibilities.

It’s a plot that could easily make either Kara or Mon-El unlikable—her for being too overbearing and him for being, well, an asshole—but the whole thing is charming rather than grating. It helps that Chris Wood plays Mon-El as naïve and jovial rather than dickish, while Kara is her usual best-intentioned self. Given the way he immediately starts reciting his social security number, it’s clear Mon-El’s utterly unprepared to interact with humans, but he and Kara mostly try to make the best of it, which makes the whole thing fun rather than frustrating.

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Supergirl also continues its streak of creating relatively interesting, nuanced storylines and then immediately over explaining them in clunky dialogue. Rather than use the CatCo plot merely to critique Mon-El for being an entitled jerk, “Crossfire” also recognizes that Kara is at fault too. She’s so eager to fashion Mon-El in her own image (literally) that she doesn’t stop to think about what he might want from a life on Earth. A good mentor helps their mentee become the best version of themselves, they don’t prescribe a life for them. And there’s real maturity and growth in the way Kara decides to take a step back from micro-managing Mon-El’s life. Unfortunately, Supergirl is so eager to make sure we understand what’s going on, the episode has its characters openly state that idea not once but twice, which robs the concept of some of its poignancy. As is often the case with Supergirl, you win some you lose some.

There are two other subplots to this episode and I think it’s helpful to compare them in order to understand why one works and the other doesn’t. What works beautifully is Alex’s slow realization that she cares for Maggie as more than just a friend. Crucially, it builds on the dynamic the two women have developed since Maggie’s first appearance a few episodes ago. And even within this episode, the show takes its time to lay out Alex’s growing affection. She takes an intense interest in Maggie’s love life and keeps trying to come up with excuses to spend time with her. Alex initially rejects Maggie’s suggestion that she might be into girls, but after she takes time to reflect, something clicks: Maybe her dissatisfied love life isn’t just because she’s been unlucky with men, maybe it’s because she isn’t actually attracted to them in the first place.

“Crossfire” deepens Alex’s character by allowing us to see her in a more vulnerable state than we have before. And Chyler Leigh absolutely knocks it out of the park as Alex opens up to Maggie about her shifting sense of self-identity. It’s exhilarating to watch Alex step into a new phase of her life, but it’s also heartbreaking to realize how much time she spent being unhappy with her dating life. Having a major character on a superhero series come out of the closet is a big win from a representation standpoint, but this development doesn’t feel like a move for diversity’s sake. It’s a natural progression of what we’ve seen of Alex’s character this season.

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Unfortunately, that’s not the case for James’ sudden desire to become a vigilante superhero, which comes entirely out of nowhere. The image of a bad guy running over his father’s camera is really all we get by way of motivation for this intense character shift. Sure James has always been a fit guy with a brave side, but the idea that he’s a black belt whose equipped for hand-to-hand combat with supervillains just doesn’t mesh with what we know of him. It might’ve been interesting to watch his vigilante dreams grow across the course of the season—and the idea that he’s sick of being a sidekick mostly rings true—but the fact that he’s already out on the streets with a mask and a baseball bat feels like it’s moving way too fast. Unlike the slow burning Alex storyline, Supergirl sloppily rushes in its attempt to figure out a place for James.

It’s certainly possible that James’ vigilantism will turn into something more interesting down the road. And Mehcad Brooks and Jeremy Jordan find some nice chemistry as James and Winn decide to team up. But in an episode full of delightful character moments and slow burning plot lines, the James stuff stands out like a sore thumb. Yet as I mentioned before, this episode somehow winds up feeling like more than the sum of its parts. I guess a little charm and a lot of heart go a long way.

Stray observations

  • Brenda Strong’s mysterious Cadmus doctor is actually Lex and Lena’s mother! That reveal immediately makes her character 100x more interesting than she was before.
  • I was onboard with the idea of the show cutting its losses on the James/Kara romance and having her focus on the non-romantic parts of her life this season. But having Kara dump her black love interest only to immediately take up with a new white one definitely isn’t the best optics.
  • I love the image of Kara bridal carrying a male police office; it’s a nice way to gender flip a traditional damsel-in-distress pose.
  • The show has really stepped up its hand-to-hand combat this season. There’s great action all over this episode, even if the flying looks notably worse than it did with the show’s CBS budget.
  • I just want to reiterate that the whole party sequence was really great. “Operation Doubtfire” struck just the right cheeky tone and I loved Kara’s immediate desire to eat all of the hors d’oeuvres she could get her hands on. And the way everyone stood around laughing after Winn and Lena emerged from under the table was a great Sunday morning cartoon button.
  • “Eve gave me her plastic rectangle to buy things.”

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