Photo: Diyah Pera (The CW)

There are plenty of adjectives you could use to describe the past three seasons of Supergirl: Inspiring, exhilarating, funny, earnest, and often times a little bit dumb. But there’s one adjective that’s never applied until now: Scary. Season four of Supergirl is genuinely terrifying, not just in the sense that I can understand why the characters themselves are afraid (the show’s done that plenty of times before), but in the sense that I’ve felt really unnerved watching these past six episodes. And I mean that as a compliment. It’s remarkable that Supergirl has been able to so drastically and effectively shift its tone to handle the timely political subject matter it’s exploring this season. But I have to admit, there’s also something strange about watching a show I once turned to for comfort food become a show that’s not always easy to watch.

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Of course, Supergirl is still a fun, funny show, and this episode in particular features some laugh-out-loud jokes and plenty of endearing interactions between our core characters. Brainy is around to provide some excellent and much-needed comic relief. Alex channels her life through Harry Potter references like the true millennial that she is. But—and I don’t want to draw this parallel lightly or flippantly (nor, I think, does the episode)—“Call To Action” is also an episode that essentially depicts National City’s Kristallnacht. The Children of Liberty deliver a manifesto secretly marking Thanksgiving evening as the night they plan to unleash a mass attack against National City’s alien residents. Then they don masks, grab tiki torches, and break into aliens’ homes in order to beat them in front of their children. It’s shocking stuff to watch, especially because it’s calling upon real-world history while simultaneously evoking our current political climate and where it might be headed in a worst-case scenario.

While that physical confrontation is brewing on one side of the Earth First movement, Ben Lockwood (who notably remains safely out of the fray) is leading a public ideological war that ends with him getting his own TV show after a successful on-air debate with Kara. Ben continues to be the single scariest villain Supergirl has ever introduced, which comes down to both the well thought-out conception of the character and, especially, to Sam Witwer’s truly terrifying performance. It would’ve been easy for this politically charged season to introduce a buffoonish Donald Trump stand-in as its villain, but Ben is tapping into a lesser explored element of right-wing bigotry: The faux intellectual who can use his history professor skillset to make pro-hate arguments sound like reasonable thought experiments. Agent Liberty may wear a physical mask, but the far scarier mask is the one Ben puts on to hide his internal anger. Witwer is never better (or more terrifying) than when he captures the moments Ben transitions from his true rage-filled self to the polite image he projects to the outside world.

What impressed me most about “Call To Action” is that it feels like a particularly adult episode, not just in the level of violence it’s willing to depict (Manchester Black engages in some pretty terrifying torture and murder in this episode, even if it’s against bad guys), but also in the level of nuance it brings to its debate. During the Danvers family Thanksgiving, Supergirl finally starts digging into the issues we’ve been discussing in these reviews and their comments sections. Aliens—or at least a good portion of them—do seem to have pretty big biological advantages over humans. How do you deal with that reality? Lena, naturally, wants to play god as the person who gets to dole out superpowers to the “good” humans worthy of them. (It’s the most Luthor plan in the world and I love it.) James, meanwhile, still thinks there’s hope of reaching out to the Children of Liberty with empathy in order to change their minds. His friends, however, are quick to point out that maybe hanging out with a domestic terrorist organization isn’t the best plan in the world. “This is how journalists end up dead,” Lena tells him in another one of the episode’s darkest moments.

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Their differing points of view drive a massive wedge between Lena and James, which is easily the most interesting thing the show has ever done with their relationship. Lena notes there’s “no line in the universe” she wouldn’t cross to keep James safe—which is both a totally believable way for a Luthor to show love and also an idea that really freaks James out. Coincidentally, Lena also just accidentally invented an indestructible heart while trying to cure cancer with the Harun-El rock from last season. I’m sure her desire to start human trials is going to go swimmingly!

That we can understand James and Lena’s perspectives while also understanding that both of their perspectives are pretty damn extreme is a great example of Supergirl injecting some welcome nuance into a relationship conflict. That’s also true of the power struggle between Alex and Colonel Haley, which continues to exist in welcome shades of grey. Colonel Haley is definitely serving as an antagonistic force to our heroes, but she isn’t exactly a villain. (She even brings homemade sweet potato pie to work!) Her dynamic with Alex has the potential to be really interesting, and I’m curious to see where it goes from here.

Oh and also Supergirl fights a dragon.

The dragon is both the best and worst thing about this episode. It’s the best because watching Supergirl fight a dragon is fucking awesome. It demonstrates the size and scale of Kara’s abilities in a way the show sometimes loses sight of given how many humanoid enemies she squares off against. You can tell Supergirl put some real money into rendering the fight itself, which is beautiful to watch, especially once it’s airborne. And the ultimate reveal that the dragon is just a pet trying to defend its alien owners is perfectly in keeping with Supergirl’s empathetic ethos, especially once Kara talks it down by explaining, “You were loyal, you were true, you kept everyone safe.”

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And yet the dragon also feels like a bit of a cop-out, a narrative magic trick that allows us to watch Kara have a big win while avoiding the far scarier idea the epsode just introduced—that Kara doesn’t have time to unmark all the marked alien homes before the Children of Liberty attack. Between Brainy, James, Alex, Kara, and Manchester Black we do see a decent number of Children of Liberty stopped in their tracks, but it also feels like the episode doesn’t quite deal with the scale of the threat it set up and instead makes a concession for a bit of superhero fun. And maybe that’s for the best; maybe this episode needed a bit of engaging heroism to balance its terrifying examination of real-world hatred. In a lovely scene in which Alex, J’onn, and Kara enjoy some Thanksgiving leftovers (nice to see that trio together again!), Alex notes that they seem to be fighting a battle in which it’s always two steps forward, one step back. Similarly, “Call To Action” takes two steps towards a darker version of Supergirl and one step back towards a sunnier one.


Stray observations

  • Considering the way they’ve incorrectly claimed him as their idol, does that make Guardian the Pepe the Frog of the Earth First movement?
  • Obviously it’s building to something and obviously it has some comic book roots if you want to look those up, but the way Nia’s narcolepsy storyline is playing out right now is so bizarre.
  • Brainy’s been enjoyable this whole season, but I feel like this is the episode where he really came into his own. His dance-like physics-based fight with the Children of Liberty was really compelling, and I was continually delighted by the joke of him using the loudly theatrical voice of someone telling a cover-up story but just saying the truth instead. Also his ongoing rom-com storyline with Nia continues to be adorable.
  • Equally great was Nia’s pre-interview pep talk with Kara, which ended with her noticing and complimenting Kara’s new highlights.
  • It’s lovely that Supergirl remains committed to bringing Eliza Danvers (and Helen Slater) back for holiday episodes. Also isn’t Jeremiah still just out in the world somewhere?
  • I’m writing this review while eating a piece of pumpkin pie, which also represents where I stand on the episode’s opening apple vs. pumpkin pie debate.

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