It took nearly all season, but Supergirl’s weird VR lens concept is finally starting to get somewhere. Like last week’s episode, “Alex In Wonderland” takes advantage of Obsidian North’s Ready Player One-style fantasy world to mix up Supergirl’s usual dynamics. Here Alex works through her complex feelings about her dad’s death by imagining a world where she’s National City’s number one superhero, instead of her sister. And though this episode has some notable bumps around the edges, the creativity of the idea and the strength of Chyler Leigh’s performance goes a long way to smoothing them over.
The biggest problem with “Alex In Wonderland” is that it never quite shakes the feeling of being an episode weighed down by real-world logistics. This installment is clearly designed to give Melissa Benoist a break in her filming schedule so that she could direct next week’s episode, and while her few brief scenes are impressively impactful, I could’ve used just a little more screentime between Kara and Alex. The bigger issue, however, is the clunky off-screen death of Jeremiah Danvers.
Jeremiah has been an odd dangling thread for the series ever since his cliffhanger disappearance in season two—back when he seemed to finally break free of his Project Cadmus captors only to betray the Super Friends for complicated “lesser of two evils” reasons. The decision not to bring Dean Cain back for any kind of onscreen resolution (one suspects that he and the Supergirl team might be at odds over some real-world values) means the show is in the strange position of having to write off a character we haven’t seen in years while trying to figure out what note to strike when it comes to the mix of heroism and villainy Jeremiah has represented in his time on the series.
In what’s probably the best move the show could’ve made given those circumstances, the writers have Alex directly wrestle with that conflict itself. Though Kara and J’onn find peace in the fact that Jeremiah reformed his ways and spent years volunteering at an alien refugee camp in Peru before dying of a heart attack, Alex isn’t able to forgive her father as easily. She’s mad that he never reached out to his daughters after he escaped Cadmus, especially when she risked so much to save him. But it turns out she’s also still harboring resentment for the pressure he placed on her in her youth, when he relied on her to help look after Eliza and Kara. For as much as Alex loves her sister, she’s never quite shaken the pain of feeling replaced by a superpowered sibling who took so much of her parents’ attention.
“Alex In Wonderland” features a brutal verbal sparring match between Alex and Kara, where Chyler Leigh and Melissa Benoist perfectly lock into the dynamic of how two close siblings fight. Paradoxically, however, what most captures Alex’s fragile, fractured mindset is how upbeat she is when she slips into Obsidian Platinum’s VR world and tries out being a superhero. Alex is looking for the freedom of an escape, and it’s immediately clear that she’s found it from the lightness with which she carries herself in her new Supergirl getup (even if it is an all-black version of the outfit).
Super Alex is a real treat for Supergirl fans—and for Grey’s Anatomy ones too, as the longhaired, upbeat version of Alex is slightly reminiscent of Lexie Grey. So much of Alex’s life has been spent playing second fiddle to her sister, either as Kara’s protector or as her DEO backup. When Alex finally gets to be the unquestioned center of attention for once, she’s practically glowing. Leigh radiates joy as Alex visits a version of the DEO where J’onn is in command and she’s the star player.
While I still have a ton of questions about the logistics of Obsidian Platinum (wouldn’t a lot of people prefer private fantasy realms, rather than ones they have to share with other people’s disruptive fantasies?), it’s fascinating to see how much more open and honest Alex is in the VR world. Emboldened by both the anonymity of VR and the anonymity of her in-world superhero secret identity, Alex immediately opens up to plucky fellow VR visitor “Treasure Hunter Tilly” a.k.a. Bonnie (Anne Hollister) all about her complicated feelings towards her father.
Unfortunately, “Alex In Wonderland” gets a bit muddled the longer it goes on. The episode can’t decide how much it wants to be about Alex losing her sense of self vs. the Obsidian Platinum platform going wrong. The glitch from last week is causing users (presumably particularly susceptible ones, although I’m not entirely sure) to get sucked into the platform and forget that the real world even exists. Yet while there are moments where Alex’s confusion is effectively eerie—like the fun fake-out wake up sequence—there are other times where it’s just a bit, well, confusing.
The lack of Melissa Benoist and Dean Cain really becomes a problem in the climax, where Kelly decides to send in a teenage version of Alex (Olivia Nikkanen from the Midvale episode) to help adult Alex make peace with the fact that she couldn’t have saved her father, even if she had all of Supergirl’s powers. Jeremiah made his choices, and all Alex can do now is try to make peace with the lack of resolution between them. It’s apparently a successful deployment of Andrea’s suggestion that Alex can only be knocked out of the fantasy by something “unexplainable but undeniable.” Like a lot of elements in the second half of “Alex In Wonderland,” however, it’s a better idea in concept than in execution.
In general, this episode probably could’ve done a little more handholding when it came to dropping us back into a storyline and a father/daughter relationship it hasn’t revisited in years. Grief is an abstract emotion, and Supergirl doesn’t find a fully satisfying way to dramatize Alex’s arc, even as it strains to make her acceptance of her lack of closure tangible. Still, the fun of watching Leigh anchor an episode goes a long way. “Alex In Wonderland” proves that for as good as she is every week, Supergirl is still only using a fraction of Leigh’s talents.
- In a nice bit of synergy, tonight’s Batwoman episode is titled “Through The Looking-Glass.” (I know that show is often Lewis Carroll-themed, but tonight’s title double header feels intentional.)
- Kelly and William team up for a subplot in which they investigate Lex’s 32 new satellites as well as his potential involvement with the VR glitch. It’s an unexpected pairing, but it’s nice that Alex and Kara’s love interests are bonding, and Kelly and William both come across well in this episode.
- Well actually, William casually calling up an NSA contact to spy on Obsidian Platinum users was kind of horrifying. But other than that he was good!
- Andrea initially brushes off Kelly’s Obsidian Platinum concerns with jargon about prioritizing the customer experience while dealing with pesky corporate bureaucracy. It’s a nice way to keep her in a moral grey area before she finally starts taking the problem seriously.
- We also get our first glimpse of Hope/ Eve Teschmacher in the post-Crisis universe. She’s employed at Obsidian North, and I suspect unlikely to follow through on Andrea’s request to fix the glitch.
- David Harewood and Jesse Rath have a lot of fun playing more archetypal versions of J’onn and Brainy in the VR world. Plus I love how much Harewood clearly adores chewing the scenery as Hank Henshaw.
- I wish we’d spent more time on the funeral scene itself (and on Alex and Kara’s reconciliation), but the gesture of J’onn putting his hand on Alex’s shoulder was absolutely lovely.
- As far as I can tell Supergirl is still planning to air a new episode next week, although I’m not sure why there was no promo for it.