As “Supergirl” prepares to wrap up its second season, it’s got a number of loose ends to deal with — and if it’s not going to wrap them up, it’s got to at least link them together. That’s the case with “City of Lost Children,” a James/Guardian-centric outing that nimbly ties Rhea’s multi-episode nefarious plot with a season-long question. It’s one that’s plagued both James Olsen and the show’s writers: how do you solve a problem like Guardian?
Since shutting down the potential James-Kara relationship, “Supergirl” has seemed at a bit of a loss as to what to do with Mr. Olsen (and thus with Mehcad Brooks). Sometimes James’s quest to find meaning through the eye-hole in Guardian’s mask has felt a bit forced, even whiny, while at others it’s seemed a silly, if fun, distraction from the matter at hand. In “City of Lost Children,” however, “Supergirl” does right by James, with the character (and, to a certain extent, the show) acknowledging how largely ineffectual Guardian has been. This dissatisfaction, tinged here and there with jealousy, sets James up to get a dose of perspective — and that, along with some fatherly wisdom from J’onn, leads him to discover a superpower that he and Kara both have in spades: empathy. With that, the problematic and uninspiring nature of the Guardian storyline becomes a feature, not a bug, and Jimmy-James Olsen gets back to being one of the show’s most endearing characters.
While that, along with a genuinely stirring performance from Brooks, would be enough to place “City of Lost Children” among this season’s best, the episode also manages to nimbly link together its A and B plots, both in the storytelling and in the theme. We begin with Guardian saving a woman from two menacing dudes, but James realizes pretty quickly that to this would-be victim, he’s just another strange and terrifying man. Fast-forward to the next day, and Winn’s grilling his pal about why he pulled the Guardian plug early the night before. James explains that Supergirl and Superman inspire people, but all he does is frighten them, and that’s not what he set out to do. Just then, a woman shows up, her eyes start to glow purple, she floats into the sky and all hell breaks loose. James helps a few people to safety, and then Supergirl shows up to catch a truck in mid-air and generally save the day.
The hunt for the mystery telepath is on at the DEO, and as J’onn makes clear, Guardian’s skill set won’t be needed to track her down. James ignores this, of course, and tracks down our old friend Brian, who’s just buying weed for his anxiety. One hot tip later, Guardian’s standing in the house of the errant telepath, and comes face to face with her very cute kid Marcus (Lonnie Chavis of “This Is Us”). Like the woman from the opening scene, Marcus is scared of Guardian at first, but when James removes his mask, something else happens. It’s a lovely moment, calling to mind that might be the most iconic photo of the Obama Presidency, and creates a rock-solid base from which to build a relationship.
The same can’t really be said of the other ‘mentor’ relationship featured in this episode. Rhea continues to toy with Lena’s emotions — this is a young woman sorely in need of a mother-figure who isn’t a racist sociopath — as the pair work to create her world-changing gate. Rhea offers warmth, encouragement, matter of fact support, and what seems like honesty, all in service of helping Lena live up to her potential. While both Teri Hatcher and Katie McGrath sell the hell out of this bond, it’s nowhere near as arresting as that between Marcus and James, in part because Marcus is a child in a dangerous situation, and in part because it just doesn’t make a ton of sense. Lena is a woman who’s been burned many, many times by people who say they care for her. This relationship began with a lie, and it hasn’t existed for that long, yet somehow, Lena’s trust in and affection for her new partner seem to be rock solid. Some helpful hints and encouragement get Lena further down the path to making the gate work, and just like that, our stories collide.
After Alex hits a wall with young Marcus, she persuades J’onn to let James have a go at getting him to open up. They head to Catco, where Marcus begins to do just that, but as Lena and Rhea’s device powers up, Marcus goes “all Carrie” and starts to tear down Catco. James feels helpless to stop the destruction, but Kara arrives just in time to whisk him out the window and save the day.
While Kara, Mon-El and the rest of the DEO set to work tracking down Rhea — who conveniently outs herself when Kara calls Lena’s cell phone — James starts to walk away from both Marcus and the hero game. That’s when J’onn steps in to do some mentoring of his own. It’s a beautifully written conversation which touches on the importance of having someone to care for and protect, a subject made more relevant by the fact that two black men are doing the talking. This series hasn’t shied away from addressing the female experience, and the same could be said — albeit less frequently — of their approach to the black experience. By the end of J’onn’s speech, James is ready to try to help Marcus, all with the aid of a handy telepathic-field-dampener of Winn’s, just big enough for two people.
Except it’s not two people, of course. Just as Kara, J’onn, and Mon-El track down Rhea and Lena (who realizes her would-be mother-figure’s betrayal just a moment too late), Winn and James help Marcus find his mother, along with many other telepaths who’ve gone into hiding. As Rhea opens the gate, welcoming a Daxamite fleet, all the telepaths get activated, and through the strength of his convictions and affection for Marcus, James manages to talk him, and thus all the other aliens, out of their altered state. It’s a bit heavy-handed, but undeniably affecting, and it’s a shame that this will probably be the last we see of Chavis, who’s a little busy over on NBC. Way to go, James. No mask necessary.
If James has a moment of strength, Mon-El’s big moment is anything but. After Rhea knocks out Lena, neutralizes J’onn in a mental prison, and sends Supergirl out to get blasted back into the dirt, her son turns a gun on her, and she essentially manipulates him into giving her a big, sad hug. It would be totally at odds with Mon-El’s character, to say nothing of the show’s ethos in general, for him to murder his mother, but his failure to take action means there’s absolutely no way of stopping the next phase in her plan. Daxamite ships stream in from across the galaxy, ready to invade what Rhea calls “New Daxam,” and she lays the bloodshed that’s sure to follow solely at Kara’s feet.
This might not be the strongest episode of “Supergirl,” but beyond its pure entertainment value — which is good on its own — this is an hour that manages to make big adjustments to a failing storyline, link that story with one of the season’s biggest, set up another connection to come, and tackle some big, emotional issues. It’s vital stuff, not least of which is the return to what might be the thesis of “Supergirl”: caring for others is a superpower all its own. Kara’s greatest strength has always been her kindness and compassion, and that’s echoed here in James. Let’s hope that this sets him on a path to be the kind of hero he wants to be, and let’s hope that hero has a better storyline going forward. Oh, and a better mask, please.
Next week: Lillian Luthor returns, and it would seem that Mon-El and Lena are going to have plenty of mom-drama they can bond over.
Airing Mondays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on The CW, “Supergirl” stars Melissa Benoist, Mehcad Brooks, Chyler Leigh, Jeremy Jordan, David Harewood and Chris Wood.