“Supergirl”! Oh, what a tangled web you weave.
Sometimes, writing a recap/review of a TV show is simple. It’s great! It’s terrible! It’s confusing! It’s really, really dull! ” Human for a Day” doesn’t fall into any of those categories — or maybe, to be more precise, it falls into all of them (except, thank goodness, the last one). Instead, the penultimate episode of the first half of the season serves up a whole bunch of wonderful with a few doses of, well, not wonderful. Still, if the options are ‘messy’ and ‘boring,’ most everyone would greatly prefer the former, and in that respect, “Human for a Day” does not disappoint.
One of the wonderful things about television is that it’s so communal. If you’re reading this right now, it means you’re actively engaging in something you watched (or something you didn’t watch but read about anyway), and whether you comment, tweet, share, like, or just skim, the act of engaging with a piece of art after the credits roll is no small thing. It’s part of what makes art so vital to our society. And one of the best — and most complicated — things about the creation of art is that sometimes it ends up commenting on our world in ways we don’t expect. Which, to make a long story short, it how “Supergirl” ended up running an episode about heroism and courage — not to mention guns and refugees — in a politically fraught month of an already emotionally complex time of year.
The purpose of this review is not to be political, and so it won’t linger there for long. Still, it’s important to note that one of the strengths of “Supergirl” is also one of its weaknesses: namely, that it’s willing to go to some tricky places — women who are treated as though they’re less than, or as though they’re simply bodies walking around to be pawed; the power of the media (and the rich and powerful) to change and manipulate the information we get, for better and for worse; the destructive power of guns; the anger many show toward refugees they feel don’t belong — but doesn’t really follow through. That’s fine. It doesn’t have to be that show all the time. But there’s something about watching “Supergirl” dip its toe in the water without diving in headfirst that feels off. Perhaps half a loaf is better than none, and this isn’t to say that “Supergirl” needs to be at all political. But maybe, just maybe, if you’re going to go there, then go there.
That’s not a problem Kara has (transition!), nor is it a sticking point for Hank Henshaw. Or should I say Martian Manhunter?
While shoved into the B-plot, the biggest non-cliffhanger development that “Human for a Day” has to offer is the long-teased reveal that Hank’s got a secret. But this is no Cyborg Superman: as reported elsewhere on CBR, Hank is none other than J’onn J’onzz. Sinister glowing eyes and ominous music aside, he seems to be a good fella, doing what he can to protect Alex (per her dear departed Dean Cain’s wishes) as her boss, mentor, and glowing-eyed guardian angel. After an earthquake hits National City right when a baddie’s psychic tank is getting cleaned, Alex must confront her suspicions about Hank — and though she loses a few good men along the way, she gets the confirmation she needed. Hank’s not who he says he is, but he’s not the enemy either, and he can get out of those handcuffs when you need him.
The major storyline contains some of the best and worst moments of a frustratingly inconsistent but still satisfying episode, but before we get to the earthquake/love-triangle, let’s stop for just a second to appreciate the work of Chyler Leigh (Alex) and David Harewood (Hank-Who-Isn’t-Hank-But-Is-Actually-Martian-Manhunter). Neither gets to delve into the earnest cute-pool occupied by Melissa Benoist, Mehcad Brooks, and Jeremy Jordan, nor do they get to walk the Miranda Priestly walk of Calista Flockhart. Still, week to week, they remain two of the most consistent performers of the series, with Leigh in particular finding plenty of ways to remind us that Alex can serve up just as much badass as her sister — no Kryptonian genes necessary.
Big giant head-exploding reveal aside, the focus of this episode isn’t Hank’s real identity. Instead, we spend most of our time with an un-Supered Kara, who seems to have zapped her abilities while duking it out with Red Tornado. When an earthquake inconveniently hits National City, Our Hero seems destined to sit it out on the sidelines, unable to save even the single life in front of her, much less leap tall buildings in a single bound. But after a welcome pep talk from Jimmy-Not-James, she realizes she’s got more to offer than her otherworldly abilities, and promptly marches off to take on some… looters?
Now, this isn’t to say that Kara’s standoff with an armed robber isn’t the emotional heart of the episode. It is, and it’s a lovely scene, albeit one that’s odd to process right now (more on that in a bit). But this isn’t the only instance in this episode where an awkward set-up threatens to reduce an otherwise solid moment to something that seems implausible. Once Kara’s in the store, everything makes perfect sense, and the juxtaposition of her encounter with the gunman and Cat’s speech to the city works much better that one might expect. But the thing that sends her running in to help isn’t the sound of someone in danger, or a sure sign that a human life is at stake. She risks herself because a guy banged in a window, and while looting is obviously both damaging and illegal, it’s maybe not the best use of her time.
Still, it’s an affecting scene, made more so by the environment in which it aired. It’s a foolish daydream to think that the kind of violence people face every day can be stopped by a brave young woman saying “we can be better than this,” and it may seem rather naive, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful. That’s a huge part of what makes Supergirl (and Superman) so inspiring: they’re figures of immense power who strive for good, who believe the best, and who can almost always save the day. We could use one.
That’s far from the end of the day for Kara. She’s still got to have a not-quite-platonic hug with James, witnessed by Winn (poor Winn!), and then she and the other two points of her love triangle have a date with an elevator shaft. In another odd moment, the threesome realize that an upper floor is in jeopardy thanks to a combination of instinct and a well-timed phone call (what?), so James climbs up a floor to help their coworkers escape. Of course he ends up nearly falling to his death, and of course that danger is the jolt of adrenaline — thanks for the research, Winn! — that Kara needs to get her Super back. Faster than you can say anything at all since it happens instantaneously, she’s back in the cape and saving the day, stopping on her way out of the office to tip her cap to Cat. That moment, a relatively minor one, was my favorite non-Martian scene of the episode: one powerful woman taking the time to salute another, and pass on a lesson of which she was reminded a few hours before. There’s much more to being a hero than having supernatural abilities.
So we head into the midwinter finale with James apartment-shopping with Lucy, Winn breaking things and advancing to the rank of people whose names Cat screws up, Alex knowing the truth about her boss and mentor, and — most importantly — Kara in the clutches of her evil aunt. Not a bad place to leave things. Well, bad for Kara, but great for TV. One more to go!
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