"Supergirl" the series, as it turns out, is a lot like Supergirl the character. The show, like the brand-new hero of the DC TV multiverse, doesn't have it all figured out yet, but darn it, that big heart is really in the right place. For all the missteps and fumbles, the occasional bouts of self-righteousness or brief touches of the maudlin, it's ultimately winning -- frankly, it's hard to root against a show (and a woman) that's trying so, so hard to be good.
It is, most of the time -- and so is she. In "Red Tornado," an episode that doesn't really hit its stride until the final act, Kara Danvers faces down some road-ragers, an angry girlfriend, an angry and pretty prejudiced military official, and of course, an angry android, but the biggest demon she has to face down is one of her own. While not handled with absolute grace, it's a nevertheless compelling arc, made effective by a top-notch performance from Melissa Benoist, who's even better here than she's been thus far. (Seems like there's plenty more good stuff to come, ICYMI.)
Still, not all is well in National City, and the more time the show spends away from Kara, the weaker it gets. As with last week's episode, one big key to enjoying "Red Tornado" is looking past some of the obvious foibles and beats that simply don't make sense. Most of those moments come courtesy of General Lane (top notch Hey-It's-That-Guy Glenn Morshower), who despite being played with all the macho, condescending swagger one could hope for in such a role, mostly falls flat.
It doesn't help that the Family Lane snags the title for the week's weakest subplot. General Lane hates Jimmy (sorry, "James") in a way that's cartoonishly over the top, and arrives in National City for a Supergirl-centric military exercise with a dinner designed to drive a wedge between his adult daughter and her boyfriend. There's no room for subtlety in that conversation, so heavy is the sarcasm and so thick the tension. Morshower hits all the right notes, but not even the best actors can make scenes like that sing.
The episode keeps laying it on thick, from Lane's completely nonsensical response to each stage in the crisis to the implausible resolution. He's a jerk, and then he's more of a jerk, and then he's a foolish jerk, and then he's an ungrateful jerk, and then he's a jerk who leaves town. Lucy resigns her military commission -- please oh please don't let her start working for CatCo -- and Dad is not happy. It would be a shame to not see more of a good performer, but with a plot so unsatisfying, it's not that sad to see him go.
For all the weaknesses, though, this was an episode that was more playful, surprising, and honest than any since the pilot. Kara's attempt to figure out what, exactly, is bothering her so much is surprisingly compelling and humanizing, thanks largely to Benoist's simple, energetic performance. A bad run-in with road rage leads to a blow-up at work, thanks in part to Cat's own blow-up (that one courtesy of Cat's mother, gleefully played by journalist and former editor of French "Vogue" Joan Juliet Buck). That, in turn, leads to one of the episode's most surprising and entertaining scenes -- as if it weren't fun enough to see Kara blow up at Cat, we're then treated to Cat and Kara drinking martinis out on the town while Cat works out some rage about some of the very real double standards that exist for women in the world.
Like Benoist, Calista Flockhart was better, more lively, and more honest in this episode than in any since the pilot, and seeing that character become something more than a sketch was one of the most welcome surprises in "Red Tornado." You don't have to be likable, tactful, or sensitive to be compassionate. Her twisted dark heart is still in there, somewhere. The martini night wasn't the episode's only welcome surprise. It's great when a series gives the audience things they didn't even know they wanted, and Kara and Jimmy boxing side-by-side -- he on a punching bag, she on a car -- was just such a moment. What could have been silly ended up being much more, although it was a bit silly, too, and there's not a thing wrong with that. Punch that car, Kara! You've earned it.
The best moment in the episode, however, ties directly to that which worked the least well. This review will not attempt to argue the wisdom, or lack thereof, in its character choices with regard to the Red Tornado and T.O. Morrow (although I hope it's discussed in the forum). What exists in the show is what's available for review, and both characters (each played by Iddo Goldberg) fell flat. Not even the revelation that the Tornado was created as a weapon to fight Kryptonians was able to add spark to the villains (not one, but two). What the choice did give the show, however, was the ability to construct a pitch-perfect fight sequence that managed to end the episode on an incredibly high note.
The presence of Alex Danvers as a non-super superhero was a surprise in her first fight several weeks ago, but "Red Tornado" proves that wasn't a one-off occurrence. Cutting back and forth between two fights -- one between Supergirl and Red Tornado, the other between Alex and the Tornado-controlling Morrow -- adds tension and energy to both battles, and the ultimate reveal that the android's become sentient manages to avoid being cheesy by forcing Kara to call on all that newfound anger. Benoist, the special effects team, and the writing and direction work in perfect concert to produce a moment that rose far above any the show has yet produced. That was real rage, and hurt, and grief powering that victory. You could see it on her face (and behind her laser-eyes). While the villain(s)-of-the-week may have been weaker than one might like, it gave "Supergirl" that moment, and it seems like more than a fair trade.
Overall, it was an entertaining outing -- if only for Cat's hangover sunglasses, the car-punching, and Winn's blissfully awkward "your cousin!" -- that ended on a hell of a cliffhanger. Supergirl's bleeding, Hank Henshaw's got secrets (and eyes that seem to glow at very public moments), and things seem sure to get very messy, very soon. Who could ask for anything more?