SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for "Supergirl Lives," the latest episode of "Supergirl."
"Supergirl" soars back from her winter hiatus, and it's... fine. Well, better than fine, really. One of television's most reliable pleasures remains such, complete with off-kilter charm and solid action sequences. Still, the Kevin Smith-helmed "Supergirl Lives" feels a little empty, a little hollow. It's missing a certain something. It's almost as though "Supergirl" was being broadcast beneath a red sun, with brief spells of light from a yellow sun grenade.
What's it missing? Well, stakes, for one. "Supergirl" has never been a paragon of subtlety -- in fact, that's part of its charm. This is a series that wears its heart on its stretchy blue sleeve, and while it is nearly always thoughtful and unafraid to tackle difficult questions, its thematic concerns are nearly always in the supertext, rather than the subtext. "Supergirl" tells you exactly what it's thinking and that backs all that earnestness up with real dramatic heft, with powerhouse performances and genuinely stirring storytelling. It works because the characters care and the people making the show care. The stakes are high for them.
Not so, here. The episode kicks off with a solid action sequence, as Supergirl chases down a van filled with jewel thieves, jewels, and a rocket launcher. She blasts the van into the air after dodging whatever ballistics that massive gun was firing, only to realize some of the thieves dodged out and fled on foot. We then cut to James in Guardian gear, kicking the crap out of them before one escapes and heads Winn's way. James prompts Winn to stop the fleeing felon, which he does... sort of. Moments after seemingly knocking the guy out cold, Winn's bleeding on the ground with a gun to his head, and survives thanks to James's timely arrival and nothing more.
Winn's storyline in this episode mirrors that of two other characters (more on them later): he's unsure if he's up to the task ahead of him, or even wants to tackle it. He's stopped by fear, which is understandable, and his slow, if simplistic, journey to his celebratory final scene with James is the episode's most satisfying. While Winn (and by extension actor Jeremy Jordan) stepped into a much more fitting role in the second season of "Supergirl," the change also by extension limits some of what he's been given to do, and in that respect, "Supergirl Lives" marks a welcome change.
Still, it doesn't quite work. Winn's journey takes him from near-death experience to freaking out about near-death experience to being forced into another risky situation to conquering that situation, and at no point do Winn's other characteristics come into play. We know that Winn is fiercely loyal to Kara, and yet that doesn't seem to play into his decision to cross the portal. We know he feels a responsibility to do good because of the actions of his father, and that doesn't come into play. It's all fine, but it just doesn't have the richness it should. It's all plot and no story.
The first Winn parallel arrives in the form of one Alex Danvers, who, like Winn after he thinks he's knocked out a dude, is positively giddy about the changes in her life. After a charming but slightly odd conversation with Kara about how the latter feels stuck in her superhero life ("the crinkle" is a real winner), Alex tells her sister she can't hang out that evening because her girlfriend is coming over. Kara and Maggie 'shippers get a whole lot to swoon over in this episode, beginning with a gorgeous, sun-drenched scene in which Alex suggests they call in sick and/or never leave the apartment again ("I've got the black lung!"). It's relentlessly charming, and Chyler Leigh does the whole giddily lovesick thing better than just about anyone.
Alex's story mirrors Winn's in that the first time things get hard, she flips and decides she must not be ready, or worthy, or good enough for that kind of happiness. Leigh sells the hell out of it, but this abrupt semi-breakup simply doesn't make sense. When Kara disappears onto a planet with a red sun (more on that below) and Maggie turns up at just the wrong moment, Alex doesn't break down and tell her what's happening, nor does she snap and tell Maggie she doesn't have time right now. Both would make sense. Instead, she chooses this moment to decide that her relationship simply shouldn't be. The fact that it sets up a lovely make-up scene doesn't dismiss this completely unnecessary drama. Luckily, in the end Alex puts things right with Maggie, who warns her that she only gets one of these free passes. That seems likely to come back into play eventually.
Now onto what is presumably the main event, and that of course is Supergirl herself. (Spoiler: she lives.) The odd thing about this storyline is that it feels so un-"Supergirl," a show which has made a point of showing Kara as being flawed but always well-meaning and often selfless. Her betwixt-and-between thing emerges from the fact that she feels she hasn't been doing enough good for people, merely saving money and things, so when a woman with a missing daughter wanders into the CatCo offices -- people sure can just walk into any building in National City, huh? -- Kara views it as not only the perfect opportunity to get her life-saving mojo back, but to chase a good story, too.
It all feels a bit silly, like an excuse for her to do some ill-advised stuff -- like, for example, to go charging onto an unknown planet without a word to the DEO. The end of her story -- Supergirl fights even without powers, thus inspiring the people being sold as slaves to fight back -- is perfectly "Supergirl," though it doesn't hit home as solidly as similar stories have in the past. More interesting is her determination to get Snapper Carr (remember him?) to allow her to chase the stories that her heart tells her to follow. Perhaps the most surprising moment in the episode is his quiet "Attagirl, Danvers," uttered only after she leaves the room.
No, the real heft in Kara's storyline comes courtesy of Mon-El, who serves as Winn's other parallel. We first find him working at the bar, but when he comes to surprise Kara for lunch and ends up tagging along with her as she investigates the disappearances (particularly of Izzy Williams, played by Smith's daughter Harley Quinn Smith) he winds up in the thick of the action. If this feels like a retread of an earlier storyline, it is -- we've already seen Mon-El say he's not cut out to be a hero, only to have heroism forced upon him in some way -- but it still works, if only because the Supergirl writing team dots it with a bit of mystery.
As Mon-El and Kara rush the kidnap victims out of the slave city's stronghold (with Mon-El handling a giant alien gun), a moment arrives when he's prepared, as Kara was, to stand in front of the defenseless and shield them with his body, even without powers. But one of the slavers -- a Dominator, remember them? -- stops another guard from shooting him, saying Mon-El's off limits and giving him a little bow. Is this an indication that he's perhaps the actual Daxam prince, and not his bodyguard as he told Kara?
Regardless, the whole story serves as an impetus for a cute little scene with Kara and Mon-El share a blanket and he decides he wants to be a superhero, even if that means listening to Kara for awhile. It's awkward and cute and lovely, and with that little mystery tacked on, it bodes well for whatever comes next.
Last, a few closing thoughts: that yellow sun grenade is awesome, "I'm not a red shirt" is a hell of a mantra, long live Joe the random alien who thinks earth smells weird, and I sure am glad that "Supergirl" is back.
Starring Melissa Benoist as the Girl of Steel, “Supergirl” airs Mondays at 8 pm ET/PT on The CW. The series also stars David Harewood as Martian Manhunter, Mehcad Brooks as Jimmy Olsen, Chyler Leigh as Alex Danvers and Jeremy Jordan as Winn Schott and features appearances by Calista Flockhart’s Cat Grant as well as Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman.