WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for "Supergirl Lives," the latest episode of "Supergirl."
"Supergirl" has a knack for creating parallel stories rooted deeply in one common theme. It's a trait that's served the CW drama well, even when it has struggled (an infrequent occurrence). With "We Can Be Heroes," the consistency continues, but for the first time it feels a bit hollow. It's still entertaining, of course, and there's certainly a theme, but somehow, nothing quite gels. Perhaps it's because the show's many heroes aren't gelling, either: "We Can Be Heroes" formalizes a split that's been growing since the beginning of the second season.
Part of the reason this hero-centric story falls flat is due to some strange tonal inconsistencies. The episode veers from silly to serious without much in the way of transition, making room for everything from vegan ice cream to a Donald Trump quote to genocide. Luckily, even at its most uneven, "Supergirl" never completely stumbles, thanks in no small part to one of the most earnestly charming casts on television. They're no "Stranger Things" kids, but they sure do know how to make an audience fall in love.
Key to that charm offensive is Melissa Benoist's Kara, who for the second week in a row somehow sits at the center of a storyline in which she feels oddly unnecessary. The episode begins with Kara training Mon-El to become a superhero. It involves fighting something that looks like it floated out of "Portal," a task that mostly goes well, save two small things: Mon-El tears his shirt, and he accidentally deflects one of the enemy's laser blasts into the little cardboard head of a little cardboard girl. While the energy is relaxed and friendly, Kara stresses that Mon-El must always defend civilians first and do all else second. She then declares him ready for a test out in the real world.
Elsewhere, Winn's literally asleep on the job. It seems we're meant to connect this with his proclaimed tiredness -- he's balancing work at the DEO and work with James/Guardian, to say nothing of making a suit for Mon-El -- but it seems an odd touch for a character who in the last episode struggled with crippling anxiety after a near-death experience outside the very same van in which he's snoozing. James arrives having gift-wrapped some criminals for the cops, and he's "a little bit shot." This means Winn's going to have to repair the Guardian suit and find new ways to lie to Kara, and he reaches a breaking point. He tells James they have to tell Kara the truth, and James agrees.
These stories both fit neatly into this week's theme -- you can't choose who gets to be a hero -- and the next hits it home. M'Gann, still imprisoned in her DEO cell, has some sort of attack, and when J'onn and company find her, she's in a trance of some kind, muttering in her native language about the beauty of war. One great scream later, she's broken her cell window and collapsed into J'onn's arms. Tests reveal she's essentially experiencing a slow brain death, and there's no way to help her unless J'onn chooses to mind-meld with her and find out what's happened. This he absolutely refuses to do: "I don’t worry about war criminals."
The hero theme doesn't quite apply in the fourth story of the night -- yep, four; it's a packed episode -- but people still spend plenty of time trying to tell Livewire who she is and to whom she belongs. While I don't buy for one moment that Livewire is Kara's nemesis, Brit Morgan gives her best performance of the series so far, reeling in some of the crazy in favor of something creepier, angrier and more dynamic. A truly unsettling session with a therapist is interrupted when a criminal disguised as a prison guard and a convict he frees show up to sweep her away. As it turns out, she's not a collaborator in this scheme, and winds up being used to create a pack of knockoff Livewires, a ploy that a mad scientist thinks will land him a defense contract. It's borderline nonsensical, which is fine, as it's all pretty much an excuse to get the series' ever-increasing roster of heroes into some electricity-fueled scrapes.
One of these finally unveils Guardian. After their conversation doesn't go well -- Kara believes in Mon-El, but James doesn't, and it pretty much shuts him up before he can tell her the truth -- both show up at the scene of what they assume is Livewire's first attack. Instead they find two of the knockoffs, and when Mon-El, who tagged along with Kara, abandons the police officers he's supposed to protect to instead save Kara, Guardian only narrowly prevents one of the cops from being zapped to death. Guardian is knocked out, and that's when Kara peels off his mask and learns the truth.
This is where the episode really gets cooking, and while it all makes sense on a character level, again, it feels incomplete. As James, Mehcad Brooks makes the most of this material, but there's simply nothing we've seen that confirms this fervent drive to help others. Beyond that, there's no explanation of why vigilantism is the path he needs to follow -- can't photojournalists also change the world? -- but it's a reasonably effective storyline. A hurt Kara manages to put aside her personal feelings and listen, but she makes her point of view clear: James and Winn are foolishly putting their lives at risk, because they don't have superpowers, and one mistake could kill them. That's something she can't support.
As it turns out, she's pretty right. Winn finds Livewire, but keeps her location from the DEO, and instead heads out with James to take her down. Mon-El overhears and follows, and before you can say "such a nasty woman," the would-be heroes are captured and Kara has to save Livewire and her friends on her own. Once the scientist is captured and Livewire is sent on her way (with the promise of a nemesis-chase in exchange for not murdering a guy; it's really strange), Kara and the super-friends come to a crossroads. If they keep doing what they're doing, she can't support them, and something seems, at least temporarily, to have broken between the three.
Mon-El serves up his own moment of reckoning when he confesses to Kara that he does, in fact, remember that little kiss from the midseason finale. These two have a reasonable amount of chemistry, but Mon-El's confession doesn't allow for any sort of response from Kara, which seems like a pretty blatant attempt to delay that inevitable pairing. It's prettily written -- he says her eyes look like comets, which is a lovely, if odd, piece of poetry -- but it ends on a moment of anticlimax that's not even satisfyingly unsatisfying. It just sort of ends.
The real emotional heft comes courtesy of M'Gann and J'onn. David Harewood arguably gives his best performance of the series, and he and Sharon Leal handle a tough off-world (and in-mind) scene with aplomb. They seem to be headed for a happy ending, but then M'Gann reveals why she had that attack: her people have found her, and disaster is coming.
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.