Supergirl – Season 3 Episode 4
Supergirl tackles religion as a cult worshipping the Girl of Steel springs up in Central City raising questions about the effect Kara has on the world.
The beauty of this show is that it has been able to tackle a range of issues from the treatment of refugees to the importance of identity be that sexuality or finding a balance between a normal life and a superhero one. Now the show attempts to tackle religion and the effect that can have. Religion is always going to be a tricky subject as many people in the world feel very strongly about it so the subject needs to be treated with a degree of sensitivity.
It all begins when Kara comes across a pamphlet containing the symbol for Rao -the Kryptonian God- which leads her to a meeting where people who have been saved by Supergirl gather to pray to Rao and worship Supergirl as their savior. Jesus metaphors are fairly common for Superman so extending this to her makes a lot of sense especially given that she has chosen to protect National City.
Interestingly Kara seems equal parts flattered and concerned about this. On one hand it’s great that she has made such an impression and is able to inspire people in a very real way but on the other hand being worshipped isn’t quite what she had in mind. She is particularly touched by one story of her heroics and Melissa Benoist’s breathlessly haunting delivery of “I remember all of them” highlights how seriously she takes being Supergirl. Every life is significant to her, every life matters and she is faced with a group of them who are so grateful they have deified her.
Of course there are exceptions to Kara remembering everyone she has ever saved. A notable one is her very first save from way back in “Pilot” where she saved a planeload of people because one of the passengers was her sister. The villain of this episode, Thomas Coville (Chad Lowe) was also on this plane and found the experience of being saved to be a transcendent one. We see the rescue from his point of view and his effortless transition from dispirited divorcé to devout believer. He made it his personal mission to seek out others saved by Supergirl and form the “Children of Rao”.
It’s a really good scene as it’s rare to see a more grounded look at superheroes so the perspective seems fresh. Coville’s point of view is easy to relate to as it would seem like a miracle to anyone who experiences it. A plane crash would be certain death as far as any normal person is concerned so the fact that something prevented that would likely be a life changing experience.
Worshipping Supergirl might seem harmless on the surface. It’s certainly uncomfortable for Kara but if people want to worship her then they have every right to do so. Many religions take an existing faith and repurpose it for their own interests. In this case it’s the Kryptonian worship of Rao with the altered narrative of framing Supergirl as her equal. Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that as long as people gain comfort from the worship and don’t harm anyone else. The episode establishes that faith itself is neither good nor bad so it comes down to the behaviour of the individuals involved and what they do in the name of their faith.
The problem is that they do cause harm otherwise there wouldn’t be an episode. Coville encourages his followers to put their faith in Supergirl ahead of their own lives which means that they constantly put themselves in danger to prove that she is what they believe she is. A key scene involves a true believer setting fire to a building so that he can experience what being saved by Supergirl is like. It’s insane behaviour and endangers others all in the name of proving that Supergirl’s powers as well as her compassion has no limits.
In theory this makes it much more of spiritual conflict for Kara than a physical one. She has to convince a group of people to stop endangering themselves and others in her name which essentially means proving to them that their faith is misguided. It’s definitely not an easy thing to do and I wish the episode had spent more time exploring that angle.
Kara’s confrontation with Coville is interesting as it shows just how committed he is to his beliefs. The fact that he sees through her disguise is unintentionally hilarious considering Lena still doesn’t but that’s part of the overall conceit. Coville seeing through her disguise is symbolic of his unwavering belief in her and establishes him as a very different sort of villain for her to contend with. He isn’t motivated by greed, hate or a desire for destruction. His motivation comes from a place of love and it proves to be just as dangerous as motivations go.
The episode unfortunately fails to stick the landing on this idea as it is abandoned for the sake of an action packed finish. Coville’s plan is to use a Krytonian power source to endanger a lot of people so that Supergirl will be forced to save them which will apparently bring thousands of other people around to their cause. This plan is flawed on so many levels as Kara has saved the entire city more than once without a massive increase in support for Coville’s religion. It’s also unclear how the people who were saved would know that it even happened since the bomb was underground and there was no public threat issued. It’s possible that the insanity of this plan is intentional to show that the Children of Rao were misguided to the point of stupidity but I feel this could have been framed better.
Another problem is the way she stops members of the cult believing in her. She cuts her hand when exposed by Kryptonite which proves that she isn’t immortal and stops most of them from worshipping her. It’s played as a significant beat for the episode as it proves Kara favours her humanity over her role as a messiah to these people and shows the people that they are misguided. The issue with it is that I don’t see any logical reason why the members of the cult would consider this enough to dispel their belief in her. Perhaps with more time exploring what the people actually believe her to be capable of this would have made more sense but it feels like a speedy and neat resolution. I did like that Coville was the exception and is still unwavering in his worship for her showing that true faith can’t be shaken by anything.
There was so much more potential raised by the idea of a superhero being worshipped that the episode barely touches on. The most significant question raised is what the difference between a religion and a cult? It’s implied that extreme behaviour is the root of the difference but it isn’t explored so remains an open question. Another is if a God has to think of themselves as a God in order to be one? Arguably not since the members of the cult see Kara as one but more perspective on the argument was missing.
The latter is best explored in a scene between Kara and James where her reasons for not seeing herself as a God are explained. She sees her powers as a quirk of her biology and therefore not overly special which is a narrow minded way of looking at it but also a valid way for someone with super powers to think. James recounts the story of Superman saving him for the first time and it feels like a deeply spiritual statement thanks to an excellent performance from Mehcad Brooks. It’s another example of the grounded human perspective. James was plucked from certain death by a man that flies and compares that to his own religion where he prays and nothing is sent to help. When people pray -or more accurately cry out- for Superman or Supergirl to come and save them there is actually a chance that they will no matter how impossible the situation so it could be very easy to see them as Gods. This is one of the best James scenes the show has ever had and it accomplishes the task of outlining one of the central conflicts wonderfully.
It’s interesting that Kara is profoundly affected by her experience and thinks back to the importance of religion on Krypton. She mentions that it created a sense of community and was very important to their culture. This experience reawakened her own faith and she ends up praying alongside a hologram of her mother to find a sense of inner peace that she has been lacking lately.
Elsewhere Sam is struggling to juggle her dual responsibility as a mother and the CEO of LCorp. Her efforts in this episode revolve around trying to facilitate a merger that has significant last minute problems which means that she neglects her daughter. It’s all pretty standard stuff but is ably enhanced by the effortless rapport between Odette Annable and Emma Tremblay who consistently tug on the heart strings as a mother/daughter combination. The most striking thing here is that Sam isn’t a perfect mother and makes mistakes. She becomes frustrated by all of the work she has to do which causes her to neglect Ruby when she wants to practice a song for a school concert. There’s no malice here whatsoever as it’s simply the story of a mother who is overwhelmed by everything that is expected of her and ends up upsetting her child. It’s very real and very relatable as most of us have been on at least one side of that issue.
Her conversation with Lena about this is really well done as well. Lena didn’t come from a loving family but knows that Ruby has a mother who loves her. Since there is love in that relationship Ruby will eventually understand what her mother had to do and it will be forgiven. Katie McGrath plays this scene well with a hint of envy in her voice but also admiration.
Sam’s role in the episode also allows Alex to open up about her feelings regarding Maggie’s stance on kids. Being at the school concert and seeing Ruby performing shows Alex everything that she will never has and she has a very emotionally raw conversation with Kara about all the things she wants to experience and never will. She knows Maggie well enough to know she won’t change her mind though apparently didn’t know her well enough to be aware of her stance on kids before she proposed. Despite that the moment is powerful, tender and raw allowing Chyler Leigh to cast off the “tough girl” facade to look for emotional support from her sister.
There is some movement on Sam’s inevitable descent into villainy. She has a vision of a mysterious woman who tells her she will one day “Reign” while her body is covered in Kryptonian writing. It’s a really unsettling scene and sets up an extended period of torment for Sam. We also gain a little more insight into the mysterious ship underwater. It seems to be a cult that worships what Sam will become in some way and contains pods of what I presume to be future villains. Considering the role of Kara’s mother has been recast as Erica Durance for this season I’m inclined to think that she’s involved in this somehow.
An interesting episode that explores the idea of religion and how it relates to superheroes. It approaches the complex subject with enough sensitivity and airs the different perspectives on it. The religion featured here is definitely a cult but the suggestion is that worshipping Supergirl isn’t by itself a bad thing though it’s clearly uncomfortable for Kara. The episode doesn’t explore the notion as well as it could but it does at least ask the important questions and encourage the audience to think about them. It’s a pity that the episode ends with Kara having to stop a bomb rather than something more spiritual.
Seeing Sam juggle her responsibilities as both mother and CEO of LCorp plays out in really interesting and relatable ways withe the most striking thing being that Sam does make mistakes because she is a person who is trying to deal with a lot. Her role in the episode also allows Alex to confront her feelings about Maggie being against having children resulting in a really powerful scene. The movement on the villain story was also handled well though it’s far from the focus.
- raising complex questions with no easy answers
- the exploration of Kara’s feelings on being worshipped
- one of the best James scenes this show has ever had
- Sam being characterised as a fallible character who makes mistakes
- the moving sisterly scene between Alex and Kara
- an underwhelming and silly resolution
- superficial exploration of the big ideas
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