Supergirl – Season 4 Episode 11
Supergirl continues to deal with the story of Nia’s emerging powers and explores how they affect her relationship with her family.
Nia Nal has been a great addition to the world of the show thanks in no small part to Nicole Maines’ constantly engaging portrayal of her. It was revealed early on that Nia is Transgender but it was left as a detail about her that went unexplored until now. Leaving it until the relevant time to craft a story around it was a good idea as it doesn’t come across as the writers haphazardly shoehorning it into a given plot.
There’s a lot to unpack about Nia’s role in this episode which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is that it gives her so much more depth to carry her into the rest of the season and the disadvantage is the episode tries to do too much which makes aspects of her story feel rushed.
One example of an idea that isn’t entirely earned is Nia’s home town. It has apparently been an oasis of tolerance that has accepted aliens for decades. This isn’t a problem with the idea of the town as such as it’s definitely something that would probably exist in this world even in limited quantities but the issue comes from the writers having never committed to explaining how ubiquitous aliens are. Back in season 1 the implication was that there was only a handful on Earth with Superman and Supergirl being the most prominent. Most of the others encountered were either antagonists or in hiding. Season 2 expanded on this by treating them as a minority population afraid to make themselves known and this season can’t really seem to decide how many aliens there are on Earth or how long they’ve been here.
It could be that Nia’s home town is a special case where a number of aliens happened to have settled long ago and were protected by the inhabitants. Now that aliens are known to live among Humans the residents can be open about sheltering them for so long. This would actually be a good idea but the episode doesn’t actually explore this. The opportunity was certainly there as the excuse for Kara bringing Nia to her home town was so that she could write a story about it. This is where Kara the journalist can be used to great effect. It’s not out of place for her to be asking questions designed to directly flesh out the town because she doesn’t know the background. It’s actually baffling that the writers would miss a chance for such obvious worldbuilding.
The episode may drop the ball on fleshing out Nia’s home town but it excels in exploring her family dynamic and the suggested mythology of her powers. Her mother, Isabel (Kate Burton) talks at length about the powers being passed down through the women in her family but only appearing once a generation. She dreamt that her daughter would inherit her abilities and has naturally assumed that meant Maeve (Hannah James) since Nia wasn’t born a woman and the dream was had when Isabel was pregnant with Maeve.
This turns Nia’s story into a “chosen one” narrative as she ends up having powers thrust upon her that she never expected to have. It’s clear from her introduction to them that they were something of a surprise and this episode expands on this idea through having all the attention put on Maeve where the powers are concerned. She has spent her whole life preparing for them by doing things like studying up on how to interpret her prophetic dreams. It is confirmed early on that this only happens once in a generation which lays the groundwork for disappointment.
“Chosen one” stories are really hard to put off as the destiny angle often gets in the way of actual character development. A character reluctantly becomes a hero because they’re supposed to but not necessarily because they want to. For me the best examples of these stories is when being chosen actually turns out to be a bad thing because of the weight of expectation placed on that character. Believe it or not the Star Wars prequels actually played around with this pretty well as a large part of the reason for Anakin turning to the Dark Side was because different people imposed their expectations on him and his only escape from that was doing terrible things. It wasn’t perfect but it was among the better examples.
Nia’s powers don’t negatively affect her as such but it does do harm to one of her core relationships. When Maeve realises that the thing she spent her entire life preparing for and considered to be her birthright goes to Nia instead she is filled with resentment. This leads to the shocking “you’re not even a real woman” outburst that paints a dark picture of one aspect of tolerance namely that it’s easy to be tolerant when convenient. Up until this point Nia’s transgender identity didn’t affect Maeve in the slightest but now that it does she finds it harder to accept. Of course this is an overreaction in an unguarded moment but it shows that there sorts of feelings are bubbling just below the surface which really adds to the shock value of this one line.
It’s especially shocking because Nia makes the point of stating that Maeve was one of her biggest supporters when she transitioned but she still reacts to her own sense of inadequacy by attacking Nia’s gender identity. It’s dark, raw and brave for the show to fully commit to this. Having the rift created between the sisters persist after the episode ends makes it feel more real and confirms that there are no simple fixes to some problems.
Up until this point it’s clear that Nia and Maeve were very close despite being markedly different people. Maeve is perfectly content with her small town existence as a contrast to Nia being drawn to career driven city life. Both are valid life choices that suit their personalities and it doesn’t impact their relationship in any way. Maeve’s reaction to Nia being the one to receive the powers throws a spanner in that connection as it’s beyond what either of them expected. It’s an interesting conflict that adds tangible emotional stakes to the episode.
Nia receiving the powers despite not being born a women is a great example of how science fiction can deliver a really powerful message. It is established that the powers only go to the women in Nia’s family so the fact that they don’t discriminate based on her birth gender is really inspiring. It’s a clear statement that people are what they identify themselves as. Supergirl continues to champion positive messages about inclusion and and make engaging stories about them at the same time. Nia being the one to receive the powers is an affirmation of Nia’s gender identity and a powerful one at that.
The storytelling isn’t perfect as I’ve mentioned above and there are other things that don’t work as well. One such glaring example is the population of deadly spiders in Nia’s home town. There’s no mention of them prior to Isabel being bitten but it’s clearly a known issue that plagues the town based on the reaction. This comes completely out of nowhere without so much as a line of dialogue establishing the possibility. It felt thrown in just to move the plot forward to determine who would take Isabel’s place as well as heightening the tension between the Nal sisters as Maeve argues that she could have prevented this by drawing on her knowledge of dream interpretation.. Again, this is where Kara the journalist could have helped in terms of fleshing out the quirks of the town a bit better.
Nia and Maeve’s complicated relationship ties in nicely to the changing nature of the recent shift in Kara’s sisterly relationship with Alex. Last week’s mind wipe has changed things significantly as Alex no longer knows that Kara is an alien let alone Supergirl. This doesn’t entirely work if you think too much about it as it’s unclear what she thinks happened throughout her life. The emotional core of this story definitely does work which makes the confusing details feel less important by comparison. Alex growing up with Kara was significant in shaping how she sees the world. In her current mindset she has a lot less empathy for aliens though isn’t entirely hostile towards them as her relationship with J’Onn remains intact. As I predicted last week she sees Supergirl as something of a nuisance which is fun to explore. It all contributes to Alex being fundamentally changed by losing her memories which also ties into the theme of identity that is so wonderfully explored through Nia’s story.
Alex also notices a change in herself. She’s less effective at work and has the nagging sense that she’s somehow missing something in her life. She doesn’t know what it is but feels different somehow and doesn’t know what to do in order to approach it. I like that this isn’t resolved in a single episode as there’s still a lot of ground to cover here. Eventually she’ll end up discovering Kara’s secret and possibly be confronted with the fact that it was her idea to have her mind wiped.
Kara’s perspective on the situation is also really interesting. She struggles with the altered nature of her relationship with Alex as personified by Alex forgetting that her favourite movie is The Wizard of Oz because her love of that movie is very much connected to her being an alien. It’s difficult for her to accept but she has to present a brave face so that Alex doesn’t suspect that anything is different. It adds an extra layer to the sisterly bonding scenes; they are still charming but there’s an undercurrent of sadness to them. It also has to be mentioned that neither Kara or Alex can do a good Arnie impression; that was genuinely painful to watch.
The action side of the plot involving rage inducing pills falling into the hands of the Children of Liberty was less than compelling and seemed to negatively impact the other stories. This is time that would have been better spent developing Nia’s home town or adding more to her dynamic with Maeve. Anything would have been preferable to some one dimensional frat boys getting up to no good because the plot tells them that they should. It was entertaining to see Brainy attempt to pose as one of them and it did somewhat effectively set up the friction between Kara and Alex when she’s in her Supergirl identity though I’m not sure the trade off was worth it when it took time away from the meatier plot threads.
There’s a real sense this season that the writers don’t quite know what to do with James. Is he an unwitting symbol of the Children of Liberty or is he the head of a media empire? These two things don’t quite match up and the ham fisted attempt to explore ethical dilemmas attached to his relationship with Lena don’t help with this haphazard approach to this character. The latest is a reporter in his employ named Mackenzie (Jaymee Mak) has learned about the genetic testing that Lena is conducting and wants to investigate further. James tells her to go ahead with it but stops her at a later point by telling her that everything is above board. The background suggesting is that this forms some sort of payback for Lena smoothing things over with the DA for him in the past but the episode doesn’t spend a lot of time on this story or the James and Lena relationship which leads me to conclude that it’s not really worth worrying about. Part of the problem is that it’s unclear what the point of all of this is and there’s no real intrigue associated with figuring out what it is.
A strong episode that delivers a complex and well handled transgender story with unapologetically difficult moments and a strong focus on the intricacies of identity. Nia’s return home is incredibly illuminating in terms of the background she came from and the nature of her powers. The episode could have done more to flesh out her home town but the emotional core was spot on. The discussion about her gender realignment and how her powers manifested despite her biological origins makes a powerful statement about identity and the factors that influence it. The strongly established relationship between Nia and her sister, Maeve sets up the rift that appears between them once it becomes known that Nia has the powers instead of Maeve. This leads to the really shocking moment when Maeve attacks Nia’s gender identity delivering the difficult message on tolerance being easy when supporting someone doesn’t negatively impact your life. It’s also appreciated that the rift isn’t solved by the end of the episode making it feel all the more real. Nia gaining the powers makes for an interesting riff on the “chosen one” narrative as the expectations are focused in a direction that isn’t her.
The Nia/Maeve rift makes for an effective companion to the changed Alex/Kara relationship. Alex having her memory wiped has changed her on a fundamental level as a large part of who she is was informed by growing up with Kara and knowing that she’s an alien. Without that knowledge she has far less empathy for aliens though it hasn’t completely evaporated as her connection to J’Onn is still strong. It’s good that this also isn’t resolved by the end of the episode as there’s so much to play with here such as Alex seeing Supergirl as a nuisance or Kara’s growing sense of isolation now that Alex doesn’t remember her favourite movie because the memory is associated with Kara being an alien. I suspect Alex will investigate Supergirl’s secret identity on her own and it’ll be interesting to see how she reacts to finding out that the memory wipe was her idea. The rage inducing pills turning one dimensional frat boys into a threat wasn’t the best of plots but it does fill out the action quota and show the Kara/Alex tension though it does take time that could be better spent on other elements. James covering Lena’s tracks with her genetic testing is something that doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere interesting which suggests the writers have no idea what to do with James at this point as none of the plots he appears in connect naturally.
- the strong and complex transgender story for Nia
- inspiring commentary on identity
- an interesting riff on the “chosen one” narrative
- the shocking outburst from Maeve adding further depth to the situation
- Alex being fundamentally changed by the loss in memory
- plenty of scope to explore Alex’s personality shift
- not resolving everything neatly by the end of the episode
- the worldbuilding of Nia’s home town not being as strong as it could be
- one dimensional frat boy villains
- no real sense of direction for Jame
What did you think? Select your rating in the “User Review” box below
User Review( vote)
We’d love to know your thoughts on this and anything else you might want to talk about. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter or just leave a comment in the comment section below. You’ll need an account for Disqus but it’s easy to set up. Don’t forget to share your rating in the “User Ratings” box
If you want to chat to me directly then I’m on Twitter as well.