Supergirl – Season 4 Episode 13
“What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”
Supergirl returns from another hiatus to introduce a team of villains and explore what Kara represents to the people of Earth.
As good as David Ajala is in the role of Manchester Black there are issues with how this character has been developed. His shift from pacifism to militant action still feels unearned as there are significant gaps in his motivation that can’t really be explained away by grieving for his dead fiancé. It might work if the audience were to believe that Manchester Black’s behaviour was an irrational response to grief but that would also mean that his actions are coloured by the fact that he’s not thinking clearly which would invalidate them. It’s abundantly clear that the writers want Manchester Black to be committed to his ideals but not enough has been done to flesh out exactly why Fiona’s death made him see the world differently.
The treatment of Manchester Black is an example of a problem this show has in general. I’ve mentioned previously that elements are often introduced without doing the work required to have them make sense. The previous episode had Manchester Black reach out to Menagerie for no reason as far as the universe of this show was concerned which means that the writers are leaning into the idea that this partnership will be accepted because these characters are part of the same team in the comics. This approach doesn’t work as Manchester Black has flimsy motivations as it is and a long absence does nothing to rectify that so the fact that he would seek to recruit Menagerie is frankly baffling as it comes from nowhere.
This trend is continued in this episode with the introduction of Hat (Louis Ozawa Changchien). Viewers have no idea who this character is and the episode is in no rush to tell us. He amounts to little more than another poorly developed villain who has a cockney accent and a cool gimmick where his powers are concerned. Manchester Black does mention that they “go way back” which explains how at ease they are around one another but beyond that there’s nothing to really latch onto. In an ideal world Manchester Black would be a well developed character leading a team of villains who also have clear motivations and reasons for being there but that’s simply not the case. This makes The Elite less than compelling as a team despite being the central antagonists meant to represent part of the thematic makeup of the season as a whole.
One thing about them is definitely clear. They are punishing those who mistreat aliens in publicly violent ways to make it clear that there are people out there willing to fight for them. This works well on the surface as it suggests more complexity to them than simply being bad guys. The intent is for them to be heroes in a way that Kara doesn’t agree with but is arguably equally valid. I found the Elite to be really interesting in the comic that this episode’s title references -and the animated film adaptation- because they challenged one of Superman’s core values and had the public feeling safer because of their more permanent villain solutions. In essence the story was designed to question whether Superman’s old fashioned values still hold up in the modern world.
This version of the Elite have a different relationship to Supergirl bit the bones of the conflict are still there. They publicly take action without worry about the consequences as a contrast to Supergirl being more of s symbolic presence who may be seen as not doing all she can to fight for the innocent. One scene shows that the Elite are gaining popularity but there’s no depth to it because the episode bites off more than it can chew.
It’s frustrating as there was a real opportunity here to ask difficult questions about Kara’s methodology while showing an alternate approach that may be equally valid. I often talk about how effective episodes that follow different perspectives can be as they allow for exploration of characters or ideas that wouldn’t normally be given focus in a typical episode. If this episode had been focused on the formation of The Elite with emphasis on why each of the characters are compelling to be a part of this group then it may have been possible to buy into what they represent. It would also have allowed the characters to be defined in some way. Using Menagerie as a social media expert in this episode was a reasonable idea based on what little is known about this character but if a large part of the episode had been about crafting the social media presence to raise awareness and get people on side then it could have been something really impactful instead of a throwaway reference.
Their plan isn’t actually a bad one and highlights that there is corruption within the government that Kara wasn’t previously aware of. A giant beam weapon in space tasked with shooting down any alien ship heading for Earth is something that would normally be reserved for someone like Lex Luthor so having it be something championed by the the President of the United States is a bit of a surprise, or it would be normally but considering the real world events being constantly alluded to this season such a display of xenophobic is perhaps less of a surprise.
This constitutes a problem as Kara now has to deal with the fact that aliens are no longer accepted by the American government which also includes her. The president is less than accommodating to Kara when she confronts him about it which clearly shows that he is less than sympathetic to innocent aliens that will be harmed by this weapon. In his mind being isolationist is the only way to guarantee safety and compromise isn’t an option as far as he’s concerned.
President Baker is becoming more of a problem as the episodes progress though it’s not clear quite what defines his actions. It could be that he’s motivated by self interest and will take the course of action that he feels will make him more popular or it’s possible that he really hates aliens so is using his influence in order to make sure that Earth is free of them by making it clear that they are not wanted. Of course it could be a combination of the two. He’s actually a fairly realistic politician in the sense that there’s no rhyme or reason behind his actions. It’s actually a good thing that time hasn’t been spent on him as a character because it makes him a mysterious threat that is hard to predict.
Offering Ben Lockwood the pardon was clearly a popularity stunt in order to gain his own approval as backed up in this episode when meeting with him was clearly for the publicity when Ben assumed that it was a genuine desire to hear his suggestions about how best to proceed. Baker’s focus on taking a good picture rather than hearing him out was really telling and it was interesting to see Ben react to not having the ear of his audience for once. Especially with the suggestion that at least some members of the Children of Liberty are growing disenfranchised with his leadership as he appears to be all talk with very little action.
There’s a lot to unpack from this as Ben is facing a situation where his own movement is growing bigger than him. People with their own ideas on how to promote the values that he champions are starting to become more vocal and there’s a distinct shift in how the Children of Liberty are looking for operate. We saw in the previous episode that they’re willing to risk their lives in order to be framed as heroes willing to fight for the people and Ben is encouraged to promote that possibility which he does when asking Baker to deputise his people in order to help keep the country safe. This is dismissed as already being in hand which only adds fuel to the fire that Ben is becoming toothless. He isn’t taken seriously again until solidifying his authority with a brutal show of force.
Once again we’re in a situation where there are two sides to Ben Lockwood and one of them is more interesting than the other. Agent Liberty is a rhetoric spewing figurehead who leads a vague anti-alien group where Ben Lockwood is an intelligent and nuanced individual with well thought out ideas and a talent for influencing those he comes into contact with. The latter has a powerful position in the U.S. government where he gets to make actual policy on aliens which makes him a very powerful presence in the show who can be a real danger to Kara because of the difficulties he could end up causing her.
Kara’s actions end up prompting this when President Baker realises that there’s very little he can do to stop her if she decides to oppose something that he implements. Their conversation towards the end of the episode where he tries to get her to admit that she destroyed the satellite weapon because she wanted to rather than being left with no choice but thankfully Kara is smart enough to be cagey about that without openly lying to him. Her response is actually very measured and appropriately vague which has the effect of making Baker really concerned about his dealings with her.
The satellite itself is an effective symbol applicable to all concerned. At its core it represents fear of the unknown and the perceived force that is required to combat that. Kara sees it as a dangerous thing that can be used against innocent people and considers its power to be too great in any hands. Manchester Black sees it as a monolithic representation of the anti-alien sentiment and resolves to use it to destroy the very government that ordered its creation. This is far too extreme an action as the consequences of that would almost certainly not be acceptance of aliens considering the destruction of the government would be attributed to aliens and their sympathisers which would likely intensify the sentiment.
Manchester Black’s plan robs Kara’s dilemma of a lot of its depth as doing nothing is no longer an option. Her conversation with Alex when she goes to her for advice purely as Supergirl makes for the strongest scene in the episode as it’s the closest to an impartial account she can get at this point. Her original reason for approaching Alex was to use her government influence to oppose the weapon which fails because Alex knows nothing about it. Instead she ends up getting a lot more out of it as she is able to have a really candid conversation about the expectations others place on her. She points out that all of her actions have meaning to different people. Kara sees stopping the satellite as public support of The Elite and letting the satellite launch as support of the Children of Liberty so she’s faced with two difficult choices with less than ideal consequences. Alex helps her simplify it by reminding her that she’s on her own side and should decide to do whatever she thinks is right and deal with the consequences at a later date.
Doing nothing would have been a viable option if Manchester Black wanted to stop the satellite launch as her inaction would have made it unclear where she stands on the issue leaving her stance open to interpretation with the benefit of having the satellite launch stopped as she wanted. There are problems attached to that such as validating everything Manchester Black said about Supergirl being ineffective and The Elite being what the people should rally behind. If handled properly it could be a long term strategy for Kara with the future goal of bringing down and discrediting The Elite. That isn’t what the episode went with unfortunately but the impossible choice with the fairly simple solution worked well enough.
This ends up being great advice for Alex as well who is struggling with her current position as she feels bound by her own position. The satellite issue reveals to her that corruption exists within the government and it no longer represents what she has sworn to uphold. This is best shown through her attitude to Lena who refuses to entirely play ball with the government over her super power serum. She agrees to deliver products without following procedures which seems to be an acceptable condition for the government because of what they stand to gain from this. Alex having her eyes opened to what is really going on encourages her to embrace her scientific background and think along those lines which in turn allows Lena to trust her and open up about what she’s actually up to. It’s a dangerous position for Alex and it’ll be interesting to see how that progresses.
J’Onn’s ongoing battle to remain a pacifist receives some attention in this episode. Manchester Black constantly challenges him to abandon that way of life because he feels that it isn’t the real J’Onn J’onzz. This isn’t something J’Onn can entirely deny as he admits to fighting every fibre of his being in order to remain non violent. His motivation to be a pacifist comes from a desire to be like his father so he’s in desperate need of clarity and direction to his life. I’ve mentioned in prior reviews that J’Onn’s arc is about finding what works for him which looks to be a case by case basis when it comes to deciding if he should use violence in a given situation. It has been proven time and time again that J’Onn has good instincts so it seems obvious that he should pay attention to them.
Unfortunately the dialogue surrounding this is painfully on the nose such as when J’Onn identifies Manchester Black as a mirror for him which was already easily evident without having to specifically draw attention to it. Manchester Black was a pacifist who is now very violent so it stands to reason that J’Onn sees him as what he could become if left unchecked. This episode shows him taking another step on his ongoing journey to finding something that works for him which looks to be getting involved in fights that mean something to him and affect those he cares about. If this develops properly it could be a really complex philosophy unique to J’Onn.
Nia’s training yields her new abilities and offers some interesting insight into how she approaches being a superhero. Brainy keeps details of her descendant from her out of fear of disrupting the timeline and this extends to learning about her home planet in the present day. I don’t personally see the correlation but it does offer the opportunity for Nia to make decisions about what she needs to increase her effectiveness as a hero. In this case she sees the lack of knowledge as a barrier as she doesn’t understand enough about where her power comes from or what she’s capable of. In this case knowledge is quite literally power and Brainy is keeping some of that from her.
Brainy sees what she’s looking for as skipping ahead but Nia counters that by pointing out that this fits with her personality as she has always been one to take on more than she could handle in the pursuit of self improvement. Brainy ends up seeing that point of view as being a character trait common to all heroes which allows him to alter his approach somewhat. This goes some way towards solving the persistent issue of Nia’s development happening too quickly by making this part of her character. It doesn’t alter the fact that what we’ve had so far has been rushed and probably won’t entirely fix this in future but her desire to skip ahead is an interesting character trait that feels about right for her.
An interesting episode makes up for problematic villain setup with compelling oppositional arguments. The Elite need a lot of work because each of the characters have really flimsy motivations. Manchester Black’s commitment to promoting his ideals through violence as a coping mechanism for his grief doesn’t work and risks not being able to take anything he does seriously. Hat and Menagerie are barely characters with very little defining about them. This makes the team difficult to take seriously as a credible threat because the writers aren’t willing to take the time to establish what they stand for and explore their approach to making it happen. There are some half baked suggestions of something interesting such as the public being won over by their commitment to taking action but it’s very superficial. There was a real opportunity to ask difficult questions about Kara’s methodology that there is little interest in actually exploring. The satellite designed to attack aliens heading for Earth is an interesting problem as it showcases a corrupt government, represents the fear based approach to dealing with aliens and offers an opportunity for Kara to wrestle with two bad options as destroying the satellite suggests that she agrees with The Elite where letting it launch suggests that she sides with the Children of Liberty. Unfortunately Manchester Black’s insane plan to destroy the government with it robs Kara of a potential third alternative that could have her play a calculated long game to bring The Elite down.
Kara’s conversation with Alex is the strongest part of the episode as it offers her the most impartial account she can get while encouraging Alex to embrace her scientific background through her newfound mistrust of the government. This allows her to treat Lena differently and learn more about Lena’s research away from prying eyes. It’s a thin line Alex is being forced to walk that could prove interesting if handled correctly. Ben Lockwood’s loss of control of his own organisation while rising to a level of power that makes him very dangerous is really compelling as it plays to Ben’s strengths while continuing to play around with the idea that the President is aggressively self serving. J’Onn’s current difficulty defining the sort of person he is is equally interesting though calling Manchester Black a mirror of him is really on the nose as this is already self evident in the episode itself. This episode marks a further step on his journey to figuring out his stance on violence and it could end up being really complex with continued attention. Nia’s training gains her new abilities and goes some way towards explaining why her development has been so accelerated by making unchecked ambition a part of her character. It doesn’t alter the fact that much of her plot has been rushed but it is solid character detail that fits with what has been previously established.
- effective symbolism being created as a result of the satellite
- Kara’s dilemma around what to do about the satellite
- Kara and Alex’s strong conversation
- the suggestion that the public are more impressed with The Elite and Supergirl at this point
- Ben Lockwood losing control of the organisation he created
- President Baker being portrayed as self serving
- J’Onn’s difficulty finding his own sense or purpose
- trying to fix the speedy development of Nia by making it part of her character
- flimsy development of The Elite and its members
- the sheer insanity of Manchester Black’s plan
- on the nose dialogue relating to J’Onn’s arc
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