Supergirl's youthful exuberance has been more than enough reason for me to love the show, but now I love it even more. Why? Because of how its writing has consistently challenged itself, and this week's episode, 'Bizarro', is the most recent (and best) example of that. While the show relies heavily on its 'Freak of the Week' formula, the development of its characters never becomes formulaic. Yes, the show often ends with Supergirl (Kara Danvers) and her sister (Alex Danvers) sitting on Kara's couch and discussing the events of the episode... er... day, but the show refuses to try to jam all of its character development into that one scene. Character development moments come anywhere and everywhere from within the episode because, like in real life, life lessons can't be scheduled.
The main plot of this week's episode sees Kara defending herself against Maxwell Lord's own version of Supergirl and his attempts to replace Kara as the hero of National City. Beyond that, Kara tries to go on two dates with Cat's son, Adam; Winn and Jimmy bond over their feelings for Kara; Cat tries to bond with Kara; Alex goes head-to-head with Hank - okay, a lot of things happen. The most impressive thing isn't how much happens, though, but how well it all happens. None of the character development felt unearned or undercooked. Each character made choices that were almost whiplash-inducing, but all those choices came from clearly vulnerable and human places that, dramatically, they all work. By my count, there were eleven two-person scenes in this episode:
- Alex and Kara
- Alex and Maxwell
- Alex and Hank
- Cat and Kara
- Cat and Adam
- Adam and Kara
- Kara and Winn
- Kara and Jimmy
- Jimmy and Winn
- Jimmy and "Bizarro"
- "Bizarro" and Maxwell
Each scene addressed something lesser shows would either tease out to maximize mileage on (to diminishing returns), or devote an entire episode to (to diminishing returns again). For example, there could have been an entire episode in which Alex flies off the handle when her family is threatened (as she did in this episode), going on a loose-cannon rampage before she's brought back to her senses. By episode's end she would have been "right" again and that aspect of herself would have never been addressed again. In the actual episode, however, the plot pivots on her brash choice, creates tension between her and Hank, and sets up yet another challenge for Alex, Hank, and Kara – all while Alex's love for her family is firmly established as a very sensitive pressure point.
Kara struggling to balance being both Supergirl and Kara Danvers, however, is still a major thematic concern of the show and is smartly addressed in this episode not as a wholesale idea, but through a specific lens. The show has devoted an entire episode to this idea ('How Does She Do It?'), but that episode served more to introduce the idea as an ongoing concern. The show has grown since then and nicely folds that episode's titular question into the drama of 'Bizarro'. Kara's attempts to go on a date with Cat's son, Adam, meet with mixed results – which is good, from a dramatic standpoint. How boring would it have been if she messed up the first time, "learned her lesson", then had a successful date the second time? Instead, Kara's second date with Adam is cut short when Bizarro kidnaps her.
Kara's attempts to date Adam give her an opportunity at a new relationship with her boss, Cat, which she ultimately loses; create tension between her and her friends Jimmy and Winn, which in turn allows them to bond; and help her learn a more valuable and, for viewers, more interesting lesson: balance in your life isn't something you find, it's something you pursue. Things didn't work out with Adam, but that's a consequence of the struggle, not a definitive critique of her balancing skills.
None of this would be possible if the show and its writers didn't understand that actions have consequences, and that rarely are those consequences easily swept away; that people are weak and often look for comfort where they can get it; and that some issues are best addressed head-on.
And that only accounts for half the episode's success. In addition to the interpersonal drama and Kara's development as a whole person, the show addresses some heavy ideas. The Frankenstein-inspired main plot sees Maxwell Lord's God-complex in full bloom as he re-animates the corpse of a young girl to do his bidding as Bizarro. When Kara learns this truth, she defends Bizarro, knowing she, too, was a victim of Maxwell Lord and is not the real enemy.
Despite Kara's attempts, Bizarro is injured and her appearance, first the mirror image of Kara, becomes a sickly, pale white riddled with deep dark cracks beneath her even darker eyes. Bizarro begins to feel like the monster Maxwell Lord created, and it's actually Jimmy Olsen (whom Bizarro captured in one last misguided attempt at following Lord's orders) that highlights the question of body image, telling Bizarro that looking like Supergirl was the least important aspect Bizarro shared with her.
In the interest of full-disclosure, Jimmy's line "we all feel ugly sometimes" is cringe-worthy, and his attempt to appeal to Bizarro is ultimately undermined by his attempt to escape, but the points he raises are still valid and clearly resonate with Bizarro.
I can't overstate how well all these elements work, despite being so numerous. The episode moves along at high speed, bouncing from scene to scene, but the beauty of the execution is that each scene takes its time. From the clinking of glasses as Jimmy and Winn share a drink, to Adam whispering in Kara's ear, to even a single shot of Bizarro taking a breath and thinking for herself, each scene has indelible little moment that allows the entire thing to ring true.
And all this in an episode in which Kara fights a clone of herself that has fire breath, catches a tram car out of the sky, and that same clone is riddled with tranquilizer darts made out of Kryptonite. Why does that work? Because the show doesn't try so much to explain all that - the superhero stuff we all know is going to be there and will be fun - so much as it tries to explain why and how those things effect the lives of the characters we've come to care about.
As I said, I've loved the show since its first episode, but now at its twelfth, it's proving to be one of my favorites. In good time, too. Next week sees the show tackling a classic Superman story, one rife with emotion that could prove a turning point for Kara in her journey as Supergirl. After 'Bizarro', I'm not only confident in the show's ability to pull off that kind of story, but am absolutely looking forward to it.