If you’d told me early during Supergirl’s first season that I’d one day be crying because Alex Danvers asked Hank Henshaw to walk her down the aisle at the biggest, gayest wedding National City has ever seen, I’d have been hard pressed to believe you. And if you’d told me that I’d eventually be thrilled by even the tiniest cameo appearance from Cat Grant, I’d really have rolled my eyes. All TV shows evolve over time, but the Supergirl writers have shown a special propensity towards evolution. From the beginning, they’ve been refreshingly willing to amplify what works, discard what doesn’t, and change directions when they need to. Supergirl has certainly had its missteps over the past two seasons, but there’s always hope the show will straighten up and fly right because it has a long history of doing just that.
For instance, even towards the tail end of last season, Supergirl had already begun course correcting from its biggest misstep: focusing on Chris Wood’s Mon-El to the detriment of the rest of its characters and especially Kara herself. And tonight’s premiere continues that trend as it places its focus squarely on its central heroine. Six months after sending her boyfriend away in a space pod with no real hope of ever seeing him again, Kara is still struggling to cope with her post-Mon-El reality. National City may have recovered from the destruction the Daxamites wrought, but the same can’t be said for Kara’s heart.
Regardless of what you thought of the character himself, “Girl Of Steel” effectively uses Mon-El’s absence to tell a powerful story about Kara. Since their tearful goodbye, Kara has become prickly, unlikable, and coolly efficient at her job. She’s not cruel, but she clearly finds no joy in her work either. Having a protagonist act out of character is an easy way to up an episode’s stakes, like when Red Kryptonite unleashed Kara’s id in the standout first season episode “Falling.” But there’s something even more jarring about Kara’s behavior in “Girl Of Steel” because it isn’t motivated by an external sci-fi force. Kara hasn’t turned evil in a way that can be easily overcome with some technobabble or a magical space rock. She’s simply hardened herself against the grief of losing Mon-El. Melissa Benoist is characteristically great as this harsher version of Kara, and it’s genuinely shocking to hear her coldly announce that the Kara Danvers side of her life is over.
Supergirl tends to be strongest when it’s exploring issues of identity and “Girl Of Steel” is no exception. As Kara shouts at Alex, “Kara Danvers sucks right now. Supergirl is great. Supergirl saved the world. So if I could choose to be her, why would I ever choose to be the sad girl whose boyfriend is gone? I don’t like that girl, Alex.” As the best genre stories so often do, Supergirl takes a relatably human concept—in this case the idea of emotionally detaching from your life following grief—and makes it literal. Kara doesn’t just feel disconnected from her everyday life, she literally can disconnect from it as she chooses to spend all her time in her superhero persona instead.
Only it’s not her superhero persona, not really. Both sides of Kara’s personality have always been characterized first and foremost by their strong sense of empathy, and here Kara is going through the motions of saving National City with none of the empathetic joy that once colored Supergirl’s heroism. Back in “Blood Bonds,” Kara explained that working with her friends at CatCo kept her human. Tonight she rejects the idea that being human is even something she should aspire to be. It’s yet another reminder of just how great Kara’s comic book backstory is: She’s a child of two worlds in a far more literal way than her famous cousin. It’s not just that her powers make her feel different from everyone else on Earth, it’s that she remembers a whole other life on a whole other planet. And she retreats into the idea that she isn’t human—and wasn’t even raised as one—as a way to justify not dealing with her own emotions.
The biggest weakness of the episode is that it doesn’t find a completely satisfying catalyst around which to resolve Kara’s identity crisis. I do appreciate that “Girl Of Steel” doesn’t take the easy route of offering one simple moment of clarity that magically fixes Kara’s problems. Her underwater vision of Mon-El telling her to wake up comes closest, but the episode also makes it clear that her conversations with James, Alex, Lena, and J’onn have slowly been chipping away at her icy exterior already. Even before her explicit wake-up call, she can’t help but smile when she sees the statue National City has erected in her honor. Yet Kara’s decision to join her friends at the alien dive bar at the end of the episode still feels a tad underdeveloped. Given just how long she’s been struggling with Mon-El’s loss, I’m hoping this episode’s conclusion doesn’t imply Kara’s completely resolved those issues in one fell swoop.
The rest of the premiere is mostly focused on establishing the major threads of the season: Alex and Maggie are moving towards marriage and all the requisite family drama that comes along with a wedding. James is still heading things up at CatCo, even more so now that Snapper Carr is on sabbatical. And Lena winds up buying the media company as part of a power play against corporate baddie (and Donald Trump stand-in) Morgan Edge. I like these characters enough that spending time with them is always nice, but “Girl Of Steel” is a lot more setup than payoff when it comes to its supporting cast.
As far as premieres go, this one doesn’t quite have the exuberant charms of last season’s “The Adventures Of Supergirl”. Even the baddie—terrorist-for-hire Robert DuBois a.k.a. Bloodsport—seems like an afterthought. But this episode does feel like a slightly more grown-up iteration of Supergirl. Kara’s life has always been defined by love and loss, but the death of Krypton was something she couldn’t control. For the first time in her life, she now has to grapple with a major emotional loss brought about by her own actions. She doesn’t regret what she did, but knowing she was right doesn’t make the loss any easier to bear either.
In other words: Kara has taken one more big step on the rocky road of growing up. She spent the first season grappling with what it means to be a hero and the second grappling with what it means to be in love. Now she’s ready to evolve to meet her next challenge. Hopefully Supergirl is ready to evolve alongside her.