I read a lot of comic books. This is something that I intentionally leave out of these recaps, because I think it's better when we're all just talking about the show. You don't have to be into comics to appreciate and enjoy Supergirl.
Despite this, it bears mentioning just how smart Supergirl has been about incorporating its source material, and just how fun that can be. No comic-book idea is too ridiculous, from Jimmy Olsen's signal watch to Red Tornado, a character that could never, ever look cool. Supergirl, like The Flash, unapologetically embraces its identity as a DC Comics show, and it does so with spectacular results like THE FLIPPING CRAZY TWIST AT THE END OF THIS EPISODE THAT I WANT TO TALK ABOUT RIGHT NOW.
We're gonna talk about that twist right now. Cool?
I bring up the fact that I Know About Comic Books because of a subplot that I've bitten my tongue about since the pilot: Hank Henshaw's identity. In the Superman comics, Hank Henshaw is the name of a villain who (among other things) becomes an evil, shape-shifting cyborg. By using the name Hank Henshaw for the DEO chief played by David Harewood, Supergirl was winking at comic-book fans and hinting at something ominous to come.
This is the sort of mystery most shows would tease out over a frustratingly long time, but Supergirl leaned hard on the gas and pulled back the curtain after only six episodes. After making her promise to keep his secret from Kara, Hank confesses to Alex that he is not the real Hank Henshaw. The real Hank died alongside Alex's father, Jeremiah Danvers, on their mission to locate a stranded alien in South America. Danvers sacrificed his life after learning the alien was benevolent and that their actual mission was to kill it — and the shapeshifting alien assumed Hank's identity and went on to run the DEO.
Then the episode twists completely away from what we're expecting, which is a dark and ominous threat that probably resembles the evil cyborg from the comics. Instead, Hank says he's really from Mars, and his name is J'ONN J'ONZZ, A.K.A. THE MARTIAN FREAKING MANHUNTER, AND HE LOOKS GREAT.
In other words: There's another dope superhero on Supergirl, and eventually, this could lead to some KILLER TEAM-UPS.
I, for one, am really glad I didn't dive into Hank Henshaw's comic-book history a few episodes back, because I would've been super wrong. (For the record: J'onn J'onzz — pronounced "John Jones" — is a terrific character and he strengthens the show's already solid ensemble.)
Other things happen in this episode too, and they're almost all just as great. "Human for a Day" is really two parallel stories: a taut thriller about an earthquake, which forces the DEO to go into lockdown as a ruthless alien named Jemm goes on a rampage; and another set in National City as Kara, still powerless after her fight against Red Tornado, is unable to help her city.
Giving Alex and Kara separate yet complimentary stories is something Supergirl has dabbled with already, but never to this extent. They're pretty much separated for the entire length of the episode. Empowering others is a huge part of what makes Supergirl/Superman stories work, so allowing Alex to be the hero of her own story is really satisfying. She's such a badass.
"Human for a Day" also puts Alex in a pressure-cooker environment that lets her suspicions about Hank get the best of her. Because she's isolated from Kara, the big reveal happens organically, as Alex goes from suspicious to hostile to trustworthy during their harrowing fight against Jemm.
Meanwhile, Kara is dealing with getting sick for the first time. After Cat orders her to go home — she delivers a hilariously over-the-top tirade that implies her cold, if left unchecked, could somehow bring about an economic recession — Kara runs into Jimmy just as the earthquake strikes. In the ensuing chaos, she breaks her arm. For the sole benefit of viewers who like to see swole arms, Jimmy takes off his shirt and uses it to make a sling, all the while showing off his swole arms.
In the aftermath of the quake, Jimmy and Kara decide to pay Max Lord a visit, since Lord has taken the disaster — and Supergirl's absence — as an opportunity to take the superhero down a notch and boost his own profile with humanitarian aid. (Cat Grant is incensed by this, of course, and plans to launch her own broadcast to protect the hero she #branded.)
However, things don't go as planned. A car wreck calls their attention to a dying victim who Max — Mr. "I Went Through Med School in a Year" — cannot save. Kara can't save the victim either, because she is powerless. This wrecks her. Later, she confesses to Jimmy that her powers let her really do good, that she finally felt like she was making a difference. Jimmy responds with a wonderful pep talk about how she's still the same person, powers or not.
And then, they hear an armed robbery nearby and we're treated to the very best scene Supergirl has pulled off in its very brief history.
Over Jimmy's protest, Kara puts on her Supergirl suit to face an armed robber, praying that she can talk him down without getting shot. While this goes down, Cat's broadcast goes live. We cut back and forth: Cat appealing to the people of National City to have faith in Supergirl, as Kara appeals to the scared man robbing the store, telling him about that we all choose who we want to be. She knows he wants to be a better man. Kara holds out one hand for the gun while her other hand trembles, Jimmy snaps a picture just as the robber surrenders, and dear Lord I love this.
I could write many, many words about why this scene is perfect, but Supergirl does it rather succinctly back in Jimmy's office, as he tells the story of how he took his first photograph. (It's a portrait of his father, taken the last time Jimmy saw him before he died in the Gulf War.) Jimmy talks about the permanence of photos, and how they can capture the truth of a moment. The truth we just witnessed is incredibly important to the Supergirl/Superman mythos: You don't need powers to be a hero.
This wonderful moment is about to lead to a kiss, which is interrupted by Winn, who freaks the hell out. Then, in what's probably the only lousy scene of the episode, Winn lists a bunch of reasons why Jimmy is bad for Kara (while making himself look like just as bad). Kara looks like she's going to be mad, but a sudden crisis one floor up forces them to set the issue aside.
The three of them open up an elevator shaft to start escorting everybody to safety, but a secondary explosion sends Jimmy plummeting down the shaft — giving Kara the super-jolt of adrenaline she needs to regain her powers and save him. Finally, she can be the hero National City needs right now.
After all this mayhem, Kara pays Cat a visit as Supergirl. She talks about how she's glad Cat was there to give National City hope, once again hammering home the beautiful theme of the episode: Supergirl inspires others, who then inspire those around them. This is one of those things that I'll never get tired of digging into, because that one simple idea is why characters like Supergirl exist.
The episode closes out with a cliffhanger about the return of General Astra, which you wouldn't be blamed for forgetting entirely. Things are about to heat up, though. It's time for round two.