A particular notion about superheroes has taken root in recent memory, and it's a load of nonsense. It's the idea that characters can be "too good" to be interesting, and that "dark" or "conflicted" heroes are more complex. I've long argued this notion to be shortsighted at best, and Supergirl is basically designed to prove it wrong.
No matter how shaky things have gotten, Supergirl has consistently impressed with its complete understanding of why these stories matter. Even when it stumbles on the execution — as it sometimes does tonight — the fact that it totally nails the aspirational nature of superheroes is such a joy that I never regret having watched it, even in this era of Too Much TV.
"Truth, Justice, and the American Way" exhibits plenty of Supergirl's less charming tendencies — clumsy plotting, workplace clichés, and drummed-up drama between the cast — but it's so earnestly and unabashedly devoted to further defining its hero as an idealistic figure. The show is committed to reminding you how damn hard it is to be Kara Danvers.
"With you, it's never going to be a battle of strength, or wills," James Olsen tells her in the most pivotal scene of the episode. He's disappointed in Kara and upset by the continued imprisonment of Max Lord in a DEO holding cell. It's a flagrant violation of due process by a government shadow organization with no accountability to anyone. It's the sort of thing, James argues, that Kara should never allow.
"Ultimately," he says, "it's going to be a battle of values. Is this the kind of hero you want to be?"
One of the strange things about television in this post-Sopranos, anti-hero world is that characters who want to do good just because it's the right thing to do now feel quietly radical. At the same time, there's another continuum still chugging along, wherein superheroes have drifted toward a style of "gritty realism" inspired by The Dark Knight. Those stories have become overly concerned with ponderous depictions of how the world would really react to the outlandishness of comic books, and often paint superhero stories as ancient Grecian epics about gods and mortals.
While that's a perfectly valid way to tell superhero stories, it's also a very cold one. And when you hold heroes at a distance, it makes them feel less aspirational. James tells Kara this, too: "That symbol on your chest means something to a lot of people. 'Stronger together.' But this is not strength."
Again, he's referring to the abuse of power that Kara implicitly endorses by allowing Max Lord to be locked up. He's also saying it in an armory filled with lethal weaponry that the DEO has at its disposal. And yet, Kara isn't ready to listen.
This is why Supergirl succeeds — Kara's humanity is everything. She makes bad calls. She gets angry. She's frustrated by work, by the government, by her romantic missteps, and by the hang-ups that come with being one of the few surviving members of an alien race.
She also wants to be better, because being better is hard. Being an example is hard, but it's also not an extraordinary feat. Parents, teachers, religious leaders, community activists — they all do it. We'd collapse as a society without them among us. Being a good person is hard because the world makes it hard.
Sometimes, it's hard for petty reasons. Say your boss hires someone for the express purpose of making your life difficult, like when Cat Grant hires Siobhan Smythe, a fresh-faced 20-something clone of herself who's just as ambitious and terribly self-serving. Sometimes it's for complicated reasons, like the fact that Maxwell Lord knows enough about Kara and the DEO to be a legitimate threat out in the real world. And sometimes it's for completely understandable reasons, like Kara's growing anger toward Hank, which ultimately leads to her steps away from DEO work by the episode's end, because she believes he killed Astra.
But Supergirl never loses sight of the idea that the right thing exists, even if it isn't clearly visible. Even if Kara doesn't want to do it. She knows that it's her job to try — because she can. We all can.
That's what the S is for.
- Honestly, this week's villain is a total snooze. The Master Jailer is a surviving guard from Fort Rozz who's been disguised as an FBI agent and secretly using super-armor to execute escaped Kryptonian fugitives. He's a punchable version of Kara's problem with Max Lord: an extreme example of why those with power need accountability, and why you cannot take justice into your own hands. There's nothing interesting about the Master Jailer, in and of himself.
- Siobhan, on the other hand, has quite a bit going on that isn't really acknowledged in this episode. She basically appears here to show that she is Cat Grant's dream assistant, but a little bit of Googling will tell you that Siobhan is the alter ego of the freaky-as-hell DC Comics villain Silver Banshee. A little more Googling will tell you that Silver Banshee will quite possibly be the villain of Supergirl's big crossover with The Flash next month.
- Tonight's episode was directed by Lexi Alexander, who has made a welcome return to superheroes this television season (she also directed an episode of Arrow) more than seven years after directing the wildly underappreciated Punisher: Warzone. There's only one big scene that really shows off her action chops, but it's a good one: Kara's first confrontation with the Master Jailer has a physicality to it that's fun and fresh to watch.
- There are two glaring leaps in "Truth, Justice, and the American Way." The first is an action beat just before the final act, in which Supergirl is basically captured and we're not even shown how. The second involves Lucy Lane surmising that James Olsen is really tight with Supergirl just because he lets it slip that he knows what the DEO is — which leads him to tell Kara that he needs her permission to tell her the truth about Supergirl because he can't be with Lucy and lie to her. I think this is a nice sentiment, but holy wow it makes almost no sense.
- Another thing that's understandable but poorly executed: Kara's anger toward Hank, which is something that's talked about by Alex and Hank, but not much by Kara, and definitely not in a way that suggests she's calling it quits.
- Oh, and it's Kryptonian custom to mourn for two weeks after someone dies — so that's how long Kara has before Non comes after her.