In superhero comics, characters with extraordinary abilities are an expected presence, regardless of their origin. It was only recently that heroes like Supergirl or Superman began to be treated like the aliens they are. You can trace this idea to the 1980s, when comics crystallized Lex Luthor's view of Superman as an overreaching, interloping invader. Similarly, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel is about a wary world's first contact with a man-shaped powerhouse. But a lot of the stories that define Kryptonian heroes as aliens and immigrants tend to do so from the perspective of humanity. The central themes develop around Kara Danvers and Clark Kent thoroughly embracing that humanity, even though they are profoundly different. Few of those stories address how their alien status informs the way they see the world, other than granting them an outsider's perspective. And even fewer use it as a metaphor for actual immigration and race relations — like Supergirl is doing right now.
It's a subtle shift, but Supergirl has changed its world to be one where aliens exist and live among humanity. The show applied that change nonchalantly, with its plots about alien amnesty and speakeasies where aliens hide making it clear that aliens aren't just weekly problems that storm through National City and make a beeline for Supergirl. Instead, Supergirl is building its own distinct identity, one that uses its central conceit to explore real-world issues. By framing these stories as metaphors, it has become the most relevant — and daring — series in the CW's roster of superhero shows.
This episode is all about what it means to be a minority, and the ways expectations (and consequences) apply tenfold when you are a member of an underrepresented group. Like aliens, in Supergirl's parlance. "Survivors" addresses this on levels both macro and micro, lumping aliens together in the abstract for its main plot — in which an alien murder leads Kara and the DEO to an underground fight club run by the villain Roulette (played by Dichen Lachman of Dollhouse fame, double-dipping in comic book shows after a brief turn on the second season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) — and micro, via its subplots involving J'onn confronting M'Gann, and Mon-El convincing Winn to take him out for a night of partying.
Of those, the subplots involving the Martians are the most effective, as J'onn immediately wants to know M'Gann's story and "take the bond" with her. Even without context, this comes across very forward, and M'gann is taken aback. Later, J'onn explains to Kara and Alex that "the bond" is the telepathic link all Martians used to share, describing it as the platonic ideal of communication. Without lie or pretense, it's a chance for J'onn to live the way he was meant to live.
J'onn's efforts to connect with M'gann get a bit more complicated when their story dovetails with the main plot, and it turns out M'gann — a.k.a. Miss Martian — is the reigning champ of Roulette's fight club. In his second, even more pushy confrontation, J'onn demands to know why M'gann would fight like that, and tries to coerce her into revealing Roulette's identity. She gives him up, but only after telling J'onn to never come back. He does, however, because Kara and Alex talk some sense into him and he wants to apologize for being so forceful. Unfortunately, Roulette is there and he captures J'onn, forcing him and M'gann to fight to the death for the title of last Green Martian.
During the fight, their opposing worldviews come to a head: M'gann, as a survivor of White Martian imprisonment, doesn't want to remember her old life, while J'onn is desperate for any last vestige of it. But together, they're all that is left to remember the Green Martians, and their decisions in the ring will define their race. "We don't have a choice," M'gann says when Roulette demands they fight to the death. "Our choices are all we have," J'onn reminds her.
So they don't fight, and Kara and the DEO arrive in time to break up the fight club. It's a satisfying conclusion, even as Roulette, a powerful woman with many connections, walks away scot-free.
Truth, Justice, and Other Notes:
- I know he hasn't been around for long, but "Survivor" did not do a lot to sell me on Mon-El. And I do not like the implication that James and Kara's relationship was wiped away. No siree, I don't like it at all.
- In further relationship disappointments, season-two OTP Maggie Sawyer and Alex Danvers suffer a huge setback. After bonding throughout their joint sexy Roulette investigation, we find out Maggie has a girlfriend.
- Without Cat Grant, CatCo is a tiny factory of minor irritations: Snapper Carr just spouts grumpy old journalism advice without a hint of charisma, and Kara does the worst, most unethical thing and gives him a story with Supergirl as a source. Why, Kara, why?
- Some hardcore DC Comics shout-outs to Warworld, with Draaga playing a minor role as Roulette's unstoppable gladiator. I wonder if this is merely a shout-out, or a tease for Mongul to eventually show up in some form?
- Hey, Winn gets to have some fun with Mon-El! He's still the fun goofy guy we know and love, but his screen time is just withering away this season.