Season 1, Episode 7 - "Human for a Day"
Melissa Benoist, David Harewood, Chyler Leigh, Peter Facinelli, Calista Flockhart, Mehcad Brooks
Regular airtime: Mondays, 8 pm
US: 7 Dec 2015
There’s a lot to like in this week’s episode of Supergirl, “Human for a Day.” Unfortunately, there’s also a lot to dislike, leaving me, your humble reviewer, in something of a quandary.
First up, the good stuff. In this case, the best thing about the episode is saved for the very end, a trick that has proved extremely successful over at CW’s The Flash. The Flash will often save a big reveal for the final scenes, pumping a bit of adrenaline into the viewer that ramps up the excitement for the next episode, and leaves the impression that the preceding hour was even stronger than it actually was. In “Human for a Day” the end of the episode provides a big twist in the story of Hank Henshaw (David Harewood). I can’t say that I was surprised that Henshaw turned out to be the classic DC character, The Martian Manhunter (created by Joseph Samachson and Joe Certa way back in 1955), because online speculation was already rampant that this was the case. It was still a thrilling moment for this long-time fan of the character.
I can’t help but wonder if the general viewing audience came away as thrilled, however, especially after the last few episodes in which Henshaw has come off as a bit of a misogynistic jerk, treating Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) like a child rather than like the super-powered hero that she clearly is. The set up in this episode that led to the revelation was also pretty tedious. Yet another personality-less alien poses a threat and has to be taken down, this time without Supergirl’s help. The attempt to add an Alien-like feel to the encounter didn’t really work, and a cool, though admittedly C- or D-level DC character, Jemm (Charles Halford): Son of Saturn (created by Greg Potter and Gene Colan in 1984), was wasted. To make matters worse, after Jemm was defeated, Henshaw went into a long and convoluted wrap-up of his back story that, while solving the b-story mystery of the last few episodes, had me nearly bored to tears. To be honest, if Henshaw’s secret had been anything other than that he was the Martian J’onn J’onzz, I was prepared to write this series off entirely, precisely because of the Henshaw/Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh) story. Now, I’m just so thrilled at the idea of having the Manhunter on my television screen every week that it’s hard for me not to be satisfied, even if the road to get him there was difficult to travel. Hence, my quandary.
The main storyline of “Human for a Day” has neither the depths nor the heights of the b-story, but it suffers from the same unevenness. As we saw at the end of last episode, Supergirl’s powers were drained after her battle with the Red Tornado, leaving her as mortal as the rest of us. Unfortunately, the loss of her powers coincided with an earthquake that rattles National City, and Kara has to learn that she can be a hero even without invulnerability, the power of flight, freeze breath, and heat vision. Maxwell Lord (Peter Facinelli) does a pretty good Donald Trump impression, and uses the tragedy to try to turn popular opinion against Supergirl and other aliens, while Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) attempts to rally the city to a higher calling. While Cat is giving her inspirational speech to the city, James (Mehcad Brooks) delivers the same treacly sentiment to Kara. Considering that this isn’t a lesson that those of us living in the real world have much need of, it didn’t strike me as particularly inspiring.
That being said, however, this episode contained one of my favorite scenes of the series thus far as Kara dons her suit, without powers, in order to intervene in an armed robbery in the post-Earthquake city. It was a scene that was quintessential Supergirl, an appeal to the higher nature of the perpetrator rather than to brute force and intimidation. This approach, shared most of the time with her cousin Superman, has come to define the difference between the Super Family approach and the approach taken by Batman and his kin. (I know that this draws the distinction too sharply. There are classic versions of Batman that work from inspiration rather than terror and recent, namely cinematic, versions of the Man of Steel have taken that character into darker, more violent territory.)
So that’s my quandary. There are some things that I really like about this episode; there’s an awful lot of other stuff that just doesn’t quite work. I suspect that this says something about one of the challenges of comic book storytelling, a challenge that obviously applies to comic book-inspired television. Namely, it’s a difficult task to make the narrative and character elements of the story match the iconic imagery associated with the heroes. As a longtime fan of the characters, I get goosebumps when I see Hank Henshaw transform into the Martian Manhunter, and I can’t help but cheer when a powerless and vulnerable Supergirl stares down a loaded gun. But my response comes, in large part, because I am already invested in these characters, because I have a lifelong history with them. This episode of Supergirl did a masterful job of providing iconic images and scenes that appeal to my devotion to these characters. What it did less well was frame these images and scenes in the context of a larger narrative and in the presence of other characters that I also care about.