Supergirl: Season 1, Episode 14 – “Truth, Justice and the American Way”

This week's episode of Supergirl addresses one of today's most pressing issues and allows aliens and superheroes to take on metaphorical, and moral, significance.

Sci-fi has a long history of addressing social and political issues with metaphors built of alternative societies and alien invasions. Sci-fi television has always been particularly suited for this. Think of The Twilight Zone‘s “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”, a not-so-subtle dig at the era’s cold war paranoia. Or think of Star Trek‘s “A Private Little War”, which used the Federation, the Klingons, and the Romulans as stand-ins for Earth’s 20th-century superpowers who were, at the time, engaged in a little war of their own in southeast Asia.

Comic books too, much to many people’s surprise, have also had plenty to say about social issues and have let superheroes, and mutants, do some heavy metaphorical lifting. Captain America socked Hitler on the jaw before the United States entered World War II, and served as a stand-in for the nation as a whole. In the Silver Age, Stan Lee’s Marvel characters addressed drug abuse while, over at DC Comics, Green Arrow and Green Lantern confronted racism and other ills. Chris Claremont’s X-Men, of course, explored mutants as a persecuted minority in a way that allowed them to represent the struggles of real-world communities, most notably, perhaps, gays and lesbians. And Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns made political commentary — and their dark, nihilist and violent visions of society — central to comic book storytelling for a generation.

So this week’s episode of Supergirl is hardly breaking new ground by addressing one of today’s most pressing moral issues and allowing aliens and superheroes to take on metaphorical significance. Ground breaking or not, however, it’s good to see.

Much to the dismay of many viewers, I’m sure, for the last several weeks Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) and her friends at the D.E.O. have had villain Maxwell Lord (Peter Facinelli) locked away in their underground bunker, without recourse to an attorney or to the legal system. He’s a dangerous character, of course, and he knows Supergirl’s secret identity. Nevertheless, it has seemed a bit too reminiscent of the United States and its violation of due process for those locked away in Guantanimo Bay, all in the name of “Homeland Security”.

In “Truth, Justice and the American Way”, with a crackling script by Yahlin Chang and Caitlin Parrish, this problematic development comes to the fore. Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) orders reporter James Olsen (Mahcad Brooks) to get to the bottom of Lord’s disappearance. Since he already knows where Lord is being held, this puts James in a dilemma. Does he report the truth and expose the role of Supergirl and the D.E.O. in this clearly unconstitutional kidnapping, or does he hide the truth for the sake of security? In a compelling scene, Cat proves that, despite her success and overbearing manner, she has a solid core; she reminds James of his duty to the truth.

Meanwhile, a new villain is in town. One of the guards from the crashed Kryptonian prison is still alive and taking justice into his own hands. The Master Jailer (Jeff Branson), as he is known, is judge, jury and executioner; he hunts down the alien convicts and brings about his own brand of justice with the help of an, admittedly cool, laser guillotine. It’s not hard to see that the Master Jailer’s methods, which Supergirl abhors, are logical extensions of her own approach to the problems presented by Maxwell Lord.

It’s all very well done, with lots of good battles between Supergirl and the Master Jailer. Benoist, as usual, is remarkable in the role of a conflicted hero who has to learn the lesson that another, very different, superhero learned a long time ago: with great power comes great responsibility.

The highlight of the episode is a marvelous scene between Supergirl and James. His words, inspired by his conversation with Cat, cut to the core of Supergirl’s dilemma:

“When you have more power than any human army on Earth you have to be better than this… Ultimately, it’s going to be a battle of values: your values versus your enemies. If you’re willing to abandon those values, what makes you better than Maxwell Lord?”

That’s a damn good question, for Supergirl, and for any nation that stands, like the United States, as a colossus astride the world. We have the power to do whatever we like. To lock people away without considering their rights. To put security ahead of truth. To put fear ahead of justice. It cuts to the core of the American dilemma.

Obama is talking about Guantanimo again. He’s making signs that he might finally do what he long ago promised. But the American election continues apace, with promises of carpet bombing and torture trotted out to whip up the crowds and bring out the vote.

The title of this episode is “Truth, Justice and the American Way”, a call back to the opening of the Adventures of Superman radio show and, after that, the television program of the same name. In recent years, Superman has shied away from identification with such a nationalistic sentiment, tending to be portrayed as a hero without boundaries, a hero for the whole world. More often than not, these days Superman is presented as a champion of truth and justice with “the American way” dropping way in favor of a wider vision and broader, global concerns. It is a welcome development.

James uses the term “truth and justice” when talking to Supergirl, when reminding her of that for which she is supposed to stand. Considering the title of the episode, I waited and wondered if he was going to use the third term in the trinity as well. When he didn’t, it struck me pretty hard. Putting aside appeals to internationalism and global concerns, there seemed to be another message here. In these days in which we live, the American way has itself been called into question. Maybe Supergirl, in allowing security to trump truth and fear to trump justice, was already acting in the American way when she locked Lord away without trial.

James was left to appeal to her sense of truth and justice. Fortunately, that was, and is, enough.

RATING 8 / 10