It’s funny—we were just talking in the office last week about the trope of the “it was all a dream”/”you imagined it” episode in SFF TV series. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had one of the best ones with “Normal Again,” which put the Slayer in a mental institution, but we couldn’t think of many other examples. This week, Supergirl tried its hand at a similar plot, in which an alien plant called the Black Mercy hallucinates Kara into thinking that she’s been on Krypton this whole time and Earth was just a dream. And if that sounds familiar, it’s because the series is also mimicking Alan Moore’s Superman story For the Man Who Has Everything.
Spoilers for Supergirl 1×13 “For the Girl Who Has Everything.”
A week after Supergirl battled Bizarro—who apparently doesn’t exist as Superman’s nemesis in this universe—Kara is beset by another threat that Clark failed to warn her about (or didn’t know about at all): the Black Mercy, a parasitic plant that submerges her deep into a fantasy world. In her case, it’s waking up on Krypton from an awful hallucination about living on Earth. Instead, Krypton never blew up, her aunt Astra isn’t a terrorist, and little Kal-El looks up to his cool older cousin. Even though Kara at first fights conflicting joy at seeing her parents alive with the tug to return to Earth, even the name of her adopted home begins slipping from her mind.
On Earth, Alex and the DEO determine that Astra’s husband Non planted (heh) the Black Mercy to incapacitate Kara; he also has something to do with the solar flares disrupting everything from DEO computers to Cat Grant’s wall of TV screens. The problem is, in order to wake up, Kara must reject the fantasy world, and the others aren’t sure she’ll realize it’s fake. So, Alex drags Maxwell Lord into things to hook them up with some sort of virtual reality Inception device so she can jump into Kara’s faux-Krypton and bring her sister back.
It’s a cool idea for an episode, but the same problem persists with Supergirl‘s other ambitious plots: It simply doesn’t last long enough to have any emotional impact. In Moore’s story, it’s Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman who find Superman playing facehugger with the Black Mercy, a bizarre “birthday gift” from the alien Mongul. And here’s the thing: Mongul tells the horrified superheroes that the Black Mercy shows anyone his or her heart’s desire. That adds an extra dimension to the conflict: Maybe Superman will decide he wants to stay in his fantasy world where Krypton doesn’t blow up.
If Kara is being treated to her heart’s desire, I never heard the show address it. The closest thing we get to a heart’s desire is the repetition in the non-Krypton scenes about how important Kara’s job is to her. Not her friends or family, but that she can’t endanger her menial assistant job at CatCo. Hence why Hank has to pop into the office to fool Cat. Kara has said more than once how much her job has meant to her; she’s done everything in her power to keep it when she would probably be better off not being verbally abused and sent on trivial tasks instead of saving people. It represents normality, i.e., being a Millennial paying her dues instead of living as an aristocrat on an alien planet.
Back to the dream. Yes, her parents are alive and Krypton has apparently flourished in the past twelve years, but Kara herself is treated more like Buffy in the straitjacket—made to believe that she imagined everything. “Why would I send you to that primitive planet?” Alura laughs when Kara asks about Earth. (I guess this is the closest this show has gotten to gaslighting.) What I want to know is, why did we have to revert back to the status quo by the end of the episode? Why couldn’t we (and Kara) have spent a several-episodes-long arc on this fantasy Krypton, a la Angel’s adventures in Pylea? On Angel, that arc allowed the main character to finally loosen up, Cordelia to evolve, and Fred to be introduced—all plot points that had big ramifications for seasons afterward. Similarly, if we could have seen Kara get an actual taste of life on Krypton, it might have made her decide she didn’t want to return to Earth, rather than just slowly become brainwashed over the course of a few scenes. Or the show could have gone the Moore route, in which Superman thinks he’s back in utopia, only to see it crumble: Jor-El discredited because Krypton doesn’t actually blow up, the house of El dishonored, Kara herself attacked because of anti-El sentiment.
Instead, we get Alex appearing in her skintight leather, begging her sister to come home. (Kara: “I have no sister”—love how she’s on Krypton for just a few scenes, and she’s already adopted their more formal way of speaking.) By this time, Kara seems to have embraced the Black Mercy fully, attacking Alex to protect cute li’l Kal-El. But then Alex gives her a heartfelt speech about how real life is about pain and loss:
Alex: “I am trying to remind you of the truth. Life isn’t perfect. I know it can be hard, especially for you. You have sacrificed and you have lost so much. I wish you could have had a life with your family, but even if you did, Kara, it wouldn’t be this. Because this isn’t real. And deep down, Kara, deep down you know it. I can’t promise you a life without pain and loss because pain is a part of life, it’s what makes us who we are. It’s what makes you a hero. You fight every day to keep people from struggling like you have. I know you can remember, please, if you try. Please, please try, Kara, because Earth needs Supergirl.”
Alex: “Yes, remember that life, with James and Winn and Hank. Your friends need you, and I need my sister! Kara, I can’t choose this for you. You have to choose it yourself.”
And now we know why Kara had to come back: So she could be by Astra’s side as she died. The twist is, while Kara is furiously beating up on Non, Astra—who helped the DEO identify the Black Mercy—is trying to kill J’onn J’onnz. To save the Martian Manhunter, Alex slides a kryptonite blade right through Astra’s heart. But when Kara comes across her dying aunt, Hank quickly takes the blame, claiming self-defense. And then we have this moment, which is all about the real-life pain of loss:
Kara: “Astra, I have to tell you, when I was under the Black Mercy and you were there…”
Astra: “As your enemy.”
Kara: “As my family.”
OK, that made me tear up a little.
Hank trying to pass as Kara at CatCo was pretty funny, especially as he’s had experience playing as Supergirl (remember his joke about the comfy skirt), but not as Kara Danvers. When he was struggling to keep up with Cat’s rapid-fire instructions and resorting to tears to try and get some sympathy (rookie mistake, Hank, Cat cares not for the waterworks), I couldn’t help but see it as a metaphor for baby boomers assuming they know how to do Millennials’ jobs.
“If you’re her sister and I’m her aunt, what does that make us?”
Damn, Alex, that’s cold. For a show that really pushes the notion of family, especially adopted ones, that’s not very open-minded. Alex tries to tell Kara the truth at the end of the episode, but of course she chickens out. I know the writers are saving this for later in the season, but this secret is just going to fester until it’s confessed.