Supergirl Debates Mean Girls and Who “Creates” a Villain

Due to the attacks in Paris, CBS swapped out a Supergirl episode about bombings this week for the Thanksgiving episode, with the former set to air next week. The swap likely won’t affect anything in the show’s narrative, aside from bringing mommy issues and heat-vision-cooked turkey a week early. But more importantly, this week saw Supergirl facing her first villain of her own making and Kara actually (gasp) bonding with her boss, Cat Grant.

Spoilers for Supergirl 1×05 “Livewire.”

This was not the series’ strongest episode, mostly because it felt incredibly formulaic and reminiscent of Smallville, the WB’s Superman prequel series. As you’ll remember, the first few seasons of that show relied heavily on a pretty unchangeable Monster of the Week structure: One of Clark Kent’s classmates, or another peripheral character from Smallville, stumbles upon some green kryptonite. Depending on what they’re doing at the time, they develop crazy powers coupled with a sudden megalomania, and it’s up to Clark to stop them. It got old pretty fast.

Supergirl‘s writers seemed to have drawn on that format and combined it with the origin story of the DC Animated Universe’s villain Livewire for this week’s plot, swapping in Supergirl for Superman. We meet shock jock radio host (why not podcaster?) Leslie Willis, who is Cat Grant’s resident mean girl, until she pisses off her boss by slamming Supergirl on-air. It’s a pretty brutal takedown even for CatCo, what with Leslie snarking on Supergirl’s “rejected from the Olympics figure-skating outfit” and her lack of sexuality—or is it the “sapphic vibe” she’s putting out there? At any rate, Cat shuts her down. Could it be that Cat feels guilty for that recent magazine takedown she penned?

At any rate, Leslie’s mouthing off gets her relegated to the CatCopter (hee) to cover National City’s traffic and the ominous-looking storm that’s approaching. When her helicopter gets sent into a tailspin and Supergirl shows up to save her, she (Kara) gets struck by lightning and accidentally channels it through Leslie. While the shock (hah) puts Leslie in a coma and gives her Storm-like hair, it’s not long before she wakes up, realizes she can control electricity, and decides to kill her boss. Which is weird, considering that just a few minutes prior, Cat actually gave a sweet (if hard-assed) speech to the unconscious Leslie:

“Get off your ass, Willis. You and I both know that you’re tougher than a bolt of lightning. Come on!”

That kind of pep talk would wake anyone up. But by the time she does, “Leslie” is gone, replaced by Livewire. Here’s where what the Smallville fan wiki calls kryptonite psychosis comes in: Suddenly this mean girl is some sort of cackling villain who embraces her powers (well, after briefly panicking at electrocuting a would-be rapist) and decides that she gets whatever she wants. The wiki describes it as “[losing] contact with reality and [becoming] obsessed with following their natural instincts”; so, Livewire is tapping in to her baser mean-girl impulses?

Supergirl Livewire review

Photo: Darren Michaels/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

I’ve got to say, I like that the series is censuring girl-on-girl cattiness instead of condoning it. Yes, Cat is astonishingly tough on both Supergirl and Kara, but I was correct in last week’s episode review in assuming that Cat pushes because she cares. After Livewire attacks CatCo and disappears into a wall socket, Kara and Cat actually have something resembling a heart-to-heart. Because it’s Thanksgiving, the issue of family, and especially mothers, comes up. Cat had alluded to her mother in some bitterly sarcastic asides, but for the first time she explains how difficult her childhood was, and how it shaped her personal and professional ethics:

“She was never satisfied with me, so I was never satisfied with myself, which is why I keep pushing, too—myself, and all of the people I care about.”

But Leslie is just downright mean, and uncreative; Cat scolds her for “going after a young girl, insulting her body, the way she dresses, her sexuality”—this is where the fearsome Cat Grant draws the line. As IGN points out, the Livewire/Supergirl face-off would have been a lot more interesting if Leslie had gotten to exist for several episodes, as a constant dissenting voice against Supergirl. Showing a montage of all of the main characters listening to Leslie doesn’t have the same impact as her voice and her fanbase as a constant battering ram, getting into Kara’s head even more than the other news reports sneering at this junior superhero.

Maybe that’s why Kara didn’t think twice about saving Leslie from the careening CatCopter. Despite the fact that Kara is sunny almost to a fault, it would have been more realistic (to me, at least) to see her hesitate even just a beat before going back for Leslie.

Kara and Cat also each ponder whether they’re to blame for Leslie’s current circumstances. Kara says things like “Supergirl must feel awful,” but the lightning strike was pure accident. Sure, she’ll probably be a lot more careful who she touches when natural elements are afoot, but she didn’t take an active role in the transformation. But Cat has more reason to blame herself:

“I should have pushed Leslie more, held her to a higher standard. The more awful she was, the more I rewarded her. Leslie turning into Livewire, that started a long time ago. It’s my fault. I turned her into a monster.”

Smallville rarely thought this deeply into the circumstances that create its villains of the week. The thought process usually goes, The fat girl ingested some kryptonite and now she’s crazy-thin—and she has to keep eating people! But Supergirl gives us impressive depth by drawing on the culturally relevant conversation about women as peers, mentors/mentees, and mother/daughters—each relationship coming with its own set of expectations and demands. Society rewards provocative mean girls instead of teaching that women should lift each other up.

Supergirl Livewire review

Supergirl Livewire review

Supergirl Livewire review

Yet in this case, two women at odds with one another put their heads together and come up with a plan: Supergirl overpowers Livewire by… dousing her with water? It was that easy? Yet it’s clear that the point is not for Livewire to be a formidable foe, but for her to create that spark between Cat and Supergirl. They team up, using Cat as bait, and giving her the chance to say amazing one-liners like “Yes, you possess all the wit of a YouTube comment” to Livewire’s awful cat-themed puns. And when Kara isn’t in costume, they also bond over their respective mommy issues. While Cat’s admission isn’t surprising, she’s certainly shocked when Kara mentions that her parents died in a fire when she was a child. Cat’s stuttering response is the first real emotion we’ve seen from her. (Props to Tumblr user kara-lesbihonest for grabbing screenshots of that great Supergirl/Cat moment in the elevator.)

Kara’s parental issues aren’t just in the past; all of this Livewire fracas occurs while she’s trying to keep Alex and their mother Eliza civil over Thanksgiving dinner. Eliza is upset not with Kara for putting on the S, but with Alex for not protecting her enough… Except that once Alex comes out about being a DEO agent, her mother gets even more upset. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t… until Eliza reveals the truth behind their father’s death in a plane crash. Through flashbacks, we see that the girls used to sneak out at night for flights, until the DEO takes notice and comes to the Danvers’ home. When Hank Henshaw (yep, Alex’s current boss with the mysterious glowing red eyes) demands to take Kara in for testing, Jeremiah Danvers makes a trade: He’ll give the DEO his expertise by working for them. Henshaw is all too glad to employ Doctor Danvers, which makes us wonder what the DEO had to do with Jeremiah’s death.

Supergirl Livewire review Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving episodes are usually cheesy, and this one certainly had its moments, like Kara roasting the turkey to her mother’s specifications. But it was also sweet: She invited Winn and James to Friendsgiving; the latter couldn’t make it because he was out of town with his (now on-again, I have to assume) girlfriend Lucy Lane, but he called to check on not Supergirl, but Kara. Hopefully the show won’t lean too much on tired love triangles and will actually give Lucy something to do aside from look hotter and cooler than Kara.

Let me also take this space to propose a theory: Cat Grant already knows that Kara is Supergirl. She’s had too many opportunities to stare Supergirl right in the face that, even with her hair down and some lip gloss, Cat must see a resemblance to her mousy assistant. This episode especially flirted with chance, by having Kara literally run out the room “to call Supergirl” and then her alter ego showing up. For goodness’ sake, Supergirl calls Cat “Ms. Grant,” too! Tumblr user ettadunham has helpfully rounded up a bunch of GIFs that all but prove Cat’s in the know. What do you think?

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