Supergirl and Mind Control: Variations on a Theme

I don’t want to focus on the overall plot of Kara losing her powers on this week’s Supergirl, because to be honest, Buffy did a better job in 3×12 “Helpless.” Instead, what grabbed me about “Human for a Day” was how the series handled a concept more recently acquainted with its Marvel cousin Jessica Jones: literal and figurative mind control.

Spoilers for Supergirl 1×07 “Human for a Day.”

Supergirl 1x07 "Human for a Day" television review mind control

Photo: Darren Michaels/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

No, Kilgrave hasn’t crossed between comic-book universes. Instead, there’s a Fort Rozz villain named Jemm (I couldn’t stop singing “Jem! Truly outrageous!” to myself every time his name was said) with a forehead gem that shoots lasers and the psychic ability to control anyone. Jemm is captured at the DEO, until an earthquake puts the place in lockdown, trapping Alex and Henshaw—who she has just learned mysteriously survived the mission that killed her father—and their fellow agents with a villain on the loose. Luckily, the DEO has created a number of neural inhibitor headsets—which would have been great, albeit so out of place, on Jessica Jones.

The thing is, Alex mistrusts her boss so much that she turns her gun on him and forces him to lock himself in handcuffs. It’s a sort of figurative mind control that Alex turns on herself, a willful self-deception: He’s told her so many lies about her father and withheld so many truths that she’s more concerned with keeping him from doing any more potential harm than in teaming up against the much more pressing threat. And when Henshaw does get out of his handcuffs, it’s not to shoot Alex, but to save her from Jemm.

Supergirl 1x07 "Human for a Day" television review mind control

Photo: Darren Michaels/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Meanwhile, that same earthquake rocks National City: splitting streets and buildings, leaving people injured and dead in its wake and everyone else panicked over where the hell is Supergirl when we need her the most? I really appreciated that this wasn’t the work of some enemy, pouncing on Kara when she’s stripped of her powers (thanks to blowing up Red Tornado last week). It was just a natural disaster, operating on its own timetable.

But of course, Supergirl’s notable absence leaves room for the power players to spin it in different ways. Kara watches Maxwell Lord shoot his mouth off to TV reporters about how unreliable and flaky Supergirl is, and how he’s the one providing relief effort (and Lord-branded water bottles) to the victims. The presence of Supergirl, he says, has lured people into a false sense of complacency—”like heroin, or the welfare state.” The people of National City can’t look up into the sky for a sign to save them; they have to focus on what’s on the ground. Then Cat Grant swoops in to save the reputation of her creation by setting up a livestream in her office to provide an official rebuttal. Maxwell plays on citizens’ fear, casting himself as their savior, but Cat doesn’t bullshit:

Cat: “It is human to be selfish. But isn’t it also human to face our weaknesses and rise about them? Act like a superhero, even if you aren’t one… It’s true, Supergirl has not been located yet. But her spirit stays with us: her insistence on seeing the best in people, a call for us to heed our better angels. Supergirl has faith in us, so let’s have a little faith in her. Supergirl will return when we need her most. Until then, we need to help each other.”

Sure, she has an ulterior motive, but that doesn’t change how inspiring her speech is. It also proves to show how the media sways its consumers in either direction: curse Supergirl for not being there, or step into the spot she vacated.

Supergirl 1x07

The thing is, National City can’t do entirely without Supergirl. Kara bravely tries to help people in accidents caused by the earthquake, only to break her arm (when James shoves her out of the way of an oncoming car) and wind up crying over the body of a dead man because she can neither use her X-ray vision to check his internal bleeding nor fly him to the nearest hospital. James’ pep talk doesn’t land, either:

James: “No hero can save everyone, not even Superman. But a real hero never stops trying.”

Or it does land, but not in the way he intended: Upon seeing some looters with a gun go into a market, Kara suits up and runs after them. They don’t know she’s lost her powers, after all, so she can still intimidate them with her supposedly bulletproof exterior. This was my favorite scene, as we watch Supergirl lie through her teeth while her broken arm trembles at her side. She plays on the mythology she’s already built around herself in these past few weeks to dissuade the looter from even trying to shoot her, while tapping in to the values she’s grown up with on Earth, about solidarity in times of strife. She does as good of a job of planting ideas in his head as Jemm does.

And what do you know, the looter hands her his gun and the crisis is averted—all of which James captures on camera. It’s one of many photos of Supergirl (as she later jokes, “I’m on ‘me’ overload”), but it’s really the first photo he’s taken of Kara.

James: “They say the best photographs express how you feel about what you’re photographing. And I know you.”

Supergirl 1x07 "Human for a Day" television review mind control

In allowing Supergirl to be Kara (not that they know they’re doing so), the people of National City in turn give themselves a chance to be heroes. Cat sums this up, ironically, in a scene with Winn, whose name she still can’t remember:

Cat: “That’s the story: ordinary people like you, used to doing mundane things, finding themselves in the midst of a crisis, doing something extraordinary. Heroes.”

It’s unclear if this same figurative transformation is what gives Kara her powers back. In the first few minutes of the episode, we establish that she should recharge from her “solar flare” (as James and Clark call it) within a few days, once she absorbs enough radiation from the sun. But she spends most of her time indoors (at the DEO, and the CatCo offices), and somehow miraculously gets her strength back just in time to save brave, stupid James, who’s dangling from some fraying wires in an elevator shaft because he decided to play hero. So, was it luuurve that restored her strength, or just really lucky timing to cancel out the shitty timing of the earthquake? Also, are we really supposed to expect that she has enough time in a split second to throw off her clothes to reveal her uniform underneath, and to rip her hair out of its complicated ponytail? It’s not like she was performing for everyone; I would’ve liked to see a flying Kara (like in the pilot) rescue James. Anyway, small quibble.

There’s definitely a love triangle going on among Winn/Kara/James (who, let’s not forget, is still with Lucy Lane). Winn pretends that he disapproves of Kara hugging (gasp) James because he has a girlfriend, when we all know the reason is that Winn is sore she’s not leaning on him for support. I’m torn between wanting to smack Winn upside the head for being so butthurt and wanting to see more of this notion of criticizing someone for one thing when it’s really for a different reason.

Supergirl 1x07 "Human for a Day" television review mind control

While saving James is her first action upon regaining her powers, Kara realizes she owes someone else a conversation that’s just as important:

Supergirl: “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Cat: “Oh, no, you didn’t scare me. But regular people, they’re starting to depend on you. It’s easy for them to feel abandoned. You have to understand that most people out there spend most of their lives feeling isolated and alone, and when a tragedy strikes, they look to their heroes not only for rescue, but for solace. And consistency.”

Supergirl: “That’s why I’m glad they had you. You gave them hope today. I know that you inspired them, because you inspired me.”

Cat’s smile! I think that’s the most emotion we’ve seen from her yet.

Supergirl 1x07 Cat Grant smile GIF

Supergirl 1x07 Supergirl smile GIF

GIFs via fearwanheda on Tumblr

Max and Cat trying to take the reins of a disaster; Kara tricking herself and others into believing she still carries Supergirl’s power, if not her powers; Alex confronting Henshaw to learn the truth about her father and about him. In all cases, we see how people control each other with lies and manipulation… and, in rare cases, with truth.

Good on Alex for not immediately letting Henshaw off the hook for saving her life, and demanding an answer. He reveals that, yes, Jeremiah Danvers died on DEO business… but so did Hank Henshaw! The man who has been running the DEO since then is a shapeshifter named… J’onn J’onnz, a.k.a. the last son of Mars, a.k.a. the Martian Manhunter!

Supergirl 1x07 "Human for a Day" television review mind control

He was just an innocent alien refugee who the DEO lumped in with all the Fort Rozz escapees. When Jeremiah and Henshaw realized that J’onn posed no threat, they paid with their lives. Except that then J’onn took on the form of Henshaw to exist on Earth in a form that wouldn’t attract notice. It’ll be interesting to see how Kara takes this revelation that she and her second boss have something in common.

Of course, she’ll have to tackle that after she takes down her aunt Astra and her henchmen, who knock Supergirl out of the sky mere moments after she’s taken her first flight since regaining her powers. Next week is the winter finale, so we’ll see if Astra and co. actually pose a threat, or if they’ll leave things on a cliffhanger for the next few months.

Natalie Zutter isn’t sure who she ‘ships more, Kara/James or Kara/Cat. You can read more of her work on Twitter and elsewhere.

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