REVIEW: Supergirl tackles her biggest challenge yet in Season 4

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Supergirl Season 4, “The Quest for Peace.” Photo: Robert Falconer/The CW.

How does one fight hatred? It’s a powerful question, but one that doesn’t have a simple answer. Had I been told back when I watched the first season of Supergirl that the show would be tackling prejudice as Supergirl’s main antagonist, I would have believed it would have been clumsy and odd. But Supergirl has matured since it began airing and it handles the subject very thoughtfully. I’ve had the opportunity to review the previous seasons of Supergirl, but Season 4 needed specific attention to properly process it.

After a change in status quo at the end of the previous season, Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist) is balancing her life as a reporter and her duties as Supergirl. Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh) is now the director of the DEO and adjusting to the task even as new layers of bureaucracy are put above her. J’onn J’onnz (David Harewood) is retired and adjusting to life without the DEO and begins noticing an uptake in anti-alien sentiment and anti-alien crimes.

Meanwhile, a new hate group begins to form in National City as Agent Liberty (Sam Witwer) begins to forment distrust between humans and aliens alike. James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) struggles to find the best way to handle this as both Guardian and as the head of National City’s newspaper. Lena Luthor (Katie McGrath), for her part, is trying to find a way to give humans super-powers and kickstart humanity’s march into the future thanks to a kryptonian technology called the Harun-El.

Supergirl Season 4 Recap Image - Dreamer & Supergirl
Supergirl Season 4, “Menagerie.” Photo: Diyah Pera/The CW.

Throughout the season, Supergirl has to face not just prejudice, but a plethora of new villains such as Mercy Graves (Rhona Mitra), Metallo (Robert Baker) and the rise of Manchester Black (David Ajala) and his new group of vigilante The Elite. She also has to deal with the machinations of Lex Luthor (Jon Cryer, excellent) and her own evil doppelgänger, the Red Daughter (also Melissa Benoist, with a hilarious Eastern European accent). But all is not bleak, there is always hope. In this season, it takes the form of Nia Nal (Nicole Maines), a young new reporter from National City who will become a hero throughout the season.

I was surprised by how good this season was. Exploring the theme of prejudice was bold and could have easily fallen flat, but the series manages to weave a very thoughtful analysis and rebuttal of anti-immigration discourse. Using Lex Luthor, and rooting some of his hatred for Superman and Supergirl in xenophobia, gave the show a great way to explore the vileness of his rhetoric. Both him and Agent Liberty are angry at the way the world is changing. Agent Liberty, in particular, have some very specific grievances, but that seems to be more the result of poor decisions (his family losing the steel company, losing his jobs after trying to teach his students that fascism is good) and uncontrollable circumstances (The Daxamite invasion brought a fight right through his house).

Painting all aliens as evil monsters does allow for the story to recenter itself around the implications of alien refugees finding a home on Earth and the reactions to this from these egomaniac racists. Supergirl and Superman are themselves refugees who have used their abilities to make their adopted home a better place. Framing this season around this was an inspired way to move the story forward.

Supergirl Season 4 Recap Image - Lex Luthor
Supergirl Season 4, “The House of L.” Photo: Katie Yu/The CW.

Your mileage may vary on this though. It is, as previous seasons, very on the nose. The dialogue make sure to spell everything out, which is sure to turn off some viewers, but if you’ve made it all the way to this fourth season, you’re probably immune to cheese by now. I will point out that this is also Jon Cryer’s best role since he played Lenny, the nephew of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor in the hilarious Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

Difference is another theme being explored. J’onn J’onnz explains to Supergirl that her experience as an alien on Earth has been much different than his and many others like him. While she is an alien, she’s passing as human. She looks just like any other white women and that has fundamentally been part of her experience. It’s also the case for Nia Nal, whose experience as a trans woman has also influenced how others interact with her. In previous seasons, James Olsen also struggled with the idea that by being a black man in America, your experience is not the same. Difference becomes a signifier of understanding, we’re all different from one another, but we can all live together and thrive.

Supergirl Season 4 Recap Image - Manchester Black
Supergirl Season 4, “Bunker Hill.” Photo: Dean Buscher/The CW.

The series also provides a new way to explore the relationship between Kara and her sister Alex. Tensions are at an all-time high and the DEO is under increased scrutiny thanks to the oversight of Colonel Lauren Haley (April Parker Jones). Haley is a tough-as-nail officer who respect the chain of command above all else. She’s in charge and doesn’t take well to Alex Danvers constantly playing fast and loose with the rules. She’s also eventually on the hunt for Supergirl’s true identity and is willing to investigate all of it’s agents with, let’s say enhanced interrogation techniques (mostly it’s a truth-seeking alien).

In an attempt to protect Kara, all the DEO agents who know Supergirl’s identity agrees to let  J’onn J’onnz wipe their memory. This is especially hard for Alex, who has to see a huge part of her own identity and life taken away to keep her sister safe. It’s pretty dramatic and separating them allows the show to explore how the two sisters are inseparable.

Supergirl succeeds in no small part thanks to the charm and infectious enthusiasm of it’s titular character. Melissa Benoist has a fantastic presence and manages to balance the duality Kara Danvers and her alter-ego perfectly. Her infectious smile brings just enough levity to this season which could have been a lot heavier than it was.

Supergirl Season 4 Recap Image - Nia Nal - Dreamer
Supergirl Season 4, “Menagerie.” Photo: Diyah Pera/The CW.

The best part of this season was the inspired casting of Nicole Maines. Throughout the season, her character Nia Nal transforms from a shy new reporter intern into a confident woman and a hero of the people called Dreamer. She’s essentially an adaptation of the New Gods character Beautiful Dreamer, a woman who can see the future in her dreams. She’s given a different origin story here and a way to explore this idea of difference and prejudice. There are a few mentions of her struggles as a trans woman and how her experience affected her life. It’s never overdone, and always poignant. Her transformation into someone who can use her powers for good and into a symbol of hope and tolerance happens slowly and seamlessly. The show shines whenever she’s on screen and her relationship with Supergirl allows for new depths to be mined from each character. Her growth culminates in one of the best moment of the entire series so far, an interview on live television between Dreamer and Kara Danvers.

Supergirl Season 4 took a leap into an unexpected direction and it paid off. This season became more topical, more mature and more relevant than any other of its peers. I know Supergirl will never be the best show on television, but this is as strong a show as it can be. I’d recommend it in a heartbeat.

You can also read our reviews of Supergirl Season 1, Season 2 and Season 3.

Supergirl Season 4 Recap Image - Kara Danvers - Dreamer
Supergirl Season 4, “American Dreamer.” Photo: Diyah Pera/The CW.

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