With the "Elseworlds" crossover fast approaching, a lot of my friends have come to me asking what happening on Supergirl. A fair question– while Kara's (Melissa Benoist) adventures take place in National City on the CW on Sunday nights, they're not technically in the same dimension as Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow. It's been easy to overlook, but, if you've been watching, impossible to ignore. This is some of the finest superhero / comic book themed programming on right now.
But considering how fun previous crossovers have been (wasn't last year's "Crisis on Earth X" awesome?!?) and the excitement around Ruby Rose showing up as Batwoman in Gotham City, now is definitely time to refresh. First, a reminder of just how Supergirl's universe is connected with the rest of the "Arrowverse:"
Now, what's been happening in Season 4 of Supergirl?
[Ummmm. . . spoilers, obviously.]
The main antagonists for this season are the human supremacist group the Sons of Liberty, led by the enigmatic Agent Liberty(Sam Witwer). They have infiltrated the DEO and use stolen technology to reveal the identity of all aliens currently living on Earth. This, of course, includes the president, which forces her to resign. A wave of anti-alien hysteria sweeps the country. The Sons have spent most of the season engaging in various demonstrations and acts of violence to try to intimidate aliens, whom they refer to by the epithet "roaches."
An early battle with the Sons and some of their top agents leaves Supergirl almost dead after they fill the atmosphere with kryptonite particles. Luckily, her sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) and Brainiac 5 (Jesse Rath) get her into a robot containment suit (Eradicator suit?) until they can figure out how to clean the atmosphere. For a while there, it was really cool to see Supergirl fighting in what looked like a Daft Punk costume, but it was smart to not let it go on too long.
Speaking of the DEO, there has been a change in leadership. J'onn J'onzz (David Harewood) is now seeking a more enlightened and peaceful path to try to follow in his father's footsteps as a spiritual guardian of Mars, and has left Alex in charge. With the change in political leadership, the new president has assigned special oversight to the DEO in Col. Lauren Haley (April Parker Jones), a no-nonsense military professional.
J'onn is also now running a support group for aliens who want to fit in better. But when Fiona (Tiya Sircar), one of his students goes missing, he begins to wonder if he can get her back without resorting to more violent means.; in contrast, Manchester Black (David Ajala) – Fiona's boyfriend – is committed to finding her by any means necessary. He is violent, mercenary, and super-duper charming.
The Sons have also found a new hero — James Olsen as Guardian (Mehcad Brooks), they claim, is the peak of humans looking out for humans. When the Sons attempt to reach out to him, James has to choose between his journalistic curiosity in trying to get close to the secretive Sons, and his integrity in wanting to denounce everything the Sons are about.
Meanwhile, James and Lena Luthor's (Katie McGrath) relationship is on the rocks after she intervened with the District Attorney to get them to drop all charges against James for his vigilante actions as Guardian. James didn't want her to use her political influence to stop it, and the two of them are having a hard time separating their personal and professional responsibilities to each other. (Never date your boss, kids! Especially if that boss is a Luthor, even if it's Lena.)
Speaking of Lena, she has been running some underground experiments (as Luthors are wont to do). She is on the cusp of a miracle drug that would not only cure cancer and numerous other illnesses, but also give humans superpowers. However, she is struggling with the ethics of this path.
Ok, so that's what has happened. What does it mean, and why do we care?
This season has set up a lot of conflicts which question basic issues of ethics. At the center of all of this is Supergirl, our paragon of virtue and good. On the issue of use of force and violence, opposite her we have J'onn and his new vow of pacifism as well as Machester Black's questionable methods which include murder, torture, and betrayal. We also have James as Guardian who doesn't want his heroism used by bigots. All of these are ostensibly our protagonists.
But perhaps the best and most important part of this season is its main villain. In a beautiful and moving episode 3, "Man of Steel," we meet Professor Benjamin Lockwood. He's a liberal college history professor whose academic focus is the founding of America. He's obsessed with the ideals of the nation's "founding fathers," and when his steelworker father starts spouting anti-alien rhetoric at the dinner table, he is offended and reprimands his father's racism. But we see as time goes on how Supergirl's battles impact his life, damage his home, and turn many in the community suspicious of all aliens. When Lena Luthor opens a competing Nth metal mill partially run by aliens across from the town steel mill, it causes the steel mill to close. We see before our eyes the radicalization of this idealistic man into a "earth first" crusader. By the end of the episode, Professor Lockwood has stopped teaching and now runs an Breitbart / InfoWars-style video blog devoted to putting humans first. And in secret, he takes up the mantle of Agent Liberty and organizes all of the Sons' activities.
In fictional form, we have a perfect metaphor for the radicalization of a segment of white America. It's hard to separate the problems in Supergirl's world and their "humans first" from the allure of Trump and his brand of "America first." The Sons of Liberty are almost indistinguishable from groups like the Proud Boys, except that the Sons are far more organized, engaging in a modern kristallnacht. It's not meant to be subtle – but it is effective.
This year could be remembered for its pop culture villains who have a point. Benjamin Lockwood can join Erik Killmonger, Thanos, and Gellert Grindewald because the moral weight of the argument he is making cannot be dismissed out of hand. He has legitimate grievances. His methods are unconscionable, but that doesn't make him completely wrong or unsympathetic. This isn't to say he's right. He is absolutely not. He's a monster. But to understand what made him that way is key to preventing future monsters and to defeating him.
Which is what makes Supergirl so powerful. Her story begins every week with "My name is Kara Zor El. I'm from Krypton. I'm a refugee on this planet." Those words should carry extra weight as our news is dominated by stories of refugees seeking asylum. Her optimism and pluck also help cut through the BS that is both Benjamin Lockwood and Manchester Black's approaches.
It would also be remiss to talk about the moral weight of this season without mentioning Nya Nadal played by Nicole Maines. While she hasn't yet really had all that much to do yet this season, it's groundbreaking and important to note that she is transgender and portrayed by a trans actress. An early scene has her sticking up for Brainy in a pizza place when the owner discovers he is an alien and refuses to sell him pizza any more. She gives a great speech later about knowing what it feels like to be "the other" and that people who have faced oppression and difficulties need to stand up for each other in solidarity.
So where do we end up?
In our last episode, Supergirl and Manchester Black track the Sons of Liberty to Shelley Island (think: Ellis Island for aliens – then imagine an anti-immigrant group took over Ellis Island. WTF?!?!) James also tries to infiltrate the group but is told before he can meet Agent Liberty, he has to take part in a video livestream — as Guardian — blowing up a monument welcoming aliens to Earth. Oh, and Manchester betrays Kara, the Sons of Liberty have set up power dampeners to weaken her, and she is locked inside the monument James is about to push the button to blow up. J'onn simultaneously figures out that Manchester has been beating and killing people to get the information he wants to find Agent Liberty, who killed Fiona.
Lena continues with her experiments, moving to human trials before she bonds with a potential human test subject and calls it off. He convinces her they have to go through with the trial and then dies from the test. Distraught but with no one to turn to, Lena turns James away when he tries to bring her dinner and apologize for how he has behaved. Their relationship might be ok, but she is still compartmentalizing her life and her feelings.
This Sunday's episode, "Bunker Hill" is directed by Kevin Smith, so I'll definitely be tuning in to see what happens next.
Images courtesy the CW and DC Comics.