Supergirl 3×12: “For Good”, The Flash 4×12: “Honey, I Shrunk Team Flash”, Black Lightning 1×03: “Lawanda: The Book of Burial”, and Arrow 6×12: “All For Nothing”
They say a hero is only as good as the villains they face. That’s a generalization, of course. You only need to look at Iron Man, possibly the most popular superhero in the world right now, to see a hero who wins the masses over despite facing a string of mostly forgettable villains.
Still, the kind of villain a hero faces undeniably shapes the narrative around them, and our four superhero shows this week use their villains to engineer four distinctly different stories.
Black Lightning, still in the midst of establishing itself, opts for the simplest of hero vs. villain plots: the villain is going to attack something, and the hero needs to show up to fight them back. That’s really all there is to the crime fighting aspect of “Lawanda: The Book of Burial”.
In response to Lawanda’s murder by the 100 in last week’s episode, a reverend organizes a protest march against the gang, and everyone knows the 100 is gonna try shooting up the protestors, because that’s just their M.O. There’s some effort by Jefferson and his cop friend to talk the reverend out of the protest, we get a couple scenes of the villains talking among themselves about how important it is to quash this rebellion, and we get Jefferson and Gambi discussing what tactics to use to keep the crowd safe. But really, it’s all a lot of talking about what everyone knows is coming, until the end of the episode, when some gunmen try to attack the crowd and Black Lightning blocks their gunfire and takes them out with a couple lightning blasts. The whole thing takes maybe a minute, and that’s about all the action we get this episode.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. When Jefferson and Gambi were going over the route the protest was going to take, talking about where Jefferson should position himself to keep watch over the whole thing, I was anticipating a very intense climax. A lone man, trying to protect a long column of marchers winding their way through the streets, from gunmen who could come from anywhere and look like anyone: that’s a recipe for terrific suspense. The struggle to be everywhere, protecting everyone, knowing it can’t possibly be enough could have made for an absolutely thrilling scene even if the amount of actual violence was kept low.
Black Lightning doesn’t exploit that potential though. Despite lots of talking about them, the episode’s not really interested in the 100 gang or how Black Lightning will stop them. Here, they’re just part of the show’s framework, the most basic of villainous threats, there only so our hero has someone to fight and assure audiences that he’s still a superhero. The real meat of the episode lies in the more conventional drama surrounding Anissa breaking up with her girlfriend (and possibly finding a new one), and Jefferson and Lynn dealing with Jennifer’s announcement that she’s decided to start having sex.
There is some good writing and great acting done in these scenes. Anissa’s previous relationship was so thinly sketched out that it’s hard to care about it ending or her starting up a new one, but at least her meet-cute with Grace is endearing enough. The family dinner scene after Jennifer drops her bombshell is, if you’re into cringe-comedy, quite funny, and it’s refreshing to see a story about teenage sexuality where the characters are all at least trying to be as mature about it as they are here. We also get a nice sisterly bonding scene between Anissa and Jennifer . . . really, the whole family just has amazing chemistry with each other.
The only sour note here is Jefferson confronting Jennifer’s boyfriend, trying to use the thought of athlete’s foot spreading from his feet, to his junk, to Jennifer’s va-jay-jay, to scare him out of sex. While I can see how some might find it funny, having a high school principal force a teenage student into a lengthy, detailed discussion of how he showers and dries off his naked body . . . this might work in a comedy where we’re supposed to laugh at how unintentionally inappropriate the principal is being. But when we’re not only supposed to like and root for the principal who’s sexually harassing one of his students, but actually take him seriously as a hero, it’s just plain uncomfortable.
Of course, the very end of the episode has Tobias Whale, seeing Black Lightning’s display at the protest, order his henchperson to shoot him . . . only for her to somehow miss, killing the reverend and wounding Jennifer’s boyfriend, lodging a bullet in his spine. If Lawanda’s death inspired the protest march in this episode, than the reverend’s death will undoubtedly inspire more going forward, and Jennifer having a paralyzed boyfriend will of course be major for her. So while, for what was most important in this particular episode, the 100 were largely incidental, their impact on episodes to come will clearly be greater.
Supergirl took the opposite approach this week. While Reign and the other World Killers took a backseat, baddies Morgan Edge and Lillian Luthor were front and center driving the plot. One supervillain targeting another, with our heroes caught in the crossfire, trying to keep anyone from getting hurt, is a very interesting setup. But, sadly, few shows have Supergirl’s uncanny ability to get in their own way.
Supergirl had such a good midseason finale and a midseason premiere, that I was starting to rethink my mostly lukewarm opinion of the series. Even last week, while I found it disappointing, that was only because its premise had so much potential; it was still a very solid hour of television. But here, we see Supergirl falling back on some of its worst traits.
I said that the villains were driving the plot here, and that’s a problem because Morgan Edge and Lillian Luthor have never been very good villains. They’ve got good actors, especially Brenda Strong as Lillian, but the writing does them no favors. Neither has much depth: Edge is just a vindictive corporate slimeball with no scruples, and Lillian, while she has hints of depth in her affection for her daughter and her sincere belief in protecting humanity from aliens, that affection is always expressed in the most villainous way possible (such as here, where she stages elaborate assassination attempts against Edge for trying to kill Lena in an earlier episode), and the writers have so little sympathy for her anti-alien politics that it rarely feels like any complexity is intended by that.
There are worse things for a villain than not having depth, though. Far worse is being a failure. Both Edge and Lillian have been set up as major, ongoing antagonists for Supergirl, but every single episode they appear in, they lose. Whatever their latest evil scheme has been, it’s always foiled by episode’s end. The closest they ever come to winning is when they escape to scheme another day, and here they don’t even manage that, both of them winding up in prison. By this point, I just don’t feel like either character is truly dangerous, because the writers never let them have a victory.
Part of what’s made Reign such a breath of fresh air is that she was actually allowed to triumph over Supergirl. Even when our heroes put up enough of a fight that Reign was forced to fly off, it’s been played more as them narrowly escaping her, not the other way around.
But worse than anything about the villains themselves is how our heroes decide to handle them. With Lillian trying to kill Edge to protect/avenge Lena, and Edge blaming Lena for the attacks and trying to kill her, it’s a good opportunity for Lena to come to the forefront and try to deal with both villainous threats at once. Which she does by informing Edge about Lillian’s plot to kill him, and using his impending death by laser fire to make him confess to his various crimes, at which point Supergirl and Mon-El show up to kick Lillian’s ass.
What the episode wants us to take away from this is that Lena is very smart, arranging this scenario with Luthor brand savviness, but unlike when she went after Edge with a gun earlier this season, she does it without becoming ruthless or amoral like her mother insisted she needed to be. But what it actually shows us is something quite different.
For one thing, Lena’s plan to bring down Edge shouldn’t have worked. He was absolutely right when he said the charges would never stick. A confession given under duress is not admissible in court, as people will say almost anything to keep from being killed. What’s more, not only should Edge walk away scot-free, but Lena should have been the one arrested at the end. She had a secret meeting with her mother the wanted terrorist, where she learned about her mother’s plans to assassinate someone, and not only did she not report this to the authorities, she actually took advantage of the assassination attempt to extort that confession out of Edge. Lena is absolutely, one-hundred-percent an accessory to Lillian’s crimes.
But, okay, superhero stories often fudge how the legal system works. Let’s say that, on Supergirl’s Earth, what Lena did was legal and will hold up in court. It still fails at making Lena seem cunning, because “threaten the villain’s life until he confesses” isn’t really that inventive or complex. Guardian did the same thing earlier in the episode; all Lena did differently was bring a tape recorder along to record the confession.
But it gets even worse than that. The show wants us to sell us on Lena as cunning-but-still-moral, but not only does she fail the “cunning” part, she also fails the “moral” part big time. Maybe threatening Edge’s life was morally justified, since other efforts to put him away had failed and he was too dangerous (both to Lena and to National City) to be allowed to run free. But when Lillian’s drones attack Edge’s party, some random security guard gets caught in the line of fire and dies. There’s no hint that this guy was involved in the attempt on Lena’s life or any of Edge’s other evil schemes. He’s just some guy working security at the party, and because Lena chose to let Lillian’s attack on Edge proceed, that innocent man is dead. Unless Supergirl has shifted its moral compass to that of Arrow Season 1, it’s hard to see how that was the moral course of action; just shooting Edge would, ironically, have been the more noble thing to do.
Supergirl has often had a problem with undermining its own message. Like in Season 1, where Kara insisting she has to protect National City without Superman’s help and that him coming to her aid was an insult, aired just an episode or two after Kara went on a spiel about how Kryptonians aren’t afraid to accept help from others and humans should do likewise. Partly it’s just sloppy writing, and partly it’s the show’s fear of allowing any ambiguity into its messages or its characters’ morality. A plot where two villains are working against each other and our heroes must alternate between helping and hindering each of them to get the best result, that requires skillful writing and moral complexity that the Supergirl writers room was just not up to.
Arrow, by contrast, is never shy about questioning its heroes’ decisions, or of making its villains legitimate threats.
This week, right off the bat, we see that Cayden James’s siege of Star City has continued unabated, with an opening massacre of A.R.G.U.S. agents demonstrating that no help from outside the city will be coming (I mean, Cisco could probably breach some help in, but you’re not supposed to think about that too much). The city is completely broke after paying Cayden’s ransom for a week, and Oliver has to start thinking less about stopping the city’s destruction and more about minimizing casualties when it comes.
That’s some bleak stuff, and the episode never lets that pressure ease up. Unlike in Supergirl and Black Lightning this week, the villains aren’t about to do something that the heroes need to stop. They’ve already taken control, and our heroes are left struggling to find a way to attack them, with Cayden and his cronies always seeming one step ahead.
This sort of story, with the whole city in peril, the villains’ threat continuing at full force from one week to the next, with the good guys having little hope in sight . . . this is the sort of thing Arrow normally does at the end of a season, not smack dab in the middle. It’s hard to believe this relentless siege can continue for another eleven episodes, which makes me think that this Cayden James story arc will be like the Danny Brickwell trilogy from Season 3: an intense, multi-episode story sprung on us while Team Arrow is in disarray (in Season 3, because Oliver was missing/presumed dead, here because the team has split in two) but wrapping up shortly to make way for the real Big Bad (hinted at here to be whoever manipulated Cayden into seeking revenge on Oliver).
Still, while it lasts, I’m loving the intensity of these last couple episodes, where the bad guys have seized an overwhelming advantage, and every break the good guys get falls apart on them. I described the last episode as surprisingly optimistic, but apparently I was speaking too soon. The two halves of Team Arrow may have gotten along well then, but by the end of “All For Nothing” a much deeper division has been set up, and while Vince turned out to be sincere when he claimed to be a double agent, that fact here leads to his death and Dinah going to a dark place.
How much you enjoy this episode is going to depend heavily on how much you enjoy Dinah and Vince. I’ll admit, Vince is a mostly nothing character. Since unmasking, we’ve seen little of the crazed zealotry that defined him as Vigilante, leaving him to be not much more than Dinah’s ex, whose relationship with her, even when he see it in flashback here, is mostly told and not shown.
However, I think I like Dinah Drake a more than many viewers do, and a lot of that comes down to Juliana Harkavy. She has a knack for making her character’s emotions seem very big and intense while still staying quite restrained. She not only nails Dinah’s grief over Vince’s death, but she conveys the emotion well despite being in full superhero getup. I’m so used to live-action superheroes taking their masks off whenever it’s time to really emote, so seeing her do it with her mask on, while still feeling very natural and real, was a treat.
Then there’s her end-of-episode scene with Oliver. Her declaration that she’s planning to hunt down and kill all of Cayden’s crew, starting with Laurel, feels very sincere and a little scary. But what I really like about Arrow is that Dinah can make that decision, Oliver can oppose it, but the show doesn’t feel the need to make sure we side with one over the other.
When they argued about whether to focus on saving Vince or getting Cayden’s bomb, both were allowed to make a valid case (if Felicity or Lyla had been captured, like Dinah supposed, I can easily imagine the whole team going for the rescue option). And when both missions fail miserably, you can sympathize with each side when they see this failure as the other’s fault. Oliver doesn’t blame Dinah in the same way that Dinah blames Oliver, but in classic Oliver Queen fashion, his attempts to comfort her are held back by his lack of anything resembling an apology. If something like this had been what they used to split up Team Arrow in the first place, I would have been so much more on board with the whole thing.
I won’t say this was a great episode of Arrow, but in a season that until recently felt lacking, it’s a welcome sign of the show getting its groove back.
Finally, we come to The Flash, which takes the most unusual approach of all to its villains: they very much drive the plot this week, but we don’t actually get to see much of them.
The villain of the week (dubbed Dwarfstar by Cisco) fits a familiar model for The Flash, being an uncomplicated criminal who’s little more than a set of powers that Team Flash need to think their way around. He’s really only in three scenes: one where he steals an entire building by shrinking it down to pocket size, another where a Flashless Team Flash confronts him, and then a climax where they defeat him.
Despite this limited screentime, he very much drives the story, as that first confrontation with Team Flash leaves Cisco and Ralph shrunk to the size of action figures, which, after some bungling by Harry, turns into a ticking clock until they die. But not only that, it turns out that Dwarfstar is also the man who committed the murder that Big Sir, Barry’s new prison pal, was wrongfully convicted for, and catching him can hopefully net a confession that sets Big Sir free.
That amazing piece of coincidence is the work of another pair of villains. The DeVoes remain entirely off-screen this episode, but their machinations seem to affect everything this season (and I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few events from previous seasons were part of their master plan, too). And at the end we discover Warden Wolfe is also a villain, who finds out Barry is the Flash, drugs him, and plans to sell him to Amunet Black, who only appears in the end-of-episode teaser.
This mix of making the villains central to the plot but largely off-screen actually works well for The Flash. It gives all the characters a clear goal and something to fight against, while also allowing for them to spend most of their time interacting with each other, showing off the camaraderie and breezy, hang-out humor this show does so well. It’s not a powerful or groundbreaking episode, nor is it the funniest episode of the season (though there are quite a few good laughs), but it’s another example of this season’s renewed focus on telling lighthearted adventure stories with a cast of likable characters.
My main quibble would be that, with a title like “Honey, I Shrunk Team Flash”, I was expecting more tiny people hijinks. Only two characters get shrunk, and they spend most of their tiny time just standing around Star Labs. Even when Iris puts them in the Lego set used to represent her murder by Savitar (a hilarious callback, by the way) we never see them interacting with any small objects that now seem huge to them. The closest we get is them riding on a drone when they go to attack Dwarfstar at the end, and, of course, Iris stepping on Ralph like he was a piece of gum.
Still, there were some good action beats with Dwarfstar throwing expanding cars and helicopters at people, and Ralph turning into a parachute when he and Cisco start falling. Compared to the other shows this week, though there’s just not a whole lot to talk about.
- Screw you, Iris. Embiggens is a perfectly cromulent word.
- As I’ve made clear in previous reviews, I adore Amunet Black, so the prospect of seeing her finally go up against Barry next week has me stoked.
- I ragged on Supergirl a lot, so let me say something positive: the action scenes in “For Good” were great. Morgan Edge escaping from his hijacked and extremely-explodable car, James chasing down Lena’s poisoner, Mon-El and Kara fighting Lillian in the “Lexosuit”: all awesome.
- I also loved Mon-El’s casual references to fighting Zod and Computo in the future. I love when these shows remember that just because a superhero isn’t onscreen doesn’t mean they aren’t having their own wild adventures See also: Wally West fighting Starro the Conqueror.
- I could do with some clarification on Black Lightning’s powers. This week we see him create a forcefield with his lightning, and Gambi implies that the costume isn’t just armor and a disguise, but that it’s part of how Jefferson controls his lightning. A little more detail on what his lightning powers can and can’t do would be appreciated.
- Lady Eve got a very nice, if short, introduction here as Tobias’s superior. Which is good, because I’m kind of souring on Tobias. I liked some of the over-the-top stuff he did in the series premiere, but now he’s seeming like one of those villains who just blusters and rages at his incompetent minions, and has no grace or backup plan when they inevitably screw up.
- I also got a laugh when Tobias complained about the protestors singing, just because he seemed so much like the Grinch in that moment.
- Anissa practicing her powers in the junk yard was pretty cool, though.
- Black Siren killing Vince was really well handled. A guy with healing powers being hit with a super loud scream until he finally dies could have easily gone too over-the-top, but they made it, ironically, quite quiet, even intimate. And, of course, Dinah watching while trapped under rubble is what really sold it.
- Quentin reaching out to Evil Laurel with a collage and video montage of Good Laurel was alternately sweet, hokey, and stalker-level creepy.
MVP of the Week: Cecile Horton.
I was ambivalent about giving this to her. She apparently has no sense of boundaries; not only does she not comprehend why someone wouldn’t want their thoughts read all the time, she’s offended that they’d even try to stop it. Despite that, the way she takes to her pregnancy powers with such quick eagerness, it’s a delight to watch, and taking that sort of joy in superpowers is a big part of The Flash’s charm.
Question of the Week: Which Arrowverse hero or villain do you think has the best costume?