Supergirl 4×01: “American Alien”, Arrow 7×01: “Inmate 4587”, and The Flash 5×02: “Blocked” reviews
This week in the Arrowverse, Oliver is in prison and unable to be there for his son, while Barry is fated to disappear one day and not be there for his daughter, a grave weight that hangs over both of them. Meanwhile, Kara’s mother could presumably still be there for her daughter, but . . . eh, neither of ‘em really care.
Nope, I’m not still salty about that all.
Anyways, on to the reviews!
Supergirl 4×01: “American Alien” review
It’s a new season of Supergirl, and that means it’s time for the show to retool itself once again.
Supergirl seems to be in a perpetual state of finding itself. Every time it returns to our screens in the Fall, the writers’ have decided to unceremoniously axe characters and plotlines that weren’t working out, and shift the show’s focus in a new direction.
Season 2 obviously had to discard a lot of characters from Season 1, due to the move from CBS to the CW (and from Los Angeles to Vancouver). The James/Kara romance, built up slowly over the first season, was brought to an abrupt end. Kara’s civilian career shifted from beleaguered assistant to rookie journalist.
And, in a rather drastic shakeup of the show’s universe, aliens on Earth were no longer limited to escaped convicts from Fort Rozz and a handful of Martians and Kryptonians. Instead, we were told that there is, and always has been, a large community of aliens on Earth, many of them living in secret, but with enough now being open about their origins to petition for legal rights. The show came to focus heavily on the difficulties of humans and aliens co-existing. An alien bar became the show’s go-to hangout location. And the political message of the show largely shifted from the first season’s stabs at feminism to an allegory for immigration in America.
Then Season 3 came around, and the show changed focus yet again. Kara was still a reporter, but her career was now little more than background noise; it provided an excuse for continuing to use the CatCo offices as a set, but stories were no longer being built around her investigative journalism. Perhaps as a consequence, Snapper Carr, Kara’s boss and a prominent recurring character in Season 2, vanished with only one line of explanation. But that still beats Lyra, Winn’s alien girlfriend, who vanished with no explanation; she simply stopped appearing, and everyone just stopped mentioning her. Even Lillian Luthor and her organization, Cadmus, the primary villains for most of Season 2, and still very much on the loose by that season’s conclusion, returned for only a single episode, which ended with Lillian sent to prison, a dangling plot thread seemingly cut short.
And, perhaps most crucially, aliens on Earth all but disappeared. Many of our main characters were still aliens, and the season introduced a few new villains and a couple new heroes who were from other planets, but these characters were portrayed as coming to Earth under exceptional circumstances. No longer was there any sense that large numbers of aliens were living on Earth, or that anti-alien sentiment was still an issue that needed to be dealt with. Even when a couple scenes were set at the alien bar, if you didn’t recognize the set from the previous season, you’d never know it wasn’t a regular ol’ human bar. Heck, when the episode “Dark Side of the Moon” revealed that the villain of the B-plot was a random alien with a grudge, it was genuinely shocking, because until then random aliens (a staple of the first two seasons’ villain-of-the-week episodes) had been entirely absent. It seemed that the show had dismissed the whole subject of aliens living on Earth, and the political metaphor surrounding it, as something it just wasn’t interested in doing anymore.
Well, Season 4 is here now, so it’s time to forget about everything Season 3 was trying to do. Sam and Ruby, such a crucial part of the third season, are stated to have moved to a new city, and Lena’s line about them living “happily ever after” might as well be directly telling the audience “their story’s over; we’re not gonna be seeing ‘em anymore”. Argo City gets referenced, and maybe it will reappear later this season, but for now it doesn’t look like Kara rediscovering her home and her mother has had much of an effect on things (though, even in Season 3, it had significantly less of an effect on things than you would have thought). Attention is once more being put on Kara’s role as a journalist, with her mentoring eager new journalist Nia in a way that self-consciously replicates Cat Grant’s relationship with Kara in Season 1.
And, most significantly, alien immigrants are back to being the focus du jour, with a new alien-hating terrorist coming on the scene, J’onn leading a support group for aliens adapting to life on Earth, and Lynda Carter’s President Marsdin making her first appearance since Season 2. This episode even marks the anniversary of Marsdin’s Alien Amnesty Act that kicked off the plot of Season 2, quietly ignoring how the Act’s first anniversary in Season 3 went completely uncommented on.
For a TV series to so consistently founder for direction, even going into its fourth season, is not a terrific sign. However, that the writers keep shifting the show’s focus does demonstrate that they’re aware of and are trying to fix the problems that bogged down previous seasons (unlike Arrow, The Flash, or Legends, there’s yet to be a genuinely great season of Supergirl). Towards that end, having this season go back to the themes and plots that defined Season 2 (minus Mon-El), but with greater experience and hopefully better execution, could be the smart move to take.
This premiere is a promising step in that direction, even if the explanation for Kara being so oblivious to alien concerns over the past year feels a tad clunky. The new anti-alien extremists are essentially Cadmus 2.0, but this episode does more to make them seem like a formidable challenge than all the cyborgs and doomsday weapons ever did for the original Cadmus. One of the chief problems of Season 2 was that, until the Daxamites became major players near the end of the season, Lillian Luthor and Cadmus were our chief villains, and they were never, ever allowed to win. While they’d always escape to scheme another day, every master plan they came up with to target aliens on Earth was foiled by episode’s end. That these new baddies outwit our heroes and score a major victory makes them feel formidable in a way Cadmus never did.
And let’s talk about the nature of that victory. During Season 2, many viewers pointed out how the show didn’t seem to have thought through the implications behind President Marsdin. They were trying to preach a message of tolerance and acceptance of immigrants, but having her be a shapeshifting alien from another planet (making her Presidency technically illegal, and casting a more self-serving light on her Alien Amnesty Act) made her a right-wing nightmare vision of what open borders could cause. Season 3 left the President entirely off-screen, avoiding the issue, but this season looks to be confronting it head on, exposing Marsdin’s secret to the world, and leaving our heroes to deal with the fallout of this deception being uncovered.
On the less alien-focused front, giving Kara a rookie reporter protege is an interesting way of shaking up the CatCo side of the series. Kara’s journalism career was often annoyingly idealistic in Season 2 (literally every single complaint Snapper had about her was 100% correct), and largely absent in Season 3. Having Kara mentor Nia could be a way to keep her day job relevant to the show and let her seem like a competent reporter, without her conveniently always investigating stories that let her do exactly what she would have done as Supergirl anyway.
It’s far too early to say whether Supergirl has learned enough to make Season 4 a superior version of Season 2, but if this show is going to continue retooling itself, going back to the season that almost worked and ironing out the kinks . . . it’s an approach that at least has promise.
- Now that J’onn is a pacifist, Superman is on Argo, and Mon-El is in the future, Kara is the only superstrong demi-god left protecting Earth. Given how Arrow and The Flash gradually morphed from shows about singular superheroes to superhero teams, this could be a good way for Supergirl to differentiate itself (and not have so many episodes where circumstances conveniently take most of the heroes out of action).
- Brainy continues to be fun. Not digging the back-and-forth between him and Alex yet, but him dressing up as Winn in order to please her was definitely an episode highlight.
- Also a highlight: the whole opening montage of Kara rescuing people all over the world, while still finding time to bring a little girl back her balloon. That’s exactly the sort of goodhearted superheroics we want from the Super-family.
- Mercy and Otis are based on Lex Luthor’s henchmen from two different iterations of Superman: Mercy Graves was Luthor’s driver/bodyguard in Superman: The Animated Series, and Otis was Luthor’s bumbling, comedy-relief sidekick in Superman: The Movie. If those characters stick around, I dearly hope we get an Otisberg reference at some point.
- Last season, Arrow had a throwaway reference to a prosecutor who put Bruno Mannheim and Intergang behind bars. Now, on Supergirl’s Earth, we also have a reference to Mannheim being taken down off-screen. It’s beginning to look like Intergang might never become a thing in the Arrowverse, when interdimensional arms dealers seem like the perfect villain to pop up on any or all of these shows and cause some trouble.
Arrow 7×01: “Inmate 4587” review
Comparing Arrow to Lost is hardly a new take. The show even did so itself in its pilot episode, with Tommy giving a recently rescued Oliver a confused description of how Lost ended. And while the two series are very different in style and ambition, the desert island and flashback structure that defined so much of the first five seasons made such comparisons inevitable. Now, with the revelation that flasbacks have been replaced with flashforwards, a twist that Lost itself pulled midway through its run, people are making those comparisons with renewed vigor.
But as much as Lost’s storytelling could get wonky at times, this season premiere of Arrow could have greatly benefited from examining how Lost structured its episodes.
Because what we have in this season premiere are four largely unconnected stories. One concerns Oliver in prison, adjusting to a setting where he can no longer fight back against the villains who hurt him and others. Another concerns Felicity, raising William by herself while they hide in Witness Protection. Another concerns Rene and Dinah, each trying to help Star City without returning to their vigilante identities, but having that decision called into question when a new Green Arrow appears. And, in yet another story, we follow a man traveling to Lian Yu, a man we discover is an adult William seeking out Roy Harper.
None of these stories are bad. Far from it. The flashforward reveal is the biggest WTF!? moment this series has had in ages, and the other stories are all well-grounded in character, showing how people we know so well react to such radically changed circumstances. They’re even united by a common theme, with each of our main cast struggling with an unfamiliar sense of powerlessness. Throw in some thrilling and brutal fight scenes, some emotionally charged moments, and some intriguing mysteries, and it feels like this should be a standout episode.
The problem is, there’s not quite enough space in this episode to progress any of these stories very far. With our main cast splintered into different locales, rarely getting to share the screen with each other, each story has to do all the work of establishing its setting, stakes, and path forward all by itself. And with a 42 minute runtime divided four ways, there’s not much room for any of these stories to do more than tell us where all the characters are at right now, and only hint at where they’re going to go from here.
We see Oliver in prison, get an opening montage to drive home the daily grind of living in this brutal system, but we don’t spend quite enough time with him to really feel that grind ourselves. Had all or at least most of the episode been devoted to Oliver in prison, we would have been so immersed in the oppressive atmosphere, and so deflated at seeing our normally dynamic hero caged-in and powerless, the moment at the end where he decides to take action, and the Oliver we know is back, it could have been so powerful. Instead, while there’s definitely satisfaction to be had, with the truncated screentime it feels less like a triumphant return from the brink, and more like the earlier, downtrodden Oliver was just a brief funk he had to get over.
Likewise, we only get glimpses of what Felicity and William’s new lives are like before Diaz shows up to wreck it all. Dinah and Rene each get to state how the feel about their post-vigilante lives a few times, but only at the very end does it seem like those feelings are being transferred into action. And the flashforwards and the new Green Arrow? They’re intriguing mysteries, but this episode does little more with them beyond establishing that these mysteries exist; there simply isn’t time to take them any farther.
Lost was no stranger to juggling a lot of different stories in one episode. But when dealing with characters who had so much geography separating them, and with stories that needed plenty of time to establish and then expand upon a new set of circumstances, they knew when to pare down how many they dealt with at once. Often they’d craft episodes that focused on only a handful of the main cast, dealing with their own problems in a specific location, and everyone else had to wait till the next episode before the story caught up with them, because there just wasn’t time to check in on everyone, and do everyone justice, in a single episode.
But this episode of Arrow? Even with Laurel and Curtis only appearing in one scene each, and John getting little more than that, it still feels like it’s trying to divide its focus too evenly among the main cast, and so gives none of them enough time to tell a truly compelling story.
That doesn’t make this a bad episode, it’s just not a very complete episode. It exists to check back in on all our main characters, show us what their lives have been like in the five months between seasons, and plant the seeds of how their circumstances might begin to change, but not much more than that. When binge-watched with the episodes to come, it might feel like an excellent Act 1. But taken on its own, it’s hard not to feel like, had it focused on just two of these stories, and saved the other two for next week, that we would have gotten a far superior episode of television.
- I didn’t talk much about the flashforwards themselves above. I’m actually quite worried about how these will work going forward. While it’s a storytelling trick that can be done well, it usually requires far more meticulous plotting than Arrow has shown itself to be capable of. Remember the last time this show did a flashforward, showing Oliver kneeling by someone’s grave? Thanks to that, the writers made the controversial decision to kill Laurel Lance, because they’d committed themselves to killing someone, and had to follow through whether or not any character’s story seemed to be leading to their death.
- The intercut Oliver and Felicity fight scenes really were quite awesome. I do love it when Arrow goes over-the-top and comic booky with its fights, but it’s these sorts of gritty brawls where the show often seems to come into its own.
- With all those shirtless Oliver workout sessions, surely somewhere in this prison there’s a Salmon Ladder?
- Ricardo Diaz continues his streak of underwhelming villainy. When the Comic-Con trailer for Season 7 came out, I joked about Felicity and William defeating Diaz on their own, because he was just that much of a non-threat. Well, Felicity may not have defeated Diaz here, but she came so close, the only redeemable path forward I can see for him is if he joins the Longbow Hunters as their bumbling sidekick.
- Oliver has a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo in his cell. On the one hand, thematic. On the other hand, what prison is going to allow their inmates to keep a copy of that?
The Flash 5×02: “Blocked” review
“Please stop caring about me.”
I spoke last week about how a big part of what makes The Flash great (when it’s great) is how it’s built around kind, likable people who sincerely care for and look after each other. This episode emphasizes that core endearing quality of Team Flash. While it does feature a meta-of-the-week that needs to be stopped, most of the story is focused on conflict between our main characters, but it’s conflict based around all of them trying to help each other.
Barry’s trying to guide Nora into being a better speedster. Cecile is trying to be the perfect mom for her new baby. Ralph and Caitlin are trying to help Cisco recover from his breakup, while Cisco’s trying to help Caitlin find out what happened to her father.
No one’s angry at each other. No one’s trying to hurt or deceive each other. No one’s working at cross purposes. Everyone is just trying to do what’s best for the people they care about; trouble only arises because they don’t know the perfect thing to do or say to make the other person feel better. The conflict is light, humorous, and by episode’s end is resolved through empathy, honest communication, and listening to the wise council of Joe West (and, oddly enough, Ralph Dibny). It’s the kind of warm-hearted, comfort food television that leaves you feeling all around good.
It’s also a pain to review, because how much can you really say about everyone being nice and learning how to be nice better?
So, despite only appearing for a small portion of “Blocked”, I’d like to spend the remainder of this review talking about our latest Big Bad, Cicada.
The Flash has usually been good about making its main villains seem, at least at the outset, genuinely intimidating. Cicada doesn’t have the same menacing design as Zoom or the Reverse Flash, and he’s not a nigh-unbeatable speed god like Savitar, but the insect-like sound he makes while in action is suitably creepy. And the fact that he dispenses with the usual boasting and threats we get from Flash villains, and instead goes straight into a savage assault, helps sell him as a serious customer.
But on the flipside, we see a lot more vulnerability from Cicada then we usually get from the Big Bads, at least this early in the season. In the very first scene, we see him sans costume, working an unspecified civilian job, and bearing multiple injuries from his fight with Gridlock. Then, when he attacks Team Flash at episode’s end, he may drain the powers of several metahumans and kick their asses all at once, but he still takes a few substantial blows from our heroes, enough so that he doesn’t seem as invincible as our main bad guys usually do when they first kick Barry’s ass.
And it feels significant that Cicada first kicks Barry’s ass now, in Episode 2. For Thawne, Zoom, Savitar, DeVoe, their first big, head-to-head battle was saved till we were at least six or seven episodes in. That Cicada has already faced off with Team Flash, and that Nora appears ready to spill some info on him, suggests this conflict is coming to a head much quicker than usual. That could be a good thing; they’re not waiting too long to kick this story into gear. On the other hand, this could be like Season 4 of Arrow, where Damien Darhk started tussling with Oliver right off the bat, and before the season was even half over, most of us were sick of these two repeatedly squaring off, but always finding some contrived reason why one of them didn’t take down the other then and there. It will depend on the Flash writers finding more to Cicada, and more to this story, to make it something that can stay interesting for the next 20+ episodes.
For now, though, interest is high. Many aspects of Cicada are quite similar to previous villains (him being revealed as yet another creepy guy in a mask last week was almost groan-worthy). But there are enough things being done different with him that he could prove to be a distinct and menacing foe for Team Flash. We say that every season, and most seasons it’s been a bit of a letdown. But as I said, this was an episode of TV that leaves you feeling all around good, and if that’s made me a little unduly optimistic, what the heck.
- Iris actually being a reporter, and slowly uncovering information on Cicada, was one of the more interesting subplots she’s had in a long time. I don’t know that it really accomplished all that much, but it did do some good work building up the creepiness of Cicada, and showing Iris as something besides Mrs. Barry Allen.
- For once, the question fans will be asking this season isn’t why Team Arrow doesn’t call the Flash to take down their bad guy in an instant, but why the Flash doesn’t call Team Arrow to deal with his bad guy. Unless Cicada’s lightning bolt dagger has more powers we haven’t seen, the best way to deal with a power-nullifier is to get your non-powered-but-badass friends to take him on.
- The Book of Ralph is a comedy gem. From what we saw, my favorite piece of advice was, “Go Vegan! (Start with vegetarian. Only one pound cheese per day!)”
- Block is hardly the best villain ever (she doesn’t even get Cisco’s A-game when it’s time to name her) but leaving behind a cube of human meat was both gross and hilarious.
- I love that, when the other criminals are shooting at Block, one of them has a ray gun. It’s not important that he has a ray gun. No attention is drawn to the fact that he has a ray gun. There’s no backstory about him getting a ray gun. He’s just a random arms dealer who happens to have access to a ray gun, because that’s the sort of crazy superhero universe this show has built.
- When we got our first scene at the West household, with Barry and Nora telling everyone right away about Barry’s disappearance and why Nora came back in time, my jaw almost hit the floor. This sort of openness and honesty, not keeping secrets for frickin’ ever just to create drama . . . I had a hard time processing that this was happening on The Flash.
MVP of the Week: Joe West.
Can each of us get our own Joe West, delivering life advice whenever we need it?
Question of the Week: If you could have an episode focused on just one Arrowverse character for an entire hour, who would it be?