Supergirl 4×15: “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, Arrow 7×16: “Star City 2040”, and The Flash 5×17: “Time Bomb” reviews
Last week in the Arrowverse, Lena reunited with her supervillain brother, Cicada reunited with his supervillain niece, and William reunited with his pretending-to-be-a-supervillain stepmother. When Legends of Tomorrow comes back next week, are we gonna meet Ray’s supervillain brother Sidney?
Supergirl 4×15: “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” review
Poor James. Rarely have I seen a television character struggle so long and so futilely to have any sort of importance.
In the early days of the show, he served a purpose. He was the marquee name connecting Supergirl to the more well-known Superman mythos. People who had never heard of Kara Zor-El or Argo City, who had never so much as picked up a comic book in their lives, still knew the name Jimmy Olsen. James also served as a love interest for Kara. They followed the classic will-they-won’t-they model for TV romances, where they spend the first season of the show developing an attraction to each other, but with complications (shyness, competing love interests, mind control) keeping them apart until the season finale. It was almost textbook.
Then we hit Season 2, and that’s when everything sort of fell apart for James.
His status as a well-known Superman character was no longer so valuable. Everyone who was going to check out the show because it had Jimmy Olsen in it had already done so. And with Superman himself now making guest appearances, any star power still attached to the Jimmy Olsen brand was negligible.
And his romance with Kara? Well, there are people who liked their relationship in Season 1. Believe me, they exist; I’ve seen them. But by and large, Kara/James (Kames? Jara?) was not well-received, many people complaining that they didn’t have any chemistry together. The writers heard those complaints, so when they retooled the show for Season 2, that relationship was one of many storylines they unceremoniously axed.
What was left for James after that? Not a whole lot.
In Season 1, his character was defined by things that weren’t really about his character. He was a recognizable name, and a conveniently handsome, age-appropriate male that Kara could fall for; that’s about it. In terms of plot-relevant skills, interesting backstory, or even just a distinct personality, he was a great big blank. There was no solid foundation to the character that new storylines could easily be built upon.
So when the writers tried desperately to find new stuff for James to do, none of it really panned out. They made him head of CatCo, but without the passion or the antagonistic streak of Cat Grant, there was little for him to do in the role, other than be a handy excuse for why Kara can take so many liberties with her day job. They made him a superhero, but could never quite make him seem relevant in a world of godlike aliens and high-tech secret agents. And they put him in a romance with Lena, which only drew slightly better reception than his romance with Kara, and had the downside of monopolizing a lot of Lena’s time, taking it away from characters she has much better chemistry with.
What I’m getting at is, James being largely pointless and uninteresting is nothing new. But after watching this episode, and thinking on it a bit, I went from being irritated with him to actually feeling a bad for the guy. Because even in an episode that should be about him, he still ends up the least important person in the room.
“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is an everyone-gathers-at-the-hospital episode, a classic television staple. And unless you’re watching a sitcom (where the focus is on wacky hijinks at the hospital), such episodes are built around the character who’s been hospitalized. That character may not get to do a whole lot, often spending most of the episode unconscious, but the drama arises from the relationships they have with everyone else. Through the other characters’ reactions, their grief, their fear, their determination, we see how much this character has meant to them. We’ll hear people reminisce about the character, fleshing out their history. And we’ll see them worry about what will happen if the character doesn’t pull through, wonder how they can possibly carry on without them.
James doesn’t get any of that.
Oh, everyone acts like him being hospitalized means a lot to them, but none of it rings true.
J’onn speculates that Manchester Black shot James because he’s targetting “everyone I care about”, but why would that be a list that include James? Can you think of a single interaction these two have had together? Such a scene might exist, but if, after four seasons, I struggle so hard to think of one, it’s safe to say there’s not much of a relationship there. So it’s little surprise that J’onn quickly leaves the hospital to chase after Manchester Black, in a plot that really has nothing to do with James and could have happened just as easily without his injury.
Kara is closer to James than most, but she still follows J’onn on his hunt for Manchester, abandoning the James plot almost entirely. Which, yeah, is her duty as a superhero, but she doesn’t seem at all torn up about leaving James during his hour of need. In fact, she seems less concerned that James might die, and more concerned that Alex will be upset at her for bailing on him. When Kara claims she was so distraught over James that she just had to leave the hospital and busy herself with something else? This isn’t presented as an emotional revelation from Kara, but as a lie she tells to cover for her Supergirl activities and smooth things over with Alex. Her actual feelings about James never enter into it.
On the surface, Brainy and Nia seem shaken by James’s shooting, but we soon see that their grief isn’t really about James. They’re suffering from the superhero why-can’t-I-save-everyone? blues, upset that their prognosticating abilities didn’t let them see this coming. Sure, the reason this particular failure hits them so hard is because someone they know got hurt, but their grief isn’t rooted in anything specific to James or their relationships with him. He’s merely the inciting incident for their character development, not the focus of it.
Even James’s sister (introduced this episode) isn’t all that bothered by his traumatic injury. She explains that, between being a military psychologist and having a brother who gets injured a lot, she’s gotten used to these sorts of situations, and doesn’t let it phase her. So, despite theoretically having a closer connection to James than anyone, her story this episode is also not really about James. She’s here to develop a rapport with Alex as they learn to trust each other; James’s condition is just the topic of conversation they do that over.
And then there’s Lena.
On paper, this episode’s main plot is all about how much James means to her. She pushes herself harder than she ever has before, goes outside the law, works alongside her most dangerous enemy, all in a desperate attempt to save James from paralysis or death. If you only read a summary of the episode, you might think her feelings for James were front and center.
Not so. Her feelings for James are there as a plot point, a reason for why she’s racing against the clock, but almost none of Lena’s character work this episode has anything to do with James or their relationship. If you replaced James’s shooting with some contrived “if you don’t finish your formula in (X) hours, a bomb will go off” scenario, virtually nothing Lena does this episode would be any different.
Instead, her story’s all about her relationship with her brother. And their dynamic is so engaging, their shared history so complex and intriguing, and Jon Cryer’s performance so absolutely outstanding, that any references to Lena’s romance with James feel slight and dull by comparison. James is lying in a hospital bed, bleeding to death, but everyone’s far more interested in seeing Lena trade barbs with her brother.
It’s not that I wanted more James-focus this episode. On the contrary, I thought this episode was a blast, and any attempts to make it more about James would have only been to its detriment. But that’s because an episode about how much James means to everyone would just have nothing to work with. Despite being a main character for four seasons, had he died in that operating room, nothing of importance would have changed.
And when you think of it like that, it’s really rather sad.
- I suppose I should talk about Manchester Black getting short-changed by this episode, too. He did make the classic supervillain slide from doing-bad-things-for-a-good-reason to kill-random-people-just-to-hurt-the-superhero awfully fast. And if I thought he was actually dead dead, I’d probably be upset at Supergirl wasting such a great bad guy. But the way he died, disintegrated by a psychic weapon, wielded by a guy he has a psychic bond with? No way he’s not showing up as a psychic parasite in J’onn’s head within three or four episodes.
- The whole Manchester plot felt very detached from the rest of the episode, like it was only put here so we could get our requisite action beats. That said, it gave us Chyler Leigh and Melissa Benoist in some awesome zombie makeup, so I’m not gonna complain.
- Eve claims she’s been a deep-cover mole “forever”. But when she was introduced back in Season 2, she wasn’t even working for Lena; she was working for Cat Grant, and Lena sort of inherited her when she bought CatCo. I suppose, originally, she must have been sent to spy on Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, and getting the opportunity to spy on Lena was a fortuitous coincidence.
- Nia and Brainy continue to be adorable together, though I wish they’d stop the will-they-won’t-they dance already.
- Kara says “Dammit!” as she’s damming a river. I love that.
Arrow 7×16: “Star City 2040” review
The adventure continues.
Two weeks ago, it was announced that Arrow would soon be coming to an end. Later this year, or possibly early in the next, Arrow will air its final episode. Having heard that news, we can’t help but wonder how the story of Arrow will end: will it be a happy ending, or a sad ending?
Most of us have been betting on a sad ending. Partly because that would be very on-brand for Arrow. Partly because, ever since Elseworlds aired, people have been speculating that Oliver will die during Crisis on Infinite Earths. But the biggest reason to expect a downer ending? The flashforwards.
For most of this season, the flashforwards have served to add a note of despair or impending doom to the story. They’ve shown us a future where heroes have become villains, where parents have abandoned their children, and where the city they fought to protect has fallen into chaos. Whatever victories our heroes achieve in the present, the flashforwards have shown us how they all come to naught. And by teasing us with a scar on Dinah’s throat, with Roy’s self-imposed exile, and with strong hints that Oliver didn’t live to raise his daughter, we’re left waiting for calamity to befall them.
All signs have pointed to Arrow’s finale being tragic, or at least the bitterest form of bittersweet. But in “Star City 2040”, an episode devoted entirely to the flashforward storyline, everything we know about the future is put in a new context.
For starters, Felicity has not been killed, she did not become a supervillain plotting mass murder, and while a lot of distance has grown between her and her children, it’s not shown to be anything they can’t overcome. Rene is also revealed to not be plotting mass murder, but merely a dope being manipulated by those who are (which, yeah, that tracks) and he comes around to the right side by episode’s end.
Outside of our lead characters, we’re also starting to get a better picture of Star City in the year 2040. What at first looked like a borderline post-apocalyptic version of the city has now been reframed as merely a heightened and inverted version of how the city has always been. There’s a poor neighborhood where crime runs rampant, and a rich neighborhood full of scheming, corporate supervillains. It’s just that now the Glades is the rich neighborhood instead of the poor neighborhood, and the contrast between the two has gotten more extreme, to the point where there’s literally a giant wall between them.
Star City doesn’t fall to ruin in the next twenty years. It doesn’t become a crime-ridden hellhole. It simply remains the same sort of crime-ridden hellhole it’s always been. And within that hellhole, there’s a new generation of heroes, fighting to protect their city. The children and proteges of Team Arrow carry on their predecessors’ work, and if they can’t turn Star City into a perfect place, they can at least save it from the likes of Malcolm Merlyn or Kevin Dale. (And, hey, at least Future Team Arrow does a better job stopping an Undertaking than Oliver did.)
This story will not have a sad ending, nor will it have a happy ending, because stories never truly end. Arrow may leave our television screens, but the characters we’ve come to love, and the battles they fight, those will go on. Star City will always be plagued, will always be threatened by crime and villainy. But there will always be heroes to rise to fight it. Whatever becomes of Oliver, he will have brought two children into the world, will have created a team, will have created a legacy, that will continue to protect Star City long after he’s gone.
It may not be good beating evil once and for all, then riding off into the sunset. But there’s something comforting in this sort of ending, knowing that, just because the show’s over, that doesn’t mean the end to these characters’ adventures. They’ll keep living interesting, exciting, and often traumatic lives, and continue doing good even as evil arises for them to fight again and again. Speaking personally, I can go into Arrow’s finale with a lighter heart, knowing that, whatever happens …
The adventure continues.
- Who here squealed with glee when Nyssa showed up? She may have only been around for a quick montage, but it was still a delight having her back. Do you suppose she thinks of Mia as her step-daughter?
- Handstand pushups are nice and all, but will we ever find out what happened to the salmon ladder in the future?
- The old-age makeup used on future characters has been decent overall, but all the grey added to their hair has always looked fake and come off as trying too hard. So I was glad they skipped that with Felicity; helps that blonde isn’t her natural hair color anyway.
- After “The Slabside Redemption” focused almost exclusively on Stephen Amell for the whole hour, I guess his one-scene appearance here balances things out.
- I like that Connor’s Knightwatch group is called “the good version of Argus”, since according to Legends of Tomorrow, this is the time period where Argus becomes an authoritarian regime.
- Eden Corp is a supervillain terrorist organization in the comics. Eden Corporation is also the name of at least one real life business group. Gotta wonder how rights issues work on that one.
- Mia’s battle with Dale’s goons was badass. She’s also got a Xena-esque pre-battle smirk going on, which is terrific.
- Can’t say I was a big fan of her mommy issues, though. Like, I know she’s only meant to be 19, but still.
- If TV has taught me anything, it’s that masquerade parties are only thrown for sinister purposes.
- Roy did an unnecessary flip during combat. All is right with the world.
The Flash 5×17: “Time Bomb” review
Secrets are bad, y’all.
It’s rare for a Flash episode to unite all its storylines with a common theme, but if there’s one idea that The Flash absolutely loves . . . well, okay, that idea would be “believe in yourself/your friends”. By a wide margin. But “secrets are bad” would be number two.
The superhero genre is almost inextricably linked with the idea of secret identities. Ever since Superman debuted in 1938, with his alter ego of Clark Kent, it’s been taken as a given that superheroes will keep the truth of who they really are a secret, not just from the world at large, but also from the people closest to them. Even if they claim to stand for Truth as well as Justice, when posed any sort of question about who they really are, they’ll lie with almost pathological ferocity.
Not all superheroes have secret identities, of course. It’s become especially fashionable to do away with them, ever since Robert Downey, Jr. announced, “I am Iron Man.” However, The Flash is an old-school superhero series at heart, and the secret identity came baked in with that. Also baked into the show is a great big helping of soap opera, with all the lying and scheming and hidden agendas you expect from that genre.
But The Flash characters have never been a good fit for those particular genre conventions. Outside of the Harrison Wellses, they’re all very open, trusting people who wear their hearts on their sleeves. They won’t shut up about how much they trust each other. And most of them are shown to be pretty terrible liars, to boot. Keeping secrets just isn’t natural for them. When drama demands that they keep some big secret from each other, inevitably the secret will get out, and after some emotional turmoil, they’ll all agree, “Secrets suck. Let’s not do that again.”
So when this episode keeps going on about how harmful secrets are, it helps that they’re speaking from experience. It also helps that they explore the negative effects of secret keeping from many different angles.
With meta-of-the-week Vicki Bolen, we’re shown the obvious downside of keeping secrets from your loved ones: eventually they’ll be confronted with the truth and will be unprepared to deal with it because you weren’t honest with them, and they’ll be justifiably pissed at you for that.
With Cisco and Kamillah, we’re shown how, even if your secret isn’t exposed, it can still create a barrier between you and others. Cisco wants to get serious with Kamillah, officially labeling themselves as “in a relationship” on social media. Yet keeping his secret means not letting her meet his friends, or talking with her about the work he does. He’s forced to consider what sort of relationship they can have if he cuts her out of so much of his life.
With our two Cicadas, we delve into the implications behind why you’d want to keep a secret from your loved ones in the first place. Until now, Orlin Dwyer has been a pitiless murderer, showing no remorse for the people he’s killed. But until now, he thought that Grace knew nothing of his work. When he learns that she’s heard everything that he’s said by her bedside, knows all about his crimes, and has become the same sort of murderer as him, it horrifies him.
If Orlin truly believed that what he’s been doing is right, then he should feel proud that Grace has carried on his work. Instead, it’s clear he wanted his work to stay a secret from Grace, to keep the things he’s done from tarnishing the innocent child he’d come to care for. And he’d only feel that way if, deep down, he knew that what he was doing was wrong. If you feel you have to keep something a secret from the people you love, then you have to ask yourself, should you be doing it in the first place?
Then, with Nora, we explore all of the above. She came to the past because she wanted to know her father, yet her secret partnership with Thawne means she’s had to lie to him so many times, creating barriers in the very relationship she risked so much to build. She’s kept it a secret because she thinks he won’t understand, won’t accept that Thawne could mean him anything but harm . . . and on some level, she must be worried that he’s right. And when her secret comes out, everything she worked so hard for, the bond she tried so hard to build with her father, is destroyed in an instant.
There are points where this episode felt a tad didactic, hammering home its point about secrets a little too often. And, certainly, we’ve seen drama over secret keeping many, many times before on this show, often not handled well. But there’s a reason it’s such a perennial trope, because when the characterization behind the secret keeping is strong, and when its revelation seems to have real consequences, as this seems to, it makes for powerful drama. That ending shot, of Nora alone in a Pipeline cell, locked up by her own father, is one of saddest moments The Flash has had in a good long while, and cranks up the emotional stakes as we head into the final stretch of the season.
Secrets are bad, but they make for some damn good television.
- In an episode all about revealing secrets, naturally Sherloque, the Great Detective, gets his moment to shine. I like that he does the classic mystery novel summation scene, but with a bit of deconstruction, showing how mortifying such a spectacle must be for the person getting their secrets exposed.
- Despite all the “secrets are bad” stuff, the Bolen family gets relocated with false identities at the end, and that’s a good thing, so . . . mixed message?
- Remember when Cisco accidentally outed Barry’s secret identity to Kendra on, like, their third date? No way keeping Kamillah in the dark is gonna last.
- The old Cicada is dead, and a new one’s taken his place. So far, Grace!Cicada is coming off a lot more creepy and engaging than Orlin!Cicada (helps that she doesn’t have an overdone rasp). Plus, the Arrowverse is seriously lacking in female Big Bads, so this is a nice change of pace.
- While the ending scene was quite sad, there’s also something comedically harsh in how Barry immediately locks his daughter in a prison cell. I mean, I get it; for all he knows this is another Hunter Zolomon situation. Still, that was ice cold, Barry.
MVP of the Week: Lex Luthor
I kinda buried the lede in my Supergirl review, what with all the James talk. So let me state here: Jon Cryer’s Lex Luthor is frickin’ amazing. In just one episode, he may have become the best villain Supergirl has ever had, and maybe even one of the best in the Arrowverse. He’s theatrical and over-the-top, but it’s grounded in a clear sense that he’s deliberately putting on a performance, always trying to present his idealized view of himself to the world, only occasionally letting his true self show through. He’s hilarious, but also genuinely threatening, and with just a touch of humanity (not a full tad of humanity, but a touch). If they can keep him this awesome for the rest of the season, then we are in for a treat.
Question of the Week: Which villains from the comics do you want to see these shows adapt next?
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