Supergirl 4×16: “The House of L” and Arrow 7×17: “Inheritance” reviews
Last week in the Arrowverse, Oliver’s sister turned out to be evil, and Kara’s “sister” got turned evil. Being related to a superhero is not happy fun times.
Supergirl 4×16: “The House of L” review
“The House of L” may very well be the best episode Supergirl has ever done. But why is that?
Outside of the Crisis on Earth-X crossover, the only episode that even comes close to matching it is “Man of Steel”, Agent Liberty’s origin episode from earlier this season. In my review of that episode, I mentioned how telling it was that my favorite episodes of Supergirl are the ones that feel least like an episode of Supergirl. “The House of L” certainly follows that trend, being a great departure from Supergirl’s normal setting, theme, plot structure, and character focus. But what’s especially interesting is how “The House of L” and “Man of Steel” both break from the Supergirl norm in such similar ways, with similarly excellent results, and what that says about the qualities that normal episodes of Supergirl lack.
The commonalities between the two episodes are obvious. Both are centered around the show’s villains, rather than its heroes, and serve as origin stories for (some of) them. Both episodes are also constructed as a series of flashbacks, showing what our bad guys have been up to for the last few seasons, their stories occasionally intersecting with the events of previous episodes.
The most obvious benefit of this change in format is novelty. We’ve now had over eighty episodes of Supergirl. That’s eighty episodes focused on Kara Danvers, her sister Alex, and their various friends and co-workers. Eighty episodes of them learning about some crisis in National City and using fists, guns, and super-science to solve it. Eighty episodes of CatCo offices, DEO headquarters, and Kara’s absurdly spacious loft.
While Supergirl has never been shy about retooling itself, spending so much time with the same characters, on the same sets, doing the same sorts of things, is going to grow a little dull. “Man of Steel” and “House of L” take us away from all those familiar elements. The main characters only appear in cameos, if at all, so screentime can be given to newly introduced villains. And because they’re villains, and because the episodes take place over a much longer timespan than a typical episode, they’re obviously going to be having very different sorts of adventures from our heroes’ day-saving/friendship-building routine. Taking the focus away from the main cast also takes it away from the locales those characters frequent, giving us new settings to explore; even when “House of L” briefly visits Kara’s apartment, it’s presented through new eyes, letting us truly see it, rather than it being the generic background for when Alex and Kara hang out.
But there’s more elevating these episodes than simply novelty. Because they are so different from normal Supergirl episodes, they aren’t bound by the limitations Supergirl normally places on its storytelling.
One of those limitations is on character development. We’ve had Kara Danvers on our television screens for close to four years, and the Kara we have now is pretty much the same as the Kara we had in the pilot. She’s a bit more confidant and less easily flustered, perhaps, but really, very little about her has changed. Alex came out as gay, and (when the writers remember it) is now super-into becoming a mother, but her character has also remained pretty constant. Winn was likewise largely unchanged from his first episode to his last. James has remained a largely blank slate that plots get grafted onto. Lena keeps straddling the line between “technotopian saint” and “shady character” without ever tipping over into either. J’onn has probably changed more than any of them, but even he has a baseline “protective mentor” role that he rarely strays too far from.
For most Supergirl characters, the emphasis is less on having them grow and change over time, and more on keeping them consistently likeable. Once a character has an endearing personality and some good back-and-forth with the rest of the cast, the priority on Supergirl is to keep those traits stable and to not do anything that would disrupt them irreparably.
It’s only when we get away from the main characters that truly astonishing change can occur. In “Man of Steel” we saw the transformation of Ben Lockwood from ordinary college professor to high-profile terrorist/borderline supervillain. And now, in “The House of L” we see Kara’s double, Red Daughter, go from a babe in the woods to a zealous soldier for Communist ideals, with many detours along the way as she searches for her identity. Because they’re not the anchors the series is built around, they’re allowed to go through these radical changes. And because their stories change them so radically, those stories feel more engaging, more dynamic, more significant than stories where our main characters return to status quo yet again.
Another limitation these episodes break from is Supergirl’s rather rigid code of good and evil. On Supergirl, the heroes are never allowed to do anything truly bad (at least, not anything the show recognizes as being truly bad), and the villains remain largely flat, moustache-twirling caricatures for the heroes to punch. But it’s hard to build an episode around your villains without fleshing them out more than that, making them feel more human and complex.
So instead of stories where the good guys always do the right thing, and bad guys always do the right thing, we get stories that are simply about people. Sometimes they do the right thing, and sometimes they do the wrong thing, but whichever they choose, it’s because of who they are as a person, not because of which side of the hero/villain divide they’ve been placed on.
Ben Lockwood ultimately devolved into a genocidal terrorist, but throughout “Man of Steel” we saw how his grievances came from a real place, how he was motivated by love for his family and fear of a world that seemed beyond his control. He was a far cry from the more arch villainy of Lillian Luthor, his spiritual predecessor on this show, and was the most complex and sympathetic villain Supergirl had created . . . until now.
Red Daughter has the same innate empathy, the same desire to do good, that motivates our Kara. But unlike our lead hero, she makes mistakes. It’s hard to imagine Supergirl ever having Kara accidentally kill someone, or ever revealing that her closest friend has been evil all along; the series is far too light and idealistic to put its lead hero through anything like that. But Red Daughter? She’s not burdened by the expectations of being a hero. She can be a flawed person, can make choices and have experiences that will always be off-limits to her heroic counterpart.
The key strength of “House of L”, and of “Man of Steel” before it, is their excellent character work, which Supergirl, as its constructed now, could never have done with its lead characters. But there’s one more thing that sets these episodes apart. It’s something I praised the Arrow episode “The Slabside Redemption” for earlier this season, and the lack of it was the downfall of Supergirl’s “Dark Side of the Moon” from last season, was what made me proclaim it “the worst mistake Supergirl has ever made” (and I stand by that sentiment).
This something, is focus.
Your basic Supergirl episode has, at a minimum, an A-plot and a B-plot. There’s almost always a C-plot in there, too, and D-plots are not unheard of. There’s a large cast of characters who all need something to do, and a lot of ongoing plotlines that need to be advanced each week. Because of this, Supergirl episodes are almost never about just one thing. Instead of choosing a single plot, or theme, or character for the week and developing it fully, each episode spreads its focus in many different directions, rarely devoting quite as much time to a storyline as it might deserve.
“Man of Steel” was the first episode since maybe the pilot to break from that formula. Other than the intro and ending sequences, everything in that episode was about Ben Lockwood. He was in every scene, and everything that happened was put there to be part of his journey from college professor to Child of Liberty. And because of that tight focus, it delivered the most enthralling and complex character work Supergirl had ever done. Had his story been fit into Supergirl’s normal formula, where it would have to share screentime with a villain-of-the-week plot and a bunch of other characters’ own storylines, it could not have been anywhere near as richly developed.
“The House of L” isn’t quite that focused. Instead of one central character, we have two: Red Daughter and Lex Luthor, with Eve and Otis getting some stuff on the side. But that’s still a sharp change from the seven or eight main characters populating a typical episode of Supergirl. And instead of splitting the episode up into two or three side-plots, everything the characters do here is built around a single concept: the fate of Red Daughter’s soul, faced with the sinister manipulations of Lex Luthor.
These are two characters we’ve barely seen anything of before, and this episode is the first time we’ve seen them meet. Yet so much time is devoted to them, without distractions, that their relationship feels more fleshed out, more real than many of the relationships in our main cast. All that, done in a single hour.
It’s shocking to realize how good Supergirl can be when it steps outside the box it’s built for itself. I’m used to thinking of it as the weakest of the Arrowverse shows, but when it tosses aside the limits it’s placed on how it tells its stories, or what can be done with its characters, it can deliver something truly amazing. It’s sad that it doesn’t make these wild swings for the fences more often, but the fact that we’ve gotten episodes this good, and this experimental, twice in the same season . . . well, it gives hope for the future.
- It’s official: John Cryer’s Lex Luthor is the best version of Lex Luthor to ever appear in live action (I’ll want to see how he does in a face off with Superman before giving him the edge over Clancy Brown’s DC Animated Universe Luthor). He’s chillingly diabolical, frequently hilarious, and manipulates Red Daughter so skillfully, you kinda want to believe the humanity he shows her.
- Also, his delivery of “You’re right – I have to give myself cancer!” is a line for the ages.
- We’re not told how Lex found out Supergirl’s secret identity, but we don’t really need to be. He’s supposed to be a super-genius, after all, and it’d be hard to take him seriously as one if he couldn’t figure out something that
- Also, being a super-genius, he’s the only character who thinks to question how Kara can afford her lavish apartment on a reporter’s salary.
- I’ve been complaining practically all season that the Children of Liberty pose no real threat to our heroes. Apparently, that was intentional, as Lex created them as a “paper tiger”: an enemy who looks intimidating, but goes down pretty easily.
- So the black kryptonite magic that created Red Daughter didn’t give her Kara’s ear piercings. Does this mean she also doesn’t have a belly button? If so, it’s a shame Kara didn’t go with Winn’s original concept for her Supergirl suit, ‘cause that’d make the imposter super easy to spot.
. . . and giving some space before we carry on with . . .
Arrow 7×17: “Inheritance” review
“Being reminded that this has happened before is not really making things better.”
On its own, that’s a fantastic line. It’s always good when characters remember their own history; it lets us feel like we’re truly watching them grow over time, and that everything we’ve seen them go through before has mattered. It also reflects that, just because you’ve gone through an experience before and learned your lesson from it, doesn’t mean the same experience can’t kick you in the nuts all over again. And Stephen Amell delivers this line perfectly, with that uniquely Oliver Queen brand of dry humor, where he can admit how absurd the situation is, even as it clearly pains him to do so.
But as good as that line is, it’s also exactly what’s wrong with this episode. Arrow reminds us that it’s done this storyline before, but acknowledging that fact doesn’t make it feel like any less of a retread.
It’s not simply that Emiko is a long lost sibling secretly working for the bad guys, like Andy was for John. Nearly everything in this episode is just a fresh coat of paint put on plots we’ve seen on Arrow many, many times before.
The Ninth Circle being a secret society with vaguely religious overtones, manipulating world events from the shadows for centuries? They’re basically the League of Assassins all over again, except only introduced at the tail end of a season to make an otherwise underwhelming Big Bad seem more intimidating, like the Quadrant was last season (if you don’t remember the Quadrant, don’t worry; there’s not much to remember).
The Ninth Circle’s plan this episode? The details may be changed, but it’s essentially the same sort of “mass murder for profit” plan we’ve seen pulled many, many, many times before on this show, with nothing done to make this one seem particularly more dangerous or challenging than all the others.
And Emiko herself, in addition to copying Andy’s storyline from Season 4, is also the latest in a long line of villains with a personal grudge against Oliver. Except in this case, she’s not even mad at him for anything he did, but for something their father did that he unknowingly benefited from, which doesn’t quite pack the same impact as when Slade or Prometheus had it out for him.
This story might feel more distinct if we’d been given a better sense of Emiko’s personality or the relationship growing between her and Oliver. But surprisingly little focus has been put on that until now, likely because the writers knew the “Emiko is the Big Bad” twist was coming, and didn’t want time spent developing her character to give away or contradict the big reveal. But this leaves the current conflict feeling half-baked.
Sure, Oliver’s still going to care about the half-sister he barely knows, because he’s Oliver. But without building their relationship into something that we, the audience, are invested in, her betrayal doesn’t carry the sting for us that it needs to. And it’s hard to get invested in the idea of redeeming her, since we really didn’t know her that well in the first place, and because they made her a bit too capital-E Evil. She’s not merely part of the Ninth Circle, but its leader, the mastermind behind sarin gas attacks and other atrocities, all with an attitude that ranges from cold ruthlessness to smirking satisfaction. It’s certainly possible to a redeem a villain as bad as that (hello, Black Siren), but such a transformation takes time, and we’ve only got five episodes left in the season.
A couple weeks ago I praised “Training Day” for being a comforting slice of familiar Arrow story beats. “Inheritance” is the flipside of that. While “Training Day” was telling a classic mission-of-the-week style story, where a little familiarity is not without its place, “Inheritance” is the big dramatic shakeup episode, setting the stage for the season finale. It needs to feel dynamic and shocking in a way that “Training Day” didn’t need to. But with not much to distinguish Emiko from the previous villains whose shtick she’s ripping off, and with a plot that blatantly retreads plots we’ve seen before, this episode can’t help feeling like a damp misfire.
- I will say, Emiko’s flashback storyline was not bad, and it’s always nice seeing Robert Queen again. The ending, where she could have warned him about the bombs that Malcolm Merlyn put on the Queen’s Gambit, but chose not to, was a good little “wow” moment.
- A bigger “wow” moment was Emiko and Oliver’s fight in the bunker. Well-shot, well-choreographed, well-acted, and the way they draw and fire four arrows without hitting each other is just the right level of over-the-topness for the moment. Also great was Oliver getting her in the neck-breaking position, but not being able to follow through on it.
- Do you remember in “Emerald Archer” (the documentary episode) when the villain-of-the-week beat Emiko and took her prisoner? Looking back, knowing that Emiko’s the Big Bad of the season, it feels like she should’ve put up a better fight, doesn’t it?
- It just occurred to me, with Team Arrow now part of the SCPD, and Dinah their precinct’s captain . . . does that mean she’s actually Oliver’s boss now?
- Felicity’s friend Alena is back! She’s a little fireball of sunshine, and I have missed her. Here’s hoping her, Felicity, and Laurel can have a girl’s night.
MVP of the Week: Red Daughter
Melissa Benoist deserves an award for this performance. The sheer vulnerability she radiates, even as she goes through grief, anger, joy, and steely determination, all while putting on an accent: it’s a true tour de force. That she does this while sharing screentime with Cryer’s scene-stealing Lex Luthor, without feeling overshadowed, makes it all the more amazing.
Question of the Week: Which villain would you most like to see an in-depth origin story for?