Supergirl squandered a season of good will with its finale


During season 4, Supergirl tackled timely issues with confidence and sensitivity. But then, it took the easy way out in an underwhelming finale.

It may have been a blessing in disguise for the season 4 finale of Supergirl to coincide with the series finale of a certain HBO fantasy behemoth. On one hand, the last-ever episode of Game of Thrones and the discussion around it formed a black hole from which no attention could escape, rendering every other show essentially invisible.

On the other hand, it allowed me – one of just over a million people who watched “The Quest for Peace” on Sunday – to forget at least for a day how disappointing the season 4 finale of Supergirl was.

Sure, the episode had a handful of bright spots. Lillian Luthor advising Lex not to quote Hitler in public because “it’s bad for the brand” was deliciously wicked, and Katie McGrath acted the hell out of the scene where Lena learns Kara’s secret. Alex’s love life never ceases to bring joy, even if I found her thorny dynamic with Colonel Haley more compelling than her low-key relationship with Kelly. Brainy provided his usual mixture of comic relief and heart, even if his big romantic moment with Nia felt unfortunately tossed off.

At the most critical juncture, however, Supergirl stumbled. With Lex defeated, Ben Lockwood in jail, and President Baker exposed, National City reverts to the status quo. Martial law is lifted, and the Alien Amnesty Act is reinstated, apparently without protest from the Children of Liberty, or their many followers. George Lockwood delivers a stilted televised speech about the necessity of compassion and unity. And so, 21 episodes of simmering anxiety, hostility, and violence are resolved with a single newspaper exposé.

Beyond being anticlimactic, it’s dishonest.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Addressing real-world issues and events in a fantastical context like a superhero story is always a risky proposition, and the show attempted such an undertaking before with uninspiring results. Still, season 4 won me over with its commitment to generating and maintaining a sense of tension.

The villains were the key. After three seasons of blandly malevolent aliens intent on taking over and/or destroying the earth, Supergirl finally realized that a threat needs to be credible in order to actually be threatening and gave us not just one but three compelling antagonists, embodied by three compelling performers.

Sam Witwer’s Ben Lockwood demonstrated the ease with which prejudice can be made to seem rational and righteous; his origin story pointedly resembled that of a hero. David Ajala’s Manchester Black played the Malcolm X to J’onn’s Martin Luther King, offering an alternative, more aggressive approach to resistance. Jon Cryer’s Lex Luthor used xenophobia and Cold War ideology to advance his personal agenda. They were scary because they were recognizable and even, at times, sympathetic, their monstrosity grounded in humanity.

They also made the heroes more compelling, pushing them outside of their comfort zones. Kara parted ways with the DEO, alienated by the government she had long represented. Lena went full mad scientist. James launched a journalistic investigation into the Children of Liberty, only to find his own ethics and beliefs compromised. All of them were forced to constantly grapple with their relationship to their country and the public, as well as their personal identities.

Viewers were pushed outside of our comfort zones too. Every time it seemed as though Supergirl was going to simplify things, it instead escalated the tension: Ben Lockwood’s unmasking and arrest; Manchester Black’s death; the anti-alien rally and counter-protest; Nia’s CatCo interview; Lex’s introduction. It was disturbing and exciting, both because the events onscreen hit so close to home and because the show was doing something ambitious and tricky and kept pulling it off.

In short, season 4 succeeded precisely because it avoided doing what it did in the finale: reducing deep-seated social and political conflicts to the work of one bad guy. Lex might’ve been pulling the strings, but he didn’t make the strings. He wasn’t responsible for the rift between humans and aliens; he simply exploited what was already there.

“The Quest for Peace” doesn’t undo the work that came before. Episodes such as “Man of Steel,” “Call to Action,” “Blood Memory,” and “The House of L” are still powerful, and the cast, from Melissa Benoist to guest stars like Witwer, was firing on all cylinders. But it does make season 4 feel a little emptier in retrospect. It came so close to being a masterpiece; instead, it’s yet another missed opportunity for a show that has made a habit out of them.

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Supergirl returns for its fifth season this fall on The CW.