Supergirl Season 4 got daring and won big

Supergirl -- "Stand and Deliver" -- Image Number: SPG414B_0210b.jpg -- Pictured: Melissa Benoist as Kara/Supergirl -- Photo: Jeff Weddell/The CW -- © 2019 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Now that it’s all wrapped up, it’s time to talk about Supergirl and just how obscenely good this last season ended up being. It’s hard to know where to start because there was so much going on. What we got, though, was a satisfying story that depended on the relationships Kara had built, examined her restoring the ones she’d lost, and focused less on her superpowers.

Get ready for spoilers.

You can’t punch hate

The enemies of Supergirl thus far have been pretty cut and dried. They’ve been good in concept, and worked well with the show’s desire to put its heroine up against female villains for a more women-driven show, but the stakes of each one were pretty boring. Destroy the world, take over the world, kill the world. You get the idea; there were one or two villains, some redemption, and lots of punching.

This time around, though, the story called for something a bit more complex. This was dangerous territory from the beginning, and I’m impressed with how deftly Supergirl handled it in general.

Instead of fighting someone who wanted to destroy the world, this season pitted Supergirl against someone who wanted to fix the world: Ben Lockwood. At one time, Ben was a fairly moderate man before an alien attack destroyed his house. Before alien metal destroyed his father’s steel factory. Before Lena Luthor dumped his family’s contract. Before he was fired from his job teaching history. One step at a time, Lockwood came to see the influx of aliens on earth as the source of his life-changing difficulties. The metaphor at play here isn’t exactly subtle, but that makes it powerful. One man’s personal circumstances radicalized him. Even if his ideas were absurd, it wasn’t hard to have compassion for his journey there.

With his structural support disappearing from under him, with the promises he’d been given through his life proving false, he was left with only his voice. And with a little help from some anonymous parties, he shouted until people started listening, giving a voice and a face to a wave of hatred that began to sweep the nation.

As the face of alienkind in National City and throughout the country – especially with Superman off-planet – Supergirl had to tread carefully. Each wrong move she made could give fuel to this growing unrest, and attacking it outright would simply prove Lockwood and his sympathizers as having a point.

That point bore out over and over again throughout the season, as Supergirl’s naive optimism made things worse more than once. Supergirl’s best efforts seemed to only put aliens in more danger and give truth to Lockwood’s words, as he went from unemployed academic to conservative commentator to presidential cabinet member throughout the season.

It was often agonizing to watch because of how close to our world it felt throughout 2018 and 2019. I often found myself wondering how the show could write itself out of that tight spot. It essentially put a mirror up to the real world and said, ‘what if we had a superhero during all of this?’ To write a simple answer to that would be to suggest that the frightening political climate we’re in can be solved by a CW writers’ room. That’s not presumptuous at all.

Another daring move put much of the responsibility for this political climate in the hands of Lex Luthor, a villain that can be tough to get right in the easiest of stories. Here, it could’ve been a massive stumble. But the writers were apparently on fire this season, and even Lex managed to play a crucial role without undercutting what the rest of the show had to say.

While it was indeed Lex pulling the strings, the hate throughout the season is very real, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it continued to ripple through the show into the next season. But instead of letting Supergirl punch the source of the hate, she revealed it through her work as a journalist with the help of her friends. The idea that great journalism can uncover hate-fueling conspiracies seems difficult to conceive in this day and age, but the idea that hard-working journalists can do more in the face of such an amorphous enemy than a superhero ever could feels right. It’s not subtle, but it’s a lot more interesting than a punchable villain.

Good People On Both Sides

A lot of this comes down to almost universally great performances throughout the season.

At the center of this is Melissa Benoist as not just Supergirl, but as the Red Daughter, the brainwashed doppelganger that helped Lex make Supergirl Enemy #1. Supergirl is an easy character to get behind, and Red Daughter was a tragic character once the episode-ending stingers gave way to an origin story for the character.

Opposing her through much of the season was Ben Lockwood, played by Sam Witwer. I recently played through a PlayStation game called Days Gone starring Witwer as the protagonist. In a sea of questionable writing and weird gameplay decisions, his performance was a bright spot. Again, here, he’s a major highlight. Instead of a mustache-twirling mastermind, we were faced with a determined villain whose superpower was his influence and his armor was the martyr status he would take on if Supergirl simply punched him to make her point. After everything had gone wrong for him, it instead seemed that things were simply going his way, and he was riding it as best he could, often quite unwittingly.

Also on the villainous side of things was Jon Cryer as Lex Luthor. A lot of people craned their necks at this casting decision early on, but Cryer has turned into what might be the best live-action portrayal of Superman’s arch-nemesis and stealer of cakes yet.

His first appearance this season was a masterwork of manipulation that felt very real as it happened. At first, we were able to watch Lex struggling, and the show let us marinate in that long enough to start believing we were witnessing a Lex Luthor taking his last breaths. When he stood up, threw off his afghan, and strutted out of his mansion with laser-cannons blasting guards around him as he waved his arms like a conductor, it was the Lex Luthor moment. This is the guy we know.

Then the back half of the season revolved around showing all the puppet strings Lex had been tugging on throughout the season, and it was impressive to see just how much the writers had mapped out. This wasn’t a team flying by the seat of its pants. Everything that happened in the first half had an explanation. Lex was written and played to make him dangerous in the way only Lex Luthor can be. Lex doesn’t punch you, he makes you punch yourself and then gaslights you into thinking it’s your fault for getting a nosebleed.

The secondary cast was mostly great, too. Jesse Rath turned Brainy from a one-joke pony to a complex character that has room for heroics, humor, and even a bit of villainy. Nicole Maines’ Nia Nal was able to step up where Supergirl couldn’t with a positive attitude without seeming naive. Her status as a trans character, played by a trans actress, gave that much more weight to her position as someone “from both worlds” who has seen the struggles that come with that firsthand. David Ajala made Manchester Black first a sympathetic character and then a powerful villain, as his thirst for revenge poisoned his outlook and fueled his worst impulses. David Harewood, meanwhile, continued to be one of the show’s best actors as J’on J’onzz’s struggles with his father’s death and his status as the last green Martian weighed heavily on him. Lena’s difficulty with trust from previous seasons took on added heft as Lex’s return brought old trauma to the surface. Also, she hid her Irish accent a little better.

A few characters were given less to do. The show struggled to find a place for Mechad Brooks’ James Olsen, and Chyler Leigh’s Alex Danvers was pushed way, way back when the story begged that J’on wipe her memory to protect Kara’s identity.

Jumping back to Lena Luthor, her thread is one that I’m very curious about going into season 5. The story ended with her finding out the truth about Kara Danvers and Supergirl – two of her best friends are one person. The story has been toying with this for a few seasons now, and where they go with it will be a huge part of season 5. Is Lena a villain now, bent on outing Supergirl? The story of Supergirl has so often been one of women supporting each other that tearing Lena and Kara apart will be heart-wrenching regardless of the outcome. Their friendship has been one of my favorite parts of the show, with Lena resisting the darkness that her mother and brother are so convinced is inside her. I don’t want all those moments to be for nothing.

Great writing and great performances make all the difference. The writers and actors elevated Supergirl this year, and it’s been a joy to watch. The CW has so-often struggled to give its heroes worthy villains, and this season we got not one by two.