Supergirl Season 5 Episode 15
Supergirl -- "Reality Bytes" -- Image Number: SPG515B_0097b.jpg -- Pictured (L-R): Nicole Maines as Nia Nal/Dreamer and Melissa Benoist as Kara/Supergirl -- Photo: Dean Buscher/The CW -- © 2020 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.

Supergirl is no stranger to tough topics and social justice. The entire, excellent, fourth season was all about how a hero like Supergirl could (and couldn’t) fight an impassioned hate movement. This week, the show tackles a question that’s been looming behind the show’s latest hero, Dreamer. Meanwhile, J’onn and Alex hunt down a VR criminal. Spoilers follow for Supergirl season 5, episode 15, “Reality Bytes.”

“Reality Bytes”

Part of reviewing each episode of Supergirl has been recounting the plot so that we can analyze how well that worked. Writing out these plots exposes how convoluted many of the episodes’ stories are. They’re hard to pick apart and keep all the storylines straight. This week, the show has exactly two plotlines. It’s refreshing and straightforward. The show treats both lines like “A” plots, giving each one emotional weight and time to develop. I’ll warn you now that the latter part of this review discusses transphobia, a major part of the episode’s themes so that you can skip it if you wish.

He’s hacking virtual reality!

Supergirl - Season 5 - Episode 15

The story starts with a beautiful fantasy Christmas land. If it wasn’t obvious that this was happening inside Obsidian’s VR platform, we see a giant white tiger pulling a sleigh. A man tries to exit the simulation, but it doesn’t work. A big, red button pops up, and that fails, too. Kelly takes him out of testing. This happened months ago before Obsidian launched. A nurse leads the man away; it’s the old woman who has acted as Leviathan’s messenger since last season. Uh oh.

Cut to modern-day, where Alex is showing off her new Hand of the Soldier weapon. She’s still struggling with it, both when she tries to demonstrate it for Kara and when she’s in training with J’onn.

That gets put on the backburner as J’onn and Alex take on their first official case as private investigators. A man’s brother is missing after getting into VR and VR escape rooms. The two split up to take on their specialties. Alex works with Kelly to investigate the situation from the VR side of things and heads into a VR community called Virtual Las Vegas. Before she goes in, Kelly explains that in the virtual world, There Are No Rules. She stops short of saying “if you die in the game, you die in real life,” but does say that extreme trauma could cause brain damage. More on that later. Kelly explains NPCs–non-player characters–and then Alex goes in. She waves past a simulation that lets the player be Supergirl (foreshadowing for next week) and heads in.

J’onn and Alex close in

Meanwhile, J’onn does a bit of legwork and ends up visiting the missing man’s house. There’s an interesting piece of set design here. In an effort to frame the missing man, Trevor, as a gamer, the set designer went so far as to not just give him a “gamer chair” but to build a PC with a UV-lit custom liquid cooling loop or something that looks like it. I love little details like this that don’t add to the story but flesh out the character for those paying attention.

Supergirl Season 5, Episode 15

Things start to come together for both J’onn and Alex. Alex heads into an escape room environment to find two men trapped in water tanks. She frees them and they explain that their new friend, Richard, trapped them in VR. Just like the bug at the beginning of the episode, they couldn’t end their simulations. Kelly had thought the bug resolved. J’onn, meanwhile, interviews a woman who mentions someone named Richard, and we find out that the woman was having an affair with Trevor–that Richard is her husband.

Alex has been struggling to get her confidence back after quitting her position at the DEO, and this storyline is all about putting her under pressure so that she’s able to get some of her mojo back. She ends up willing her way deeper into the VR trap that Richard had set and finds Trevor, who is in and endless loop of virtually self-destructing and recombining. Richard shows up, and it’s the guy from the beginning. Alex gets control of her weapon in VR and kicks Trevor’s ass so hard that it boots him out of VR, where J’onn is waiting to capture him.

Afterward, Alex and Kelly discuss the morality and regulation of Obsidian’s VR lenses. I would’ve stayed for a much longer conversation about this. Why isn’t anyone calling for regulation of this dangerous technology?! Meanwhile, the creepy Leviathan nurse puts unconscious (or dead?) Richard into a room with lots of other bodies suspended from the ceiling. Spooky.

Real-world problems

Supergirl - Season 5 - Episode 15

This week’s other storyline focuses on Dreamer. Shortly after Supergirl and Dreamer handily take down a Dominator–the alien from the Invasion! crossover a few years back–Nia is at home moping about her singleness while Kara is out on a date with one of her top three least compelling love interests. Nia’s roommate, Yvette, gets her to go out to a club where Yvette plans to meet the guy she’s been chatting with.

There, we find out that a transphobic man was catfishing Yvette. He cuts her face and leaves her with a message for Dreamer, who she was claiming in her profile to be friends with. The man thinks that transgender people–and transgender superheroes, more specifically–shouldn’t exist.

Back at Nia’s apartment, Kara shows up to check in on Nia and Yvette. Kara tries to be her normal, reassuring self, but the incident hits Nia particularly hard. The attack is not only deeply personal but against a community that experiences a lot of violence as is. Nia is on the warpath. She gives Kara and the police a couple of hours to do something. When they come up empty-handed, Nia puts herself out there as a honeypot for the slasher. She sets up a dating profile on Upswipz, the Arrowverse equivalent of Tinder, and it’s not long before she matches with exactly that person. She handily beats him and has him in a chokehold with her neon-blue telephone cord lasso when Supergirl shows up to talk her out of finishing the job.

Instructional Video

Throughout this, there are lines between Kara and William and between Kara and Nia that seek to outline the struggles the trans community has. The community is the target of heightened violence, hate crimes, and attempts at erasure. The community also suffers from underreporting of these crimes due to that erasure, and the show correctly points out that trans people of color are at even higher risk. The characters discuss these things, and the information they say is accurate and useful information. With that said, I feel like these scenes could’ve been written better. The dialogue is stilted, and these moments read more like an After School Special or an instructional video than an actual, emotionally charged scene. I’m reminded of the gun shop scene in the movie The Art of Self Defense, where this was done intentionally.

A lot of credit does to Melissa Benoist for really carrying both scenes. Nicole Maines deserves credit, too for both acting in the scenes and helping to guide the subject matter to make sure it resonated. Even so, I still can’t help but think it could’ve been written more organically. Maines stood out especially in her last scene of the episode, where the weight of everything that happened crashes on her and she cries on Kara’s shoulder.

The episode ends with a revelation startling for Kara and not so much for us: her adopted father, Jeremiah, previously played by Dean Cain, is dead. That will act as a catalyst for next week’s episode.

They worked with what they had

Again, I overall enjoyed this episode. The straightforward storylines were both emotionally charged and tangled with interesting and relevant ideas about personal security and safety and the way technology can intersect with that, in our always-online connectedness, virtual reality and in modern dating. But I also know that this topic is a difficult one, both for some people to hear when it’s so often mishandled and for others to acknowledge that it exists in the first place. Shows like Supergirl can be a great way to introduce real-world problems like this to people who don’t deal with them on the daily the same way that Superman and Batman have spoken out for refugees, and the X-Men were devised as a metaphor for civil rights. It’s hard to cover material like this both gracefully and accurately, and Supergirl did the best it could.

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