Supergirl: 4.04 Man of Steel
It would be disingenuous to say I didn’t think Supergirl was capable of producing an episode this good but I, as a viewer, had grown so frustrated with the quality of the last season that Man Of Steel did come as something of a (very welcome) surprise.
The episode is framed by Supergirl becoming sick and being taken to the DEO after Mercy, Otis, Agent Liberty and that random DEO guy trigger the anti-Daxemite weapon from season two, this time lacing the atmosphere with Kryptonite rather than lead. I didn’t feel like this was a great start as I’ve always had issues with that specific plot device and had hoped we could leave it in the past. Bringing it back represents the one downfall in the season so far for me. I just can’t buy that this tiny thing saturated the entire earth (which is, after all, a self cleaning organism) in seconds with enough Kryptonite to poison, if not kill, all Kryptonians... oh well, that’s where we are I guess and once we’re past this very silly plot device the episode proper kicks in.
The episode uses flashback to show us the story of how Agent Liberty became the villain he is and it’s a sad, empathy filled and all to familiar story. We see Sam Witmir as Ben Lockwood (Agent Liberty), a very average, middle class, casually left wing university lecturer. His father, we see, is a working class steel mill owner and definitely on the Trump Supporter side of Right Wing. Over a series of unfortunate events we see Ben slowly change from protecting an alien worker from a beating to viciously, drunkenly, beating that same worked to death. This isn’t quite the Agent Liberty from the comics...
The episode skilfully shows how’s easily someone can become disenfranchised, their base fears and paranoia “proved right” (in their own perception at least) by near happenstance. For the most part the change from mild mannered academic to vicious man of steel (see what you’re going for there Supergirl) feels believable with no one event or moment proving to be the ultimate catalyst; it’s a slow, gradual wearing down of one man’s soul. It maybe skips a little quickly in the middle of his journey of change but generally it’s a very well measured, believable change.
There is something beautiful about the construction of the episode, the little people, the Everyman framed by the major events of the past few seasons of the show, we see how the events of each season finale and super battle effected these people in a way we’ve not experienced before. To Ben, Martian Manhunter isn’t a hero, he’s an alien who smashed through his house, declared him and his family “safe” then sped off leaving their home on fire.
It’s not just the fallout from super fights that damage this family’s world though and this might be where the episode’s real strength lies. It highlights the inactivity and seeming insensitivity of corporations and governments to the real life plights of individuals. Ben visits Lena at one points to ask why L Corp now uses alien metal, cancelling it’s contract with his father’s company. Lena’s assertion that it’s just business’s and part of looking to the future means nothing to an average person trying to feed their family.
Oddly, the most directly cruel treatment of Ben might actually come at the hands of Jaaaaames. When Ben later goes to see Jimbo to ask why CatCo rarely covers the real fall out of the various super battles (insurance companies wont pay out, similar realities of living in the DC universe) James is almost uncharacteristically dismissive and a little defensive, pointing out they gave over a few back page column inches to that part of the story but basically suggests its not news worthy enough. I may not like Jaaaaames but this almost felt out of character for him, since the show at least sees him as a ‘good guy’. His actions did, however, allow the show to explore how the press, those supposedly championing the ‘common man’, actually care barely anymore about the ‘common man’ than the corporations do. Inevitably, Ben turns bad and becomes a bare hands murderer, who is then elevated to terrorist thanks to some start up support from Mercy and Otis.
A compelling aspect of his whole character is his charm, intelligence and education. His fall is truly heart breaking and there is an insightful scene towards the end of the episode where he is flyering on the streets and bumps into the dean who fired him earlier in his story for spouting anti-alien rhetoric in class (mini opportunity to incororate ‘safe space’ culture on campasses). She apologises, explaining that she realises she didn’t truly understand what he was gong through. The reason for her chance or view? She’s recently lost her own home to a super event and is stuck in temporary housing. It’s at this point that Ben invited her to his “support group” for people effected by these events. This use of words (support group rather than hate rally) shows just how easy it is to pull people who have been badly effected and possibly overlooks by those supposed to protect them, into a slow descent of resentment.
This was probably the best the show has ever been in terms of subtlety of writing (apart from Alex and Maggie’s initial courtship) as well as having some of the strongest acting we’ve seen on the show for some time. Being very Supergirl-lite also helped to avoid over shadowing the strength of the narrative. Not every episode can be like this, part of its strength was its manipulation of the existing episode format but I’d like more episodes with a similar quality, care and attention to character and details on display. Good show Supergirl, please keep up the good work. No, please… pleeease!