Supergirl: 5.15 Reality Bytes
This week's episode yet again opens with an inside VR scene. I love a magical snowman as much as the next man but I’m not sure what this guy's VR fantasy was? These VR sequences are fine to help build the idea of this tech but the worlds created are so boring. The VR environments lack imagination, a dancing snowman and tiger drawn carriage aren’t enough to sell the idea of a true world of endless possibilities.
Anyway, we see a participant unable to effectively leave the system. When he does get out he gets angry with Kelly that the safety protocols don’t seem to work very well. I would have liked Kelly to show just a smidge more concern here; she kind of tows the company line a bit too much and I think we need to see her worry about the system and its safety a little more.
The main story this week focuses on Nia and a transphobic attacked in the city. I do find Nia super bland but I appreciate when they focus episodes on her background and wider trans issues. The event that triggers this episode, Nia’s roommate Yvette, being attacked, is frighteningly real. Yvette has only popped up a couple of times and each time has been fun but we really didn’t ever get to know anything about her. They do a nice job of really cramming in some personality and depth in the short scenes leading towards her attack and you really feel your heart sink in the moments before she’s attacked – the fact she has been catfished is an unnecessarily cruel part of her attacker's plan. I found the moment where thinking you’re about to meet someone who cares for you switches to knowing you’re in physical danger, especially upsetting.
After this attack, Nia becomes extremely angry and it almost doesn’t play well. It sits a little awkwardly as it plays out but actually does get addressed at the end of the show. However, Nia’s speech early on to Kara that her community is vulnerable was good; I do like to see Kara’s privilege being challenged – though to be fair to the show, Kara hasn’t been nearly as spoiled recently - and Nia needed to point out that things aren't all sweetness and light for her.
Meanwhile, Alex and J’onn are busy training Alex to become an illegally armed vigilante. I do like the idea Alex wants to stop Lex cashing in on good will he didn’t earn (post Crisis changes). The two end up being asked to help Al the barman find his brother, who disappeared into a VR world, and this is where the episode falls down a bit. The A and B story are both solid but weirdly, Nia and the A story seems to get short changed versus the Alex B story. It feels a little unbalanced; we start off with a little bit of Nia’s story, then we switch over to Alex and J’onn and we stay with them for a long time. Which was a fine plot strand and it was a fun spin on the VR trope but the show usually runs the A and B plot in a more balanced way.
Part of Alex’s search involves going to Kelly to ask for access to the VIP VR she’s been working on. Kelly explaining to Alex how the VR works was so detached. The scene is really cold and doesn’t ring true at all. I’m not a fan of Kelly generally and I don’t know if its down to the writing or the performance (or both?) but I find her very distant. The explanation scene is a little clunky and I don’t feel convinced that Kelly wouldn’t have told Alex some of this stuff already. Of course we the audience need to get the info but I just would have liked a more natural feeling style of exposition between the two women. They felt like colleagues, not girlfriends.
Once inside the game, I love how Alex’s character game play options include being Supergirl or a mother. It actually made me feel a little sad for her and I was glad to see the show hadn’t forgotten about her motherhood dreams which she does seem to have just dropped completely. This part of the story plays out much as expected, with Alex tracking down the missing brother and fighting the badguy (who was Kelly’s angry participant at the start) and J’onn finding them in the real world. The whole episode does open up a lot of very complex moral questions about the whole VR system, questions that really should have been asked already. I feel like Kelly is either massively naive or criminally negligent. And it turns out users can upgrade the program inside the game but it takes a while to log these changes on the system? This is a dangerous and massively flawed system, guys!
Kara takes a bit of a back seat this week, supporting the main plots rather than getting directly involved, which was needed for Nia's story. Early on she does go on her date with William and it continues to be a comfortable and respectful relationship. Nice one Supergirl. I also liked the small touch of Kara asking Alex which top to wear to the date, then turning up in the other top!
Back in the slightly neglected A plot, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the Nia response to the attacker. I think its good for the show to demonstrate how angry the trans community can feel and highlight the hate crimes and violence inflicted on many trans people, though she seemed to switch to ready to kill mode very esily. It’s complicated this this subject matter because usually super heroes fight super villains. Super villains have tragic back-stories or fall in vats of toxic waste – these villains can be redeemed. Heroes can take the moral high ground because the opposing ideologies are basic good/bad – Thanos isn’t racist, the Joker isn’t anti-Semitic; they want chaos and order above such basic concepts.
But a violent transphobe is identifiable and real. These are people we encounter, we witness in everyday life. We don’t encounter billionaires in exo-suits but we do encounter racists and homophobes and bigots of all kinds. So it can be tricky to play the moral high ground (a super hero's standard position) in a story like this. There is never any talk of trying to get through to the attacker or changing him, which is often an option with super villains. But the show doesn’t, and shouldn’t, treat this real world bigot that way, they treat him as an irredeemable villain. The conflict here is between Nia (wants to ill him) and Kara (wants to put him in prison) but Kara never talks about redemption or re-education. Of course, Kara talks Nia out of killing and by episode end Nia delivers a very strong speech where she breaks down and tells Kara how angry, confused and scared she is.
Supergirl to its credit, manages fairly well with the whole subject and clearly is positioning its characters and the show itself as an ally that acknowledges that it doesn’t directly understand the trans community’s experience but it will be there to support and learn. I would have perhaps liked to see Nia dealing with a little bit of this kind of prejudice round the edges of the series in previous episodes. The only problem with a head on episode like this is it feels a little like they suddenly remember Nia is trans. I also would have liked more of the episode to focus on Nia’s story, specifically Yvette. I actually felt like most of the episode focused on Alex and J’onn more and Nia’s narrative, while having its heart in the right place, deserved more oomph. As insipid as I do find Nia most of the time, Nicole Maines’ performance is good and she does the heavy-lifting-acting this week, with Melissa Benoist stepping back and providing the support.
On the closing scene, Nia tells her roommate not to worry about the attacker and reassures her he will go to jail, while providing some important closure for both characters. But it made no sense as surely Yvette would have been informed that her suspected attacker had been found and she’d need to identify him, press charges and ultimately testify in order for him to go to jail? Perhaps some narrative that involved Yvette being scared of testifying would have been more satisfying and realistic (at least from a legal perspective?)
This is a strong but flawed episode but the cast bring their A-game and add depth to the script and its good to see these issues addressed openly in a mainstream show.