Supergirl continues to find ways to tell compelling stories about people in costumes with other-worldly powers, without needing to turn dark, “gritty” and misanthropic. This flies in the face of everything we know about superheroes in the 21st century! Clearly, someone has not gotten the memo.

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Spoilers ahead!

“Human for a Day” was the traditional “hero loses their powers” storyline, which every superhero series has to do at some point. It’s pretty much required. In this case, the mechanism of Supergirl losing her powers was lifted right from the recent Superman comics—Superman (and Supergirl) have the power to unleash a “Solar Flare,” depleting their cells of all their stored solar radiation to create a massive blast. This leaves them powerless for 24 hours (in the comics) or even 48 hours (according to the TV show.)

The “hero loses his/her powers” storyline is traditionally a chance to show what said hero is made of—because in theory, it’s easy to be a hero when you can leap tall buildings in a single yadda. It’s about the nature of heroism, and what it means to be a hero, etc. And the good news is that “Human for a Day,” despite some clunky bits, pretty much delivers on that concept. It sketches out a pretty solid arc where Kara struggles with having lost her powers, and then decides she’s going to do her best to help people no matter what.

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Oh, and there’s a random earthquake in National City, on the one day when Kara doesn’t have her powers. So she’s unable to help people who are trapped, dying, and in distress.

The emotional heart of the episode comes when Kara is forced to watch a woman’s father die of internal bleeding, which she could have fixed easily with her superpowers. For all that this show is mostly light and goofy, it gives that moment the weight it deserves. And the expressions that go through Melissa Benoist’s face as she gives up on being able to save this man’s life (putting her glasses back on, because the X-ray vision is not going to happen) are pretty impressive:

Benoist can do Kara’s usual collection of quirky mannerisms and Supergirl’s perky bravado really well, but she actually has some range when the show asks it of her.

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Anyway, Supergirl is tested—and not surprisingly, she passes. She chooses to put on her costume and go and confront some guys robbing a convenience store, even though she’s powerless and they could easily kill her. She wins out through a combination of bluffing and inspirational speechifying, convincing the random looters that they’re better than this and even though they’re scared, they can rise above. Supergirl’s speech to the looters is intercut with Cat Grant, on a live feed that Winn has rigged up at CatCo, speaking to the people of National City to reassure them that everything is going to be OK even though Supergirl seems to have abandoned them. This interpolation of two inspirational speeches is both ridiculous and somehow moving, at the same time.

James Olsen has been following Kara around, trying to convince her of two somewhat contradictory things: A) her powers aren’t what make her a hero, and she can still help people without them, and B) until she gets her powers back, she should stay out of trouble and not try to help anybody too much. But when he sees her risking her life and talking down those looters, he’s inspired and takes the best ever photo of Supergirl, taking the main looter guy’s gun away.

And—as pretty much always seems to be the case on this show—James provides the main moment of emotional realness in the episode, talking about how his father gave him a camera before he went away to the Gulf and never came back. James has hung on to the camera since then, because it’s a way to keep things permanent in a world where nothing ever sticks around.

Supergirl and Cat Grant are both in the position of having to reassure the scared people of National City about Supergirl’s absence, partly because Max Lord is stirring them up with a lot of fear-mongering. He mongers that fear like he was born to monger. And continuing the “Max Lord=Lex Luthor” vibe this show seems to be going with, he strikes a note of saying that we should rely on our fellow humans, rather than an alien like Supergirl. He also draws a slightly far-fetched connection between Supergirl and the Welfare State, because they both make people dependent on them. Lol, whut? I guess Max was already established as hating and distrusting government, but still... kind of random and straw-mannish. Although I like the idea of the Welfare State having heat-vision and bulletproof skin.

One of the clunky bits in this episode, incidentally, is the way Supergirl gets her powers back. Max Lord insinuates that she may have lost her powers forever, because it’s already been 48 hours and she hasn’t gotten them back. (He’s almost as good at insinuating as he is at mongering.) But then Winn looks into some DEO files and finds that she just needs a jolt of adrenaline to get her powers back. Cue James Olsen trying to rescue a bunch of trapped people and nearly dying, so Supergirl can re-power just in time to save him. I get it, we need drama and stuff, but still... slightly clunky.

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The lovely part, though, is how much Supergirl enjoys using her powers once she has them back. That’s one of the things that people love about superhero narratives when they’re not mired in gritty darkness all the time:

And there’s a nice conversation between Supergirl and Cat Grant, in which Supergirl thanks Cat for the inspiring speech and Cat tries to scold Supergirl for her absenteeism. Supergirl just sort of brushes it off, in a neat sign that she’s starting to grow into this. This show, in general, is growing into its format a bit more, which is nice.

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Meanwhile, you know which character is still not clicking? This guy:

I’m not as much of a Winn hater as some of you guys—but jeez. He needs another dimension besides “dorky nerd who’s obnoxiously in unrequited love with Kara.” At least he gets to make himself useful in this episode, helping Cat—but then he’s being a total whiny jerk to Kara afterwards. Telling her that she’s doomed to be alone because she’s a superhero, and later sulking because he’s disappointed in her for hugging James.

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Grow UP, Winn. You’re starting to look like a refugee from Scorpion.

In the episode’s “B” plot, the earthquake traps Alex and Hank inside the DEO headquarters, where Jemm the Son of Saturn has escaped and is using his psychic powers to kill a bunch of DEO agents. This is a somewhat rushed plot, and Jemm comes off like a somewhat stock villain rather than the awesome alien hero we know from the comics. Oh well. In any case, the point of this storyline is not really dealing with Jemm, but Alex handling her distrust of Hank in a situation where they have to rely on each other. Alex is still trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of her father’s death, now that she knows her father was secretly a DEO agent and Hank was the last one to see him alive.

But the Jemm storyline does give us a killer moment where Alex takes him on alone and nearly kicks his ass:

In the end, though, Hank saves Alex, despite her having randomly handcuffed him to a pole. (A decision that seems somewhat inexplicable when you’re being hunted by an alien telepath, even with the aforementioned trust issues.)

And kudos to all the commenters who guessed it—Hank is indeed J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter!

So he’s secretly an alien, running the organization that is dedicated to hunting down and imprisoning aliens. That... is an interesting lifestyle choice. Actually, a lot of stuff about J’onn’s story doesn’t entirely hold together, if you think about it too much. Like, Hank has been sort of gratuitously xenophobic about aliens, and a major jerk to Supergirl—but maybe he was overcompensating. More seriously, there’s the whole story of how J’onn became Hank. Basically, the DEO was hunting J’onn even though he wasn’t one of the Fort Rozz escapees. And they tracked him to Peru. But Alex’s dad realized that J’onn was a harmless refugee rather than a criminal, and didn’t want to hurt him. Still, Hank became obsessed and was willing to go to any lengths to take J’onn out. So Jeremiah Danvers sacrificed his life to save J’onn, and somehow Hank was killed too. So J’onn took Hank’s place, using his shapeshifting powers. With me so far?

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Here’s the part I don’t get—J’onn promised Jeremiah he’d protect Alex with his life, and look after her as if she were his own daughter. And somehow, this translated to “recruiting her to join the DEO to hunt aliens at my side.” Because that’s the absolute best way to ensure her long-term safety and keep his promise to the dying Jeremiah. Right? Umm...

But hey. That’s some pretty good makeup/CG right there:

Meanwhile, in the episode’s kicker, the other shoe drops with the whole evil Kryptonians subplot.

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Remember how we said it was so great that this show didn’t make us wait for the confrontation between Supergirl and her aunt Astra, the leader of the evil Kryptonians? Apparently the downside of getting to see them butt heads right in episode two is that since then, Astra’s been kind of twiddling her super-thumbs. But now, Astra is back, and she’s got some hench-aliens! And they’ve captured Kara!

I like the fact that we’re already seeing Kara start to improve as a hero and gain confidence, and watching her learning curve has been pretty fun. There have been some bumps along the way, some of them typical first-season stuff, but I’m still enjoying the ride.

And this episode, in particular, showed that Supergirl is able to use the occasional moment of serious emotional darkness—like the bit above, where she watches a man die—and use it to ground a whole hour of fun, frothy, unabashedly inspirational action. That’s a use of gritty darkness that we can get behind.


Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming in January from Tor Books. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.