Hoo boy. In an effort to explore what turns a mild-mannered professor into a xenophobic fascist in a mask, Supergirl decided to do an entire episode from the little guy’s point of view. It was a frequently fabulous exploration of one of the most fundamental conflicts in Super-mythos—also it makes the Super Squad look like maaaaaaassive dicks.
Ben Lockwood is just a supremely chiseled history professor, happily married, happily parenting, and dealing with his Archie Bunker-like father (played by Xander Berkley!) who likes to drink beer and complain about aliens taking jobs from the steel factory he runs.
But then the season 1 finale of Supergirl happens, and the president gives amnesty and citizenship to all extraterrestrial aliens in the U.S. (still never discussed: whether this amnesty extends to terrestrial immigrants as well). A fight breaks out at the alien factory, taking jobs from Ben’s dad’s factory, and when Ben tries to break it up and forge peace between the aliens and the humans, he’s hurt.
Supergirl swoops in and breaks it up, and Ben is stitched up by Alex Danvers—who assumes he hates aliens and gives him the stink eye. But don’t worry folks. Ben’s a good guy. And while he’s confused as to why Alex, a member of the FBI, is working closely with Supergirl, he still trusts the hero to save the day.
Until Teri Hatcher attacks in the season 2 finale. That’s when the Martian Manhunter crashes into Ben’s house trying to stop a bad guy, burns the house down, tells Ben and his family they’re safe, and flies away.
I get J’onn J’onzz was busy fighting aliens and Teri Hatcher, had a lot on his mind and has a mighty fear of fire—but he couldn’t grab a firetruck real fast, or at least apologize for accidentally incinerating Ben’s home?
Because Ben gets angrier. He seeks out James Olsen, who by this point is in charge of CatCo Magazine, and asks why the media doesn’t cover alien-on-human crimes and why they don’t report on alien invasions not being covered by insurance (no, really). James politely points out they cover all newsworthy crimes, and that they did cover the insurance thing.
But for Ben, it’s just too much! He’s mad. His dad’s factory is toast because Lena Luthor contracted an alien factory with better steel, and his house is toast because... Martian Manhunter.
So he goes to teach history and starts discussing nativism. You know—the idea that some white Americans are the true “native” Americans, and any immigrants who come after are a pox on a great society and dragging it down? That’s the rhetoric parroted by mail-bomb suspect Cesar Sayoc, here in the real world, even as he allegedly shipped pipe bombs to multiple public figures including two former presidents.
The rest of the hour of Supergirl plays out as you’d expect. Ben becomes angrier and angrier and experiences more and more misfortunes—some tied to his behavior and some tied to season finales of Supergirl. Eventually, he resorts to murder and terrorism before being recruited by Lex Luthor’s former henchwoman, Mercy Graves.
As with last week, this is an episode without nuance. As with last week, it feels unnervingly prescient. As with last week, it is both exhausting to watch and infinitely entertaining (seriously, that house just went up in flames, y’all).
I found myself equally appalled and amused for the entire hour, as the story so closely hewed to the narrative we see of real-world domestic terrorists here in the United States. The allegory is so plain, it ceases, frequently, to be an allegory. The only thing not making it plainer is the fact that Supergirl, and many of the aliens confronted in the hour, are played by white actors.
While part of me is annoyed by what seems to be a clumsy attempt to say something important, the other part of me can’t ignore that this is something that’s been happening in Super-stories since the 1930s. Superman’s big foes back then were corrupt politicians and businessmen. His work as a reporter was just as crucial as his work as a super-strong man, because there are many problems—institutional and cultural ones—that have no solution easily rendered with a fist.
Lex Luthor’s transformation over the decades from nativist mad scientist to xenophobic capitalist with a penchant for speeches about human supremacy, was no mistake either. He, over time, has become the personification of the social ills Superman and Clark Kent have combatted. A physical avatar he could literally overpower.
In Ben Lockwood, aka Agent Liberty, Supergirl is attempting to do the same. This guy with his goofy mask, right-wing Trumpian rhetoric, and tendency for domestic terrorism, is the punchable version of the larger issue. But in the same hour of TV, Supergirl has made it plain that Ben Lockwood isn’t just a lone man, but part of a much larger movement. One that Supergirl and friends can’t punch to defeat. As we in the real world struggle to find a way out of the morass we find ourselves in, Supergirl, a science fiction superhero show on the CW, has written itself into a fantastical version of the same morass. And I’m just not sure it will be able to write its way out of it.
- God the Martian Manhunter interlude was just so good.
- As was the sudden appearance of Teri Hatcher.
- And Kara Danvers stopping Ben when he showed up in the alien bar.
- By good I mean entertaining. I’m still not sure if it was tacky, appalling good or actually good.
- Oh yeah, Agent Liberty and Mercy Graves also flooded the Earth’s atmosphere with Kryptonite, and Alex was so desperate to save Kara she reached out to Lena Luthor.
- Who showed up with that space suit we saw back at SDCC.
- Yes, Supergirl is the Girl in the Bubble for the foreseeable future.
- Presumably, this and next week’s Supergirl-lite episodes are the result of Melissa Benoist’s summer tenure on Broadway.