When Supergirl isn’t about competing with the absentee Superman (whose dreamlike cameos represent a vision of heroism that is so iconic, it can only be seen via abstraction, or synecdoche), it seems to be a show about women who show affection by criticizing and belittling each other. And weirdly, the show makes this dynamic not just fascinating, but actually cute.
In Supergirl, Kara was supposed to be the older cousin and Kal-El, aka Superman, was supposed to be a baby. If they’d arrived on the planet at the same time, as planned, she would have looked after him, and probably raised him as well. Instead, Kara arrives on Earth as a tween, and Superman leaves her to be raised by a human family—setting up a dynamic where, instead of looking after a super-baby, Kara needs to be looked after.
Since then, Kara has apparently not just been smothered and over-protected by her human adoptive mother Eliza and sister Alex, but has also sought out situations in which female authority figures see it as their responsibility to belittle her as a means of challenging her to be better. She’s now reached the point where she sees negs from other women as a sign of affection.
The plot of last night’s Supergirl, “Livewire,” is basically about Cat Grant and her propensity for “pushing” the people she cares about to be better, by undermining their self-esteem. The episode’s villain, the titular Livewire, is an example of Cat Grant’s failure—but not because she pushed Livewire (aka Leslie) too far. In fact, we’re told (and also pretty much shown) that Cat gave Leslie the radio shock jock too much leeway and let her run wild.
In the episode’s big “money speech,” Cat Grant confesses: “I should have pushed Leslie. Held her to a higher standard. The more awful she was, the more I rewarded her. Leslie turning into Livewire, that started a long time ago. It’s my fault. I turned her into a monster.”
But just a few moments earlier, Cat Grant has been talking about how her propensity for “pushing” herself and the ones she loves is a result of her relationship with her mother, who’s refused to be proud of Cat for becoming the “queen of all media.” Cat Grant sees her mother’s disapproval as the reason for her success, saying: “I am entirely grateful. Everything I am, everything I have, is because of her constant ‘pushing,’ let’s call it. She was never satisfied with me, and so I’ve never satisfied with myself.”
So Leslie Willis (played by Lacey from The Middleman!) is a radio shock jock, and this is an alternate universe where absolutely everybody listens to the radio. (There’s a hilarious sequence early on where every single character on Supergirl has dropped whatever they were doing and is listening to Leslie’s radio show.) And because Cat Grant has rewarded her for awfulness, Leslie insists on trashing sacred cows—she was even against Hillary Clinton in 2008.
And now, Leslie has decided to attack Supergirl, for dressing like a figure skater among other things. It’s really unclear—and even though Cat Grant wrote the blistering essay in which she accused Supergirl of being a typical millennial just last week, now it turns out that criticizing Supergirl is a firing offense. When Leslie won’t promise to ease up on the Maid of Might, Cat reassigns her to the traffic helicopter, which is promptly caught in a lightning storm.
Supergirl rescues the chopper, but then lightning strikes her, traveling through Supergirl to hit Leslie. Her hair turns “Katy Perry,” as Cat puts it, and she gains electrical powers. Basically, she’s turned into Superman: The Animated Series mainstay Livewire. (Fun fact: the character was apparently partly shaped by the brilliant Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer.)
Livewire has a beef against Cat Grant and Supergirl, and trashes the CatCo offices in her attempt at vengeance. Then Supergirl tries to trap her using a Ghostbusters device given to her by the DEO (which is now fully over its objections to helping to fight non-alien villains, apparently), but it doesn’t work. Which is good—it was starting to get a little predictable for the DEO to come up with a sciencey way for Supergirl to beat each villain. Instead, Supergirl does the obvious thing, and uses water to short-circuit the electricity-based villain.
Cue weirdly shmoopy moments with Cat Grant, who actually cares about the fact that her assistant Kara is an orphan and wants to bond with her. And Cat decides that instead of running gossip about drunk singers or closeted gay teen heartthrobs—because there’s too much snark in the world already—she’s going to “elevate this city’s level of discourse,” and run something heart-warming about Thanksgiving. Because liberals eat that shit up, basically. (And I was amused by the notion that this episode was all about what happens when you encourage young ‘uns to be too snarky. Heavens forfend!)
But we haven’t even gotten to the actual emotional heart of the episode yet, which is the counterpart to Cat Grant suddenly oversharing about her disapproving mother being the reason for her constant need to tear down the people she cares about in the name of improving them.
Kara’s adoptive mother Eliza comes to visit for Thanksgiving, and we discover the extra dimension to the somewhat dysfunctional sibling relationship we saw in the pilot. Back then, it seemed like Alex, Kara’s sister, was bent on keeping Kara from using her superpowers or achieving her full potential in general, because making Kara feel like less made the jealous Alex feel like more.
But now, it turns out that the real architect of Alex’s insecurity and need to keep Supergirl from feeling confident is their mom. They have this weird, unhealthy dynamic in which according to Eliza, Kara can do no wrong but Alex is constantly screwing up. Alex has apparently spent her life trying to please her mom, even going into the same field of research (aliens.)
Even before Eliza arrives, Alex is bracing herself for The Judgening. And then at first, everything seems to be chill—but indeed, just as Alex feared, Eliza is pissed that Supergirl has put on a superhero costume and is stopping bullets and fighting baddies, and she blames Alex for Kara’s decision. Because the non-superpowered Alex was supposed to protect the superpowered Kara.
(And Alex tries to frame her whole career choice, working at the DEO, as building her professional life around protecting Kara, to go with her personal life.)
“I don’t understand why you would react like that,” Kara tells her step-mom. “You were always so much harder on her than me.”
But later, Eliza confesses the truth to Alex: she had zero expectations of Kara, because she was a little girl from an alien planet who had lost everything. But meanwhile, because Alex is her real daughter, “I wanted you to be better than me.” Whatever that means. And then, because Alex always puts everybody else’s needs before her own, her mom tells her “you’re my Supergirl.” Even her praise is just lending Alex her sister’s nickname. Sigh.
And meanwhile, in a series of flashbacks, we get another piece of the puzzle: when Kara was first on Earth, she convinced young Alex to go out, with Kara flying Alex around. Their parents caught them somehow, and blamed Alex even though it was Kara’s idea and Kara’s the one with flying powers. Later, this led to the DEO, and a young Hank Henshaw, finding out that Superman’s cousin was on Earth. To keep the DEO from trying to take Supergirl away, Alex’s dad Jeremiah volunteered to go work for them instead, offering up his detailed knowledge of Superman—and then, he died under mysterious circumstances.
So as the episode ends, Kara and Alex are determined to find out what happened to Jeremiah Danvers, while pretending to remain loyal operatives under Hank “Evil McGlowy Eyes” Henshaw.
But this still doesn’t address the episode’s real mystery: Can women on this show ever have relationships that aren’t defined by undercutting and negativity? (On the plus side, with so many men having daddy issues on television, it’s actually kind of refreshing to get a whole show just about women and their mommy issues.)