This Supergirl review contains spoilers.
Supergirl Season 5 Episode 15
Supergirl has long been the Arrowverse series most willing to wear its heart on its sleeve. Perhaps it’s because it was the first series to feature a female superhero as its lead. Maybe it’s that Kara’s hopeful, optimistic nature makes her the natural choice for a universal moral compass. Either way, the show is well known for its willingness to push the envelope on issues of representation, equality and justice onscreen, in ways that few other superhero properties can match.
Throughout the series’ run, we’ve seen female characters like Kara, Alex, and Kat Grant fight to be taken seriously in a man’s world. Kara herself is a refugee and an adopted daughter; in the world of the show she has been both treated as an object of faith for some and feared as a monster by others. The entirety of Season 4 was basically a thinly-veiled allegory for America’s immigration debate, and the show has also tackled issues ranging from police brutality to gun violence.
Supergirl broke a different kind of barrier with the introduction of television’s first transgender superhero in Nia Nall’s Dreamer. Though the show has sometimes struggled to give her decent storylines, it has never forgotten how important her presence is on its canvas. That awareness is on full display in “Reality Bytes,” which tackles transphobia and the issue of growing violence against the transgender community with the same full-throated heart it does everything else.
As a cis woman, it’s difficult for me to say how realistic or satisfying Supergirl’s depiction of anti-trans violence is. I can only say that, for me, this episode was intensely affecting and I deeply appreciate the show’s willingness to face potentially difficult and uncomfortable topics head-on. Superhero stories have always been used to challenge the hearts and minds of their viewers and readers, so Supergirl is and should be no different.
As a character, Dreamer deserves to be more than just a symbol, and it’s past time that the show explore the ways in which being trans is a part of her hero’s journey. The idea that Nia would face prejudice – even violence – for being who she is, even as she dons a mask to use her powers help others, is horrifying, but sadly not surprising. That the man who attacks her roommate Yvette isn’t a supervillain or even a member of the Children of Liberty hate group from last season, just a regular person who happens to also be a violent transphobe is both appropriate and sadly depressing.
No matter how far we’ve come as a society in recent years, there are certainly people like this out there. Who aren’t Lex Luthor-style villains, but just regular people with hate in their hearts. It’s both admirable and worthy that Supergirl doesn’t shy away from that fact, or ignore the truth that plenty of cases of trans violence – even murders – are never solved. Despite Kara’s pleas to trust the system, that system she believes in fails a lot of people, and Nia’s feelings of anger and mistrust are more than justified.
Nia hasn’t had a ton to do in Season 5; her story has been largely limited to her relationship and subsequent break-up with Brainy. So seeing her finally get something like a real arc feels long overdue, even if it’s just for an episode. Nicole Maines is honestly wonderful in this role, and the immediacy of Nia’s anger and sorrow is devastating to watch. (After all, what is the point of having superpowers, if you can’t protect those who are closest to and most like you?) Her desire for revenge is deeply understandable, even if her arc here – realizing she isn’t a murderer and has to let justice be done rather than engage in vigilantism – feels a bit like a story we’ve seen before, the particulars of her experience add an entirely new edge to its familiar beats. Plus, it’s just fun to watch Dreamer beat the crap out of that dirtbag. Just saying.
Granted, some of the dialogue is clunkier than I might personally prefer. And there’s a painfully awkward sequence in which Kara and William discuss how to best report the story of the targeted trans attacks that makes her – a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, remember – seem unnecessarily ignorant of the lived experiences of someone purported to be one of her best friends.
But the final conversation between the two, in which Nia tells Kara about how overwhelmed and helpless she feels is one of the best Supergirl has ever done. It’s Kara at her kindest, most uplifting best, and finally gives us the view into Nia’s interior life that we’ve been missing virtually all season. More of this in the future, show.
Elsewhere, the Obsidian storyline continues, as Alex dons a pair of VR lenses to search for a man in the virtual world who’s gone missing in the real one. It’s a pretty entertaining adventure for the most part, if only because Alex, too, has spent most of Season 5 sitting on the sidelines of other people’s stories. Watching her tackle a variety of virtual problems and scenarios is fun, as is the way that both Kelly and J’onn are interwoven into her mission.
Granted, Alex’s adventure in Virtual Las Vegas further underlines some of the basic problems with Supergirl’s overarching Obsidian plot. For as smart as Kelly is, did she really never consider the fact that the absolute first thing people would do in a free-for-all virtual world was cheat on their spouses? Or engage in other forbidden or socially looked down upon behavior? Did she like…just get the internet last week?
As the last remaining holdout in the “Maybe Big Tech Isn’t All Bad” camp, Kelly has been ostensibly the one voice in the wilderness reminding Kara, Alex and friends that technology doesn’t have to be an apocalyptic disaster and can, in fact, be used for good. Sure, maybe Kelly needs a little reminder that humanity is going to inevitably slime anything it touches to some degree. But doesn’t the rest of the gang deserve to hear a similar story about a technological solution that helps improve someone’s life? Maybe instead of virtual infidelity, it might be worth it to tell a story about the way technology can bring people together for good, too. Just a thought.