Supergirl’s midseason finale boldly goes where no one has gone before

·6 min read

For the past few seasons, Supergirl’s sunny, team-focused storytelling has been slowly morphing into a superhero take on Star Trek: The Next Generation. And tonight’s midseason finale goes ahead and makes that comparison explicit by revealing that the team’s headquarters is actually a secret spaceship. With Kelly as the ship’s counselor, Brainy as its helmsman, J’onn as the stoic captain, and Alex as his plucky second-in-command, “Fear Knot” is a celebration of the Star Trekian spirit of the Super Friends. Of colleagues who are also family, and who will do anything for each other as they strive towards a utopian vision of a hope-filled future.

Or maybe it’s more like Alien. Tonight’s finale is also a really fun space-set horror movie that uses an unusual storytelling structure to create an unnerving sense of unreality. “Fear Knot” is basically everything I wish the first three Phantom-centric episodes of the season had been; a character-centric thriller that uses the Phantoms’ powers to play around with the audience as much as ours heroes. “Fear Knot” cuts back on the frustratingly convoluted exposition that dragged down the first few episodes of the season, and zeroes in on the fun disorientation of Phantom-inspired nightmare sequences instead.

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After the Super Friends launch The Tower into space and share a few lovely heart-to-hearts, the bulk of the episode is devoted to a series of Fear Visions. Alex envisions a scenario where her over-confidence forces her to sacrifice herself to save her friends. Lena imagines being haunted by a terrifying water demon. Kelly dreams up a scenario where her human vulnerabilities leave her powerless to save her superpowered allies. And Nia imagines a world where her inability to interpret her dreams leads to Brainy’s death.

For a show that usually does a lot of hand-holding when it comes to plot, I like that this episode throws its audience into the deep end. The first Alex fear sequence fooled me entirely, and it was really only towards the tail end of Nia’s sequence that the premise started to feel just a touch too repetitive. But “Fear Knot” makes up for that with some great horror visuals along the way, like a liquid Kelpie that drowns its victims or a Phantom that silently slides into frame behind J’onn. This episode is genuinely unnerving in a way these CW superhero shows seldom are. And while Supergirl isn’t a show I tend to rewatch a lot, I’m already looking forward to revisiting this episode to deconstruct its structure and sort out which character scenes took place in the real-world and which were part of various visions.

Indeed, by the time the episode finally snapped back into the real timeline of J’onn and Brainy waking up to save the day, I still wasn’t sure whether or not there was another rug pull coming. And perhaps there should have been. In the end, “Fear Knot” doesn’t entirely stick the landing when it comes to weaving together all its disparate threads. While it’s interesting that Alex, Lena, Kelly, and Nia all wake themselves up in different ways (Alex and Nia let their nightmares play out, while Lena and Kelly take control of theirs), there’s not enough time to process what all that means before the episode reaches its rushed climax.

And as cool as it is to see the Super Friends team up as a ship’s crew, in the end they don’t actually wind up feeling all that crucial to saving Kara. After all the debate about whether Alex or J’onn should be the one to serve as Kara’s “touchstone” to reality, it’s actually Kara’s dad who ends up inspiring his daughter to reclaim her sense of hope. Unfortunately, the first half of the season hasn’t spent nearly enough time on the Kara/Zor-El relationship to make that climax land emotionally. And this episode weirdly skips over the fact that the last time we saw Zor-El, he seemingly died in an explosion.

I wonder if there’s some connective storytelling tissue that wound up getting cut somewhere. Kara’s reunion with the Super Friends is also weirdly rushed, which makes me think Melissa Benoist’s filming schedule might have wound up being more limited than the Supergirl team expected. But if there’s any actor who can do a lot with a little, it’s Benoist. Her delivery of “That’s my family” made me instantly tear up. These past few seasons have been building the found family nature of the Super Friends, and it’s a lovely button to see Kara instinctively refer to the team as her family, rather than just her friends.

Indeed, so many of the best moments in “Fear Knot” are just warm character scenes, like Nia and Lena bonding over the loss of their mothers or Brainy praising Kelly for what she brings to the team. A strong script by J. Holtham & Elle Lipson and some sharp direction from David Harewood (a.k.a. J’onn J’onzz himself) gives all the actors a chance to shine. Chyler Leigh delivers a moving take on Spock’s iconic self-sacrifice. Katie McGrath makes a great horror movie final girl. Jesse Rath is quietly unsettling as Nia’s unsupportive dream Brainy. And Azie Tesfai does series best work in Kelly’s tearful monologue to Alex. As has long been the case, Supergirl’s cast remains the biggest selling point for tuning in each week.

Between COVID restrictions and Benoist’s maternity leave, Supergirl has faced a remarkable level of difficulty in crafting this first half of the season—one that’s inspired it to innovate in impressive ways. And while it’s bittersweet to think about the show leaving our airwaves just as it’s found its Next Generation groove, it’s probably better that it goes out on a high. If the rest of the season can channel the creativity of these past few episodes with a more normal filming schedule for Benoist, there’s every chance of Supergirl ending on a note of “up, up, and away.”

Stray observations

  • Just to take the parallel all the way: J’onn is Picard, Alex is Riker, Kelly is Troi, Brainy is Data, Lena is Geordi, M’gann is Doctor Crusher, and Nia is... Worf? (Okay, she’s probably actually Wesley, but that feels like more of an insult than I mean it to be.)

  • The reveal that Nyxly survived and stowed away on the USS Tower isn’t all that surprising, but I’m legitimately shocked that Kara’s dad made it out of the Phantom Zone alive and will now just be part of the show moving forward? Wild!

  • After a season full of spotty visual effects, the CGI in this episode was the best it’s been in a long time! I loved the design of the Kelpie, and The Tower transforming into a ship was cool too.

  • Given that we already know Kelly is taking up the Guardian mantle later in the season, I wonder if the rest of the Fear Visions are hints at what’s to come for our heroes? If so, should we be worried about Alex and Brainy, who both wind up getting sucked into space in various visions?

  • The exchange about Dementors, Boggarts, and Harry’s Dementor Boggart was fun, but it’s Alex’s frazzled reaction that really makes it sing.

  • And that’s it for now! I’ll see you back here on August 24th for Supergirl’s final 13 episodes.