Picture it. America, 2001. J-Lo was ripping up the charts with Ja Rule to make sure people knew about her and her realness. A young buck named Tom Brady was in his first season with the New England Patriots and on his way to a suspicious multitude of Super Bowl appearances. And, yes, there was the tragedy that still haunts us to this day that we'll just tiptoe around, because I don't want to field questions about jet fuel and steel beams. Also that year, nestled in a pretty busy autumn, we saw the premiere of Smallville.
Now, I'm no expert when it comes to Smallville, but I remember the relationship between Clark Kent and Lex Luthor to be revelatory. Not because it took a genius to hyperextend the mythology of Superman so that Lex and Clark could be in the same place at the same time when Clark was just learning how to fight for truth and justice as a good teen boy. It was revelatory because of how many story opportunities were built into the legend that could be mined for deeper connections, especially when you build them up across episodes. How do you tell stories about Superman without them getting stale? You pump him full of high school hormones and you make every interaction with his best friend a callback to future earth-shattering quarrels.
A parallel dynamic exists on Supergirl lately, but I'm a little hesitant to compare it to what Smallville did because I don't want to diminish a strong female relationship or insinuate that this is just a rehash of an early-aughts bromance. Kara (Melissa Benoist) and Lena (Katie McGrath) may have something similar to Clark and Lex in that one is a superhero learning her place in the world and the other is a damaged human fighting the megalomaniacal instincts nurtured into her. But the relationship is different, closer, and their individual struggles have different stakes.
"Ace Reporter" does a thing that's basically a Supergirl trope by now: condense what should be a fully developed plotline down to one episode. Think of all the times that something monumental has happened in Kara's life that could've been spread across multiple weeks but, instead, is given no room to breathe ("For the Girl Who Has Everything" for example). Somehow the Mon-El Situation was given the most support of anything, ceding airtime and some of Kara's individuality throughout the season to build up the romance. It's infrequent when Supergirl plays the long game with its character development. Lena's rupture of hatred for the world is no different.
The single episode introduces us to Jack (Rahul Kohli), and covers his relationship with Lena, their deep fondness for each other that appears to cross time and space, and then his villainous catalyst of a dramatic death in a single episode. One the one hand, this is a safe way to deflect fan backlash. Those that believe in SuperCorp, what the kids are calling Kara and Lena, might react harshly to their 'ship being threatened by Ravi from iZombie. But if you condense it to an episode, no harm, no foul. Kara and Lena are still relevant, and there's no time between episodes to ruminate on how Jack is going to ruin everything. On the other hand, changing Lena's trajectory from reformed Luthor to one who is ready to reduce the world to an anarchical den of madness because of what is essentially a monster-of-the-week feels a bit rushed.
In any case, with Lena's none-too-subtle cries for help as Kara held her in her arms and swore to be best friends forever, we're led to believe what thematically the show has been trying to introduce via all of its tools of manipulation (creepy soundtrack, stark lighting, limited perspective into Lena's thought processes): Lena Luthor is on the precipice of breaking bad. And all of the work she's done to fight the Luthor curse, the struggle to keep her head above the swirling tides of crazy that her family drowns in, will just be fodder for Kara to look back on, fighting her tears, as she inevitably gets into a punching match with Lena's mechanical suit of armor dripping with Kryptonite-powered laser guns.
Mining frenemies for story is not a new thing. In fact, my word processor doesn't even think the word "frenemies" is a misspelled word. And SuperCorp isn't some crack ship people divined just because they think girls are pretty and they should kiss. The chemistry is real, and Kara and Lena cross a boundary that Clark and Lex never really could because of their masculinity prisons. They hug and hold each other. They're vulnerable. And while I don't quite believe they should just make out already, I do really appreciate their closeness. To me, this feels like what we've been missing with the Danvers sisters moments at the end of episodes (which were supplanted by boyfriend moments). Kara needed someone that she could care for who isn't a reformed douchebro and who she can talk to strictly as Kara Danvers, feeler of feelings and warmer of hearts, without the business of Kara zor-El getting all mixed up in it.
But, of course, even that is a set up for the future. As Lena becomes a more integral part of the show (Katie McGrath has been elevated to series regular), you're going to see a sharp rise in betrayal stock. The great part about seeing the origin story of a future villain is that it makes all of the super awful things the villain is about to do feel more vibrantly terrible. It's not just a bland nemesis doing something grandly dangerous to a crowd of people. We see the intent and complexity of the actions, the consequences not only for the expendable masses who are statistics in the addled mind of a superhero trying to reach Vision Villain Victim Zero, but for all the people that knew her when she wasn't a baddie.
And sometimes it's hard to see people complexly, especially when their actions seem so nefarious and you've known them only superficially. When you don't consider someone complexly, you might fail to see the brokenness of that human. You don't see the deep-seated daddy issues or the imposter syndrome that haunts them, or the false bravado so deeply ingrained to mask their anxiety that it gets spilled out as self-serving boastfulness and self-aggrandizing rhetoric. Wait, who are we talking about again?
Anyway, that all might seem obvious but, like I said, Supergirl doesn't play the long game very often. And while this particular game might have been a little up and down, it has all the makings of a classic.
Supergirl airs Mondays at 8/7c on The CW.
(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS, one of The CW's parent companies.)