Before we start recapping, here’s a fun idea for new viewers: Supergirl is available right now on Netflix, and there's still a week before the premiere. You could catch up, at least partway! To keep things simple, I’ve prioritized seven episodes, so you could watch one a day from now till the 10/10 premiere. If you have a bit more time, there are a few extras listed that are entirely worth watching (those are in italics).
Pilot: Why not start at the top, right? Meet the major players, and get a feel for the world. But if you don’t have time, that’s pretty much okay. Read my character summaries, and you’ll get the gist.
Human for a Day: Supergirl finds herself depowered as she recovers from a fight with Red Tornado, but National City still needs her! Kara works with her friends and finds other ways to get the job done. More importantly, this episode has huge reveals (that you probably already know and will certainly know if you read this whole article—but still, at the time, it was the coolest thing that had happened yet on the show).
Hostile Takeover: Kara and friends team up to have Cat’s back when she gets hacked. It’s a very timely tale, of course, and it helps to humanize Cat.
Childish Things: Winn’s father is a supervillain?! This is a great episode with major character stuff.
Strange Visitor from Another Planet: Major backstory on central characters gets revealed, and the seeds are sown for at least one major plot that will carry on into S2.
Bizarro: Max Lord goes full supervillain when he unleashes a copy of Supergirl on National City.
For the Girl Who Has Everything: This isn’t a home run, honestly, but it’s a very important episode. For DC fans, the mere fact that they did a Black Mercy storyline is a great sign of how deep this show is going. There are major moments that impact characters on an ongoing basis. Also, the plot moves forward in big ways here. Don’t skip it.
Falling: Remember on Smallville when Clark would occasionally get dosed with Red Kryptonite? (If you haven’t seen Smallville, it’s now available on Hulu! You’ll thank me later.) Red K brings out the worst in a Kryptonian, and this episode shows us Supergirl’s dark side, her unchecked id. There are some unforgettable character beats.
Manhunter: There are additional crucial reveals in this episode about the ongoing plot. Lucy Lane’s character is developed more as well.
World’s Finest: The Flash arrives on Earth-3! This was the episode we were all waiting for, and it was so much fun.
Better Angels: I hate to say it, but the season finale wasn’t exactly a home run either. I was convinced there must be another week in the season, because while it tied up a bunch of stuff, it wasn’t wholly satisfying for a finale. Still, you need to be caught up through the end of S1 in order to be ready for S2.
Now, if you’ve already seen the show and just wanted a refresher, or if you know you don’t have time and will accept a mess of spoilers, read on!
The major players:
Supergirl could almost be the story of a beautiful young woman just trying to make it in the big city at her dream job, and maybe meet a nice boy. Except this isn't just any young woman--Kara (pronounced car-a, which I will probably never say correctly on the first try) fell to Earth years ago in a spaceship and has been raised by good-hearted foster parents, just like her cousin Kal-El. Unlike her cousin, she's stayed under the radar and avoided using her Kryptonian abilities in public. Well, other than a quick temperature adjustment on her boss's morning latte, but hey, nobody knows about that!
Her boss is Cat Grant, media mogul, fashion plate, occasional mean girl. She's tough and uncompromising; she worked her way up and will not be brought down by an inch–unless stiletto heels are out this season. Kara is her assistant, and the word beleaguered doesn't begin to cut it. It's a good thing she has superpowers because no human could do all that Cat demands. (Incidentally, when Cat pronounces her name consistently as “Kira,” it will crack you up, at least if you have as hard a time as I do keeping straight that it’s “car-a” instead of “care-a.”)
Kara has an office buddy to commiserate with when Cat’s on the warpath. His name is Winn, and he is painfully pinning with unspoken puppy love. It's almost unbelievable that she doesn't seem to notice, but that is a trope we will just have to live with and move on. He’s also the requisite tech genius because every hero team needs at least one of those. His technological aptitude seems to be inherited—it is revealed later that his father is the supervillain known as Toyman!
The new guy at work is Jimmy Olsen, of "best friends with Superman" fame. He's moved to National City after a breakup, and he's taking a break from being a Pulitzer-winning photographer to be Catco's new art director. (Note: The casting of Mehcad Brooks was considered quite controversial, as no comic book artist had ever drawn Jimmy Olsen nearly so hot.) He goes by James now.
James’ recent breakup was with Lucy Lane, Lois’ little sister. Lucy is a bit of a daddy’s girl, which is problematic because General Sam Lane pretty much hates Superman, and now Supergirl as well. Lucy follows James to National City to work it out, and she takes a job at Catco.
At night, Kara goes home to the apartment she shares with her foster sister, Alex. Alex is one of the only people who knows her true identity. So it stings a bit when she discovers Alex has been totally lying for years about her career with the DEO (Department of Extra-Normal Operations). The DEO is a top secret organization that protects Earth from aliens and other supernatural forces. They know all about Kara and consider her a potential threat, so Alex assures Kara that she’s been working there to protect her as much as anything else. It’s also where Alex’s father/Kara’s foster father, Jeremiah, worked.
Jeremiah died on a mission for the DEO years ago. His partner, Hank Henshaw, was also on that mission. He currently runs the DEO and works closely with Alex. Longtime comic book fans instantly recognized that name as the villain known as Cyborg-Superman. More on that later—I promised minimal spoilers in the character breakdown section.
Anyway, Alex has hopped a plane to Geneva, supposedly for her totally-not-at-the-DEO job. Kara has no intention of stepping into the limelight and showing her powers to the world…until the plane her sister is on is about to crash. (I mean, she’s a hero, so I assume she would have leapt into action for any plane that was conveniently nearby as it started to go down…but hey, raise the emotional stakes, sure.)
Kara flies in to save the day (not without tons of collateral damage, of course, because superhero day-saving always involves destroying a bridge or building that just happened to be nearby. If you worked in construction in the comic book universe, you’d always have a job!).
Revealing herself to the world brings the DEO down on her, and now she knows Alex’s secret. She gets over her hurt feelings quickly and works with the DEO, because she’s a hero, and that’s what Superman would do. She immediately lets Winn in on her secret, because he’s her bestie, and he feels super special for about ten minutes until James is also part of the club. James actually already knew, because Superman told him; in case anyone wasn’t sure how cool James is or how much Superman trusts him. Winn and James will have a bit of a rivalry, but it doesn’t take over the plot or anything.
Cat is a media queen who happens to be based out of the same city where the new superhero just sprung up, so she takes the honor of naming said hero. Catco throws a huge party to celebrate Supergirl, not as a hero so much as a pop culture property they are laying claim to. Here’s where we meet Maxwell Lord, the tech icon (no sign so far that he also has the psychic powers of the comic book version).
Max and Cat clearly have history, and they’re both such charming, charismatic actors that it’s a pleasure to watch their interactions. Max is a bit of a Lex Luthor analog: brilliant, powerful, and certain that metahumans are way more trouble than they’re worth. He’s one of the major bad guys of this story, technically, but he’s not uncomplicated evil; if he told the story, he’d be the hero. Granted, that’s true of many well-written villains, but Max is so smart and resourceful, and the performance so engaging, you can almost see it from his point of view every once in a while.
No more promises about spoilers if you keep reading.
Unlike Kal-El, who was sent to Earth as a baby, Kara has actual memories of Krypton and the family she left behind. Her mother, Alura, appears to her in holographic form and is able to answer some questions. Alura’s twin sister, Astra, was sentenced to the Phantom Zone before Krypton was destroyed. She was on her way there on a prison ship with many other dangerous criminals, but they wound up on Earth instead. Much as Smallville seeded meteor freaks for Clark to deal with in those early seasons, Supergirl has baked in baddies thanks to the convicts of Fort Rozz. But don’t worry–that’s not all.
Notable S1 villains:
Kara is asked to fight a military experiment recognizable to comic fans as Red Tornado. She gets this assignment from none other than Lucy’s dad, General Sam Lane.
Cat needs rescuing from a disgruntled employee, a deejay who becomes the villain Livewire.
Toyman shows up to cause trouble (and develop Winn’s character).
A White Martian attacks Senator Miranda Crane, who’s in National City on her anti-alien feel-bad tour. Being rescued by an alien somehow makes up for having been abducted by one, because she calms the rhetoric.
A work rival, Siobhan Smythe, turns into the Silver Banshee. She was also dating Winn, who has just tragic luck!
Many Kryptonians from Fort Rozz, including Non, are trying to cause all sorts of trouble. There’s a big battle, and Alex kills Astra. Kara is devastated, and Hank takes the blame so she won’t have to be angry at her sister. Alex comes clean a few episodes later, and all is forgiven.
An alien named Indigo teams up with Non to wreak havoc and bring about Myriad, their MacGuffin take-over-the-world scheme… don’t worry about that too much.
Favorite S1 moments:
Remember how I said comic fans immediately recognized Hank Henshaw as Cyborg-Superman? Well, this was the first holy-crap moment when we realized how cool this show was really going to be. Confronted by Alex, who’s way too smart not to know he’s hiding something big, Hank reveals his true identity: J’onn J’onzz! He was discovered by Jeremiah Danvers and the real Hank Henshaw, and it turned out those two were less on the same side than Jeremiah thought. Hank wound up killing Jeremiah, and J’onn killed Hank. When other DEO agents came onto the scene, J’onn morphed into Hank and assumed his identity, honoring Jeremiah’s memory with a pledge to watch over his daughters. (It's later revealed that Jeremiah is not dead, which will be a major storyline for S2.)
J’onn’s Martian shapeshifting abilities quickly come in handy, as Cat has informed Kara she knows Kara is Supergirl; J’onn flies up to Catco looking like Supergirl while Cat and Kara are together, and that problem is solved.
The only problem is that the Martian Manhunter effects are SO bad. He looks totally plastic every time we see his Martian form. It’s painful. I’m confident the effects will be way better now that the show is on The CW; they have been doing great DC Comics TV shows for 15 years, and their stuff always looks better than this. Also, the flying–on Supergirl, when people fly, it looks like they’re dangling. I know they are dangling, technically, but it shouldn’t look like that. The CW manages to make people fly without breaking my suspension of disbelief.
Max Lord goes full villain by midseason, experimenting on some poor girl to turn her into a copy of Supergirl, code-named Bizarro. Just as Kara gets home from dealing with this tragic creature, she’s hit by the Black Mercy! This is the second holy-crap moment. The Black Mercy is an alien plant that puts its victims into a comatose dream state wherein they live out their deepest desires. The plant is deadly because most people don’t want to wake up and discover the dream isn’t real. They just stay in it and waste away. I loved that this show pulled out a Black Mercy storyline. That’s deep DC mythology, and it sold me on the series 100%.
As occasionally happened to Clark on Smallville, Kara got exposed to some Red Kryptonite, and things got ugly. She was vain, cruel, self-centered, and impatient. And it was so painful to watch--way more so than on Smallville. Now, you could say that's because I'm a girl who likes guys and Tom Welling is the most handsome man on the planet, and hey, fair point. But it's so much deeper than that. It keys into the way we as a culture look at women. The expectations we have of women, the impossible standards we hold them to. When men behave badly, we are predisposed to forgive them, to assume that they didn't mean it or are entitled to raise a little hell from time to time. When women behave badly, we view them as faulty on an innate level. We are quicker to reject female acquaintances, friends, even relatives, for far less toxic behavior than we regularly excuse from males. Because women are supposed to be better than that, and if they aren't, they fail as women.
That's what we see play out in the Red K episode of Supergirl (“Falling”). She is under the influence of a drug, essentially, behaving in ways she never would. In her Red K rage, Supergirl tossed Cat off a building. (And then caught her, but still.) Still, at the end of the episode, Cat is calmly welcoming Supergirl to sit with her, when no one else wants her around. Cat gets it. She may not have superpowers or be vulnerable to super-substances, but she's been a woman in a man's world her entire life. She knows what it's like to be assailed in the press for a small misstep; she knows that while a man can throw a tantrum at work and be seen as passionate, she must remain cool and tough or be seen as emotionally unstable. She is the role model Supergirl needs to grow into her heroic destiny, and this is the episode that proves it.
As with any superhero origin story, Supergirl S1 is ultimately about learning to be a hero. Not just learning how to use the powers or determining their extent (though these things happen along the way, of course), but learning to trust and believe in themselves as a hero, to trust their instincts, to rely on those around them and accept their counsel as well as their emotional support. What makes Supergirl a unique and especially valuable entry in this well-worn genre trope is that it is genuinely a female version of this story. You never feel like the writers resent writing about Supergirl instead of Superman. She's not just a superhero, and she's also a woman. Her struggles are different; her relationships are different. The show does a beautiful job portraying that experience.
Jeremiah, incidentally, is played by Dean Cain, who played Superman on Lois & Clark as well as a one-off villain on Smallville. Alex’s mother, Eliza, is played by Helen Slater, who played Supergirl in the 1984 film. Indigo is played by Laura Vandervoort, who played Supergirl on Smallville. Thus we continue the glorious tradition of legacy casting in DC superhero shows. Keep up the good work; we love it!