The Good: Performances, Moments of theme
The Bad: Derivative plot, Characters are almost all undermined
The Basics: "Survivors" might surprise or please fans of Supergirl, but genre-savvy viewers will be underwhelmed.
Being genre literate is a real catch-22 for reviewers. After all, I came to Supergirl with comparatively little knowledge about the textual Supergirl, but I review the CW television incarnation of her. What I know about Supergirl from the comic books is that she died in Crisis On Infinite Earths, was replaced for a long time by a shape-shifter, and I think I recall someone at a convention bitching once about how Peter David was writing Supergirl and maybe making her lesbian or bisexual(?), and then I've read some of The New 52 Supergirl graphic novels and I've read the Ame-Comi Girls, which included their rendition of Supergirl. That's about it for specific Supergirl knowledge from the text for me . . . but, I am very fluent in many other genre works, both literary and on television. So, when Supergirl starts to feel painfully derivative in very specific ways, it is hard for that not to color my perception of the work. "Survivors" is instantly reminiscent of an episode of Angel (reviewed here!) and as it follows on the heels of an episode that introduced an underground alien nightclub, it is hard for those who are genre literate not to feel like Supergirl is quickly going to become the place that every script concept for Angel is going to finally get pitched and might see the light of day. For sure, aliens have been swapped out for demons, but with "Survivors" revolving around an alien fight club right after Wolfram & Hart, er, Cadmus, has appeared in National City, it is hard not to see a lot of parallels rather suddenly between Supergirl and Angel.
"Survivors" follows on "Welcome To Earth" (reviewed here!) and given M'gann M'orzz's presence in "Survivors," it is impossible to discuss the new episode without some references that would otherwise spoil the episode that preceded it. "Welcome To Earth" introduced an alien night club, Lorne's . . . er, not Lorne's, but close-enough to it to raise a flag with genre fans and J'onn J'onzz learned that he was not the last green Martian to survive the holocaust from the white Martians. "Welcome To Earth" also had Mon-El becoming mobile and detailing a conflict between Kryptonians and Daxamites (like Mon-El). Mon-El continues his character's journey in "Survivors."
Opening with Daxam getting blasted out of existence in a flashback on the day that Krypton was destroyed, Mon-El is trapped in a Kypronian pod by the Prince Of Daxam as the planet is getting destroyed. Maggie calls Alex about a dead alien she found and Supergirl soon arrives and realizes that the body is from a known peaceful species who appears to have died after repeated fighting. Kara tries to pitch the alien on alien violence story to Snapper Carr, who tells her to come back when she has the full story. J'onn J'onnz visits the alien bar and interrogates M'gann about how she made it off Mars when the White Martians committed their genocide. J'onn wants to share a telepathic bond with M'gann, but she is resistant.
When Winn gets a lead on an alien who might have been the killer of the peaceful alien, Alex heads out with Maggie to apprehend him. Their attempt is broken up by people who abduct the alien and leave the two stunned. Back at the DEO, J'onn admits that he has found another Martian and he overstepped with M'gann. Maggie gets a bead on an alien event and Alex and Sawyer infiltrate an alien fight club run by Veronica Sinclair. In attempting to break the fight club up, Supergirl gets pounded on by an alien gladiator and the Danvers sisters see M'gann fighting willingly. J'onnz confronts M'gann and he learns about Roulette (Sinclair), who Supergirl goes to attempt to shut down.
"Survivors" has a serious continuity problem with "Welcome To Earth." In "Welcome To Earth," Kara tells Mon-El about the destruction of Daxam . . . which she would have had no knowledge of, given that she was off Krypton before it was destroyed and would not have known that Daxam had been destroyed by the debris of Krypton. In "Survivors," Mon-El is shown leaving Daxam . . .and he knew how his planet was getting destroyed by Krypton's debris. In other words, in "Welcome To Earth," Kara tells Mon-El the story that Mon-El actually lived through and she would have no real way of knowing.
Mon-El is essentially a fratboy Superman and he just wants to get out of the DEO in "Survivors." He and Winn Schott begin to bond, with Mon-El attempting to exploit the human. In "Survivors," Mon-El lives down to Kara's mother's prejudices about Daxamites; he is basically a devious party animal who just wants to drink and go out clubbing. Mon-El gets to the end of the episode with a very brief glimmer of something deeper and while Chris Wood performs the part adequately, the role is not very impressive in "Survivors."
What "Survivors" lacks that "The Ring" (from Angel) had was a sense of consequences. In "The Ring," the demons were compelled to fight because they were captives and they had bracelets on them that would kill them if they (literally) stepped out of bounds. In "Survivors," Roulette is a greedy, power-hungry promoter, but she does not exert a realistic amount of control over her alien fighters. When J'onnz is captured by Sinclair, she merely declares that the fight is now one to the death. There is no realistic transition or control mechanism utilized by Sinclair.
At the other end of the writing, both Kara and Hank Henshaw are written-down in "Survivors." In "Survivors," Kara Danvers delivers a number of weakly-written lines that do not allow Melissa Benoist to present them in anything but a whiny way. Kara does not sound indecisive or frustrated in "Survivors;" there are long stretches where she sounds like a young teen girl. J'onn J'onnz is written with less than realistic emotions; he does a 180 on his character from professional and smart to pretty much an emotional basketcase and David Harewood is not able to land the transition (arguably because it does not exist - the character is virtually rewritten for "Survivors").
The surprise winner for "Survivors" is not Dichen Lachman - who, admittedly, is incredibly fun to watch as Roulette as she has the physical presence and the steely-eyed gaze for the character - but rather Katie McGrath. Amid Ian Gomez's half-baked J. Jonah Jameson impersonation and the budding sexual tension suddenly being written for Alex Danvers with Maggie Sawyer, Katie McGrath delivers a single scene-stealing two minutes in "Survivors." Lena Luthor comes through for Kara in a way that could be hammy and predictable, especially with the way James Marshall directs the Villainous Lingering Gaze at the end of the scene. But McGrath takes the minuscule part in "Survivors" (which is, ostensibly, only in the episode as a bridge to get Kara from an abandoned fight sight to an active one) and uses it as a chance to subtly illustrate Luthor's intelligence and long-range planning for her machinations. McGrath takes a simple exchange and infuses it with subtext by the way she delivers her lines and differentiates Luthor from the vapid National City socialites.
"Survivors" takes a long way to get to anything thematically deep. Very late in the episode, Supergirl gives a Minimally Inspiring Speech about the importance of aliens not fighting for human amusement or playing into the stereotypes of aliens being dangerous. But the role of Supergirl's speech is tainted by her not only fighting in the ring, but taking out a champion using both her powers and external information. Even without the comparison to the deeper thematic elements of "The Ring" and the opportunity the Angel episode used to allow its protagonist to promote a philosophy of passive resistance, "Survivors" falls short.
The result is a solid dud for Supergirl as National City is now flooded with aliens and the previously well-established characters almost all are undermined with uncharacteristic stupidity and unprofessional conduct.
For other works with Dichen Lachman, please visit my reviews of:
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Season 2
Lust For Love
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Supergirl - The Complete Second Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the sophomore season of the Kryptonian superheroine here!
For other television season and episode reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.