The midseason premiere of Supergirl, “Blood Bonds,” examines the motivational philosophy of DC’s Kryptonian family in a modern lens. “Truth, justice, and the American way” — that old saw remains the comfort food of comic-book stories. But it ain’t the 1950s anymore. Haunting Supergirl is our recognition that the American way has never been as solid as it was too often sold, and that in 2016 it feels like a knee-deep moral quagmire. The show is asking, boldly enough, what its foundational ethos even means now.
In “Blood Bonds,” Kara Zor-El’s aunt Astra is held prisoner of the Department of Extranormal Operations (DEO), a secret federal branch that works at the frontline of alien anomalies. With department director Hank Henshaw kidnapped by Astra’s fringe group of Kryptonian radicals, the DEO is temporarily overseen by General Sam Lane. Demanding answers, General Lane tortures Astra with kryptonite fluid, injecting the toxic chemical through her veins. “General, we are better than this,” Kara protests while her aunt cries in agony, but it falls on deaf ears. For Lane, national security has trumped all.
The metaphors Supergirl draws are an amalgamation of recent fear-mongering drummed up in the name of security. It looms in legislations like the Patriot Act to recent headlines like the opposition of Syria’s refugees to Donald Trump’s proposed ban of Muslims entering the U.S. Xenophobia is having a moment: Because they threaten our way of life, the Trump line goes. But Supergirl challenges the lazy reactionaries to consider the point at which their thirst for security becomes self-defeating.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has been the de facto American way since, oh, July of 1776. It was certainly the dream of two poor Jewish immigrants, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who in 1933 amidst the Great Depression dreamed of a meek individual who was secretly a powerful being. The Krypton stuff and the blue suit and cape came later, but Superman (as best we know him, so not counting his evil origins) always began as a beacon of hope in dark times, that perhaps the American dream, through the American way, can come true. That notion, and that hope, has endured within Siegel and Shuster’s Son of Krypton.
And hope echoed in Supergirl, which ultimately won the ethical tug-of-war. Kara overpowers General Lane with reason, negotiation and, ultimately, “faith” in the enemy’s honor. But maybe Lane was right; as predicted, the Kryptonians had planned a surprise attack at the prisoner exchange until Astra convinces them to back down, for now. In the end, no one was right. Supergirl may not know what “the American way” means anymore, but it still proposes that we err on the side of hope.
That, ultimately, may constitute the American way as we live it in 2016, as malleable a concept as it remains. Right now outside Burns, Oregon there is an armed militia fighting for what they believe to be liberty and the American way. They might also be radical terrorists. Either side would agree, they’re righteously pissed off, and acting from a dim view of world events. If they can catch a signal out there in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the militiamen should be watching Supergirl.