Warning: This contains spoilers.
We need to talk about James Olsen. Once one of Supergirl’s most promising sidekicks, the photographer-turned-media-empire-boss-turned-masked-vigilante has swiftly become the show’s worst character, failing to fit in anywhere, failing to convince anyone that he really wants to be a superhero and failing to do justice to Mehcad Brooks’ talent. It’s no surprise, then, that Supergirl’s second season has ditched him for several episodes in a row – and even less of a surprise that those episodes have marked a significant jump in quality for the CW’s series. But the writers have clearly not forgotten about him, devoting almost the whole of Episode 20 to Mr. Olsen. We need to talk about James – not because we want to, but because we have no choice.
Still running around as Guardian for no reason, Olsen’s arc has been hugely disappointing this season – a disappointment that can be traced partly back to the absence of Cat Grant. Without Calista Flockhart’s sassy tycoon to rule the CatCo roost, the show’s decision to promote the photographer made as little sense as his sudden urge to don a tin foil suit and start beating people up in alleys. City of Lost Children, then, takes a logical step and tries to develop his character by moving his superheroics to the next phase in the time-honoured cycle: the one of inner turmoil and crippling doubt. Maybe, he begins to wonder, he shouldn’t be Guardian after all. He doesn’t need to convince us: he could be making much more of a difference in the world by focusing on his work. Just look at the positive examples and messages Cat Grant was setting for the general public in Season 1.
Even this new step for James, though, feels rather sudden and forced. Indeed, it’s brought on by the arrival of a telepathic boy named Marcus, a Phorian who turns up on Earth with his mum – a woman who suddenly lays waste to National City’s central park, as her telekinetic powers spiral out of control. The public, naturally, begin to fear the Phorians and the media start spewing anti-alien, fear-mongering headlines.
Where is James to run the counter media stories that can encourage the positive, welcoming spirit that has traditionally defined Supergirl? He’s babysitting Marcus, who, it turns out, will only open up to him and give the good guys any information about who he is or where his mother is hiding. Along the way, Olsen gets the chance to be a hero, helping to clear the park when Marcus’ mother snaps, and, come the climax, fighting to keep Marcus calm and trusting in the friendship they’ve formed. It’s nice that these moments occur when James is in his normal form, not dressed up as the Tin Man’s violent brother, and telling that they also land much more successfully that way – Brooks’ charisma is so strong that when James puts himself in the way of danger, we do care about him. It’s Guardian who fails to keep us engaged.
But for every positive aspect of Olsen’s story, there’s another reminder of why James shouldn’t just not be in the spotlight, but perhaps shouldn’t be in the show at all, if they can’t find a way for him to work within the ensemble – his relationship with J’onn J’onzz leaves the Martian acting oddly aggressively to the DEO’s friend, mostly, you sense, so that the episode has some dramatic conflict. Lyra, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found – James’ role in the series is so haphazard and ill-thought-through that the people who anchor him in the programme are forgotten about without a thought. (But they do, however, find room for a mention of “Clark’s friend”, who is, presumably, Batman. Will the CW go all Netflix’s Defenders on us and bust out a Justice League in the coming years?)
Compare James to Lena and it’s immediately clear just how well Supergirl has slotted the Luthor sister into the show – a much more natural fit than Olsen. Katie McGrath has been given more and more to do in this second season and it’s been a treat to see Lena blossom, from an intriguing pseudo-villain to a fully-fledged friend of Kara – and, now, a tragically misled genius, who is so excited about having a maternal figure to geek out with that she doesn’t clock the fact that Rhea is a. Mon-El’s mother, b. evil and c. only working with Lena so that she can build one seriously nasty teleporting device.
The device, we learn in the episode’s final act, isn’t for Rhea to go home to Daxam, but to bring all the Daxamites to Earth, where they will no doubt try to conquer and rule the puny humans. It’s a wonderful way to deceive Lena, tapping into the series’ moving undertones of belonging, immigration and family – Rhea’s deception of Lena is fun because of Teri Hatcher’s enjoyably camp performance, but it’s effective because we know that Lena is in sore need of a mother figure, just as Marcus and his refugee mum are in need of shelter, something that J’onn and James can identify with after years of discrimination, and even just as the Daxamites are in need of a home.
Indeed, if this episode fails at persuading us that Olsen should be a more regular fixture in Supergirl’s roster, it more than succeeds at finally giving this sophomore run a more definite sense of direction. With the Daxamites teleporting into Earth’s orbit, the episode sets up a two-part finale that will tie up the show’s themes with a real sense of scale. It will be interesting to see what sympathetic sides to the Daxamites we may see over the coming two hours. After all, Supergirl always commendably reminds us that we shouldn’t judge outsiders. If only Supergirl’s writers could make Guardian feel like less of one.
Supergirl Season 1 and 2 are available on Sky Box Sets and NOW TV. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription – with a 14-day free trial.
Where can I watch Supergirl Season 2 on pay-per-view VOD?