Buried beneath the page long Tumblr rants and angry tweets over the current ship war, one will find a small but devoted group of fans gushing over the recent Martian arc on Supergirl. I am one of those fans, if you can’t tell from my and Elizabeth’s reviews. I could talk about my Martian babies for hours, and since I happen to write for a living, I can share my love with you. So excuse me while I happily word vomit a bit about J’onn J’onzz and M’gann M’orzz, because they’re everything and this subplot is one of the most compelling stories to grace my screen in a long while.
The Martian Story
Before I dive in, let’s talk backstories and Martian history. According to show canon, Mars was home to two sentient races, the war-like, aggressive White Martians and the peaceful Green Martians. Both races are shape-shifters with remarkable psychic powers including mind reading and the ability to telepathically link to each other. Several centuries prior to the start of the show, the subterranean White Martians surfaced and set about systematically wiping out the entire Green Martian race for no reason other than bigoted hatred and a belief in White Martian superiority. They rounded up the Greens in internment camps, brutalized them, and killed them. Many were burned in ovens. If it sounds like the Holocaust, it should. I’ll come back to this later when I talk about J’onn, but the Semitic coding underscores much of this arc, so it’s worth pointing out now.
J’onn, therefore, is the sole survivor of a genocide perpetrated by the White Martians that wiped out every other member of his race. M’gann, on the other hand, is a member of the very race that killed J’onn’s. Both fled for the lives and found refuge on Earth, but on opposite sides of the conflict. He fled being a victim of the massacre; she broke ranks by refusing a kill order. And this is the context within which these two characters exist. Perfect recipe for a revenge arc, right?
Wrong. It’s not even really a redemption arc. This, my friends, is a healing arc that stubbornly defies the temptation to oversimplify or justify any of its aspects.
Genocide and Culpability
Supergirl never shies away from describing what the White Martians did to the Greens, nor the implications for M’gann. The few flashbacks we get are enough for the audience to fill in details of just how awful the White were to the Greens. It’s genocide, pure and simple. It’s never justified or explained away, nor is it whitewashed into something less starkly horrid. Other shows might prefer to sweep similar events under the rug, but Supergirl never does. We’re never allowed to forget exactly what the Whites did and how awful it was.
Nor does M’gann escape from the personal ramifications of being a White Martian. We know little about her past prior to the day she broke ranks, but this was unlikely the first kill order she’d been given. She professes to have been placed at the worst of the internment camps.
“Prisoners penned up like animals. Barely enough space to move. Sometimes the guards would just kill someone at random. To set off a panic. And then watch as green bodies trampled over each other.”— M’gann M’orzz, 2.04 “Survivors”
Chances are, she’d been faced with other opportunities to act violently against the Greens and hadn’t balked. Her race is not known to show mercy, after all. Yet even if she herself never did anything directly against the Greens, she benefited from their brutalization. She participated in the system, even if it were as a nonviolent guard.
Survival and Shame
However tempted we, the audience, might be to exonerate her of any association with the Whites because she’s a protagonist, such a move is unwarranted by the narrative. Her centuries-old guilt tells us as much. She’s not entirely responsible, of course. She is but one member and not solely to blame for what all of her race does. But she does bear some shared responsibility, and spends centuries attempting to absolve herself. She lives as a Green to carry on their name and legacy. She fights to survive and also to remember. As long as she lives, she will not let what her race did be forgotten, even if she is the only one to feel shame and regret.
J’onn, on the other hand, struggles more intensely with his memory. He cannot forget his loss and refuses to forget his family. Until he meets Jeremiah Danvers, he lived in constant fear for his life, a refugee on the run with a target on his back and a clock in his head ticking down the time until the Whites found him. Jeremiah gives him his personhood back with his act of kindness and protection. Jeremiah’s presumed death gave J’onn an added weight of survivor’s guilt, but also a purpose. He could carry on his family’s legacy by protecting the Danvers and by trying to make National City a better place and a safer one for refugees like himself.
Yet, even after all these years J’onn still carries a burden of survivor’s guilt.
“I swore no matter what, I would protect my family. We would survive… I escaped. I survived, to my great shame. I will hear my family’s screams until the day I die.”—J’onn J’onzz, 1.11, “Strange Visitor From Another Planet”
He blames himself for not being able to save his family, and his shame is so profound he borders on suicidal during parts of S1. He’ll do anything to make his survival meaningful, even if he dies in the process. Thankfully, Supergirl is there to talk him out of it, which he then uses to reach out to M’gann.
When J’onn and M’gann first meet in 2.04 “Survivors”, they’re in a tense situation that only M’gann fully appreciates at the time. She, a White who had been living as a Green, is once again charged with killing a Green, but this time for entertainment. (And we know M’gann had chosen never to kill in the arena.) J’onn’s pointed reminder “Our choices are all we have” had to have been triggering for her, as her choices are what led her to her current life. Specifically, her choice not to kill a Green. “And now you’ll be a killer” only throws more salt in her wounds, which he rubs in by directly addressing her shame.
“You don’t fight for money. You do it because you think you deserve it. For surviving. But you don’t have to punish yourself anymore, M’gann. You’re forgiven. We both are.”—J’onn J’onzz, 2.04 “Survivors”
It’s almost a verbatim repetition of what Kara had said to him in 1.11. There is no shame in surviving. Only M’gann’s shame doesn’t mean what he thinks it does. She’s ashamed of surviving, but because she believed all the Greens dead. She punishes herself for participating in the massacre. Nevertheless, their shared sense of shame and survival, even though it stems from different sources, becomes the foundation of a tentative friendship as season 2 progresses.
Hatred and Healing
Prior to the discovery of M’gann’s true heritage, the locus of J’onn’s hatred for the Whites had been subsumed into his profound sense of guilt. As much as he hated the ones who had destroyed his family, the distance from Mars and the very real memory of his family’s death had haunted him far more. All that changes when M’gann reluctantly saves his life, and he begins to transform into a White.
Let me say first that M’gann had every reason to hesitate helping J’onn. She knows her blood will turn him into a White Martian, thereby revealing her own heritage. She also knows how much he will hate the transformation, and her for inflicting it on him. Yet, without the blood transfusion, he will die. Her choices are to condemn the last Green to death or condemn the last Green to become a White. Death or transformation. And once again, she chooses to save a life even if it means risking her own. Even if it means J’onn may not survive as the same person, she’d rather save him than kill him.
“When I needed her, when you needed her, she opened up a vein for you. She had to know that there was a chance saving you would reveal her as a White Martian. She did it anyway. She said she tried to help your kind.”—Alex Danvers, 2.10 “We Can Be Heroes”
All of J’onn’s bottled up hatred for the Whites now has an outlet. He believes she was sent there to kill him or rat him out, and refuses to believe her confession that she was the guard who released the Greens from the Galle Crater internment camp. Only her heritage matters: she’s a White, his enemy. Finally, he can avenge his family by killing her, or at the very least locking her up indefinitely. Doing the latter allows J’onn to both assuage his sense of guilt and have an escape valve for his hate without stooping to the Whites’ level by murdering M’gann.
Oh my heart. At this point in the arc, we see two hurting people carrying both their scars and still-festering wounds after centuries believing themselves alone. Neither can, as yet, see how similar they are and how they are both in need of healing. M’gann rejected her culture’s hatred of the Greens and replaced it with a healthy dose of self-hatred and shame. J’onn still carries his for the Whites and lashes out at a convenient, and docile, target. Her acceptance of death at his hands is not so different from his guilt induced self-destructive tendencies in S1.
This is where Supergirl veers hard left when other media would (and do) go right. Revenge and shame will not help the Martians, only healing. And that means facing themselves and each other.
Forgiveness and Friendship
Something more is at work in J’onn than hate. He claims to be tied to M’gann because of their shared origin on Mars, but he did not sense M’gann earlier in the season. He had no idea another Martian had been living in National City for who knows how long. This may be a honeypot to explain inconsistencies in the writing, but I think the blood transfusion bonded them and is the source of his strong awareness of and connection to her. More than that, he displays real concern for her safety when she comes under psychic attack. Just look at his face, that’s more than a desire for punishment. Even before he forgives her, he’s already started to change his opinion of her.
He resists, which is one of the most honest expressions of his situation the show could have chosen. I’ve been in a similar situation before, when I was working through my experience of abuse. I didn’t want to see my abuser as a person, much less forgive them. Forgiveness felt cheap, a way for them to excuse themselves and get off without repercussions. Hating the person who hurt me had become part of my identity, and I did not know myself without it. That’s why I felt J’onn’s reticence to see the good in her because it might lead to him forgiving her as such a visceral, truthful reaction. I saw myself in him.
It’s also why Alex’s reminder that forgiveness was something given to self, not the one who hurt you kicked me in the gut. Because it’s exactly what J’onn needed. Forgiveness wouldn’t absolve M’gann, but it would heal J’onn. You can see the truth of that afterward; J’onn’s energy is lighter, more open. Even the gesture of complimenting Winn for his work with the Guardian reveals how much his choice to forgive M’gann has settled him. He’s not ‘fixed’ but he’s taken an important step on the road of healing.
And, like M’gann on his behalf, he was willing to face painful things in order to save her. He knew the Bond would bring up traumatic memories, ones he hadn’t fully faced in a long time. Yet he willingly put himself back into the worst time of his life to help her. By doing so, his predictions come true: he sees M’gann for who she is, both her traumas and her courage. He sees the goodness in her, the personal strength required to make the choice she did to break the cycle of violence. And he sees her heart. He comes face to face with her deepest desire.
M’gann: “I wanted…”
J’onn: “Tell me.”
M’gann: “To be your friend. I couldn’t bring your people back to life, but I could make you feel less alone.”
And it breaks down the rest of his walls. Her vulnerability allows him to see her not as Other, but as Same. She is no longer his enemy.
“I’m here with you. I see you. You are my friend, M’gann M’orzz. You are forgiven.”—J’onn J’onzz
Full confession, I’m crying while writing this part because I identify with M’gann as much as I identify with J’onn. I didn’t participate in genocide, but the rest of her story feels like mine. I, too, broke the cycle of violence and abuse and lived with shame for decades. Like M’gann, I wanted to be seen, loved, and befriended. I felt so alone and was desperate to reach out to others, but didn’t always know how.
The Martian story showcases power of being seen and acknowledged as Same. Telling her she is forgiven is but the beginning of what J’onn offers her; he’s confessing that he no longer hates her, which is itself a significant gift to one who never expected it. But J’onn also gives M’gann the gift of found family and friendship, of belonging. Hate had kept them both isolated from each other, these two lonely and hurting people, and now, through forgiveness and healing, they are finding a new place with each other.
Loving Your Enemies
If this were the end, I would have been completely satisfied. But Supergirl saw fit to tug on my heartstrings even more with the most recent episode, “The Martian Chronicles”. And it isn’t just how protective of M’gann J’onn suddenly becomes, though I appreciate that too. Being willing to protect your former enemy from those that seek to hurt her is no small thing. He’s backing up his profession of friendship and forgiveness with a tangible change in behavior. He extends to her the same trust Jeremiah once gave him, which brings her into not just his circle, but the Team Super family. He’s giving her a new family she can rely on to stand by her when her old family quite literally is hunting her down to kill her.
But it’s more even than that. He can’t stop telling her how much he admires her and thinks well of her. It’s kind of Mr. Darcy-like (Pride & Prejudice) and cute to see him gushing about her. J’onn all but admits that he loves M’gann.
“You’ve become dear to me in a way no one has been since…I’ve just had this huge hole in my heart for so long I never thought, dreamed anybody would be able to fill it. When I realized that you were a White Martian, I never thought that that person would be…you. But I was wrong. Your spirit is so beautiful and brave, not that I’m able to see that, I can’t imagine my life without you.”—J’onn J’onzz, 2.11 “The Martian Chronicles”
Look at that last line. He uses almost the very same words about M’gann as Maggie does for Alex: “I can’t imagine my life without you”. Just think about that and what it means for him to say that. He has taken Kara’s words from 2.07 to heart and accepted that he has room in his life for both the memory of his family and someone new: “Having M’Gann in your life doesn’t mean losing your family. It means feeling whole again.” And for a man like J’onn, who held onto every scrap of memory of his family like a shield, this marks a huge step forward. And to say that to a White Martian no less.
No less of a step forward is M’gann’s reciprocation of his feelings. She grew up in a culture that did not prioritize tender emotions or know how to express them well. Her bond with Armek was arranged rather than stemming from love. Nevertheless, despite her fear and lack of experience with expressing her emotions, she opens her heart to him as well.
“I feel it too. I have for a while I just didn’t…know what it was. I just had one of the hardest nights of my life and I’m heading into something I probably won’t survive, but standing here with you, I feel like everything’s going to be okay. You have changed me forever.”—M’gann M’orzz, 2.11 “The Martian Chronicles”
She’s come far enough in her own journey of self acceptance and healing that not only can she accept his love and admiration of her, she can reach out in love to him in return. It’s an experience she never expected to have, much less from someone with every right to hate her and wish her dead.
Inspiration and Courage
Once again, Supergirl isn’t done with the Martians. They’ve come full circle from misunderstood commonality to hatred to friendship to love. J’onn inspired M’gann to take pride in her choice to break the cycle rather than fixate on her culture’s history of violence and her shame in being a part of it. He emboldens her to live and love, to accept herself for who she is now rather than live in fear and the past. She’s on the brink of a happy life with a man who sees her and knows her. She has a place, a family, a home. And, like any hero, she cannot rest until the rest of her kind is given the same choice.
As sad as it makes me to see her leave the show (at least for now), the scope of her journey ought not to be overshadowed by that loss. M’gann makes the difficult, and potentially deadly, choice to return to Mars and inspire others the way J’onn inspired her. When we first met her, she was living in fear, fighting to survive and allowing herself to get beaten to assuage her guilt over her past. She had broken ranks, but not fully healed.
At the end of “The Martian Chronicles” she stands tall in her choices, not fixed, but ready to extend the same offer and help to others that she was given. She chooses compassion and empathy for those who tried to kill her. She chooses to try to find the good in the rest of her race the way J’onn chose to see the good in her. J’onn’s courage in reaching out to her becomes the basis for her courage to reach out to the rest of the White Martians. This is how a cycle of healing and reconciliation begins, with one person deciding to end the violence and choose the light instead.
A Sci-Fi Story of Hope, Healing, and Love
If you can’t guess, this is my favorite subplot of the season. Scratch that, it’s my favorite plot, period. Aliens from different races overcome hatred, bigotry, and trauma to find love and a new purpose? What’s not to love? It’s a compelling science fiction drama that reaches out of the screen and punches me over and over again in my feels. It’s just so good.
These two have zero reason to change when we first meet them. Nor does their change stem from romantic attraction or a desire to gain the other’s attention (unlike some other plots on the show). No, they change because they choose to, for themselves. There is an element of helping others to their choices, no doubt. J’onn wishes to help M’gann and she wishes to help her people. That does not negate that they also want healing for its own sake.
There’s such power in their story of seeing and accepting the Other as Same. J’onn willingly helps and forgives a member of the race that massacred his own. He even loves her. I would go so far as to say he would now acknowledge her Green form as her ‘true’ form rather than her White one, though that doesn’t happen in canon. M’gann purposefully aligns herself with the Greens after rejecting the Whites’ violence. Moreover, she willingly dons the Green Martian form in front of other White Martians, including her former mate. She fights alongside J’onn as a Green, even when the White form might give her more physical power and put her on even footing with Armek. When Armek insults her and the Greens, she calls the Green skin, her skin, beautiful.
Which brings me to another thing I love about this: all the layers of coding that make their story even more powerful. Both of them are black-coded characters (and played by black actors, accordingly). M’gann’s expression of self-love for her skin has an added element of acknowledging the beauty of non-white skin. This rarely happens on television, especially not from the mouth of the female character herself. As both black-coded and refugees, they understand marginalization and prejudice on multiple levels. J’onn’s experience of racial holocaust is coded with Jewish overtones, and his experience as a superhero has queer coding. M’gann is also coded as an escaped survivor of domestic abuse. Both experience trauma and PTSD as well.
These layers of coding mean that multiple different groups of people can see themselves reflected in their story. It’s a hugely complex intersectionality of representation and none of the coded narratives feel shoe-horned in. This isn’t an attempt to win representation points or fill a diversity quota. Such layered representation requires planning, consulting with various groups of people, and intentionality. In other words, it doesn’t happen by accident. You have to try to tell a story this good, and it shows.
The Martians deserve much more recognition than I’ve seen them getting on social media sites like Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. Geeky media sites seemed to have picked up on the power of this story, but not certain subsets of the fandom. It’s a travesty, because this narrative is so powerful, raw, and honest. It doesn’t shy away from the lived experience of their situation. It asks tough questions without flinching and without avoiding or oversimplifying the process of healing and forgiveness. The show never glosses over or over or justifies the White Martians’ crimes in order to ‘redeem’ M’gann. It lets the story, and the audience, sit with the godawful truth of what she and her race did. And then proves she is different by her behavior and choices.
Every beat in the arc feels earned. Even when I want more, it isn’t because the story is lacking. Just the opposite. I want more because of how well done it is. It never relies on cheap tricks or melodramatic moments to create tension. Rather, it’s true to life. The raw emotion, Alex’s advice to J’onn, and the therapeutic beats to J’onn reliving M’gann’s memory clearly draw on someone’s lived experience. I know it felt real to mine.
It also avoids the other pitfall of becoming preachy and prescriptive, implying that theirs is the only ‘true’ way to ‘properly’ react to this situation. Supergirl never dictates how survivors ought to respond, but it does give us compelling glimpses of the beauty and power of what it looks like for people to respond with compassion, empathy, hope and healing.
And that’s why I love the Martians. You can pry my babies from my cold, dead hands, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I’ll probably come back from the dead and snatch them right back.