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The Luthors Addresses Manipulative Mothers

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Supergirl Season 2 Reviews: Episode 12, “The Luthors”

Content Warning: This review contains mention and discussion of emotional abuse and manipulation, as depicted on the show.

Despite the misinformation on Tumblr and some television news sites, tonight is not actually the Valentine’s Day episode. That’s next week (sadly), though it looks adorably wacky and we can’t wait. But don’t worry! We get fraught family dynamics instead, and it’s so good. This is a top 5 episode, for sure.

Quick Recap

We open with a flashback to Lillian playing chess with young Lex as Lionel brings in an even younger Lena. Lillian is antagonistic from the get go, but Lionel pushes the adoption through. In the next shot, Kara watches the news in the bar that Lillian is on trial before awkwardly discussing Mon El’s relationship with Eve Tessmacher. Alex brings Maggie along to meet the rest of the team, and they’re all quite chill.

Kara goes to visit Lena (and bring her donuts) because she thinks she needs a friend. On Kara’s urging, Lena goes to see her mother and Lillian’s awful to her right out the gate. Lillian reveals that Lionel was having an affair with Lena’s mother and chose to love Lex more because Lena looked so much like her mother. She asks for a second chance and Lena reaches out, though we can see she’s torn.

In a nearby cell, Metallo gets a delivery of Kryptonite (was his heart not in his chest??) then shows up in court spouting anti-alien rhetoric that would make a Nazi proud. He attacks the courtroom with his new Kryptonite heart while Lillian looks on with glee. Metallo breaks Lillian out and when Supergirl tries to stop them, forces Kara to choose between protecting people and stopping them. Maggie thinks Lena delivered the kryptonite to Metallo. Kara warns Lena that she’s being blamed for it and Maggie comes in to arrest Lena. She has surveillance footage that looks like she took the Kryptonite (but from where?). At CatCo, Snapper is putting Lena on the cover. Kara wants to dig more into the story and also prevent negative bias from getting out into the media. James and Kara have a ‘disagreement’ about Lena that proves James has already condemned her. Eve avoids being catty to Kara bout Mon El.

Metallo beats the Guardian handily and breaks Lena out of jail. James speculates that something is off about the kryptonite. Everyone is against Kara’s trust of Lena. James warns Kara about Clark/Lex being friends and compares her trust in Lena to her lack of trust in him as Guardian. Kara takes out some anger in the training room. Mon El is actually a decent person and doesn’t tell Kara not to believe in Lena because she believed in him. Lena and Lillian have another emotionally charged conversation on the way to one of Lex’s hideouts. Lena figures out that Lillian only wanted her so that she can open the biometric lock that only opens to Luthor DNA, and refuses. Cyborg Superman shows up to force her into it.

Super Friends back together again! Yay, Kara!

Winn hacks L Corp to get the raw video footage and finds proof that Lena didn’t do it. Winn also finds Metallo but the Kryptonite in Metallo is unstable and he’s about to explode. Kara flies off to save her Lena! (YAY!!!!) Lillian eyes a bunch of Lex’s anti-alien gadgets proudly. Supergirl comes in to save Lena and Lena doesn’t want her hurt (EEEE!!), but Lillian attacks her with a sonic weapon. Cyborg Superman saves Lillian. Kara gives Metallo a chance to save himself and J’onn flies in to help her. Metallo ‘splodes but they all make it out okay.

Kara gloats to Snapper and he sends her to get an exclusive with Lena (BOOM). James admits he was wrong about Lena and they repair their friendship. Lena sent Kara lots of flowers to thank her, and the two of them have a lovely conversation where Kara affirms her support and friendship of Lena. It ends with Lena looking at a chess set and remembering her mother affirming her after she beat Lex in a chess game. Kara invites Mon El over to talk and admits she wants to try and ‘have it all’. They’re interrupted before they kiss by Mr. Mxyzptlk, who confesses his love to Kara.

Best Quote:

Kara: “There’s always another side, even when it’s hard to find.”

Lena: “Especially when it’s hard to find”

Thoughts & Feelings

Mon El was much more tolerable this episode. He’s a better character when he’s not trying to be a superhero and instead just drops little hints about Daxam and is a decent person to Kara. Speaking of Daxam, though, we take “the more the merrier” as confirmation that Mon El is somewhere on the bi/pan spectrum and also likely poly, which is a nice touch. Oh, and while we’re on that scene, we didn’t realize how much we needed Alex to say “ladies loving ladies” until tonight. It’s fabulous. And Maggie’s little head nod is A+.

We have questions about why, after this long, the rest of Team Super hadn’t figured out Maggie and Alex were dating. She was hanging around the DEO the other week and totally flirting with Alex in front of everyone? Is the rest of the team really not observant? Come on, Winn. You should have realized it after you and Alex had that conversation way back about Maggie and them Maggie comes hanging around. Regardless of how out of place this feels, we love J’onn for saying, “It’s not for me to say”. He’s so proud of Alex and that gives us all the feels. We also love how shy Maggie is to be introduced so formally. We get the impression our girl Maggie is usually the one who does the introducing. This is precious.

We’re not entirely sold on everyone siding against Lena, however. J’onn literally just got done reconciling with M’gann, a repentant member of the race who slaughtered his own. Winn had an entire episode in S1 devoted to him not being his father, despite many people (including the police and media) thinking he might turn out the same way. Every single member of Team Super saw Kara’s interactions with her villainous Aunt Astra and Uncle Non in S1, plus she’s currently living with the mixed legacy of her father’s bioweapon experiments and mother’s harsh judicial decisions. No one on Team Super ought to doubt Kara’s belief in Lena. They all have personal reasons to know that upbringing and genetics ≠ personal destiny.

Plus, they’ve all witnessed the power (and ultimate accuracy) of Kara’s belief in others. She has been wrong in her trust in someone exactly zero times in two seasons thus far. But now suddenly everyone believes that Lena being a “Luthor” is enough to make her evil? We don’t buy it. It prioritizes drama over consistent characterization. It almost feels like the writers are trying to isolate Kara and force her to rely on Mon El when it doesn’t make sense for the other characters to act this way.

The only person who ought to have objected that strongly was James. Unlike everyone else’s distrust of Lena (especially after the Medusa incident, which Kara repeatedly brings up to no effect), his distrust actually made sense. James legitimately believes Kara is too naïve about this situation; he witnessed first hand the fallout between Clark Kent and Lex Luthor and does not want to see Kara hurt the way Clark was. Our only nitpick was the choice to frame it as being about the Guardian at first, rather than primarily about Clark/Lex. We understand James’s disappointment at Kara not ‘trusting’ him as Guardian, but it really is not an equivalent situation, as Kara rightly points out.

Mr. Grumpy Gills is proud of her, though.

Speaking of Kara and James, props to Kara for calling James out on his negative bias. Snapper actually had a point about the news cycle, even if we could hear Cat Grant screaming at the both of them from across the globe about using the power of the media for good and not jumping to conclusions to satisfy the masses. James, on the other hand, was using his negative bias to run CatCo, and that’s bad journalism. Kara had every right to call him out. His negative bias is not any more legitimate a reason to skew the news one direction than her positive bias. At least James apologized in the end, and Kara got to gloat over Snapper.

But the real meat of the episode is in the relationships between Lena/Lillian and Lena/Kara. Supergirl has never shied away from depicting problematic mothers (see Katherine Grant), but Lillian is a whole other level of awful. Every conversation is both calculated and coercive. She’s downright emotionally abusive, using deceptive and underhanded tactics to control Lena’s behavior and perceptions to Lillian’s benefit and Lena’s detriment.

Take the first conversation when she’s in jail. She’s covertly emotionally manipulative from the beginning, telling Lena she ‘forgives her’ for testifying in court before blaming Lionel, and Lena herself indirectly, for the lack of bond between them. This entire conversation is a pretty epic gaslight, i.e., one long attempt to make Lena doubt her experience of herself, her family, and her relationship with both her father and Lillian. Lillian is trying to rewrite the script to turn herself into the victim of Lionel’s infidelity and demands to accept his lovechild rather than Lena’s emotional abuser.

But remember, Lillian was the adult in the situation. She ought to have overcome her antagonism for Lena’s mother and opened up to the child. Even if Lionel tried to keep her away (who conveniently isn’t here to defend himself), Lillian could have worked to change that instead of choosing to prioritize Lex and make Lena feel unwanted and unwelcome in the family. Everything she says in this conversation is calculated to isolate Lena from the one parent she loved (Lionel) and gain her trust so she will join her. Lillian knows Lena will be blackballed by the media for being a Luthor, and sets about reinforcing the isolation as well as punish her for the perception of betrayal Lena evinced by testifying against her.

She’s tearing down Lena’s self-perception as well as her perception of Lionel. She knows Lena’s one defense mechanism against Lillian and Lex is that she’s “not really a Luthor”. So, she summons Lena and takes that one thing away from her, playing herself as Lionel’s victim to gain Lena’s sympathy in an emotionally vulnerable moment.

After Metallo breaks Lena out of jail, Lillian creates a false equivalency between herself and Lena in order to further isolate and control Lena. She wants her to believe she’s alone, has no choice, and that they’re ultimately the same. Lena is already guilty (in the eyes of the media), same as her mother (who actually is guilty). They’re the “only two Luthor’s left”. By incriminating Lena in the escape and confirming pre-existing biases against Lena, Lillian does to Lena what Littlefinger does to Sansa when he ‘helps’ her escape King’s Landing.

Let’s not forget Lillian made this happen.

And this is a pattern of behavior with Lillian, which is why we’re comfortable calling it abuse. From the little flashback we were given, we see Lillian is completely willing to dismiss Lena to her face, only praising her when she’s doing something Lillian can exploit. She has told Lena she loved her less and justified it as something all mothers do. In the same breath, she claims to have been trying to be the perfect mom and underhandedly blames Lena for the circumstances of her birth, citing her parentage as the reason Lillian could not love her. In short, Lena was right to say that Lillian only says she loves her when she wants something. And that’s the mark of an emotional abuser.

It’s awful to watch and chillingly accurate to how these conversations happen in real life, to the point that we’re kind of worried about the writer who drafted this. We hope they get at least a hug. What’s fascinating is how Lillian Luthor acts as a wholesale upheaval the Redemptive Motherhood trope that we all too often get with female villains. Typically the one thing that redeems them is that, despite it all, they’re a good mother. Lillian’s character openly defies Redemptive Motherhood; in fact, it’s her worst trait. She’s weaponized her motherhood against her daughter, using it to manipulate Lena into believing her so that she can use her. At the same time, it’s not what makes her evil. She’s clearly both a villain and a terrible mother, not a villain because she’s a terrible mother. They inform each other, of course, but we appreciate the distinction.

What’s even more compelling is how Lena sees through it at every point. A recent article in EW has claimed “Lena didn’t technically take a side in this fight, unlike last time around when she had her mother arrested, so the question remains: Can Lena really be trusted?” We’ve seen other social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr asking the same question about Lena and assuming she was somehow more neutral this episode. But that is not what we were given on screen. Lena takes every chance she is given to pick a side, and it isn’t Lillian’s. Hell, take her conversation with Kara in her office over donuts:

Lena: “I actually felt good to testify. I got to say my piece, and finally distance myself from the Luthor name. And then I came back here to 12 calls from her lawyers. Yeah. She wants to see me.”
Kara: “What do you think she wants?”
Lena: “Probably to tell me that my outfit in court was horrible and that I need a makeover…. I don’t know, and I don’t care. I just… thought I was done with her, you know? I finally shut the door on being a Luthor. And then there she was, back on my phone sheet.”
Kara: “Twelve times.”
Lena: “You don’t think I should feel guilty for not wanting to see that monster, right?”

Those are not the words of someone who is ambivalent or conflicted about how they feel about testifying against their mother in court. People don’t tend to throw around words like ‘monster’ lightly when talking about family, especially when talking about one’s mother. It’s a humongous cultural taboo to do so, and Lena’s voice is shaking through a lot of this conversation. She’s conflicted in the sense that it’s incredibly difficult to cope with the cognitive dissonance caused by rightfully standing against an abusive parent, not because there’s any doubt in her mind that this was the right thing to do.

The face of “Done with your bullshit.”

Yes, she reaches out to Lillian in jail, though it is pretty apparent she wouldn’t have without Kara’s suggestion. What hurting, wounded young woman wouldn’t want to believe that perhaps her mother really did love her after all, despite everything? She’s doing what Kara encouraged her to do by talking to Lillian in the first place, and the act of reaching out to her mother mirrors Kara’s desire to see the best in people. Lena is extending the same (albeit tentative) belief in her mother that Kara showed her. (Our girl’s optimism is infectious that way.)

But the very next scene with the Luthor women is Lena resisting every attempt her mother offers to convince her to join her. She even says she want to go back to jail. Her face and vocal tone when they first arrive in Lex’s bunker should convince no one that she has actually sided with Lillian. She’s basically just “Right, yes, we’re on the run, yep, just us people on the run. Wait, where is this again?”. Her ‘nonchalance’ is way too exaggerated to be real. In case anyone still doubted, she immediately recognizes Lillian’s ulterior motives once the biometric lock appears, annd she resists, vociferously, even when two large, muscular men hold her down. This is not a woman who wants to turn evil, you guys. She literally chooses to resist every. single. time.

And the final shot with her and the chess piece? That felt less like an Evhul Stare™ than a woman contemplating the fact that she ‘is’ a Luthor biologically. Her one safety valve in the face of her family was that she wasn’t really one of them. Now, she is, so that makes her personal struggle to be good in the face of the Luthor name even more acute.

Or, as Kylie put it to Gretchen last night:

“tfw you just find out you were actually biologically related to the family that treated you as a second-class member but they all went evil but then you thought for a second your mom might be in a position to accept you but it was just to use your biology to power her evil weapons and you nearly died and you know she’s still out there and now the weight of the family legacy is on your shoulders”

That and now she’s gearing up for war against her mother. She recognizes the game she and her mother are playing a la the game of chess she played with Lex. It was an ominous foreshadowing of the coming battle, to us, not a secret evil Lena moment.

Because ultimately, we think turning Lena evil would be terrible storytelling after all this. Supergirl has consistently pushed the theme that choices define whether one is a hero or a villain, not genetics or upbringing. Nihilistic determinism has no place in a hopeful show that’s gone so far as to find the good in Kara’s nemesis Livewire. What would turning Lena even do? Turn the tables on Kara and drive home the idea that she’s wrong to believe in people? It would only reinforce the message, shut down tonight, that James and National City were right to write her off.

Lena has zero reason to even become a villain at this point. Supergirl has saved her life three times. She clearly does not subscribe to her mother’s extreme anti-alien policies, judging by her angry head-shaking when Metallo was spouting his anti-alien venom. She now has a friend to rely on and stand up for her (squeee!!!!). Like, an Evhul Lena trajectory adds nothing and actually detracts from entrenched Supergirl themes and characterizations. The only reason we can think of is because she’s a Luthor and Luthor’s are always villains. (Besides, we already have a Luthor supervillain for Kara to punch: Lillian.) And isn’t that precisely the stereotype Lena was battling against? Isn’t the whole point that she’s not what everyone thinks she is, even the audience?

Also, Lena is basically Asami Sato. She visited her mother in jail in a moment of vulnerability but still rejected everything her mother stood for. Like. Come on.

The writers are trying to kill us (and Kylie) with their Asami/Lena parallels. Oh, and did you note which pai sho chess piece Lena was fiddling with? It was the knight, which moves in an “L” shape. And not just any knight, it was the freakin’ white knight. And in the flashback, Lena beat Lex using the white knight to take out the black queen. If that’s not foreshadowing Lena defeating her mother, we’ll eat not only our hats but our scarves.

As for Supercorp, the flames are still alive, folks. In fact, Gretchen was so pleased with all the chemistry that she honestly didn’t even care that Mon El and Kara almost kissed. The subtext between these two ladies is more palpable than the canon interactions between Kara and Mon El. Do the directors not realize how queer Kara/Lena read every time they interact? It’s so hard to ignore even more mainline reviewers are picking up on it.

As far as Lena knows, Kara did the equivalent of ‘phone a friend’ to get Supergirl to save her, and now Kara’s office is overflowing with flowers. Throw in “I’ve never had a friend like you”, “Supergirl may have saved me, but Kara Danvers, you are my hero”, and “Well now you have someone who will stand up for you always” and we’re dead. Thank you for all the fic fodder, Supergirl writers. Keep it coming.

This scene alone…

Speaking of Kara, let’s talk about how much more in-character Kara seems this episode. It’s not that her characterization is wildly out of left field this season, but in a lot of places it just seems… off? By like ten degrees. We’ve talked countless times before about the fact that what makes Kara a hero is how utterly human she is, in the sense that she chooses good, rather than simply being a paragon of virtue. She gets frustrated and angry like any other sentient being, and we love that she was allowed to be angry again in this episode instead of swallowing it down. Kara’s constant decision to do good is given infinitely more weight the more we are reminded of 1.) how absurdly powerful she is, and 2.) it is a conscious, constant choice for her. She should be frustrated by Lillian exploiting her choice to do the right thing in order to escape, and she is. She’s so frustrated she pulverizes a concrete block.

But it’s not just her expressing anger. She was much more forward in this episode with Mon El and James, willing to press things she had previously conceded on. But there was also a bit more openness to conversation: James and Kara have taken a step in the right direction for rebuilding their friendship, and Mon El and Kara have finally stopped dancing around the issue like a pair of shy teenagers. She’s processing her feelings, calling out problematic bs, and working through conflict the way we’re used to. It’s going to take a few more episodes for everything to settle but at least it’s progress. We support any action that brings the Super Friends back together and back into a cohesive unit.

And of course, Kara’s friendship with Lena continues to be one of the bright spots of the season. Regardless of our Supercorp leanings, the canon friendship between Lena and Kara is everything we’ve come to expect from Supergirl as a show in terms of women supporting women. It’s not just that Kara insists that Lena is innocent, despite evidence to the contrary, but that is a part of it. It’s more about how Kara goes to visit Lena after her court date, knowing that she would need a sympathetic ear and a sugar high.

Of course Kara would bring food.

Shipping aside, solid female friendships that are realistically and optimistically written are few and far between. Lena and Kara are a heartwarming example of what solid, supportive friendships should be like. We’re still waiting on the episode where Lena realizes that Kara and Supergirl are the same person, bringing her friend count in National City back down to one, though we have reason to believe that Lena already knows all about that. Kara is a spectacularly bad liar after all. And Lena’s a genius.

Randomness

  • Public shaming on Daxam was a thing, why are we not surprised
  • J’onn has this great look on his face when Alex introduces Maggie
  • Winn sucks at pool, lol. For the record buddy, it is just geometry with sticks. But you still need proper motor control to use said sticks correctly.
  • Snapper screeching “WHERE’S MY ART” across the main office at Catco is amazing.
  • We may not have gotten to see it, but we choose to believe that Supergirl carried Lena out all bridal style. (Apparently there are stills where you can barely make it out!)
  • Nice shout out to the comics where Lena beat Lex at a chess game; that’s our girl, smarter than Lex since ‘86.
  • “more like you’re an arrogant dude bro and I’m the personification of the American way” so how is this the basis for a relationship?
  • Maggie is now officially part of the “helping Kara protect her identity” brigade even if Kara doesn’t know it.
  • What is in the box Lillian was holding????
  • Katie McGrath’s accent was slipping all over this episode; we loved it. We choose to headcanon that Lena’s mother was Irish.

In Conclusion

We both felt the Lillian/Lena dynamic deeply, as we have personal experience with emotionally abusive and manipulative mothers. As we’ve said before, we appreciate the care with which this show has taken in depicting the harsh reality of such a relationship without minimizing or excusing Lillian’s behavior. We are not meant to believe what she says nor trust her, and we felt both seen and validated for the way that Lena handled it all. Thank you Supergirl writers. When you’re on point, you’re really on point. We can’t think of another show on TV right now that could write gaslighting with such accuracy and also such sensitivity to the victims of it. With motherhood so often the redeeming feature of female villains, we welcome the honest portrayal of a terrible mother on screen. Not all mothers are good.

The show finally used the word ‘bitch’ to describe a female character, but in the best possible context: the media wrongfully blackballing and smearing Lena. For Elizabeth, the word’s power as a gendered insult was taken away because Lena finds it sort of laughable. That’s precisely the kind of dismissiveness we want toward how people use ‘bitch’ to attack women for their choices, especially in Lena’s context. She’s a ‘bitch’ for standing up to her abusive mother? She’s an ‘ungrateful daughter’ for taking a stand against hatred and bigotry? Eff that noise.

We’re grateful Supergirl didn’t make Eve catty toward Kara about Mon El, not that we’re surprised. They’ve avoided catty women the whole time (see Lucy Lane). Also, thanks for making that love triangle basically null and void now. We hate love triangles.

We also like that the anti-alien plot is inching its way back into the main arc; while we wouldn’t say we object to that being pushed to the backburner to develop other storylines, it was starting to feel like a dropped thread. We still contend that there was a missed opportunity for James to be a man of color spearheading the media defense of alien refugees. Instead of bickering with Snapper about Lena, he could have been using CatCo to put a humanizing face on the plight of alien minorities and marginalized communities.

Still, by now it’s clear that they’re building up to an epic finale that’s going to tie together all of the the plots they’ve been throwing at us since the start of the season. Mon El’s pursuers, Cadmus, the building tension between humans and aliens… much like season one, season two has been quite deliberate in its setup of its plot dominos. We can’t wait to see what knocks them down.

Have some lady hugs for good luck.

Tune in next week for “Mr. & Mrs. Mxyzptlk”! We’re seriously excited.


Images Courtesy of The CW

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When not working on her degree or at her actual job, Elizabeth pursues her true passion of complaining at great length about pop culture on the internet. She serves as a Managing Editor for The Fandomentals. You can find her on Tumblr, Twitter and Steam @ohemgeelizabeth

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