Credit: The CW
S4 E3

Economic insecurity.

It stokes fear, animates political movements, and, in National City, forges a powerful new enemy. This week, Supergirl shows us how fear, frustration, and desperation can twist an intelligent, kind-hearted optimist into a powerful voice of hate.

And in so doing, “Man of Steel” joins a list of standout TV episodes: Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Zeppo,” Doctor Who’s “Turn Left,” CSI’s “Lab Rats,” Supernatural’s “Weekend at Bobby’s,” The X-Files’ “Three of a Kind.” All of these hours of television sideline the main characters in favor of showcasing the experiences of someone normally on the periphery.

Two years ago, Ben Lockwood was an NCU professor watching the world slowly change. There’s Supergirl on TV, delivering her “have hope” speech from the season 1 finale, while his father, Peter, frets that the steel plant he owns just lost the Luthor contract to the newly opened Nth metal factory across the street.

Ben remains optimistic about Lockwood Steel’s prospects, even putting himself between rioting Lockwood workers and the alien Nth factory employees they threaten. But then the Bravik he’s protecting is injured and accidentally shoots one of his arm spikes into Ben’s chest.

“I didn’t mean to!” the alien cries as Supergirl and Alex race in to stop the fight. Alex patches Ben up and says his workers were lucky that Supergirl went easy on them. But Alex’s flip words stay with him, causing Ben to wonder why Supergirl and the FBI are working together against humans in favor of aliens, regardless of their citizenship status.

Next, we see Ben, arm in a sling, begging Lena to reconsider canceling the contract with Lockwood Steel. But Lena says the newly rebranded L-Corp will now use the steel of the future and suggests Lockwood also take steps to modernize.

Jump to 14 months ago, when Ben’s lecturing to a hall of human and alien students — Ooooh, buddy, I bet fully half of that class is in love with handsome Professor Lockwood — he notices that the whiteboard is made of Nth metal. This prompts him to quote Ben Franklin and encourage students to ask themselves who pays the price for progress when they consider something like Marsdin’s alien amnesty act.

At the Lockwood home, Jack Spheer’s on TV, presumably discussing nanotechnology, when Ben learns that Peter couldn’t secure a bank loan and has shut down Lockwood Steel. Ben’s son chimes in to call aliens “roaches” but is interrupted when Queen Rhea appears on the screen. Soon enough, Daxamite ships are screaming overhead, and Ben and his wife are counting their food and water rations and making plans to flee the city.

Peter urges his son to be a man and fight, but in the end, they pack off to leave their house mere moments before J’onn comes crashing through their ceiling, mid-battle. The Lockwoods look on in horror as J’onn subdues his quarry, assures them, “You’re safe now,” and flies away as flames consume their house, complete with an American flag and a burning bike in the foreground.

Ben next turns to James Olsen, who’s watching a Cat Grant White House briefing, to beg CatCo to cover the struggles that everyday citizens face during the extraterrestrial attacks. For example, homeowner insurance doesn’t cover alien invasion damage. Come to think of it, that clause is probably included in the small print on each of our homeowners’ policies.

James says the insurance story ran in the business section, but before Ben can dive into the finer points of the agenda-setting function of the press, James takes a call from CatCo’s new owner, Lena Luthor. This does not please Ben. (Next page: The birth of a toxic movement)

Frustrated, worried, and angry, Ben starts adopting a different tone in his lectures now, using Ben Franklin’s words to support his nativism and his argument that humans can’t compete against this new breed of immigrants who are stronger and faster and less bound by gravity. His speech becomes more and more impassioned, leaving one poor student to raise his hand and ask, “Sorry, professor, what page are we on?” Ha!

When an alien student argues that he’s talking about xenophobia, not nativism, Ben snaps that of course someone with her complexion would think that. Students start walking out, and before you can say “I sure hope you’re tenured, my dude,” the dean’s placing him on a leave of absence without pay.

In the alien bar, Ben’s student is discussing the “crazy goth chick” who tried frying all the inmates in Albatross Bay when Professor Lockwood’s suddenly there to call her a snowflake and accuse her of tattling on him. She says she didn’t but she’s not surprised that someone did.

Ben gets worked up, and then Kara Danvers appears to calm things down. “It’s karaoke night,” she says matter-of-factly when he asks why a human’s there. Kara keeps him from assaulting the student, so he calls her an Earth traitor and storms out.

Then four months ago, we find Ben handing out anti-alien fliers, one of them to Otis Graves, when a battle breaks out as Supergirl, Alura, and the DEO try to stop the Krypto-forming in the season 3 finale.

In the melee, Ben finds his father in the Lockwood factory building, trapped under a beam. Peter wants this to be where his life ends, but he urges his son to stand tall and fight for what’s his. “You’re human. This planet belongs to you.”

At the funeral, Ben reads his father’s favorite quote, Winston Churchill’s “Never Give In.” Lena attends and afterward, offers to establish a fund in Peter’s name. But Ben wants nothing to do with an alien sympathizer.

A post-funeral gathering of former Lockwood workers turns ugly when Ben suggests they set fire to the shiny new Nth factory across the street. When someone staggers out, Ben realizes it’s the Bravik who injured him two years ago, back when he still had a father and a house and a job. Enraged, he picks up a length of pipe to finish what the fire started.

Ben’s charismatic, silver-tongued anti-alien proselytizing is starting to draw crowds now, including the dean who fired him. She and her partner Minnie lost their house during the Krypto-forming, which caused her to rethink the way NCU treated him. Ben, with his expensive-life-coach delivery, invites her to his “support group.”

Then Mercy Graves pulls up and ushers him into her limousine. She’s not there to expose him for attacking and killing aliens over the past several months but to chide him for being sloppy enough to leave DNA and fingerprints.

She gives him body armor and suggests that they work together, explaining the plan to expose Marsdin as an alien. “Read a little 4chan, do you?” Ben scoffs. Then she gives him intel on Fiona, J’onn’s missing friend whose death opened this season. Ben ponders this offer at the old Lockwood factory, eventually unearthing a metal mask in the rubble. And with that, we’re caught up.

So what of Supergirl? She’s green-veiny and plummeting to Earth. Brainy warns she won’t survive the impact unless J’onn can catch her, which he does just in time. None of the DEO tech is sufficient to save her life, and she’s too weak to be taken off-world to escape Earth’s poisoned atmosphere. In desperation, Alex calls Lena, who laments that people underestimate how much she really does care.

Lena has a solution that causes Brainy to geek out: It’s a radiation-controlled proto-environment housed in a vacuum-sealed mechanical exoskeleton. Translation: It’s a fancy new suit that Supergirl’s going to have to remain inside of until they figure out how to detoxify the environment.

And hopefully they’ll figure that out soon because the Graves siblings bring turncoat DEO Agent Jensen to meet Ben/Agent Liberty, and Ben suggests that Jensen might be useful in sneaking them all back into the DEO sometime soon. Just what are you up to, sexy masked professor of evil?

Snaps of the cape

  • Wow, absolutely everything that could happen to Ben Lockwood pretty much did. And unlike Forrest Gump, who had a similarly eventful life, Ben didn’t get to eat ice cream and meet all the presidents. Pity, that.
  • So last week, Nia defended transgender rights just after the Trump administration proposed rolling them back, and this week, Ben labels himself a nativist days after the president embraced a similarly fraught term. How in the world does the show stay so incredibly current? Are the Supergirl writers psychic??
  • If anyone was curious, Peter Lockwood spelled out the specific origin of the “roaches” slur: It refers to aliens who, like cockroaches, survived the destruction of their own planets and now infest Earth. Charming.
  • What great fun — yet how sobering — to see so many recontextualized events from the past seasons. Living in National City doesn’t look like much fun, but catching past guest stars and battles sure was.

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Kara (Melissa Benoist) steps out from her super-cousin’s shadow to become Supergirl and defend National City in the third Arrowverse show.

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