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Religious imagery and subtext (particularly from the Judeo-Christian tradition) has long been a central aspect of the Superman mythos. So it stands to reason that a system of belief would form around a beatific savior from above who figuratively and literally rescues humanity. This concept that informs the fourth episode of Supergirl, “The Faithful,” is rife with narrative and theological potential. However, due perhaps to the inherent limitations of a superhero television show aired on a broadcast network, the episode’s exploration of this concept doesn’t dive deep enough, leaving the audience feeling less than fulfilled.
“The Faithful” begins with a flashback that dates back to the very first episode of Supergirl. It turns out that one of the passengers on the plane Supergirl saved was Thomas Coville (Chad Lowe), formerly a bitter alcoholic divorcee whose life was forever changed by his spiritual encounter with the Girl of Steel. In the present day, Coville runs a group called the Children of Rao made up of the various people Supergirl saved (in all senses of the word). The Children of Rao use Kryptonian theology to form their own belief system—Rao being Krypton’s version of the Christian God—and worship Supergirl as the avatar of that intergalactic religion. Their belief in Supergirl is so pure that they deliberately put themselves in harm’s way so that they can be “delivered” by their Kryptonian goddess.
In theory, everything I described in the preceding paragraph would be fertile ground for a fascinating Supergirl episode. Unfortunately, it’s the execution that is lacking. This is more of a criticism of the script than it is of Lowe’s performance, which helps to elevate middling material. Lowe plays Coville as the complete opposite of a cackling, demented super villain; there’s a nice scene between him and Kara in which the latter comes to his service to interview him about his church. Coville slyly lets on that he knows Kara’s secret identity as Supergirl because naturally he remembered every detail of the formative experience of his adult life, including the eyes of his savior. What makes less sense is how and where Coville would gain such an intimate knowledge of Kyptonaian religion—are there English translations of the Rao-ian Bibles being left in hotel rooms across the country or something?—let alone come into the possession of a Kryptonian Betahedron with such destructive potential. When watching a typical Supergirl episode, it’s usually best to just hand-wave away these typical contrivances and suspension of disbelief issues, but when the subject of the episode is religious belief you’d hope the writers would think these things through a bit more carefully.
It takes a good deal of subtlety and tact to examine the religious implications raised by “The Faithful” in any meaningful way—and whatever virtues Supergirl as a series possesses, “subtlety” certainly isn’t one of them. As with many stories in the Superman universe that grapple explicitly with Christian allegory and iconography—I’m looking at you, Superman Returns—“The Faithful” does so in the most ham-handed way possible. While the episode stops just short of having Coville calling himself “Rao Man” and duking it out with Supergirl in a gaudy costume, it’s a disappointment that the script ultimately resorts to making him the stereotypical bad guy with his scheme to blow up a sports stadium that Supergirl must stop. Whether inadvertently or not, “The Faithful” reduces Coville and his Children to another terrorist cult in order to generate cheap action thrills for the third act. It’d be equally disappointing if the Supergirl showrunners never revisit the Coville character or the ideas that animate him after this episode, as both deserve more attention than they receive here.
Perhaps the showrunners should consider applying the slow-burn approach to Coville that they’ve been using for the Samantha Arias storyline. And boy, has the burning been slllooowww from a narrative standpoint. In “The Faithful,” we get some scant details about Samantha’s background and her life with her daughter Ruby; at one point, Samantha guardedly reveals that Ruby’s father isn’t “in the picture” with no further explanation given. We also see in the episode’s eerie and Halloween-appropriate final scene that someone—or something—terrible is haunting her. Maybe this is the explanation for the super strength she demonstrated in saving her daughter a few episodes back? I’m deliberately doing by best to stay away from spoilers, so maybe the Supergirl writers have already referred to Samantha’s secret. But as a casual viewer, I can see where it would be hard to be invested in this mystery despite how much focus it’s been given in the first four episodes. But that seems to be an appropriate assessment of Season 4 of Supergirl thus far: some intriguing stuff might be happening over the horizon but as of right now the view is too opaque to get a clear sense of it all.