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Episode titles are a funny thing. While their primary purpose is to explicate the primary theme or conflict of a given segment of television, they can also often serve as indicators of a show’s metaphorical trajectory. With that in mind, “Wake Up” feels like a rousing call to arms after what has largely been a somnolent Season 3 of Supergirl. Most notably, the episode finally makes some forward progress on the long gestating Samantha Arias storyline. In addition, “Wake Up” juggles two additional storylines: the return of Mon-El—as well as the introduction of a notable DC Universe heroine—and the evolution of J’onn’s relationship with his father M’yrnn. (That last plotline, a sweet and low-key palate cleanser compared to the other tempestuous storylines, doesn’t have the dramatic implications of the other two so we won’t focus on it here.) These plot developments, though hardly perfect in the particulars, provide viewers with as exciting an episode of Supergirl as we’ve seen all season. It’s an especially impressive feat given the absence of a conventional superhero/supervillain fight.
As it regards Mon-El, “Wake Up” offers us seeds of a gestating plotline that should bear colorful and exciting fruit in future episodes. The short version is that a bearded Mon-El reappears in an alien ship after a seven month absence (that is, according to our Earth years). When Mon-El wakes up from his stasis, he appears cagey and guarded, particularly around Kara, and later attacks DEO guards before being subdued by Supergirl. Having Mon-El refuse to state his motivations for doing so strains credulity: why wouldn’t he trust Team Supergirl to help him instead of getting into a pointless fight with them? Be that as it may, Mon-El belatedly gives a full account of his strange behavior: he was attempting to return to his ship in order to help his still in-stasis friends from the 31st Century with whom he’s spent the past seven years.
For longtime DC fans, the inference is clear (although the episode doesn’t explicate it): Mon-El’s friends are the Legion of Superheroes. We meet a member of that venerable DC Comics team this episode: Imra Ardeen, aka Saturn Girl. Imra has another identity as revealed in this episode—that of Mon-El’s wife. We’re sure to feel the full aftershocks of this figurative earthquake in future episodes, but my early assessment is that I welcome it. Not because I enjoy seeing Supergirl suffer so much as the fact that the show’s focus on her romance with Mon-El had been one of the more grating aspects of Season 2—anything that throws some tension into that staid and sappy dynamic is a bonus.
Even though we started by discussing the Mon-El plotline, it wasn’t as obviously momentous as what happens to Sam in this episode. As mentioned earlier, the conflicts in “Wake Up” aren’t primarily driven by an evil antagonist. However, it would appear that we’re seeing one developing before our eyes in Samantha Arias, aka Reign. (Granted, this won’t come as a shock to some fans, as the Supergirl showrunners have proclaimed Reign to be the Big Bad of Season 3.) Over the course of the past several episodes we’ve seen Sam slowly come to the realization that she isn’t the ordinary working mom she thought she was. We’ve seen her capable of lifting a heavy steel girder off her daughter Ruby, survive a gut shot from a failed assassination of Lena Luthor, and then haunted by strange, sci-fi tinged visions. All of this comes to a head when Sam visits her adopted mother Patricia, a woman from whom she’s been estranged since Sam got pregnant with Ruby.
From here, we as viewers are given a version that Sam’s secret origin story that reads as a dark, funhouse mirror version of Kara’s own: adopted by a cold, unfeeling woman who was kicked out of her home for being an unwed mother instead of being told about her Kryptonian heritage. And once Sam gets to learn about that heritage, she learns that she isn’t a hero like Supergirl but rather destined to be a Worldkiller named Reign. This episode alone (almost) justifies the excruciatingly slow burn of this disclosure. The factor that distinguishes Reign from other baddies that have appeared on the series is that we’ve gotten to know her as a person first, thereby making her turn toward evil all the more tragic. To be frank, I’m not exactly sure if the showrunners were entirely successful on that front—despite their best efforts, I never felt much of a kinship with Sam, who has felt to me like a collection of characteristics (single mom, works for L-Corp) than a fully realized character. It’s only with “Wake Up” that we truly got to know who Sam Arias was, and that brief glimpse is enough to make the tragedy palpable. As physically and emotionally painful as Sam’s transformation is for that character, it is that much more invigorating for us as Supergirl viewers.