The “Supergirl” premiere soared to the highest ratings of the fall last week in total viewers, but a meteoric rise only increases the pressure to stick the landing when viewers tune back in for episode two. Luckily, exec producers Ali Adler, Andrew Kreisberg, Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter leapt that hurdle in a single bound, delivering a second episode that doubled-down on the pilot’s action and heart — most notably by bringing our titular heroine Kara (Melissa Benoist) face to face with her villainous aunt Astra (Laura Benanti), instead of delaying gratification on that showdown for multiple episodes just to ratchet up the tension.
Variety spoke to Kreisberg about the many developments of “Stronger Together,” including Kara’s impending interview with Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), how James (Mehcad Brooks) is going to handle hitching his wagon to another Super friend, and what those ominous red eyes mean for DEO boss Hank Henshaw (David Harewood).
I wasn’t expecting a confrontation between Kara and Astra so soon – why was it important to you guys to get that first meeting out of the way so early?
Because we love Laura and that little glimpse of her at the end of the pilot was… we honestly wish we had Astra in more of the pilot, so we wanted to amend that as soon as possible … Originally it was just going to be about the Hellgrammites, then we were like “what can we do in the second episode to make it bigger, grander, more exciting than the pilot?” and then we came up with the idea of “what if the Hellgrammites were working for Astra directly” so that you had that first confrontation. We’ve never gone wrong bringing the big bad up sooner — we’ve obviously been having a great deal of success this season with Neal McDonough on “Arrow” so… as always, we try to make every episode one that you can’t miss. And the other big thing is, your hero is only as good as your villain, and your villain has to have a chance of killing the hero, otherwise there’s no jeopardy. When you have someone like Kara, who’s Kryptonian and can do anything Superman can do, you want her to go up against a true adversary, and having her fight another Kryptonian felt like the best way to do that.
Astra gave us a hint as to her agenda in her confrontation with Kara this week – is it safe to assume she might be planning to make a new home on earth without human interference?
It’s actually not. [Laughs.] She’s not trying to establish a new Krypton, which is something that we’ve seen in movies and TV shows before, and we wanted to do something different. To me, the best villains are the ones that say the same thing in public and in private, they just leave out the part about killing a lot of people when they do it. John Barrowman on “Arrow” in season one, he said he wanted to save the city – he just left out the part about nuking the bad part of town so that all the good people could live crime-free lives. And with Astra, believe what she says in episode two – “I watched one world die, I’m not going to let another one die too.” She really means that, she really believes she’s here to save Earth from the path that humans have set it on, because she saw what happened on Krypton. Obviously, how she’s going to go about it is going to be objectionable to Kara, her friends and most of the audience, but as always, the best villains are the heroes of their own story, and Astra believes what she’s saying. Giving the villain a legitimate point of view — even if it’s dark and twisted and immoral — having them have a point is always what we strive for. And as you find out more and more about Astra’s goals and why she was sent to Fort Rozz and what her connection was to Krypton’s destruction, I think it’ll unfold in a new and different way for people who feel like they’ve seen Krypton die in enough mediums before; that its destruction in our version is something a little bit more relevant to our own morals.
We got another flashback to Krypton in this episode – is that going to be a recurring feature on the show?
We’ll definitely be flashing back to Krypton — obviously not in the way that “Arrow” utilizes the flashback storyline; I think it’s more analogous to “Flash” where we see glimpses of Barry’s childhood when stories pertain to it. In episode five, we actually flash back to Kara as a child on Earth growing up with Alex [Chyler Leigh], which features the return of Helen Slater and Dean Cain. But in this episode, it was especially important to flash back to Krypton because it also helps remind the audience of Alura and the strong bond that this daughter and this mother share. And it also served to remind everybody again that Kara grew up on Krypton, she lived on Krypton – she had a happy childhood there and a family and friends and teachers and cousins, and all of that was ripped away from her, so she remembers this paradise that she was expelled from and that is, for us, what makes her different from Superman and so much more emotionally complex.
The scene with Alura’s hologram was heartbreaking. It seems like through the flashbacks and the AI, Alura can still teach Kara a lot, so how does that relationship inform her journey going forward?
That was Greg’s idea, as always it was the best one. It’s funny, because Laura asked how she should play the hologram and I said “play the hologram like a greeting card – it’s saying all the right things, but you don’t really feel them.” In some ways it’s almost worse. It’s a fun way to tap into the established mythology of Superman and put a Supergirl twist on it. It’s all of those little things that help make the show, and help make it feel like a show about a visitor from Krypton, whether it’s Superman or Supergirl – she should have all the same bells and whistles that he got. We use it in upcoming episodes as a source of information; the AI, knowing what Alura knew, is able to give specialized information on Fort Rozz escapees, what their powers are, how to defeat them. It’s a good, cool, fun way to get out exposition – exposition is hard to get out but when Laura Benanti says it, you’re far more interested in listening to it. And it’s that ongoing emotional thing for Kara where she misses her mom and she lost her mother and her world, and getting that brief glimpse of it is sometimes what she needs to have the strength to keep going, and sometimes it’s the thing that breaks her heart and reminds her of everything she’s lost.
Judging by those glowing red eyes, Hank Henshaw obviously isn’t quite what he seems – what are you prepared to say about his motivations at this point?
I think comic book fans will have a theory about that, and Hank is not all he says he is, and I’m going to leave it at that. [Laughs.] There are some things I’m so happy to spoil and there are other things where it’s that great tension for the audience that certainly worked out so well for us with Tom Cavanagh on “The Flash” in the early going, where he’d do something heroic and then something else that’s slightly sinister and you’re never quite sure what that means or where his loyalties lie, so that when he walks into a room, is he there to help you or is he there to kill you?
James is already being put in an awkward position between his loyalty to Kara and his job at CatCo – is that a struggle that will continue, since Cat is so used to getting her way?
James’ ongoing story is less about losing his job every week because he’s not doing what Cat wants; it’s more, he’s trying to figure out who he is in the same way Kara is. He gives that speech that was so interesting to us, that he was famous because he took pictures of Superman, but Superman was his pal – he even says in the pilot, “I won a Pulitzer, but he posed for it” – and now I’ve moved here to start fresh, but if I’m teaming up with another superhero, am I ever going to find out what makes me special apart from all this? I think that’s really interesting, and then putting on top of that the gender change where a lot of times, Jimmy is the Lois Lane of the show, it’s his own curiosity and brashness – he’s the one who puts himself in danger and she’s the one who has to rescue him. It’s always a dance and I hope Mehcad gets the credit he deserves – he’s a great looking guy and charming and a great actor, but to be the male lead in a female-led show is sometimes a thankless task and he really, for a big, macho guy, really embraces his role on the show and I can’t say enough about him.
We’re already seeing hints of Winn (Jeremy Jordan) being a little jealous and proprietary over Kara now that he knows James knows her secret too. Can we expect a little competitiveness between them, at least from Winn’s side, since James doesn’t have much to be competitive about?
Their relationship is actually kind of hilarious, because Winn is so clearly jealous and James is such a nice guy, he doesn’t even notice. It’s this one-sided competitive thing… Poor Winn. Watching the two of them form their friendship is really exciting as well. There are some things that are very unique to this show, but there are other things and other teams and paradigms that Greg and I and now Ali always gravitate to, that sense of found families. That’s definitely what’s going to happen over the course of this first season as they start going through these adventures together and start learning to trust each other and start being there for each other. In so many ways, with shows like these, it happened on “Arrow” and it happened even more-so on “Flash” — what happens to the cast happens to their characters, and vice-versa. We had the table-read for episode 10 the other day and you’re already starting to see that they really have become this great unit; Melissa and Chyler really love each other like sisters and are looking out for each other, and watching those two guys, this odd-couple, becoming friends in front of and behind the cameras is cool.
It was great to see the focus on Kara and Alex’s relationship this week.
Episode three has them out for breakfast together and the end of episode three is the two sisters in Kara’s apartment, having a night together. It’s a nice part of the show and it’s not something that’s well-represented on television, adult siblings, and certainly adult siblings who are in the same business and care about each other. You see sibling relationships that are fraught with tension and lies and anger and jealousy, and I don’t mean to suggest that Kara and Alex’s lives are drama free — they’ll have their issues and there’s certainly more drama to come between them — but at the heart of it they love each other in the same way that Joe and Barry love each other, and it’s become so mirrored behind the scenes. We were watching a particularly emotional scene for Supergirl that Alex is present for, and Melissa got very emotional, and after they yelled cut, Chyler went over and held Melissa until she could pull it together, and that was almost more moving than the scene itself.
What can we expect from the next episode, since Cat is finally getting her interview with Supergirl?
The interview does not go exactly as Kara planned — shocking – and next episode sees the arrival of Reactron, who is a Superman villain who has fought with Superman over the years and neither has ever been able to beat the other, and now he’s decided that the best way to get Superman is to come to town and kill Kara. And Kara is in no mood to be treated as someone who can be taken out because they think she’s easier to take down than Superman. Reactron’s going to find out that he shouldn’t have messed with the Girl of Steel.
Kara had some trouble blowing out the harbor fire with her ice breath – was that just because she was exhausted from the DEO’s tests, or was it because she has to build up some of her abilities like a muscle?
It’s a little of that – we only really do it in this episode. It’s kind of a classic superhero trope, and we certainly did it on “Flash.,” that episode two is “oh, this isn’t as easy as I thought it was gonna be” … we don’t play too much with the notion that she’s not up to snuff, it was just a fun thing to do in this episode. The one ongoing thing that does happen is Alex training her because for us, that is one of the most interesting aspects of the show, the sense that Kara has all these incredible powers and she’s smart, but Alex really has the empirical knowledge… “Alex Danvers: Kickass Spy” could just as easily have been its own show — it just so happens that her sister’s Supergirl.
How do the logistics of flying fight scenes compare with the stunts we’ve seen on “Arrow” and “Flash” – are you finding ways to cheat or is it pretty much all pulled off on wires?
It’s funny, you see a director’s cut of “Arrow” and it pretty much looks like how it’s going to look on television – it’s all stunts, it’s all there – and with “Flash,” you get a director’s cut and most of it is missing. And we’ve discovered on “Supergirl” that it really is this mixture of everything we’ve learned on “Arrow” combined with everything that we’ve learned on “Flash” – there’s a lot of wirework, there’s a lot of actual stunts, and there’s also obviously a great deal of CG, and far more than we’ve done on “Flash,” it’s been this mixture of old-school people on wires and newfangled high-tech CGI, and somehow, at least for now, we feel like we’ve found this really successful formula of mixing the two and that’s what’s presenting our “style” for having a Kryptonian lead on a show.
“Supergirl” airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBS.
What are your theories about Hank’s red eyes? What do you think Astra hopes to accomplish on Earth? Weigh in below.