Evoking Emotional Response: ‘Girl Meets World’ vs. ‘Supergirl’

Screen Shot from 'Girl Meets World' and 'Supergirl'
Image Credit: Disney, CW

I recently watched, back to back, an episode of Supergirl and one of Girl Meets World. There were two scenes in particular that spoke of loss, and I found myself comparing the two scenes side by side, asking myself why one resonated with me more strongly than the other.

Warning: this post contains spoilers for both shows, so if you haven’t watched as far as Girl Meets World season 3 episode 10 (“Girl Meets the Great Lady of New York”) or Supergirl season 1 episode 11 (“Strange Visitor from Another Planet”), consider yourself warned. I will include the script from certain scenes in each, and consider them closely.

In this episode of Girl Meets World, the kids are assigned the task of telling their story, of discovering their family history. While Riley and Maya take the assignment lightly, Farkle defers presenting his findings at first because he wants to dig deeper. You sense his genuine curiosity and desire to learn, which has grown from his youthful obnoxiousness to a mature inner-motivation that is a delight for me to see (speaking as a mom). As his friends grow more excited as they discover their past (and Riley comes to term with being “just American”), Farkle withdraws, grows silent, until his friends notice. They are in the hallway when his friends draw the story out of him.

Farkle: My great-grandfather left Denmark and came to America right after World War II.
Maya: Just him?
Farkle: I think he was the only one left.
Riley: Well, what about the others before him?
Farkle: I don’t think they were named Minkus.
Lucas: Well, who were they?
Farkle: I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll ever know. There aren’t birth records. All I know is that during World War II, he was adopted by a Christian family named Minkus in Denmark who wanted to help him.
Lucas: Help him what?
Zay: Help him live. [Zay walks over and sits next to him] His great-grandfather was Jewish.
Farkle: Sometimes it’s real hard when you find out your story. My whole family
Zay: Yeah. I’m here if you ever want to talk.
Farkle: Me, too. I found out about these wonderful people called “Christian Rescuers.” They saved babies by taking them in when they were—[Riley sits down and hugs him] Thanks. I’m glad you found your story, Riley. I’m happy you all did. My story will be about how lucky we are to live in a place that allows you to come here so you can be whoever you are. But that’s all I can really tell you about my heritage right now. Because I’m still finding out who I am.
Read the full script online.

Meanwhile, in Supergirl, we learn about the horrors that Hank and the entire race of Green Martians suffered at the hands of the White Martians, who forcibly captured them before systematically killing them off. The graphical re-enactment shows a cruel treatment reminiscent of the Holocaust. We see the visions haunting Hank.

Alex: I am so sorry for what happened to your planet. I can’t imagine what that feels like. But together, we’re going to protect this one.
Hank: It wasn’t just my planet [scene shifts to Mars, where green martians stand on the dusty surface, comforting each other. Then pan to white martians running down hills toward them]. We fought back. We’d known war, but not like this. White martians were toiling underground, building weapons of death. Fire traps, the technology overwhelmed us, White Martians had been toiling underground, building weapons of death.
Fire traps. Their technology overwhelmed us. There was no honor in how they fought.
They herded us into camps. I swore no matter what, I would protect my family.
We would survive. But when we got through the gates, they took the women and children.
Men were forced into labor. The others went to the furnace.
My wife and daughters burned. I escaped. I survived. To my great shame.
I will hear my family’s screams until the day I die.
Read the full script here.

I’ve now watched both those scenes several times over, and each time, the effect is the same. I’ve been trying to understand why I’m so much more moved by Farkle’s story than by Hank Henshaw/J’onn J’onzz’s (who I will henceforth refer to as Hank). And here’s what I’ve come up with.

Evoking Emotional Response Through Reality

Hank (as a Green Martian) is a fictional being. The Green and White Martians are not real. So even when you, the viewer, see a graphical representation of the horrors his people have suffered, you are unmoved. This is entirely possible, but part of the power of art is the understanding that the representation of something can evoke the same emotional response. We still feel the loss of our favorite fictional characters, mourn the death of Obi-Wan, Dumbledore, someone every other episode of Game of Thrones (or so I hear; I haven’t started watching that yet). Hell, some folks still argue about whether Ross and Rachel were on a break.

Image of Green Martian suffering (from Supergirl)
Image Credit: CW

Fictional characters do evoke real emotions. But maybe that’s the difference. We can’t truly mourn the Green Martians because the only one we know is the one who survived. We have no emotional stakes, never forged a relationship with anyone who perished. The emotion that Hank’s character is asking us to grasp is survivor’s guilt. Which is complicated. Because we’re not being asked to tap into our sadness, but rather our sense of forgiveness. Hank is asking us to forgive him for outliving his race. It would be easier if we felt the sadness that he feels for the others, but not necessary. We are also asked to ally with him in any future conflict between Green and White Martians. Okay, done. But in that case, the mistreatment of the race of Green Martians is presented as an argument for why White Martians are bad. More like these are facts to be stored away for future reference.

Meanwhile, in Girl Meets World, the viewer brings to the scene knowledge of the Holocaust. Presumably, by the time kids watch the show, they’ve learned a bit about World War II and already know about concentration camps. And, assuming they’re not neo-Nazis or Holocaust deniers, they bring to the viewing a sense of sadness, perhaps even revulsion, at the event. But of course it happened a long time ago, so seeing how a peer might be affected—today—by the events in the past can be pretty powerful. The scene offers a moment of recognition, a realization of the relevance of history. And that personal connection—what the viewer brings to the experience—makes the scene more powerful.

Evoking Emotional Response Through Scripting

Another difference I noticed between the two scenes is the way the scenes were acted. Now, you may think I’m going to say that Farkle acted better than Hank. But I’m not. These are not equal situations. I think David Harewood does a solid job as Hank Henshaw, just as Corey Fogelmanis certainly brought his A-game to the role of Farkle Minkus. So no, I don’t think it’s a question of talent. However, there are other elements to the directing that lend points to Girl Meets World.

Both scenes start off with all the characters standing around and talking. There is little action to disrupt the dialog. In both cases, the actors are all present and engaged in the moment. But while Supergirl finds the actors continuing to stand throughout, Girl Meets World adds a couple moments of “action” that make a difference. Before beginning his explanation, Farkle sits on a bench, expressing visually that the weight of the truth is more than he can bear. Then, when Zay realizes the truth—when he speaks the truth for Farkle—Zay crosses and sits next to Farkle. And then, as Farkle explains further, Riley sits on his other side and hugs him. And we are comforted knowing he got that hug we wished we could offer him. And Maya and Lucas still standing, caring just as much but not knowing exactly how to act? That helped too. It offers viewers more people to identify with, people whose feelings represent the level of support you wish you could have in the same situation.

'Girl Meets World': Riley hugs Farkle to comfort
Image Credit: Disney

The blocking, the camera focus, the acting itself—with every character fully engaged and present—it all strengthens the scene.

The Power of Foreshadowing

Farkle’s confession is foreshadowed/built up better than Hank’s. There, I said it. In Supergirl the build up involves Kara or Alex directly asking Hank what happened.

Hank: We’re looking for a white Martian.
Alex: That thing is like you?
Hank (growls): It’s nothing like me. That creature and its kind slaughtered the green martians. White martians came from beneath the planet’s surface, bringing fire from the planet’s guts. And they burned us all.
Alex: John, I’m sorry.
Hank: No, knowing what we’re up against might just save lives. This creature belongs to a race of creatures with the mission of killing me and mine. It’ll be back.
Supergirl: But it attacked the senator.
Hank: Make no mistake. I brought it to National City.

Here, we are told the facts, perhaps to ease us in, but with the same level of horror that is evoked later. Hank is holding back from talking about his truth, just as Farkle does. Yet in Girl Meets World, the story slowly unfolds, and Farkle’s character gradually changes.

Zay: We’re from Africa
Others: Oh [mock surprise] Zay: Yeah, feels good to do the research. No, for real. I’m learning my story. We started out in Ghana, my grandma says we’re lucky to know where we’re from. Not everyone does. My family was brought from Ghana to Jamaica, and then we came to America. We lived in Texas, and now we live in New York.

That scene helps lay the groundwork for later.

Later in the episode, the kids go to the Cultural Day celebration in the school gym, and Zay turns to Farkle.

Zay: Why are you being so quiet? It’s making me really upset.
Farkle: Really?
Zay: No. I like it. Peaceful.
Lucas: Yeah, talk, Farkle. This isn’t like you.
Farkle: I’m not really sure anymore what’s like me.
Maya: What’s the matter with you?
Riley: No, I get it. It’s just hard when you look at all these booths, not to picture yourself living a different kind of life. That’s what you’re talking about.
Farkle: Okay.

That’s it. It’s hinted at, but not explored. The discussion continues to other matters. Later,

Lucas: Last chance, Farkle. Want to find the Denmark booth?
Zay: Yeah let’s give Farkle a chance to hear stories about his people.
Farkle: That’s okay. I think I know too many stories already.
Farkle walks away.

Now, some of the build up to Hank’s story in Supergirl happens in previous episodes, but each episode needs to stand on its own. The slow buildup leading to Farkle’s reveal increases the emotional impact of the scene. We know it’s coming, and at least for older viewers, we know what the truth was. Yes, this ties into my original point, but in terms of foreshadowing, Farkle’s altered behavior has more an impact than Hank’s. Yes, I know, Hank freezes when encountering the White Martian, but his overall demeanor is still pretty much the same otherwise, whereas Farkle is affected completely. I know that’s not a fair comparison; Hank is an adult, has dealt with his truth longer. But as far as the emotional impact of the scene, these elements did factor in.

Evoking Emotions Through Comedy

Supergirl is tense throughout. There’s a white Martian attacking National City, tension tension, fighting fighting. There isn’t really much emotional release from that particular truth. Girl Meets World, meanwhile, goes arguably way over-the-top with its subplots, and always offers moments of comedic relief even when not reaching a vaudevillian level. But that, I would argue, is its greatest strength. The Eva/Auggie scenes, in all their obnoxiousness, definitely serve to offer an emotional break after the big revelation. Similarly, the comic scenes and little moments of humor sprinkled throughout the episode provide the perfect foil for the heavier moments. The contrast itself—between funny and serious scenes—strengthens the emotional impact of the dramatic scenes.

Summary

So there you have it. I looked at what worked, and tried to figure out why it worked. I don’t know if anyone else actually watches both those shows, or would think to compare the two, but let me know what you think.

Nivi Engineer is a novelist and playwright in Cleveland, Ohio. She is a mom of three boys, and escapes the never-ending sports calendar through reading. This month, she's learning that the capital of Nepal is Kathmandu. And now, so will you.