Look, anytime there’s an unsolicited Valley of the Dolls reference, I’m going to be happy (be still my heart, Queen Latifah saying, “Sparkle, Neely, sparkle!”), but this was actually a pretty good episode of television, Patty Duke allusions or not. Star has previously had trouble with its tone, as I’ve said in each my past three reviews of this show. A desire to make the show gritty and give it a certain amount of weight means that bogged it down in its own self-seriousness, while also insisting on a level of camp that could never overcome the dourness that pervaded each of the episodes.

First of all, I loved the setting. “Code of Silence” paid tribute to the city that is supposed to give Star its texture by setting the episode at a hair show. It made the show feel unique, delving into a culture that isn’t often on network primetime. The girls perform while Bruce and Carlotta compete against the Scissor Siblings (the Scissor Sisters clearly already taken), the type of high camp character that gives this show a personality (as does Ms. Lawrence, whose epic shade is such a lovely addition. Those eyerolls!). The girls use their platform as a second round audition for their upcoming festival appearance, singing updated Gladys Knight (nice cameo!) in full ‘70s drag. They looked fantastic, the musical number was fun, and yet this episode still felt like it had stakes in a way that it hadn’t before.

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Otis, who seems pretty fit for a guy stabbed several times in the back, returns to find Simone, applying for a job at Carlotta’s shop, but pretty much only wants to menace her for fun. He doesn’t seem to have a plan other than to be a villain, but it still worked. There was tension in this show that the first episode wanted to have, but stifled by stuffing too many plotpoints into one episode. It wasn’t just gritty for gritty’s sake. Instead, Otis seethed and slinked into the girls’ lives in a way that even rattled the seemingly indestructible Star, who couldn’t talk her way out of being physically threatened with a sassy remark and curl of her lip. This was really the first time these characters faced real conflict that included an element of fear, rather than just talking about how hard their lives have been up to this point. Instead, the episode showed exactly what Simone hell had been going through by making Otis a real person. The way Star talks about Simone’s life in foster care is more indicative of the consequences of Simone’s sexual abuse, rather what the show had previously done, which is use sexual assault as a way to shock us and pile on the tragedy, or portray Simone as just generally crazy instead of someone who has been traumatized (“The smell of his cologne, the sound of his voice, the feeling of his nasty hands on your body”).

But ”Code of Silence” didn’t get too heavy-handed with these issues either, letting horror of rape speak for itself. Nor did it try to stuff too much plot into the episode. The trafficked Eva will clearly become a factor in upcoming episodes, as well as the guys after Jahil but she was largely relegated to the sidelines during this episode. Otis As Evil Guy got to breathe, and that was important when it came to the quality of this episode.

This episode was a truly based around the ensemble, as well, and I think that helped. None of the girls was given too much screen time that would let the cracks in their ability show. That ensemble nature will hopefully continue with the shared secret of who killed Otis. Everyone got a part and no one had to shoulder too much. Sure, the boyfriends, both Star’s quarterback and Alexandra’s activist, had little purpose in this episode other than to remind us of their existence and their utter uselessness up to this point. Their brief appearances, as well as a few other plot holes (Jahil seemed to dispose of Otis’ body pretty easily), reminds me that the surprise quality of this episode may have been a fluke, but I hope it’s newfound balanced tone will continue next week as well.

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