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Stargirl catches its breath in a table-setting episode

Illustration for article titled emStargirl /emcatches its breath in a table-setting episode
Photo: Annette Brown (Other)
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After her exhilarating battle with Cindy in “Shiv Part One,” Courtney is forced to take a breather this week, and Stargirl mostly follows suit. This is the first episode of the season that hasn’t dramatically expanded Stargirl’s mythology or introduced a major new player, which leaves it feeling just a little flat. Still, some strong character work and an unexpectedly dramatic final battle elevate “Shiv Part Two” into something enjoyably watchable, even if it’s a bit of a disappointing follow-up to the highs of “Part One.”

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The best thing about “Shiv Part Two” is that it introduces a sort of Professor X/Magneto frenemy dynamic for Courtney and Cindy—two similar young women on opposite sides of a superhero showdown. While the episode immediately reveals that Courtney recognized Cindy during their battle, it takes a while to discover that Cindy identified her blonde opponent as well. Cindy keeps the secret from her frustrated father, who’s annoyed that his daughter put on her “graduation uniform” without permission and then went after Stargirl without killing her. But Cindy isn’t as clueless as her dad thinks. In fact, she plays some impressive mind games as she pays a friendly visit to a recuperating Courtney only to wait until the last second to reveal that she knows all about Stargirl.

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The scene toes an impressive line between comedy and tension. Like Courtney, we’re initially unsure whether Cindy is apologizing for their Homecoming Game fight, or, well, their other Homecoming Game fight. Just when it seems like the scene is aiming for a comedic contrast between Courtney and Cindy’s civilian BFF status and their superpowered rivalry, Cindy drops the other shoe. Of course she recognized Courtney. And though she wasn’t exactly lying when she said that they’re alike, that doesn’t mean she intends to flip to the good side. Instead, she swears to murder Courtney’s fellow JSA cohorts.

Where this episode most drops the ball is with its other teen characters. Though Henry Jr., Yolanda, Rick, and Beth don’t exactly have bad storylines this week (in fact, Beth-as-chipper-detective is a whole lot of fun), “Shiv Part Two” mostly just emphasizes things we already know about them. Henry Jr. unlocks his telekinetic abilities and starts to learn the full extent of what his dad and Cindy hid from him, but it still feels like he’s stuck in the same generically confused/conflicted mode he’s been in ever since he first started to develop powers. And other than the welcome moment Beth convinces Rick not to smash his way through their latest problem, there’s not much that’s new or inventive about how the JSA operates without Courtney at the helm.

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Barbara’s storyline (or, rather, non-storyline) is similarly disappointing. Though it seemed like Stargirl was building to something big with her trip to Oakville, little comes of that other than a glimpse of her and Jordan at a post-work dinner. Nor do we spend nearly enough time on her reaction to the “car accident” that supposedly put her daughter in the hospital. It seems like Stargirl is potentially building to a scenario where Barbara is driven away from Pat and right into Jordan’s arms, but after eight episodes of table-setting, I’m more than ready for Barbara to get something truly meaningful to do for once.

Thankfully, this is a great episode for Pat, and a little Luke Wilson goes a long way towards elevating the hour. He sacrifices his beloved Buick to come up with a convincing cover story as to how Courtney got her injuries. (I’m slightly confused about the timeline of when he took Courtney to the hospital and how they parted ways with Mike without raising suspicion, but it doesn’t really matter.) Pat is still majorly conflicted about his role as JSA mentor, especially because it’s forcing him to keep so many secrets from his wife. And while the other teens on the JSA might not be quite as reckless as Courtney, they’re certainly not eager to ask permission before putting their own superhero plans into action either.

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Illustration for article titled emStargirl /emcatches its breath in a table-setting episode
Photo: Mark Hill

Pat tries to stop Beth from snooping on Cindy’s house, only to wind up posing as her stepdad instead. (“When I married her mom, I adopted her. My angel!”) Though it seems like a mistake to concoct such an elaborate cover story in a small town where everyone knows each other, it’s worth it for the fun screwball comedy that Wilson and Anjelika Washington get to play. And Wilson similarly shines throughout the rest of the episode, as Pat attempts to keep a level-head in an increasingly chaotic world.

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From Beth and Pat’s fake identity antics to Courtney’s panicked JSA texts, “Shiv Part Two” is full of fun character details. It just doesn’t do enough to advance the show’s ongoing worldbuilding. While “Part One” was full of major reveals, “Part Two” is severely lacking in them. Beth learns that Dr. Shiro Ito was a Japanese war criminal who was executed in 1947 for his role in developing plague bombs to drop on the Chinese. But we don’t yet know the full story of how Dr. Ito became the ISA’s hooded mad scientist. Nor do we learn more about the mysterious death of Cindy’s mom (presumably at Cindy’s hand?) or what exactly is going on with her stepmom, Bobbi.

To its credit, the fact that this is such a low-key episode makes it more of a surprise when it ends with another big Courtney/Cindy fight. Though the Cosmic Staff initially tries to heed Pat’s plea to protect Courtney, it gives in when it thinks the JSA is in trouble. So Courtney once again leaps before she looks, going up against an enemy who nearly killed her the last time and almost suffering the same fate again. And once again, Courtney lucks out. Henry Jr. becomes a wildcard in the fight, unsure whether to help his murderous girlfriend or try to stop her. Like many a mutant over in the Marvel universe, Henry’s powers emerge in a fit of teenage emotion, deploying a shockwave that gives Dr. Ito a chance to send his lackeys to kidnap Cindy.

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Taken together, the “Shiv” two-parter demonstrates the highs and lows of what Stargirl can do with its semi-episodic, semi-serialized, character-centric storytelling. While “Part One” was briskly paced and full of unexpected, expertly deployed reveals, “Part Two” is more languid and less game-changing. Hopefully that contrast will prove instructive as Stargirl moves into a two-parter that puts the King family front and center.


Stray observations

  • We get another sweet Mike scene as he brings Courtney “Pizza Palooza Bites” and lets her know he’s glad she’s his sister.
  • This week’s Luke Wilson Scene I Could Watch For An Hour: Pat having a man-to-rod chat with the Cosmic Staff after politely knocking on its crate.
  • Also, of course Pat is the kind of person who offers to fix a broken garbage disposal in the middle of a social call.
  • Elsewhere, Jordan murders a chemical company employee for not blowing the whistle on the illegal waste disposal practices that caused his wife’s death. It’s a good example of writing a villain with a just cause who takes things too far in his drive for vengeance. I remain incredibly impressed that Stargirl has managed to turn a character named “Icicle” into such a genuinely compelling threat.
  • I love that Rick and Yolanda call him Pat, but Beth calls him Mr. Dugan.
  • Cindy never officially takes on the Shiv moniker, but that’s who these episode titles are referring to. (Relatedly, I love that her dresser is stocked with all the essentials: moisturizer, a hairbrush, make-up wipes, and knife cleanser.)
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.

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