Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Stargirl delivers an episode so explosive it could’ve been the season finale

Illustration for article titled emStargirl /emdelivers an episode so explosive it could’ve been the season finale
Photo: Mark Hill
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There are so many reveals in “Brainwave Jr.” it’s hard to know where to begin. Henry Jr. is Starman’s nephew? Brainwave killed his own wife? Courtney’s dad is still out there? Pat and Barbara met over a banana split?!?

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Of course, the most fitting place to start with “Brainwave Jr.” is with its dearly departed title character. Never in a million years did I think Stargirl was going to kill off Henry Jr. in this episode, nor would I have guessed it could get so much pathos out of doing so. Writer James Dale Robinson previously penned the episode “Wildcat,” in which I gave him flack for not emphasizing the fallout from Joey Zarick’s death. Apparently Robinson was just saving all that anguish for this hour, which had me tearing up over the loss of a character I was still so-so on as recently as last week.

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This being Stargirl, Henry Jr.’s arc comes back to his parents. While Henry Jr. has so far been defined by his relationship with his father, “Brainwave Jr.” remembers he had another parental influence in his life too. His mom Mary (or maybe Merry, as it’s spelled in the comics?) was so good and pure in her thoughts that she almost singlehandedly changed her husband’s cynical perspective on the world. It only makes sense that as the son of a heroic mom and a villainous father, Henry Jr. would have a conflicted outlook on life.

When Brainwave wakes up with no memories of the past 10 years, he’s placed back into the kinder mindset he experienced under Mary’s influence. Henry Jr. hopes his dad can maintain that softer outlook so long as the Injustice Society doesn’t get to him again. Unfortunately, the truth is far worse than he could’ve imagined. It wasn’t the ISA who killed Mary, it was Brainwave himself, who decided to complete his villainous transformation by severing his last remaining tie to his own humanity.

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In the end, all Henry Jr. can do to honor his mom’s legacy is refuse to stand by his father’s side. Henry Jr. dies for his principles, using his final few moments to apologize to Yolanda and encourage Courtney not to lose her optimistic belief that people are good. I’d wondered how Stargirl was going to reconcile Henry’s bullying (and murder!) with his potential place on the JSA. Stargirl skirts the issue by giving Henry Jr. a death that’s heroic but not entirely uncomplicated. Jake Austin Walker is terrific throughout this whole episode, but especially in Henry Jr.’s final scene.

Illustration for article titled emStargirl /emdelivers an episode so explosive it could’ve been the season finale
Photo: Mark Hill
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In fact, “Brainwave Jr.” is so good it feels like it could’ve been a (somber) season finale, which makes it really exciting that there are still three episodes left in the season. Before its tear-jerking climax (I was already emotional even before Calum Scott’s soulful cover of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” set in), “Brainwave Jr.” perfectly balances meaningful character drama with pulsating action, paying off a whole bunch of slow-building plotlines while introducing new mysteries in the process. My only real complaint is that the final fight is a little too dark to see the action properly, and even that becomes less of an issue once Courtney is reunited with her Cosmic Staff. That, in turn, leads to a great comedic moment in which Courtney and Yolanda instinctively scream in response to Dr. Ito’s lizard face.

The best thing about “Brainwave Jr.” is the way it fully embraces the idea that Stargirl is a teen superhero show. By which I mean its protagonists’ youthful perspectives shape how they approach their heroism. Courtney agrees to team up with Henry Jr. because she wants to rescue the Cosmic Staff and save Blue Valley. But she’s equally focused on healing Barbara and Pat’s marriage too. Like a lot of teenagers, Courtney can’t yet separate her altruistic aims from her personal perspective. Fixing her fractured family feels as important as saving the world. So rather than follow Pat’s advice or wait for him to return her call, she once again recklessly charges into action. And she once again watches a classmate die because of it.

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While Courtney and the rest of the JSA are going to have a lot to process next week, Barbara is the one doing the processing this week. Amy Smart gets more to do in this episode than she has all season, which is a welcome change of pace. Her immediate reaction to Pat and Courtney’s confession is to kick Pat out of the house and make plans to take Courtney out of Blue Valley, which is both totally justified and pretty damn smart. In the end, however, she decides to do some research of her own. She reaches out to Courtney’s real father, Sam Kurtis, and she records Jordan’s Norwegian parents in order to translate their ominous conversation about a “machine.”

Illustration for article titled emStargirl /emdelivers an episode so explosive it could’ve been the season finale
Photo: Mark Hill
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While Stargirl thankfully doesn’t expect Barbara to simply get over her concerns, it paints a realistic portrait of how she might slowly start to do so. The brilliance of casting Luke Wilson is that he really makes it believable that Barbara would be willing to give Pat a (tentative) second chance. The look of pure admiration on Pat’s face when Barbara reveals the recording would be enough to thaw even the coldest heart. Pat knows how badly he screwed up, and he clearly means it when he tells Courtney that he could live with losing his marriage so long as he knows that she and Barbara are safe. That’s a good place to start as he and Barbara work towards a new normal.

Across the board, “Brainwave Jr.” is an episode that will change Stargirl forever. Not only does Barbara now know about her family’s heroism and Jordan’s secret identity, the Injustice Society will soon know about Courtney’s as well, thanks to Brainwave’s newly returned memories. Henry Jr.’s death amps up the show’s stakes, not to mention the level of villainy of its antagonists. Plus the JSA will certainly be changed by what they witnessed in the Injustice Society tunnels.

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But the cataclysmic other shoe waiting to drop is that email from Courtney’s father. “Brainwave Jr.” drills home just how much Courtney has re-centered her entire identity around the idea that Starman is her dad. When she learns that Mary was Starman’s sister, she embraces Henry Jr. as a cousin without the slightest hesitation. Losing Henry Jr. will no doubt be a shock to Courtney’s system, just as losing Joey was. But losing the narrative that being Stargirl is her “birthright” will likely be the biggest shock of all.


Stray observations

  • Cindy throwing a fit because her dad won’t let her kill her superhero nemesis is a perfect teen supervillain gag.
  • It’s a little strange that this episode doesn’t directly address the murdered lawyer from last week. I guess the hospital just assumed he died of a stroke or something and took the body away?
  • Poor Mike tries his best to navigate some complicated family drama he doesn’t fully understand. Hang in there, buddy!
  • As far as hastily improvised cover stories go, claiming the Cosmic Staff is a broom from Sharper Image is actually a pretty good one.
  • I love the moment Courtney treats the Cosmic Staff like an overeager puppy and tells it to go back to its crate.
  • Rick loses his chance to take on Solomon Grundy, but promises he’ll be back to avenge his parents.
  • Brainwave not labeling his tapes with dates and storing them out of order? True villainy.
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Illustration for article titled emStargirl /emdelivers an episode so explosive it could’ve been the season finale
Screenshot: Stargirl

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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