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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Stargirl digs into moral grey areas and some piping hot chicken and dumplings

Illustration for article titled emStargirl/em digs into moral grey areas and some piping hot chicken and dumplings
Photo: Mark Hill
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So far, Stargirl has sorted its characters into neat categories: The bullies are the bad guys and the underdogs are the good guys; heroes’ kids are heroes and villains’ kids are villains. But Henry Jr. throws a wrench into the works. His dad is a supervillain and he himself horrifically bullied Yolanda. Yet Courtney senses there might be some good in him too. Unlike the rage-filled Cindy, Henry is lonely, confused, and sad. His newly emergent powers would seem to make him a natural fit for the Injustice Society. But Courtney has a gut feeling he’d make a good JSA recruit too. “Brainwave” is thusly all about the battle for Henry’s soul.

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The trouble is that while Henry fills a unique position within Stargirl’s narrative, he isn’t a particularly compelling character in his own right (especially compared to the welcome originality of Cindy). Both “bullied bully struggling with his morality” and “telepath struggling with his powers” are pretty clichéd archetypes for the respective teen/superhero genres. And Stargirl hasn’t found an interesting way to dramatize Henry’s angst beyond having Jake Austin Walker glumly squint at everyone around him.

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Other than a fun “Insane In The Brain”-scored sequence in which he first starts to control his telekinetic powers, there’s little about Henry that really pops in this episode. It doesn’t help that some of the dialogue in “Brainwave” is noticeably clunky, particularly in the scene where Courtney tries to recruit Henry for the JSA. “People can be bad, but people can be good too,” she explains before noting, “Behind the pain and the fear, it’s all about love.”

Thankfully, “Brainwave” expands the battle for Henry’s soul into a more intriguing debate about human nature in general. As Henry learns via his dad’s old video logs, Brainwave’s powers gave him a cynical outlook on humanity. Everywhere he went, he could hear the worst, most vile thoughts of those around him, which triggered his violently retaliatory impulses. His son starts to experience the same thing as he overhears hospital visitors wishing death on their relatives and nurses thinking ill of their patients. Yet even as his hatred boils over, Henry can’t quite argue that sweet Joey Zarick deserved his gruesome fate.

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Complicating things further is the reveal that Brainwave was a victim of abuse at the hands of his father. That experience left him feeling powerless and yearning for a sense of control, which he found in taking murderous revenge. While Stargirl has always been a show about parenting, it’s becoming clear that it’s also a show about cycles of abuse. Brainwave, Henry, Rick, and Cindy all suffered some kind of physical or emotional abuse from their parents/guardians, which shaped their angry outlooks on life. And that’s created more cycles of abuse too—as Yolanda experienced firsthand.

Illustration for article titled emStargirl/em digs into moral grey areas and some piping hot chicken and dumplings
Photo: Annette Brown
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Understandably, Yolanda doesn’t want her abuser anywhere near the JSA, and she shows up in her full Wildcat gear to threaten Henry’s life if he tries to join. (Yvette Monreal is effectively unnerving in the scene.) Yet as Henry takes Courtney’s advice and digs deeper into Yolanda’s thoughts, he can also sense the hurt, betrayal, and ultimately, yes, love that fuels her anger. Though Stargirl doesn’t deliver any answers yet, the series is dancing around some interesting (and timely) questions about redemption: Can people actually change? And if redemption is possible, what must be done to earn it, particularly when it comes to making amends towards victims?

Beyond the Henry-centric stuff, the rest of “Brainwave” is a mixed bag. Though last week’s episode seemed to purposefully play coy about the Ito-Burman family history, this episode fairly casually reveals that Cindy killed her mom and Dr. Ito is immortal. While some of this episode’s worldbuilding is compelling (like the Mysterious Janitor’s vision of the Cosmic Staff), some is more rote (like the scene where the Injustice Society gather around a table to confirm that Project: New America involves brainwashing the Midwest.)

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Still, it’s nice to get some concrete answers about the show’s world. Thanks to a research assignment from Pat, Beth and Rick discover that Blue Valley’s network of underground tunnels were original to the town, which was founded in 1876 by a group of separatist Freemasons called “The Other Founding Fathers.” Far from going into hiding, the Injustice Society set up shop in Blue Valley because those preexisting tunnels made it a perfect base of operations. (Tangentially: I hadn’t really thought about Beth and Rick as a potential romantic pairing before, but Anjelika Washington and Cameron Gellman have a ton of chemistry in their late-night research scene.)

Illustration for article titled emStargirl/em digs into moral grey areas and some piping hot chicken and dumplings
Photo: Annette Brown
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Elsewhere, Pat informs Courtney that he fought Dr. Ito well before his JSA days, back when he and Sylvester were working with “The Seven Soldiers of Victory.” An old team photo reveals more Golden Age heroes like the Vigilante, Crimson Avenger, Wing, and a rather conspicuous knight. Pat notes that the Seven Soldiers never got the credit they deserved, and wistfully wishes he knew where they were now. Given that Blue Valley High has a sword-wielding janitor wandering its halls, I wouldn’t be surprised if that wish is answered before the season is out.

Like “Shiv Part Two,” “Brainwave” is another slow-burning episode that saves its biggest reveals for its final act. Much like the Cindy/Courtney bedroom scene last week, the Whitmore-Dugan/Mahkent family dinner takes great advantage of the tension of putting civilian-clad heroes and villains in the same room. (It reminded me of the excellent Thanksgiving scene from the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie.) In a clever bit of visual storytelling, Courtney figures out that Jordan is Icicle thanks to his ability to touch a scalding hot pot. And in a great bit of teen storytelling, Courtney’s first concern isn’t for her mom or the other employees of The American Dream—it’s about whether this means the boy she likes is also a supervillain.

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As Stargirl’s world gets bigger and bigger, its characters are getting pulled closer together. Jordan compliments Courtney on being a great match for his son, not realizing he’s speaking to his sworn superhero enemy. And Barbara gets quite the shock as she discovers Courtney and Pat arguing over a sentient flying staff in the basement. In the episode’s other cliffhanger, Henry’s first murder is the thing that finally brings his dad out of his coma. Both of those dangling threads leave Stargirl primed for something big next week. With Barbara in the know, maybe Stargirl will even settle the question of Courtney’s parentage once and for all.


Stray observations

  • In case you missed it, Stargirl was officially renewed for a second season! Season two will air exclusively on The CW, rather than the DC Universe platform.
  • Brainwave is almost distractingly similar to Neil Patrick Harris’ Dr. Horrible, and his direct-to-camera monologues certainly didn’t lessen that connection.
  • Also, it’s hilarious that Brainwave used a separate VHS for each daily log instead of putting multiple days on the same tape. His real villainy is needlessly wasting resources!
  • Courtney is much more chill than I would’ve been about her mom inviting over a classmate (let alone her crush!) for dinner without telling her.
  • Jordan and his parents deliver a “Norwegian grace” that’s also a call for vengeance against their enemies.
  • “Why would you even let Court talk to Henry? It is a classic anti-Pat plan.” 
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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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