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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Stargirl’s Homecoming Week is full of surprises

Illustration for article titled emStargirl/em’s Homecoming Week is full of surprises
Photo: Quantrell Colbert (The CW)
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Despite their opposing views on cheerleading, Courtney Whitmore and Cindy Burman are more alike than they realize. They’re both teens with superpowered family legacies. They’re both frustrated by adults who keep telling them to stay in the high school lane when all they want to do is jump into grown-up action. And they’re both reckless in their desire to prove themselves. But while Courtney falls on the side of truth, justice, and the American way, it turns out that Cindy is more into murder, control, and world domination.

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There have been hints that something is a little bit off with Cindy, and “Shiv Part One” finally (mostly) clarifies what’s going on with her. She’s the daughter of hooded master chemist Dr. Ito, and she’s been subjected to some kind of experimentation that’s given her dragon-inspired powers. But whereas past episodes have doled out backstory in quick opening flashbacks, “Shiv Part One” takes a slow burn approach that makes it compelling in its disorientation. It’s not until about halfway through the episode that it finally becomes clear that Cindy already knows the ISA exists. Though she’s desperate for a seat at the table, Dr. Ito orders her to live under the control of her stepmom/babysitter and keep a close eye on Henry Jr.’s potential mental abilities. A father refusing to let his teenage daughter break up with her boyfriend is just one of the many half-metaphorical/half-literal horrors this episode has to offer.

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There’s probably more to Cindy’s story too. Beth notes that Cindy used to be nice until her mom died, her dad remarried, and she became “the scariest kid in the fourth grade” overnight, which presumably has something to do with Dr. Ito’s experiments. Though the exact nature of Dr. Ito’s work remains a mystery, the lines about “conditioning” his lackeys and “preparing” his wives implies there’s some sort of reprogramming at play. That could very well explain some of Cindy’s crueler impulses. Right now, however, her mean girl behavior seems to stem from a mix of feeling trapped in her meaningless teenage world and the crushing loneliness of having no one to talk to about everything she knows.

As with “Icicle,” “Shiv Part One” does an excellent job making Cindy sympathetic without undermining her villainy. Meg DeLacy effectively conveys the sense that Cindy’s catty comments cover up her own insecurities, and it’s heartbreaking to see her get shut down by her aloof dad. But it’s also terrifying to watch her whip out a wrist blade and casually murder one of her father’s lackeys.

“Shiv Part One” is the first time we’ve seen a teenage villain in action on Stargirl, and it opens up a whole new avenue of storytelling possibilities for the series. Principal Bowin is adamant that the Injustice Society should keep their children out of the fray, but it now seems all but inevitable that Isaac, Artemis, Henry Jr., and Cameron will get pulled into the fight one way or another. The big question is whether they’ll want to pick up their parents’ legacy of evil as easily as Cindy does.

In addition to exploring Cindy’s backstory, “Shiv Part One” also introduces intriguing threads for Barbara, Mike, Pat, the JSA, Cameron, Henry Jr., and the school’s mysterious janitor. Yet rather than feel scattered, the episode functions well as an ensemble story about the world of Blue Valley and Blue Valley High in particular. We spend more extended time in the school than we have before; Courtney and Cindy make surprisingly effective partners during chemistry class (Cindy’s a chemistry whizz), while Henry Jr. uses his burgeoning mind reading abilities to cheat on a math test. Homecoming Week brings more high school traditions into the mix, with Pat accompanying Courtney and Mike to the big game, and Jordan encouraging Cameron to ask Courtney to the dance.

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Illustration for article titled emStargirl/em’s Homecoming Week is full of surprises
Photo: Quantrell Colbert (The CW)

Befitting the high school theme, Courtney is focused on Principal Bowin this week. She wants to prove that her violin-loving principal is part of the Injustice Society. But by leaping before she looks, Courtney winds up in a brutal hallway brawl with Cindy instead. This episode’s two big action sequences are top notch, and they each demonstrate a different kind of failure. When Courtney confidently takes down Pat’s makeshift ISA training course, she thinks she’s showing off her strength and capabilities. But all she’s really doing is pissing off her new allies and proving that she hasn’t absorbed any of Pat’s lesson about the importance of teamwork.

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The brutal, athletic battle against Cindy is an even bigger loss. After six episodes where she’s largely lucked into winning, it’s about time that Courtney faced a real setback. By the end of the showdown, even the Cosmic Staff knows it’s time to accept defeat and go get help from Pat, which is how you know things are really bad. Forget about singlehandedly taking down the ISA, Courtney can’t even hold her own against one of their protégées. It takes an unexpected assist from a sword-wielding janitor to save her life.

The janitor reveal is one of the many subtle surprises and intriguing setups woven into “Shiv Part One.” Writer Evan Ball and director Lea Thompson (yes, that Lea Thompson) elevate this episode with fun, creative sequences, starting with the opening JSA montage set to “Takin’ Care Of Business.” Later, the episode crosscuts Dr. Ito’s speech to Cindy with Pat’s conversation with Courtney, emphasizing how two very different fathers put two similar sets of limits on their superpowered daughters. But while Pat’s rules are rooted in love and concern, Dr. Ito seems more interested in control. Once again, parent/child relationships remain Stargirl’s most compelling throughline.

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“Shiv Part One” is an all-around exhilarating episode, one that makes me frustrated that I can’t go ahead and binge-watch the second half right now. The expansive worldbuilding of the first six episodes is paying off now that Stargirl can seamlessly dip in and out of a huge number of complex relationships—from Mike bristling over Courtney’s new exclusionary relationship with his dad to Jordan “joking” that he killed the rival for his wife’s affections.

Halfway through its first season, Stargirl is proving increasingly confident about what kind of show it wants to be. “High school mean girl becomes literal supervillain” is just the kind of metaphorical storytelling that Buffy The Vampire and Smallville used to relish in delivering. Like its teen heroes, Stargirl is continuing a proud legacy while forging its own superhero path in the process.

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Stray observations

  • Love the cheeky decision to have Courtney wear an “Empowered Women Shine Bright” t-shirt in an episode where she faces off against a murderous teenage girl.
  • Even though the décor got destroyed and Courtney is injured, I hope next week’s episode still finds a way to go all-in on the Homecoming Week Grease theming. Courtney and Cameron would make a great Sandy and Danny, with Yolanda as Rizzo, Rick as Kenickie, and Beth as Jan. (Pat is Doody, of course.)
  • Barbara’s storyline is mostly setup this week (she’s off to help The American Dream buy an old sewing machine factory in Oakville), but I love that she calls out Pat for not talking to her first before agreeing to give Courtney “driving lessons.”
  • Mike hints that he and Pat have a harsher backstory than Courtney realizes. I’m very curious to learn more about that.
  • Much about the sword-wielding janitor remains a mystery for now (at least for non-comics readers), but given that he immediately recognizes Pat as Stripsey, it’s probably safe to say that he has some sort of connection to the JSA.
  • Which is this episode’s most horrifying proclamation: “You are my greatest experiment,” “You were put on this Earth to find love,” or “These shoes are worth more than your life”?
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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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