Stargirl – Season 1 Episode 10
Stargirl continues its theme of villain stories, and comes around to one of the series’ most loathsome characters, and interestingly also attempts to infuse him with the most moral ambiguity seen to date.
If you’ve been reading these reviews, you’ll be well aware I’ve made no secret of how much I utterly despise Henry. His is the kind of character so seeped in casual sadism and utterly devoid of empathy you can easily imagine him developing into either the kind of career criminal who spends his whole life in and out of prison, or the kind of career criminal who goes into politics. In the comics Henry grows up to reject his father’s villainy and become the hero of the episode’s title, and the story makes an attempt to have him realise a version of that destiny despite the hateful piece of filth he has thusfar been characterised as.
There are different ways that villains can be developed, since having them as relentless forces of evil may make them dangerous, but it also leaves them pretty boring. Attempting to make audiences see things from their perspective is one way, as has been attempted with Icicle. Another is for them to have an epiphany that perhaps there is a better way to live and they turn from the destruction and misery they’ve been causing and start to atone for it. This second option is the attempt made in this episode with Henry, although it’s only partially successful.
For most of the time he’s not genuinely remorseful of his actions, he’s just afraid of what’s happening to him, and it just so happens that some of the people who he’s treated like crap are in the best position to help him. When he is finally shown to have a change of heart, it’s not properly justified why. Only in the previous episode he was declaring that all people are animalistic slaves to their baser instincts and undeserving of their lives. The only moment that might have given him pause was Yolanda making it clear the extent of her abject contempt for him, which he was presumably already aware of but uncaring about.
To have him switch from homicidal disdain for the entire human race to something resembling genuine heroism needs longer than the space of a couple of days in which to percolate. Perhaps I’m biased from currently re-watching Avatar: The Last Airbender and in Zuko am experiencing again what a proper redemption arc looks like, but nevertheless this still just rings hollow.
Following on from the end of the last episode, Brainwave is now awake with amnesia, which might be the most tropey soap opera method of creating drama, but in this case works really well. It provides a reason for the ISA’s plan to not be immediately put into action, and also wipes the information of who Stargirl is so he won’t immediately try to kill her again.
He also reverts to a state when he was more functionally human, provoking some backstory involving past tragedy. The statement of his wife Merry being found dead and cold is a little pointed, as is the mention of Icicle believing her to be calming his more violent tendencies. It sets up the presumption that Icicle was responsible for her death, making it all the more of a shock when Brainwave reveals to his son that he did the deed himself, showing that even back then he was so far beyond the pale there was no chance of him coming back.
Courtney’s insistence that Henry be given a second chance consists of little more than the flawed reasoning she voiced in the last episode, and her attempt to convince the team to bring him on board goes about as well as it did previously, except that actually having him there for the conversation just makes things worse.
Beth once again proves herself to be a better leader than Courtney, acting as a voice of reason who appeals to the aspects of people’s better natures that are actually there, as opposed to Ms Star-Spangled Spanx who makes blithe presumptions about people doing what she believes will be for the best and expects everyone else to go along with her. Just as a reminder, Beth is the only major presence in the series who is yet to have her own character-defining ‘Previously in the life of…’ sequence, and that is an oversight that needs imminent rectification.
The attempt to rescue Brainwave is another classic comics hero dilemma of it being necessary to save an enemy, and the reluctance of Rick and Yolanda is a feeling many viewers will sympathise with. Why should they risk their lives on behalf of someone who goes out of his way to make them miserable?
The subterranean tunnels of the villains’ extended lair are still beautifully sinister, but it’s a headdesking moment when the familiar ‘we should split up’ declaration is wheeled out. Even putting to one side the suggestion being frustratingly trite, the decision to do so in the face of how badly things went for them every other time they’ve been separated makes you again wonder how the hell the team is going to achieve a final victory if they can’t even get such a basic piece of strategy straight.
Rick’s lingering anger management issues still show he hasn’t learned a thing as he attempts to rip off the door to Solomon Grundy’s cell and take vengeance for his parents’ deaths, and not even Beth’s influence can convince him that there is a time and place for such actions, and this is neither.
The climactic free-for-all against Dragon King and his minions is about as exciting as any action scene has been so far. Courtney and Yolanda’s martial skills have noticeably improved, as has their ability to co-ordinate and defend each other, and the large number of opponents made for a compelling and fast-moving scene. The lizard lord himself proves to be no slouch in the combat department himself, and like many characters in series such as these seems to treat the laws of physics more as polite suggestions. Henry also acquits himself well, his psionic force projection less refined than that of Brainwave, but still dangerous to stand against. A scalpel and a sledgehammer can be equally deadly if used aggressively.
I assume we are to take the masked mooks as being devoid of any kind of will or sense of self and are now reduced to a mindless state barely human, otherwise there would be some moral quandary in the heroes killing them without a moment’s hesitation. Aside from that, the only real point of detraction is a couple of shots making it a little too clear that Brec Bassinger being 5‘ 2” made it difficult to find a stunt double who wasn’t noticeably taller than her.
In the aftermath Henry makes a choice to not join his father after they are unable to prevent his reversion to full-on villain mode, the decision proving fatal and the angry ginger actually providing some touching words in his last moments, and finally not only apologising to Yolanda, but genuinely sounding sincere.
Elsewhere, the aftermath of Barbara’s discovery leads to her and Pat having some everyday adult problems about trust, and Pat facing the consequences of lying to his wife without complaint shows just how aware he is that he was in the wrong and will do what it takes to make amends. It also leads to the notion of the identity of Courtney’s father coming up again, but more meaningfully than her short-sighted insistence that has been periodically proclaimed throughout the season. The name of the man in question ties in with her comics history, and I take back what I said in the review of the pilot episode about how his being a random thief wouldn’t be appropriate. In having her dad turn out to be an insignificant nobody, she can instead forge her own destiny and carve out a legacy that isn’t beholden to that of somebody else, someone who she never met and has no connection to other than an affinity for his signature weapon.
This is the most engaged since the pilot that Barbara has been in an episode, her presence otherwise having been as little more than a potential obstacle to Courtney’s extra-curricular activities. Her being brought back into the main story reminds us just what a significant part of Courtney’s life she is supposed to be, and her being on board is already bearing results after she secretly records Icicle’s creepy parents speaking Norwegian, which provides a lead to what the ISA is planning. It’s likely she’ll be a useful one to have around, and it shouldn’t have taken this long for her to make a real impact.
The next episode will have a lot to deal with, such as Barbara having to maintain civility around Icicle now that she knows he’s up to something, the team’s repeated failure to maintain cohesion, and most of all the fallout of Henry’s death for both heroes and villains alike. With there now apparently being nothing to stop the ISA from enacting their plan, things are about to get very intense.
Taken by itself, “Brainwave Jr” is suitably dramatic with some genuinely surprising narrative turns and a climax as exciting as it is emotional. However, it doesn’t earn this resolution, merely thrusting it into the forefront while skipping much of the necessary groundwork to make it plausible. Yes, villains are infinitely more interesting when they aren’t outright evil, but when there is little to no justification for their change of heart it just comes off as jarring, preventing what is merely good from becoming excellent.
- Henry’s genuine attempts at heroism
- Barbara actually having something to do
- Beth again acting like a natural leader
- The surprising revelation of Merry’s death
- Henry’s turn to heroism happening far too quickly
- Rick refusing to learn from his mistakes
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