Stargirl – Season 1 Episode 9
Stargirl continues its focus on the villainous characters, revealing what turned Brainwave into a psychotic killer and teasing whether that legacy will be inherited by his son.
Origin stories are certainly nothing new in comic book TV series, but most often they are that of a protagonist whose growth from nobody to hero forms the basis of the narrative’s early days. Far less frequent is someone else’s origin being related well into proceedings and consisting of more than a few short expository sentences, and even less so having it told from the perspective of somebody else.
The stack of numbered VHS tapes Henry found in his father’s hidden office that went unremarked upon in the last episode reveal an extensive set of video notes of his observations after experimenting on himself with a brain-expanding serum and accidentally killing a mugger soon after. It’s a small but significant start and is an experience easy to imagine built upon to his stated love of dealing death.
He eventually sees humanity as being hateful and worthless, and the tapes reveal his gradual descent into murderous insanity after being unable to shut out the voices detailing the horrific thoughts people can otherwise keep to themselves. The change is subtle but noticeable and he chillingly convinces as someone who develops into the homicidal sadist from the first two episodes as a thin veneer of humanity begins to slip.
While it’s understandable that his new perspective would leave him with the perception that everyone is irredeemable, it doesn’t completely track with the true nature of people. Yes, what he’s saying is accurate on a basic level, that people have a tendency to think and imagine horrific things, but part of what makes us human is our choice to not act upon them, using reason and self-restraint to keep our baser urges under control. To not do so is to allow ourselves to descend to the level of an amoral killer who destroys people’s lives for no other reason than the wanton pleasure it given him. Y’know, like Brainwave. However, this contradiction is most likely intended as a character flaw rather than a creative oversight that should be held against the show. The hypocrisy is glaring, and like psionic powers, it’s a trait that seems to have been passed on to his son.
Courtney’s character might heavily revolve around her dauntless insistence on looking for the best in people and the potential to which they themselves might be blind, but it’s a bit of a stretch for her to attempt to do so for someone who has displayed so little in the way of redeeming features or even functional empathy. Or maybe she’s just a much better person than I am. The team’s reaction to her suggestion of recruiting Henry is inevitable, Yolanda in particular being understandably vehement in her opposition, reminding Courtney – as this seems to be necessary – what he did to her. Even if necessity did involve Henry being drafted in, the level of hostility and mistrust he would receive would likely prevent him from being in any way effectual. Teams live and die through unit cohesion, and this one needs to actually figure out how its inaugural members can function together before they consider bringing in a dubious addition whose presence might upset a balance than has yet to even be established.
Yes, Courtney is so compassionate she could be one of the Indigo Tribe, and such a characteristic is to be encouraged rather than ridiculed, but if everyone is perceived as being worthy of understanding regardless of how much pain they inflict on other people, it effectively becomes meaningless. She feels Henry’s torment and takes it upon herself, trying to get him to look as deep inside people as she tries to. Her attempts to get through to him are commendable, and betray a maturity she might be gradually developing.
Henry states that he was right in embracing his father’s contempt of humanity and that people are inherently undeserving of the benefit of the doubt, but his reasoning is utterly flawed. You don’t get to hold the moral high ground because you’re suddenly privy to people’s inner thoughts that you feel vindicate your actions. His behaviour was not due to some deep seated belief in the crassness of people that made his actions as a callous thug somehow justifiable, but because, like Brainwave, he’s a sadist who takes pleasure in people’s emotional pain, their helplessness briefly making him forget his own.
It’s later backed up when Yolanda faces him as Wildcat, unafraid of any mental intrusion as he’s already hurt her as much as he can, and has no qualms about laying bare the pure rancour and seething contempt her thoughts reveal. It’s also an indicator of her own development as a character since receiving the costume, as she would previously have been too unsure of herself to say anything. It’s not even having the shield of a hidden identity, as she makes no effort to disguise who she is, and is evidently unconcerned with being identified. The outfit and mask might make her feel more confident, but how she’s using them is all her. Yolanda, as well as Beth and Rick, hasn’t been characterised too far beyond what she was generally like before and after teaming up with Courtney and how the blonde has affected them, and now that Yolanda’s senseless shame has been obliterated, what’s left is rage.
Henry questions whether he deserves to die for what he did to her, despite having already declared that all of humankind should be condemned for their thoughts, frustratingly revealing him to still be driven by self-interest. He, someone who actually has caused pain and suffering and not just thought about it, should apparently be exempt despite his sins and lack of remorse for them being far more tangible. Hell, it seems to never even occur to him to simply try apologising. It’s currently ambiguous over which direction Henry will go, but more clarity of thought is required if it’s to be convincing.
The comparison of Henry to Rick is made more than once, Courtney declaring the psychic should get a second chance like the strongman, but it’s exactly this that highlights what’s wrong with the perspective. Rick’s anger might continually threaten to overwhelm him, but he chooses to not inflict his suffering on other people. It leaves him frustrated, sullen, antisocial and miserable, but his lack of engagement also protects others from his personal problems.
Some other and currently less significant backstory is given in the mention of Pat and Sylvester’s history in their pre-JSA days in the Seven Soldiers of Victory, an obscure superhero team made up of third-tier characters like Crimson Avenger, Vigilante and Green Arrow, the latter of whom who you may actually be dimly aware of.
There is also a medieval-style knight in the photo, after which the scene not at all pointedly cuts to Justin, last seen swinging a sword at the end of “Shiv (Part 1)” who hallucinates his mop as the Cosmic Staff. The intent is to provide a further link to the alluded history between him and Pat, and the full details will hopefully soon be revealed because this is being teased out longer than necessary.
Cindy is now confined to a cell for her previous infractions. Dragon King’s mention of her being gassed “always calmed her as a child” suggests that her upbringing was less the raising of a functional person and more her being just an experiment of what he can turn an ordinary human into given the time and lack of any kind of oversight. It also establishes a recurring theme of heroes having dead parents, while villains end up cursed with abusive ones.
Since Cindy discovered Stargirl’s identity it was inevitable she would be taken out of play, as even though she stated she wouldn’t reveal it and keep the glory of the heroine’s defeat for herself, she may well have let it slip in circumstances where she was paid more attention to. It’s a relief that she’ll be sticking around, as for all of the character’s hateful tedium, Meg DeLacy’s performance as her was pitch perfect.
The family dinner scene was nowhere near as tense as such sequences typically are, as it unusually doesn’t begin with either side knowing the other’s identity. Icicle and his parents giving thanks to the Norse realm of primordial cold and darkness was suitably eerie and it reminds us that the older couple are here, and also makes you wonder what their true purpose will be.
Of course Courtney realises who Icicle is and has a highly suspicious-looking conversation with Pat about it, otherwise the entire scene would have been utterly redundant, and it gives the team a target far more tangible than Dragon King’s nebulous subterranean presence. I would make some comment about how Courtney needs to get a lot better at lying if she wants to keep her identity hidden, but the point is immediately rendered somewhat moot.
It was inevitable – but occurring far sooner than expected – that Barbara would find out about the secret exploits of her daughter and husband, and while it’s clear that Pat would have already told her were it not for Courtney’s continued interference, such intent never accounts for anything in situations such as these, and it’ll be a while before any kind of forgiveness is forthcoming. It will also force another dynamic onto the family, and question how much of a help or hindrance Barbara’s new knowledge will be.
“Brainwave” is more about character than plot, but it still advances things a little to the point where story threads are starting to come together. Its major points of attempting to inject some moral ambiguity into seemingly irredeemable characters aren’t as effective as intended, but what it reveals about them and others is far more interesting.
- Courtney’s maturity and compassion
- Brainwave’s descent from scientist to murderer
- Yolanda’s development outwith Courtney
- the unconvincing ambiguity of Henry’s morality
- the mystery surrounding Justin being dragged out
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