Stargirl – Season 1 Episode 11
The pace of Stargirl slows a little, giving everyone time to take stock before things ramp up for the finale, while a tangential figure from Courtney’s past re-appears and one from her present begins to remember who he is.
I’ve been looking forward to this episode, mostly so I can stop being deliberately obtuse about who Justin is, and also because I was hoping the reveal would give me at least some excuse to ramble about Arthurian myth. However, despite the episode title Justin only plays a supporting role, albeit one far more significant than his assortment of enigmatic moments seen so far.
Justin, the eponymous former hero, aspired to be a Knight of the Round Table and had his equipment enchanted by Merlin, but after battling an ogre ended up frozen in time, before being revived in the modern era and joining the Seven Soldiers of Victory. The history makes sense of the likes of his archaic speech, talk of dragons, and penchant for quotations from chivalric literature like Don Quixote, and is useful information for anyone who hasn’t already had a swift Google to find an answer for themselves ahead of time.
His mention of the fire-breathing reptile lords also has a literal meaning, with Dragon King being responsible for his current condition, likely as a result of the mad scientist finding it more amusing to let his adversary out into the world defeated and neutralised rather than simply killing him or turning him into one of his masked slaves. It makes you wonder if Justin breaking out his sword against Cindy at the end of “Shiv (Part 1)” was due to him on some level being aware of who the sadistic girl might be, perhaps subconsciously recognising her father’s work in her capabilities.
It’s left ambiguous whether or not Justin is truly from the north of England in the early Middle Ages or if he previously invented the story as part of his superhero identity and it became cross-wired in his brain and mistaken for true memories, but for the moment it’s not important and all that matters is that he gets the help he needs. Anyway, even without the context of a vigilante past his story is still a compelling one, and briefly makes you wonder if someone like him would actually be accepted as safe to be around children, given the unacceptable stigmatisation of people who suffer from mental illness, particularly in the US.
His behaviour is highly reminiscent of someone with dementia, his confusion evident in each moment as he tries to live his life aware that there are huge pieces of his mind missing and all that remains in no way links together. His every decision is a desperate cling to a single fragment of thought yet to fade in the hope it will bring him to where he needs to be, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Mark Ashworth was basing his performance on such symptoms.
It takes amore than a little tact to describe someone as “One of the strongest, bravest men I’ve ever known” and juxtapose it with him kneeling on the floor in helpless tears while also making the declaration sound completely genuine, but the moment is delivered flawlessly, perfectly capturing the pain and tragedy of the situation. The scenes contain possibly the most subtle and sensitive writing the series has thusfar displayed, and the brief spotlight on a lost and broken man isn’t the only plotline that follows a theme of identity.
There comes a moment in everyone’s life when they realise their parents are actual human beings with shortcomings just like everyone else, but it usually comes courtesy of an experience far less malevolent than somebody who was supposed to have raised you instead trying to scam you.
As was suggested in the last episode, Courtney’s biological father Sam Kurtis (Geoff Stults) makes an appearance, and for a while seems contrite for his past mistakes and genuine in wanting to be a part of her life. However, this is exactly how grifters operate, not seeing individuals as people but as marks, saying all the right things to get you to trust them, screwing you over without a moment’s hesitation or regret, and then forgetting you just as quickly and moving on to the next luckless sod hapless enough to trust them.
After painting himself as penitent and trustworthy, Sam asks for Courtney’s locket, which it transpires is highly valuable, claiming it to be so he can sell the matching pair and buy somewhere good enough for her to visit him. She grants his request, not because she believes him for a moment – on the contrary, she sees through the attempted deception in a heartbeat – but because for her the necklace was a talisman with which she could invoke the nebulous ideal of a man who could be everything she needed him to be at any given moment, and now she knows what a disappointing excuse for a parent he is she no longer has any use for it.
It’s another heartbreaking moment in an episode practically driven by them, and once again reminds the viewer of how young Courtney is to have taken such a huge burden of responsibility upon herself, with her need for parental validation so deep seated even she probably doesn’t realise it’s there. It also has the side effect of shaking her previously resolute faith that she’s on the right path, making her question herself and everything she believes herself to be.
For the whole series, Courtney might have been calling herself Stargirl, but how she really identified was as Starman’s Daughter, the new identity constructed around the erroneous assumption. Now denied this, she no longer knows who she is and if everything she had been trying to do was built on a lie, and by extension the danger and death everyone around her has been exposed to is solely her responsibility for believing herself to be something she’s not.
The Cosmic Staff refusing to light up for her is symbolic of her lost sense of purpose. Teenagers don’t often encounter situations momentous enough to lead to a full-on existential crisis, but after the staff gave her something to believe in that she in turn passed on to her new friends, it’s not surprising she has difficulty defining who she is when suddenly denied it.
The issue of the staff longer activating is too quickly brought up and resolved to have much of an impact, but the reason behind it is plain to ascertain and straightforward enough to deal with. Courtney having Pat and Barbara beside her to remind her of her real, rather than imagined, family is a moment powerful in its simplicity, and should help her realise that her not being the legacy offspring of another superhero makes her achievements more significant, not less. Stargirl is an identity she has made her own rather than being a pale imitation of someone dead for a decade and all but forgotten, and her power as the crop-topped fighter is needed now more than ever. Hopefully, realising this will reinforce her resolve to see the battle she has begun through to its end.
“Shining Knight” is the most meandering and plot nonspecific episode that Stargirl has so far aired, yet is also one of the most compelling, dealing with mental illness, identity, self-worth and personal sense of purpose. It acts as a reminder that the characters in the show are people first and heroes second, and that it’s perfectly possible to have life-destroying experiences that don’t involve superpowered villainy.
- the subtlety of Mark Ashworth’s performance
- the sensitive portrayal of the hell of mental illness
- the heartbreaking scenes of Courtney realising Sam’s true nature
- the advancement of Courtney’s sense of who she is
- the emotional portrayal of real life amidst the superhero action
- the main plot taking a backseat
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