Stargirl – Season 2 Episode 8
“Summer School: Chapter Eight”
Stargirl continues last week’s theme with another character-driven and emotion-heavy episode, where personal truths are wrestled with and permanent decisions are made.
The events of the Yolanda-centric story pushed Wildcat to her breaking point, resulting in her leaving the team. While it was deliberately left ambiguous over the exact cause of her hallucinations, this time the architect of events is far more directly identified, not just from the creepy stalker shot that ended Chapter Seven, but also the flash of Eclipso seen on Beth’s laptop screen jump-scaring right out of a techno-horror movie.
After first experiencing a conversation with her parents that in a matter of moments goes from perfectly reasonable to them blaming their marital discord on Beth’s very existence, it doesn’t take maggots crawling through her food to realise that something is very wrong. She of course turns to Courtney and her family but finds the house uncharacteristically empty, the only occupant she encounters being Bruce sitting smugly on the stairs ready for an assault on her insecurities. In retrospect, it seems that his interaction with Yolanda in the last episode was so insignificant because he could sense the mental turmoil the teenager was already suffering and so knew that minimal intrusion would be necessary to take her out of play, whereas Beth’s dauntless optimism requires something more direct to attack.
As well as some decidedly unsubtle racism, the exchange also demonstrates Eclipso’s power is still greatly reduced. That he didn’t immediately incinerate Beth for the stated crime of theft, despite it being exactly this which gave him to the excuse to kill Rebecca in the season’s opener, suggests he’s not currently capable of it. Rather than going all soul-devouring demon, Bruce instead takes on the role of that most irritating breed of horror portent, a young child talking like a condescending adult that in any other context would be written off as their simply being an obnoxious brat who can just be ignored until they get bored and go away. After he runs off with a giggle Beth immediately and unthinkingly goes after him, clearly demonstrating that she has not seen nearly enough horror films if she doesn’t know that you never follow the creepy kid into an abandoned building full of empty shadows.
The erosion of Beth’s sense of self-worth continues with a hallucination of original JSA members Starman (remember him and his enigmatic appearances that have so far gone unexplained?), Hourman and Wildcat, the trio being the heroes on whom Beth’s friends modelled themselves. With her being neither chosen by a signature item like Courtney and Yolanda nor a legacy like Rick (and, to a currently less significant extent, Jennie) they attempt to make her feel like she is out of place and not a true member of the Justice Society, especially since her induction into the team was attained through duplicity rather than invitation.
While everything that’s being verbally thrown at her might be accurate, even if only to some extent, Beth reveals herself to be far more psychologically resilient than expected. Unlike Yolanda, who has had only a few scant months to get over her fateful choice, Beth will have been dealing with her insecurities for years, her cheerful smile masking the turmoil raging beneath the thin veneer. When she asks Eclipso what he’s afraid of, the pointed pause and response of an indignant imperative suggests a lack of truthfulness behind his declaration that nothing scares him. While the black diamond is an obvious possibility, it’s so obvious that confirmation of such wouldn’t be in any way interesting, meaning there could be something else out there that can be used against him.
As Beth is the least physically dangerous of the Justice Society he likely assumed it follows that she’s also emotionally the weakest and can thus be beaten down until she simply accedes to his demands. However, while Beth might be the most unimposing of the team she is also the most intelligent, and her deducing that Eclipso needs her to give in and willingly surrender control demonstrates her ability to think under pressure, in addition to a mental fortitude that was likely built up from enduring years of precisely the kind of disregard that Eclipso thought he could use against her.
His mistake was presuming that Beth sees herself in the same way that she is aware she will be perceived by others regardless of comporting herself in a manner she is supposed to. As Craig and I discussed in the Batwoman season 2 podcast, outwith that show and Black Lightning the Arrowverse very infrequently portrays the race of its African-American characters as being specifically relevant to any given situation, and Beth refusing to be ashamed of or apologise for being black shows that while her skin tone might hamstring her life in the modern-day US, it’s a part of who she is and would never want to be anything else. Her overcoming Eclipso’s mind games cements her status as a hero in her own right, confirmed when Charles McNider officially proclaims her to be the One True Doctor Mid-Nite. Unfortunately, it’s the only kind of victory anyone manages to score this week.
The other focal point is centred around Rick, the dual main events possibly referencing the “Hourman and Doctor Mid-Nite” episode of season one where he and Beth shared the spotlight, or maybe the length of these reviews is just making me overthink things a little.
The opening scene bringing back Rick’s slovenly drunken uncle Matt acts as a reminder that for all the young man’s achievements as a superhero, outwith his costumed exploits he’s still stuck in a life where misery and contempt are daily trials he must endure until he legally becomes an adult. While a burnout loser like his uncle is not someone who should be taken as an authority on anything, least of all the prospects of others, his declaration Rick is destined for prison reminds him of how he is seen by almost everyone other than his friends, and screams his frustration into the emptiness of the woods. It’s only then that Solomon Grundy shows up, revealing himself to Rick for the first time since their fight at the season 1 climax. Grundy might not properly understand complex speech, but like most creatures with animal instincts he can sense people’s emotions and react accordingly, and eating a huge bag of apples while Rick vents his feelings is as close to a genuine friendship moment the two have yet had.
Rick intended his story about rehoming a vicious stray dog to parallel the situation Grundy is in, but it can also be applied to himself, he also being someone whose violent impulses can be tempered by the simple act of someone trying to look past the surface to the potential it hides. This has so far been exemplified by the periodic appearances of Miss Woods, Rick’s officious maths teacher, who this time was seen bringing him information on applying to college by way of a continued apology for accusing him of cheating in an exam. However sorry she might be, it really doesn’t justify that authority figures like her making assumptions of kids like Rick are exactly why such young people often fail to achieve their full potential, being written off practically from the day they’re born, and it’s especially egregious due to her words suggesting she was subjected to the same disregard in her own high school. The woodland excursion might have been merely a developing variation on Rick’s one-sided visits, except for the appearance of some gun-toting rednecks from whom he decides to protect Grundy, and gives rise to the season’s clearest movie invocation yet seen.
The horror references in which the story has so far been indulging are stylistic choices lifted from various subgenres, but this time the homage is rather more precise. If the verbal mentions of a monster on the loose in the countryside, a missing little girl and a river don’t clue you in, the visual motif makes it clear the scenario is a riff on one of the best-known scenes from Frankenstein, with Grundy cast in the role of the wretched Creature. Even knowing how this plays out in the Universal classic, it’s still a genuine surprise that the young child is found dead, as you wouldn’t have thought that even a series currently revelling in the dark side of storytelling would go that far for a second time.
However, Rick’s immediate assumption that Grundy was responsible is a little disappointing, especially since he went back precisely because he knew the giant zombie wouldn’t ever intentionally harm a child, as well as it going against his most significant development this season of learning to respond to confrontation with emotions other than anger.
Unusually, Courtney and Pat are relegated to supporting roles this time, one of the former’s most significant contributions being to name the Cosmic Staff Cosmo, which is utterly adorable and also acknowledging the sentient weapon as her friend. Coming to Rick’s aid, they arrive just in time to see the sudden disappearance of the dead girl (while it’s not immediately apparent or even stated, this is actually Rebecca, suggesting that Eclipso enjoys using the forms of people whose souls he’s consumed) and with outside perspective are able to perceive that it’s actually Matt who Rick is beating into the ground. It doesn’t quite follow that Matt would have survived the encounter, however barely, since the superhuman strength Rick possesses when powered up would be more than enough to fatally pulverise an average human, especially when you take into account the blind rage with which he was laying into what he thought was a child-murdering monster.
While you might have guessed ahead of time that this was all another manipulation, that it happens simultaneously to and cut between the far more overt trials Beth endures is a great piece of misdirection, even more so since everything Rick sees and hears is completely plausible to be occurring in the real world. Okay, it might have been a little too timely that a couple of trucks of vigilante hunters appeared right when a news report came over the radio to helpfully explain what was happening in a clear and concise manner, but such coincidences are a common trope and can thus be written off.
Disgusted with himself that he’s just proved himself to be exactly what everyone says he is, Rick smashes the hourglass. It’s a rash decision that he will likely soon come to regret as it’s a choice made in haste that’s more than a little permanent, seeing as the strength-enhancing sand was a chemical concoction only his father knew how to create. Unlike in the case of Yolanda, who could simply re-don the Wildcat costume to get back in the fight, Rick is now effectively powerless, and even if he is released following being charged with beating his uncle half to death, his place in the team will be questionable going forwards. This is, of course, exactly what Eclipso’s plan was all along, to break and neutralise his enemies and thus prevent the possibility of another defeat.
Grundy himself is actually seen in reality, the apple he’s holding efficiently informing us that the first scene between the pair was genuine and not a manipulative vision, and also firmly stating how Grundy now perceives Rick, possibly later even going so far as to break him out of jail.
As for Barbara and Mike, they last appear in the episode’s stinger featuring the home’s windows frosting over, strongly suggesting that someone with cold powers is stalking them from nearby. However, whether it’s Cameron having been granted some insight into the circumstances of his father’s demise or his grandparents deciding to take some vengeance on their own remains to be seen.
“Summer School: Chapter Eight” focuses on character moments while retaining the horror elements that have made this season so distinctive, and also demonstrates that the danger Eclipso poses comes from manipulation as well as raw physical threat, playing into people’s insecurities and weaknesses in ways both blatant and insidious.
- greater characterisation for Beth
- the parallels between Rick and Solomon Grundy
- the misdirection of Rick’s hallucinations
- the Frankenstein homage
- Bruce being irritating rather than scary
- the inconsistent application of Rick’s strength
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