Stargirl – Season 2 Episode 9
“Summer School: Chapter Nine”
Stargirl progresses character development with its darkest episode yet, discussing the finer points of morality and obligation while playing with both audience perception and the nature of objective reality.
Sometimes the most narratively tangential episodes can be the most engaging. If it’s been decided that a particular instalment won’t advance the plot a great deal, the time can be siphoned to instead advance the characters and better portray what they’re thinking and feeling. The episode also marks the first time since Courtney decided to form her own Justice Society that events have been so focused on her immediate family.
As is now standard for this season, people’s fears and insecurities are being laid bare by Eclipso’s illusions, and this time around a trio of encounters display to varying extents what people are afraid of. Since it can be safely assumed that the audience has become wise to the possibility of virtually every moment being a manipulation, it’s necessary for scenes to now be framed in such a way that the truth of a situation cannot be immediately ascertained. This even applies to the lighting, which previously has often been noticeably dimmed to represent the darkness of Eclipso’s nature, but now such cinematography can also just as easily be accounted for by the gathering storm beginning to rage outside.
One of the most significant sequences was Mike’s interaction with Cameron, giving the former another rare spotlight moment. Although it could have merely been the slightly awkward interaction you’d expect between a younger brother and the boy his sister kinda-sorta likes, when Cameron begins pointedly asking about each family member’s location it quickly becomes sinister, and the aura of uncertainty quickly permeates the scene as Cameron talking about his family reminds Mike of what he did. Losing one parent at a young age is hard enough, but both would be more than most people could bear, and as a result it’s difficult to not resent others for the familial happiness they continue to enjoy but take for granted as permanent. Interestingly, it also brings up Mike’s feelings of abandonment over his birth mother, something not previously explored but could easily be the source of his resentment and personal issues. Although the sequence is from Mike’s perspective and could well be a hallucination playing off the guilt he still feels over his accidental killing of Icicle, Cameron’s talk of wanting to avenge his father is entirely plausible as something that could happen in reality, especially since it was strongly suggested Eclipso told him the truth of what happened.
It’s a big jump to accept Cameron as having both learned how his father really died and decided to take revenge, all while having attained the requisite control over his newly emerged powers to wield them with such threatening precision. Admittedly, under other circumstances such a major character shift without any preamble would come across like a lazy shortcut, but in the current context it’s an effective use of the lack of established facts to keep it difficult to determine if what Mike is experiencing is truly happening.
It’s seeming that the more Mike thinks about what happens the worse he feels about it, since even though what he did wasn’t intentional, it still doesn’t alleviate the remorse he has for his responsibility over it. Even though this manifestation of his self-recrimination turns out to be all in his mind, the very fact that such thoughts are there to exploit in the first place shows that he is far from having dealt with them, and such is the turmoil with which this episode leaves everyone it’ll likely be some time before he has the opportunity to actually do so.
The return of Icicle (one, unlike in Chapter Seven, thankfully not spoiled by the opening credits) was a genuine surprise, and even given the current highly dubious authenticity of improbable occurrences, it can’t be immediately written off. Despite the ISA leader being firmly established as having shuffled off the mortal coil, such is superhero comics’ well-known tradition of death being less as one-way trip and more a revolving door, it’s entirely plausible that he could have been brought back, handwaved by the shattered ice of his physical form being reassembled by the power of the eldritch storm. Barbara is likely now aware of death’s potential lack of permanence when embroiled in a world of superheroics, so the notion of someone being resurrected is something that she might be dimly aware of in the back of her mind as being a small possibility, and thus retains some lingering fear that something exactly like this could happen without her able to do anything about it.
Oddly, she’s pulled out of it by the Shade and his voice pushing through from the shadow realm, his determination to see Eclipso destroyed apparently able to transcend dimensional barriers. The “Emily” to whom he has now referred twice in a sibilant whisper isn’t someone I’m familiar with from the comics, nor can I locate any info online to pretend that she is, but she’s likely some lost love of his mortal life in Victorian times, and thoughts of her maintain what remains of his moral compass, perhaps seeing something of her in Barbara’s determination to not let the dangers of her new life overwhelm her.
Both scenes are beautifully ambiguous, and even though the only related aspect we can be certain of is seeing the house’s windows frosting up at the end of the last episode – since that shot was seen via the culprit – it doesn’t necessarily follow that either of the sequences are actually happening outwith the perspective of those being made to suffer them, and even with both revealed as ersatz projections it doesn’t lessen the impact of what it put each of the characters through. It’s suggested that the mysterious frosting was actually caused by Eclipso after young Bruce is seen lurking in the shadows outside Courtney’s home, but if that is the case then it’s another piece of cheap misdirection since he wouldn’t have had any cause to actually do that, like the tacit implication that Cindy wanted to recruit Mike for Injustice Unlimited rather than just use him as bait for a trap.
Anyway, the most significant of the three introspective hallucinations is also the most clearly a falsehood, as Pat is taunted with a small coffin and echoes of “Liar!”, further demonstrating the differing levels of subtlety Eclipso utilises depending on who he’s targeting. Pat, possibly the most aware of exactly what Eclipso is capable of, seems far more conscious that what he’s experiencing is a manipulation of his lingering guilt, later symbolised a little overtly with the blood on his hands refusing to wash off. However, just because you know that what you’re seeing isn’t real it doesn’t mean you can’t still be affected by it, and the vision pushes him to relive possibly his greatest regret.
It triggers a flashback set “Decades Ago,” presumably so referenced to avoid breaking chronological continuity unfortunately confused by the rather vaguely defined timeframe of when exactly the JSA operated, shows the aftermath of Rebecca McNider’s death and funeral. It marks the most team members been seen in one place since the series opener, and also gives us our first look at this Earth’s version of the Flash (John Wesley Shipp, who by now must hold the record for the largest number of Arrowverse appearances as different characters as well as the most iterations of the same one). There’s no indication of exactly why Eclipso targeted Rebecca, but that’s probably the point. To him she was just another brief plaything in his existence of murder and destruction, but one who just happened to be the child of someone able to actually do something about it.
The appearance of the Shade under a flag of truce further demonstrates, if such as thing were even still necessary, how dangerous a threat Eclipso poses to the world at large, and this visit to the past also reveals exactly how the entity was defeated the first time around, along with why Pat was so reticent to reveal the information to Courtney. As Courtney’s father in everything except biology, from day one Pat’s every decision has been made to keep his impulsive daughter safe, including withholding the truth from her that to defeat Eclipso the demon’s host needs to be killed. It won’t be that he thought the information was too much for her to deal with, but rather that he didn’t want to burden her with the knowledge and so make her feel like she has to be the one to make the ultimate decision.
Although the history of Earth-2 is inspired by Golden Age comics (albeit shunted several decades nearer the present), it’s being made increasingly clear that the black and white morality by which those idealistic titles of yesteryear operated don’t form a part of it. It’s one thing to hold yourself to higher ideals than the mere mortals who are defended by your exploits, but quite another when you come up against a being of such pure and unadulterated evil that destroying him must be done at any cost, even if doing so goes against them. Weighing the value of a life isn’t something that can be done lightly, and the friction within the team is clear over the very fact that the choice even needs to be made. The JSA’s discussion and decision to kill Bruce Gordon is as measured and nuanced as you’re ever likely to see such a topic presented in a show like this, and even though the majority vote in favour of the drastic measures, it’s clear few of them are convinced it’s truly the right course of action.
Although it doesn’t come up, it’s worth noting that suffering the malingering psychological consequences of making such a decision is exactly what Yolanda is currently dealing with. If she had known that the heroes her own team emulates ultimately made the same judgement call she did it might have eased her conscience, but there’s also the possibility that had she known ahead of time what they’d done it may have made her reluctant to accept Courtney’s offer and believe that their legacy was something worth upholding in the first place.
On the subject of altered perception of once-admired authority figures, Pat finally admitting to Courtney that he knew what needed to be done, especially after her friends began being targeted, is another heartbreaking moment. The feeling of utter betrayal will have shaken her resolve in him, redoubled when she discovers Barbara also already knew the truth and kept it from her. This only reinforces my speculation last week that that Pat might be the one to make the sacrifice, perhaps to redress the shame that has been eating away at him for so many years and not doing more to prevent the team from making their fateful decision, now amplified by the guilt at having lied to Courtney for so long. If nothing else, if it ultimately transpires that someone is required to die to defeat the monster it will need to be a featured character who takes the fall, since an anonymous stranger would be meaningless and a possessed enemy would be too easy. Now that Eclipso has attained corporeal form there is the possibility that he could simply be imprisoned in the diamond again (once it’s been reforged, obviously), but after what needs to be done to defeat him was built up as being so significant, it would be a cop-out if it weren’t required to be followed up upon.
Of course, for the heroes to form a plan to actually bring about Eclipso’s defeat it first needs them to be united, and Pat’s words of the original JSA just drifting apart without any single decisive loss is also exactly what’s happening to the current team, which realistically now only consists of Courtney and Beth. While the allies available will doubtless increase as the season nears its end, for now it looks as though the heroes are in such disarray that Eclipso has practically already won.
“Summer School: Chapter Nine” is another episode low in plot progression but high in intensity, where the strength of Eclipso’s illusions is seen to cause lasting damage despite knowing they’re not real. With discord and mistrust now fragmenting the unity of the heroes, it’s difficult to see exactly how they can come together again to defeat him.
- the increasingly foreboding atmosphere
- the mature discussion of the morality of killing
- the ambiguity of the encounters with Cameron and Icicle
- further development of Mike’s insecurities
- Courtney’s heartbreak over Pat’s lying
- the cheap misdirection of Eclipso causing the window frosting
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