Stargirl Season 1 Episode 10 “Brainwave Jr.”
Director: Andi Armaganian
Starring: Brec Bassinger, Yvette Monreal, Anjelika Washington, Cameron Gellman, Trae Romano, Amy Smart, Luke Wilson, Neil Jackson, Neil Hopkins, Joy Osmanski
Runtime: 45 minutes
“Brainwave Jr.” isn’t the best episode of Stargirl so far (that title probably goes to either the pilot or “Shiv Part One”) but it’s a damn good one that imbues the viewer with a lot of confidence that the season will come to a strong conclusion. Not only does the show finally manage to make the Kings truly compelling characters but it progresses the Whitmore/Dugan family drama in interesting ways while also delivering a rousing final action sequence.
Unsurprisingly, one of the episode’s major focuses is on Barbara’s reaction to finding out Courtney is Stargirl. That reaction is, understandably, outrage at Pat and terror and chastisement for Courtney. This is contrasted well with the upbeat opening flashback to the night she and Pat met and shared a banana split. We’ve seen very little of Courtney’s parents when not in some kind of conflict or other awkward exchange and while Luke Wilson and Amy Smart have done their best to imbue what scenes they can with warmth, it was next to impossible to actually be invested in Pat and Barbara’s relationship prior to this. The flashback does as good a job at rectifying that as a singular sequence could be expected to. Of course, the viewer is still more invested in seeing the family stay together for Courtney’s sake and Brec Bassinger does an excellent job at conveying Courtney’s fear that everything is falling apart. Which, to be honest, it pretty much is. Barbara declares that she’s leaving Blue Valley with Courtney that day (poor Mike says that he’s sticking with Pat despite the minimal attention he’s received from him.) Courtney becomes desperate to take down the ISA as soon as possible in the hopes that if at least that danger is neutralized there might be a chance Barbara could change her mind and make peace with Pat and takes the rest of the team on a mission to Ito’s hideout. It would be easy to see this as Courtney repeating the same kind of bull-headed behavior she’s exhibited in the past without showing any progress but the way she ties her desire to defeat the villains to her fear of her family falling apart is both very sympathetic and feels like something a teenager in her situation would do. Stargirl‘s ability to blend its coming of age and superhero aspects is one of if not its biggest strength as it attaches stakes that are more tangible and intimate than those usually shown in the latter genre. Of course, we know Courtney and company are going to beat the ISA but the threat of losing her new family just as she’s learning to appreciate it is worthy of much more emotional investment.
The drama of the core family is the most interesting material but this episode also succeeds in making the Kings more compelling than they ever have been and just in time too, (at least for one of them). After hearing his father talking about Starman and Jordan in his sleep Henry heads back to his tapes to learn how he really fits into the whole superhero picture. He discovers that his mother was Starman’s sister and a small-time superhero in her own right. Sr. fell in love with her because he was taken by her pure, moral thoughts but over time Jordan became concerned that she might cause him to abandon the ISA. Believing Jordan to be responsible for his mother’s death Henry Jr. fully commits to helping the JSA bring him and the ISA down. But while in Dragon King’s lair the kids are confronted by Henry Sr. who reveals that it was he who killed his wife, in order to quash the possibility that he might abandon his goal of making a “better” world. While he hopes to avoid this with Jr. and train him as an apprentice when the latter refuses he promptly collapses part of the ceiling onto his son, who had stayed within a closed hall to give the other kids time to escape.
Stargirl has shown that it is capable of subverting expectations and delivering genuinely shocking twists before but this one is by far the most surprising. Given that it’s titled “Brainwave Jr.” and how its earlier moments work one expects this to be the episode where Henry firmly refuses the villainous path and cements his place on the JSA. And yes, that all happens but I don’t think anyone was really expecting the character to be killed off mere moments after completing his redemption (with a heartfelt apology to Yolanda). It’s almost unbelievable how good a job this episode does of taking who was up until last week the most poorly defined character on the show and making him so compelling that his death genuinely hurts. A lot of credit must also go to Jake Austin Walker, who shows that he’s more than capable of crafting a multi-dimensional, likable character when given material that allows him to.
The death is unquestionably a bold, well-executed decision but it’s still one that makes you scratch your head when you look at it from certain angles. First of all, as good as the Henry Jr. material here is it’s hard to argue that it’s good enough to retroactively justify the boring stuff we sat through with him in prior weeks. And, arguably, more importantly, it does make you wonder what the point of all that time was. Yes, killing his son solidifies Brainwave as a truly terrifying villain, but all indications still point to him being a secondary antagonist to Jordan’s primary one, which makes it somewhat odd that we’ve spent so long building up to the demonstration of how evil Brainwave is. Imagine, for example, that we had an entire episode, or two really, learning about Sportsmaster and Tigress before their big showcase scene in “The Justice Society”. That’s essentially what we got this week and last with Brainwave. The only explanation that makes all this time feel worthwhile is if he winds up continuing to be a threat beyond the end of the first season, which doesn’t seem impossible but also doesn’t seem certain to be the case.
Making up for any of the episode’s weirdness is its other big attraction, the central action sequence in the Dragon King/ISA lair. Beth and Rick may have peeled off from the rest of the group by the time the fight starts as the latter confronts Solomon Grundy but there is still a wide variety of powers and abilities on display in the battle that make it a real treat to watch. Courtney grabbing a spear to make use of her stick-fighting skills was a nice detail and it was cool to see Henry get to use his telekinesis offensively. But the real star of the fight is Wildcat. The combination of wide spaces and lots of columns and staircases allowed Yolanda’s feline movements to be highlighted in fun ways. Her and Courtney’s frightened screams upon seeing Dragon King’s lizard-like face before Courtney zaps him were also very amusing.
“Brainwave Jr.” isn’t free of the flaws that have shown up in recent Stargirls. The show’s plotting, in particular, is still often somewhat awkward. But the episode is so full of strong drama and spectacle that it’s easy to overlook any issues.
- Barbara continues to be the most rational, thorough thinker on the show, making a recording of Jordan’s parents’ conversation that, when translated, proves to her and Pat that they’re shady. She also can’t resist doing a little research on Starman despite her discomfort with Courtney’s superhero involvement. Oh, and she emails Courtney’s father. I’m sure nothing will come of that.
- Beth manages to talk Rick out of potentially unleashing Solomon Grundy in an attempt to kill him during the mission which is an encouraging sign for Rick’s development (and relationship with Beth?) but is a bit too much teasing of the big guy for this viewer.
- This is a superhero show so of course there’s a chance Henry Jr. will somehow return but this felt like a pretty permanent death.
Stargirl Season 1 Episode 10
While it raises some concerns about how the show manages its focus but "Brainwave Jr." is a dramatic Stargirl that impresses with its twists and action.