“You poor deluded child. Don’t you know there’s a difference between bad and evil?”
If there’s one thing Stargirl knows how to do, it’s balance multiple perspectives. That’s true of the way the show divides its point of view between its parent and teen characters. And it’s also true of the way the show splits its time between heroes and villains. Last season the ISA were just as much main characters as the JSA—if not more so at times. And “Summer School: Chapter Four” puts that dichotomy front and center, all while challenging the very notion of what makes heroes heroes and villians villains.
After last week’s big, showy Thunderbolt episode, “Chapter Four” is a simple, pared-back hour without any major fight scenes and only one quick shot of Courtney in her Stargirl costume. But Stargirl’s worldbuilding is strong enough to handle the departure, especially when the character work is as strong as it is here. The main source of tension is that Tigress and Sportsmaster break out of prison and return to Blue Valley. Only it turns out that they’re not there to cause trouble or restart the ISA’s mission. They just want to cheer on their daughter Artemis at her college football tryouts.
It’s a funny subversion that’s also entirely in keeping with who Tigress and Sportsmaster are. Last season made it clear that while the married villains got a kick out of beating up heroes, they were always more devoted to their own family unit than to the philosophical ethos of the Injustice Society—something they reconfirm during a hilarious, surprisingly sweet sequence where they have to make small talk with Pat and Barbara. In fact, the couple’s time in prison seems to have given them a newfound commitment to honesty. They don’t double-cross Pat after he agrees to let them crash at his place and sneak them into tryouts. And they even decide to come clean to Artemis about who they actually are and the fact that their prison time is well-deserved.
The biggest weakness of “Chapter Four” is that it could’ve used a few more beats to explore how the Crocks got to that latter decision. It’s strange that the episode jumps from the genuinely unnerving scene where Cindy tricks Artemis into attacking Courtney to the warm sequence where Sportsmaster and Tigress congratulate their daughter on how well she did at tryouts and the fact that her collegiate future is secure. (Which later turns out not to be the case anyway.) On the other hand, I suppose it’s very in keeping with the Crock family philosophy to assume there will be no consequences for extra aggression. And the trio of performers do such a great job selling the emotion that it’s easy enough to go along with what the episode is going for.
Stargirl also uses the Crock family’s newfound commitment to honesty to draw a fascinating contrast to the Dugan-Whitmores. It turns out Pat knows a lot more about Eclipso than he’s letting on. And after filling in Barbara on all the gory details off-screen, they jointly decide that it’s best to keep what they know a secret from Courtney and her friends. While a lot of the tension of season one came from watching Pat and Courtney keep a major secret from Barbara, this time around, the show keeps its audience out of the loop too, locking us in Courtney’s perspective while teasing the fact that there’s another shoe that’s going to drop. “If we tell Courtney about Eclipso and the [original] JSA, she’ll never be the same,” Pat ominously notes. “None of the kids will.”
Though Pat and Barbara decide it’s their job to protect Courtney and her friends from the truth, they might be underestimating the cost of that choice. Earlier in the episode, Barbara tells Tigress that if she were to deny her kids junk food, they would just go out and get it somewhere else. And that seems to be exactly what happens when Courtney decides to turn to the Shade for the answers that her parents are denying her. But whereas season one Courtney might have made that decision rashly, this time around it doesn’t seem like an entirely unreasonable impulse on her part. She really does her best to research Eclipso in the safest way possible first—including reading about his Diablo Island-based origin story with the JSA at Yolanda’s new diner job. And she’s not totally wrong to think the Shade might be a helpful source of information too.
In a creepy, shadowy scene at the House of Secrets used bookstore, the Shade explains to Courtney that there’s a difference between his everyday level of villainy and Eclipso’s pure evilness. He seems genuinely upset about the fact that Eclipso killed Doctor Mid-Nite’s 10-year-old daughter and promises his only intention with the black diamond is to throw it into the ocean where no one can ever find it again. Though the fact that he tries to play off the whole Eclipso mission as something he’s doing because he’s bored certainly doesn’t feel like the truth, you can see why Courtney might still trust him as a resource. Especially when she’s met with unhelpful radio silence from her own parents.
I really love how committed this season is to depicting a more mature, less impulsive Courtney without losing sight of her inherent sense of gumption. Though “Chapter Four” isn’t the showiest or most exciting episode of Stargirl, it demonstrates the confidence this season has in its slow-burn approach. “Chapter Four” checks in on Beth and Rick’s arcs, gives us a creepy vision of Cindy’s dead mom, and takes major strides towards assembling the new ISA. Plus it introduces the game-changing idea that Doctor Mid-Nite might still be alive and trapped in some sort of shadow dimension. Yet the episode never feels overstuffed or rushed. In fact, it deftly blends suspense, comedy, and pathos. (I may or may not have teared up at Tigress and Sportsmaster cheering on Artemis from the stands.) Though the arc of this season is only just starting to take shape, Stargirl is already raising some intriguing questions about who gets to claim the moral high ground.
- I’m really digging the half-empty summer school setting, which adds to the creepy feeling of the season, but will there be a single scene where the characters are actually dressed for summer? Pat is wearing a puffer vest at one point!
- Sportsmaster notes that Dragon King did something unnerving to the Wizard’s dead body. Could we be getting William Zarick’s zombie-fied return this season?
- There are two simple but effectively edited sequences in this episode: The opening that seamlessly crosscuts between Artemis’ conversations with her parents, and Courtney’s book shop conversation with the Shade, which also features some great sound design too.
- In case anyone else was as confused as I was by that map: Australia was called “New Holland” until the mid-1850s.
- Rick’s suspicious math teacher sure has a lot of clocks on her desk! I’m assuming that’s a clue to a comic book connection of some kind?
- Some incredible small talk from Pat: “How’s prison? Is it scary or is it kind of fun like the Shawshank Redemption?”