For the third week in a row, Stargirl delivers an episode that toes the line between successfully suspenseful and just a touch too sleepy. After Yolanda, Rick, and Beth had their own experiences with Eclipso’s nightmare visions, it’s the Whitmore-Dugan family’s turn to get haunted this week. While Pat goes full “out damned spot!” in the basement, Mike and Barbara are threatened by two generations of pissed off Mahkents. But while the visions provide the episode with its requisite horror-tinged action, the biggest fireworks actually come from flashbacks to Pat’s past. After a season of teases about just what the original JSA had to do in order to stop Eclipso the first time around, we finally get the answer: To imprison Eclipso back in his diamond, you have to kill his current human host.
It’s a reveal that’s not quite as shocking as the episode thinks it is—especially since we already full-on saw Yolanda kill Brainwave last season. I suppose there’s a distinction between killing someone in the heat of battle and going to their home specifically to murder them, which is what Sylvester Pemberton winds up doing to a possessed Bruce Gordon. But the weight of the JSA’s moral compromise never fully lands. For one thing, I’m not sure the show has ever particularly established “no killing” as one of the central tenets of the original JSA, so it feels like a bit of an overly convenient moral roadblock here. And for another, having the murder takes place offscreen means the episode loses the ability to emphasize the cold, clinical horror of what young Pat becomes complicit in when he drives Sylvester to Bruce’s house.
And yet while the reveal itself is fairly pedestrian, the episode still manages to do some interesting things with it. I love that Stargirl retroactively justifies why the ISA so easily beat the JSA back in the big 2010 Christmas Eve battle that kickstarted the series. It turns out the team slowly drifted apart after Bruce’s death, when the weight of what they had done started to change the group’s dynamics. Though they came together again years later to fight the ISA, they weren’t the same JSA they’d been. Their spirit was broken, which, more than anything, is what allowed the ISA to defeat them so handily. It’s a savvy retcon that helps justify why the JSA 2.0 were able to succeed where their better-trained predecessors failed. For a show that’s always tied its heroes’ abilities to their inner confidence, a broken spirit really is the biggest threat of all.
And that connects to the other smart storytelling choice Stargirl makes with the JSA murder reveal: It gives Courtney the chance to be justifiably pissed at Pat. While Courtney has spent the season deeply committed to her family’s “no secrets” pledge, it turns out her stepdad was withholding a huge piece of information from her the entire time. Brec Bassinger perfectly conveys the pain and anger that Courtney feels when she finally learns the full truth about Eclispo—especially considering that information could’ve helped her team make more informed choices in their own battle against the demonic spirit. But the other shoe really drops when Courtney tries to bring Barbara into the equation: “What’s my mom going to say?” Courtney fires at Pat. “She knows,” he replies.
It’s a gut-punch, and Bassinger makes you feel every inch of it. Courtney’s always felt an “us against the world” partnership with her mom and a deep superhero bond with Pat. So to learn that her parents conspired behind her back with their own secret is a massive blow, both as a superhero and as a daughter. And it tests the bonds of this still relatively new blended family. Though Eclipso fails to create any physical damage the way he did with Rick and his uncle last week, it’s clear why he appears in smug, smiling little boy form at the end of the episode. Eclipso is playing a long game here, and he seems to be winning. Especially now that Courtney herself just might be in the mindset to be manipulated by fear and self-doubt.
While there’s nothing else as revelatory in the rest of the episode, it does at least offer some fun, high-profile cameos. It’s a blast to see Neil Jackson make a surprise return as Icicle in Barbara’s fear vision, where he’s just as creepy as ever. Elsewhere, frequent Flash cast member John Wesley Shipp pops up as this Earth’s version of Jay Garrick’s Flash, who, along with Pat, serves as the moral backbone of the JSA. (“We’re talking about victimizing a victim here” Jay reminds Sylvester.) And in addition to some extended screentime for the original Wildcat and Hourman, Joel McHale also gets his most substantial role on the series to date, which he handles with aplomb and some impressive dramatic weight. But the episodic performance that actually impressed me the most was Hunter Sansone’s genuinely unsettling turn as Evil Cameron in Mike’s nightmare. While I wasn’t rooting for Cameron to go bad before, this episode suggests it could be a lot of fun to watch him do it.
Still, with three episodes of character-centric horror under its belt, I’m ready for Stargirl to pick up the pace heading into the season’s final run of episodes. Part of the reason the stakes of the Bruce Gordon reveal don’t fully land is because I’m not sure who Eclipso’s current host actually is (or if he even has one now that he’s been freed). Unless Mike somehow took on the role when he briefly picked up those diamond shards back in “Chapter Seven,” I’m assuming the position still belongs to Cindy—although she’s currently presumed dead in the show’s universe. Along with the many dangling threads the show has introduced this season (shoutout to Jennie and Jakem!), that’s a big piece of the puzzle that still needs to snap into place in the final four episodes of the season.
- Umm, so can we talk about the timeline here a bit? Though the season-opening prologue of Rebecca McNider’s death was definitely coded as taking place in the 1950s, apparently she died sometime when Pat was an adult and the JSA was fully formed. Since we know Charles McNider was canonically born in 1914, is he just supposed to have been a super old dad?
- Part of Stargirl’s pitch has always been about a younger, more diverse group of heroes replacing the old white men of the past, but it wasn’t until the funeral scene that I fully realized just how homogenous the original JSA really were.
- Rex Tyler’s Hourman name drops Green Lantern, Spectre, Doctor Fate, and “the Hawks” as other JSA members who tried and failed to defeat Eclipso.
- Sylvester specifically mentions that Eclipso threatened his family, which makes me very curious about who that entails. Is he just talking about his parents or does he have a spouse and kids out there somewhere?
- “Pat, I love you. But when have we ever been prepared enough to make you happy?”