It’s becoming increasingly clear that COVID filming limitations had a pretty big impact on this season of Stargirl. You can see the seams in how the show separates its main cast into their own filming bubbles, uses fewer locations and extras, and just generally tries to stretch out its episodic stories with slower pacing. But I’m equally impressed with the way the show’s creators have turned those limitations into strengths too, mostly by leaning into a horror tone that helps justify that tense, lonely, unhurried pace. Like the “Wildcat” and “Hourman And Dr. Mid-Nite” episodes from last season, this Beth and Rick centric-hour plays like a continuation of the Yolanda-centric episode last week. And while Yolanda’s guilt made her story a natural fit for a Catholicism-themed horror tale set in and among churches, Rick and Beth get to participate in their own classic horror templates too: Rick finds himself lost in the woods with a monster, while Beth finds herself trapped in a house that’s haunted by a racist, sexist otherworldly little kid.
The two situations play on Rick and Beth’s greatest fears. Beth worries that she’s inadequate and unwanted—someone that people merely tolerate rather than someone they would actively choose to have on their team. Rick, meanwhile, fears that he has the potential to become the same sort of unfeeling monster as the cruel uncle who raised him. It’s part of the reason Rick’s been looking after Solomon Grundy ever since he let the hulking monster escape in last season’s finale. Rick understands that even the cruelest of dogs can be changed by love, kindness, and care. And in adopting Grundy as his very own pound puppy, Rick hopes to write his own redemption story too.
That’s why it’s so upsetting when Rick’s story takes a swerve to such a shockingly dark place. I expected that “Chapter Eight” would play out similarly to how “Chapter Seven” did, with Eclipso manipulating Beth and Rick into giving up their place as JSA heroes. And while that’s basically what happens to Rick, his fear visions have a lot more real-world consequences than Yolanda’s climatic church showdown with Fake Brainwave. Indeed, we see firsthand how much real-word damage Eclipso can do just by messing with people’s minds. By tricking Rick into thinking that Grundy is being hunted and then tricking him into thinking Grundy has killed a little girl, Eclipso is able to reactive Rick’s panicked need for violent vengeance. Then all it takes is a little more mental manipulation to get Rick to nearly kill his uncle under the misunderstanding that he’s actually beating up Grundy.
Part of what makes “Chapter Eight” so unnerving is that it takes a really long time to figure out what’s real and what’s not. We don’t realize who Rick is beating up until he does—which makes Pat and Courtney’s horrified reactions even more understandable in retrospect. In fact, it wasn’t until Barbara and Mike stepped in as Team Exposition that I fully understood that the whole hunter subplot had been an Eclipso manipulation too. Leaving so many things ambiguous last week pays off in how much this episode is able to mess with its audience’s heads—even when we think we’re ahead of the characters about what’s actually happening.
Beth’s storyline, meanwhile, delivers an entirely different sense of surprise. Though she seems like the character Eclipso would have the easiest time manipulating, mostly because she’s never shown much fortitude in battle, it turns out that Beth’s mental acumen really is her greatest superpower. While Yolanda and Rick have their emotions fairly easily manipulated by Eclipso, Beth is able to see through his scare tactics to suss out what he actually wants: To get his victims to give into their worst fears. And, more importantly, Beth finds the mental fortitude to shut down that line of thinking entirely. She didn’t need someone to choose her to be the new Doctor Mid-Nite because she chose herself for the role. And she doesn’t give in to self-doubt or self-hatred because she loves who she is and she loves being Black.
It’s a real stand up and cheer moment, mostly because I didn’t expect sweet Beth to be the first one to be able to break free from Eclipso’s spell. And it’s a great repudiation to anyone who’s been wondering why Beth is a JSA field agent rather than just technical support. It turns out she’s actually great in a crisis. In fact, she’s so far the only one who’s been able to figure out the full extent of how far Eclipso’s fear visions can go (she never even left her own house in this case). And she’s now armed with a way to see through them too, thanks to her AI goggles.
While the episode’s Fourth of July setting doesn’t add a ton to the proceedings (other than an excuse to cut to some fireworks to reduce Grundy’s CGI rendering time), the true fireworks come from Anjelika Washington and Cameron Gellman’s phenomenal performances. And they also come from this harrowing episode’s surprising sense of sweetness. From Grundy calling Rick his friend to Courtney doing the same to the Cosmic Staff (a.k.a. Cosmo) to Mike calling Barbara “mom” and Beth finding strength in her own parents, there’s plenty of light to balance out the dark in “Chapter Eight.” The JSA may be one more hero down (and just how are they going to get Rick’s smashed hourglass back?), but there’s still hope for the team yet.
- Many thanks to Jarrod Jones for filling in for me last week! I really enjoyed reading his thoughts on the episode, although I can’t believe I missed the big Catholic angst hour! That’s right up my Daredevil-loving street.
- While last week’s episode left some ambiguity as to whether Brainwave or Eclipso was behind Yolanda’s visions, this episode would seem to put her experience firmly in the Eclipso camp. Unless the show is trying to trick us even further!
- Speaking of which, while I was initially bummed that the opening credits seemingly spoiled Joel McHale’s long-awaited return as Sylvester Pemberton, it turns out the episode only used him as part of Beth’s nightmare sequence. Well played, Stargirl!
- In retrospect, I wish I had graded “Chapter Six”—the big JSA vs ISA vs Eclipso fight episode—an A- instead of a B+, so if that kind of thing matters to you, you can go ahead and mentally reclassify that one.
- “You named the staff?” “You named the robot!” “No you did.”