The problem with airing an episode as momentous as “Brainwave Jr.” is that you have to figure out how to follow it up. Stargirl does so by switching tones entirely. While last week’s episode pushed the show’s teen superhero premise to new heights, this week delivers a somber character drama anchored around two players who have long been lurking on the margins of the series. One is the mysterious Janitor Justin (Mark Ashworth). The other is Courtney’s biological dad Sam Kurtis (Geoff Stults), who, it turns out, is most definitely not Starman.
Both Justin and Sam are riffs on the “Shining Knight” of the episode’s title. Justin was literally the Shining Knight, a lowly yet loyal page who inherited Excalibur from King Arthur himself and eventually went on to lead the Seven Soldiers of Victory. Sam, meanwhile, tries to present himself as a white knight ready to make amends for the past and forge a new relationship with Courtney. Once Courtney gets over the initial shock that Starman wasn’t her father, she’s almost ready to believe him. But it turns out Sam’s intentions are anything but noble. He’s there to collect Courtney’s valuable locket, not turn over a new leaf with her.
Geoff Stults is great casting for Courtney’s dad. He’s recognizable enough that it doesn’t feel like a fake-out, but not so well known as to be distracting. (And he’s not a bad doppelgänger for Joel McHale either.) Plus Stults can toe the line between charismatic and sleazy in a way that allows you to see why Barbara first fell for Sam and why Courtney is able to see through him now. Sam barely even asks his daughter anything about herself during a breakfast in which he lays the manipulative emotional groundwork for asking her for a favor. And as soon as he’s gotten what he came for, he’s on the next bus out of town.
That allows Stargirl to land on an emotional thesis that’s no less impactful for being so inevitable. Courtney’s “real” dad isn’t her biological father, it’s the person who’s stepped up to the paternal plate. Pat proves himself over and over again in this episode, first when he helps Courtney process Sam’s arrival (after getting silent permission from Barbara first) and then after Sam skips town. Unlike her bio dad, Pat truly puts Courtney first. What started as a reluctant superhero mentor/mentee relationship has slowly morphed into a real father/daughter bond—one that’s all the sweeter for reminding viewers that families don’t have to be defined by blood.
Of all the pieces that have come together to make Stargirl such a surprisingly rich show, Luke Wilson is perhaps the most important. He really is the glue holding the series together and with a lesser actor in his role, the whole thing could tip too far into mawkishness or cheesiness. But Wilson is able to make Pat fundamentally decent and human in a way that’s incredibly compelling to watch. If we arguably didn’t need the scene of Pat punching Sam in the face, it’d be hard to claim that moment of catharsis wasn’t earned.
Indeed, “Shining Knight” isn’t an entirely flawless episode. It’s weird that it picks up a day after the semi-cliffhanger of last week’s episode without any sense of how that resolved. (Why didn’t Brainwave kill the rest of the JSA after taking down Henry Jr.? Especially when his first scene in this episode sees him pledge to do just that?) And “Shining Knight” is at times a little too slow for its own good, even if that change of pace is clearly a deliberate choice on the part of writer/showrunner Geoff Johns. Though Mark Ashworth brings a nice sense of pathos and gravitas to Janitor Justin, the Shining Knight throughline is too underbaked for how much screentime it gets here.
Still, a strong third act helps “Shining Knight” make up for some of those weaknesses. Brec Bassinger is terrific throughout this whole episode, but especially in the long-take cafeteria scene in which Courtney is really and truly humbled in a way we haven’t seen before. Losing the ability to use the Cosmic Staff drives home the full weight of everything that being Stargirl has cost, especially Joey and Henry Jr.’s deaths. And the following scene where Brainwave taunts Courtney at his own son’s memorial is emotionally demented in the best way possible. I love how much Stargirl has committed to making the Injustice Society truly reprehensible villains.
All of that leads to an ending that’s expected yet still incredibly satisfying. Though “Shining Knight” doesn’t have any conventional action scenes, director Jennifer Phang manages to make the moment Courtney reconnects with the Cosmic Staff feel as epic and cinematic as anything Stargirl has delivered so far. And the idea that Courtney asks Pat and Barbara to be by her side is a really nice touch—a reaffirmation of the show’s central parenting theme and a hopeful sign that she’s finally grown out of her reckless and rebellious phase. Courtney’s been humbled enough to own up to her mistakes, but she’s also learned to embrace her inherent power as well.
Beth and Yolanda have already demonstrated that legacy heroes don’t have to be born into their roles, and now Courtney joins their ranks too. The Cosmic Staff didn’t choose her because her dad was a superhero, it chose her because of her innate heroism—a quality she seems to have inherited from Barbara, who doesn’t feel right about fleeing Blue Valley and leaving its residents to fend for themselves. Justice and selflessness clearly run deep in the Whitmore-Dugan household. As Pat reminds Courtney by way of Justin by way of King Arthur, “Heroes can come from anywhere.” Courtney reconnecting with the Cosmic Staff is her own Excalibur moment, one Justin is appropriately there to witness. Our Queen is risen, and she’s ready to head into Stargirl’s two-part finale.
- I get that Justin’s memory loss is meant to be a mystery, but I wish this episode had better clarified what Pat knew about him as Shining Knight. Did he time travel from Arthurian times to the 21st century? Is he immortal? Did he always talk in an old timey vernacular or is that a side effect of his mindwipe?
- I also wish we’d spent more time with Beth, Rick, and especially Yolanda as they processed the fallout from last week.
- It’s interesting to watch the power struggle between Brainwave and Jordan, two characters who both kind of fulfill the role of Stargirl’s “Big Bad.” While Jordan is the ISA’s leader, Brainwave’s powers give him an inherent upper hand in their interactions.
- Also, thanks to the power surge he got from murdering his own son, Brainwave now thinks he can make Project: New America reach half the country.
- At least Barbara thought to delete her Starman-related search history from her work computer. Too bad Jordan had a workaround for that.
- “Why won’t you tell me anything? What’d I do wrong?” The karmic retribution for my early complaints about Mike is that he now breaks my heart week after week. Please don’t kill him off show! My heart can’t take it!