Well that was fun! And spooky. And pretty damn heartbreaking too. Picking up from last week’s cliffhanger, this week Courtney finds herself in The Shadowlands —a sort of shadowy purgatory realm that forces people to live out their worst nightmares over and over again until it breaks their spirit. It turns out the swirling void we’ve seen in Dr. Charles McNider’s scenes is the true form of an abyss that can disguise itself as just about anything. And for Courtney, that means an eerie black and white version of Blue Valley, where both her friends and foes are out to haunt her. It’s the ultimate test of Courtney’s optimistic spirit: Can her light survive in a place that’s literally designed to snuff it?
“Summer School: Chapter Eleven” is a great example of Stargirl taking this season’s pandemic-era restrictions and using them as an inspiration for creativity. There aren’t any big action setpieces or showy special effects this week, but the episode still creates a stylish, high-stakes feeling throughout. And though it takes place entirely on preexisting sets, it conjures up a brand-new unnerving tone thanks to its off-kilter performances and gorgeous black and white photography. Even better, the choice to present the episode in black and white has thematic resonance too. It’s a reflection of how Courtney would like to see the world—as a place where good and evil are clear cut and people are either filled with lightness or darkness. In actuality, of course, things are far more complex. And by the end of the hour, we get the sense that Courtney’s trip to The Shadowlands has helped her learn to see those shades of grey.
Fittingly enough, many of those shades of grey come from The Shade himself, who shocked me with his big heel turn last week and moved me with his sacrifice this week. Jonathan Cake has excelled at finding a sense of genuine humanity beneath Richard Swift’s confidently catty British demeanor. The Shade may be selfish, egotistical, and morally ambiguous, but he’s not outright evil in the way so many members of the Injustice Society were. He’s genuinely shocked to learn he accidentally banished Dr. McNider to decades in The Shadowlands, just as he’s ashamed that his gamble to risk Courtney’s life to heal himself didn’t pay off. It feels fitting that he goes out as something akin to a hero—even if he’s largely resolving problems he caused in the first place. Assuming we’ve actually seen the last of him, Cake’s captivating performance will be sorely missed.
But while The Shade’s death is a gut punch, the most moving moment in “Chapter Eleven” comes when Courtney sacrifices a surefire ticket home because she realizes she can’t leave Cindy behind. So much of “Chapter Eleven” hinges on Brec Bassinger’s ability to silently convey all the many different emotions Courtney experiences during her visit to The Shadowlands—from the shock of seeing the Zarick family alive (what a creepy scene!) to her devastation at hearing Shadow Barbara complain that having a kid ruined her life. And it all culminates in the silent realization that crosses Courtney’s face when The Shade first offers an easy way out: Cindy may be her mortal enemy, but there’s no way Courtney would leave her behind.
Though “Chapter Eleven” is about challenging Courtney’s worldview and forcing her to see that things aren’t just black and white, it’s equally about celebrating her innate goodness too—the light that manifests in a desire to help other people and to strive to be a good person, even when it seems impossible. Courtney saves Cindy by doing what she so often does: Reaching out with empathy to someone who’s struggling. And yet I’m also fascinated by the fact that Courtney is only able to make her way back to Cindy after she openly admits that she hates Eclipso. While the episode doesn’t wrap up that thread in a neat little bow (at least not yet), it hints at Courtney’s capacity for darkness without necessarily putting a value judgement on it.
Like “Shining Knight” last season, “Chapter Eleven” is a great showcase episode for Courtney. But it’s also a great Cindy episode too. We learn a few more concrete (and horrifying) details about how her dad’s experimentations led to young Cindy accidentally murdering her mom. And we also see the mindset Cindy has adopted in response to her trauma. She doesn’t run from her darkness, she embraces it. In fact, she credits it with making her a survivor. Like Courtney, however, there’s the sense that in embracing one side of the “light-dark” spectrum, Cindy has shut herself off from the fullness of her humanity. Perhaps her experience in The Shadowlands will change her perspective too.
Across the board, “Chapter Eleven” is an incredibly stylish hour of TV, one that uses the season’s creeping sense of dread to its fullest potential. This episode turns production simplicity into an asset, rather than a hinderance—from those cool lighted door transitions to the surprise returning cast members. And it shakes up the season’s status quo in a satisfying way. The JSA may lose one dubious ally in The Shade, but they gain a new one in Cindy. Plus they’ve now got the original Doctor Mid-Nite to add to their team too. With Jennie onboard and Jakeem/Thunderbolt still on the table, the pieces are snapping into place for a proper superhero showdown.
- Many thanks to Jarrod Jones for filling in for me again last week! I love how much DC comics lore he brought to his review.
- I know I usually use the Stray Observations to wax poetic about Luke Wilson, but this week I want to sing the praises of Amy Smart. She was especially great during the scene where Barbara tells The Shade she’d rather die than live without her daughter.
- Milo Stein is also giving an all-time great creepy kid performance as Eclipso’s little boy form. Major kudos!
- Cindy describes The Shadowlands as a void created by the darkness inside humanity, and powered by fear, rage, and guilt. She also notes that you can either be sent there by Eclipso or send yourself there if you’re “lost in despair.”
- Did I miss the explanation as to why there were two Shades on Jennie’s Green Lantern map?
- “What’s the Bible name for it?” is such a great line of teenager dialogue.