Being in love with a Netflix show is (I imagine) like having a lover near your summer home in Europe. For your brief period of vacation, the love is intense. You stay up all night; you refuse to speak to friends. Everything becomes rapturous — that strawberry? It's now a moon-melon, and the stars aren't balls of gas, they are decorative splashes of pure adrenaline.
That's what it's like being an avid fan of a Netflix show. Stranger Things dropped in the middle of summer 2016, and I hope to someday write a country song about it. There's the summer of '69, and there's the summer of Stranger Things, my couch, and some really cool synth chords.
Stranger Things 2 returns well over a year (a year!) after it first premiered, and its return is no less rhapsodic than when it first arrived. Stranger Things 2 is familiar. Watching it feels like greeting your dog when you return home for Thanksgiving. The main trio is back — this time, though, Will (Noah Schnapp) is along for the ride, and they're all a little less chipper. They've seen some things.
Last season ended with Will in the bathroom. He vomited a slug, which then slid down the drain. Then, he was suddenly in the Upside Down again. Will's being haunted by the Upside Down, and the Upside Down hasn't necessarily taken its leave of Hawkins. Stranger Things 2 reckons with this lingering creepiness. That, and the universe expands. The weird things going on aren't just affecting the folks in Hawkins; this problem is global.
The narrative balloons, but rest assured that the coziness of the show remains intact. If Stranger Things was a chunky knit sweater, then Stranger Things 2 is a cashmere throw. Come on in, we're getting cozy.
Episode One: Mad Max
In the first few moments of Stranger Things 2, I had to repeatedly remind myself that hey, no, you're not watching the CW spinoff of Suicide Squad. The villains or vigilantes in the first scene look downright cartoonish. There's a girl with a beach ball-sized bouffant. There's a guy with a face tattoo and another girl with smokey black eyeliner and a sick side shave. And no, I never thought I'd use the word "sick" in a recap of Stranger Things.
The opening to the premiere is off-tone and somewhat jarring, like when you pick up an empty water pitcher thinking it's full of water. Wasn't this supposed to be cozy Stranger Things?
The sequence boils down to one big Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) reference. Roman (Linnea Berthelsen) uses an Eleven-ish ability to stop the police cars chasing her crew. With a single "boom," she blasts a tunnel. Except she doesn't really blast the tunnel. Then, there's that signature bloody nose-trickle. Roman is number eight, one of at least eleven experiments performed by Hawkins laboratory. And here we are, in the greater Stranger Things 'verse. We're not just in Hawkins anymore, y'all. (Actually, in this sequence we're in Pittsburgh.)
The real Hawkins stuff begins after the credits, which provide that sweet synth heartbeat of the show. The show establishes pretty quickly where and when we are: It's Halloween, and the year is 1984. Reagan is running for president, as a campaign poster tells us at the beginning.
The premiere is mostly establishing character updates. The boys — Will, Mike, Lucas, and Dustin — are obsessed with the game Dragon's Lair, and spend their time at the local arcade. (Remember when you could go to a local arcade?) Some pesky player named Madmax is cramping their style, though, and the local arcade dweeb (remember when you could badger a local arcade dweeb?) won't tell them who Madmax is! Unless, of course, Mike is willing to pimp out his sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer).
Nancy, meanwhile, is dating Steve (Joe Keery). Steve sucks at writing essays, it turns out, but his hair is still impeccable. Except — is that growth I see? It looks longer than last season. In the intervening year or so between seasons, Nancy and Steve have sunken into miserable coupledom.
"We have our dinner tonight," Nancy reminds Steve. He groans. They have that dinner, you know that thing they've been putting off as a couple. They exchange I love you's, one of which seems heartfelt. Nancy's is sweet but empty, like fondant! I hate fondant!
Television has a bad habit of ignoring traumatic incidents. In order to move on with the next season, often a show will just push the bad stuff under a rug and ignore it. Stranger Things 2 doesn't do that. It reckons with the sticky situations that happened last season. For starters, Will is having "episodes." The new Hawkins laboratory doctor (played by Paul Reiser) thinks it's just PTSD, which, to be fair, Will definitely has. But this is something different. Twice in this episode he returns to the Upside Down. The second time, he witnesses a giant spider monster lurking over Hawkins.
"It wanted to kill," he tells Dr. Owens of the monster.
"Kill you?" Owens asks.
"Not me. Everyone else," he says ominously. We have our monster of the season.
This season is also reckoning with Barb (Shannon Purser), who is still MIA, assumed dead. Barb's parents — the hosts of Nancy and Steve's couple dinner — are desperate to find her. They are convinced she's still alive, and we learn through this dinner that Nancy is not allowed to tell Barb's parents what actually happened. Nancy isn't dealing well with this.
In other, cozier news, Joyce (Winona Ryder) has a new beau. This beau is Bob (Sean Astin), and he's a card-carrying dork. His high school nickname was Bob the Brain, and as he tells us during some heavy-handed exposition, Joyce didn't even speak to him in high school. Still, he's pretty frantically in love with her. They're making out in store closets and everything, and it's very adorable. Joyce deserves a little love! (Don't you always just want to give Joyce a warm glass of milk?)
And we must meet the season's new players: There's Murray Bowman (Brett Gelman of 1,000 Cats), an investigative journalist and crackpot conspiracy theorist who is onto Hawkins. He's spewing theories about "that Russian girl" to Hopper (a bearded, grumbly, grouchy, manly, perfect David Harbour). He's also wrangled his way into getting hired by Barb's parents. Barb's parents are selling their house in order to pay his salary. Which, gross.
There's been a lot of speculation about the two younger additions to the cast, and the premiere does little to explain their presence in the show. Mainly, they're the "new kids in town," and they're intense. They enter to the tune of Scorpions' "Rock You Like A Hurricane," just to really hit that nail on the head. There's Max (Sadie Sink), of Madmax fame, who becomes a spot of obsession for Dustin and Lucas. She's gruff, but her brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) is gruff-er. Fresh from the coast of California, they like fast cars and skateboards, and Billy wears really tight pants. Billy also has a mullet that looks ever so slightly off. (It's no Uncle Jesse, you know?)
The episode ends with Hopper heading a cottage in the woods. At this point, we know exactly who we'll meet in that cottage, but it's still thrilling when a mop-haired Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) emerges to eat dinner with the Chief.
"Hey, what'd we talk about?" he says when he sees a plate of Eggos. And there she is — she's got more hair, and her pink dress is gone, replaced by a set of overalls, but it's definitely her. Eleven is back.
I can't breathe.
Steve Harrington's Hair Update
The mop is longer than last year, and slightly more mature.
Episode Two: Trick Or Treat, Freak
It's Halloween — in the show, and in reality it is fast approaching — so let's tally all the spooky things happening in the show. There is something in Dustin's trashcan. We know it's something capital-s Spooky because the music told us so. And there are now two pumpkin patches infected with black slurpy phlegm. Then, there's Will, who is still having "episodes" during which he sees a giant shadow monster. It's 352 days since Eleven chased the demogorgon away from Hawkins, and things haven't gotten any less strange.
This episode does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of what happened in those 352 days. Eleven, we learn, escaped the Upside Down only to find that she wasn't wanted in Hawkins. The government people have painted her as the enemy.
"The stories she told you were not true. She’s a very dangerous individual," Eleven overhears a policeman telling Mike. Mike is loyal to Eleven, but she doesn't know that, so she scurries off to the woods. In the woods, she lives off squirrels and then, finally, she finds an icy pack of Eggos, courtesy of one Chief Hopper! (That divine prickly pinecone of a man.)
Back in the present day, we learn the primary tenet of Hopper's tenuous relationship with Eleven: "Don't be stupid." This is the new "friends don't lie." Eleven wants to go trick-or-treating in disguise, but she can't — that would be stupid. And Hopper and Eleven are not stupid. Their compromise ("halfway happy") is to meet at 5:15 p.m. and eat candy.
The boys are dressed as the Ghostbusters, and I'm still flabbergasted that the Stranger Things team obtained the rights to the original "Ghostbusters" song. No one else in the school dressed up, which might be the spookiest thing of all — these kiddos are officially rolling with the cool (and very insecure) tweens. Max, of course, didn't dress up, because she's a cool kid from California.
Episode two marks a turning point for Max, though. She's not a fan of her stalkers — rightfully so, these boys are ogling her. My one quibble with this storyline: Do we really think smarty-pants know-it-all Dustin wouldn't know what "presumptuous" meant? On the other hand, I'm delighted that Max bested these know-it-all bitches, at least in vocabulary. When Billy charges at the three boys riding their bikes home from school, Max makes a desperate move to save them. And she does! They are now indebted to her, and she feels a little responsible for the hooligans. Ergo, she takes up Dustin's offer to go trick-or-treating. (Billy has to be part-demon. Yes, he's very slick and has some stubble, but he... wants to kill kids? Because he hates Indiana? I remain convinced Billy is a demon sent from the Upside-Down. This might also explain why his mullet looks weird.)
Except for Billy's murderous tendencies, this is all run-of-the-mill teenage stuff. Ogling girls, being embarrassed when you wear a costume, not knowing big words, etc. It's lovely when Stranger Things lets us dwell in the mundane. The characters all get a little more fleshed out — Lucas has a sister! Dustin appears to have a single mother! Mike got in trouble for graffiting the bathroom stall! (Let us all hope Mike Wheeler appears on the second season of American Vandal.)
However, the spooky stuff is still happening, and no one is more aware of this than Joyce. She spots a drawing of the shadow monster in Will's bedroom and immediately takes it to Hopper. Hopper's convinced nothing's wrong; Hopper is absolutely wrong, but it's very comforting to hear his big crunchy voice say soothing things. In their discussion, they remind us (again) that we're almost a year out from the season one events.
About that year. Mike is tallying the days since he last saw Eleven. And, he's reaching out to her with his walkie talkie just about everyday. Like The Notebook, but with tiny, bowl-cutted tweens. Mike is buried in romantic grief, which means he's not a fan of Max.
When Will has an episode during their trick-or-treating, Mike grabs Will and bails, shooing away Dustin, Lucas, and Max. It's clear that Will and Mike are dealing with more intense repercussions from the events of last year. Will does his best to explain for Mike what's going on: He's like a viewfinder that's stuck between two slides. He keeps slipping back into the previous slide. And no one gets it, least of all his mom.
Mike makes the exchange about Eleven. "Eleven would get it. She always did," Mike says. "Sometimes I feel like I still see her. Like she’s still around, but she never is."
Because she is still around! Eleven has her own psionic powers, remember? While Mike is waxing plaintive in his basement, Eleven is using her television to reach him, the same way she reached Will in season one. Noah sent Allie letters every day for a year; Eleven sent Mike psionic messages every day for a year. This theory checks out.
Everyone is missing each other in this episode: Mike and Eleven just can't seem to match frequencies, Hopper manages to screw up his Halloween plans with Eleven, and Nancy and Steveare just about ready to end their tender relaysh.
It was clear from the get-go these two weren't going to last. To make matters worse, Nancy isn't coping with the death of Barb. Steve isn't even trying to cope, which is the source of their malcontent. At Tina's Halloween Bash (a howler of a party, really), Nancy gets drunk and spews some destructive sober thoughts.
"You're bullshit!" she tells Steve. His hair still looks great, but he is not happy with that assessment. At the end of the night, Steve walks out on his drunk, sad, lonely girlfriend, and Jonathan takes her home. The message has been sent: This is the season of Nancy and Jonathan.
The spooky stuff is ramping up: Will's episode was worse this time, and the doctors at the lab seem genuinely perturbed at the action in the Upside Down. Oh, and Dustin investigates his trashcan. There's definitely something weird in that trashcan.
Steve Harrington Hair Update
Slightly wilted by the tonic of beer, party sweat, and teen heartbreak.
Episode Three: The Pollywog
People are just breaking the rules willy nilly here! By people, I mean Nancy, Eleven, Dustin, and Will. Nancy cuts class with Jonathan, Eleven breaks the "Don't Be Stupid Rules" and Dustin, despite Mike's warnings, gives refuge to an interdimensional pollywog, despite Will's warning. Will breaks an implicit rule: He refuses to run away from danger. This also doesn't go well.
Nancy's fallout began last episode, of course. She called Steve "bullshit" and now she has to reckon with that. There is nothing more delightful than a slightly sweaty and brokenhearted Steve Harrington, at least in my book. But Nancy can't find the words to say "I love you" to her boyfriend, even though he is a perfect specimen. This sends her running to Jonathan — does Nancy have any female friends? I know Barb is dead, but still! — to figure out what she should do next. They make eyes at one another and weigh their grief. Jonathan points out that Will is different ever since he came back; Nancy argues that her grief is worse because Barb didn't survive. The sequence illustrates that neither of them are very meaty actors. Season two is asking a lot of these actors; some are handling it better than others.
She then concocts a plan, seemingly inspired by a Walkman she sees at school. With Jonathan by her side (Steve? Who the fuck is Steve? Bye, Steve!), Nancy calls Mr. and Mrs. Holland and confesses that there's more to Barb's story. She does it knowing that the scientists will be listening — the bigger plan here is to talk to the scientists. And somehow, there's a Walkman involved.
Dustin trespasses because he's a curious kid. That's been his signature quality since season one, and he's not stopping now. He loves the squirmy pollywog he found in the trashcan. He names it Dartanian. He feeds it nougat. He embarks on a "curiosity voyage" that involves stealing books from the library. He's delighted because he thinks he's discovered a new species that might just change the world.
His friends aren't as enthralled by Dart. Lucas calls it a "human booger" — they all pass Dart around the AV club, each one exclaiming at how gross he is. Even badass Max doesn't like him. Will especially doesn't like Dart; Dart is 100% from the Upside Down, and I'm 99.99% sure he's a baby demogorgon.
Dustin is disinclined to believe that Dart could be dangerous. It's that sweet nerdboy ego. He wants to make a discovery and become a famous scientist. And, more importantly, Dustin wants to make a friend. Lucas is growing closer to Max, and Mike and Will are off bonding over their shared trauma. What's Dustin to do but befriend a mini-dragon?
The boys — the "party" — decide to capture Dart, but Dustin squirrels the lizard away in his hat. Dustin, you adorable traitor.
Meanwhile, Eleven breaks the "Don't Be Stupid Rules." She is effectively a prisoner in Hopper's cozy cottage. He found her in the woods and took her to his cabin in the woods to keep her safe. Here, the scientists can't find Eleven. She isn't allowed to leave the house alone, and not during the day. There's a trip wire outside the house, and Eleven mustn't open the door without hearing Hopper's special knock. She's lived this way for 352 days, and Hopper keeps promising her that "soon," she'll get to go visit Mike. "Soon" really means "never." That's what you call a friend lying.
That'll wear a girl down after a while. Eleven pitches a fit — she splatters whipped cream onto Hopper's nice uniform — and then breaks that cardinal rule: She goes outside alone. Her travels take her to the school, where the boys are busy looking for Dart.
Ultimately, it's Max that prevents Mike and Eleven from uniting in this episode, which feels false and slightly authored. Eleven sees Max chatting with Mike (they're chatting about Eleven, incidentally) and assumes they are flirting. With a flick of her head, she tosses Max from her skateboard. Then, she leaves. I understand Eleven is young and might not understand the concept of platonic friendship between men and women, but why would the sight of another girl prevent her from saying hello to Mike, the boy she hasn't seen for 353 days?
Even Max semi-transgresses in this episode. She picks the lock to the AV club and breaks in as the boys are discussing what to do with Dart. They're excluding her because she can't know what happened last year. This is annoying for Max, but useful for us: This way, we know exactly what the rest of Hawkins knows about the events of last season. According to Lucas, they say that Will was "lost in the woods for a week." Police found another body in the quarry and assumed it was him. Then, Will reappeared, and everyone at school took to calling him "zombie boy."
With every episode, I grow more concerned that Bob is a demon. Billy is also maybe a demon. My proof: Bob encourages Will to stand up to the "monsters" here, and when Will does this, the shadow monster consumes Will, puncturing his nostrils and entering his body. Look what you've made him do, Bob.
Oh, and the pumpkin gunk is spreading. The doctors are aware. Hopper wore a pair of aviators on his hairy wombat manface.
Steve Harrington Hair Update
Sweaty, and in denial of the breakup. This hair is indignant!
Chapter Four: Will The Wise
In the process of these stranger things happening, the Byers homestead always gets the short of the stick. Last season, Joyce hammered a hole in the wall and painted all 26 letters of the alphabet onto the living room wall. This year, Joyce and Hopper spread a house-sized puzzle across the home, a map of the shadow monster’s vines. The home is an analogous lens through which we can understand just what is happening in Hawkins. Which is all well and good for us, the viewer, but that poor house!
It seems fairly obvious now that the monster is a physical manifestation of fear. It might even be a version of PTSD. Will is completely overtaken by it at this point; he’s slowly becoming a different person. He explains that he has “now memories” — memories that feel as if they’re happening in the moment. As we see Will at home with his mother, Mr. Clarke (Randy Havens) gives a telling lecture in class about the effects of fear. Mr. Clarke, the same guy who gave the acrobat and the flea metaphor last season, is always good for an explainer.
“When we encounter danger, our hearts start pounding,” his voiceover says as Will approaches a hot bath. Will hates heat now, because the shadow monster “likes it cold.” You know who else likes it cold? Dart, the reptile who isn’t cold-blooded at all.
The shadow monster isn’t just a monster. It’s a vast network that reaches into Will, probably Dart, and yes, those smelly pumpkin patches. It’s metastasizing the same way fear spreads across a population. There’s a reason fearmongering is a way of waging war.
Hopper, Joyce, and the Party members seem intent on solving this mystery, so much so that it’s as if the monster is infecting them as well. Hopper is downright nasty to Eleven when she returns home from her travels. At least 80% of his anger is well-founded, and it’s heightened by the fear that he’s going to lose her.
“I don’t lie, I protect!” he tells her.
But the other 20% is just vicious. He slings the word “brat” as if it’s a loaded swear word; the way it lands, it feels like the most vicious of insults. Eleven compares him to Papa (Matthew Modine) of last season. She’s not wrong. She’s been cooped in a cottage for a year! It’s amazing she’s hasn’t gone bananas before then. This is the final straw for Eleven, though, and thank God. There was only so long I was willing to watch Eleven eat Eggos in a cottage, even if she’s wearing a cute flannel.
Mike is also in full desperation mode, kicking Max to the curb any time she tries to get involved with the Party. The Party’s exclusiveness is going to be their downfall, or at least Mike’s downfall. For as much as he loves the Party, he’s pretty eager to leave it behind — he swings on over to Will’s house to help Joyce with that giant shadow monster puzzle.
Nancy and Jonathan, meanwhile, are stuck in the events of last season. Their storyline feels the weakest, if only because it feels like a lukewarm effort to get justice for Barb. Their plan is pretty simple: Talk to the scientists, get Dr. Owens to confess, record him on tape, and then use that tape to get justice for Barb. If the world at large mattered at all in Stranger Things, this might be a more effective storyline. If Nancy gets that tape to the New York Times, good for her, but that scoop isn’t going to affect what’s happening with Will right now. In fact, it might make it worse.
In the process of their investigation, though, we learn what exactly is happening at Hawkins lab. The scientists know that there’s something infecting the land near Hawkins. They’re trying to prevent it from spreading any more than it already has.
But it’s spreading in ways that the scientists can’t understand. Like, there’s a small demogorgon living inside of Dustin Henderson’s house, and it just killed a cat. Dart killing Mews was like Eleven and Hopper’s big blowout fight: I knew it was inevitable. Why was Mews such a big deal in the first three episodes? Because she was going to die! Pro tip: Always be wary of characters who suddenly become important. Still, Mews’ death was astonishing, if only because it was one of the more gory parts of this show. Stranger Things is spooky, but it’s not gory. Dead cats are a little much.
Steve Harrington Hair Update
Busy rinsing itself of its romantic foibles in the gym locker room.
Chapter Five: Dig Dug
This is officially the season of lone wolf storylines. The gang isn’t really “back together” again. This isn’t Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although I am beginning to suspect Hawkins is atop a hellmouth. Mike has split from the party to help with Will’s illness. Lucas is preoccupied with Max, his once and future love, and Dustin has that pesky baby demogorgon. Even Nancy and Jonathan aren’t exactly thick as thieves.
“What happened?” she asks Jonathan during their hotel room stay. The Wheelers seemingly don’t care about the whereabouts of their daughter. And the Byers don’t give a hoot about Jonathan, ever, so they’re off in a hotel someone outside of Hawkins. “After everything, you just disappeared.”
“Will needed me,” he says by way of explanation. “And Steve…”
Nancy gives this confusing answer: “I waited for you.”
Jonathan: “Yeah, like only a month.”
Sorry, what? Big miscommunication here, y’all. Nancy waited for a month for Jonathan to… what? Ask her out? Kiss her? Profess his love? And shy Jonathan just slunk away from the situation, especially because Steve was in the picture. Hey, Nancy, next time, you can ask Jonathan out. Then this won’t happen. For now, they’re just friends on a mission. Staying in a hotel room together. In pajamas.
The lone wolves don’t make for coziest of television, but it’s gratifying to see these characters earn some credo as individuals. We get to know them as separate entities, not just as limbs extending from Will Byers. Lucas’s little sister (Priah Ferguson) continues to be a delight. Lucas himself, in his quest to earn Max’s trust, proves to be conscientious and loyal. This just makes it all the more devastating when Max doesn’t believe him.
“We have a lot of rules in our party. But the most important one is, ‘Friends don’t lie,’” he tells her. Max does eventually believe him, but Billy is still determined to keep Lucas away from Max. It’s unclear if the Duffer brothers meant for Billy to be racist, but that’s certainly how this looks.
“There are certain types of people you stay away from,” he told Max in episode five. “That kid is one of them.” That’s textbook bigotry.
On the plus side, Billy’s determination to keep Max away from Lucas means that Max will most certainly hang out with Lucas.
Lucas is enjoying a tiny rom-com while Dustin is stuck in a mini Jurassic Park narrative. He’s a tweenaged Chris Pratt, desperate to figure out how to contain Dart without hurting dart. He traps the demogorgon in an outdoor basement (do people still have outdoor basements?) with these parting words: “I’m sorry. You killed my cat.”
Eleven’s journey takes her far outside of Hawkins to her mother. With her mom, we learn only a little bit more than we did last season. We know that Dr. Brenner took Eleven from her mother and began performing experiments on her. And we know that Brenner somehow blasted this woman into a vegetated state. Eleven uses her psionic abilities to jump into her mother’s mind, and we get the same story with a few more details. The most important detail is Roman, the girl from the beginning. Eleven’s mother Teresa shows us Roman and Eleven in a rainbow-marked room together. It’s clear that she is also an experiment much like Eleven. This is info we already knew; now, Eleven knows it, too, and she can start looking for Roman. (T-minus two episodes before Roman shows up on screen.)
Hopper’s big boy journey into the vines isn’t going well — I know he’s a big, perfect barrel of a man, but he shouldn’t be doing things alone at this point. If Will hadn’t had a now memory and alerted Joyce to Hopper’s whereabouts, he’d be dead. Luckily, Joyce invites Bob into the fold, who does some cartography for them. Those vines all over the house? They’re actually roads! Good on them for figuring this out. Good on them for saving Hopper. Bad on the scientists for blasting the tunnels with fire — Will is connected to this thing. If you blast the vines, you blast Will, too. I don’t mean to make this about Harry Potter, but I love to make things about Harry Potter: Will is a pseudo-horcrux for the shadow monster, which means neither can live while the other survives.
If we’re going with the horcrux metaphor, this also means that Will can spy on the shadow monster. Bad news: The shadow monster can spy on Will, too. This does not bode well.
Steve Harrington Hair Update
The flop is beginning to look not-so-coiffed. Is that a middle part I spy in the midst of all that volume? I guess romantic troubles have an adverse effect on perfect hair.
Chapter Six: The Spy
The disparate storylines are all tunneling their way back to one another! Lucas needs Max to believe him, so he brings Max along the Dart-hunt. Dustin needs help on his Dart-hunt, so he brings along a lovelorn Steve Harrington. And, Jonathan and Nancy are officially back in Hawkins, the land where parents do not care where you are. (Unless, of course, your name is Will Byers. Then everyone cares a great deal.) The irony is, Will’s deception will be what brings them all back together again.
Jonathan and Nancy’s trip to see Murray Bowman was really just an excuse for them to make out finally. Gelman is delightfully weird as Bowman but he’s really just a device to get this romantic furnace burning again. He prods at Nancy and Jonathan after they mail off tapes of Dr. Owens’ confession.
“Steve. We like Steve. But we don’t love Steve,” he points out. (There are others who love Steve, sir!) Nancy and Jonathan have that electricity of shared trauma, and, according to Bowman, they belong together.
Their eventual union in the first twenty minutes of the episode is inevitable and maybe a little trite, but it’s delicious all the same. These awkward teens belong together, like it or not. Now, they can be uncomfortable together! And someday they can wear matching pajama sets together. (Props to both Nancy and Jonathan for remembering to pack pajamas for this trip.) It helps that the show leans into the cheesiness of it all. The romantic synth music plays, they kiss frantically, then fall back into Bowman’s guest room, shutting the door behind them.
A question: Did Nancy and Jonathan have sex or did they just make out a little and fall asleep? Bowman’s joke the next morning seems to suggest they did the former.
“How was the pull-out?” he asks Jonathan. It’s an innuendo of sorts — he’s talking about the pull-out couch that Jonathan was supposed to sleep on. Teenage David Bowie chokes on his orange juice. Nancy smiles slightly. So, he pulled out?! Did Jonathan Byers forget to bring a condom on this overnight trip?! If you can remember pajamas, you can remember protection. (It’s the ‘80s, so maybe Nancy brought a diaphragm?)
Were you also worried that Steve Harrington was going to fade from this narrative? Because I certainly was. Luckily, he’s roped into Dustin’s plan to find D’Artagnan, and he’s a very adroit demogorgon-hunter. After realizing that Dart has escaped into the greater tunnel system, they make like Hansel and Gretel, leaving droppings of meat all the way to the junkyard, where they plan to light Dart on fire. On the way, Steve gives some unsolicited advice: Ignore the girls you like. Then, they’ll like you. It’s terrible advice. Who said Steve Harrington was perfect?
Max joins; it’s her official induction into the party, even though Mike isn’t around. As they invite her into the fold, she opens up a bit more: We learn that her parents are divorced, and her dad is back in California. Billy is her step brother, and he takes out all his angst on her.
“I know I can be a jerk like him,” she tells Lucas by way of apology. Max never really was that big of a jerk, but I guess in Hawkins all it takes is one sneer to be a douchenozzle.
“You’re nothing like your brother,” Lucas assures her. They agree that they like talking to one another. They are falling in love.
The action all traces back to the lab, where the gate to the Upside Down continues to allow this virus (the shadow monster) to spread. Things are worse for Will, who can’t remember who Bob is. He also doesn’t remember Chief Hopper, a crime in my book. The doctors can’t decide if they’re going to flame-blast the tunnels again. The flames prevent the virus from spreading, but it also hurts Will. Also, that tentacle they used to experiment on Will is identical to the worm that held Will hostage last season in the Upside Down.
If they torch the virus, they might also kill Will. What if they kill Will?
Some asshole doctor says, “Then quite frankly, Sam, it kills him.” This is the new “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
They shouldn’t kill Will, but they should stop listening to him. He tells them he knows how to stop the shadow monster; it’s one big fat lie. The scientists head down to the tunnels, where they are promptly ambushed by a pack of demogorgons — Dart is not alone. He has siblings, and they are out for flesh. This moment brings us a lovely Star Wars reference as Mike hollers, “It’s a trap!”
The scientists don’t fare too well at the hands of the demos, but better the scientists than our raggedy pack of kids at the junkyard. Dustin’s plan to kill Dart almost works, but then Dart (and his peers, who also arrive on the scene) runs away, seemingly for no reason. He’s going because the shadow monster called him.
The missing piece of this uniting puzzle is Eleven, who’s off with her mother. Hopper leaves her an apology message that’s just too little too late. Remember when you called her a brat? You should have apologized back then, Hopper. Also, just go home and get your psuedo-daughter! The parents in this show are very comfortable leaving their children at home. Such was the ‘80s.
Steve Harrington Hair Update
Looking slightly perkier, as it now has a task at hand. We also now have the recipe for great hair: Faberge organics, and four puffs of the Farrah Fawcett spray.
Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister
I don’t want to encourage lazy television viewership, but if you wanted to, say, prepare some lentil soup or sort your work emails, this episode is the one to do it. Chapter seven is a necessary evil. It’s going to the dentist, but for Stranger Things character arcs. It’s imperative that Eleven go on a journey. She has to, otherwise she won’t understand why it’s so important that she remain in Hawkins. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, as they say.
Which isn’t to say this episode doesn’t bring us delicious tidbits. We go to Chicago with Eleven, the first time (since the premiere) that we’ve left Indiana. Eleven in Chicago is thrilling; it’s a whole new environment for her. Bon Jovi’s “Runaway” plays (WHERE ON EARTH IS NETFLIX GETTING THIS MONEY?) and our mop-haired protagonist explores the city, looking for her lost sister. She even uses her favorite term, “mouth breather” when a Chicagoer has the gall to knock into her.
Her sister couldn’t be all hugs and smiles, though, and she certainly is not. Linnea Berthelsen, the actress, is listed as "Roman" on IMDb, but in this episode she introduces herself as Kali. Kali is a self-centered vigilante living out a Kill Bill narrative from an empty warehouse in Chicago. She uses her “gifts” to kill the men involved with the science experiments. Her crew — the suicide squad from the premiere episode — are all strays like Eleven. They aren’t gifted, though. There’s clearly a power dynamic here. Kali rules these lost runaways by being a maternal figure. But she’s also powerful and a wee bit intimidating. When Axel (James Landry Hebert) threatens Eleven with a knife, friendly fellow that he is, Kali uses her gift to make him stop.
Her gift seems to illustrate the difference between Eleven and Kali. Eleven’s gift is communicative; she uses technology to communicate with people. Kali’s is manipulative. She can make people see whatever she wants them to. Hence, the destroyed tunnel in the premiere. She is a master manipulator in life, too. She has four henchmen perform vigilante justice for her in exchange for a home and a leader. It’s a little cult-y.
Even with Eleven, whom she calls Jane, Kali is manipulative. When Eleven can’t bear to kill Ray, Kali is extremely harsh. She says Eleven “stole” the kill from the team. Later, Kali comes to apologize for being so cruel. She says she was once merciful, and regrets that period of kindness. Kali once had her own version of Hopper, but her family didn’t “understand” her powers. Now, she’s healthy, and she uses her powers to kill the people who once worked for Dr. Brenner.
“That’s why I’m hard on you. Because I see in you my past mistakes,” she tells Eleven.
Everything about the episode, from the slick mohawks to the cartoonish language — “Shirley Temple lost her sister, so sad,” Axel says when Eleven first arrives — feels stale. But, sigh, it’s necessary.
Eleven learns how to use her gift, which is important. And, she figures out where home is. Home is in Hawkins. She uses her ability to spy on Mike, who is screaming at the guards in the Hawkins lab. Mike’s in trouble, and there’s only one person who can help. Hm, maybe the girl who recently learned how to harness her psionic abilities can help?
The other piece of important information we learn in this episode is that Dr. Brenner might still be alive. He hasn’t shown up in this season yet, but that doesn’t mean he won’t. (Methinks season three, but I’ve been wrong about many things.)
Episode seven is a mini-Odyssey. Eleven headed out to war, found her identity, and now she’s headed home, where Mike-Penelope has been weaving and unweaving a proverbial tapestry.
“I’m going to my friends,” she tells a friendly lady on the bus. “I’m going home.”
Steve Harrington Hair Update
Non-existent in this episode. Precisely why you should skip it.
Chapter Eight: The Mind Flayer
In the most intense episode this series has ever seen, a pack — an army — of demo-dogs (a term coined by Dustin in this episode) descend on the Hawkins laboratory. Last season, the kids fought a single demogorgon and a pack of government scientists. This season, the odds are much worse. There are innumerable dogs, and they really wreak havoc on the lab. It’s much bloodier than last season. The dogs destroy an elevator filled with people, and, most importantly, they rob us of Bob the Brain, the hero we never knew we had.
Bob always gave me the heebie-jeebies. He was too kind, too earnest, and too chipper for Hawkins. I wondered if he were part of the shadow monster. Now I know that his fate was much worse: He was an innocent guy who just happened to fall in love with a single mom. He was too pure for this world, which is exactly why he was expendable. It doesn’t help that his name semi-rhymes with Barb, who was the big death of last season.
Right when all seems lost, Bob rescues the team at the lab with his brain. He uses basic, a computer programming language, as Mike tells us, to reconfigure the locks in the lab, which shut down as soon as the power went out. This isn’t a task Hopper could do. It’s Bob Newby, through and through.
Bob’s attempted escape is genuinely harrowing. Dr. Owens talks him through it all, but the doc couldn’t have anticipated that goddamn broom. Just when Bob is ready to sneak out of the building without alerting the demo-dogs, he unleashes a broom from the closet, which bangs on the floor. It’s basically a dog whistle, and the demo-dogs come running. It’s downright cruel that Bob almost makes it out the door. He’s but five feet away from Joyce when a demo-dog attacks him. Hopper drags a screaming Joyce to safety, but the damage is done. If Barb’s death was eerie, Bob’s is just plain traumatic.
In contrast, Billy’s backstory seems insignificant. He has an abusive father, which is why he’s so harsh on Max. His father is also a bigot, which might explain Billy’s distaste for Lucas.
But the party must soldier on. At this point, everyone reunited. Jonathan, Nancy, Steve, and all the party members are present, including a newly inducted Max. At house Byers, they convene to discuss what to do. Even amidst all this trauma and gore, Stranger Things maintains its cheeky tone. The kids bicker like they’ve always done. Lucas continues to correct Dustin — it’s an analogy, not a metaphor, Dustin. And Hopper is the same gruff, put-upon papa that he was in the first season.
The metaphor — sorry, analogy — of the season is the Mind Flayer, another Dungeons and Dragons term. The shadow monster is the mind flayer. It has the ability to control brains, as it’s doing to Will. And it’s goal is to overthrow other races. It believes itself to be the master race.
“Like the Germans,” Steve Harrington points out helpfully.
“The Nazis,” Dustin corrects. “If the Nazis were from another dimensions, totally.”
They then put Will through a bizarre form of therapy. They tie him up and make sure he doesn’t know where they are (so he won’t tell the shadow monster where they are) and start recalling memories with him. It’s a nice opportunity for us to learn about Will, the most enigmatic of the party members. (I maintain that Will is analogous to Jude from A Little Life. Talk to me about it after class.) He loves to draw, we learn, and once drew a rainbow ship. (Jude! A Little Life!) He and Mike became best friends on the first day of kindergarten.
“I had no friends,” Mike recalls. Erm, Mike, most people don’t have friends on the first day of kindergarten, unless you somehow collected a posse in pre-school.
Jonathan recalls the night they met Castle Byers, once again proving that Charlie Heaton has his limitations as an actor.
This is enough to prove that Will is inside, but barely. Only enough to do some basic morse code that spells: CLOSE GATE. He taps on the chair — this season's version of the alphabet Christmas lights.
Now, who might be able to close that giant gate below Hawkins lab?
Eleven’s entrance, which absolutely had to happen this episode, is utterly predictable and utterly perfect. She kills a demo-dog, tosses it through a window, then slides the lock open with her mind. Then, she enters house Byers, rocking her punk Chicago look. (The Duffer Brothers have once again given us the best Halloween costume. Grab a blazer, a pair of Converse, and some black eyeliner. You’re done.)
The fate of Hawkins rests in her 13-year-old hands.
Steve Harrington Hair Update
Beleaguered, tired of the day’s battles. Still, the hair stands at attention.
Chapter Nine: The Gate
All the pawns have fallen in place, so the finale actually doesn’t have that much to do besides twiddle its thumbs until that gate closes. Because there’s not much tension anymore, the twiddling is all very funny. Everything resolves itself in the manner you think it will: Eleven returns, she ends her feud with Hopper, and Will eventually purges himself of the shadow monster. In the back of my mind, I hoped that Roman would emerge to provide some assistance; in reality, that might have made the finale just a little too tidy.
As it stands, the finale is just tidy enough. Eleven returns with her Chicago glow-up just in time to save her friends from being demogorgon dinner. Will is overcome to see her, his little pale St. Vincent face swallowed by emotion. They reenact The Notebook rain scene, except without the rain and the making out.
“I never gave up on you,” he tells her. “I called you every night. Every night for”—
“Three hundred and fifty-three days,” she says, finishing his thought. He wrote you everyday for a year, Eleven! There has never been a tweenage love story so powerful.
Finn Wolfhard hasn’t done much this season, but when he does, he destroys. His mini-fistfight is his emotional peak.
He yells, “I blame you!” until he can’t anymore, and then he collapses into Hopper’s chest. Hopper this season has been very Harrison Ford in 2017: He doesn’t really give a fuck. You might call him Hawkins’ version of Ron Swanson. (Replete with an aversion to all things healthy!) He, like Mike, is also at his breaking point, though. When Mike embraces Hopper, it’s like the two of them have finally admitted that all this stuff — these stranger things — have been really hard.
Most everything else resolves itself in a clean fashion. Steve tells Nancy that he’s been a shitty boyfriend, and gives her the okay to leave with Jonathan. Steve’s being a little generous, but it’s what Nancy needs to hear. And Hopper and Eleven are officially done squabbling.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m just some kind of black hole or something,” he tells her as they ride to the lab. He then reveals his big secret: He has a daughter who died. Her name was Sarah. In Hopper’s words: “She left us. The black hole. It got her.”
They both agree that they’ve been stupid. And stupid is no good. Remember: The rule of this season is don’t be stupid. That means don’t be pigheaded.
The only unexpected action of the finale involves Billy, who’s out hunting for Max. He’s the only real enemy left to defeat, now that Eleven is here to close the gate. Dacre Montgomery has a minor role in this show, but he is eating the screen alive every time we see him. His interaction with Mrs. Wheeler might be the comedic highlight of the season. It helps that in the time between seasons Mrs. Wheeler became a Charlie Brown-style parent. Every time we’ve seen her this season, she’s been a parody of a busybody housewife. Here, she’s clad in a silk robe and down to clown with Billy. They flirt, and she eventually gives him the Byers’ address.
The subsequent showdown between Billy and Steve at the Byers’ is just as comic. Yes, Billy is a menace, but we know at this point that he’s not 100% evil. Again, Montgomery eats the scene alive — Steve and the rest of the kids are mere set pieces when Billy is throwing his way around the Byers home. (Again, that poor home.) Things get hairy when Billy grabs Lucas, but luckily Steve is there to protect him. Steve, as he said himself, is a good babysitter.
Billy’s battle serves a couple of purposes. First, it resolves his storyline. Max threatens him with a baseball bat near (it was very close!) his crotch, and it seems that Billy might finally back off. Second, it provides the kids with a car. And the car means they can jump back into the action, instead of being on the bench.
This is how Max proves her worth in the party. In episode three, she told Mike that she could be the party’s “zoomer.” It turns out, a zoomer is someone who drives really fast even though she doesn’t have a permit. (A question: Why can’t Max and Eleven be friends?) There is also nothing funnier than a punch-drunk Steve awakening in a car going full-speed. Their plan to save Eleven via diverting the attention of the demo-dogs is a good one; remember how the lab was riddled with demos? Eleven is about to go in there, and it’d be best if she didn’t meet Bob’s fate.
The last piece that must fall into place is Will. Will is infected with a virus. Joyce finally has the brilliant idea to try to burn the virus out of him, which is exactly what a fever is. (Your body temperature rises, hoping to making your body inhospitable to the virus.) This realization might have come earlier, but you know. It’s television. There’s not much to say about their plan except that it works. They blast the heat, Will screams and even tries to choke his mother, but the shadow monster escapes. And once again, Will Byers is left to reckon with an extremely traumatic experience.
With that, Eleven can close the gate. It’s a little anti-climactic.
I have two opinions about epilogues. One is that they’re annoying that we shouldn’t have to spoonfed the sweet endings of our favorite characters. The other is that it’s very gratifying to see our favorite characters happy finally. The show leaves us at the Snow Ball. This is the dance Mike told Eleven he’d take her to all the way in season one. As such, the dance feels almost too final, too tidy. Eleven dances with Mike. Max dances with Lucas. A girl asks Will to dance, and Nancy pity-dances with Dustin (who has officially adopted the Steve Harrington hairstyle).
Steve Harrington is now Dustin’s mentor, and Jonathan seems to be officially dating Nancy.
What else do we need from the people of Hawkins?
The final shot of the season is of the shadow monster looming over the middle school. The scene seems to imply that the monster is still out there, so perhaps there’s another season in Hawkins waiting for us. But something about the sweetness of the Snow Ball spells final ending, at least for the people in Hawkins.
Steve Harrington Hair Update
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