As much as being trapped in an alternate dimension hiding underneath your sleepy suburb is trenchant sci-fi/horror, nothing beats something evil inside a kid. Body horror and possessions allow puberty fears to co-exist with those of a victim worried that he will never be normal again. As Stranger Things explores in “Dig Dug” and “The Spy,” Will (Noah Schnapp) has his trauma literally controlling him now, and his worries are just beginning.
Will, recently filled to the brim with shadowy evil, needs a friend. Mike (Finn Wolfhard), who up until now has been pretty useless this season, takes it upon himself to care for his haunted pal. Previously, Mike’s support has mainly been asking “Where’s Will?” after Will, whose eyes are seeing unimaginable evils in some Hellraiser dimension while he’s expected to dick around with his doofus friends during A.V. Club, wanders off. Now, Mike attempts to reach Will through a common nerdiness in order to placate his fears.
Reasoning that if there’s some shadow monster in Will, that means Will can spy on it (sort of a Lord of the Rings-esque palantír situation), Mike helps push the story forward while tempering the panic that a recently-possessed kid may feel. It’s reminiscent of any “silver lining” conversation with someone receiving a bad diagnosis, filled with the grasping fallibility of good intentions. That said, the duo’s decided term for Will’s shared brain with the Upside Down’s baddie, “now-memories,” is godawful. The conflation of memories and knowledge, however, is a tangent I can get behind, if only because it represents much of what Stranger Things as a show stands for.
On the other side of the coming-of-age horrorshow is Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). He and his family actually get fun things to do in the show, as opposed to last season, when he was exclusively present to distrust Eleven. Especially the bone-melting acid of his little sister, Erica (Priah Ferguson, ready for great things).
His crush, mocked as it is by his family and opposed by the racist mullet that is Max’s stepbrother (Dacre Montgomery), operates as the pubescent counterbalance the show needs to the “weird thing I don’t understand inside of me” body horror. It also serves as sweet motivation for him clueing Max (Sadie Sink) into the truth of last year’s Will-ventures. The scene is handled with brisk cleverness, giving us a reflection of critics of the show (Max finds the story “a little derivative at parts”) and some delicious deadpan thanks to Matty Cardarople’s burnout arcade employee.
The same cleverness is attempted (with far less success) with the Scooby Gang of Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). They, over the course of the two episodes, embark on a quest to get their (hopefully!) incriminating tape of Paul Reiser’s Dept. of Energy lab head to someone that can do something with it. This leads them to a hotel room, which is sort of amusing until it’s deflated by level of chemistry between the two, which is more “Scooby and Shaggy” than “Fred and Daphne”.
Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is also on a quest, one for her mother (Aimee Mullins). When she finally finds her, in the care of her aunt Becky (Amy Seimetz), they’re on opposite paths of social adjustment. This parallel, with Eleven learning about the world as her mother’s lucidity almost completely slips away, shows us two women whose minds were destroyed by powerful men.
This is the kind of assault—the kind that affects mind, body and social standing—that happens all the time (as we’re seeing with the current flood of sexual assault revelations) in a patriarchal system that the villainous Dept. of Energy represents. There are no, as you may notice, female scientists with speaking roles. This isn’t just the 1980s. This is America.
Eleven may be at an impasse with her mother, though they try to communicate to each other in an excellent callback scene, but she’s got a lead. Another girl who was in the lab with her. The girl we saw way back in the cold open. A sister.
That’s more than the Scooby Gang gets, as they eventually take their tape to former Chicago Sun-Times reporter Murray (Brett Gelman). You know, the guy Barb’s family hired and promptly stopped mentioning after a sentence? They arrive to see a corkboard that would give American Vandal a run for its parodic money and Murray… well, I’m not sure why Murray is around. I’m not sure what power he has that characterizing Jonathan a bit more couldn’t solve. All the Scooby Squad learn from that horndog is that they should water their story down a little to temper the insanity of it all and that maybe they should hook up at his house after some grating Temple of Doom back-and-forth.
There’s a fun match cut to Erica playing with toys that “don’t even exist on the same planet,” and yeah, that’s how I feel. As much fun as drunk/horny Gelman is to watch, I’d rather watch him cheer for any other character pairing, especially after it references the worst Indiana Jones.
Someone showcasing his inner Harrison Ford during these episodes is Hopper (David Harbour). He’s spelunking in some vine-laden tunnels like he fell into The Ruins, but even better because the set and effects are tangibly leathery and gross. Hopper’s gruffness (tempered by the sweetness we know lies at his core, of which an unheard apology call to Eleven reminds us) separates him from most male actors working today, because his action hero is fed up, chunky, and frustrated. That’s such a charming combination that it makes the character work whether he’s fielding asinine police calls or fighting supernatural plants.
It makes the fact that he has to be saved by a Mr. Fix-It like Bob (Sean Astin), after the dweeb solves Will’s crayon map in thirty seconds, all the sweeter. Astin’s gleeful even when faced with weirdness. He’s amiable and jolly and in complete opposition to Hopper’s personality but with the same resolute reliability—which is a nice pairing.
Which Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Dart, for instance, are not. You can be mad that Dustin doesn’t realize that Dart is very bad. Matarazzo’s already great at line delivery (both deadpan and over-the-top) but his physical humor, waddling around in hockey pads to stay safe from his demonic pet, is a great showcase of the young actor’s chops. And who could be mad at those pearls?
Plus, “I’m sorry, you ate my cat,” is an all-time killer monster-beater line. That it’s followed by a delightful pairing of Dustin and Steve (Joe Keery) is a blessing these episodes were generous enough to grant us. Steve’s just a good-hearted guy looking to apologize to Nancy, but she’s not around so, yeah, he’ll hang out with some kids for a while. He hates monsters, loves girls, and has a hair routine that he meticulously details for Dustin (and for some of us more hair-conscious TV recappers).
Max joins the hair pair and Lucas as they lure Dart to a junkyard. This happens as Will taps into his designation as a human palantir, pointing out an important location on a new Polaroid map (which is an upgrade from its crayon predecessor) that is blurred out. Something important must be there. A hard synth-backed montage ramps up the energy as the junkyard kids share the quiet emotional connections that arise from the contained horror of the ‘80s. The calm before the storm always means trouble, both for the kids and for the soldiers that went to check on Will’s hint. Didn’t they realize that spies can work both ways?
Seeing a bunch of demon dogs roll out of the fog is a slam dunk after five episodes spent building tension, especially since it ties in so well with the traumatic coping of its central locus. Trauma creating a vulnerability to other threats/emotional exploitations is a hard thing to convey through metaphor, especially when it’s kids and monsters. Betraying trust is a savvy study on the follow-up to initial victimization and what comes from it, namely future advantage taken and the eventual hardening/toughening of one that accepts and embraces their painful past. That Will is inexorably linked to his demons is thematically savvy and begging for an exorcism—soon.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.