by Sandy DeVito
This episode doesn't waste any time and starts off with a jolt: Barb wakes up with her face dirty and bloody, in darkness, coughing up water. This is where things in the series really start to go bonkers: as far as where Barb is, we aren't sure exactly, but it looks a little bit like the basin of Steve's pool - if Steve's pool were empty, full of weird dirty stuff, and in a world with no moon. The air is full of wilty wisps of matter - snow? Dust? Alien boogers? Who knows what it is, but it gives you the willies.
Barb cries out for Nancy - flash to the regular world, where Nancy and Steve are kissing passionately on Steve's bed to Foreigner's "I've Been Waiting For a Girl Like You" (ugh that's a great song), clearly a moment away from The Deed - and for a moment, Nancy hesitates, as if she heard the cry. But we can clearly see that pool at Steve's house, illuminated with light and chlorine-blue, is still and empty. Wherever Barb is, it's apparently close enough to get sucked in, but it's not this place. Steve ardently murmurs "you are so beautiful," and Nancy is sucked back into the Nancy/Steve 4 Ever Kissathon. Poor Barb. The dark place is strange and cold, and to make matters worse, there's something fucking horrible down there with her. She sees a glimpse of it and screams - we don't get a good look at it, but it's huge and its cry is monstrous. There's even a pool rung-ladder, probably like the one in Steve's pool, that Barb tries to climb to get out and away from The Thing. She almost makes it, but the Thing gets her ankle - and drags her down, out of our sight. Barb's screams go silent.
Cue title. Stranger Things are beginning in earnest. I forgot to mention last week the two executive producers (besides the Duffer Brothers themselves) in last week's overview of Episode Two. They are Iain Paterson (a longtime TV producer - he also worked on House of Cards) and Karl Gajdusek. Gajdusek is an interesting addition to this project because he's most well-known for screenwriting in the past (kinda like how Shane Black wrote for a long time before he ever directed). He wrote the screenplays for the Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion and Trespass with Nicholas Cage and Nicole Kidman, he even wrote some episodes of Bryan Fuller's Dead Like Me. Gajdusek clearly contributes to the simultaneous TV/cinematic experience that Stranger Things ends up being - it often plays more like a long movie than a TV show and many of its influences are clearly genre films. This melding of cinema and television is almost its own new genre (pioneered by cable channels like HBO, but being utterly refined by streaming platforms like Netflix), allowing for the quality and nuance of film while using television's long-form-story mold. Shows like Stranger Things are the result, and it's an exciting culmination of storytelling styles that helps this show feel new when it starts to buckle under the weight of all that nostalgia.
Nancy is getting dressed and Steve is asleep, clearly post-coitus. Nancy tries to say goodbye to Steve, but he barely stirs from his slumber, a moment that rings of the trope that labels men unable to show emotional sensitivity after sex. She crosses by the pool as she leaves, in a moment of dramatic irony - we know Barb was dragged down into that pool into that weird other place, and that she is probably dead, but Nancy doesn't. Mrs. Wheeler is beside herself when Nancy gets home (she promised to be home by 10, after all, and it's probably well after midnight), and Nancy makes up a string of fibs. Mrs. Wheeler sometimes seems like Nancy's older sister than her mom, and admonishes to her: "you can talk to me!" Clearly she has her suspicions that Nancy is not being truthful. But Nancy continually insists nothing happened, even though she's wearing Steve's sweatshirt.
The next morning at the Byers', Jonathan finds Joyce sitting with every lamp in the house gathered around her. We know what Joyce experienced the night before, but Jonathan doesn't, and when she tries to insist Will is attempting to talk to her through the lights and mentions the wall warping, he understandably thinks she's losing her mind with grief. But Joyce is on the right track, and Ryder's masterful portrayal is a revelation, a mixture of frenzy and single-minded love for her children. Later, after Jonathan leaves for school, she pulls out a box of Christmas lights and starts to string them all around the house - when she runs out she goes to her workplace and buys more, despite incredulous looks from her boss. We can clearly see that Lonnie was wrong - Joyce is maybe the Best Mom Ever, because she is suspending her disbelief in the face of extreme weirdness if it means helping her son.
Mike, Dustin, and Lucas are all gathered in the basement again with El, gathering supplies to search for Will once more later that night after school. Lucas brought practical weapons, his dad's binoculars and army knife from Vietnam, a slingshot ("it's not a slingshot, it's a wrist rocket"), a hammer. Dustin brought snacks, mostly candy. He reminds the others that they don't need weapons when they have El's powers. He tries to get El to hover Mike's toy Millennium Falcon (was that an actual toy in 1983? dope) with her telekinesis, but she ignores him. Mrs. Wheeler calls to the boys that it's time for school, and Mike reminds El again not to leave the basement until it's time to meet them at the power lines behind his house around 3:15. He gives her his digital watch in a cute token exchange that makes it clear Mike's feelings about El are stronger than either Dustin's or Lucas' (Lucas is still incredulous of El, calling her "the weirdo" and insisting she's crazy). Later, when El is alone, we see her making the Millennium Falcon toy hover with ease, in fact, boredom. She ventures upstairs, playing on the La-Z-Boy, picking up the phone and humming along to the dial-tone, then turns on the TV. She flips between channels for a moment - Ronald Reagan doing a press conference about Syria, a He-Man cartoon, and then a Coca-Cola commercial. This seems to trigger a flashback in her once more: we see El sitting at a table in a cold clinical room behind glass, her head covered in a mass of wires connected to some kind of polygraph scribbling on sheets of paper. In front of her, an empty coke can, on which she is visibly straining in concentration. We see the white-haired man and other people in lab coats watching her intently. Suddenly, the can crumples. El looks up at the white-haired man, her nose bleeding. He smiles, clearly pleased. It's obvious to us that this is the setting in which El learned how to use her powers. She resurfaces from the memory, her face visibly upset, and turns off the TV.
Nancy's in the halls at school, and it's obvious to us she feels shy and nervous from the previous night. Steve finds her at her locker, and she tells him, "I feel like everyone is staring at me." Steve reassures her he didn't tell anyone. They kiss, and he points to the glittery butterfly stickers on her locker, smiling at her. Steve seems to genuinely like Nancy, subverting the "douchebag boyfriend" trope enough that we can't hate him in earnest, but we're apprehensive as Nancy seems to be. She goes to class and realizes Barb isn't in her seat. She asks a girl named Ally if she knows where Barb is. "Um, shouldn't you know?" Ally says. In her preoccupation with Steve, Nancy's failed to protect her best friend. I have mixed feelings about what exactly this is implying in the narrative - are we shaming Nancy for being interested in a boy and wanting to have sex? On one hand it feels like the narrative seeks to empower her, and on the other, it's as if looking after her friend should take precedence over everything else. I don't think it's Nancy's fault that something bad happened to Barb, but the narrative itself seems to have the verdict out. Later, Nancy is seated at lunch with Steve and his douchey friends, Tommy and Carol. Nancy asks Tommy if he remembers seeing Barb when they left Steve's house the night before. Tommy at first pretends not to know who she's talking about (like I said, douchey), but eventually admits he didn't see her. Steve blandly tries to reassure her and suggests Barb's just skipping class. But Barb didn't seem like the kind of girl who'd play hooky, and Nancy is clearly uncomforted. She sees Jonathan watching her from the hallway.
Hopper, with Callahan and his other deputy Powell, is attempting to get into Hawkins Laboratory to garner information about Will. The man at the gate tells them he can't let them in, but Hopper tries to appeal to his better nature, insisting he has a hysterical town to soothe. Hopper is a charming guy when he wants to be (read: he's a Hot Cop), and this works on the gatesman. They're led around the grounds by some guy that looks like a security guard - Hopper wonders aloud as they walk through the halls what exactly they're all doing there and the man retorts, "you're asking the wrong guy." Hopper asks who's in charge, and the man replies "That would be Dr. Brenner." Could this Brenner be the white-haired man? They find the drain which leads out of the compound to where they found the scrap of hospital gown. The lab official insists it would be impossible for anyone to get in or out of the compound without the cameras picking it up, and Hopper asks if they can see the tape from the night where Will disappeared. There seems to be nothing on it, but as they're leaving, Hopper asks Callahan and Powell if they remember anything from that night. Powell recalls the search party was called off because of rain. But there was no rain on the tape. "They're lying."
Mike & the boys are looking for good rocks on the playground for the wrist rocket when they have another run-in with Troy and his buddy, the bullies who regularly bother them. Troy mocks them and says his dad told him Will was probably "killed by some other queer." They trip Mike and he falls, hitting his chin on a rock. Ironically, the rock is just the kind they're looking to use for the wrist rocket, and the boys take it with them. Later, when El asks Mike how he hurt himself, he calls Troy a "mouthbreather - you know, a dumb person, a knucklehead." Teaching El things about normal life isn't limited to just the practical. Everyone can use a few good insults.
Jonathan is in the school darkroom developing the pictures he took while hiding in the bushes by Steve's house, but a fellow student sees him and tells Steve and his friends. They rip up the pictures and drop Jonathan's camera on the ground, breaking it. Here's the thing about this scene - it's mean to break his camera, but I still don't get why he thought it was okay to take secret creepy pictures of all of them, especially Steve and Nancy disrobing through the window. I like Jonathan as a character in general, but this is definitely something he somewhat deserved. There's no redeeming party in this case except perhaps Nancy. She sees one of the pictures is of Barb when she was sitting by the pool, and takes it. She ditches Steve and his friends, making up an excuse, and goes back to Steve's house to try to find some clues. She finds Barb's car where they left it the night previous, and while looking around the woods, she glimpses the strange Thing - again we don't get a good look at it, but it's huge and hulking and grey. Terrified, she runs home and comes clean to her mother about what she was doing and Barb's disappearance.
Hopper and his deputies go to the local library to try to find more information about Hawkins Laboratory--he's met with icy resentment from the librarian, who calls him a "dick" and reams him out for never calling her back (causing him to make this priceless face). Clearly he and the librarian slept together in the past; it's becoming somewhat clear to us through exposition that Hopper is a bit of a local lothario, and has apparently slept with half the women in town. Nevertheless she directs them to the archival newspapers and the microfiche (1983 - no internet!). They find some old articles about a lawsuit from a woman named Terry Ives who claimed the Hawkins reserchers "stole her daughter." Powell calls the Hawkins lab "some hippy crap," but Hopper corrects him, incredulously: "this is CIA-sanctioned research." Apparently, what they're doing at Hawkins Lab is Very Official. Hop recalls the bit of hospital gown by the pipe and hypothesizes that maybe Will "was in the wrong place at the wrong time." He's right, but we know it's in a different way than he necessarily believes.
Joyce has set up lights all over the house, and they begin to go off one-by-one as if to signify a trail. Joyce follows them to a cupboard, where she gathers a bundle of lights in her hands. "Will, are you here?" The lights illuminate themselves momentarily. She tells the lights-that-might-be-Will to shine once for yes, twice for no. "Are you alive?" The lights shine once. "Are you safe?" They shine, this time twice. "I need to find you, tell me what to do!" But this isn't a yes-or-no question. Joyce gets some black house paint and paints the alphabet across the living room wall, stringing a light beneath each letter. "Where are you?" she cries. The lights go off: R I G H T H E R E. "What should I do?" R U N. And the wall begins to warp and bend again, like putty - this time, an alien arm breaks through, grotesquely elongated and slimy. Joyce runs from the house, screaming.
El goes to meet the boys by the powerlines as instructed, and notices a cat on the other side of the fence, hissing at her. We are plunged into another flashback, where she's wearing the head wires again and has apparently been instructed to inflict pain telepathically on a cat. She shakes her head at Brenner, her face distraught and tear-stained, and we again see orderlies dragging her to the small room. This time, however, she throws one into the wall with her powers in a rage, and breaks the other's neck. Brenner appears, apparently pleased with this. As she sobs, he picks her up and carries her down the hallway. She reemerges from the memory as Mike and the boys arrive, and she hops on the back of Mike's bike. She brings them to Will's house as night falls, and Lucas gets upset, again calling her a "weirdo" and lamenting them ever listening to her. Even Mike seems to be beginning to have doubts. They see police cars going by at high speed, and they jump on their bikes to follow. The squad cars lead them to the reservoir - where the cops are fishing a small body from the water, a body that looks a lot like Will Byers. Mike is distraught. "You said he was alive!" he yells at El. "What's wrong with you!" He runs away from them with his bike, in tears.
Joyce is running from the house as Jonathan's car is coming towards it. He gets out, and she clings to him in terror. Mike reaches home and falls into his mother's arms, sobbing. As Joyce and Jonathan embrace, we hear police sirens approaching their house in the distance. These scenes are beautiful, the best in this episode: they're all juxtapositions of light and shadows, the car headlights and the lights on the boy's bikes surrounded in the darkness of the night that enfolds them, both literally and figuratively, and in the background Peter Gabriel's cover of Bowie's Heroes plays, swelling our emotions to a breaking point. Once again the cast is so good they can stir feelings of grief and sadness in us without even speaking. Was it really Will's body in the lake? The really strange things in Hawkins seem to be truly just beginning.