by Sandy DeVito
Episode two, The Weirdo on Maple Street, picks up right where Episode one left off: Mike and Co. are back in his parents' basement, having brought the strange girl they found in the woods with them, and she sits under a giant coat as they bicker over what to do with her, the storm still raging outside. Dustin asks if she has cancer due to her shaved head. When Mike tries to give her dry clothes, she starts trying to change right in front of them--clearly she doesn't understand social norms. Mike shows her the bathroom, but she doesn't want the door shut all the way. Eleven is clearly terrified to be alone, though it's not yet clear to us why. Lucas suggests she may have escaped from "Pennhurst, the asylum over in Kerley County" - this seems to be a nod to the infamous Pennhurst Asylum in my home state of Pennsylvania that closed in the late 1980's on allegations of abuse and neglect. "Like Michael Myers," Dustin says, and there's our nod to Halloween. Lucas and Dustin agree they should tell Mrs. Wheeler about the girl, but Mike makes a good point: if they tell her, she'll know they went out when they weren't allowed, and she'll tell the other parents, and "our homes become Alcatraz." They agree Eleven should stay hidden in the basement for at least one night.
Mike gives her his old sleeping bag after Lucas and Dustin leave, and asks her name. She points again to the tattoo on her arm. Mike's surprised - "I've never seen a kid with a tattoo before, what does it mean?" She point to herself. "That's your name?" She nods, this strange girl of few words. Mike explains that his name is short for "Michael", "So maybe we could call you El - short for Eleven." It is clear from this scene that Mike and Eleven are already friends, and that he is already feeling strongly protective of her. He has to go to bed, though - and newly-christened El is left alone in the basement with only the sound of the thunder pealing on outside. Tears form in her eyes, and she cries herself to sleep.
We get the title sequence here, each letter panning away from the camera to form the red neon letters of the title card. The music used for this brief and effective opening is perhaps the most memorable theme from the show at large, and though it's understated, it lurks around in your psyche long after you've finished watching an episode. It's the right combination of retro, spooky, and classic. The producers listed for the show are Cindy Holland, Brian Wright, Matt Thunell, Shaun Levy and Dan Cohen; Levy and Cohen are probably most well known for the Night at the Museum movies with Ben Stiller; Cindy Holland has worked on other Netflix shows like Sense 8 and Daredevil; the other two guys I couldn't find anything on at all. There seems to be a good mix of new and older, established people in the industry working on Stranger Things. That reflects often on its mixture of nostalgic and contemporary tone. One of the things Netflix is doing best right now with all its original programming is giving newer filmmakers a platform with which to get their work out without needing to have a spectacular amount of funding behind them - Adam Wingard's Death Note adaptation was recently picked up by them, for example. A show like Stranger Things may have had a difficult time getting off the ground on a regular network, but in Netflix's deft and trusting hands, it's given a chance to soar.
Back at the Byers', Joyce is beside herself, deeply distraught, attempting to put together MISSING posters. The night before, she received an inexplicable phone call where she swears she heard Will's breathing on the other end before the phone short-circuited, leaving it dead and blackened by some strange power outage. Jonathan attempts to keep her calm as they hear a knock at the door - it's Hopper, and they didn't find anything yet. He's also incredulous towards Joyce's claim about the phone. He thinks it might be Lonnie, her estranged ex, who knows where Will is, as he hasn't bothered to contact them at all since Will went missing. Jonathan wants to be the one to go over to Lonnie's, but Hopper tells him to stay put. Something about this scene rings as though Hopper, Lonnie and Joyce have some sort of history - as if this is a personal vendetta for Hopper somehow. It's left unclear, but later in the episode one of Hopper's deputies, Callahan, makes a crack about Hopper and Joyce "screwing" in the past. It's just a hunch on his part, but we as the audience start to wonder, too, if they have history.
Back at the Wheeler's, it's breakfast time, and we see Mike stuffing Eggo waffles in his pockets, no doubt to give to the strange little girl hiding in the basement. He sneaks them to her later, admonishing her to reveal herself to his mom by going around the front of the house pretending she just got there, but she refuses. "You don't want my mom to get help? You're in trouble?" "Bad," she says. "Bad people?" She nods, and raises her hand in the shape of a gun to her temple. "Understand?" We and Mike understand quite well. Eleven is in serious danger.
Nancy and Barb are in the halls of Hawkins High, and Steve runs into them with his crew. His parents will be away for the week, and he has their house to himself - he invites Nancy over for a "party." As they're talking, they see Jonathan putting up Will's MISSING signs on a bulletin board. It's obvious the Byers family is somewhat known in Hawkins for their "eccentricities;" Steve and the others imply that maybe Jonathan killed Will himself. Jonathan is awkward and quiet, but he's clearly just in the uncomfortable throes of late puberty. I was Jonathan when I was in high school - poor, nerdy, a natural choice for a social outcast. Nancy goes over to him as everyone else mocks him, though. It's obvious that Nancy, though eager to be accepted and caught up in the dynamics of high school populism, is a good soul, and that she genuinely feels for the Byers. We also get a hint here that maybe the relationship between Nancy and Jonathan extends slightly beyond their little brothers' close friendship - that maybe they could be close, too, someday.
Mike is late to class, and Dustin and Lucas anxiously discuss the possibility that his mom found out about Eleven. She didn't, though - Mike is just cutting school to hang out with El. He shows her his house, clearly eager to be her friend. He brags about their TV being 22" (1983!) and demonstrates his dad's reclining La-Z-Boy in a cute scene where she sits in it and giggles as it flips back. She examines pictures of his family, Nancy, his parents, his little sister Holly (who reminds me of Carol Anne in Poltergeist). El clearly doesn't know anything about normal life; she's been isolated or abused somehow, and seems to have no understanding of a regular family or household objects. But Mike is deeply drawn to her, more so than either Lucas or Dustin. It seems as though his connection to El is an inevitable one, and he immediately wants her approval. We start to get stronger hints here of the great dynamic between the kids as well, and their bonds will only grow with time.
Jonathan is driving - going to Lonnie's as we'll later find out - and The Clash's Should I Stay or Should I Go comes on the radio. There's a flashback here to him listening to the same song in his room with Will, introducing his little brother to The Clash and other good music. Will loves the song, but they hear Joyce bickering with Lonnie on the phone in the hall. Jonathan shuts the door, but it's obvious to us that Joyce is upset that Lonnie is bailing on spending time with Will. They were going to go to a baseball game, but Will doesn't really even like baseball. "Has he done anything with you you actually like?" Jonathan asks. "You shouldn't just like things because people tell you you're supposed to." Will is obviously a sensitive kid, shy and eager for approval, but he's a bit nerdy, like his older brother - he'd rather go to the arcade or play D&D than go to baseball games. Jonathan is clearly a good big brother, too, trying to nurture in him the sincere enjoyment he finds in the things he actually likes. And he really likes that Clash song. It gives us a chance to see the dynamic between the two brothers, while also expounding on Jonathan as a person and as a brother to Will. They have a good relationship with each other, and understand each other, all the more reason for Jonathan to be distraught over his disappearance.
Joyce goes to the store where she works to get a new phone, adamant about trying to contact Will by the same means. She asks her boss for an advance - here Ryder masterfully conveys Joyce's capability and strong will while also making her vulnerable to us. "Have I ever called out sick or missed a shift?" She is clearly an extremely hard worker, doing anything possible to keep her small family afloat, but Will's disappearance is just too much to bear. Her boss caves, and gives her the phone and the advance. Clearly Joyce is a woman unafraid to demand what she needs if she's pushed to it. Her haggard face in this scene makes your heart just ache for her. Ryder knows how to really punch you in the feelings with the most subtle of emotional cues.
Some of those weird laboratory dudes have shown up at the Byers' house while no one is home, and they are using some contraptions that look a bit like metal detectors on the entire area. They move over to the shed where, unbeknownst to them, Will was when he disappeared. Their detectors start going crazy on a particular wall, and they seem to have expected something like this. Clearly there's something weird in or on that wall - something that probably is directly linked to Will's disappearance. Clearly they know something about all of this that we and the regular residents of Hawkins don't.
The next scene is a direct nod to E.T. - like Elliott showing E.T. his Boba Fett action figure in that film, Mike is showing El his Yoda action figure while doing a great impression of Frank Oz. This is one of those scenes that is so obviously from another movie that it fails to really give us anything new, though I suppose its point in the narrative is for nostalgia alone. Finn Wolfhard is so earnest that it feels fresh again. El is exploring Will's room in the meantime, and happens to see a picture of him with Dustin, Lucas, and Will. She points to Will, her face intense. "You know Will?" Mike asks desperately. Just then, they hear his mother's car outside. Mike insists El hide in his closet until he can distract his mother - but this proposition clearly scares her, likely for the same reason she didn't want the bathroom door shut. Something happens when she's alone that she can't articulate. He convinces her out of desperation, but when the door is shut we follow El down a rabbit-hole memory: she's in the laboratory, being dragged down a hallway by uniformed men, and she's wailing. "Papa! Papa!" she cries. At the other end of the hall we see the strange white-haired man from the pilot, watching her detachedly as she cries to him. The men throw her into a tiny, dark room, and she is left there alone. Later, when Mike returns to the closet when the coast is clear, he sees El has been crying. We don't yet fully understand what happened to El, but it was something terrible, and Millie Bobbi Brown portrays her with the timelessness of the remarkable children of stories past.
As the search party continues, Hopper and deputy Callahan (John Reynolds - he reminds me of Harold Ramis regarding both looks and dry remarks) are looking out over the local reservoir, contemplating the possibility that Will fell in. Callahan mentions a local who claimed he made the jump for a $10 bet - Hopper dismisses this, pointing out that at a certain velocity water can be lethal. Hopper gets a call: Benny's body has been found, and when they arrive, it's been made to look like a suicide. We as the audience know better, though, and we're now clear that the laboratory folks don't want the citizens of Hawkins to know some stuff. "Must feel like a big city cop again, huh chief?" Callahan remarks. At some point, Hopper was leading an entirely different life, and that can only lead us to wonder what the hell happened to him. They interview one of Benny's regulars who was there the day before, and he recalls El stealing food from the kitchen, though he mistakenly thinks she was a boy due to her shorn hair. Hopper and his deputies wonder if it could have been Will. In a scene that follows this one, Hopper finds a scrap of El's hospital gown in a sewer drain, and they wonder if it was Will who crawled in, when it was really El who crawled out. The music in this scene sounds like it's straight out of a Carpenter movie - oftentimes it's lurking subtly in the background somewhere, but now and then Survive rips out a great track that's like something from Escape from New York.
Jonathan arrives at Lonnie's - apparently against Hopper's wishes - and pushes past his dad's young girlfriend when she answers the door to search inside the house for Will. Will isn't there, but he runs head-on into his egocentric, absentee father, who makes some snide comments about Joyce being a bad parent. Clearly Jonathan despises Lonnie, though we aren't given any concrete reasons yet beyond him being MIA in Jonathan's life. The "bad dad" trope is also common in genre films, and we can see that long before Will went missing this family was irrevocably fractured. Lonnie is obviously a jerk; he never even bothered to call Joyce back because he assumed Will's disappearance wasn't serious. He says something about Will not being "too bright." This enrages Jonathan, and he leaves.
Lucas and Dustin come around to Mike's after school, and Lucas is upset that Mike hasn't told his mom about El yet. Like I said in my overview of Episode one, Lucas is the voice of reason in this group - his solution to any problem is always the most practical one, and he deals with his fear by trying to find solutions (must be a Virgo). He tries to leave Mike's room to tell Mike's mom himself, and then, oh boy - as he opens the door, it slams shut by itself. He tries again - and it slams shut again. All the boys turn to look at El, who is staring at them with a fierce defiance, her nose bleeding. "No." Like Stephen King's infamous Carrie, El is obviously telekinetic - she can move things with her mind. Dustin and Lucas stay for dinner at the Wheelers, and no one betrays El's presence after witnessing her powers. Mrs. Wheeler (Cara Buono) wonders why the boys aren't eating. "I had two bologna sandwiches for lunch," Dustin says with his toothless grin, not missing a beat, but clearly they're all still gobsmacked by what El did in the bedroom. Nancy diverts the subject when she pretends she wants to go to an assembly the school is having that evening because of Will's disappearance, when really she's trying to go to Steve's for the party. Wouldn't you know, her mom falls for this somehow. The boys bring El some meatloaf after dinner, and Dustin sheepishly tells her they never would have upset her "if we knew you had superpowers." They are clearly in awe of her, and a little frightened, but this is also the scene where it becomes clear they are all going to become close friends with El - she doesn't even know what "friend" means, but Mike explains it as "someone you'd do anything for...friends tell each other things." This is the catalyst wherein El will trust them. In other narratives of this kind this scene would have the potential to fall flat, but these kids are just so fucking good. You forget entirely that they are actors, and they hold your attention almost effortlessly. In another scene, El uses their D&D board, flipped over to the black underside, to signify that she saw Will in a place like it. She uses a wizard piece to signify Will. "Hiding," she says. The boys ask what he's hiding from, and she slams the Demogorgon piece on the board beside the wizard. Clearly El's powers extend beyond just her telekinesis.
Joyce has fallen asleep back at home with the new phone in her lap, and is woken by its ear-piercing ring. On the other end is static, then she hears the breathing again - and this time, the distorted voice of her son: "Mom?" She cries out to him, but once again, the phone short-circuits and goes dead. Every light in the house begins to flicker on and off, and Joyce thinks she hears someone in Jonathan's room - as she goes down the hallway, one of the walls starts to warp and bend like silly putty, and the terrifying outline of a strange monster materializes, as if it's trying to get through from some other place. Joyce runs screaming out of the house, but after a moment, she sees the lights come back on, and she reenters. This woman is a badass, hellbent on doing whatever it takes to get her son back.
Nancy has finally convinced Barb to come with her to the party, but she insists they park three blocks away because she's paranoid the neighbors will talk. "He just wants to get in your pants," Barb tells her. Nancy denies this, but as she's changing her modest top into something prettier, Barb mockingly wonders if she's wearing a new bra. It's clear that Steve isn't the only one thinking about getting into the sack - women want sex too, and Nancy, though she seems determined to portray herself as conservatively principled, obviously wants to sleep with Steve. High school is a horrible time for most people, because you aren't encouraged to be yourself or follow your real feelings; there's intense pressure from all sides to conform into an acceptable standard. I like the unsaid aspects of these scenes - I like that we know that Nancy wants to have sex with Steve. It's important for us to understand she's making a choice about something she personally wants, even if she can't admit that to herself. Steve's family is obviously somewhat well-off, and they have a big house with an underground pool adjacent to it. Everyone starts shotgunning beers and Steve starts to lightly tease Nancy for being a goody-goody. She chugs a beer to prove him wrong, though Barb looks on disapprovingly. Nancy tries to encourage Barb to shotgun a beer too, but as Barb tries to puncture the can the knife slips and cuts her. She goes off to the bathroom, clearly annoyed with Nancy. Jonathan also happens to be in the woods nearby as Steve's house is close to Mirkwood, where Will disappeared--at first he's taking pictures of the shrubs and surrounding bushes to try to find some clues that would signify Will had been there, but then he hears screaming - he runs towards the sound, only to find that it's coming from Steve's house and Nancy's screaming happily as Steve tries to throw her in the pool.
This scene is kind of weird because Jonathan starts taking pictures of the group while he hides in the bushes. I guess it's meant to show that he's awkward and bad at being social, but taking pictures of people who are unaware and hiding in the bushes is never not creepy. This was the only scene where I really disliked Jonathan, and his sweet awkwardness crossed a line. We're obviously supposed to garner that Jonathan has a crush on Nancy, perhaps one he's had for a long time, and he's taking pictures of her because he likes her but is too shy to actually admit it to her or himself. It's also used as a plot device after Nancy and Steve and the others go inside to "dry off" and Barb, annoyed with Nancy who told her to go home, is sitting alone on the diving board, staring into the water. He takes a few snapshots of her that will be needed later in exposition - a drop of blood from the cut on her hand falls in the pool, all the lights surrounding it go out, we hear the strange animal sound, Barb screams, and then is dragged under by the Weird Thing. When the lights around the pool come back up, Barb is gone. This is by far the spookiest scene in this episode, but in general this one is highly important to the larger narrative. There's clearly another place, maybe another world, maybe a parallel universe, that's hovering close by everyone in Hawkins, just waiting to be let out onto our side.