by Sandy DeVito
I'll be honest, I don't love the beginning of this episode. Mike is cleaning El's dirty face with a wet cloth. She looks in the mirror, touching her shaved head as if to touch the phantom wig that's no longer there. That fucking wig. I hate that wig! To me, the wig is a reminder to El that she's different from other people (heteronormative people that is), and why the fuck do we have to do that? Hasn't she been through enough, being raised in a lab and prodded and given no autonomy up until now? Why does this have to be such a forward part of the narrative? Mike says "you don't need it;" of course she doesn't need it. He reassures her that she's "still pretty" - okay, here's my issue with this. Can you imagine this scene being reversed, and Mike somehow being the outsider? Can you imagine El trying to reassure him he's still physically attractive? No! Because there isn't an emphasis on boys' physical attractiveness being equated to their worth at such a young age. I get that this series is supposed to be set in 1984. But we've seen this same scene hashed out so many times in so much media. Why not do something different here? It's an example of the ways this series falters in finding its own voice, once again relying heavily on genre media of the past to hold it up. Why can't we give El a voice beyond wanting to be attractive to Mike? Good god. I guess there are people out there who think the prepubescent romance between El and Mike is cute or appealing somehow. I just want to know more about El and who she really is out of the context of how other people see her. Mike leans towards her like he's going to kiss her, but Dustin busts into the room yelling at them that Lucas is coming over the walkie. Wouldn't El be totally lost as to what Mike was doing there anyway? Like, I doubt she's had basic sex ed in Brenner's lab. Can't we give her a space to have some semblance of a normal childhood of any kind before we immediately sexualize her? I'm just not digging it, Duffers.
At first they can't figure out what Lucas is yelling into the walkie, but eventually make out "the bad men are coming!" Mike looks out the window and can see that weirdo electrician who's been hanging out everywhere in his van. He goes to his mom, who's having a heated conversation with Steve's mom over the phone about Nancy's whereabouts, to ask her if anyone was supposed to come that day to look at the house. As he's doing this, Dustin sees a whole slew of those electrician vans pulling into the driveway - the posse from Hawkins Lab is here. As they run out the back door to try to escape, Mike quips to his extremely confused mother: "If anyone asks where I am, I've left the country!" As El hops on the back of Mike's bike, she locks eyes with Brenner who's just gotten out of the van with a bunch of lab coats and secret service guys. Blast. Now he knows she's with them.
Okay, somehow Dustin has an earpiece microphone radio in this scene? There was no buildup to that at all, unless they used it in the first ham radio scene and I missed it? It's plot-devicey. But he uses it to communicate a rendezvous with Lucas by cutting through some yards off-road. After Lucas catches up to them, they try to lose the vans on a backroad, but one dogged vehicle tries to drive toward them with other vans behind them to cut them off. El sends it flying over their heads into the air - more of El being a badass, less of her having a forced romance with Mike, please. The van crashes to the ground behind them, blocking the street and cutting off Brenner and Co. while they all ride to freedom. They make it to the junkyard area where El initially threw Lucas into a wall. Here Lucas apologizes for being such a jerk to El all the time - to me it was like he apologized because he's afraid she's going to throw a van at him, but whatever. Everyone makes up and are buddies again.
Hop and Joyce arrive at the station to find Jonathan still in handcuffs. Powell shows them all the weird stuff they found in Jonathan's car that he and Nancy bought at the army surplus store - and so the story about the monster finally comes out. Joyce is upset Jonathan didn't tell her sooner, having a cute moment with him in the hallway where she hugs him and is generally a great mom. Bully Troy and his mom show up to file a complaint about the mysterious girl who broke his arm. Hop tries to get rid of her, but hears Troy say something about how she "didn't have any hair" and doesn't even look like a girl. "She can...do things. Like...make you fly. Or piss yourself." He mentions she's always hanging out with "those losers" - Mike Wheeler and his friends.
The Hawkins Lab crew knocks on the Wheelers' door and starts cross-examining his parents. Thankfully he and his friends kept El a secret from them, so they genuinely know nothing. Brenner and the Creepy Lady show them a picture of her. Mr. Wheeler is perceptive enough to be suspicious of her lack of hair, but then Brenner creepily tries to convince Mike's mom that Mike is in danger if he's with El and he just wants to protect everybody. Thankfully, Mrs. Wheeler isn't falling for it. Brenner is spooky as fuck and she can tell.
Lucas uses some sticks to map how Hawkins Lab for the others according to what he saw from the tree. He mentions all the signs said "Department of Energy," but Mike mentions his dad telling him the building belongs to the "government," specifically the military, and that they make secret weapons there. Their discussion is interrupted when they see a helicopter in the distance, clearly ranging for El. They pile into a junked bus nearby, hiding their bikes underneath it.
Steve, now sporting a bloody black eye, is finally fed up with Tommy and Carol and how horrible and lame they are, especially after they continue to make cracks about Nancy. Steve has moments of being super douchey, as we've established, but at least with him (unlike with El sometimes, to be quite frank), they're trying to do some subversions of the stereotype. He recognizes that Tommy and Carol never genuinely liked Nancy anyway, because "she's not miserable like you two." He and Tommy are about to fight, but Tommy makes a crack about Steve not even being able to take Jonathan Byers. Steve speeds away in his car, back to The Hawk, where he insists on helping the owners remove the vandalism that he and his ex-friends placed there. Steve, you alright. Just work on those fuckboi tendencies.
Nancy and Hop are watching her parents' house surrounded by all the Hawkins Lab vans with binoculars. Nancy wants to go over there and check on her parents but Hop insists she should stay out of sight - revealing she's a part of everything will probably just endanger Mike and the others more. He points out a helicopter flying by, aware they are searching for the kids. Jonathan has the idea of using an extra walkie to try to contact them discreetly. At first Nancy tries - everyone in the bus hears her, but they hesitate to answer, worried the Hawkins Lab crew maybe kidnapped her and it's a trap. But then Hop comes on and mentions "we know about the girl." Mike chances it, and replies. As they wait for help to arrive, Dustin wonders if they've made the right choice, citing Lando Calrissian's betrayal in Empire Strikes Back as an example. They see a secret service guy pull up and everyone ducks down - he approaches the van, noticing the bikes underneath, but as he goes to open the door, someone knocks him in the head. We get the kids' point of view here, and hear a few moments of scuffling outside without being able to see anything. And then: HOP TO THE RESCUE. Once more he's knocked one of the bad guys The Fuck Out. "Let's go," he says. Everyone stares, in awe of his badassness. "LET'S GO." Everyone scrambles up behind him.
They arrive after sunset at the Byers' where Joyce, Nancy and Jonathan have been waiting on pins and needles. Nancy rushes out and hugs Mike, clearly feeling bad that the kids have gone through everything thus far alone. Meeting El for the first time, she notices the strange girl is wearing one of her old dresses. Here we get a break in exposition and arrive in a conversation toward its end where Mike's been explaining Mr. Clarke's flea and acrobat theory to everyone who needs to catch up (the audience already knows all of this). Hop asks if the gate is underground, near a large water tank. El confirms this. It becomes clear to the kids that Hop knows this because he's been to the gate (cuz he is awesome). They decide to see if El can contact Will or perhaps find Barb with the aid of the walkies - but she's totally drained of energy after saving Mike from the cliff and making the van fly. El goes to the bathroom alone, but remembers the tank they put her in at Hawkins Lab - "The bathtub - we can find them in the bath," she tells the others.
Mr. Clarke is watching The Thing with a girlfriend (he tries to impress her by telling her one of the gross effects was achieved with melted plastic and microwaved bubblegum) when he gets a call from Dustin, asking how to make a sensory deprivation tank. Exasperated, looking back at his lady friend, Mr. Clarke asks if this can't wait until Monday. "You always say we should never stop being curious, to always open any curiosity door we can find." Dustin scolds him facetiously. "Why are you keeping this curiosity door locked?" He knows Mr. Clarke well, for this geeky guilt-trip works - Dustin writes down the list of ingredients they'll need. They use a kiddie pool that Joyce used in the past for apple bobbing (that's a really big kiddie pool for apple bobbing, you guys). They need 1,500 pounds of salt according to Mr. Clarke, so Hop and Jonathan steal a bunch of the de-icing salt from either the high school or the police station - I wasn't totally sure which, this was left ambiguous but for Jonathan expressing some concern about what the town would do in the event of a lot of snow, and Hop replying "worst case scenario, no school." Mike and Nancy break into a utility shed somewhere (also left ambiguous - hey, everything we need just happens to be nearby and relatively handy!) to steal a bunch of water hoses. Nancy mentions she could tell Mike was acting weird, and wonders what Eleven ate while they were hiding her. "Candy, leftovers, Eggos..." Nancy insists they start being honest with each other, but then Mike asks if she "likes Jonathan now" and she lies. "Do you like Eleven?" "No! Gross!" Clearly, being honest is going to take some more time.
Joyce and El have a wonderful moment here that I loved, where Joyce tries to comfort El and tell her how brave she is, thanking her for what she's about to attempt. It reminds us that El has been trapped in a cold environment without love for too long, and nothing can replace the warmth of motherly love - even if it's not her real mother. Winona Ryder is so wonderful at exhibiting sensitivity and kindness that we feel comforted as El does. Joyce reassures her that she'll be right there with her, and if she gets scared, it's okay. Joyce is the best.
They fill the pool in the school gym (how they got into the building remains unclear also - I guess Hop has keys to every public building in town?) and fill it with all the salt, using an egg to test for density. Joyce gives El a pair of safety goggles with the eyes covered in duct tape to induce the sensory deprivation. As El floats in the pool, she enters the Under-the-Skin void once more. She approaches something nearby - with a nauseating jolt, we realize it's Barb's rotting corpse (RIP Barb). As she screams in the void, everyone in our world can hear El's words as murmurs - "Gone," she wails, "Gone! Gone!" Joyce holds her in the pool, trying to calm her. El can hear her comforting words echoing throughout the void around her - then ahead, she sees a manifestation of Will's clubhouse, Castle Byers. She approaches it, and inside, barely alive and deathly ill, but still breathing is poor, unfortunate Will. "Your mom, she's coming for you," El murmurs to him softly. "Hurry," Will whispers. As he says this, both he and Castle Byers dissolve into wisps of dark smoke, and El snaps awake, back in the real world.
Hop determines to head to the gate, knowing time is of the essence if they want to save Will from Barbara's fate. He tries to get Joyce to stay behind, but she is a fierce mama bear - back off, Hop. She and Hop speed off in the car, leaving a frustrated Jonathan and Nancy behind. Nancy reiterates that she and Jonathan have to try to kill the monster. Hop and Joyce make it to the lab, but there's a ground of coats and Brenner waiting for them, surrounding them.
Will is sadly singing Should I Stay or Should I Go, shivering in the darkness of the Other Castle Byers, drifts of the weird debris floating around him. He doesn't look good at all. He hears the animal growl of the monster - there's a breathless moment of agony - and then the monster crashes through the wall, howling. Fade to black, and silent credits. Everything in this brief episode feels like a build-up to the final episode, moving our characters into their strategic places for a final showdown.