by Sandy DeVito
Episode Eight, The Upside Down, is the final episode of the first season, and in some ways it could have been the end of the series - they took their time officially announcing Season 2 and many of us felt unsure if the narrative demanded more. It certainly ends neatly enough that if they hadn't chosen to continue the story, its ambiguity would not be a disservice per se. Season 2 was greenlit (with episode titles!) as of last month (August 2016), however, so this episode is just a bookend to the wider narrative.
Hop and Joyce have been captured by the lab coats/government cronies/whatever you want to call the creepy guys working for Hawkins Lab. Joyce is confined to a dark room alone, handcuffed, and Brenner comes in, trying to pull the "help me help you" thing he pulled on Mrs. Wheeler last episode. He tells her they don't really know what the monster is, but that it has the basic animal instinct of hunting, and that they've lost six people to it. Joyce can see right through him, though - she reminds him that he and whoever it is he's working for faked Will's death. She tells him to go to hell. Hop is faring worse, unfortunately, in another room where he's being repeatedly tased by the Creepy Lady and some other lab coats. They want to know what he knows. "Did I stutter?" he cheekily responds (ugh, Hop, do me). "Everything. I know you do experiments on little kids whose parents' brains you turned to mush." He knows they faked Will's death, he knows they killed Benny, and lied about what they were doing with El. He proposes a deal: they let him and Joyce go to try to find Will, and they never tell anyone about any of this from now on. This gets him an audience with Brenner alone - Brenner offers him some cigarettes, I guess as a peace offering after the tasing - and asks him where "the girl" is. Hop says he'll only tell him if he leaves them all alone after everything is over. This must have worked, though we don't actually see Brenner agreeing on it - the next scene is Hop being led to where Joyce is and both of them being led to the rift while Hop explains to her how he got the lab coats to let them go. I think there's something to the deal Hop made with Brenner that we don't actually get to see, though - and whatever it is, it's going to factor into Season 2. They give them hazmat suits because "the atmosphere is toxic." Joyce balks at this - "my son's in there." And he's been there for like a week. If the air is toxic, what might it have done to him? As they go through the rift, Brenner and his cronies take off to the school where Hop clearly told them she is hiding. Brenner is clearly convinced Hop and Joyce are not going to find the boy, if they even make it back out of the rift alive.
At the school, Mike, Dustin, Lucas and an exhausted El notice Nancy and Jonathan have taken off. El is the one who deduces they went to find the "demogorgon." Nancy and Jonathan are back at the Byers' and are setting up a booby trap to catch it. They have the gun still, and Jonathan pounds nails jaggedly into the baseball bat Nancy got from her parents' garage. They reluctantly cut their hands open together to attract it with blood.
On the other side, in the Upside Down, Joyce is scared and Hop is trying to calm her by telling her to breathe slowly. The pattern of the words he uses bring us finally to his flashback of the deceased daughter mentioned so many times up until this point: in the initial memory, he's playing with her outside with the woman who used to be his wife, and she starts to have trouble breathing. We never get an official diagnosis of what killed her, but from ensuing flashbacks, I'm assuming it's child leukemia or some other form of cancer. The point of his flashbacks concerning his daughter at this point seem to be a catalyst that spurs him to try to save Will when he couldn't save his own daughter. My problem with this is, it seemed more than enough of a reason to me that his love for Joyce spurs him to a determination to save Will. I have to admit I found this whole minor plot point somewhat silly in its construction, and unnecessary. I guess we're supposed to devise that it's the death of his child that led him to substance abuse, womanizing, depression - but the truth is, it's easy to fall into stuff like that without having your child die, and I find his dynamic with Joyce and Jonathan in particular far more interesting and rich with narrative potential. I'm just not sure if I felt the undercurrent in Hop's narrative was necessary or that it really carries off at this point in the story. Watching it the second time around just reinforced my feelings about this.
Mike, Lucas and Dustin get in ANOTHER fight because Mike wants to go find Nancy and Jonathan and Dustin and Lucas think they should stay put because Brenner and Co. are still looking for them. Dustin mentions Nancy being "kind of a badass now" and therefore doesn't need their help (newsflash: Nancy was always a badass, like most women are badasses, narratives just don't always recognize how badass we are, so I give them credit for subverting her trope enough to give her something to do besides be a love interest...though it's the bare minimum in my opinion). He goes to the cafeteria to find some chocolate pudding for El so she can get her strength back because he's convinced the lunchlady "hoardes that shit." You'll notice that Gaten Matarazzo's voice has dropped like four octaves between Episode One and Episode Eight. Puberty is killer. All the boys in the show are going to have the beginnings of beard fuzz by the time we get to Season 2.
Nancy and Jonathan are anxiously waiting for the monster to show up. Nancy thinks she hears something but it's a false alarm - Jonathan reminds her his mom told him the "lights speak," as if in warning, when the monster is about to come. He gives Nancy more googly eyes but then someone interrupts them banging on the door - it's Steve and he came to apologize though I don't know why exactly he's being so crazy about it, because he knows NOTHING about any of the weird shit going on in Hawkins at this point. Nancy tells him to leave and he sees her hand and thinks Jonathan did something to her because Steve is a fucking moron. Nancy brandishes the gun at him, trying to scare him into leaving, but then the lights start to flicker, and this time, the monster isn't wasting time - it busts right through the wall, forget about the stretching I guess. Nancy tries to shoot it and misses, and they all scramble into one of the bedrooms (spot the Jaws poster - stalked by monsters, yadda yadda). They wait breathlessly for it to break in, but everything is quiet, so they go back out. Steve is wigging out at this point and Nancy screams at him to leave again. He sort of does, running outside for a minute to his car, but then I guess he has a change of heart because Everyone Is In Love With Nancy Wheeler, and runs back inside. The monster comes back and leaps onto Jonathan, roaring into his face - we see it opens like a grotesque flower lined with teeth - and then Steve hits it with the nail bat and it falls into the trap they set. Nancy shoots it and they set it on fire with flamethrowers. But when Jonathan gets an extinguisher and puts the fire out, the monster has disappeared.
Hop and Joyce find a weird egg thing in the Upside Down - I think this is only meant to be a nod to Alien - as they both scream for Will. They come to the "Other" Byers House. I guess this is the first time you start to realize that the Upside Down is really just a parallel world of ours in some way. It's like the two worlds in Coraline (with the "Other Mother" and the button-eyed copies of her real family and friends) - which leads me to believe the theory about the monster being El, because the idea of it being a dark reflection of her seems to have some validity in the context of how this story is being told. As Hop and Joyce venture through the Other Byers House, the lights in the Real Byers House blink over the heads of Nancy, Jonathan and Steve. "Mom?" Jonathan whispers. "Is that you?" In the Upside Down, Joyce can hear him, faintly. They all seem to realize that whatever the Upside Down is, it and our world are inextricably connected.
Dustin finds the pudding - proof that the lunchlady has indeed been hoarding it from everyone all this time. Here we find out at that El has never heard the word "pudding" either (once again, she's supposed to somehow understand "pretty" over fucking pudding, okay). Mike tells her she'll get to eat whatever she wants when all this is over, but all she asks about is Eggos. Mike is obviously hoping that El will be able to live with him and his family, and she asks if this will make him her "brother" (I guess she knows that word?). Mike is repulsed by this because he has a crush on her, though she doesn't get it, so he kisses her awkwardly (I already talked about my issue with the El/Mike romantic subplot in my recap of Episode Seven). They're interrupted when they see the lights of the approaching Hawkins Lab vans coming to get them. As they swarm the building, Mike and Co. try to escape through the stairwells, but they get cut off on both sides by the Creepy Lady and a handful of others. El stares intensely at them - then we see their eyes are starting to bleed and she is apparently crushing their brains from the inside of their skulls? This scene is really cool and gross. They all collapse, and El faints, once more drained of energy. Her powers seem to be growing, because she killed like ten dudes at once. Brenner shows up with more dudes, though, and he's about to take El when the lights start flickering and another monster shows up. Maybe it's the same monster that showed up at the Byers' a minute before? Honestly this isn't clear to us. Mike and the boys carry El into the empty science lab while the monster leaps onto Brenner - leaving it unclear if it kills him or not (my bet: Brenner is not dead).
Joyce and Hop have made their way to the Other School, now (conveniently at the same time all of this is happening?), and there's all kinds of weird gross matter all over the walls in there. Hop's flashlight illuminates the Barb corpse again (apparently its been moved here?) and they see Will, pinned to the wall of the gross stuff with a weird tentacley thing down his throat. They pull it out and it flops around on the ground for a minute before Hop shoots it (if you've seen Alien, though, you should assume that just pulling the tentacley thing out of Will's mouth is probably not enough, just sayin'). They think he's dead and by all accounts he should be, but they give him CPR while Hop has a flashback of his daughter being given CPR by nurses and dying, while Will on the other hand miraculously comes back to life (...how?). In the Real School, Mike once again to reassure El that everything will be fine and she'll get to have a normal life when this is all over, but as an audience, we begin to feel this may not actually come to pass. They hear the gun shots stop outside the door, and the monster bursts through. We should have known all along that the only weapon they'd end up having in the end is the wrist rocket - and Lucas valiantly attempts to hit it with rocks. The last rock seems to throw it forcefully into a nearby chalkboard, but we see as the camera pans back that it was actually El who sent it flying. She grimly walks toward it, keeping it pinned there while it screams in pain. She turns back for a moment to look at them, murmurs "goodbye, Mike," stretches at hand toward the beast, and blows it apart with a scream. But when everything settles, El is gone, too, vanished into thin air.
Will wakes up in the hospital, with Joyce and Jonathan looking relieved at his bedside. Awwwww, everything's okay (YEAH RIGHT). Awwww, Jonathan made him a new mixtape. They let Dustin and Lucas and Mike come in and jump all over him and breathlessly try to tell him everything that happened. He starts coughing a lot, ominously. "It got me. The demogorgon." They tell him about El, and how she saved everyone. "But she's gone now." We see Hop leaving the hospital alone in the darkness, then a car approaches him from behind, a very official-looking person getting out and opening the back door for him. He gets into the car, and it drives off. His involvement with Hawkins Lab doesn't seem to be over.
We get a marquee that says ONE MONTH LATER here - and we can see it's around Christmas now, with snow falling and wreaths on the windows of the Wheeler's house. And like the opening scene in Episode One, we see the four boys are in Mike's basement, playing Dungeons & Dragons once again, yelling at each other happily. But the beast has changed. "THESSELHYDRA!" Mike screeches, banging a dragon-y piece on the board. Jonathan comes down, having arrived to pick Will up. He jokes about someone having farted and everyone dissolves into hysterics. It seems like everything is normal again. Mrs. Wheeler tells Jonathan to wish Joyce a Merry Christmas as they're leaving - and Nancy catches him on the stairs. She gives him a gift and kisses him on the cheek. In the car, Will asks if he can open the present - it's a new camera, apparently to replace the one Steve broke. But we see here that Steve is at the Wheelers' with Nancy, and she puts her head on his shoulder. Somehow they are back together. This doesn't make any sense to me - clearly Nancy and Jonathan are the end goal for the series, or at least their romantic narrative arc isn't over yet, so I guess the only point to pretending she's going to be with Steve is to drag it all out. From a characterization point, it's unlikely.
Hop is leaving the sheriff's station after a Christmas party, gathering random treats up to take with him - the eerie Carol of the Bells plays in the background as we see he's heading to Mirkwood, however, and leaves Eggos and the other treats he gathered in a box under some snowy trees - El must still be alive, after all. Back at the Byers', Joyce is putting the finishing touches on Christmas dinner, self-deprecating though she is about her cooking, and Will predicts he has an Atari under the tree. He excuses himself to the bathroom, claiming he needs to wash his hands - but when he stares into the mirror we see that he looks breathless and ill, as if he's trying to hide how he's feeling from his mother and brother. He coughs again - and a slimy black slug falls out of his mouth into the sink, vanishing down the drain. That Alien theory, you feel me? This kid is full of bugs. For a moment, the lights in the bathroom flicker, and he's in the Other Bathroom, the walls decaying and the air full of wispy debris. Then it shifts back, and he's in the Regular Bathroom again. He goes back out to the table and continues a normal conversation with Joyce and Jonathan, who remain totally unaware.
Regarding any remaining feelings about Season 1, generally speaking I think this show is well-crafted and the cast in particular are the reason it's great (I love the ending with the gross slug and the reality shift, also - good endings are hard to do, even temporary ones). The kids in particular are its life force, lifting the material into the memorable when it could easily be mediocre in many instances. Likewise Winona Ryder and David Harbour are major highlights, their individual abilities as actors and their excellent chemistry with each other elevating every scene they are in. On the whole, Season 1 gets a B- from me, its crushing reliance on both its nostalgia factor and its romantic subplots often draining me to the point of annoyance. They thankfully don't overtake the positives, however, and my main hope is that next year the show can truly break away from its genre crutch and break into its own memorable voice with more conviction. Since Season 2 is going to be set in October 1984, that means it's most likely going to be set around Halloween, and that bodes well for all of us, does it not?