When Dustin walks in the door on Halloween night, pillowcase full of loot in one hand and ghost trap containing an unknown reptilian creature in the other, his hairsprayed mother corners him, wondering how “the greatest night of the year” went. Rattled and anxious to get to the privacy of his room, “Dusty” isn’t as smooth as usual, and his mother resorts to a string of questions to determine what’s wrong, finally ending with “Are you constipated again?” It’s high-quality parlay between Catherine Curtin (Orange Is the New Black and Insecure), who replaces the uncredited actress who played Claudia Henderson in season one and can really sell a midwestern vowel, and Gaten Matarazzo, whose comic timing and physicality are uncanny for a prepubescent boy who had one filmed acting credit under his belt prior to Stranger Things.
This episode, even more than the first two of this season, does a particularly good job demonstrating the huge range of the young Stranger Things cast. It’s all on display here: Eleven’s deep, wrenching loneliness and despair at her lack of parentage; Will’s flaring jealousy over the presence of another girl in the group; and Dustin’s desire to have something of his own, even if it’s an otherworldly reptile.
One thing is for sure: The critter — named D’Artagnan, or Dart for short — definitely isn’t a pollywog. The other boys know it, and Dustin knows it, too, but to believe that Dart is anything more than an escapee from a local science experiment means admitting that the demogorgon trauma they so firmly tucked into the recesses of their minds might not have been isolated. As it is, the boys have to confront the age-old question of what to do about a secret that could be dangerous: Should they alert adults and have it taken from them, or try to be adults and handle it themselves? When Dustin finally catches Dart after he’s run loose through the school, hiding him under his hat from the other boys, he makes the decision for all of them — and probably risks their lives over it. In the span of a day, Dart has already at least tripled in size and grown some new legs. Surely he’ll keep getting bigger.
Meanwhile, Will’s “visions” have been increasing in frequency and intensity. Bob, in his well-meaning way, encourages Will to simply face the monster in his head and tell it to go away. “Easy peasy,” he promises. If the monster were merely a figment of Will’s imagination, that tactic would probably work, or at least help boost Will’s confidence. Instead, when Dart’s shrieks send Will running from the Hawkins Middle School bathroom and he flashes into the Upside Down again — an experience the boys have presciently determined is like the Dungeons & Dragons skill Truesight, or “the ability to see into the ethereal plane” — what Will sees isn’t in his head. It’s stalking the sky above him, hidden behind a shadow of sorts, which occasionally lifts to reveal its true horrific form. In the last seconds of the episode, the many-limbed monster catches up to Will after he follows Bob’s advice, and then starts to pour its tentacles into the boy’s mouth, nose, and ears …
Joyce, whose motherly intuition serves her quite well, is growing increasingly bothered by Will’s so-called “visions.” (Winona Ryder plays shaken so well that she turns lost car keys into a mini-referendum on the state of Joyce’s psyche.) Like anyone who lived through her experience might, she questions what Will is imagining in his mind and what might actually be real. Perhaps more than anyone in Hawkins, Joyce knows what it’s like to see and hear things that the rest of the town deems impossible. (Remember, even Jonathan didn’t buy her story about the blinking Christmas lights last year.) But the spooky discovery of a monstrous outline on the Halloween videotape — an outline that matches the scene Will drew of a monster just outside their own front door — sends her racing to find her son, albeit a little too late.
With only about a dozen, often monosyllabic lines per episode, Millie Bobby Brown still steals the show. Through flashbacks, we see the moment when Eleven first discovers the Eggo-filled box Hopper left for her in the woods and waits nearby for him to make his next delivery. Hopper takes her to a cabin in the woods that belonged to his granddad, and in a move that today would earn him a spot on some list of undesirables, immediately decides to shelter her there.
The moment Hopper pops a little Jim Croce on the record player (why, oh, why does he bypass Supertramp?), you know what’s coming next: It’s time for a makeover montage! Eleven doesn’t know how the broom works! Hopper thinks that weirdly shimmying his hips equals dancing! Eleven is justifiably confused and then appalled! It’s all pretty damn adorable, especially the scene of domestic bliss when Hopper pops a box of Eggos into the freezer and Eleven looks up from a puzzle featuring a serene forest landscape.
Of course, the four slide locks Hopper installs won’t be enough to keep out a team of feds, so in a scene reminiscent of what Home Alone would have been like with a more safety-minded protagonist, the duo rig up a series of alarms. A trip wire will let Eleven know if anyone gets too close to the cabin, Hopper will signal her using Morse code, and the two even devise a special knock.
In the present day, however, it’s obvious that what Hopper intends as a safe place is turning Eleven into a prisoner yet again. She isn’t allowed to open the curtains. Or the front door. And the final entry of their Golden Rule Trio is that she is not, under any circumstances, permitted to go outside on her own.
Stuck inside, Eleven has been using static on the TV (à la Poltergeist’s Carol Anne) to inhabit the radio waves and visit Mike, similar to how she made contact with Will in the Upside Down through a radio in season one. But her readings of his feelings are imperfect, and she can’t tell if he’s giving up his affection for her. Day after day, she’s growing surlier — tweens, amirite? — but Hopper doesn’t help the matter with his perpetual lateness and lame attempts to win her love through food.
There are two heart-wrenching scenes in “The Pollywog” that Millie Bobby Brown plays with so much anguish, they’re almost hard to watch. In the first, when Eleven finally demands an answer about when she’ll be allowed to leave the cabin — “You say ‘soon’ on day 21. You say ‘soon’ on day 205. You now say ‘soon’ on day 326?” — and then bursts out, “I need to see him!” in a fit of rage, her youth is so apparent on her sad, open little face. This is a child who has never known anything but captivity and torture at the hands of men. She has faith in only one person, Mike, and he’s within walking distance but she can’t get to him. The cabin has turned from a home into a prison.
In the other scene, Hopper is reading a scene from Anne of Green Gables, another story about a plucky orphan with a lot of imagination and heart who has never experienced real love. For Eleven, it’s the word mother that piques her interest, leading her to ask whether she has a mother and where her mother is now. Hopper lies, telling her that her mother is “gone,” although he knows that there’s a strong possibility that Terry Ives gave birth to her. Eleven echoes his term, “gone,” and then lapses into the silent, hardened crying of total despair.
So, of course, Eleven leaves the cabin as soon as she can in search of Mike. Why wouldn’t she? The girl has nothing left to lose. And after spotting him and Max in what looks to her like a flirtatious argument in the Hawkins Middle School Gym, of course she telekinetically yanks the new girl’s skateboard out from under her. For Eleven, the world isn’t full of infinite possibilities for love. She’s had one, and now she worries that it’s gone.
• Before hightailing it with a handful of reptile guides, Dustin tells the librarian that he can’t undertake a “curiosity voyage” without his “paddles.” This kid is the best. (Also, what kind of crap educational theory limits a child to five library books at a time?)
• There is some truly excellent mullet-on-mullet hoops happening in this episode.
• In a sort of lazy narrative aside, we learn that Max isn’t actually Billy’s sister. Please, oh, please, don’t let her be his daughter.
• Nancy, who can’t bring herself to tell Steve she loves him, is finally in Jonathan’s arms! Okay, she’s actually just next to him on a car hood as they hatch a plan. But still, this is progress! The two hit up RadioShack for supplies and then call Barb’s mom, with Nancy explaining that she knows more about Barb’s disappearance than she’d let on previously, and asking Mrs. Holland to meet her the following morning at 9 a.m. because it isn’t safe to talk on the phone. She’s right. It isn’t safe to talk on the phone, and they’re overheard by a switchboard operator who’s clearly operating out of Hawkins Lab. Why didn’t she just ring Mrs. Holland’s doorbell and ask her to go for a walk?
• Hopper tracks the slimy, rotten pumpkins back to Hawkins Lab, which is still, laughably, not on the map even though everyone knows what goes in that blank white rectangle. For the first time, he makes mention of the agreement he struck with the feds at the end of season one: If he keeps rumors about last year’s events quiet, Dr. Owens will keep a lid on things getting out of hand again. This might also explains why Hopper is so keen to keep Eleven from seeing even Mike — it isn’t out of sheer benevolence that he’s keeping her safely tucked away.
Get all your Stranger Things 2 questions answered at the show’s Vulture Festival LA panel on November 18! Tickets available here.