There’s no clearer dividing line between youth and early adulthood than the debate over whether or not to dress up on Halloween. In high school, it’s cool so long as girls abide by the rule that they sexually subvert any costume — sexy deer, sexy Gameboy, sexy coatrack — but for a brief period in middle school, any costume, like your body itself, feels like it hangs on you all wrong. The pride you once took in Halloween suddenly feels like foolishly directed earnestness that attracts stares.
So when Lucas, Will, Mike, and Dustin saunter into Hawkins Middle School, delighting in the glow of their at-home photoshoots and beaming with pride at their very au courant costumes (Ghostbusters came out in the summer of 1984 and made box-office history), it’s easy to get swept up in the pulsing joy of Ray Parker Jr.’s soundtrack. The montage of proud parents — along with Lucas’s no-bullshit sister Erica, whose “just the facts” line is my new calling card — is so giddy and nostalgic that I found myself rewinding and watching it a few times just to feel the magic of a kid’s Halloween. Plus, any ’80s kid will recall the amazement of watching Sigourney Weaver hovering over that bed and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man exploding into a million gooey bits.
But of course, the boys are beyond the point when it’s socially acceptable to dress up for Halloween at school — although they don’t find out until it’s too late. This entire episode is interested in that blurry period between when kids should or can step into adult life. Nancy is traumatized by guilt over Barb’s death and her subsequent silence on the matter with Barb’s parents, but lets herself be goaded into partying with Steve for the night and “just being a teenager.” Mike hypocritically imagines that the presence of a girl among his group of friends, with all the attendant subtle sexual dynamics, is ruinous. When Eleven scrambles a squirrel’s brains and roasts it over a fire to survive, her youth is more obvious than ever. She’s not just a powerful weapon; she’s also a little girl who has no parents and is estranged from the only person who’s ever shown her love. The middle school, the woods, the party, Hawkins itself: They’re all dangerous places for kids in their own ways, even without the lurking terror of the Upside Down.
Hawkins Middle School is the location of Eleven’s first flashback to the interceding year between when she destroyed the demogorgon and now. Blowing that monster to bits sent her hurtling back into the Upside Down — and apparently knocked her unconscious for a bit, because when she finally finds a portal back into the real world, there’s still blood on the floor, but the bodies of Dr. Brenner’s goons have been dragged off. Returning to the Wheeler’s house, the only place she’s ever felt safe, she finds it swarmed with Feds who remind Mike’s parents that everything they’ve just been through is related to the Soviet Union and is “top secret.” (Mike’s dad’s rejoinder that “We’re all patriots here,” is one of the funniest nods to conservative 1980s middle America yet.)
It’s difficult to tell if Eleven believes that Mike has dimed her out to “the bad men” or if she senses that he knows she’s watching and is silently urging her to leave. She flees for the woods, where, still dressed in only her kneesocks, dress, and light coat, she starts hunting squirrels for sustenance. But this is Indiana in winter, so soon enough, a hunter ends up (forcefully) giving up his very Fargo-esque coat and hat.
Back in present time, Eleven has been cooped up in Hopper’s cabin and she’s itching to go out. Even with a sheet over her head — Eleven is a ghost and the boys are Ghostbusters, get it? — Hopper is wary of letting her leave. After all, the investigator Murray seems to know of her existence and the men from Hawkins Lab definitely still want her in their grasp. Of course, Hopper too has reasons, however buried in his subconscious they may be, for keeping Eleven to himself. In a way, she replaces the daughter he lost. It’s obvious by their routines (and their special chant: “They’re stupid and we’re not stupid!”) that although he’s struggling, this relationship also keeps him sober and feeds his still-broken soul.
Unfortunately, Hopper is late coming home for their “com-promise” Halloween because every farmer in town is reporting the same rot on their crops. He’s out plotting yellow flags to mark the edge of the contagion (and the ectoplasm-like slime, natch), and it should surprise absolutely nobody if this outline winds up leading directly back to Hawkins Lab or is connected to the sewer system. Those slugs Will coughed into the drain last season had to go somewhere, right?
Meanwhile, Nancy is guzzling the “pure fuel” punch at Tina’s Halloween party — Tina is in for a whole heap of trouble when her parents get home, by the way — and really pushing the “drunk girl who cries in the bathroom” narrative. Of course, Nancy’s guilt-ridden rant at Steve is founded: Although they didn’t quite “kill Barb” like she says, they had sex while a demogorgon murdered her, so she’s still bound to be upset a year later. What she really wants is for Steve to share in her guilt — perhaps that’s even what kept their relationship together, a shared traumatic event — but as Jennifer Aniston would say, Steve is just missing that sensitivity chip.
Upset by Nancy’s drunken revelation that she doesn’t love him, Steve winds up leaving his very impaired, 95-pounds-soaking-wet girlfriend alone at the party, cementing his status as a very crappy boyfriend. Luckily, Jonathan is there to carry Nancy home and safely put her to bed, after thoughtfully removing only her boots. He then tiptoes out and the Wheelers, who really need to start paying better attention to their children, are none the wiser.
• Will and Lucas’s squabble over who gets to be Venkman feels so right for two middle-school boys. Venkman is the hilarious hero, a role that Will and Lucas both want within their group. This is also the first indication that Lucas might see himself as an outsider because he’s the only black kid in the group. It’s pretty safe to say that Will did expect Lucas to be Winston, based on that fact alone.
• Eleven is learning new words from the best teacher imaginable: the television, including All My Children’s Erica Kane, the master of drama.
• At one point you can hear Dustin yelling out, “Don’t cross the streams!” as the boys trick or treat. It’s obviously a cute reference to the infamous Ghostbusters line, but it’s also probably a foreshadowing of some sort. As Ghostbusters, the boys are part of a comprehensive unit that has to work together — they’ll most likely encounter the same situation when they have to battle the giant monster in Will’s visions.
• The music in this episode is spectacularly spot-on. In one instant, it changes from Motley Crue’s “Shout at the Devil,” which the teenagers play at Tina’s Halloween Bash, to Dolly Parton and Kenny Loggins’s “Islands in the Stream,” which Bob puts on for a little slow dance with Joyce.
• It may be 1984, but the little cowboy that Hopper sees out in the field is waaaaaay to young to be out on his own in the dark. That kid was 5 years old, max.
• A Hawkins Lab lackey heads into the Upside Down to fix what looks like a fried reactor. This should throw up serious Jurassic Park red flags: If you’re in a horror movie or TV show, a broken piece of equipment is never an accident. Something out there caused it.
• In case you’re wondering: Steve is dressed as Tom Cruise’s character from Risky Business and Nancy is Rebecca De Mornay’s. Which means she’s a prostitute and he’s the guy who hires her for the night. Not a good omen for your relationship!
• Billy almost intentionally runs down the boys on their bikes and is crowned “keg king” at Tina’s party. In case you weren’t aware, we’re supposed to think this guy is a hardass. Twenty bucks says he’s a real softie inside.
Get all your Stranger Things 2 questions answered at the show’s Vulture Festival LA panel on November 18! Tickets available here.