If you’d never seen an episode of Stranger Things season one, you’d think that Barb’s mysterious disappearance immediately left Nancy an emotional basket case, unable to carry on after her best friend’s shocking death. Sure, Nancy “Let’s Burn That Lab to the Ground” Wheeler sobbed when Barb’s body was spotted in the Upside Down last year, but that was it. No demands that her body be returned to the real world. No insistence that the Hawkins Lab produce another fake body so Barb’s parents could have some closure. We all process grief differently, but the bonds of female friendship didn’t seem to mean much in that case.
The audience has spent the past year asking why nobody seemed to care that Barb had been sucked into an alternate dimension by a flesh-eating monster, and that surely fueled the hard focus on Nancy’s revenge plot this season. It’s a bit too little, a bit too late, but fans of Barb (is there a support group for us?) are finally seeing that delightful ginger icon treated with the respect she deserves.
Admittedly, the entire Nancy-Jonathan plotline in “Will the Wise” is a bit too clever for the two of them: Remember, they used a yoyo to try to trap the demogorgon last season. After placing a call to Mrs. Holland and asking her to meet them in the park for a chat about Barb’s disappearance (which seemed awfully harebrained), Nancy and Jonathan find themselves surrounded by a bevy of supposed parents, dog walkers, and idle parkgoers, who are actually leering feds in disguise. After their car doesn’t start and the lurkers start to move in on them, they’re brought in to Hawkins Lab for a lecture from Dr. Owens, who actually makes some astute points about keeping this discovered technology out of the hands of the Soviets. He also offers them a glimpse of the portal that leads to the Upside Down, which grows like a weed and requires constant tending via blowtorch.
But, surprise! Nancy turned herself into a walking, talking Trojan Horse, pulling the oldest trick in the book to record their entire conversation with Dr. Owens, including a bit where he admits the role Hawkins Lab played in Barb’s death. How security didn’t notice the textbook-size recorder in Nancy’s delicate purse is unfathomable, but nonetheless, she has the receipts. Now she just needs to decide what to do with it.
The rest of “Will the Wise” is essentially a game of connect the dots that bridges the first few episodes to the rest of the season. When Joyce and the boys discover Will on the field at Hawkins Middle School, to their eyes he’s in a daze. But in the Upside Down, the giant shadow monster is crawling up his nose, ears, and eyes, swirling around him and rendering him lifeless and mute. Obviously, Will is now possessed or on the cusp of mutating into a shadow monster himself. Either way, he’s terrified of the strange compulsions springing up unbidden inside his mind. “It’s more like a feeling,” he explains to Joyce, who promises not to get any more doctors involved. “I felt it everywhere, I still feel it everywhere.”
Whatever is inside Will is wearing him down physically, too: He complains he feels sick, and a fever check reveals an oddly low temperature of just 95 degrees. But whatever is inside Will doesn’t want him to warm up, and the mere sight of a bathtub filled with steaming water sends rivulets of fearful sweat rolling down Will’s neck. The creature has attacked — or overtaken — his mind, and in the brief instant when Joyce explains that he needs a warm bath to raise his body temperature, an angry but placid look comes over Will’s face. His demand is clear: “No, he likes it cold.” Remember how Dart shied away from the UV light over Dustin’s turtle cage? Whatever is inside Will bears some relationship to the creature Dustin is now hiding.
In an attempt to get answers from Will, Joyce turns to that old art therapy trick we’ve all seen in Law and Order: SVU and asks him to draw what he sees and feels. At first, it’s just a mishmash of angry marks, but Joyce and Hopper eventually see the map lurking inside the crayon rage. Is it the monster itself? A series of tunnels like the ones Will keeps seeing in his visions? “It’s a vine,” declares Hopper, and he heads out to the first pumpkin patch that was afflicted with the ectoplasm rot. A few hours and one sore rotator cuff later, Hopper has dug himself a grave-size hole, and he hits upon more of the ooze that’s seeping up through the ground. Beneath that? A tunnel, which looks like an awful lot like something from the Upside Down.
Meanwhile, Lucas, Dustin, and Mike are putting together the pieces in their usual hideout, the dark and private AV Club room. Much to Dustin’s dismay, Dart is integral to their understanding of exactly what’s happening to Will. Since Will heard the creature’s uncanny noises in the Upside Down, it stands to reason that there’s a connection they can investigate.
Dart doubled in size the day before, and popped out new legs faster than most people grow a pimple. So you’d expect that when Dustin comes home to retrieve him and take him to the other boys, the entire aquarium might be filled with Dart’s green, reptilian body. But instead, the glass is shattered and a trail of blood leads to the corner of Dustin’s closet. Poor Mews, who’s been overloved by Dustin’s mother for a while now, is an open-bellied carcass. Dart, that formerly chittering little cutie, has become a hostile baby demogorgon.
Amid all of these bloody sci-fi hijinks, the most affecting scenes take place between Hopper and Eleven, neither of whom has the vocabulary to describe their feelings of loss and confusion. For Hopper, Eleven’s day roaming free of the cabin not only puts the town at risk, but also reignites the sense of fear he’s harbored since his daughter’s death — fear of losing another child he cares about. Eleven, for her part, has never known an authority figure that loved her without expectations. They scream at one another like peers, each as frazzled and entitled as the other. Mid-argument, Eleven puts her powers to good tween use, slamming doors and eventually blowing out the windows with her rage.
Of course, it’s comical that Hopper thinks he can “ground” Eleven — the term is meaningless to a child who isn’t allowed to leave the house anyway. But his removal of the TV is especially cruel. Not only is it her only portal to Mike, it’s also her only contact with humanity.
Resigned to clean up at least part of the mess she’s made (perhaps as a peace offering to Hopper), Eleven spots a hatch in the cabin floor, and lo and behold, next to boxes labelled “New York” and “Vietnam,” she sees a box that reads “Hawkins Lab.” They’re Hopper’s notes and files from last year’s investigation, including a folder with Terry Ives’s name, and a picture of Ives with Eleven’s “papa,” Dr. Martin Brenner.
Ives, as we learned last season, has been trapped in a near-vegetative state for years. But that doesn’t mean her mind is lost: When Eleven tries to reach her on whatever astral plane she can project her consciousness to, she intuitively seems to recognize that Ives is her mother. They share a brief moment together, holding hands in this netherspace, but then Ives goes up in a poof of smoke. Eleven is left alone, again, in a heap on the ground.
• Of course Billy snot-rockets in a communal shower. That’s the most Billy thing that Billy could do.
• This episode features more mullet-on-mullet basketball and more flagrant fouling on Billy’s part. This gym teacher needs to keep his eyes on the court.
• If you look closely when Nancy and Jonathan are touring Hawkins Lab, there’s a creature in an aquarium that bears a striking a resemblance to Dart. Has the lab has been growing their own baby demogorgons?
• So far, Max and Billy both feel like awkward limbs attached to this story. How are they related? Why are they in Indiana? It’s time for at least a little more information before Billy’s antics get old.
Get all your Stranger Things 2 questions answered at the show’s Vulture Festival LA panel on November 18! Tickets available here.