Hasn’t Will Byers suffered enough? He’s been kidnapped from his own home, sucked into an alternate dimension, and hunted by a demogorgon. Even after his rescue from the Upside Down, he’s tortured by debilitating “flashbacks” that are actually the symptom of an otherworldly possession. And all this during what are arguably the hardest years of human existence: middle school. Now, so affixed to the “shadow monster” that his body writhes in agony whenever the creature is fired upon, he could very well die if it is killed. Maybe Bob is right: Just move to Maine already, Joyce. Get your kids outta here.
Although it’s a tad bit annoying to watch last season’s story line repeat itself at this point — Stranger Things is so obsessed with nostalgia that it often feels like season two is nostalgic for season one — and especially frustrating to see Will cast the victim yet again, this episode finally picks up the tempo (in the Upside Down tunnels and in the bedroom).
Raise your hand if you’d watch a buddy-cop movie starring Dustin “Dusty” Henderson and Steve “The Hair” Harrington. The pairing of Hawkins’ resident heartthrob and the mop-top nerd is Stranger Things at its most deft. The two discover that Dart, who has grown from the size of a chameleon to a Komodo dragon, has shed yet another layer of sticky skin and is now … somewhere, having dug a tunnel and escaped the Henderson family cellar for freedom. But these guys aren’t demogorgon newbies, and the unlikely duo quickly hatch a plan.
This time, bologna won’t cut it. They instead drop what appears to be a metric ton of beef cubes in a path, designed to lure Dart to the abandoned school bus that holds many of a fond memory from last season. (There’s a delicious irony to these children hiding in what’s historically a safe space.) Joined by Max and Lucas, barrels start rolling, old sheet metal is heaved, and ladders are secured in a glorious “let’s get ready to battle” montage. It’s also a sweet homage to the ways in which nerdiness pays off for the kids of Stranger Things: They know how to fortify in real life because they’ve done it so many D&D campaigns.
Dart eventually arrives, shrouded in a moody fog, but he’s untempted by the pile of beef. In an act of foolish bravery, Steve leaves the bus to use his body as bait. But there isn’t just one Dart — there are at least three if not more, and the group is nearly ambushed. Suddenly and luckily, the crew of monsters hears a call and scampers off into the woods.
Meanwhile, Nancy has pretty much forgotten about Steve. Hunkered down inside Murray’s bunker, she and Jonathan finally, finally, FINALLY release their inhibitions and feel the rain on their skin. It takes some genius prodding from Murray, who has zapoyed himself into oblivion, but he nonetheless nails it: Jonathan does have trust issues stemming from his father! Nancy isn’t in love with Steve! They really have been through “the real shit” together! Even if shared trauma isn’t the best foundation for a long-lasting relationship, Murray’s onto something here. Or, as he puts it so subtly: “There’s a pull-out sofa in my study if you want it. But if I were you, I’d cut the bullshit and share the damn bed.”
Cue some truly rom-com magic as Nancy and Jonathan go through a little will-they, won’t-they dance before they finally come together in a kiss … and a shared night in that guest bed. But you can’t start a relationship in the midst of a crisis and expect the honeymoon period to last. When the lovebirds return to the Byers’ house, they discover that Will and Joyce aren’t there, but it’s clear that someone else has been because there’s an empty Polaroid packet on the floor.
After collapsing in pain and screaming that his body feels as if it’s on fire, Will has been taken to Hawkins Lab, where not a single smart old white dude in a sea of smart old white dudes seems to know what’s wrong with him. Dr. Owens tests his theory by exposing a bit of the monster to a blowtorch and then watching as Will writhes in tandem agony. He describes Will’s possession as viral, except in this case, there’s no clear way to kill the disease without killing the host. The shadow monster feeds off of Will’s life force, and vice versa.
Of course, the top docs at Hawkins Lab aren’t in the business of transparency, and so the alarmingly crimson scans of Will’s brain are kept secret from Joyce, who plummets into a state of unbounded frazzle. Will is obviously declining, but having signed her life away in confidentiality forms, Joyce isn’t left with much choice in how to treat him. With every moment, he’s melding more and more with the monster, channeling its voice to tell his family and the Hawkins Lab team that they “upset him,” in a quivery but threatening tone.
The portal to the Upside Down is also spreading “like a cancer.” Still recovering from his bout with ectoslime in the tunnels, Hopper goes down into the abyss below Hawkins Lab to witness just how dispersed the tentacles of the Upside Down have become. “All the hives are connected,” Owens explains. And now that they understand Will’s condition, the crew can’t just keep burning the edges to keep it in retreat.
But Will has an announcement: He knows how to stop the shadow monster. After his crayon “map” is re-created via pictures (and one very speedy photo-lab technician), he indicates exactly the spot where Hawkins Lab should send their soldiers. “He doesn’t want me to see that,” Will says, implying that the shadow monster is attempting to keep his Achilles heel a secret.
Sent down into the tunnels and guided by the lab’s own miniature Mission Control, the soldiers end up in the graveyard where Hopper was trapped under the monster’s tentacles. At first, nothing appears. But then, a fog just like the one that surrounded the school bus rolls in, obscuring the soldiers’ view. Within seconds, they’re surrounded by the demogorgons that just hurried off from Dustin, Steve, Lucas, and Max. It’s a trap.
In the end, Will couldn’t help himself: His conscience won out over the shadow monster and he tried to warn the crew. But it was too little, too late, and now a whole host of demogorgons are headed straight for Hawkins Lab.
• Bless Steve’s addled little brain. All that testosterone must be causing some neurons to misfire, because he really thinks “ignore her” is excellent dating advice. He also uses Farrah Fawcett spray on his hair, which, aesthetically, makes a ton of sense.
• So Max’s big secret is … her parents are divorced? I haven’t felt this disappointed since I discovered that Stacey was acting funny in The Babysitters’ Club because she was diabetic.
• Billy has to play a larger role in this story, right? All this build-up surely must lead to something. I’m taking bets on whether he’ll be the only Hawkins resident to be eaten by a demogorgon.
• Nancy, Jonathan, and Murray use one of the few weapons available to them — a tape recorder — to make duplicate copies of Dr. Owens’s confession and then ship them off to newspapers of note. But will any paper take this kind of tip seriously? And if so, will season three deal with the fallout after the nation learns what’s been happening in Hawkins?
• “So, Jonathan, how was the pull-out?” You just know Murray spent half the night coming up with that line.
• The Wheelers are the reason for those “It’s five o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” billboards.
Get all your Stranger Things 2 questions answered at the show’s Vulture Festival LA panel on November 18! Tickets available here.