Okay, there’s good news and bad news as far as Billy is concerned. The good news is, he’s not dead. The bad news: Well, maybe he’s a little dead. He’s certainly not entirely himself. The previous episode ended with him getting dragged into the basement of an abandoned warehouse. But, as you might expect, this was no ordinary basement in an ordinary abandoned warehouse. Instead, he seems to have found a new way into the Upside Down, where he meets a gang of creepy phantoms that includes his doppelgänger. The Billy who emerges isn’t entirely himself. He’s given to strange flashbacks to his time in the cellar and prone to violent fantasies, as when Karen tries to apologize for not showing up for their motel assignation. Sometimes he’s capable of worse, as when he kidnaps a fellow lifeguard and brings her to the warehouse to meet … what? We don’t know, but it’s almost certainly not anyone nice. Billy’s never been the easiest character to love — even with his sweet ’stache and mom-pleasin’ bod — but this Billy is a new kind of trouble. And his mission is “to build.” Yipes.
That’s not the only sort of trouble afoot in Hawkins, either. Too terrified to hang out with El after Hopper’s threat, Mike takes a cue from Hopper and lies about an ailing grandmother who’s actually doing just fine to create an excuse to keep his distance. El may still be a bit naïve about how the world works, but she knows a lie when she hears it. And though Hopper is pleased that his plan has apparently paid off and that Mike is out of the picture for now, this separation sets off a chain reaction he never predicted, one that climaxes with El bumping into Mike at the mall and proclaiming, “I dump your ass” — as blunt of a breakup as has ever been delivered.
But first: a shopping montage! After some antagonistic moments last season, Max and El here become BFFs by trying on outfits. Cue Madonna’s “Material Girl.” Cue a montage sequence. It’s the most ’80s moment in this most ’80s of series and it’s delightful, especially since Millie Bobby Brown and Sadie Sink seem to be having so much fun being girls. Stranger Things hasn’t been easy on either character, so it’s nice to see Max and El enjoying themselves and letting their guards down, even if it obviously won’t last. (El using her powers to prank Hawkins’ mean girls seems like it could get her into trouble down the line.)
There’s a lot more happening at the mall this episode, too, including a reunion we didn’t see last week: the one between Steve and Dustin, season two’s most winning — and unlikely — buddy team. They’re both delightfully thrilled to see each other at the ice-cream shop, much to the dismay of Robin, who asks Steve, “How many children are you friends with?” Obviously, she just doesn’t get it. (And for all the creative supernatural visuals in this series, the shot of Robin looking on as Steve and Dustin go through their elaborate greeting remains my favorite of the season so far.) They have a bond that goes beyond age, one that allows Dustin to tell Steve that Suzie prefers kissing him with his teeth out and for Steve to commit to helping translate the mysterious Russian message he intercepted in the previous episode, an endeavor Robin joins in on (and, in the process, unwittingly becoming a third member of their spy squad). By episode’s end, they’ve translated Russian to English. And even if they don’t know what exactly the cryptic message means, they do know its origins: Starcourt Mall itself.
Hopper’s newfound confidence inspires him to make a date with Joyce, to which she somewhat reluctantly agrees. He shows up at Enzo’s (by all appearances the fanciest restaurant in Hawkins) wearing a Magnum P.I.-inspired outfit, and tears into some scotch and a bottle of “chee-on-tee.” Much to his frustration, Joyce doesn’t show, and as he makes his way to the exit he doesn’t even notice the Russian strongman drinking at the bar. Joyce, meanwhile, is busy learning about magnets from Mr. Clarke, Hawkins’ super-knowledgeable science teacher. He’s also a man ahead of his time, totally happy in his geeky interests and not concerned with what anyone else thinks about them. That said, I’m not sure Joyce leaves with a greater understanding of what’s going on with the town’s magnets.
Hopper’s professional life has its own problems. Previously, it seemed like only Joyce and Nancy had a problem with Starcourt Mall. This episode, however, we learn that a bunch of Hawkins residents don’t like being put out of work by progress. And that progress has apparently been accelerated by Mayor Larry Kline (Cary Elwes, in another shrewd bit of casting). A strong Starcourt proponent, Kline wants Hopper to disperse the protesters because they don’t have a permit. Hopper only reluctantly agrees, shortly after Kline mentions he’s planning a big July 4th celebration. Unless subsequent episodes prove this to be a red herring, this is what’s known as “foreshadowing.” Hopper does his job, but reluctantly. (This might also be foreshadowing.)
Elsewhere, Jonathan and Nancy (who used a vague reference to female problems to sneak away from the Hawkins Post office) investigate Mrs. Driscoll’s complaints of diseased rats. And, boy, Mrs. Driscoll was not kidding. She shows the amateur sleuths an empty bag of fertilizer that’s been devoured by rats, which is weird enough. Weirder still is the rat she’s caged, which freaks out, then passes out as Jonathan and Nancy observe it. What they don’t see: The “little bastard” (to use Mrs. Driscoll’s term) then explodes, turns to goo, and slithers away. “Diseased” obviously doesn’t cover what’s wrong here. Hawkins: a tough place for rodents, and an even tougher one for lifeguards. And it looks like it’s just going to get more dangerous with the next episode.
• This episode is called “The Mall Rats” and features both a mall and rats. But the rats never appear in the mall itself. It’s clever, but come on: Put some rats in that mall and your episode title gets even better.
• All of El’s outfits look super-cute, right? I hope she had the allowance to pick them all up. Also, capping the shopping montage with a trip to Glamour Shots (or its off-brand equivalent)? Nice touch.
• “Max has dumped me five times,” Lucas says. Max and Lucas seem to have a much more intense relationship between scenes than we see them having on the show.