So far, this season has been a series of realizations that trouble has, once again, come to Hawkins. Will seemed to know it from the start, but the first episode found everyone around him blissfully unaware that the Upside Down was about to make another play for the bucolic Indiana town. The second episode saw characters grow wary of their surroundings a few at a time — Nancy and Jonathan with the rats; Joyce with the magnets; and the Scoops Ahoy gang of Steve, Dustin, and Robin with the Russian messages. El’s personal drama aside, El and Max have remained apart from the turmoil, and the good vibes of the previous episode’s trip to the mall at first look like they’ll extend into “The Case of the Missing Lifeguard,” which opens with them having a sleepover, thinking about Ralph Macchio, complaining about boys, and doing a little astral projecting that confirms their suspicions that boys are mostly gross and stupid. Meanwhile, Mike and Lucas decide that girls are just a different species than men. Understanding between the sexes has had a serious breakdown in Hawkins.
That, however, turns out the be the least of the gang’s troubles. A little more Under the Skin–inspired astral projecting brings them to Billy, who might be doing something gross, as Max warns El. And that turns out to be true, just not in the way Max meant. El’s not sure exactly what she sees, and so she and Max become yet another set of amateur sleuths following clues that lead them to believe Billy might be responsible for the disappearance of a local lifeguard named Heather. (The bloody whistle is a tip-off.) It’s a matter of when, not if, all these investigations will converge. But will everyone involved be able to put their personal differences aside when they do?
Take Lucas, Mike, and Will (and Dustin, but he’s elsewhere this episode), who used to be perfectly happy hanging out in the basement, playing Dungeons & Dragons, and not thinking about girls. That’s changed for the others, but not for Will, who desperately tries to turn back the clock via an intense D&D session for which he dons a full Dungeon Master costume. It doesn’t go well, leading Will to deliver an impassioned speech about how it was so much cooler before everyone else got interested in girls. From there Will heads to the Castle Byers, where he has a bunch of flashbacks to earlier seasons (it seems to be the episode for that) and just grows sadder and angrier as the storm rages outside.
It’s all a bit heavy-handed, really. Stranger Things has made Will the supernaturally spooky outsider for two seasons now, never giving him much of a chance to emerge as a character. It makes sense that he’d feel his friends, and life in general, are passing him by, but neither his confrontation with Mike nor this flashback sequence dramatizes that with much imagination. His isolation could be part of a bigger plan for the character, however, so maybe it’s best not to rush to judgment, and his “He’s back” declaration at episode’s end suggests that at least they’ll need to heal this rift to fight, well, whoever “he” is.
Joyce and and Hopper — who’s still hungover after driving home drunk from their failed date, which is bad behavior for anyone but especially for a police chief — find a way to put their differences aside after arguing about why she’d go see her kid’s science teacher when she could have been enjoying a fancy Italian dinner with him. He’s skeptical about her magnet talk but ends up tagging along after delivering an obnoxious speech about moving on that, thankfully, she never hears, having drifted out of earshot in her desire to figure out what’s going on. Their investigation takes them back to Hawkins Lab where they find … not much, really.
Joyce has some troubling flashbacks to Bob’s death-by-Demodog (though I didn’t spot any new footage of Sean Astin). “All the cavities have been filled,” Hopper tells her. What he doesn’t notice: Someone is watching them. But this isn’t all for nought: They talk and start to understand each other again, then discover there might be some shady business going on at the lab after all when the Russian superman appears from the shadows, beats up Hopper, then speeds off on his bike. (He might be evil, but he knows how to make an entrance and an exit.)
Back at the Hawkins Post, Nancy continues her fight against deeply entrenched sexism as she tries to persuade the editors that she’s onto something. No one buys it, not even the editor-in-chief, Tom (Michael Park), who has a habit of striking a sympathetic pose that looks like he admires her moxie before joining the crowd in jeering her. (It’s a nice, cliché-skirting touch in a series that’s usually content to run with clichés.) Undaunted, Nancy continues her pursuit with Jonathan in tow only to find poor, sweet Mrs. Driscoll chowing down on some fertilizer, just like the diseased rats before her. This does not bode well.
Meanwhile, at the Starcourt Mall, Dustin tries to push Steve toward realizing Robin’s actually pretty cool, even if she is in drama club. Not that Robin seems to care about anyone’s approval. She’s locked into cracking the cryptic Russian message only to find that it’s all about … Starcourt Mall? That can’t be, can it? But, given that Hawkins has already served as an unlikely hotbed of supernatural activity, why shouldn’t it also be a hotbed of espionage? She may tell Lucas’s sister, Erica, that Steve’s off doing spycraft, but she’s much better suited to the pursuit — and less likely to mistake an innocent Jazzercise instructor for a Russian spy. Then, as the episode draws to a close, they run into real Russian spies, who seem to be using Starcourt as a headquarters for whatever nefarious plans they have going. That’s bad. Even worse: The Russians spot them.
The episode ends as it began, with El and Max. Only this time they’ve put teen magazines aside and found Heather, the missing lifeguard. And she’s fine, apparently, enjoying a nice dinner with her father, Tom (the same Tom who edits The Hawkins Post — it’s a small town) and her mother, Janet. They’re waiting out the storm and baking cookies and just having a nice time. Except there’s one problem: Billy and Heather are either evil doppelgänger versions of the characters we know, or possessed by the Upside Down. (And Billy, or whatever’s inside him, recognizes El.) As Don McClean sings “American Pie,” Billy and Heather (or “Billy” and “Heather”) knock out Heather’s parents. Their plans remain unclear. But they don’t look too pleasant.
• How do you explain sex and “happy screams” to a girl raised in isolation who doesn’t even know who Ralph Macchio is? “I’m just gonna lend you my mom’s Cosmo.”
• “It’s not my fault you don’t like girls.” There are, of course, a couple of ways to read this. Is Will simply lagging behind his friends, or does he like boys instead and Mike knows it? He seems, as always, presexual, and a kid grappling with his sexuality in small-town Indiana might be more than Stranger Things would want to take on anyway. It’s elided, for instance, over any racism Lucas might have faced in Hawkins, and Billy’s racial attitudes have been buried deep in subtext (to the point that Dacre Montgomery doesn’t think Billy’s racist at all). Stranger Things doesn’t have any obligation to take on tough issues, and it might not even play to the series’ strengths. But the line raises questions it’ll probably have to answer at some point.
• One thing about Will’s tortured flashbacks: Boy, these kids are growing up fast, aren’t they?