It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Max, even before this episode takes an intense turn that finds her trapping her own brother in a sauna and intensely hoping that he hasn’t been possessed by the Mind Flayer. Here she is, a California transplant to the seemingly normal town of Hawkins who’s ready to take the events of 1984 as a blip and move on with her life. And from her perspective, maybe it was just a blip. She wasn’t around for the previous year, the one in which Will disappeared and Barb died (R.I.P. and #JusticeForBarb). And, by all appearances, things have been relatively normal ever since El sealed the portal to the Upside Down. No wonder she tries to reassure El that everything’s still okay after they crash Billy’s dinner with Heather and her parents, then take off before Heather’s parents take a dive to the tune of “American Pie.” Why not relax and enjoy an issue of Wonder Woman (a comic none of her geeky male friends have apparently thought to show her)? And why not be annoyed when Mike phones in with a “Code Red”?
Max is the last of the Stranger Things gang to catch on that the town might (again) be in trouble. Others are already on high alert, and not just in Mike’s basement. Dustin, recently annoyed that nobody answered his walkie-talkie call, remains incommunicado while he, Steve, and Robin try to figure out what to do about the mysterious room being guarded by the Russian with the big gun. They figure out a way in via the ducts but they’ll need someone with even more flexible shoulders than Dustin. Enter Erica, who’s still at the mall and who agrees to sneak in in exchange for free ice cream for life. (Erica has this episode’s two best lines: “I still haven’t heard what’s in it for Erica!” and “You can’t spell America without Erica.” Which is better? You’ll have to choose for yourself.) But even if Erica’s a reluctant recruit, she finds herself in as deep as the others when the secret room turns out to be (a) filled with some kind of mysterious green substance and (b) actually an elevator going to who knows where? (Best guess: somewhere where they speak a lot of Russian.)
That’s just one of several simultaneous investigations to edge into dangerous territory this episode. After calling an ambulance for Mrs. Driscoll, and watching as she screams “I have to go back!,” Nancy and Jonathan find themselves rewarded by getting fired from the Hawkins Post by the newly possessed Tom, who wasn’t that sympathetic to Nancy’s nose for news even before getting taken over by the Mind Flayer. (Admittedly, he’s not wrong about Nancy and Jonathan impersonating reporters or breaking and entering.) Jonathan is not sympathetic but Karen is. In a rare mother-daughter scene, Karen basically lays out how hard it is for women to get anywhere and how proud she is of her daughter for standing up to the “shitheads.” It’s a nice moment, but have we seen these characters talk to each other in any meaningful way since the first season? True or not, the pep talk gives Nancy the resolve to go visit Mrs. Driscoll in the hospital, where things do not go as planned.
While the lion’s share of the investigating belongs to the younger generation, at least Joyce and Hopper aren’t ignoring all the ominous signs. Getting beaten up by a Russian biker no doubt helped clarify matters for Hopper. After Hopper wakes up unexpectedly nude, he puts two and two together with the help of Joyce and remembers the last time he saw an out-of-place biker in Hawkins and where he saw him. So he heads over to city hall to confront Mayor Kline, and while Hopper probably doesn’t plan to beat the hell out of Kline when he walks in the room, not beating him up becomes impossible when Kline mockingly refers to Hopper’s dead daughter. One intense interaction with a cigar cutter later, Kline spills his guts: He doesn’t know who the biker is, but he knows he’s associated with Starcourt Mall, which is trying to buy up some more property and is bribing Kline for help. (Hmm … shadowy Russians doing shady deals with American politicians. What could have inspired this?) Kline’s day goes from bad to worse when Hopper and Joyce follow him home, where Joyce helps Hopper figure out what the Starcourt land grab might mean in terms of the recent power outages. And, after some terrific wide-eyed looks from Winona Ryder, they’re a little bit closer to finding out what’s going on.
While the other Hawkins sleuths find a lot of evidence that shores up their suspicions that the Upside Down isn’t done with Hawkins, the kids confront it head-on this episode. Will delivers a refresher course on how the Mind Flayer works and suggests he’ll soon be looking for a new host. Will also clears up what’s going on with Billy (and Heather, Tom, and Janet): They’re themselves except when they’re not. The Mind Flayer just kind of hangs out until needed. So the gang hits on an idea: Lock Billy in the sauna and steam that Mind Flayer out. It doesn’t quite work out as planned. Billy, the real Billy, tearfully confesses to bad deeds beyond his control. But then Billy, in the grips of the Mind Flayer, gets loose and attacks El, almost doing her in until Mike knocks him out, leaving El to finish the job when he rises again. (The Mind Flayer is no joke. He also survives a slingshot knock to the head.)
He also screams. So does, across town, Mrs. Driscoll, who now shares his weird Mind Flayer-y skin condition. There is a lot of screaming as this episode ends, at which point no one paying attention can pretend everything’s okay in Hawkins. And it looks like it’s just going to get worse as Heather reveals a whole undead, Mind Flayer-controlled army apparently ready to unleash hell on the town. All this and we’re only halfway through the season, which has so far moved forward like a steamroller.
After a few nice moments reconnecting with the old gang, it’s been one long, relentless push forward, and an enjoyable one, too. (Season three returns to the eight-episode model after season two’s nine episodes, a length padded out by a widely disliked — if perhaps a little too harshly disliked — trip to Chicago.) Between plot developments, Stranger Things has taken some time to focus on where the characters are with their lives, to mostly successful effect. Will’s pouty crisis in the previous episode, the season’s weakest, felt a little arbitrary. By contrast, Mike and Lucas spouting sexist theories about women being a different species has felt sadly true to the way teen boys think (and the way too many adult men continue to think). Elsewhere, doubling down on the Steve–Dustin buddy relationship has proven smart, as has throwing Robin into the mix. It’s been a strong half-season, in other words. Let’s hope the second half keeps the momentum up without losing sight of the endearing characters that make the show worth watching in the first place.
• Regarding Mike and El’s fight: Nobody’s entirely right here, are they? El shouldn’t have spied on Mike and Mike shouldn’t be saying such garbage, whether she was spying on him or not. And, in the end, maybe she is better off spending some time away from him and with a female friend. There’s a lot more to the world than Mike’s basement (and El’s Corey Hart-filled bedroom).
• The series has done a bang-up job making the Mind Flayer look terrifying this season.
• Nice image: Billy, covered in white by the pool and drinking an Icee. That creature does not like the heat.