The previous recap contained the hope that, as the plot thickened and the season went into overdrive, we wouldn’t lose out on small character moments in the midst of all the monsters and madness. Thing is, not all moments of character development work. After a season spent teasing Steve, Robin suggests she and all her fellow outcasts are just jealous of the popular kids. “Even if all us losers pretend to be above it all,” she tells him, “we still just want to be popular, accepted, normal.” That sound you hear is every less-than-popular kid watching the show gasping at the betrayal.
It’s a false note that clangs as loud as a Soviet Klaxon in an underground bunker, the sort of sentiment popular kids think weirdos harbor. Robin’s been super-cool up to this point, which is to say that she’s been uncool and fine with it. Here she seems to be suggesting that every member of The Breakfast Club secretly wants to be Emilio Estevez and Molly Ringwald rather than themselves. That sentiment feels sharply at odds with a show that’s made a point of championing misfits and losers (or at least winning composites of misfits and losers derived from ’80s movies and Stephen King novels).
Steve’s own revelation, that he knows he was an “asshole” and now sees he’s paying the price, feels truer to the character we’ve gotten to know over three seasons. Even so, it’s probably best we’re spared further reflection when Dustin and Erica break in to rescue them, cattle prod in hand, as chaos erupts around them. It seems the Russians’ time operating beneath Starcourt Mall unnoticed will soon be at an end.
That might be the case even if Dustin and Erica, who are turning into a winning team, didn’t come to the rescue. In Illinois, Hopper, Joyce, and Murray interrogate Alexei about what he knows while Alexei tries to milk the situation for all it’s worth. (Or, if not “milk,” then whatever you call it when you drain a Slurpee machine.) His hardball tactics only get him so far when Hopper gives him his freedom as a way of calling his bluff. Much to Joyce’s surprise, it works. (She seems genuinely impressed, in that moment at least, with a man she thought she had all figured out.) After fumbling around with a translation — aided by some drawings — they figure out what’s going on beneath Hawkins, call the authorities via Hopper’s secret line, and head back to Indiana on a rescue mission.
Their scenes have this episode’s best comedic moments, whether it’s Alexei dubbing Hopper “fat Rambo” or Joyce taking no prisoners as she talks to Hopper’s mysterious contact. But their lightheartedness seems likely to end at Fun Fair (brought to you by Mayor Kline), where they probably won’t like what they find, based on what El and her companions uncover back in Hawkins. In short: The Mind Flayer is not messing around. After El gives it a beating at the hospital, it escapes into the sewer to regroup and make new plans. El and her friends also regroup. As El searches in vain, at least at first, for the monster that wants to do them in, her friends argue about whether she’s overusing her powers. By the end of the debate, Mike has come around to Max’s point of view that El should be able to make her own choices, but he’s also fiercely protective of her and confesses he loves her. These two might make it work after all.
The episode draws to a close with El communing with Billy on the astral plane as represented by a California beach, a process that allows her to witness his troubled upbringing but also gives away her position. “You let us in. And now you’re going to have to let us stay,” Flayed Billy tells her as the other Flayed activate and head out in the general direction of the Fun Fair, the name of which seems likely to take on an ironic cast in the next episode (assuming your idea of fun isn’t enslaving humans for a demonic master from another dimension).
• Stranger Things has always created scary-looking monsters, but this season’s version of the Mind Flayer, the one that assembles itself to fight Nancy and Jonathan in the hospital, may be the scariest one yet.
• Composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein haven’t been shy about drawing freely from the work of ’80s composers like John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream for their score. Like the show around them, their work is derivative but so lovingly reshaped into a new and entertaining form that it’s hard to complain about its familiarity too much. Add Phillip Glass to their list of heroes: His influence is all over the music that plays as El communes with Billy’s past on the beach.
• It’s weirdly refreshing how much smoking happens on this show. Not that you should smoke. Don’t. It’s bad for you and tobacco companies are evil. But the MPAA’s crackdown has meant that even the briefest depiction of smoking, even period-appropriate smoking, will earn a film an R-rating, to the point that movies have taken to whitewashing (smoke-washing?) the past. Not Stranger Things, in which seemingly every adult appears to have a butt in hand at all times. Again, don’t do it. Now in their seventies, Hopper and Joyce are probably suffering all kinds of health problems. But on the series it’s another ’80s detail done right.