Oh, you thought Dr. Brenner was only around in those flashbacks, babe? Nope. Big nope. Brenner survived that Demogorgon attack in season one, and it looks like he’s been working on Project Nina out in the Nevada desert since then, just waiting for the day when he could manipulate Eleven into holding his hand while walking down a hallway and calling him Papa. That day is today, it seems! I want to believe Dr. Owens, who is working with Brenner, really does have El’s best interest at heart and that Brenner is simply a means to an end, but I also want Hopper to pop out and headbutt this dude. I want a lot of things, what can I say.
Eleven’s superhero training has begun in an upgraded deprivation tank named NINA in a repurposed missile silo buried deep in the desert. When Brenner makes his big reveal, Eleven makes a run for it because Eleven is not an idiot. Eleven is taken by the guards and given a sedative, and honestly, Owens, how could you? I guess since the fate of the world rests on the hope that Eleven can somehow get her powers back and Brenner is the only one with a real plan to do that, Owens has no other choice. So what’s the plan? For now, all we know is that it includes putting Eleven in the NINA tank and making her walk through specific memories from her time at Hawkins. From September 1979 at Hawkins, to be exact. If that time period rings a bell, good — it’s the same time as that horrific massacre at the lab they showed us in the first episode of the season. We always knew we’d be going back to that; perhaps in these memories, we’ll get the full story.
For now, El is fighting the program. It’s trippy: She keeps repeating moments and every door she opens leads her back into the Rainbow Room. When she looks in the mirror, she sees herself back at her age then. A tall, blond man who works at the lab and has a real vibe keeps calling her “a sleepyhead.” It’s all weird. Outside of the memory, they’re monitoring El. Owens is worried it is too much too soon. “She’s going to drown in there,” he tells Brenner. “She’s going to swim,” he replies.
It’s honestly a little from column A and a little from column B. Even though it looks like El is getting the hang of being in her own memory — the repeating stops and she goes on to an exercise with the other kids where she continues to fail and we learn that Two is a real number two, if you know what I mean — it doesn’t take long for her to go back to that traumatic memory from before. She starts freaking out and they have to use a defibrillator to get her back. And then El takes that defibrillator and smashes it into Brenner’s face. She makes a second run for it. This time, however, when the guards go to grab her, she blasts them away … with her powers. And those powers seem surprisingly strong. Now, before you start celebrating about El being fixed and getting to go to Hawkins — it’s not that easy. When she goes to get rid of Brenner, her powers don’t come to her. There is much more work to be done, but it’s clear that whatever Brenner is doing is working. He wants to help her. He reaches out his hand for her to take. The door to leave is open. She has a choice. “Papa,” she says. “Daughter,” he replies. They walk back down the hall toward NINA hand in hand.
I’m trying not to be too upset about El calling this clown Papa when Hop is her dad and instead trusting El, but it’s very upsetting! Especially because poor Hop is having a time and seeing this would break his heart a little. The guy is really in a bad way, and that is truly saying something since he’s already been locked up in a Soviet prison for six months. We find him after being recaptured and he’s getting the shit kicked out of him. But that’s not even the bad part. The bad part is that they move him to a new section of the prison where they definitely make prisoners fight a Demogorgon. (Come on, as soon as they showed that thing in the season-three finale, you knew it would have to show up again.) Hopper versus Demogorgon sounds like it could be a true masterpiece, but it is nowhere close to any kind of fair fight right now, and that is because my guy, dear Hop, is in his feelings.
Who can blame him after he briefly tasted freedom (it tastes like JIF) only to be hauled back to hell? But it’s not exactly being stuck where he is that’s bothering him, it’s everything that’s led him here and everything he’s done and it is definitely, a little bit, about Joyce. Locked up with his guard buddy, now a prisoner too for being a traitor, Hopper gives a monologue so sad, I suggest you chase it directly with some type of serotonin booster, okay? For your health!
We already know Hopper carries around so much pain from the death of his daughter Sarah from cancer, and we’ve heard him give a sad speech before back in season two when he told El he was “a black hole.” But this right here takes it to another level. He says that he doesn’t think of himself as cursed anymore but that he is the curse (maybe this is why he and El feel so connected, both so down on themselves!!). He was drafted to Vietnam at 18 and was assigned to work with Agent Orange, he was over there mixing it, inhaling it. When he got home, he watched as his friends from the war tried to have kids, but they were all born with birth defects or stillborn. His wife wanted a child, and so he went along with it. And, well, we all know what happened with Sarah. He buried his grief in drugs and alcohol until he let Joyce and El into his life. He says he tricked himself into thinking they needed him when it was the other way around. And look at them now. He knew the risks of trying to get out of this place, he says, and he did it anyway, and because of that, he “sentenced Joyce to death.” It was the same with Sarah. “Everyone I love, I hurt,” he says. The guilt and shame this guy is carrying around are oppressive. I need to hug a puppy, maybe? Here’s hoping Hopper will find some renewed determination within himself — his date with that Demogorgon is nigh!
Back in Hawkins, the gang is starting to put a few things together. Thanks to the images Max draws of her time in the red mist — which Dustin concludes must mean Max was somehow able to infiltrate Vecna’s mind — and Nancy’s good memory, Nance realizes that the images are of Victor Creel’s house. They head over there to look for more clues, which means we get a little haunted-house movie in the middle of Stranger Things, fun!
After a little while of searching — and two pairs of exes having some charged moments — they see the lights are flickering in that Upside Down way and realize Vecna must be here. They follow the trail of lights — Vecna on the move — until they end up in the attic. As they stand in the center, exactly where, in the Upside Down, Vecna plugs into all those vines, all of their flashlights begin to glow until, suddenly, they all begin to explode. While the gang is wondering what the hell that could mean, we all know: Vecna has claimed another victim.
Jason and the basketball team have a renewed sense of urgency to track down Eddie after Chrissy’s funeral, and a few of them, including Jason and Patrick, the kid we saw Vecna lock into in “The Monster and the Superhero,” wind up at Reefer Rick’s. Patrick’s been having more hallucinations. He’s seen the clock. He does not have long. They discover that Eddie has hopped on the boat in the boathouse and is currently paddling away in Lover’s Lake. Jason and Patrick swim after him, but just as they catch up, Patrick gets pulled underwater. He then comes shooting out and is levitating above the lake in a trance. His bones snap. Jason and Eddie watch horrified.
More Strange Things!
• That second bloodied agent Mike, Will, and Jonathan were able to get into the back of Argyle’s pizza delivery van dies, but not before he tells them to warn Owens by calling Nina and handing Mike a pen to ostensibly take Nina’s number down. They never get that number. After burying the guy’s body in the desert — the trauma these kids have been through! — and calming Argyle down after being fully informed of all Strange Things, Mike realizes it makes no sense for the guy to just hand him a pen. Lo and behold, inside the pen is a number … but it’s a number to a computer, not a phone (they figure this out thanks to their extensive viewing of WarGames, naturally). In order to find and connect with that computer, they’re going to need a hacker. The boys are headed to Salt Lake City to enlist the help of Dustin’s girlfriend, Suzie. Will even gives us a little The NeverEnding Story reprise!
• “Open our minds?! There’s an open grave in front of me, man!” Argyle is the best.
• Will tries to console Mike, who is still moping over messing things up with Eleven, by telling him that sometimes it’s hard to be vulnerable with the people you care about most. This feels like it is about something else.
• Owens’s agents come to check out the Munson trailer, and they are concerned about that crack in the ceiling.
• So many insane things have happened on this show, literally called Stranger Things, but Joyce and Murray having to land a plane in a Soviet forest after Murray karate-chopped their traitorous pilot Yuri who was going to sell them to KGB is absolutely bonkers. I believe in monsters with teeth for a face more than I believe this.