By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – July 12, 2019)
CHAPTER THREE: THE CASE OF THE MISSING LIFEGUARD
CHAPTER FOUR: THE SAUNA TEST
I was reminded of Eddie Murphy’s classic Delirious special watching these two episodes, you know the one where the couple finds this awesome house that looks like the perfect place to live or spend time, then hears a mysterious voice say, “Get out?” You remember the response from Eddie, playing the part of the father or husband in that scene? “Too bad we can’t stay.”
It might be time to consider leaving Hawkins, which, as we find out, Joyce Byers is already doing. Her house is on the market, or about to be, and Jim Hopper knows it, even if her own children don’t. Is it about the possibility of more happenings, or is it the painful memories of what already happened. She almost lost her son, Will, and did lose Bob Newby, a character we were sure we were going to hate because we wanted Jim and Joyce together, but who turned out just to be a nice guy that we couldn’t dislike. Even Hopper couldn’t dislike him.
These two eps, neither of which were written by the Duffer Brothers, were both far stronger than the two that opened the season. There was a focus to creating a hellscape and a place where absolutely everything was, in Eleven’s own words, “wrong.” I felt some similarities to Jordan Peele’s Get Out and also to HBO’s Westworld with the possessed people standing motionless like zombies in front of the Mind Flayer at the end of the fourth episode. This town has been through a lot, but now we have not one, not even two or four with Heather and her parents, but now dozens of townsfolk that are also doing its bidding.
These were really fun hours to work through, as we got away from some, though not all of the romance, and returned to a state of seeing who and what these characters are about and why they’re in each other’s lives. Will is still the kid, and he’s got problems, isn’t ready to grow up, and he can’t stand that his buddies are growing up and noticing women and caring more about their girlfriends than “Will the Wise” as dungeon master, even if the campaigns are cool. It’s something we can all relate to, where at some point what once mattered to us…didn’t anymore, usually for the same reason it hit Mike and Lucas.
Mike comes clean to El and tells her about Hopper’s crazy outburst, but Jim has taken it to a new level as he assaults and then in effect kidnaps and restrains Mayor Kline, who finally gives us more of an idea of the human villains. We’re not dealing with Hawkins Lab anymore. The Russians are using Starcourt Mall as a front for radioactive material and also as a hub to help them along with their giant magnetic field, which is no doubt a part of the plan to open up the portal to the Upside Down to destroy the United States. The Cold War angle is pure entertainment, and as someone that was just old enough to KNOW sort of what was happening, or at least to think the Soviets were dangerous, I remember the panic of the mid-1980s.
We got enough of the people stuff, enough of the personal relationships, but we got so much more of the monster movie and science fiction side, which is where this show both works and plays best. It’s interesting how absent Dustin is from the other three kids, instead spending his time with Steve and Robin in a room that became an elevator, though they’re all to some degree working together without knowing it. El was much more effective in these two episodes, where we saw her in full sensory deprivation and telekinesis mode, including a pretty rad fight between her and possessed Billy after the sauna experiment went awry and his superhuman strength got him out of that room.
Erica Sinclair is…obnoxious, but she’s very 80s selfish kid like and fits in the show as someone we’ve all met before in some form. “What’s in it for me” is always her refrain, even as she explains capitalism to them to illustrate that she’ll be receiving free ice cream from Scoops Ahoy for the rest of time after Operation Child Endangerment. The dynamic here works better than I expected when she was with her friends and just kind of getting in the way. She turned out to have impact and necessity. There’s a reason she exists.
Nancy and Jonathan finding a feral Doris Driscoll, also possessed, but acting like a rat, was a little unexpected, but I’m sure Nancy would say watching this 80-year-old woman turn into a monster in that hospital room was a little sketchier. She and Jonathan have been fired by Tom Holloway, who of course is possessed. Speaking of which, watching Heather’s parents as the tentacle arms latch onto their faces and take control was…well, let’s just say it didn’t look like it felt ideal, but maybe it didn’t hurt a bit. Remember, “it’ll all be over soon.”
Back to Nancy and the sexism angle, it was interesting to have that argument in the car where Jonathan Byers pushed back at her and mentioned she doesn’t know what it’s like to be him, and by that he means poor. It leads to the great mother-daughter conversation between Karen and Nancy in the kitchen, where mom hears that she’s strong and that Nancy gets all of what makes her a fighter from Karen. That’s a really strong scene from Cara Buono and Natalia Dyer, probably their best work together in the series. Even though the Jake Busey character is such a caricature and I hate it, because 80s movies were filled with over-the-top stereotypes of everything under the sun, it’s okay because it’s Stranger Things. But, if he gets his face eaten off at some point in the near future, I’m not going to be upset.
Also, the third episode’s title has to be a play off a Nancy Drew mystery, which is a nice touch if intentional or a nice break if accidental. One thing to keep in mind about Nancy Wheeler relative to Nancy Drew as we move forward in the series is although I didn’t read Nancy Drew, focusing on Encyclopedia Brown and the Hardy Boys… I’m pretty sure Nancy Drew always solved the case in the end. That nickname might actually turn out to be more than appropriate.
This season is part Stepford Wives, part Get Out, and part Stranger Things right now, and I’m digging it at the midway point. I didn’t love the first two eps of the season, but I’m enjoying just how fast everything has gotten completely out of hand in Hawkins. It felt gradual for a little while, but right now, basically every character we’re supposed to be invested in KNOWS what’s up and also fears what could be next. Will laying out the case, saying that yes, El closed the gate, but she might have closed the Mind Flayer into our world, rather than locking him out, is plausible within the construct of the show. It would also make that final shot of Season 2 where the camera spun 180 degrees even clearer, as with the Mind Flayer in our world, everything becomes the Upside Down.
One other thing I want to point out is the direction and camera trickery of Shawn Levy in these two episodes, particularly “The Case of the Missing Lifeguard.” Multiple times, he would take one shot and dissolve it into another with a similar motif and framing, like going from Billy’s eye to Dustin’s binoculars or Grigory speeding off on the motorcycle after assaulting Hopper morphing into Max and El on a bike. This stuff was really well done.
I’m more intrigued now than I was two episodes ago and far more entertained as well. These two episodes really helped what was a less-than-gripping season up to this point. Luckily, we’re only 50% of the way through. If it stays at this level, Season 3 might be quite a ride. No question Chapters Three and Four had plenty to sink our teeth into – like a tasty bag of fertilizer.
I’m @JMartZone. I’m activated. Get away from the door.