Everything begins to change in this episode, the midpoint of the season, as even most of the pragmatists among the main characters realize that something mysterious and sinister is going on. We’re starting to reach the meat of the story, with more clues about the lab and cover up being revealed, and the characters beginning to work together. This show is so well done that, while it seems obvious how some of it will play out, I have no idea where they’re going to go with other aspects. Will the stock characters and situations stay that way, become modern clichés instead, or evolve into something totally original?
This episode picks up not long after the end of episode 3. Joyce has told Hopper her story, and Hopper has told Joyce and Jonathan that Will’s body has been found. Joyce refuses to believe that Will is gone. Hopper at least does a cursory inspection of the house, rather than dismissing Joyce completely, but he also mainly talks to her as one grief-stricken parent to another. Any outsider would logically think she’s hallucinating, and he’s crushed by his own depression that’s been dredged up again full force.
Hopper goes out to his truck to drive away, but thinks better of it and settles in to spend the night sleeping outside of the Byers’ house. Joyce resolutely goes to the shed and gets an axe, then sits back down in her living room to stand watch, in case Will or the monster come back. Jonathan tries to pretend things are somewhere near normal so that he can get some sleep.
Song that plays at end of opening sequence as Hopper goes to his truck, Joyce gets the axe, and Jonathan puts on his headphones: Atmosphere by Joy Division. Joyce is like a Viking warrior goddess with her axe, ready to take on all comers to protect her home and family.
Is Hopper on suicide watch?
Foul play is indicated in Will’s death pre-autopsy, according to the TV news report Mike’s parents are watching, although Hopper told Joyce that he thought Will wandered off the side of the cliff and fell in. State police are investigating. Ted turns off the TV just as the reporter is telling us that someone else also drowned in the quarry 7 years ago. Is it a dumping ground for the bodies of people who become inconvenient to Hawkins Lab, or victims of the monster?
11 has been allowed to come home with Mike, but he vents his feelings at her, some maybe justified, some not. But, then all of 11’s tinkering with the walkie-talkie comes to fruition, and ET finally phones home. Will is singing his favorite song, The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go. Thankfully, it doesn’t take much for Mike to have a complete turn around in attitude, since he wants to believe that Will is alive. El has another nosebleed.
Cut to opening credits. OMG, I need a nap already, and we’re only 7 minutes in. That was intense. I have such a thing for Millie Bobby Brown’s face. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to watch her act with hair, and long speeches.
The next morning at the morgue, Hopper discovers that the state police have taken over the investigation into Will’s death, including Will’s autopsy. He’s been taken out of the loop without even a phone call. A few hours later, a state police representative is on the news telling the community that Will’s death was an isolated incident and there is no need to panic. That was a fast investigation.
Joyce and Jonathan view Will’s body at a distance, through safety glass. Jonathan can only look for a moment before he has to leave. Joyce asks to be shown the body in more detail, then announces that the thing on the slab is not her son and storms out. Jonathan and Hopper assume that this is more of her descent into grief-induced mental illness.
Nancy and Steve discuss Barb’s disappearance and Nancy’s search for her. Steve’s main concern is that his father might discover that he had a party and raided the liquor cabinet. Nancy finally sees Steve for the complete narcissistic a**hole that he is. Barb was of no use to him, so who cares if she might be dead? Nancy is showing strength, pluckiness, and a need to know and tell the truth that I’m enjoying watching her find in herself.
Later at school, the police question Nancy. They’ve clearly already questioned some of the other kids at the party, who skewed the facts in a certain direction. The officers have already decided that Barb and Nancy argued because Barb was jealous of the time that Nancy was spending with Steve, so Barb took her car and ran away from home. They don’t take anything that Nancy says seriously.
El channels Will on the walkie-talkie again for Dustin and Lucas, but he’s not talking, only making noises. Lucas is still skeptical. They decide to sneak El into the junior high school so that she can use the AV Club’s powerful new ham radio to channel Will.
They dress El in Nancy’s old clothes for the mission, so that she’ll blend in better at school. They pick out a 13 year old boy’s idea of the stereotypical girl costume: long blonde hair and a pink dress, with make up. El is fascinated to see herself this way. Mike likes the way she looks.
I wish Lucas would stop calling El “The Weirdo”. It’s obnoxiously derogatory. He performs a vital function in the group overall, being the pragmatic soldier who attempts to keep everyone alive, uninjured and from getting caught, but they could have written more compassion into his personality.
Meanwhile, back at the lab, someone is being sent into the monster’s lair. He’s dressed like a deep-sea diver. He climbs through a flap in the slimy living blob growing on the lab wall. The flakes are flying around, and Brenner is there to observe. This mission is what they were previously installing the equipment for.
The living blob growing on the wall is a portal. Will it lead somewhere, or will Shepard just get eaten? Oops, eaten it is. It seems as though they’ve had to abandon an entire section of the lab to the monster, since Shepard says, “Everything’s still here.”
When Nancy gets home, she looks at the photo of Barb that Jonathan took, and notices that there’s something strange on the edge of the print. She takes the photo to him to ask him more about what he saw. They realize that Nancy and Joyce have both seen the same faceless monster. When they enlarge the edge of the photo, they see the monster watching Barb.
When the four kids get to the school, the science teacher corrals them into going to a memorial assembly for Will. El is hilariously passed off as Mike’s second cousin from the very bad place of Sweden (romance with 2nd cousin=not technically incest, thank you, Dustin).
The rest of the students, who either didn’t care about or bullied Will, don’t take the assembly seriously, which angers Will’s friends. Afterwards, Mike stops their usual bullies and confronts them. When one of the bullies tries to start a fight with Mike, El stops him in his tracks, and makes him pee in his pants. In her best move yet, she wipes the blood from her nose, flips her hair, turns on her heel, and struts out. She is a goddess.
Hopper tracks down the state police officer who found Will’s body and joins him for a beer at a local bar to question him. Hopper ends up using some police brutality to get answers. O’Bannon was told where and when to go to find Will’s body, and not to let anyone get too close. Someone is watching them while they talk, and O’Bannon is worried they’ll be killed for what they know.
The kids get to the ham radio and hook El up to it. It spurs memories of an experiment in the lab when Brenner wanted her to use her telepathy to pick up the words a man was saying out loud several rooms away. Instead of repeating the words aloud, she channeled his voice into the room she was in through the building electronics. Brenner was shocked at that.
While El is working with the radio, Joyce is trying to communicate with Will at home. He finally breaks through, and is able to talk to her with his own voice. Joyce tears open a hole in the living room wallpaper, and we can see Will through the blob/monster’s living tissue that the wall has become. They can tell that the monster man is coming for him, so Joyce convinces him that he has to run, but she will find a way to help him. El channels Will’s side of the conversation through the radio at the school. At the end of the conversation, the radio catches fire, and El passes out. Joyce takes her axe and chops a hole in her living room wall. Lonnie arrives later that evening.
Hopper talks and punches his way back into the morgue so that he can examine Will’s body for himself. He forces himself to cut open the body’s abdomen and discovers it’s filled with stuffing. Joyce was right. It’s not Will’s body. It’s not even a real human body. That night, Hopper takes a pair of cable cutters out to the lab and cuts through the fence. That should end well.
Another stellar opening sequence. David Harbour’s performance is understated but radiating despair, while Winona Ryder perfectly skates around that frantic line between belief, disbelief, the need to have someone else believe you, and the knowledge that you sound like you’re crazy. They are so gentle with each other.
Jonathan continues to try to hold himself, his mother and his world together as everything falls apart around him and he finds himself with nothing left to hold onto. Will is gone, his mother seems to have lost touch with reality, his camera is broken (so he can’t lose himself in his art), the girl he likes isn’t interested, he’s shunned at school, and his father is abusive and neglectful. He’s the resilient, heroic child who’s trying to raise himself and be the second adult in the house. He’s living in a pressure cooker that could blow at any time.
The kids all have so much chemistry together, and those actors are completely immersed in their roles. The relationships between 11 and Mike, and Hopper and Joyce are mirrors of each other, with communication issues, past losses, trauma, and questions of sanity getting in the way on both sides, but a clear bond of affection and concern for Will holding them together as well. 11 is the understated partner in that pairing, and her face equals Hopper’s in radiating a depth of sadness that no child her age should be able to project. She knows that, while Mike is empathetic, she’s seen and done things that he can’t even imagine yet. He is that lucky child who comes from a stable, intact home and hasn’t been exposed to the worst of the world until now. He is also his mother’s son, and ready to take on the world for his people, or drop everything to take care of them if they need him.
All of the normal/not normal and other mirrored relationships make more sense now. Inside the monster’s portal is a dark, cold alternate dimension that is physically a mirror of our own. In order to solve the mystery of what’s happening and get Will out, the characters need to be able to see the truth of what’s happening. Nancy needed to see that Steve’s reaction to her telling the authorities about Barb’s disappearance wasn’t normal, so that she could ignore him. Joyce needs to be someone who is used to going against social norms when she has to, as a single mother had to do in the 70s and early 80s, when divorce was still a bigger deal than it is now, so that she’s open to the idea that Will is somewhere strange and she’ll fight to be listened to, and damn the patriarchy if they won’t listen.
It’s good to see that there’s a reason that the 80s stock character types are being drawn so heavy-handedly, and that they’re going to be allowed to grow. Mike’s perfect family would have gone through the crisis intact but without much internal reflection in the 80s- see Poltergeist. So would Will’s, for that matter. Elliott and ET’s mom was a single mom. Thank goodness the subtle romantic subtext in ET has been moved from the single mom and lead scientist to Joyce and Hopper. Brenner is too reptilian for romance.
I also need the women on this show to get together very soon, compare notes, and join forces. Joyce, Karen, Nancy, and 11 working together would be unstoppable.
We are in the Patrick Swayze movie Ghost, and El is Whoopi Goldberg, channeling Will’s spirit. The question is, will this ghost be returning as a live boy, or being released to the spirit world?
Someone, presumably the lab, went to elaborate lengths to cover up what really happened to Will. That suggests that it’s happened before, and that the lab/ Brenner has far-reaching influence. At every step of the investigation, there seem to have been protocols already in place to discourage questions, mislead observers, and dispose of witnesses. But there haven’t been any mysterious deaths in town, or any ruled to be from foul play. Has the lab been able to keep things closed up tight until now, and gotten its test subject/victims from outside of town? Has it been able to make it look like victims died from natural causes, or were runaways, like the police insinuated about Barb?
The difference in the police reaction to the two child disappearances has been glaring. There were search parties combing the countryside starting the first night for Will, but we haven’t even seen Hopper become involved in Barb’s case. He’s letting his officers handle it, and the immediate assumption is that she’s a runaway, so they aren’t going to bother, despite there being no warning signs in her history.
So, what exactly is the monster, and how/why was it created? How is it related to El? Was it created on purpose, or accidentally,, through the experiments on El or her mother’s group, or in separate experiments? Are the monster and El another mirror relationship, the dark and light halves of a single whole? Can it sense El the way she senses it? And how does the connection they both have to Will play into it? Why is Will alive and connected to El instead of Barb? Because he’s a good hider and knows his house, while the pool acted like a cell to confine Barb?
The fact that the scientists sent their man in and didn’t know what he would find or that it would be fatal so quickly and decisively makes me think that either the monster is new, or has grown much more powerful recently. El has likely also come into her own recently. My current theory is that they kept her uneducated and unaware of the outside world so that she’d be completely dependent on them, with no thought toward trying to escape into an unknown world. The violence of the experiments probably pushed her toward desperate escape, and her growing psychic powers may have allowed her to glean more about the outside world from the minds of others. Or maybe she reached the point where it didn’t matter what was out there, almost nothing could be worse than what was inside.
She is the ultimate abused daughter, not even allowed proper clothing, but, in true misogynist fashion, forced into also being a villain in her own abuse story. She instinctively knows that no authority will save a little girl like her, and one of Barb’s functions is to show us how true that is. All three lead female characters (Joyce, El, Nancy) have now been told that they are crazy, exaggerating, or lying, by males, and especially by authority figures. Karen is the only one left who continues to uphold and model social norms, but once she realizes how close all three of her children have been to the monster, she’s likely to join the others.
It seemed like El was not only bringing Will’s voice through the radio, but was also strengthening his presence enough so that he could communicate directly with Joyce. What is her relationship with electricity? She seems to be able to channel it, manipulate it, draw strength from it, and communicate through it. But she also seems to be telekinetic without it, and possibly psychic, since she’s known some things about Mike that she shouldn’t have known.