We start to get some answers this episode, as both Hopper and Nancy quite literally enter the belly of the beast. The kids enter an homage to the film Stand by Me, with friendships tested and train tracks walked. We’ve entered the Stephen King portion of the season, so viewer beware.
Hopper has made his way into the buildings at Hawkins Lab secretly and alone, because he’s completely lost his mind. And he knows no one will listen to his crazy theories, just like he didn’t listen to Joyce, or even bother to talk to Nancy about Barb. He sneaks and fights his way all the way down to the monster’s lair. He finds 11’s cell on his way down. After that, he races through the halls, yelling for Will.
He takes the elevator to the monster’s floor as Dustin reads the description of the Vale of Shadows* to Mike and Lucas. It’s a scary, dark, mirror world to our own. The boys don’t know how to get there, and neither does El. She just knows that Will is stuck there.
Hopper reaches the floor with the growths, “snowflakes” and the open portal. As he’s inspecting the portal, the monster runs behind him. When he tries to follow, one of the lab employees in a hazmat suit sneaks up and gives him a sedative shot in the neck.
Hopper wakes up the next day in his own bed, soaked with spilled beer, with no memory of how he got there. He immediately trashes his entire house looking for a bug. He finds one hidden in an overhead light fixture. This does not help his state of mind or sobriety level.
Lonnie tries to comfort Joyce by trying to convince her that she’s hallucinating. Then he moves on to belittling Jonathan and trying to insert himself as the man of the house again. They all go to Will’s funeral the next day, and Joyce remembers Will drawing himself as Will the Wise, a wizard who shoots fireballs at dragons. Except these fireballs are green, because Will can’t find a red crayon.
Nancy and Jonathan decide to search the small area of town, mostly woods, where all of the monster sightings have been. Jonathan nabs his father’s gun as protection.
Brenner listens to a recording from the fire in the school AV Club room. He realizes that Elle was there with the boys. Hawkins Lab sends a technician to the school to fix and inspect the radio. They must sponsor science education at the school so that they can bug things at will.
The boys corner their cool science teacher, Mr Clarke, after the funeral, to quiz him on the possible rules pertaining to the shadow dimension. He uses a metaphor about an acrobat and a flea on a tightrope to explain. My only quibble is that it would make more sense for the flea to be an ant, but, whatever. The acrobat is human, and balanced on top of the tightrope, in our dimension. They can only go linearly, backwards and forwards, on top of the rope. The flea can climb all around, going backwards, forwards, side to side/around, and Upside Down. Mr Clarke says a human would have to punch a hole through the barrier between dimensions to get to the Upside Down, and that would take so much power that it would be hard to hide. It would disrupt gravity and magnetic fields, so it should be very noticeable. Sort of like power outages all over town, a faceless monster running around, and missing kids, for example?
Hopper’s two favorite officers show up at his house to check on him, let him know that the “Staties” found Barb’s car at a bus station a few town’s over, and tell him that a couple more people have gone missing. They aren’t very concerned about any of it, because their town is a safe town. Disappearances are always explained as runaways or abandonments gone to the big city. This time Bev Moony says Dale and Henry went fishing yesterday near Curly/Merkwood (near both the lab and the insane asylum) and haven’t come home. She thought maybe they had just stayed out drinking, but now she’s not so sure.
As the officers leave, they assume that Hopper’s so jumpy because he’s off his meds. It doesn’t occur to them that four people have now disappeared from their small midwestern town in about the same number of days. And one of them came back dead. They don’t wonder why Barb would buy a bus ticket instead of continuing to drive, or why she didn’t at least sell the car instead of ditching it. That kind of explains how the lab has managed to get away with running such a shady operation in the town for so long.
Dustin gives us all a lesson on how compasses work, by way of figuring out that there seems to be an electromagnetic power source in town powerful enough to make the boys’ compasses (Why do they have so many?) point toward it, rather than North. If they follow the arrow on the compasses, it should lead them straight to the gate to the Upside Down. El looks terrified out of her mind at this thought, so it must be a good plan. She doesn’t have the words to tell them her thoughts though, especially when it’s three impatient, impulsive boys against her and her limited speech.
Joyce discovers that Lonnie is preparing to sue the owners of the quarry over Will’s death, and she finally understands why he’s hanging around. She promptly throws him out. He’s much more interested in making a fast buck than in the possibility that their son might still be alive.
We go straight from Joyce yelling at Lonnie to get out, to Jonathan shooting directly at the camera. Nice touch. Foreshadowing? He’s target practicing before he and Nancy search the woods, but he’s a terrible shot. Nancy turns out to be a complete natural. With her new tight pants and short jacket, she’s ready to join Charlie’s Angels.
Nancy says that her parents formed their nuclear family like she’s talking about a bomb, with rage in her eyes. She’s evolving into a modern female before our eyes.
The boys and El follow train tracks as they search for the gate. Welcome to Stand by Me, Stephen King’s beloved coming of age story, made into a movie in 1986 by Rob Reiner, starring the ironically doomed River Phoenix. I’m surprised the song doesn’t play over these scenes.
El is still, unfortunately, in a different movie, and can’t let them complete their quest. She remembers that time that her “Papa” made her go into a sensory deprivation tank to spy on a Russian and almost get eaten by the monster who’s now invaded the town. She uses her powers to confuse the compasses and keep them from the lab. Friends don’t let friends get eaten.
After walking for hours, Dustin realizes that they’ve gone in a circle, and Lucas accuses El of sabotaging the mission. Mike defends her, but El admits that she didn’t want them to go, because it’s not safe. Lucas snaps. He goes on an ugly tirade, that turns into a fist fight with Mike. El panics and uses her powers to push Lucas away from Mike, smashing him into a sheet of metal. He loses consciousness. Mike turns on her, afraid that Lucas is seriously injured. She runs away once Lucas wakes up. Lucas also storms off.
Hopper arrives at Joyce’s house in disguise, meaning wearing a black coat and hat. He holds up a sign telling her not to talk until he clears out the bugs, then sighs when he sees all of the Christmas lights he’ll have to check.
The house seems safe. Hopper tells Joyce that she was right about Will all along. Joyce nearly faints with relief that someone finally believes her.
Nancy and Jonathan argue as they search the woods, and it’s a more real conversation than anything she’s ever had with Steve. (She inadvertently threatened Douchey Steve with a baseball bat earlier, did I forget to mention? It was glorious.) They call each other out on all of their sh*t, but, why not get that out of the way at the beginning of the relationship, right?
They keep searching. As it gets dark, they find an injured deer. It’s mysteriously snatched away when they try to help it. They separate to look for it. (OMG, the first rule of horror movies is NEVER SEPARATE.) Nancy spots a strange hollow tree. Proving that she is brave and stupid enough to be a superhero, she crawls inside through the gooey, dripping mess at the entrance. It appears to be a
portal gate to the Upside Down. She’s in a dark, twisted woods, with the usual blue glowing background and falling flakes. The monster is nearby, eating the deer. Nancy starts to back away quietly, but steps on something that crunches and gets the monster’s attention. She screams and drops her flashlight.
Outside, Jonathan seems to hear the scream. He calls and looks for her, but doesn’t notice the gate in the tree. He keeps moving past it, leaving Nancy to her fate. We see a red glow and hear crunching sounds coming from the tree.
I’m not happy about trees being made scary.
Sometimes you have to wonder how narcissists like Lonnie can see the world so askew. His version of reality is like another dark world version of the Upside Down. The lab is, of course, also trying to promote its own version of reality to the public, which Lonnie is eating up, since it holds an opportunity for big profits for him. Others are buying into it because it’s convenient for them, like Steve and Officers Powell and Callahan. Why question things when everything is working out so well? The show points out, through Jonathan and Nancy, that we all superimpose our own interpretation of reality onto the world anyway. Who knows what’s real when it comes to other people? Lucas, Dustin and Mike continuously argue about this very thing. It’s to the point of potentially ruining their friendships.
Mr Clarke seems like the kind of teacher who can teach anyone anything. I need him to explain quantum physics to me.
El is the acrobat, who doesn’t know how to cross between dimensions, and the monster is the flea. Something about the experiments that Brenner was forcing on El, with the increasing intensity in the use of her powers, either opened the gate wider, or allowed the monster to channel her power to open the gate. Maybe the way her powers work makes the wall between dimensions thinner, so the creature was drawn to her, and was able to follow her. Maybe she briefly passes through the Upside Down without realizing it to find the people she is surveilling, and she is actually the flea. It seemed like she was in an alternate dimension while she was in the sensory deprivation tank surveilling the Russian. It doesn’t seem like Brenner wanted her to know much about how her powers work.
Is Nancy going to find her way out on her own quickly, get eaten, or stay hidden with Will, maybe helping rescue him eventually? I think she’ll come out by herself, but a search party will use this gate to go back in to find Will. Lonnie just has to be in town so that he can join the search party and get eaten.
We’ve had images of deep-sea divers twice now- Shepard going into the portal, and El going into the tank. Going into the monster’s lair seems to be the same as going into the Upside Down, which usually means literally going downward. There’s also the imagery of Barb falling into the pool water when she was dragged into the Upside Down, and the sea blue glow behind Hopper when he reaches the lair (as seen in the photo at the top of the page).
Nancy seemed like Alice going down the White Rabbit’s hole when she entered the hollow tree, but she did go down underground, even if it wasn’t watery. Once inside, it was still the same imagery as always, and the entryway was a biological membrane, as usual.
The veil between Will and our world seems to be a biological membrane as well, even though he’s in the walls instead of the basement. Maybe that’s part of his ability to stay alive. He’s found a way to access spaces from our world in the Upside Down that the monster can’t get to. The question remains of who is making the gates and how. Did Will somehow make the one he used?
Mr Clarke seems to have accurately described the Upside Down as underneath us. He doesn’t seem to have had any idea how the energy involved could actually manifest, especially since it seems that it might have a biological component. Will he have any ideas on how to close the gates and send the flea home?
The characters on this show are screaming to be compared to Lord of the Rings characters, but I’m only a casual LOTR fan, and the ST characters are still evolving. So, I’m going to assign some temporary roles, with the caveat that these are just a first attempt.
Mike is like Frodo the Ringbearer, and El is the one ring that is the key to everything, but is also very dangerous to everything around her. Hopefully she just needs to be protected and understood, not destroyed. Brenner is either Sauron or Saruman. The monster might be Sauron or Gollum. Dustin is stalwart Samwise Gamgee. Lucas is Boromir, who is protective, but also argumentative and doubtful. Hopefully the metaphorical death he had in this episode will be enough. Or maybe Dustin is Merry and Lucas is Aragorn. Lucas is definitely one of the humans, and Dustin is definitely a hobbit. El could also be Eowyn or Arwen, in which case Mike is Aragorn. But I think Faramir and Eowyn are Jonathan and Nancy, since Jonathan has the father who hates him and Nancy has the Wormtongue-like boyfriend. Hopper and Joyce are Aragorn and Arwen, the reluctant hero/king and the courageous Elf princess. Mr Clarke is Gimli, a dwarf who understands the way the underground world/other dimension works. There’s a good chance that Will is Gandalf, after he’s lost to the Fellowship. That’s how he draws himself. He just needs to find that red crayon that will turn his robes white.
Clearly a work in progress.
Elle wants you to know that she thought being turned into Buffy Summers would be a lot more fun. No one told her how uncomfortable being a girl is. Writers, please get that horrible wig and dress off of her already.
*The Vale of Shadows: The Vale of Shadows is a dimension that is a dark reflection or echo of our world. It is a place of decay and death. A plane out of phase, a place of monsters. It is right next to you and you don’t even see it,
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