This episode’s title, The Upside Down, is an accurate description of the episode. We do spend more time in the Upside Down, and learn more about it, but some of our assumptions are also turned upside down. Characters do things we don’t expect, and outcomes aren’t necessarily what they seem. And El has a few issues she’d like to discuss with The Duffers.
After the required pan down from the starry night sky that starts every episode, we join Joyce and Brenner in the lab’s interrogation room. He tries to get her to reveal what she knows by using logic and sympathy, the way he did with Karen and Ted, but she’s just buried a fake body provided by Hawkins National Lab. She’s not going to buy into his BS so easily. She tells him right where he can go.
Agent Frazier and the Hawkins Head of Security don’t bother with the nice approach with Hopper, they go straight to mild torture using tasers. He keeps his cool and lets them know that he’s gotten very deep into their wrong doings with his investigation, and has left the information with a reporter. They threaten to kill him, but he suggests a blackmail deal instead. He and Joyce and the others will keep their mouths shut about the lab’s wrong doings, and he’ll tell them where to find El, if they will let him and Joyce go through the portal to find Will and if they’ll leave the other kids alone.
Brenner talks with him alone to seal the deal. Hopper insists that they keep the arrangement a secret. He doesn’t want anyone else to know that he betrayed El and the boys’ trust. Hopper even refers to her as a science experiment. I’ve seen speculation that he knew she wouldn’t allow herself to be captured, but I don’t buy that. She was already very weak, and the inevitable fight would put the boys in danger. I think he thought she’d go quietly, rather than hurt the boys, and he could try to break her out later. If it didn’t work out, she was an acceptable loss. Either way, he was the adult authority figure in the situation, sworn to protect people like her, and instead he betrayed her. He became the biggest monster in the show at that moment, the monster who pretends they’re a good person that’s trying to help, but is in fact only exploiting you for their own purposes. At least Brenner is an honest monster in many ways.
The four kids are still in the junior high gym. El is still in that ugly wet dress. Someone did think to give her a blanket and an extra shirt. No one could bring along some extra clothes for her when they planned this operation? Other than Mike and Dustin, and sometimes Joyce, they never treat her like she’s even human. But is a girl with powers and a crew cut even human? Most of the characters aren’t sure. Maybe that’s why El doesn’t give up the dress. Without a clear gender identity, she’d make them so uncomfortable that they’d shoot her on sight.
They argue over whether it’s safe to stay at the school. Dustin realizes that El needs to eat, which not a single adult or teenager thought of before this. He heads off to find the lunch lady’s stash of chocolate pudding. Excellent snack choice.
Mike thinks they should find a better place to hide than the school. Lucas thinks they should stay where they were put. I’m with Mike. The school is too big and open to properly defend, and it’s not a comfortable place for El to rest and recharge.
Hopper and Joyce are given hazmat gear, because the air in the Upside Down is toxic, then they enter the portal. They walk through the Upside Down version of the town, searching for Will. Hopper remembers his daughter’s illness and slow death, including the period when she was bald from her treatments. I can’t help but be reminded of El, who he’s just called a science experiment. Hopper’s daughter was a science experiment by the end as well, her poor little body full of chemicals and radiation, but she died anyway. Maybe that’s the issue. The experiment on his daughter failed, while El is robust and able to fight and survive most anything.
Jonathan and Nancy set up all of their booby traps and whatnot at the Byers house. They replace the Christmas lights as a warning system, pour gasoline on the floor in the hall, chain the bear trap to the floor in the hall, turn a baseball bat into a spiked club, and reload the pistol. Once everything is set up, they go over the plan one more time, then prepare to cut their hands in order to use their blood to attract the monster. They make the usual TV-style unnecessarily large cuts on their palms. But it’s TV, so they don’t need stitches.
As they’re bandaging up each others’ hands and having a moment, Steve arrives and pounds on the door. He’s trying to make things right with Jonathan and having no idea what he’s walking in on. Nancy answers the door, and Steve becomes concerned when he sees her hand. He barges into Jonathan’s house just before the monster does.
The three teens run down the hall, with Jonathan dragging Steve, then telling him to jump over the bear trap. They make it inside the safety of the bedroom, but the monster disappears. They go back into the living room, and Steve goes to his car to leave, but then the lights start to flash, signaling that the monster is coming back. Steve seals his redemption by going back into the house to help. This time the plan works.
The teens lure the monster into the hall, where it’s caught in the bear trap. They light the gasoline on fire, and the monster burns, unable to escape because the bear trap is spiked to the floor. When they put the fire out, the monster has vanished. Personally, I would have let that fire burn a lot longer.
Hopper and Joyce follow the monster’s trail to Joyce’s house and make a few lights flicker. Joyce and Jonathan are comforted by sensing each other’s presence.
Mike tries to raise El’s spirits, telling her a story about what life will be like when all of this is over. To start with, she won’t have to “keep eating junk food and leftovers like a dog any more.” El hopes that Eggos will still be on the menu. Mike offers her his bedroom, and says she won’t be a secret any more. His parents will take care of her like they’re her new parents. Nancy will be like El’s sister. Will Mike be her brother? He sure hopes not! After an awkward conversation, they’ve kissed and she’s been asked to the Snow Ball. Notably, El’s powers do not go haywire when Mike kisses her. Kudos to the show runners for that detail. She does look very, very happy though.
But it’s a short-lived moment. Brenner and his army arrive at the school to interrupt El’s dream of normalcy, as they always do. She doesn’t even get to try one tiny, snack-sized can of pudding. Geez, in the zombie apocalypse Carl got to eat an entire gallon of chocolate pudding by himself. Surely they could have given El a taste.
The kids run through the halls, trying to escape, but are soon cornered. El fries the brains of Agent Frazier, who cold-heartedly killed
Toby Benny, and the goons that are with her, then falls over unconscious. Brenner finds the boys crouching over her, and tells them to step away. They stand up, ready to defend her with their lives, but they’re no match for fully grown soldiers.
Brenner gently takes El into his arms. He wakes her up and tells her that he’s going to take her back home, and make her and all of this better, so that no one else gets hurt. He seems genuinely worried about her and relieved to see her, in his own twisted way.
El repeats, “Bad, bad. Mike, Mike.” Mike realizes that the blood has attracted the monster, which busts through the hallway wall and attacks. The soldiers drop the boys and Brenner drops El. The kids take El to a science lab where they can close the door and El can lay down on a lab table to recover. (Like a science experiment.)
The soldiers fire their weapons at the monster, but it’s as unaffected as always. It jumps on Brenner and that’s the last we see of him.
Joyce and Hopper follow the monster’s trail of blood to the public library, where they find a nest. The bodies of everyone who’s disappeared are woven into the webbing and goo, including Barb and Will. Barb is dead. Will has a fleshy tube down his throat. Joyce grabs Will and pulls the tube from out. He appears to be dead. She and Hopper desperately perform CPR. He flashes back to his daughter’s death. Will finally takes a breath and survives.
Mike and El are going over their happy story again when the monster finds them. Lucas gets out his slingshot and goes all David and Goliath, but it’s not enough. Just when the monster’s about to wrap it’s head around one of theirs, it gets pushed back and pinned to the wall by El. Mike tries to stop her from what she’s about to do, but she pushes him away. This is between the two monsters, and always has been. They are each protecting their own.
El breaks some of the monster’s bones as she walks toward it, then turns and says goodbye to Mike. She aims the full strength of her power at the monster, who screams and slowly dissolves. El screams as well. She’s obscured in the debris, then there’s a loud clap of thunder. When the area is visible again, she’s gone.
Hours later, everyone is at the hospital, waiting for Will to wake up. He talks to his family and friends, coughing a little. Nancy watches, happy for them, but sad that Barb didn’t get to come back.
Hopper steps outside of the hospital. As he smokes, a black car pulls up behind him, silently waits for him to get in, then pulls away.
One month later, it’s Christmas Eve. The boys are finishing up another successful D&D campaign. There are a few complaints that Mike left some dangling threads like the lost knight, the weird flowers in the cave and the proud princess. Either he’s leaving them for next season, or there are some issues that he’s not quite ready to process yet. As the others wander away, he looks over at El’s table fort and walkie-talkie wistfully. He hasn’t forgotten El.
Jonathan comes to pick up Will. No more riding home alone on dark deserted roads. Nancy gives him a gift then sits down with Steve, who asks if she gave Jonathan the gift. Karen is making cookies in the kitchen with Holly and Ted is asleep in a chair. Things are relentlessly normal in the Wheeler household, as always.
Hopper stops by the station Christmas party to pick up a Tupperware full of food. He drives out to the edge of the woods, and leaves the Tupperware, along with a few Eggos, in a covered wooden box. El is still eating like a dog, and now she’s living even more like an animal than she did in the lab. And being fed by the man who betrayed her.
Nancy and Steve gave Jonathan a replacement camera. He takes photos as Joyce gets dinner on the table. Will guesses what his presents are, then goes to wash his hands before dinner. Except he’s really coughing up an Upside Down monster slug and flashing over to the Upside Down. He goes back to dinner and pretends nothing happened. The family enjoys a pleasant Christmas Eve dinner with (almost) everything back to normal.
I have to admit, I’m a little disappointed in the ending. Everyone reverted back to being their stock character, if they ever left, like nothing ever happened. Mike, Hopper, and Will were the only ones who showed any signs of even remembering what happened a month later. What is the point of a story if the characters end up unaffected? I know that was a common ending in the 80s, when greed and normalcy were good, but it feels kind of creepy after what they all went through. The other possibility would be that the monster in It, which resurfaces to eat children every 27 years, somehow makes the town forget that it exists in between attack cycles. Maybe this is a nod to that, since It is the Duffers’ favorite book.
We’re brought back around full circle to the metaphor of the toxic waste spill affecting the town this episode. The atmosphere in the Upside Down is toxic. It’s leaking out of the portals and into the town, as are the toxic lifeforms. The Lab is involved in a cover up, and killing anyone who becomes too knowledgable about the accident. The people whose children have been affected are lied to, discredited, and finally bought off in a coverup. The rest of the town does its best to live in denial of the problem for as long as possible, because they want to believe that it can’t happen to them. It’s realistic. Will they wake up and accept the truth before it’s too late? How much of the Upside Down’s atmosphere and lifeforms can escape into our world and threaten this universe? Was the Upside Down once a beautiful world like ours?
Brenner reminds us that the monster’s body count is a grand total of six: the scientist who ran for the elevator at the start of the pilot, Will, Barb, Shepard, and the Moony boys. And a deer. El has been responsible for far more deaths by the end of the episode, though all of hers are in self-defense (to escape more torture, at the very least) or in defense of others. The monster is killing to eat or to breed and feed its young, which other monsters would likely also consider justifiable reasons to kill a prey species, just as humans do. Is the monster the Upside Down’s version of humans? The only ones who are killing out of choice are the Hawkins Lab goons who kill to silence witnesses or for the sake of expedience.
Brenner refers to the monster as an animal, which is also the way he treats El. She is his beloved pet, while the monster is a rabid animal on the loose. They are another mirrored pair. Both female, but also gender neutral, too powerful, scary and not “pretty” enough to be considered normal girls. El knows this, and wants to destroy herself just as much as she destroys the monster at the end.
Hopper, El’s betrayer, is the one treating her like an animal as the series closes, trying to tame her by leaving her food. The writers imply that this 12 year old girl who was raised in a lab is living alone in the wild like an animal with no shelter or human comforts. It’s a disturbing image, though I think it’s meant to leave us with hope. I don’t see anything hopeful about portraying an enslaved, abused child as ending up so traumatized that she won’t let anyone near her, when she’d been surrounded by people who should have tried to prevent that outcome, Hopper most of all. Instead he drove away and left her alone with the other children to face her fate, then sold her out in order to save the child that was more important to him.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive him for betraying the child who needed him so much. It was out of character for him to be naive enough to think that the lab goons wouldn’t also kill the three boys she was with, or at least take them into custody. Did he really think El would leave without a fight? Except that she was too weak to fight effectively, so all he did was put all four kids in extreme danger, in order to save one kid that was close to death or already dead.
I don’t actually believe that he would have run out of the school without making a better plan to begin with. They showed us over and over that he’s a competent police officer. He’s used to working with a team, and he’d seen how effective they all were. It was just bad writing to have him try to use the lab’s portal again instead of the one in the woods. Brenner could have figured out where El was another way, without Hopper’s betrayal.
I want the kids to start wondering just how Brenner found them, because Dustin was right. Hopper was Lando Calrissian. Whose car does he get into outside the hospital? Was he working for someone else all along, investigating the strange goings on at the lab? Was he sent back to Hawkins undercover to begin with? Or is he just going to be debriefed and make their informal deal more formal, since he and Joyce survived? Or both? Was he really just a plain big city cop, or was/is he working for a federal agency, so that he has connections of his own to call in?
Dustin was also right in the pilot opening D&D campaign. Will needed a protection spell to keep the monster from dragging him into the Upside Down. Fireballs were useless against the monster. Even being burned alive didn’t stop it.
Called it on them saving Will and defeating the monster, but leaving the rest of the storylines for the future.
The big finish turned out to be centered in the junior high school, though I don’t think the Hellmouth was closed. The Buffy reference was more literal than I expected.
We didn’t see Brenner die. The monster could have quickly implanted him with larvae and stashed him with the other incubators for later.
Clearly we’re meant to think that Hopper thinks El is alive and living in the woods. Or is it his guilt talking? She would have been able to take on the monster easily if she’d been rested and at the peak of her powers when she faced it, instead of weak and about to pass out. That’s on him. I figured she ended up in the Upside Down. If Will is flashing between the two worlds, maybe she is as well, as she regenerates.
Off the wall theory, 99.99% certain it’s wrong: his daughter didn’t really die, the lab stole her from the hospital and experimented on her, and that’s who El is. They strongly implied that El is Jane Ives, but never confirmed it.
Will is a host for the monster’s larvae. Next year we’ll be doing Alien 1 & 2, along with the reference to The Thing from this season. Maybe Invasion of the Body Snatchers, since Hopper and Joyce walked by a little pod in the Upside Down. The Thing also possesses host bodies. Maybe that’s how Brenner comes back. (I want my Matthew Modine.) We’ve also had many, many water references, and just watched that larva slither down the drain. Will we be heading to the sewers and lakes next season to explore a classic 80s trope? Will it be CHUD or The Blob? We had imagery from both this season, so maybe that will continue. The incubator humans also looked like some images from Stargate: Atlantis, while humans with snake-like larvae incubating inside them with an affinity for water is straight out of Stargate: SG1. Watch for Egyptian and other ancient mythological imagery and references. The snake parasites in Stargate also possess human hosts. Way more interesting in the long-term than Alien monsters.
Steve helps catch the monster and replace the camera, so that he can be worthy of
Molly in Pretty in Pink or Sixteen Candles Nancy. I always hated that Molly chose those guys, instead of the creative, quirky best friend. That being said, the entire monster fighting sequence with the teens in the Byers house was one of the best parts of the entire season. I’d watch the second half of this John Hughes movie over again anytime. We saw another side to the actor who plays Steve as he loosened up during the fight. I want to see more of that guy next season, since we’ll be seeing more of Steve. If only Barb weren’t dead and could blossom into the gorgeous girl that Shannon Purser is in real life. Then there would be enough love interests to go around.
Mike leaves El’s bed and walkie-talkie waiting for her, just in case. He probably secretly talks to her on the walkie-talkie every night, like Rick Grimes having his daily one-sided conversations with Morgan in Season 1 of The Walking Dead. I hope Hopper left her one so she that can listen. And some warm clothes. Surely that f*ck*ng dress wouldn’t regenerate. I may quit the show altogether if she walks around wearing that thing for another season. Or start a campaign to mail the Duffers clothing for El. (Of course, there is a long tradition of keeping women in rags and underfed to help keep them in their place, but that’s another post, which I have a feeling I’ll be writing soon.)
El was the only one of the seven main characters who was deeply affected. Her previous life is gone and she has no family waiting for her on the outside, despite Mike’s optimism. She went on a common female version of a hero’s journey, similar to that of the sister in the fairy tale The Six Wild Swans. She had to leave her home and perform dangerous, painful tasks to save her boys/ symbolic brothers; she was silenced much of the time; she was persecuted and misunderstood, while her boys were unable to be with her all of the time to help her face her persecutors; she worked tirelessly to the point of self-sacrifice to save her people, but she was unable to completely save them; one was only partially saved (Will); she was accused of being a monster/witch and was unable to defend herself; she found a symbolic king (Mike) to pair up with who would defend her, but who also misunderstood her power and silence at times; both of her father figures were abusive and exploitative (Brenner and Hopper), while her birth mother was gone and she had an evil stepmother who drove her away (Agent Frazier). She is now symbolically lifeless after throwing the nettle coats onto her symbolic brothers to save them from her family’s curse. She may be in a new myth in Season 2, or she may finish out this one.
Of course, El is also in a horror show, and she is one of the monsters, so her journey was a complicated one. Sadly, besides learning that she could keep the people she cares about safe, El also learned that her power was bad and destructive, and almost no one wanted her near them because of it, unless it was to exploit her. She realized that her only chance for goodness and redemption was to metaphorically put the blonde wig back on and sacrifice herself to save everyone else. Because everyone else was someone’s parent or child or friend except her. She wasn’t even a real person with a real name or a real home or family. She was a science experiment. The male authority figures made sure she felt that, and knew what her role would be. She could either be the monster or the sacrificial angelic blonde girl, but she couldn’t be normal. She isn’t a monster, she is a human girl, but her story is the story of Frankenstein or Edward Scissorhands, all the same. An artificial being that can’t control its destructiveness, so that it hurts the people it cares about as well as its enemies, meaning it must ultimately be destroyed or exiled. That’s why we’re told that El is a miscarriage, not a premature birth. Because miscarriages aren’t meant to survive, making her unnatural. The deformed, aborted or miscarried baby who lives is another common monster trope. The unwanted fetus that should have died, whose mother wanted it to die, but who survived anyway, and turns out evil and wrong.
In addition, she could be the devil’s spawn, who’s evil from conception. We’re never told who El’s father is, and Hopper doesn’t ask. A storyline for another season.
I am very, very angry with Hopper for sacrificing her in order to try to save Will. The gates are apparently still open. There was no evidence that El even knew how to close them. Jonathan and Nancy know where there’s a gate in the woods. They could be sending search parties to look for her in the Upside Down. and in our world, too, for that matter, but we didn’t see that happening. Between Barb and 11 being forgotten about, and Karen and Nancy being lobotomized, this show wasn’t all that kind to women in the end. The lives of two girls were traded for the life of one boy, and everyone is going on as if nothing happened. I don’t believe that Hopper was being misogynistic in his trade, since his daughter was a girl and he would’ve done anything to save her. I believe he was trying to save Joyce from the kind of pain he’s been living with, and thought that Terry Ives was too far gone to benefit from the return of her daughter, who is now a dangerous weapon rather than a child (in Hopper’s mind). It was still a lousy choice. El has the right to be saved and have a normal life whether there are parents looking for her or not. The kids knew that. Joyce knew that. The other adults are all morally compromised.
Overall, the female characters in this show are great characters, but there are very few of them. Next season, they are adding 3 more male regulars and 1 female. 4 out of 5 new recurring characters will also be male. They did a great job, in creating the characters, of rooting them in their 80s archetypes, but also letting them be real people (other than the stock characters who remained true to their types to make a point).
But the population was made up of 51% women then, just like now. Women were out in the work world already, and of course girls were going to school. There should have been more female characters in the Stranger Things world. But then, the Duffer Brothers have said that one of their favorite books and main influences is Stephen King’s It, which includes one female amongst seven main characters, and a scene where she is forced into a gang rape by the six boys, then eventually marries one of her rapists. (It’s either have sex with all six of her best friends or stay in the sewers forever. Look for El to face that fate when we head to the sewers next season. It’ll be a reasonable replacement for the Snow Ball, right?) Stephen King writes vivid female characters, but his default character is a white male. That only changes if it’s essential to the story that the character is female (or a person of color/LGBTQA) Stranger Things follows that pattern, with one black male regular, one recurring, and women only appearing when necessary.
ETA: I can’t believe it took me a few days to realize this. El is a powerful telekinetic, meaning she can probably teleport herself when necessary. She said “Goodbye, Mike” because that was her plan when she stood up to face the monster. She knew all along that she wouldn’t be living with his normal family, that was obvious. It was just to nice dream and hope for a few minutes.
She knows that she is a monster as surely as the Upside Down monster is, and doesn’t have enough experience of the world to understand that she’s no more monstrous than most humans. (Actually, less so. Most people wouldn’t sacrifice themselves for people they barely know.) So, she destroys the Upside Down monster, and exiles herself, either because she didn’t have enough energy left to destroy herself, or because she knows the gate is still open and she wants to stay nearby to continue to protect her boys from a distance.
But now she’s weakened and still a fugitive. She’s Sirius Black from the Harry Potter series. Hopper is Dumbledore, who lost a young girl that was important to him when he was young, and has kept himself emotionally isolated ever since. Even though he continues to work for the greater good, his guilt and emotional isolation compromise his judgement. Mike is Harry, the leader with a strong heart who pulls them all together and reminds everyone why they’re fighting, but also tends to get marginalized by the adults.
SPOILER: Paul Reiser is joining the cast next season as Brenner’s replacement at the lab. He was the human villain in Alien 2, whose mission was to ensure that humans were unknowingly implanted with alien larvae in space then returned to Earth. That can’t be good for Will.