Stranger Things gets better as it goes, less a blatant nostalgia trip (though there’s still plenty of that) and more plot-driven show. Episodes 3 and 4 continued to evolve the “dangerous government conspiracy” aspect, while also giving Winona Ryder something to do besides whine.
“Chapter 3: Holly, Jolly” opens with poor lost Barb. She’s still at Steve’s, but it’s some sort of other dimension type situation: the pool is empty and full of vines, and Steve’s house is dilapidated and overgrown. Also there’s a monster.
It cuts between Nancy and Steve in bed and Barb trying to escape the creature, sort of subverting the old horror-movie trope that the girl who has sex is the girl who dies. Barb was classic momfriend, and yet she’s the one dragged into an empty pool by an unseen critter. Bye, Barb. You were too good for this world.
Back at Will’s, his mom has determined that the flashing lamps are Will trying to communicate with her. Jonathan hears her talking to herself in Will’s room, and when he goes to check on her she’s surrounded by lamps and babbling about them flickering. Jonathan assures her it’s just the electricity and makes her promise to get some sleep, but as soon as he’s gone she starts stringing up Christmas lights.
Mike’s mom comes by with a casserole, and while she’s there, Mike’s little sister Holly wanders into Will’s room and sees the wall do the bulgy thing. I’m glad it didn’t swallow Holly. There are enough missing kids on this show, and she’s a cute little thing.
Nancy is back at school that morning worried that everyone is gossiping about her. Steve assures her he hasn’t told anyone what happened. Barb isn’t at school, of course, and when Nancy calls her mom she finds out Barb didn’t come home that morning. She goes out to Steve’s and finds Barb’s car, and as she wanders the woods she sees…something. A thing. Without a face. Obviously the same creature that took Barb and Will.
Police Chief Hopper is attempting to investigate the mysterious government research lab, but the director assures him no kids wandered in through the drainage tunnel. He shows them some security cam footage, but Hopper realizes in the video it wasn’t raining, while the night in question, it was. What he doesn’t know is that they’re hiding Eleven’s escape, not Will’s abduction.
They go to the library for some background and find info about Matthew Modine. He’s been experimenting on kids awhile, doing research on kids with ESP and other abilities. Obviously like what he’s been doing with Eleven, though the other cop is skeptical about the whole thing.
The boys ask El to help them find Will that afternoon after school, and she leads them to Will’s house. They’re understandably confused when she tells them Will is there, in hiding. She apparently doesn’t have the words (or understanding, maybe) to explain that he’s there, just in another dimension.
Winona, meanwhile, manages to communicate with Will through the lights. She finds out he’s alive, but not safe. She paints this Ouija board sort of thing on the wall, and Will uses it to tell her he’s “right here.”
Outside sirens race by, and when the boys follow them, they find cops, ambulances, and fire trucks at a local quarry. A body is pulled from the water. Even from a distance they can tell it’s Will.
Mike is furious. He turns on El and yells at her. She promised she’d help them find Will, and now he’s dead. He accuses her of lying to them and storms off on his bike. When he gets home, he finds Nancy talking to their parents (about Barb), and all he can do is cry.
Winona insists that the body isn’t Will’s. She tells Hopper that Will communicated with her, and after she saw a creature come out of the wall. A creature without a face. Both Jonathan and Will are concerned for her sanity, and Hopper urges her to get some sleep.
At Mike’s, El is playing with the walkie talkie. Mike is still angry and will barely speak to her. He tells her to put the walkie talkie down and leave him alone. Suddenly a voice comes through the speaker: it’s Will, singing The Clash. Mike recognizes him and tries to speak to him, but Will can’t hear him. Mike realizes El is responsible for channeling Will’s voice, and suddenly he’s all smiles again. Will isn’t dead, and El can help them find him.
“Chapter 4: The Body” is all about the Will-thing they found in the quarry. The state police immediately take over the investigation, even telling the county coroner they’ll do the autopsy. Winona and Jonathan go to ID the body, and Winona calls it that thing. It’s not her son, she declares, and she won’t waste a single minute on it. Will is trapped somewhere, and she’s determined to find him.
Hopper continues to investigate on his own, even beating up a state cop to try to get info out of him. He insists Hopper is going to get both of them killed if he keeps asking questions. A black car watches, and when Hopper approaches it, it speeds away.
Nancy tries to tell the cops about Barb, but all they’re really interested in is whether Nancy and Steve were having sex when Barb supposedly went missing. They tell her Barb’s car isn’t at Steve’s, and they certainly didn’t see any creatures in the woods. They believe she went back, got her car, and took off. Nancy knows Barb better than that, and she’s upset by the cops’ dismissive attitude.
Back home she looks at one of the creepy pictures Jonathan took while spying on the party and notices something in the corner. She asks Jonathan if he can magnify it, and once he does they see a weird creature hovering behind Barb. She tells him it didn’t have a face, and Jonathan recalls what his mother said the night before. Maybe she isn’t so crazy after all.
Mike, meanwhile, is trying to get El to recreate the walkie talkie trick for the other boys. She can’t, and Mike says they just need a stronger radio. They decide they’ll sneak her into school, but first she needs a makeover. This reminded me so much of the makeover scene in E.T.…
Their science teacher drags them off to a memorial assembly being held in Will’s honor, and while there the boys who usually bully them are acting like jerks. Mike confronts them, pushing one of them down, and when he comes after Mike El uses her powers to freeze him in place. He pees his pants, which is embarrassing at any age, but in Middle School is tantamount to social suicide. Her nose bleeds after, but she’s satisfied with herself.
At the radio, she manages to channel Will. He’s talking to his mom, and back at their house a spot appears on the wall. She can actually see Will through the icky red membrane of it. He tells her he’s trapped, and scared, and she promises to find him. The creature approaches and Will runs away, and later Winona uses an axe to chop through the spot but just makes a hole in the wall. Oops. Oh, also the radio catches fire. Double oops.
Chief Hopper continues snooping. He punches out the guy guarding Will’s body (why would a kid who accidentally drowned in a quarry require a State Trooper guard, hhhmm??) and searches the morgue. He finds Will, who hasn’t been autopsied yet (hhhhhhmmm???), and with a flinch he cuts the body open.
It’s stuffed with cotton. Clearly Winona was right: this isn’t Will, and someone is trying to cover some shit UP.
I’m so glad they’ve given Winona Ryder something to do. Last week several of you disagreed with my assessment of her performance, and that’s fair. She was much, much better in these episodes, especially episode 4. The wall Ouija board thing was ingenious. I’m also glad they aren’t dragging out the “she’s a crazy bitch” plot that much longer, since Jonathan and Hopper both believe her now.
I need to talk about the elephant in the room for a moment. The main protagonists are all boys, with El thrown in as sort of the “token girl,” in what might be a meta nod to the Smurfette Principle, but might also just be that trope in action, meta-free and entirely lacking in (intentional) irony. I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with it if El weren’t treated so poorly.
I have no idea how intentional the parallels between Matthew Modine’s character and Mike are meant to be, but they’re glaringly obvious when you take a minute to think about it. The way the boys treat El vs. how she’s treated at mysterious government research lab isn’t all that different. Think about it: Matthew Modine wants to exploit El for her powers. He wants to learn their limits, and then get her to reach beyond them. At this point in my watch, I’m not sure what his endgame is—maybe pure scientific curiosity, but more likely some sort of super-secret spy nonsense, since this was during the Cold War. Either way, he acts as though he cares for her (and maybe does, in some way) in a manipulation technique to get as much out of her as he can.
Mike is a child, and I don’t believe his tenderness toward El is feigned or manipulative. However, he’s incredibly quick to withdraw his affections the second she doesn’t do what he wants. Just like the soldiers/scientists locking her in the closet when she doesn’t cooperate, when the boys see “Will’s” body being dragged from the quarry, Mike’s first reaction is, to El, “What good are you?!”
In other words, “What is your USE??”
In episode 3, Dustin is trying to get El to show off her powers by making a toy Millennium Falcon fly. Mike stops him, telling him El “isn’t a doll.” That’s a nice sentiment, except it’s entirely belied by the way all of the boys, Mike included, treat her. They want her to help them find Will, which is a noble goal, and they’re willing to use her powers (use HER) in any way they can to achieve that goal, even when they know it’s hurting her. Her “super powers” are the only reason Lucas and Dustin aren’t insisting they turn her over to the authorities: she has value now, as more than just a weird girl they found in the woods.
In episode 4 they even literally treat her like a doll, doing her makeup, and costuming her in a wig and dress so they can sneak her into school. Their goal is for her to use her powers to contact Will through the AV club’s ham radio, which they have to know is dangerous on so many levels.
She promised she would help them find Will (which, in all fairness, she DOES), and instead they see a body. She didn’t live up to her end of the bargain, a bargain she didn’t enter into willingly or with full understanding: being used for her powers is all she knows, all she’s ever known, and for the boys to treat her accordingly is heartbreaking (you can see it in her face when Mike turns on her), but not entirely unexpected.
Mike was furious with her after the body was discovered, and his fury and impatience only abated when he heard Will’s voice through the walkie talkie. He understood El was channeling the voice somehow, and even though he saw how it made her nose bleed, he insisted she repeat the trick the next day for the others—and then doubled down on it by taking her to the more powerful radio at school.
Look, Mike’s a kid, like I said. I’m sure he doesn’t entirely understand how he’s using her, how he’s making her feel like if she doesn’t jump through his hoops he’ll “banish her to the closet” like Matthew Modine did. He certainly isn’t aware of her history, and even if he were, as young as he is he might not understand the full implications of what he’s doing.
Having said all that, does the narrative understand how hurtful this story is? Are the Duffer brothers trying to make the point that even the best intentioned people can use and hurt others, exploit them nearly beyond their ability to endure? That Mike, even while he seems like the antithesis of Matthew Modine’s character, is actually in many ways just a younger, more innocent version of him? Is the narrative trying to show us the origin of such things as mysterious government research labs, where terrible things are carried out in the name of safety or discovery?
I don’t know. I’m only 4 episodes in, and besides that I’m not really familiar enough with the Duffer brothers’ other work to know if their narratives generally contain that much insight and meta commentary. If that’s the purpose, then it’s fairly brilliant and gives the show depths far beyond “whiteboy nostalgia” or whatever, but maybe it’s the cynical, former Game of Thrones fan in me, but I have trouble buying that. It’s rare to find TV these days telling stories that deep. I feel like, in the parlance of our resident book snobs, I’m honeypotting a troubling aspect of the show. I’m looking for hidden depth to explain away something that makes me deeply uncomfortable.
El is a smart, sensitive, kind little girl who deserves better from everyone around her. She isn’t a doll. She isn’t a tool to be used. I wish the narrative would remember that, and act on it.
Images curtesy of Netflix