Warning; this will contain spoilers for Stranger Things, Chapters 1-3. If you haven’t already, you may also like to check out our review of Chapters 1-3 before continuing here.
Chapter 4: Will the Wise – After his last episode, Will feels something is still inside him. Nancy and Jonathan have a run in with Hawkins Labs, El’s rage leads her towards a startling discovery while The Chief gets to the root of their problems.
So following the visually messed-up ending of the Thessal Hydra shifting inside Will ,the story is now heading more towards horror than science fiction by showing Will as a host in some state of possession. What I like here is the resistance (at least at this stage) to do a full on Exorcist character transformation on Will. Instead the dialogue makes it clear that Will is still there but knows something else is inside him that’s difficult for him to express. The confiding scenes with his mom and The Chief work very well in showing the difficulties of a child dealing with a trauma they can’t fully comprehend. The adults need answers but not being able to give them hurts Will even more. This added well to the overall story as an answer yielded many further questions.
While the friendly abduction scene was nice and tense, I wasn’t crazy about the play out of Nancy and Jonathan’s attempted Barb blab. We understand that The Labs are still trying to keep everyone on good terms but this would have been much better served as the grounds for conflict rather than a big smiling, “no harm no foul” situation. The end result was interesting but it was a rare case for the show of feeling like things could have been done better.
However, a better development was conflict within the kids group over Max’s membership state. The scenes were well-written to show Max's right to be angry over their bipolar treatment towards her while we still understand where Lucas and the others are coming from with regards to secrets to safety. It actually pulls together the episode by linking into Nancy & Jonathan’s encounter while showing Lucas struggling as much as Will with communicating a message. Speaking of Max, the episode sheds some more light on her seemingly abusive relationship with older brother Billy; or rather step-brother. This sets up nicely for the boys and El to win Max back by confronting Billy to rescue her from that life.
Granted, it has left her confined again but I did like the El’s tantrum and argument with The Chief because it furthers her transition towards become a regular kid.... ugly parts and all. This gave us a classic child who's angry at their parents with the added twist of superpowers (something Xavier’s School for the Gifted knows a lot about). It also highlights the kind of sacrifices The Chief is making to keep El safe in taking bad days like these without anyone to confide in or any praise for his efforts. While we know El is filling the hole left by his own daughter’s death, like any parent, this shows how thankless their job can be. As for exploring El’s origins, that could lead towards a big payoff for her character but it's really the direction we want El to go? Do we want her having a tearful family reunion or being a badass monster fighting psychic?
It’s another strong plot-thickening episode that nicely twists the more innocent science fiction of the last episode’s creature discovery into something very different. Every major cast member except Steve (get off your ass Steve!) has got a good plot arc going for them.
Chapter 5: Dig Dug – When The Chief gets trapped in the tunnels, the Bryers need to find him before it’s too late with the help of their resident brain teaser enthusiast. Nancy & Jonathan take their evidence to the PI investigating Barb’s disappearance,; Dustin tries to contain Dart; Lucas tells all to Max; and El pays a visit to her mother.
As the midpoint episode to the season, there’s a lot going on here as many ongoing stories reach significant checkpoints or change directions. The best parts of episode by far were The Chief being trapped in the tunnels and others trying to rescue him. The whole living walls and creeping vines setup of the tunnels was creepy as hell with great themes of peril and desperation. This enhanced the drama of Joyce trying to find him, which also carries great mystery and comedy. Will’s wall-crawling crayon drawings become this season’s Christmas light Ouija Board and there’s some great laughs as the group tries to bring in Sean Astin’s Bob on minimal information. I love Bob’s snap transition from being weirded out and concerned to instant problem-solving mode the moment he sees the first piece of the puzzle. I know I’m not the only that can relate to that, “screw it, this has me curious” kind of mindset. I also like way the show is building up a Harry Potter and Voldermort style connection between Will and the Thessal Hydra with similar concerns about the connection becoming 2-way. It all leads to a good action climax too with stunning visual effects.
Initially, I wasn’t sure about having track down her mother. It felt like it could become a lot of exposition out of obligation rather than servicing to the story. While some scenes do move too slowly, they do become a worthwhile payoff because the flashback memory scenes El witnesses provide sufficient anger and reasons for her to go after Hawkins Labs. So far, her story has been about hiding from them. Now she has a reason to go kick/mind blast their door down. That seems to be growing theme among the different character groups. Nancy and Jonathan are going against them to get justice for Barb, and something tells me from this episode’s conclusion that Joyce and The Chief will no longer be seeing eye-to-eye with them. Speaking of Nancy and Jonathan, their bringing of the investigator Murray Bauman into the story is much better than expected. His mentioning to date portrayed him as more of a con man (like Barb’s selling their home to pay him) but here we see that he is doing the job they paid for to a crazy level of detail. His antics and mannerisms are quite entertaining, and his use as an outside consultant gives the idea of taking down Hawkins Labs more credibility.
These last couple episodes have kept the main group of kids pretty separated but their split stories are turning out rather well. Dustin’s efforts with his growing Dart problem are pure comedic gold so he can stay on a solo quest all he likes. His exchange with Mike’s dad was also a highlight. Lucas revealing all to Max was also good step forward in the story. Of course, she doesn’t believe him at first. Would she be a credible smart character if she did? It’s also a nice way of expressing Lucas’s feelings towards Max; be that in friendship or beyond. He’s doing this for because, unlike the others, Lucas understands what it means to her to feel excluded. Steve’s re-appearance was kinda lame but if that means he’s going into bat again to help Dustin with his little problem, that should be good. It also serves towards his redemption with Nancy much better than showing up with flowers. The hotel room scene implies that love triangle is still very much in play but Nancy’s end decision will be more satisfying if she’s choosing between two good guys rather than a more obvious good guy/bad guy pick.
Everything in or connected to the tunnels was awesome and only bits of El’s story had any real draw backs. These last 2 episodes of the season have really found its grove. Everything is building and escalating like its evocative title theme. Bring on the 2nd half!
Chapter 6: The Spy – The Labs confirm Will’s link to whatever lies beneath the town but a key location may be the answer to stopping the spread. Steve, Dustin, Lucas and Max setup a trap for Dart, while Nancy and Jonathan don’t like Murray’s investigations into their relationship.
The episode-by-episode escalation continues perfectly as the season reaches its two-thirds mark with most of the sewer hitting the fan. The initial scenes at the Lads build well on the prior episode conclusion of Will being somehow linked to whatever has been spreading beneath the town to extent that he feels its pain. This puts them in a face hugger dilemma of not being able to take mass-purging action against the infection without killing the innocent child. It’s a superb way of de-powering The Labs in the face of the threat. It isn’t the only Aliens reference either as the team’s motion tracked mission has many visual and audio references to the said mid-80s masterpiece (“Stay frosty boys”). Speaking of the underground section, last episode they were impressive but this time they’re on another level. The Chief’s initial trip down (<insert express elevator to hell joke>) is absolutely mesmerizing as the vast tunnel shaft glows faint red amidst the black. It’s a perfect visual relation of things going bad from worse. The story surrounding all this takes some nice unexpected directions and will leave most people screaming at their tablet for next episode to start playing.
The “Dart must die” subplot with Steve and the rest of the kids was also a lot more rewarding than expected. At first, it seemed like a mere re-treading of last season’s finale with the group setting up similar traps but ensuing action wonderfully subverted those expectations for some awesome monster attack horror sequences. Who doesn’t love some good old claws slicing through metal? The pairing of Steve and Dustin also turns out to be an ideal comedic match as Steve bestows the secrets of girls and hair care. It reminded me of Spike and Jonathan from Buffy’s Season 7 as the cooler Jonathan opens up to the geekier Dustin while they’re alone but threatens to kill him if Dustin blabs about it. The encounter serves well for Lucas convincing Max about how weird their lives really are.. There are still a few hints that Max could become the group’s Yoko Factor in the build-up to the finale. Most likely, we’ll see Dustin storming off when Max chooses Lucas. Although Max seemed to be getting on rather well with Steve and tween girl logic dictates she’d be more drawn to the older boy that’s willing to risk his life fighting monsters. We’ll have to see how it plays out. The whole Billy story is still going nowhere though. While Max admits that Billy, “takes things out on her” we’re not seeing the big douchebag do anything other than strike a good bro down pose. This needs to quickly develop into some form of confrontation which now looks like it will be with Steve taking him down, following their tension in the earlier episodes.
There’s no El this episode but if she’s meant to be travelling back from visiting her mother, that makes sense and I’d rather have her left out than a pointless travel scene watching her pass a, “Hawkins 30 miles” sign. As for the Nancy and Jonathan, I really liked the overall message here; that sometimes, someone needs to tell your face how dumb you’re being. The ensuing montage of each separately grappling with the information is a lot of fun other things develop. It’s a shame that this seems to be a wrap on Murray’s involvement. It would have been fun to see him confront the guys at Hawkins Labs or lapping it in front of the press when things go public.
Nothing but minor gripes and probably over-critical points to tell here ahs everything continues to go in the right direction. The mystery nature of the show requires these final few episodes to deliver less it all be for nothing but it looks like we’re in safe Duffer hands.