Producer(s): Karl Gajdusek, Cindy Holland, Brian Wright, Matt Thunell, Shawn Levy, Dan Cohen, Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Iain Paterson, Shannon Tsang
Director(s): Shawn Levy
Writer(s): Jessica Mecklenburg
Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Noah Schnapp, Joe Keery, Matthew Modine
Genre: Science Fiction, Horror, Supernatural
After having pitched their show to most of the major cable networks and being rejected by all of them, the Duffer brothers started to doubt their future in television. It wasn’t until executive producer Shawn Levy came across the pitch script of the first episode in early 2015 that things started moving, and quickly. After purchasing the rights to the show, yet still keeping the Duffer Brothers in charge of writing, the team met with Netflix, who had just come off a wave of hit original series (House of Cards, Orange is the New Black). It didn’t take long for Netflix to order the first season and production began with a 2016 target. The show is now heading into its third season and has become a cultural phenomenon.
Spiritual Content: None.
Violence: A side character meets a horrible fate, though this happens off screen and through sound suggestion. There is a bullying scene with some shoving and the destruction of a personal item. In a second bullying scene, one child trips another.
Language/Crude humor: There are a couple sexual jokes referencing one night stands. A girl simulates moaning in an attempt to mock another girl. One student jokes another should perform a sex act on a teacher to get their grades up. A** is used.
Sexual Content: A female cast member is shown without her shirt, but with her undergarment on. A scene with heavy kissing and the beginnings of sexual activity are shown, though not graphic. Sexual intercourse is heavily implied.
Drug/alcohol use: None.
Other negative themes: Underage sexual relationships are portrayed, and to an extent, normalized.
Positive Content: The extent to which people will go for those they love is a major theme.
The episode opens, to the chagrin of every parent who told their child not to play with their food, with a Barb versus the Demogorgon circa 2016 bout. Unfortunately for Barb, the Demogorgon scores the early KO, and with the backdrop of Nancy and Steve’s desperate need to push their faces together at all times, the opening credits roll. Speaking of chagrined parents, Nancy returns home to a worried mother; one with fairly incredible perception. Mrs. Wheeler picks up on what her daughter attempts to hide, and though it’s clear her mother’s intuition is correct, Nancy forces her escape.
Switching from one distressed mother to another, Joyce is determined to find her son by whatever means necessary. She has laid out a rather large selection of lamps for Will to signal from, hoping her child does not have any problems making decisions when faced with an overwhelming number of choices. Sadly, Jonathan doesn’t understand his mother’s textbook search method, and instead urges Joyce to get some rest. She doesn’t.
Back at the Wheelers’, the remaining members of the D&D troupe prepare for Operation Mirkwood, their second venture to find Will. The boys each bring supplies, though Lucas may have edged the others out for the most prepared badge, bringing binoculars from ‘Nam, an army knife from ‘Nam, and a wrist rocket, probably from ‘Nam. Dustin brings snacks from the pantry.
Having to leave for school, Mike quickly instructs Eleven on where to meet them after school, and Operation Mirkwood is put into action. Mike isn’t the only Wheeler searching for a missing friend. Nancy has started to notice Barb’s absence, while at the same time encountering the rumor mill regarding the previous night’s activities.
With the entire Wheeler household out, Eleven takes this opportunity to do some exploring. Drawn to the TV (remember Mike’s family has the biggest TV in the group), Eleven flips through a couple channels. A Coke advertisement stops her surfing and prompts a flashback to Eleven’s time in the lab, one seemingly from the beginning of the development of her powers. Dr. Brenner has Eleven crush an empty soda can with her mind as the scientists record data, his approval encouraging the girl to progress. Eleven shakes herself out of the flashback and shifts her attention upstairs, making her way into Nancy’s room. It’s here Eleven confronts the childhood that was stolen from her as she takes a long look at Nancy’s picture wall.
The kids aren’t the only ones having fun. Joyce makes a quick run to the store to purchase Christmas lights in order to give Will even more options, while Hopper gets his first look into the government facility, cleverly talking his way inside for a quick look. It’s Hopper’s investigation that reveals more immediate information. After discovering a point where a child Will’s size could enter the facility, and also a security camera conveniently placed just feet away, Hopper asks to see the security footage. When shown the tape and seeing no sign of Will from the footage, Hopper walks away convinced he had been lied to. The night Will disappeared it had been raining, and the tape showed a clear night. Though Hopper was not able to stay, he left determined to find out what was really happening in the lab. Thankfully, the audience didn’t need to wait to get a peek. Dr. Brenner and his science team appear to have found an otherworldly door, and are preparing to explore it armed with hazmat suits and machinery.
It’s at this point we see the results of Jonathan’s photo shoot, but unfortunately, so does a pesky side character. It’s always those pesky, never to be seen again side characters. Nicole (don’t worry about remembering the name) reports the content of Jonathan’s pictures to Steve and his friends, who decide to wait for him to exit the school so they can ask him a few questions, rip up some pictures, and maybe break his camera. Nancy arrives at the breaking portion of the interview, and notices some photos on the ground that happen to feature her, and one of Barb. Understandably disturbed, Nancy grabs a handful of torn pictures and takes off while Jonathan picks up what’s left of his camera.
Christmas lights typically decorate the outside of the house, but Joyce is a trailblazer. Holly Wheeler (the youngest child) seems to agree, because while Karen worked on encouraging Joyce, Holly followed the line of flashing lights all the way to Will’s room. It was here Holly got to witness the lamps try-out routine for an 80’s concert light show, that is, until the Demogorgon ruined their rhythm by trying to come out of the wall again. Joyce, upset she missed all of this, asks a confused Karen to leave.
After his experience at the government lab, Hopper determines it would be wise to know more about those running it, focusing specifically on Dr. Brenner. In the most exciting scene about painstaking research and reading, Hopper catches some sketchy headlines involving the good doctor. Particularly of note are some accusations of abuse during experiments and some light kidnapping. Hopper begins to suspect Will may have seen something he shouldn’t have, but before he can travel too far down that line of thought, he is called away.
By this time, Operation Mirkwood is hitting its critical phase. Eleven arrives at the meet up before the boys do, and notices a cat hanging out. This causes another flashback at the lab in which Eleven is tasked with killing a cat with her mind, though Eleven refuses. Refusal is not allowed, however, and Eleven is forcefully placed in solitary confinement, or at least that was the plan until she lashed out at the guards and passes out from the use of her powers. The violence doesn’t bother Brenner though, because he immediately comforts her, getting exactly what he wanted. This flashback is interrupted by the arrival of the others, and the kids finally start their mission.
Meanwhile, Nancy’s search for Barb is heating up. After making a few calls and asking around, Nancy discovers no one has seen Barb anywhere, not even her family. Nancy also discovers Barb’s car parked just a couple blocks from Steve’s house, unmoved from the night before. It’s during a deeper look around Steve’s house that Nancy is scared away from her investigation by a large creature darting around in the woods. Arriving home, Nancy breaks down and confides in her mother that something has gone wrong.
Back at the Byers, Joyce finally communicates with Will through a ball of Christmas lights. Through a series of blinks, Joyce learns Will is alive, but also that he is in danger. To make communication more informative than one blink for yes, two for no, Joyce paints letters on her wall, and then places a light by each letter. Once the alphabet lights are up and running, Joyce learns her son is closer than she thought as Will tells her he is right there with her, though before Will can explain, he has to tell his mother to run. As Joyce struggles to understand why she’s being told to run, her answer comes through the wall, as the demogorgon finally figures out how to break through. Joyce makes a speedy exit.
As Joyce flees from the Demogorgon, the D&D troupe continues their search. Led by Eleven, who is showing how quickly she is learning about friendship, they end up near Will’s house. As a fight breaks out over if Eleven even knows what she’s talking about when it comes to where Will is, several ambulances and cop cars fly by, and the kids decide to follow. Hopper arrives at the quarry, by a pool of water at the bottom of a cliff, just as the kids do. Hiding behind an ambulance, the kids watch as an officer pulls a body out of the lake. Emotions rage as Mike screams at Eleven and takes off. Jonathan and Joyce reunite just in time for the police to arrive, informing them of what they found.
This episode has me conflicted, and there are a few reasons as to why. One of Stranger Thing’s biggest weaknesses is its inconsistent pacing. This is such a crucial aspect of this show to get right because the episodes are long – running close to an hour each – and there are not many of them (eight in season one). There’s a careful balance between building up to the important moments and the payoff. This episode in particular struggles with this balance. There are some strong moments, especially in terms of significant symbolic moments for a couple of characters, but there are also moments that drag and make it difficult to get to the high points. This episode also jumps around much more than usual. At times, there are scenes that barely last a minute in order to set up a plot point before jumping away to another character for an equal amount of time, just to come back immediately to continue the scene before. It felt as though many of the cuts between characters were unnecessary, and that many of the short scenes could have been left together instead of being constantly broken up. If I had written the recap in the way the episode played out, it would be much more difficult to follow.
As for the events of the episode, things start off with Barb’s demise, which is one of the things I’m having trouble deciding how I feel about. On one hand, it is a nice, if possibly unintended, bit of symbolism for where Nancy is going. Due to Nancy’s current choices, her old life – the remainder of it found in her friendship with Barb – is over. She can return to her previous lifestyle, but the impact of her recent actions will remain. She lost something when she turned on Barb, and turned on the Nancy she was before. There’s also the circumstances she cannot control. The demogorgon has now entered the picture, dragging Nancy into something that will forever change who she is. It’s an interesting position for Nancy to be in.
Having said all of this, it does seem like a waste to kill Barb this way. I’ve never been a fan of throw-away characters, and Barb seemed doomed to death just for Nancy’s development. There are a few moments in the show where it does feel as though events happen for the sake of moving the plot because an out was needed. Barb died for Nancy’s plot, and it doesn’t feel right. (Quick side note: Cara Buono gives a solid performance as Karen Wheeler in this episode, and I can’t help but feel as though she should get more screen time in the future. The scene between her and Nancy was a standout for both actresses).
Hopper’s investigation into the lab also held both a high and low moment. The scenes at the lab itself showed us that under Hopper’s act, there’s an actual cop underneath. He quickly picks up on the tricks being played at the lab and instinctively decides to look into Dr. Brenner. It’s in the second half of this investigation where things start to slow. It seems the writers noticed as well, because they attempted to add some humor to the library scene, but, for me at least, the type of humor they chose felt forced and unnatural.
The Byers were not excluded from this theme. Jonathan’s photo shoot quickly comes back to bite him, and it’s hard not to feel as though he brought about half of what he received on himself. I’m not in any way justifying bullying, and it’s clear he was treated wrongly in the scene, but it’s also difficult to justify Jonathan both taking and carrying around pictures of a half-naked Nancy. There is no innocent party in this situation, and I’m not convinced this was the best way to go for whatever plot development it may be building up to.
On the flip side, Joyce had a great episode. Again. Her journey to find her son, and her belief in how he’s trying to communicate with her, is both heart wrenching and, to an extent, inspiring. Winona Ryder continues to show impressive range through small touches. The hesitation to invite Karen inside as an example added a huge amount of depth in showing Joyce’s inner dialogue.
Millie Bobby Brown also had a strong episode, especially in the scene where Eleven confronts the childhood she never had, and her attempts to catch up on what she’s missed as quickly as she can with Mike. Eleven’s desire to gain the approval of Brenner – the only parental figure she’s known – as well as her innocence in her refusal to harm the cat, and her pain when Mike, in an emotional outburst, turns on her, are all portrayed powerfully. Millie Bobby Brown is going to have no trouble finding work.
In terms of plot development, aside from Joyce and Eleven taking great leaps, and Nancy taking a step, the ending of the episode makes the wait worthwhile. The contrast between what Joyce knows to be true, and what the police found at the quarry is going to be interesting to watch. Though the ending could have been stronger if the episode had been more consistent across the board, it certainly made up for the weaknesses that were present, as well as sets up for an exciting episode four.
The Bottom Line
Despite several great moments and a killer ending, pacing troubles and strange plot choices hold the episode back from what it could have been. That said, what a lead-in to episode four!