“Do you guys want to explain to me what in the name of Jesus just happened here?”
The Sauna Test starts on a supremely creepy high note with poor Ms Driscoll’s fertilized mouth yelling “I have to go back! I have to go back!” as she’s wheeled into an ambulance, and the episode maintains this energy throughout what is, for my money, the best episode of the season so far.
Character work, plot development, creepy visuals, funny lines, intense scenes, this was Stranger Things firing on all cylinders. From the early scenes where we get our first full, slightly too dark sighting of the Sentient Slime monster pulling off his best face-hugger impression, this episode never lets up for a second. The Sentient Slime monster bears a striking resemblance to the shadow monster that Will saw lurking over Hawkins back in Season 2, but more importantly, the Day of the Dead doppelganger plan is starting to take shape as more and more Hawkins inhabitants are being replaced by their Upside Down counterparts.
This takes centre stage in an early sequence that finally makes Nancy and Jonathan relevant for the first time this season, but through no reason of their own. As they’re berated by the Hawkins Post editor, Tom, for failing to follow instructions of following the rat fertilizer story, Tom angrily kicks his desk and this kick is violent enough to push the actual camera slightly off-kilter. Watching the scene play out at a Dutch angle is a brilliant design choice that showcases that these are filmmakers using every aspect of filmmaking at their disposal to tell their story. There’s something not right about more than a few Hawkins residents, and Tom is no different as he angrily chastises Nancy and Jonathan. The Upside Down Doppelgangers are an angry bunch.
“Who you callin’? The police?”
After a couple of episodes where Hopper took a slight backseat, he’s back in the driver’s seat as he confronts the no doubt corrupt Hawkins Mayor, Larry Kline, played by Saw alum Cary Elwes. Trying to find out who exactly beat him up the night prior, a Hawaiian-shirted Hopper goes full chief-of-police and uses every interrogation technique in the book, right up to putting Mayor Kline’s finger in his cigar cutter and coming within an inch of slicing it off. I’m a big fan of the increasingly unhinged Hopper we’re experiencing this year; while his feeling of rejection by Joyce may have gone too far and he takes to alcohol far too quickly, he is one of the few characters in the show who don’t mess around in order to get shit done.
“You can’t spell ‘America’ without ‘Erica’.”
Back at our favourite ice cream parlour, the stars of the season so far are reluctantly joined by a regular customer in the shape of pint-sized Erica. Erica is the episode’s MVP, who appears to be the personification of the “I’m a bad bitch you can’t kill me” vine of yesteryear. After Robin buys The Starcourt blueprints from the town archives, she discovers the intricate vent system of the mall that links directly to their ice cream shop as well as the mysterious room that keeps accepting heavily guarded deliveries nightly. Using the aforementioned Erica to sneak through the vents in a small incident of “CHILD! ENDANGERMENT!” to open the door from the inside, we fall further down the rabbit hole of the great mystery of the Starcourt. A mysterious green fluid, an accidental button press, and the gang are sent hurtling miles downwards into the unknown. These four are a recipe for absolute gold, and I hope they remain together for the rest of the season, because they’ve already shown a natural chemistry that gives us some outright hilarious comedy.
I’ve seen more than a few tweets on this matter already, but I’d like to put on record that I would without a moment’s hesitation watch a Scoops Ahoy! spin-off starring these four solving town mysteries. Make it happen, Netflix.
“You know when you drop on a rollercoaster?” “Sure.” “Yeah.” “No.”
We’re getting the band back together. After Max and Elle bring their big Billy mystery to Mike and co., the gang work together to attempt to solve the problem of the Cougar Hunter. Will proves to be the secret to their methods in this instance as he remembers vividly how much the Mind Flayer prefers the cold from his abducted days. The gang hatch a plan to force the Upside Down out of Billy by luring him into the sauna at the local pool and turning the heat up to 200 Fahrenheit. This feels like old school Stranger Things; our heroes acting upon a somewhat thought through plan to get to the bottom of that episode’s mystery.
Inevitably, this plan doesn’t quite go to plan, but it does result in one of the coolest set-pieces of the season so far, giving Elle a chance to flex her superpowers for the first time since the Season 2 finale. Upside Down Billy proves to be a more difficult foe than anticipated, as he shows resistance to Elle’s powers at times and fights through to get in a few blows of his own. Elle channels the powers within her to overcome Billy temporarily as she spectacularly blasts him through a brick wall, but Billy escapes before they can find out any more.
It’s a brilliant scene that, as ever, works on a character level because when it matters, our characters know exactly who they are. In a lesser show, a character would have succumbed to their big brother asking for help, but Max doesn’t give in, stays true to form, and commits to the plan. As the show has gotten bigger with each passing season, it’s always felt important to maintain focus on our main group of friends that his show started with. While more of the other characters have taken on lives of their own, it always comes back to Mike, Will, Lucas, Dustin, and Elle. I’d like to see Lucas get a bit more to do, but he works brilliantly as part of this delightful ensemble that has only gotten stronger with every season. When the writers are dropping in character beats for Mike, Max, and Elle in the middle of a Will-led exposition scene like with the rollercoaster quote above, you know they’re just showing off about how they know these characters inside out.
At the halfway point in the season, I’m loving Stranger Things. It’s funny, exciting, intriguing all at once. I can’t wait to see where we go next.