Now this is an episode of Stranger Things.
After a relative quality drop of episode 6, it’s good to be back on solid ground as Stranger Things puts its foot down on the accelerator, ramps up all of the tension, scares, and thrills the season has been building towards and gives us a terrific hour of TV that I’ve already watched twice.
With the Scoops Ahoy! gang, Steve and Robin are drugged out of their minds after their torture experience and have reversed roles with Dustin and Erica. Until now, Steve and Robin were the bickering married couple to Dustin and Erica’s bickering children, but given his role as the most experienced with regard to the matter of the Upside Down, Dustin takes the reins of this one and executes his plan perfectly to save Steve and Robin and return them to the safety of Starcourt via the cinema entrance used way back in episode 1, this time to a showing of Back to the Future (we’ll come back to this later, because as we already know, no media is mentioned without a reason!). Once back, Steve and Robin try to sober themselves up for the inevitable battle to come, but in doing so, inadvertently have a tender heart to heart while sat on a bathroom floor next to a couple of toilets.
Steve hasn’t hidden his feelings for Robin very well this season, though apparently well enough for Robin to miss it. When he declares his feelings for her indirectly by referring to her in the 3rd person, Robin is forced to let Steve down with a well-handled character development: Robin is gay. She spent her high school life being jealous of Steve for having the attention of all the girls in school because she wanted the attention from them herself. Season 1 Steve would have taken this news poorly, that’s just a fact, but this Steve has matured and grown so much that he takes it in his stride and declares how much better Robin can do than the girls in school. It’s a lovely moment as the two go from a serious moment of revelation to the laughing and joking we’ve been so accustomed to them doing over the season. In Stranger Things 4, I would very much enjoy an entire 3 episode arc of Steve and Robin wing-manning each other in Hawkins bars and clubs. Hell, make it an entire spin off. I just want all the Steve and Robin content you can give me, Netflix.
In the July 4th fair in Hawkins, the town remains blissfully unaware of the carnage that is happening around them. As a side note, how 99% of its population has avoided even being aware of the Upside Down is one of the great bits of ignorance as I’ve seen in TV and film history. The funfair is our setting for Joyce and Hopper’s part of the episode, a sequence that finally sees Hopper take centre stage and flex his police officer/badass muscles.
I really enjoyed the tense chase through the Big Top, one of those maze buildings where every room is different. There’s a clear, far-too-short but no less enjoyable John Wick: Chapter Two reference as Hopper sneaks through a mirror maze and fights his adversary. Then, in the much more boring room of punching bags, Hopper overcomes two Russian soldiers and a brilliantly shot fight scene and really established Hopper as a hulking beast of a man. The Russians didn’t stand a chance. The Russian Terminator, a threat that’s largely been forgotten if not for the occasional glimpse we’re given to show him still on Joyce and Hopper’s trail, remains at large, and the stage is set for a big Hopper vs. Russian Terminator battle in the finale.
The main crew get the meat of the episode this time, and for very good reason, because they start things off on such a strong, intense note. The Mind Flayer, aware of Elle’s location after her Under the Skin visions in episode 6, heads straight for the Hopper residence that’s quickly, futilely bordered up for The Mind Flayer’s attack. I loved this sequence, it felt like a haunted house that I would gladly walk through at a theme park. The Mind Flayer’s face breaking through the roof, its tentacles crashing through windows and walls all around the main crew. I love the design of The Mind Flayer as I’m sure has become obvious, and this sequence is a lovely indication of what’s surely one of the monster’s main influences from a design standpoint – The Thing. Its undefinable nature, the tentacles, the relentlessness, it’s all here and it’s terrific. Several shotgun shots, a couple of axe swings, the titular bite on Elle’s leg and her ripping its face in half later, The Mind Flayer retreats having been defeated in the first battle. Elle’s powers are bordering on becoming too powerful at this point (Elle OP pls nerf), but they’re being used effectively and she’s clearly a match for The Mind Flayer because without her, the main crew would have been decimated long ago.
Finally, after far too long a wait, Mike’s walkie talkie crackles. On the other end is his boy, our boy, Dustin, and the two finally talk for the first time this season. Pleasantries are hurried, but for good reason, as the two hatch their plan to meet and solve the Hawkins mystery once and for all. Mike has been unaware of the Russian problem Dustin has been dealing with all season (“The Russians!” as Dustin put it, is a glorious call back to Doc’s “The Lybians!” from Back to the Future), and Dustin has been unaware of The Mind Flayer problem Mike has been dealing with. They’re both so used to absolute nonsense after the last couple of years of their lives that they just accept it and move on, knowing that questioning anything now is both pointless and a waste of time.
Back at Starcourt, the Russians are the first enemy that needs to be vanquished by the main crew as they followed Steve and co. back to it earlier in the episode. With them all hiding behind the counter of a food stall and the Russians closing in, it seems like the end, before the heroic arrival of Elle and company to save the day. Elle doesn’t just save the day, she decimates the day by launching the prize car in Starcourt across the ground floor, crushing all of the Russians in its path. Elle really is the only reason any of these characters are still alive, and I’ve no idea what any of them would do without her at this point.
The bite from earlier in the episode is a real concern though, as she drops to the floor in agony before the episode, of course, cuts to black. What’s going to happen? How are they going to stop The Mind Flayer? Are they going to close the portal? What’s wrong with Elle? Who the fuck is Suzie?! All of these questions surely must be answered in the final episode. Let’s go!