Darren Aronofsky Ranked

Here’s a new installment in the favorite director’s blogathon: Darren Aronofsky. I finally saw mother!, which I consider his best, though I understand why it’s so polarizing.

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1. mother! 2017. 5 stars. The reason people hate it isn’t because it’s a bad film, but because it was deceitfully marketed. Like last year’s The Witch, the trailer implied a more mainstream thriller. If you don’t like indie horror films that offend on the deepest levels, then avoid mother! at all costs. It’s about a man and woman in a countryside home, where the woman suffers intrusions from guests who gratify her husband’s ego. The intrusions get increasingly outrageous, until hell breaks loose — quite literally — and one critic has made an analogy with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which suffocates the audience in torture to capture the immensity of Jesus’ sacrifice. mother! does a similar sort of thing to convey the “passion” of womankind, and the things they tolerate for the sake of men’s vanity. The indoor house becomes a battlefield of crazed strangers who commit unspeakable acts, and in the end seize the woman’s newborn infant, rip it apart into dozens of pieces, and eat it as if it were a sacrificial lamb. This is Aronofsky at his most audacious, but also at his best, and it helps that Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is so visceral and sympathetic.

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2. Requiem for a Dream. 2000. 5 stars. Considered by most to be Aronofsky’s best, and for obvious reasons. The performances are staggering. I’ve worshiped Ellen Burstyn ever since The Exorcist, but she completely outdoes herself here, playing an unhappy widow (Sara) who gets swallowed by the forces of drug addiction. Sara sits alone in her apartment and does little more than fantasize about being a guest on talk-show TV. Obsessed with her figure, she become addicted to weight-loss amphetamines, and descends into a spiral of psychosis. Meanwhile her son (Harry) and his girlfriend (Marion) become heroin addicts as they chase the unrealistic dreams of youth. All are crushed in the end, with Sara becoming a near vegetable from electroshock therapy, Harry getting his needle-infected arm is amputated; and Marion becoming a sex slave to make ends meet. The film itself is a bad drug trip, and one I find myself revisiting almost against my will.

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3. Noah. 2014. 4 ½ stars. Widely dismissed as Aronofsky’s most commercial effort, I find it a fascinating work for the way it marries gnostic myths with the biblical accounts. It’s the story of the flood served up Lord of the Rings style, and it works since the first eleven chapters of Genesis are myth, the same sort of mythic pre-history that Tolkien intended by Middle-Earth. So when we see giant rock creatures (the Watchers) and bits of magic here and there, it somehow makes the story of Gen 6-9 seem as it should. But it’s also a very serious film that doesn’t soft-peddle God’s act of genocide, and it has the balls to portray Noah as a merciless figure when he seeks to carry out the Creator’s will (as he sees it) by intending to kill his daughter’s babies. Noah is far better than cinephiles would have you believe, and it has plenty to say along with other great religious films.

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4. The Fountain. 2006. 4 ½ stars. This is one of those box-office bombs that later acquired a cult following — like Blade Runner and Event Horizon. It meditates on love and death, and speaks to mortality better than most films that dare try. The narrative follows three stories set in different timelines: in 1500, a conquistador (Tomas) during the Inquisition searches for the Tree of Life in the Mayan jungle for his queen (Isabel); in 2000, a neuroscientist (Tom Creo) studies brain tumors and tries to save his dying wife (Izzi); and in 2500, an astronaut (Tommy) drifts through space to a dying star. Hugh Jackman plays all three “Tom” roles, and Rachel Weisz takes on the role of Queen Isabel and Izzy. Through these threads, what emerges is that acceptance is the only way to defeat death, and fighting to keep that which you love does more harm than good.

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5. The Wrestler. 2008. 4 stars. The mundane style of this film is unique in the otherwise surreal Aronofsky canon, and some consider it his best effort after Requiem for a Dream. I don’t think it’s that good, but I will say that Mickey Rourke’s performance is extraordinary. He plays a professional wrestler deteriorating in health (thanks to body-building drugs), losing his fan base, and who must work in a supermarket to supplement his income. On top of this he is hated by his daughter who he can’t ever make time for, and Rachel Evans’ performance is as good as Rourke’s. The film treats the subject of wrestling and all its absurd fake elements in the honest way that makes you actually appreciate the sport and the toll taken on professional wrestlers. If I find it slightly overrated, I can’t deny I end up caring deeply for Rourke’s character.

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6. Black Swan. 2010. 3 ½ stars. I adored Black Swan when it first came out but it hasn’t aged well on me. Like The Wrestler it takes a subject I’m uninterested in (ballet) and half-succeeds in drawing me into its subculture, showing an individual who is willing to die for sport or athletic art. But where The Wrestler was grounded in gritty realism, Black Swan revels in hallucinations and Jungian archetypes, and sometimes too much for its own good. On repeat viewings these elements seem less profound. Natalie Portman’s performance is impressive, however: Nina’s metamorphosis into the White Swan’s evil twin is realized as her nightmare world gradually tugs her down, and she discovers the impulses of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” mirrored in her own life. It’s a forceful look at a damaged woman, but not one of my Aronofsky favorites.

7. Pi. 1998. 3 stars. First efforts are often amateurish, and Pi is no exception. It’s the film that Aronofsky needed to build experience on for his later gems. The editing is rough, and the performances are entirely forgettable. It succeeds more by its concepts though not entirely. If math is the language of the universe, Pi suggests, then nature can be expressed in numbers and mathematical patterns, which could be used to predict almost anything (such as the stock market). Ideas like that were too grand for Aronofsky’s limited skills at this point in his career. His reach exceeded his grasp.


Trump and Jerusalem

Trump has decided to uphold the law passed by Congress in 1995, which stated that Jerusalem “should be recognized as the capital of the state of Israel” and the US embassy be moved there, by no later than May 31, 1999. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama invoked waivers to this law every six months, postponing the move on grounds of “national security”, which means the law has never taken effect. Trump also signed a waiver in June 2017, but has now decided to end the stalling. Predictably, everyone and their mother is going ape shit. Perhaps a bit foolishly.

I am no friend of Israel. The state should not have been created in the first place. The Jewish people deserve a homeland, but what the Allies should have done was carve out a section of Germany (the nation responsible for the Holocaust), instead of uprooting Arabs for sake of a religiously inspired “Promised Land”. Many Jews hadn’t lived in Palestine for two millennia, and they certainly didn’t have a rightful claim on it after all this time. But for better or worse (and it’s obviously for the worse), the Jewish state does exist now in Israel (since 1948), has controlled the entire city of Jerusalem (since 1967), and they have the right to decide their own capital (which they did in 1980).

Trump is saying that it’s foolish to think that repeating failed solutions will suddenly bring peaceful results in the Middle-East, and he’s obviously right. To object, as Turkey’s president does, that affirming the Congressional law of 1995 “will only play into the hands of terror groups,” is just kowtowing to thuggery. Hamas has threatened to launch a new intifada, and no surprise there. Trump shouldn’t be criticized for standing up to jihadist intimidation.

So while I’m not a fan of Israel and I loathe Trump, I can’t say I object to the executive decision. Every other country has their capital of choice recognized, and Trump is simply eliminating two decades of repeated executive overreach. More than enough time has elapsed since 1995 to show how silly the every-six-month waiver policy is in any case, and that jihadists will never be satisfied or agree to work towards a peaceful goal as long as the state of Israel exists at all.

The Venkman Argument: The Hierarchies of our Prejudices

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Stranger Things has allowed me to relive my ’80s childhood in many ways, and one of the more amusing examples is the Venkman argument between Mike and Lucas. In episode 2 the kids dress up as the Ghostbusters: Mike is Venkman, Dustin is Stantz, Will is (Egon) Spengler, and Lucas is Venkman too, instead of Winston as previously “agreed” upon. Mike is indignant about this, but Lucas says he never agreed to being Winston, who is neither funny nor even a scientist. When Mike insists that Winston is “still cool”, Lucas suggests that he be Winston, to which Mike protests that he can’t, obviously thinking that only Lucas should be the black character.

This is practically a script out of my own childhood. One of my favorite shows as a kid was The Mod Squad, a crime drama from the late ’60s which played on reruns. The series was about three criminals who worked for the police as unarmed undercover detectives instead of serving prison time. I used to play out fantasies of the Mod Squad with my sister, my friend next door, and my cousin. I usually assumed the role of Captain Greer, who supervised the three outcasts; my sister was Julie, my friend next door was Pete, and my cousin — who is African American — was Linc.

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It was the natural fit we all agreed to, but one day my cousin wanted to be Captain Greer, and suggested that I play Linc for a change. Now this was fine by me, as Linc was my favorite Mod Squad character, but my next-door friend balked at this, insisting that my cousin had to play the black character. My friend was no more a racist than Mike Wheeler of Stranger Things, but like anyone subject to the categorical ways we tend to think about people. Eventually he relented, and we has fun playing as always.

These days roles are even more malleable, particularly with gender. None of us boys would have conceived of playing Julie (nor my sister, I think, any of the Mod Squad men), but in many circles today that idea is less controversial. Perhaps about as much a white person playing a black character in the ’80s. It raises interesting questions about the hierarchies of our prejudices.

Retrospective: The 14 Albums of U2 (1980-2017)

The new U2 album is awful. I’m not sure what happened to these guys who used to be capable of riffs and melodies that could swallow the world. But there’s not a single track on Songs Of Experience that does anything for me. Which pretty much repeats the failures of Songs of Innocence and No Line on the Horizon.

All the more reason for this retrospective, to remind ourselves how great the band used to be. Here’s my ranking of the 14 albums.

1. Achtung Baby. 1991. 5 stars. When U2 reinvented themselves they exceeded their ambitions. Bono’s stated intent was to “burn down the Joshua Tree” and come up with a sound just as original, and they produced a masterpiece with not a single bad track. The sitz im leben of the album is well known: the band members were in Berlin after the Wall’s fall, inspired by a new decade and new ideas, but gnashing their teeth in frustration until they finally broke through with a style that incorporated unnerving sonics and the rising alternative influences of the ’90s. The music sounds almost like hypnotic pulses from a shadow realm like The Upside Down; I never tire of listening to it from start to finish.

Best Tracks: Fly, Until the End of the World, Ultraviolet, One, Mysterious Ways.

2. The Unforgettable Fire. 1984. 5 stars. If not for the fact that Achtung Baby is so compulsive, and that I can pretty much listen to it regardless of my mood, I’d call this the best U2 album. Bands are often at their best right before hitting a formula that earns them mass fandom, and that’s the point U2 was at in the mid-’80s. The Unforgettable Fire is stronger than The Joshua Tree for its fever dream quality, but also for carrying punches and mercies in equal balance. It’s another masterpiece album, and it has the mystique of being recorded in a castle (Slane) under the guidance of Brian Eno, who allowed U2 to spread their wings into ambient territory with more synths and strings.

Best Tracks: A Sort of Homecoming, Bad, Pride, Elvis Presley and America, The Unforgettable Fire.

3. All That You Can’t Leave Behind. 2000. 5 stars. By the end of the ’90s I’d given up on U2, but then came this phenomenal return to form blending the best of the band’s past: the melodies and hooks from the ’80s albums, with the more electronic textures from the ’90s. The result is a filler-free album on which each song sounds like its own opus. On top of that, Bono’s voice is back. Listening to the album, especially the lead track “Beautiful Day”, is like waking up from a slumber, as if the band members are announcing what we always wished — that Zooropa and Pop were just bad dreams. If this album isn’t a masterpiece, it’s damn close.

Best Tracks: Beautiful Day, Stuck in a Moment, Kite, When I Look at the World, Elevation.

4. War. 1983. 4 ½ stars. War remains one of the best political rock albums of all time. The raging passion of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” has been channeled on stage to legendary effect, and “New Year’s Day” is the band’s most timeless hit. But “Drowning Man” is my favorite, with its cribbed lines from Isaiah 40, amazing guitar strokes, and Middle Eastern-sounding violins. The Edge considers the song to be one of the most successful pieces U2 has ever recorded, and I completely agree. War confronts a world bleeding under conflict and is a piece of musical greatness, even if a few songs sound underdeveloped.

Best Tracks: Drowning Man, New Year’s Day, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Like a Song.

5. The Joshua Tree. 1987. 4 ½ stars. The most polished U2 album is considered #1 by many, but in some cases I think it’s too polished for its own good. Tracks like “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “With or Without You” haven’t aged well on me, sounding a bit flat. The live versions continue to be awesome, but the studio versions sound constrained by too much discipline. Then there is the gospel-sounding “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, which I loved in the ’80s but which also hasn’t aged well, and in this case the live versions are even worse; it doesn’t help that Christians have overused it for evangelical purposes. The Joshua Tree is a brilliantly inspired album, no question, but I rarely listen to the whole thing anymore.

Best Tracks: Red Hill Mining Town, Running to Stand Still, Exit. (Live versions only: Where the Streets Have No Name, With or Without You.)

6. October. 1981. 4 stars. The sophomore album is the band’s most underrated, and in my opinion slightly better than Boy. It has a weird intimacy and spirituality that doesn’t overpush things. “Tomorrow” was inspired by the funeral of Bono’s mother; “I Fall Down” explores the pain of relationships; the serene title track puts one in mind of October (the best month of the year); and “Gloria” supplies a Latin liturgical chorus — a strong lead to an album of oblique spirituality. Nowadays I listen to October more than I listen to The Joshua Tree. Even if there isn’t any one really strong song on it, the collective tracks add up to a texture that is very pleasing to my ear.

Best Tracks: All of them back to back.

7. Boy. 1980. 4 stars. I use the “obscene” U.K. album cover, not the absurd-looking American one which censored the boy for fears of pedophilia. Back in the ’80s this was my first conscious exposure to issues of censorship and free expression, and I remember being puzzled as much as Bono that this image could somehow be seen as dirty. (Those who think it is are probably pedophiles themselves.) The band members wanted the cover to look like a child’s face coming out of white, like a photograph before fully developed, as a metaphor for themselves as fledgling band members. They felt like boys who dreamed big and wanted to conquer the world with music. They’d have to wait a few more years and two more albums, but in hindsight Boy is an exciting signpost towards greatness.

Best Tracks: Out of Control, I Will Follow.

8. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. 2004. 3 ½ stars. Bono has described this album as having no weak songs, “but as an album, the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts, and it fucking annoys me”. That’s not a bad summation. The tracks are pretty good, but they have the oddness of not sounding much like U2 even when being derivative of their own work. Much has been lost by this stage — the arresting melodies of the ’80s albums and the dense soundscapes of Achtung Baby. The band members scaled back to the extent that the music lacks mystery. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is basically U2 playing simple and direct. That’s not necessarily bad, but it does show a certain lack of inspiration. It was their last decent album.

Best Track: City of Blinding Lights.

9. Rattle and Hum. 1988. 3 stars. Blues music wasn’t the best fit for U2. There are some good songs here like “Desire” and “Angel of Harlem”, but there not great, and it doesn’t help that the new songs are obscured by the inclusion of live performances of older songs which betrays a weak vision. The best track is actually “Heartland”, which was recorded back in the Unforgettable Fire days. Still, we should be thankful for Rattle and Hum. Its mediocrity signaled to the band members that they desperately needed a new sound. The result would be the miracle of Achtung Baby.

Best Track: Heartland.

10. Zooropa. 1993. 2 stars. Achtung Baby promised a new U2 greatness in the ’90s, but Zooropa failed miserably on that promise. Songs like “Lemon”, “Numb”, and “Babyface” are still enough to give me piles. Tracks like “Stay”, while grossly overpraised, do keep Zooropa out of the 1-star category, but that’s damning (rather heavily) with faint approval. The fact is that this album is a compilation of music hastily thrown together during the Zoo TV tour, and it shows. It’s an experiment with sonics that would come to full fruition in Pop, with results just as dire.

11. Pop. 1997. 2 stars. Apologists for Pop put me in mind of those who defend such musical manures as Rush’s Roll the Bones. This is what happens when fame goes to your head. Great bands like U2 and Rush suddenly become poseurs for the teen crowd. By this point U2 had pushed the electronic texture to its limit so that it’s really all there was left. The guitar distortions are cringeworthy, the melodies are non-melodies, and aside from a couple of mildly interesting tracks, it’s a vain album. Those who defend Pop (and Zooropa) call the rest of U2 fandom unenlightened instead of owning up to the truth: that their taste is where they sit.

12-14. No Line on the Horizon, Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience. 2009, 2014, 2017. 1 star each. No Line on the Horizon was supposed to be the new Achtung Baby but was a go-nowhere travesty. Songs of Experience was forecast as a new Zooropa, which is more accurate, though certainly not to the album’s credit. It’s chock full of embarrassing sentimentality. As for Songs of Innocence, it was released as a free download on iTunes, and as the adage goes, you get what you pay for — which is no doubt why the marketing ploy wasn’t repeated this time for Experience. I’m not sure why U2 persists when they have nothing real to offer anymore. Despite the glorious reboot of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, the band members have spent the last dozen years sinking into their conceited backsides. Time to retire.

The Evolution of the Hive Mind in D&D’s Mind Flayer & Aboleth

In my last post I pointed out that the Shadow Monster of Stranger Things is much closer to an aboleth than a mind flayer. Since then I found an interview with the Duffer Brothers, who claim they designed the Shadow Monster without thinking of any creature from D&D, whether aboleth or mind flayer. This is how they tell it:

Matt: We came up with the creature and it was always called the Shadow Monster. Then we were like, “We need to come up with a proper name for this thing.” When we were going through the Dungeons & Dragons manual, I found this creature I’d forgotten about called the Mind Flayer. It was so close to the idea of our Shadow Monster. It was eerily the same. We were like, “Well, we’ve got our name.” It’s a weird-ass name, but the Mind Flayer it is.

Ross: It has nothing to do with the shape, or the way it looks, or the particles. But the fact that it moves from dimension to dimension, infecting the minds of others in order to control them and spread itself. I can’t remember everything else, but it’s everything that we were talking about with our Shadow Monster. I don’t think anyone will believe us. They’re going to think we just, day one, looked through the Dungeons & Dragons manual. I don’t know why we didn’t. But we did not.

Actually, yes, I thought the Duffer Brothers were looking through the D&D manuals, but taking clear inspiration from the aboleth, not the mind flayer. The Shadow Monster is so close to the aboleth you have to be trying to not see it. I assumed the Duffers called their creature a mind flayer because it sounds bad ass, even to an audience unfamiliar with Dungeons & Dragons. “Aboleth” sounds unimpressive by comparison, like something you’d find listed in an obscure academic journal. I have a hard time believing the D&D-savvy Duffer Brothers designed a creature that fits the aboleth almost to a tee but were unaware of it.

For the fun of it, I researched the evolution of both the aboleth and mind flayer in D&D. I’ve bolded all the relevant parts that bear any resemblance to the Shadow Creature of Stranger Things. I’m not sure what Ross means about the mind flayer’s ability to “spread itself” in the 1st edition Monster Manual. The hive mind aspect of the mind flayer was not introduced into the game until the late ’90s (see below), and certainly not in the manual Dustin reads from.

The Mind Flayer

1975. The Strategic Review #1 introduces the mind flayer: a humanoid with an octopus-like head that feeds on brains. The creature’s physical attack is by striking a victim with its four purplish black tentacles. If a tentacle hits it will reach the victim’s brain in 1-4 rounds and draw it forth, immediately killing the creature. The mind flayer then devours the brain. It can also unleash a mind blast in a 60-foot cone range, which causes death, coma, sleep, stun, confusion, or rage, depending on the victim’s intelligence.

1977. The Monster Manual canonizes the mind flayer, expanding and changing details provided above in The Strategic Review. Notably, the mind blast is now a simplified psionic blast which stuns, regardless of the victim’s intelligence. The mind flayer has the psionic abilities of domination, levitation, ESP, body equilibrium, and astral projection/probability travel. The domination ability allows it to control a victim (if a saving throw fails) as long as the mind flayer keeps concentrating on the victim. It’s also now specified that mind flayers detest sunlight and prefer habitats of subterranean places.

The Aboleth

1981. Dwellers of the Forbidden City introduces the aboleth: a gigantic tentacled monster that has strong psionic powers, and uses its mind control ability to make slaves. It’s an ancient life form, extremely intelligent, and views all other races as inferior upstarts who stole what is rightfully theirs. It attacks with its four tentacles which cause l-6 points of damage each, in addition to changing the victim’s skin into a clear slimy membrane in 2-5 rounds if a saving throw fails. Once the change is complete, the membrane must be kept damp with cool water or the victim will take 1-12 points of damage each turn due to intense pain caused by the drying membrane. (This is somewhat reminiscent of the way Will Byers needed to be kept cold.) It’s an amphibious creature, and in water it will secrete a cloud of mucus all around its body. Any creature drawn into the mucus must save vs. poison or it will inhale the stuff and become unable to breathe air, suffocating in 2-12 rounds if trying to breathe air. However, that same creature will gain the ability to breathe water, as a potion of water breathing, for 1-3 hours. The aboleth uses this mucus to give its slaves the power to breathe water. (The mucus reminds of the gooey substance from the Upside Down. Does that goo allow one to breathe the toxic environment of the Upside Down?)

1983. The Monster Manual II canonizes the aboleth, detailing them exactly as described above in Dwellers of the Forbidden City.

The Mind Flayer

1983. “The Ecology of the Mind Flayer”, in Dragon Magazine #78, offers the first suggestion that mind flayers are from another world. It emphasizes their brain-eating and domination powers in much stronger terms:

“To eat the brain of another race is the ultimate symbol of dominion over that race. They consume that which is important to them. Their tentacles have bony ridges that cut flesh and bone with ease, exposing the inside of the skull. Many collect the skulls of their victims and adorn their bodies with the trophies. They have a psionic power that especially helps them achieve their evil ends — a power of domination that they use with pleasure on their victims and those who would attack them. This domination power allows the mind flayer to control every movement of a single victim, to an unlimited extreme. Once, on a raid to an illithid lair, I saw a githyanki captain run himself through with his own sword while under the control of one of them.” (p 67)

So now the mind flayer can dominate to “an unlimited extreme”, even if the results are fatal to the victim. As presented in The Monster Manual, the domination power was the standard psionic ability and not as powerful. However, the mind flayer must still concentrate on the victim at all times, unlike the aboleth.

The Aboleth

1988. “The Ecology of the Aboleth”, in Dragon Magazine #131, presents variants that are more powerful than the common aboleth: greater aboleth (who maintain slaves gathered by the common aboleth), noble aboleth (who conduct scientific research and experimentation), ruler aboleth (who command aboleth cities or areas, and have a mental link with all their subjects), and a grand aboleth (a godlike creature that dwarfs even the rulers, but existing only in rumors). The hive mind is introduced as an aboleth feature, in the rulers, who are described as follows:

“These huge, bloated monstrosities are the largest and most intelligent of all aboleth (aside from the grand aboleth). Its telepathic link with its subjects allows it to be constantly aware of everything going on in its realm. Rulers are, in most other respects, similar to common and greater aboleth. They possess enslavement abilities equal to those of greater aboleth and can generate veil spells at will. Rulers can generate slime in a 5-foot radius, and the mere sight of one causes fear in all beings of less than 5th level or five hit dice.” (p 38)

It’s now specified that aboleth reproduce by egg, which are covered in a thick slime. The eggs hatch mini-aboleth who take about ten years to mature into adult form. (The demogorgon of Stranger Things reproduces by tentacle implantation (as it did to Will’s throat), not egg, so the eggs seen in season 1 were probably eggs for shadow monsters (“aboleth”) rather than demogorgons.)

The Mind Flayer

1998. The Illithiad reveals the world the mind flayers come from, a realm called the Outside. They reproduce by egg, which hatch tadpoles until they grow and are implanted into the brain of another humanoid, after which it immediately subsumes the creature’s personality, replacing it with its own awakening intellect. The hive mind is introduced as a mind flayer feature, which is called the “Elder Brain”. An elder brain is the final stage of the mind flayer life cycle, composed of the brains of long-dead mind flayers. It lives in a brine-filled pool in the center of a mind flayer city, where it guides its community by filling mind flayers with dreams of perverse domination. It has the psionic abilities of other mind flayers, but physically it is weak (unlike the powerful ruler aboleth and Shadow Monster from Stranger Things), which is why mind flayers protect their elder by securing it in well-protected caves. The elder can communicate telepathically not only with its subjects, but with any creature within 350 foot distance.  The ultimate goal of a mind flayer is to sacrifice its brain as it nears the end of its lifespan, by merging with the elder brain, strengthening the elder’s powers and intellect. Most mind flayer are unaware, however, that their personalities and consciousness are lost when joining with the elder brain, leaving only their knowledge and ideas to survive. (A closely guarded secret kept by the elder brains.)


As I said before, it’s clear that the aboleth are the closer representation of the Shadow Monster, though obviously “mind flayer” sounds sexier and was the better marketing choice. The hive mind is an anachronism for both, though it was developed first for the aboleth (in the ’80s) and only much later for the mind flayer (in the ’90s).

The Shadow Monster of Stranger Things 2: Mind Flayer or Aboleth?

The Shadow Monster

The Big Bad of Stranger Things 2 is a huge tentacled shadow monster which is eventually given a name by Dustin in episode 8: The Mind Flayer. Dustin says that’s the best analogy from the D&D world to make sense of what is going on in Hawkins. Everything from the Upside Down — the demo-dogs, the creeping vines, the underground tunnels burrowing into Hawkins, and the gate itself — seems to be under the control of a hive mind, and mind flayers are ruled by a hive mind (called an “elder brain”). They use their psionic abilities to dominate victims, which is what’s happening to Will. But there is a far better D&D comparison to the shadow monster: the aboleth.


The aboleth are huge floating tentacled monsters (see left) that are also ruled by a hive mind. Like mind flayers they have strong psionic abilities and use their mind control to make slaves. They excrete a mucus-substance which they need to breathe — the gooey substance from the Upside Down calls this to mind. The aboleth are an ancient life form and extremely intelligent, and they view all other races as inferior upstarts who stole what is rightfully theirs. In addition to being part of a hive mind, they are born with a racial memory, each one inheriting the memories of its ancestors. (An aboleth also assimilates the memories of consumed victims.) Aboleths enjoy spending time lost in the grand memories of their ancestors, and (time permitting) enjoy reliving entire portions of their ancestors’ lives. They are hermaphrodites and reproduce by egg. In season 1 of Stranger Things the Demogorgon reproduced by tentacle implantation (down Will’s throat), not egg, so the eggs we saw in season 1 were probably eggs for shadow monsters (aboleth) rather than more demogorgons.

Mind Flayer

An aboleth fits the description of the shadow monster almost to a tee, and it’s hard to see why Dustin associated it with a mind flayer instead. Mind Flayers have similar traits, as I mentioned, but their differences stand out. Significant is their positive view of magic. Mind flayers can be powerful mages. The aboleth despise all forms of magic and rejected it long ago in favor of science, which aligns with the sci-fic premise of Stranger Things. The mind flayers are humanoid in appearance (see right). Aside from their octopus-like heads, they bear little resemblance to the shadow monster of Stranger Things. The aboleth are gigantic (anywhere from 20-40 feet long) like the TV creature; mind flayers are the size of people. There’s no contest.

Dustin reads the information on the mind flayer in the D&D Monster Manual (1977), but there is actually no mention of a hive mind in this manual. The hive mind (elder brain) feature of the mind flayers would not be introduced into the game until 1998. So that’s a 14-year anachronism in the TV show. The aboleth first appeared in an adventure module called Dwellers of the Forbidden City (1981) and then were officially categorized in the Monster Manual II (1983), both of which predate the 1984 setting of Stranger Things 2. So they’re not an anachronism; Dustin would know about the aboleth, unless these kids never got around to buying the second Monster Manual, which I rather doubt. If they’re obsessed as I was with the game, which they clearly are, they would have obtained that manual in ’83 when it was hot off the press.

Late in the ’80s, Dragon Magazine #131 did a special feature on the aboleth, describing them as follows:

“In general, all aboleth are cruel, emotionless, and logical. All are extremely intelligent — some even more so than the most ancient of elven mages. They are believed to live for thousands of years, but exact information is difficult to gain. Over their many years of existence, the aboleth have developed a society which far exceeds that of humans in efficiency. In this society, each aboleth has a specific duty which it performs with the utmost skill. There are four major roles in the aboleth society. In increasing order of importance, these roles are: slave gathering, slave maintenance, scientific research and experimentation, and ruling. An aboleth feeds mainly on microscopic organisms which abound in its natural habitat, but it can also consume larger prey if necessary. Aboleth can survive in both air and water, but prefer water for obvious reasons. It is worthy to note that rumors exist of a grand aboleth, a creature so immense that it dwarfs even the rulers. If so, then perhaps it is better that surface and subterranean dwellers alike leave the aboleth to do as they please.”

Perhaps the shadow monster that possessed Will — and remains at large at the end of season 2 — is a grand aboleth. Not a creature I would mess with under any circumstances, unless I was ultra-high level and had an army at my back. Eleven crossed it badly by shutting the gate. I suspect she will reap devastating consequences in season 3.

The Episodes of Stranger Things 2 Ranked

To honor Noah Schnapp who stole this season, I used shots of him in all of the images, except for the finale, which is an Eleven episode all the way, and the abysmal episode 7, which is also an Eleven episode. (See here for the season 1 rankings.)

Episodes 9: The Gate. 5 stars. The finale starts on Mike’s strongest moments, finishes on his earned reward, each involving the re-entry of Eleven into his miserably shattered life. It’s everything I hoped for in his story arc, and the right place to reconnect El with the main cast. Any earlier than the finale would have cheapened her sacrifice in season 1. Mike and El’s reunion is powerful because he’s been an empty shell for a year; to see him come alive again is sublime. In a particularly heart-rending scene, he goes ape-shit on Hopper, screaming at the sheriff and physically attacking him for keeping El hidden all this time. The reunion is short lived, of course, as Eleven must leave right away with Hopper to close the gate. But first Will needs an exorcism, since closing the gate will kill everything the Mind Flayer controls, including Will himself. Throughout this season I kept expecting Will’s possession to turn lame and laughable, but it remains dreadful to the end. Having just been strapped to a chair and worked over in episode 8, he is now tied to a bed, and Joyce proceeds to burn the Mind Flayer out of him by shoving three electric heaters close to him on full blast it’s a wonder his skin doesn’t fry. As both Will and his possessor roar in agony, Jonathan begs Joyce to stop, and Nancy seems equally appalled by this humiliating cruelty, until she outdoes Joyce by grabbing a hot poker and jabbing it into Will’s gut (a scene that still astounds on repeat viewings). Meanwhile, Steve and the kids do their part by going down into the Mind Flayer’s tunnels and burning the hub, which draws most of the demo-dogs away from the lab to attack them, giving El and Hopper some breathing room. El’s closing of the gate is a wondrous moment, but believe it or not, the Snow Ball epilogue is the series’ best scene, as we see all the boys ending up paired with the “right girl” in the right ways, dancing to the creepy ’80s stalker song, “Every Breath You Take”. It’s so moving, so right, and far more than I dared pray for this season.

Episode 4: Will the Wise. 5 stars. After the first three episodes comes a shift in tone. Will, having taken Bob’s well-meaning but stupid advice, is no longer just infected by the Upside Down. He’s possessed by the Mind Flayer. Possession is a scary concept to put on screen, but it’s also the riskiest because it’s hard to do right. Thankfully the Duffer Brothers know what they’re doing, and Noah Schnapp nails it in every frame, with subtleties Linda Blair could have never pulled off in The Exorcist (which demanded the more overt approach to possession). He deserves an Emmy for his scenes in this episode; they’re that good. There are no jump scares here, just the slow creep of dread as Will alternates between being shaken and terrified, to making resolute demands (that his mother run him a freezing bath, because his possessor “likes it cold”), to stalking about the house confused. Eleven also gets in her best scene of the season, as she and Hopper have a shouting match when she returns from stalking Mike in episode 3. They’re both trapped: Hopper keeps her confined under strict rules for fear of losing another “daughter”, while Eleven accuses him of being no better than “papa” — she feels just as caged in the cabin as she was in the lab — resulting in her telekinetic tantrum of hurling things at him and shattering windows. Finally, the episode ends on the first death of the season: Dustin’s cat, devoured by his pet pollywog that’s molted into its next stage — a baby fucking demogorgon. Will the Wise is easily my second favorite episode, even if there’s not much action, and I could make a case for it being number one. Will’s and Eleven’s scenes contain some of the best moments of child acting ever seen on television.

Episode 6: The Spy. 5 stars. There’s a heavy Exorcist vibe running through this season, but it becomes most blatant in the medical scenes of The Spy. The opening scene (above pic) is clearly inspired by Regan McNeill’s hideous PEG procedure (which drained fluid from her head so that her brain would show up more clearly on an X-ray image), and Will Byers is having it even worse, convulsing under the doctors who ask him where it hurts, to which he can only scream “Everywhere!” Winoda Ryder, for her part, plays the hysterical mother as convincingly as Ellen Burstyn did, and Joyce even shouts down a table of doctors for their incompetence as Chris McNeil did when professionals tried explaining Regan’s possession as mental illness. “What are you even treating him for? What is wrong with my boy?” practically channels the famous Exorcist line, “Eighty-eight doctors, and all you can tell me with all your bullshit is that you’re sorry!” Later it seems that Will is working against his possessor. He tells Mike he knows how to stop the creature: that there is a location in the tunnels which his possessor “doesn’t want him to see”, and so a team is sent to investigate. The location is the same hub where Hopper was attacked in episode 5, and it turns out to be a trap — Will was just lying, almost completely possessed now, and an ugly slaughter ensues. The episode is a ripper in other parts too, notably Steve and Dustin’s, who are now joined by Lucas and Max in a rather foolish attempt to bait Dustin’s demogorgon into the open and kill it. When a whole pack of demogorgons shows up, Steve and the kids become the bait and trapped inside a bus as the beasts assault them, another intense scene in an episode that stays in full throttle. The bonding between Steve and Dustin is handled extremely well, and involves some of the season’s best character moments.

Episode 2: Trick or Treat, Freak. 5 stars. The Halloween episode has tremendous rewatch value. I get a fever for Ghostbusters every time the theme song plays over the montage of the kids in costume, and Mike hilariously bitching at Lucas for dressing up as the leader Venkman instead of (the African-American) Winston, to the latter’s indignant cries of racism. Mike is right, Halloween is the best time of the year, and here the frights are out in full force: Max scares the shit out of them with her Michael Myers costume, and Will gets the biggest scare of all, as he gets knocked over by a group of bullies and then finds himself in the Upside Down being chased by the tentacled Mind Flayer blotting out the sky. I had a bad moment when Will crouched behind the building and the creature funneled its way down the stairs to grab him… until it turned out to be Mike in the Rightside Up. Mike takes him home (with a rude parting blow to Lucas, Dustin, and Max that he’s bored with them anyway), and back at the Byers’ house, the two boys have a touching moment (above pic). It’s my favorite Mike-Will moment as they take some comfort in each others damage. Mike thinks he’s losing his mind — knowing Eleven is dead but that he can sometimes hear her — and offers Will the companionship of “going crazy together”. I also love the initial flashbacks which pick up right after Eleven banished the Demogorgon in season 1. She barely escapes from the Upside Down and returns to Mike’s house (the only place she’d ever felt safe in her life), but finds the police all over the place, and Mike being grilled on her whereabouts. As she spies through the living room window, it’s hard to say if she thinks that Mike has sold her out or not, but her look of pain is heartbreaking as she realizes she can’t return to him yet.

Episode 8: The Mind Flayer. 5 stars. The first half combines Aliens and Jurassic Park, neither of which I’m a big fan of, but which are used effectively for the season’s crowning action sequence. It results in the death of Bob, and the sight of him being torn apart by a pack of demo-dogs is almost enough to turn Joyce into a gibbering lunatic. The only weakness is that Bob’s death is telegraphed a little too obviously (at three particular points I said to myself, “He’s not going to make it”), but other than that, the lab siege is superbly executed. We — like Dr. Owens, Hopper, Joyce, and Mike — watch the cameras in horror as the demo-dogs feed on corpses in every other corridor. The second half of The Mind Flayer is even better. All the main characters come together at the Byers house, and Mike gets the idea that if they kill the Mind Flayer, which functions like a brain, they can perhaps kill the army it controls, and stop its tunnels from burrowing into the town of Hawkins. He suggests that Will may know how to kill the Flayer (given the intimate connection to his possessor), and thus begins an emotional ordeal by which Will is strapped to a chair and worked over in turns by Joyce, Jonathan, and Mike. They share intimate memories with Will, and in particular Mike’s recollection of becoming friends with Will on the first day of school is a tearjerker. Will continues to speak like the damned, but these stories do break through and allow him to tap a message using Morse code, which is to “close the gate”. That will apparently kill the Mind Flayer, or at least everything it controls, and it is at this moment — rather conveniently, but without feeling like a cheat — that Eleven makes her glorious re-entry, to an overwhelmed Mike.

Episode 3: The Pollywog. 4 ½ stars. Of all the episodes in season 2, The Pollywog channels the spirit of season 1 most visibly. The boys are in fine form working tightly together, and even Mike comes out of his shell to take a proactive role, as he chastises Dustin for harboring a creature from the Upside Down. Sensing hostility, the thing makes a dash for the corridor, and the boys engage in a mad chase through the school halls, and into bathroom stalls, until Dustin secretly finds it and smuggles it under his cap. The Stand-by-Me bickering is what we loved so much about these kids, and it’s on full display here, as Dustin is willing to defend his new pet against the others no matter the cost. Then there is Mike’s jealousy over Max; he tells her point blank that she’s not welcome in their party. It would be an amusing hypocrisy given Lucas’ jealousy over Eleven last year, except that it’s genuinely sad. That sadness is compounded when Eleven, furious with Hopper, decides to break his rules and pay Mike a visit at the school. She sees him in the gymnasium with Max and draws the wrong conclusion, and it’s truly heartbreaking. Up until now she has been using static from the television in Hopper’s cabin to “visit” Mike telepathically — the same way she used sensory deprivation tanks in season 1 to locate people without them seeing her — but a year’s worth of stalking Mike on the shadow plane has grown old. Now in the gym, it looks like Mike has moved on and forgotten about her. The final scene announces serious business ahead, as Will (very foolishly) faces down the Mind Flayer and gets possessed for his efforts.

Episode 1: Mad Max. 4 stars. Let’s be clear that the arcade is not the table top, and our first sight of the kids playing Dragon’s Lair doesn’t have the same magic as their D&D game of season 1. That out of the way, the arcade is still an inspired setting, and is put to good use in showing us how Will remains infected by the Upside Down. Suddenly the arcade shifts into the shadow realm, and the world outside becomes an apocalyptic hell. It’s clear that everything will revolve around Will Byers as before, but this time by inverting the premise: instead of him vanishing into the Upside Down, the Upside Down is coming to him. He won’t become possessed until episode 4, but he’s in a bad way suffering PTSD on top of these hellish visions. Worse still is that Joyce and Jonathan condescend by treating him with kid gloves, which pisses him off, and it doesn’t help that nasty kids at school leave him taunting “zombie boy” notes in his locker. Joyce, for her part, has become the Helicopter Mom from Hell, which to be fair is more than understandable; I wouldn’t want to go chasing after my kid in the Upside Down ever again either. What the premiere establishes above all is the cost of last year’s events. The innocence of Hawkins has been lost. Mike is still pining for Eleven and calls her in vain on his walkie talkie; Nancy hasn’t gotten over Barb; and Hopper is guilt-ridden for being complicit in the oath of silence the government demanded of them at gunpoint. This all adds up to a fine way of reintroducing us to the old characters who will never be the same. New characters, like the titular Mad Max, seem rather extraneous by comparison.

Episode 5: Dig Dug. 3 ½ stars. The middle episode is pretty good but brought down by the obnoxious character of Murray. I have to say he almost ruined Nancy and Jonathan’s story for me. He’s a conspiracy theorist who plasters his apartment walls with misinformation and crackpot ideas about a mystery girl (Eleven) in Hawkins who is a Russian plant. When Nancy and Jonathan enlighten him with the truth, he hatches a plan to sell their story to the media, but only if they leave out the wild parts no one will believe, which is pretty much everything pertaining to the psychic realm and the Upside Down. By watering down the truth (suggesting that Hawkins Lab is guilty of poisoning people) they stand a better chance of convincing the public. Which is all fine and well; it’s his zany and obnoxious behavior that grates, and he somehow feels misplaced in a Stranger Things drama. Meanwhile Hopper has discovered the Mind Flayer’s underground tunnels, which are spreading into the town, and he becomes trapped and incapacitated. This allows the character of Bob to show his use, as he realizes that Will’s drawings of “vines” are actually tunnels under Hawkins connecting to lakes and quarries, which enables them to go rescue Hopper. Eleven gets the best part of this episode, as she flees Hopper’s cabin in search of Terry Ives. When she finds her mother, she obtains more misery, as if that were possible; Terry has been living a waking nightmare ever since being electroshocked into a blank state.

Episode 7: The Lost Sister. 2 stars. As someone who loves bold episodes that go outside the box — like Breaking Bad’s Fly and Doctor Who’s Love and Monsters — it pains me to say that The Lost Sister is an embarrassing misfire. As an excuse to give Eleven something to do before reuniting with the other characters, we’re treated to an excursion to Chicago where she finds her long lost “lab sister” Kali, who also has telekinetic abilities, but instead of moving objects she makes people see things that aren’t there (or not see things that are). She leads a street gang who hunt down and kill scientists who worked for Doctor Brenner, and the episode focuses on Eleven coming to terms with her power and ultimately rejecting the use of that power for murder. It’s a fine enough idea, but Kali and her crew are thoroughly uninteresting characters, and most of them painfully annoying. On top of that the episode is horribly placed, coming in between the episode 6 cliffhanger which demands an immediate follow up. I understand what the show writers were trying to do here, by holding off El’s reunion with the others until the final episode. That was the right move, since El’s sacrifice in season one doesn’t mean anything if the others don’t suffer through her absence, especially Mike. But this detour to Chicago was a poor way of going about that. I hoped that The Lost Sister would get better on more viewings but it hasn’t. It feels like a pilot for a lame spinoff series. I give it 2 stars instead of 1 because Millie Bobby Brown is always good, even in a bad script.