The Spell of Cobra Kai

In the days before I discovered real cinema, I watched the Karate Kid movies as part of my high-school obsession with martial arts. Mostly I watched the Sho Kosugi ninja flicks, which were non-stop adrenaline stunts filled with high body-counts and piss-poor acting. The Karate Kid films didn’t have the former but plenty of the latter. They were family films that made you feel warm and fuzzy when underdogs triumphed against bullies in the safe arenas of tournaments. They were campy and cheesy in the extreme, had laughable dialogue, a painful top-40 soundtrack, and embarrassingly contrived scenarios. I never saw the third and fourth films in the franchise (which were apparently so bad that even the core audience heaped scorn on them), nor the 2006 remake. But when Cobra Kai was announced last week as a worthy successor to the first two Karate Kid movies — it has a 100% approval on Rotten Tomatoes — I had to see for myself what the fuss was.

I will say this for Cobra Kai. If it’s still the same Karate-Kid animal, it shakes things up enough to make it a watchable and in some ways even impressive miniseries. The Karate Kid I & II have aged terribly, even aside from the cheesy elements I mentioned. As ’80s underdog films they were facilely one dimensional. The bad guys were ciphers with no backstories — Johnny Lawrence and his Cobra Kai gang completely unsympathetic jerks. The good guy was an endearing character, but he didn’t work very well as a karate protagonist. For one thing, Daniel LaRusso was a supreme light-weight, clocking in at about 120 pounds. His indentured servitude to Mr. Miyagi — waxing cars, sanding floors, and painting fences — was impossible to take seriously a way of learning karate techniques. (There is an amusing swipe at this in Cobra Kai, where Johnny uses Miguel as his own slave, having him wash the windows, mop the floors, and clean the toilets of the Cobra Kai dojo. When Miguel asks if there’s any particular way he should be doing these tasks, Johnny says it doesn’t matter.) As for Daniel’s crane kick, it was the sort of last-minute melodrama that won the day in other sports films of this era (like the quarterback sacking of Sean Astin’s character in Rudy, or the final hoop shot in Hoosiers). The Karate Kid was essentially a poster child for the Reagan years, optimistic about the underdog’s potential to “be all you can be”, really to the point of absurdity. Cobra Kai inverts this premise, so that the underdogs become the assholes — and the previous underdog becomes an even bigger asshole. That’s at least a story.

By making Johnny Lawrence the inverted underdog, and a surprisingly likeable one, the writers of Cobra Kai have brought the franchise into a post Game of Thrones era. And by making Daniel LaRusso the bigger asshole — a Miyagi wannabe undermined by hypocrisy and self-righteousness — they’ve taken the original hero in an unexpected direction. Part of it is the social class reversal. Daniel grew up dirt poor but has done well for himself as a wealthy car dealer who can treat his family to country club outings. Johnny, for his part, has fallen out with his rich stepfather and lives hand to mouth in the shitty neighborhood of Reseda where Daniel used to live. This reversal alone pays dividends.

But aside from even that, Daniel is astonishingly judgmental. He condescends to Johnny, kicks him when he’s down, tries to ban Cobra Kai from participating in the local tournament, and launches a pathetic crusade to shut down the dojo. He does this by manipulating a business associate into doubling the rent in the strip mall where the new Cobra Kai has just opened, which shafts not only Johnny but all the other mall renters. This is a supremely asshole move, and Daniel’s wife calls him on it. But I was frankly put off by the entire LaRusso clan. Daniel’s wife sounds like she’s always talking down to people, his cousin is a useless twit, and his daughter a priss. The LaRusso home gives off a superficial Miyagi vibe, and at work Daniel has turned some of the best things Mr. Miyagi taught him into cheap gimmicks — karate chops in car commercials, and the bonsai trees he gives away free to car buyers. Daniel does revere his deceased mentor, but has little to show that he actually understands the “balance” that he lectures others (his daughter, Robby) to strive for.

It’s the Cobra Kai losers who sell the series. As actors they have the better performances, and as characters the better balance. Yes, they learn the merciless version of karate that teaches beating the shit out of people — even fighting dirty when necessary — but that is tempered by their empathy as victims who have taken their own heaps of nasty abuse. Aisha is particularly well scripted, driven to take karate after being cruelly bullied by classmates over her weight. Johnny at first refuses her, on the politically incorrect wisdom that “no girls are allowed at Cobra Kai”, until Aisha proves her potential by slamming his best student on his ass and almost breaking his ribs (mostly on the strength of her fat-ass weight for which she has been relentlessly teased). She soon becomes one of the best Cobra Kai students, and certainly one of the series’ best characters.

The very best however is Miguel. He’s what Daniel LaRusso should have first looked like, but of course that would have never happened in an ’80s film. Instead of finding a sage-like Mr. Miyagi to rescue him from his bullies, Miguel comes under the punishing tutelage of Johnny, and they play off each other wonderfully. As far as I’m concerned, Johnny is the true hero of Cobra Kai, in thrall to a harsh version of karate but unwilling to sink to the depths Kreese did. He has a vulnerable side, so he’s not just an asshole. His upbringing was less than kind, and his son Robby wants nothing to do with him. He’s politically incorrect (and, amusingly, a stone-age Luddite who doesn’t know what “a Facebook” is), showing hints of racism, sexism, and homophobia, while proving that in practice he’s really none of these things — as long as his students keep up. (He reminds me of Full Metal Jacket‘s Sergeant Hartmann: “I am hard, you will not like me. But I am fair. There is no racial bigotry here. I do not look down on niggers, kikes, wops, or greasers. Here you are all equally worthless.”) Miguel takes his sensei’s flaws in stride, and Johnny comes to think of him as a son.

As for Johnny’s actual son, Robby, he’s the new Daniel, but again an inverted one, a troublemaker instead of a bullied victim. He’s a delinquent who steals for a living, and despises his father so much that he applies for a job at Daniel’s car dealership just to piss Johnny off. He gets the job, and rather predictably, he soon becomes Daniel’s reformed karate student. This happens by a very contrived chain of events, and is the weaker narrative arc of Cobra Kai. Daniel basically takes Robby on as a way to atone for his sanctimony throughout the first six episodes, and in short order he’s having Robby “wax on, wax off” every car in the lot (that shit is no more convincing as a way to teach karate today than it was in the ’80s), and then taking him on field trips out in the wilderness to practice dramatic kicks while balancing on perilously thin tree limbs.

Everything builds to the tournament finale and solid payoff. It’s better than the Karate Kid competition for a number of reasons, mostly because of the inversions which make viewers unsure of their allegiances. The Cobra Kais fight dirty, but they are still sympathetic, and frankly they were the ones I was rooting for, even over Robby. When Daniel and Johnny faced off in the ’80s, it was cookie-cutter good vs. evil. With Miguel and Robby in the final round, there’s no such duality this time. Each is an asshole; each is likeable. And I have to give the writers credit for having Miguel take the trophy, which I didn’t expect at all. Surely Daniel’s protege would win, as Daniel always did in the films? But no: Miguel kicks the shit out of him, and in a very Cobra Kai fashion — by taking full advantage of Robby’s shoulder injury, hitting him in his wounds repeatedly with “no mercy”. A sleazy move, and yet somehow Miguel (unlike the ’80s Johnny) doesn’t come across as despicable for it.

The epilogue scores for continuing to portray Daniel in a less than flattering light. On the drive home from the tournament, Robby remarks that with Miguel’s victory Cobra Kai is now back on the map and will soon take over the region. Daniel retorts, “Over my dead body,” and then takes a detour to what looks like an abandoned home. He leads Robby inside, throws on the lights… and Mr. Miyagi’s old home is unveiled, for the purpose, as Daniel explains it, of training more students in order to combat the rise of Cobra Kai. As soon as Daniel said “over my dead body”, I saw the Prince of Sanctimony again; and with the foreshadowing of what will surely be a Miyagi dojo in season 2, it’s obvious that Daniel is gearing up with more self-righteous measures against Johnny. And as if Johnny doesn’t have enough to worry about from that corner, the biggest surprise of all comes in the final frame: the return of John Kreese, who has all along been presumed dead. He strolls into Johnny’s dojo, congratulates him on his victory, and tells him they have “much to do” now that Cobra Kai is back. That sounds like a hostile takeover, and Johnny looks appalled; he’s been fighting Kreese’s ghost for years. Trapped between Daniel and the Devil, he has ugly challenges ahead of him, and season 2 has a lot to deliver on.

I don’t want to oversell Cobra Kai. It’s really the same thing as before: a campy family drama with a godawful soundtrack and situations that make you roll your eyes and smirk. But if you were invested in Karate Kid I & II in your coming of age years, and now find them embarrassingly unwatchable, you may just find yourself falling under Cobra Kai‘s hideous spell.

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The Best Scenes of Stranger Things 2

After my fifth viewing of season 2, it’s about time for a best scenes list. I won’t even try to rank them, because I think that would be impossible. I simply list them chronologically. There are thirty. I should note that episodes 2 and 9 have an embarrassment of riches, with six scenes from each. All the other episodes have three or less.

Episode One (3 scenes)

Lab exam

1. Lab exam. Halfway through the first episode is when season 2 really takes wing. Character intros are out of the way, and Will comes into focus as he’s taken to the “bad men’s” den of season 1. We learn that those men are no longer in charge, but it’s still far from a comfort zone a kid like this needs. His medical exam foreshadows he heavy Exorcist vibe that will return in Episode 6, and while he isn’t actually possessed yet, he’s clearly infected by the Upside Down. But he’s told no one about the slug he coughed up at the end of season 1, and Dr. Owens insists that his episodes are psychological flashbacks. We know better, which makes our reaction rather different from that of Owens, Joyce, and Hopper when Will says the shadow creature wants to kill… not himself but everyone else.

Dinner with Barb’s parents

2. Dinner with Barb’s parents. When I first watched this scene and the next one, I remember breathing a sigh of relief. They run back to back at about two-thirds of the way through the episode, and they were the definite tipping point in assuring me that season 2 was in good hands. The consequences of season 1 would be felt everywhere, and not just on a surface level. Nancy doesn’t just move on because Barbara Holland happened to be a minor character in the scheme of the TV series. She’s appropriately distressed over the fact that Barb’s parents still think she’s alive. On top of that, they are selling the house to pay for a private investigator. Her scene in the bathroom with Barb’s photo is genuinely heartbreaking.

Emo Mike

3. Emo Mike. Nancy’s brother isn’t doing any better. Most directors would not have scripted an Emo Mike; they would have facsimiled the season-1 Mike in a pointless sequel. Here again I literally sighed in relief. In order for Eleven’s sacrifice to be felt, it had to hurt Mike deeply and cause him to stagnate. He’s no longer the spirited leader of last year; he steals from his sister, swears at his teachers, cheats on exams, plagiarizes essays, and graffitis the bathroom stalls. For this he is made to throw out most of his toys (for which I despise his mother), and all that keeps him going is the ridiculously dim hope that Eleven is still alive somewhere. He calls her every night on the walkie talkie (day 352 now), and shits on Dustin and Lucas when they interrupt these empty moments with their own calls. Bravo.

Episode Two (6 scenes)

“Halfway Happy”

4. “Halfway Happy”. This is a perfect first scene for El and Hopper after their stage debut in episode 1. It shows their relationship to be a typical “father and daughter”, which is certainly how Hopper sees it, as he has taken in Eleven to fill the void left by Sarah’s death. After almost a year’s worth of cabin fever, El wants to get out and go trick-or-treating like any kid, to which an appalled Hopper says no, but offers instead to bring home candy that night and watch a horror movie with her. Millie Bobbie Brown’s acting is terrific and subtle as always, as she sulks and struggles to understand the meaning of the world “compromise”, which she finally grasps as “halfway happy”.

Peeing

5. Peeing. Deja-vu goes from scary to hilarious in a carbon-copy replay of Joyce and Jonathan’s first scene in season 1. Jonathan is cooking breakfast, and Joyce finds an empty bedroom, prompting a “Where’s Will?” tirade. Suddenly she and Jonathan hear a booming noise coming from the bathroom, and Joyce crashes in like a Mohawk warrior on poor Will, who is standing by the toilet unable to get any privacy from his crazy mom. She tries covering her stupidity with a feeble “What are you doing?”, to which Will deadpans the obvious: “Peeing?” (Translation: “What the fuck else?”) Of the many helicopter-mom scenes in Stranger Things 2, this one wins hands down.

Ghostbusters

6. Ghostbusters. The montage of the four boys getting photos taken by their mothers is a terrific homage. The Ghostbusters theme plays over it, and the costumes are awesome. Will is excited, Dustin ecstatic, and Lucas somehow attains the same level of joy in the face of jeers from his nine-year old sister. But it’s Mike’s reaction that is priceless — Emo Mike, of course, who has forgotten how to smile, is sour through the whole proceeding, and just wants to get the hell out of Dodge.

Halloween

7. Halloween. In the Beyond Stranger Things round-table discussions, Sadie Sink told the Duffer Brothers that she never saw Halloween and has no intention of doing so. Her Michael Myers jump scare is so effective that we can excuse her blasphemy, and her character Max is absolutely right: Lucas does sound like a wailing little girl. The trick-or-treat scenes on top of the shadow monster’s appearance add up to a wonderful night out; the Duffer Brothers made Halloween for me what it should be, according to Mike, “the best night of the year”. It turns out to be a shitty night for Mike, unfortunately, thanks to Max, which takes us to the next scene…

“Crazy together”

8. “Crazy together”. This tender moment foreshadows the Mike-Will pairing in episodes 4-6, and follows on the heels of Mike basically telling Dustin and Lucas to fuck off. He refuses to trick-or-treat with them anymore since they invited Max along without his permission, and since he also finds their abundant cheer to be unacceptable. If he is suffering in misery, then so by God should everyone else, and Will seems to be the only one who can satisfy Mike on this level. One would think Mike almost applauds the shadow monster for terrorizing Will. It gives him someone to save and protect, like he did for El last season. The boys’ conversation here is very moving, as they take comfort in each others damage, and resign themselves to going “crazy together”.

Stalking Mike

9. Stalking Mike. I continue to be impressed by the way scenes are shot in the ethereal plane where Eleven projects her spirit to spy on people over long distances. In season 1 she did this at the behest of Papa (which resulted in the disaster of opening a gate to the Upside Down), and then also to locate Will to find out if he was still alive. Now she uses this power to stalk Mike, who calls her in vain on the walkie talkie, while she spectates in frustration. The final shot, which flits from our world (where we see only Mike, who thinks he hears something) to the ethereal (where we see El caressing the face of the ethereal Mike), is some fine cinematography.

Episode Three (3 scenes)

Handling Dart

10. Handling Dart. Of all the episodes this season, it’s the third that channels the spirit of season 1 most visibly. The boys are in fine form working tightly together, and even Emo Mike comes out of his shell to take a proactive role. This is my favorite scene of the episode, where they pass Dart around in the AV Room, most of them (Max, Lucas, Will) thoroughly grossed out — “He feels like a living booger” from Lucas is the best line — until it ends in the hands of Mike, who studiously ponders the creature.

To kill or not kill Dart

11. To kill or not kill Dart. When the boys return to the AV Room at the end of the school day, Mike excludes Max, rudely leaving her outside the door as he proceeds to tell Lucas and Dustin what Will has told him since their last huddle: that Dart resembles critters from the Upside Down. He urges taking Dart to Hopper, to which Lucas agrees but Dustin strenuously objects, thinking that Hopper would likely kill Dart — which Mike says would be most welcome. Sensing hostility, Dart thunders in his cage. The Stand-By-Me bickering is what we loved so much about these kids in season 1, and it’s on full display here, as Dustin is willing to defend his dangerous pet no matter what.

Will stands his ground — in vain

12. Will stands his ground — in vain. The shadow monster’s invasion of Will is one of the most unpleasant scenes of the series, let alone this season. It smothers him, rapes its way down his throat, and fills his body, settling in for a long and hideous possession. This is the last we will see of the externalized tentacled creature (until the end of the finale). After this point, the shadow monster manifests internally through Will. Which takes us to…

Episode Four (3 scenes)

Possession trauma

13. Possession trauma. With the fourth episode 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 shadow monster (later called 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 this performance. There are no jump scares here, just the slow creep of dread as Will becomes shaken and terrified over feeling helpless and out of control. Noah has said in interviews that he’s quite proud of this scene, and he should be. It’s the scene that could have killed the story if he missed.

Telekinetic tantrum

14. Telekinetic tantrum. One of the Duffer Brothers — Ross, I think, but I’m not sure — calls this his favorite scene of the season. It is certainly Eleven’s best scene, as she and Hopper get into the worst shouting match they’ve ever had. They’re both trapped: Hopper keeps her confined under strict rules for fear of losing another “daughter”, and he also clearly doesn’t like that she’s interested in a boy. El 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. In the round-table discussions we learn that none of this was CGI, and that David Harbour was really in the room when all the glass exploded. Millie’s hysterical acting is top-notch; like Noah’s scene above, this one stands or falls on her performance, though Harbour does an amazing job as well, shouting her down and calling her a brat.

“He likes it cold”

15. “He likes it cold.” It’s a chilling moment when Joyce takes Will’s temperature and it’s not even 96; and Will says he feels like he’s walking around hardly awake. Schnapp had to run the gamut in this episode, from feeling shaken and terrified (in the scene above), to stalking about the house confused, to finally making resolute demands of his mother: that she dump the hot bath she ran him, and run him a freezing one instead, because his possessor “likes it cold”.  Not only is this a scary and well-acted scene, it’s creatively juxtaposed with the school scene of Mr. Clarke explaining the biological origins of fear. His lecture voices over Will’s slow approach to the bathtub that finally revolts him. It’s brilliant editing.

Episode Five (2 scenes)

Hockey-puck Dart

16. Hockey-puck Dart. I have only two scenes from the fifth episode, but this one is admittedly a gem. Dustin shoos his mother out of the house on the pretext of their cat being spotted in another neighborhood, and then proceeds to deal with Dart who actually ate the damn cat. It’s clear by this point that Dustin takes care of his mother more than she takes care of him, and the devious way he spares her the knowledge of Mews’ death — by pretending to speak on the phone with someone who “found” Mews — speaks volumes for his empathy. After his mother leaves, Dustin throws on his hockey gear and engages in more devious strategies to lure Dart outside and lock him in the cellar. My heart always skips a beat when he charges out the tool shed and smashes the pissed-off Dart like a hockey puck down into the cellar. Even now he feels bad about it: “I’m sorry,” he says, locking the doors, “but you ate my cat.”

Bob solves Will’s map

17. Bob solves Will’s map. It wouldn’t be a season of Stranger Things without the Byers’ house getting trashed in some way, and this year it’s Will’s map that does the damage — a maze of tunnels that plasters the walls and floors. It takes Bob to make sense of it, and it’s his best scene of the season (aside from his death, on which see below), as he lives up to his moniker “Bob the Brain”. The scene exploits his nerdy compulsion to solve things, even when he can see that Will needs a doctor and that Joyce is insane for playing up to this “game”. Sean Astin was perfectly cast here.

Episode Six (3 scenes)

Burning inside out

18. Burning inside out. I was recently wheeled into the Emergency Room, and so I have a hard time watching these scenes — the prologue shown in the right picture, and the later scene where Dr. Owens runs tests on Will by torching (and torturing) a creature from the Upside Down, which simultaneously burns (and tortures) Will. No, my torments in the hospital weren’t as painful as Will’s, but I did feel like I was dying, and the doctors and nurses sounded very worried about me behind their professional facades. In any case, these are scenes once again brilliantly acted by Noah Schnapp. The scene to the right, in particular, was evidently of concern to the actors, who were so frightened by Noah’s acting they thought he was really in agony. Five minutes later, he was cracking fart jokes on the set.

Big Brother Steve

19. Big Brother Steve. Steve’s evolving character continues to surprise. Having been commandeered by Dustin in the last episode, he now directs Dustin in an attempt to bait Dart into the open and kill it. Along the way they form a rather unexpected bond on the basis of their girl troubles. Steve has just lost Nancy, and Dustin’s crush on Max hasn’t been going well at all. So Steve proceeds to counsel Dustin in all the right ways of hitting on girls, which calls forth amusing remarks about sexual electricity (which Dustin misconstrues as pertaining to electromagnetic fields), but by far my favorite line is when Steve projects his anger over Nancy through some advice meant to “protect” Dustin: “You’re not falling for this girl, are you?” he asks. When Dustin says no (lying obviously), Steve retorts, “Good. Because all she’ll do is break your heart, and you’re way too young for that shit.”

Demo-dog attack

20. Demo-dog attack. Steve and Dustin are eventually joined by Lucas and Max, and when Dart finally shows up, it’s with another demo-dog in tow. Suddenly it’s Steve and the kids who become the bait, trapped inside a bus as the beasts assault them. The claustrophobic suspense is right out of Jaws and Jurassic Park, but the best part is Dustin’s hilarious line, when he screams for help into his walkie talkie: “Is anyone there? Mike! Will! God! Anyone! We’re at the old junkyard, and WE ARE GOING TO DIE!” That purposely enunciated “We are going to die” is cribbed from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, from the scene where Harrison Ford’s character screams that to the blond dingbat whose only concern is the fact that her precious fingernails are getting ruined. What an homage.

Episode Seven (1 scene)

“I can save them”

21. “I can save them.” Most people hate the seventh episode, but it does have supporters, and I have to admit it’s grown on me. I won’t pretend it’s an under-appreciated gem, because the fact is that Kali’s crew are hollow cliches. What the episode does well is make Eleven experience the lure of vigilantism. Ultimately she rejects using her powers for homicidal revenge, but she certainly flirts with the idea, furious over the way her mother was abused under Papa’s regime. That arc ends in a superb scene, starting with her vision of Mike and Hopper (who are just realizing that Will has unleashed an army of demo-dogs on the lab), to Kali’s use of an invisibility cloak to escape the cops, to El insisting that she return home — not because her Hawkins friends can save her, but because she can save them. It’s genuinely moving, and pays off the episode rather well.

Episode Eight (3 scenes)

Bob’s death

22. Bob’s death. Tropes from Aliens and Jurassic Park are used effectively for the season’s crowning action sequence, which results in the death of poor Bob. The sight of him being torn apart by the demo-dogs is nasty, and I’m surprised Joyce wasn’t reduced to a gibbering lunatic for the rest of the season. On the one hand, Bob’s death is telegraphed too obviously; at three particular points I said to myself, “He’s not going to make it”. On the other hand, I became sure those telegraphs were part of a grand bait-and-switch, once Bob makes it into the foyer. We’re supposed to think he’s going to die, until he barely makes it to Joyce and bolts the doors. Then — just as we start breathing again — the doors crash open and Bob goes under. Very well played; very traumatic.

Mike recalls meeting Will

23. Mike recalls meeting Will. The Duffer brothers have a sadistic streak, no question. In the Beyond Stranger Things round-table discussions, Matt Duffer is jokingly accused by one of the actors of having laughed and reveled in all the scenes where Noah Schnapp has to scream and thrash under torment. In the case of this scene, Will is strapped to a chair and worked over in turns by Joyce, Jonathan, and Mike. They share intimate memories in hopes of breaking through to him, 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 Morse code message, “Close the gate”, which will apparently kill the mind flayer. Score for mom, big bro, and — especially — Emo Mike.

Stand-off

24. Stand-off. The tension here is insane. Even after my fifth viewing — knowing that Eleven is right outside ready to save everyone — the scene still makes my heart race. And the way it’s shot is a throwback to last year’s scene, where Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve were in the Byers’ house under a strobe light effect, armed with a gun, lighter, and baseball bat trying desperately to sight the Demogorgon. This time it’s an army of demogorgons, but again the terror is caused by what everyone can’t see, but can hear and sense too well. I should note that the right characters are armed with the appropriate weapons — Hopper and Nancy with guns, Steve with the studded baseball bat, Lucas with his slingshot, and Emo Mike (wait for it) with a goddamn candlestick holder.

Episode Nine (6 scenes)

Mike and El’s reunion

25. Mike and El’s reunion. The reunion is powerful because Mike has been an empty shell for a year. To see him come alive again is sublime. And to think it almost didn’t happen this way. The original script had the reunion occurring at the Snow Ball epilogue. While I appreciate the idea — those who say the reunion should have occurred much earlier, like halfway through the season, are crazy — that would have been a little too late. We need at least a full episode of these two working in knowledge of each other. And it is the perfect first scene to follow on El’s glorious re-entry at the end of the last episode.

Mike goes ape-shit on Hopper

26. Mike goes ape-shit on Hopper. This one is just as good as the reunion. All of Emo Mike’s frustrations from the past year boil over, as he goes ape-shit on Hopper, screaming and physically attacking him for keeping El hidden all this time. In the round-table discussions we learn that David Gilmour told Finn Wolfhard not to hold back, and Finn is really clobbering him without pulling his punches. Chokes me up every time. Emo Mike had a bad year.

Hopper and El’s reconciliation

27. Hopper and El’s reconciliation. Mike and El’s reunion is short lived (of course), since she leaves right away with Hopper. On their drive to the lab they make amends over their hellish fight back in episode 4. Even though I like the two scenes above better, this one is probably, objectively, the most moving scene of the season. It’s a long scene, as it deserves to be, and shows Hopper acknowledging his past demons that cause him to be overprotective, while El, for her part, owns up to her own stupidities. It plays authentically because we’ve seen the dark road she’s been on in episode 7; for all the problems of that episode, it did allow her to grow in a way that pays off an important scene like this.

Steve and Billy

28. Steve and Billy. As if the finale couldn’t get any better, we cut to Steve who has assumed the role of a babysitter and refuses to allow the boys to assist the other two groups (Hopper/El, and Joyce/Jonathan/Nancy/Will) in any way. He’s responsible for these “little shits”, as he puts it, and orders them to “stay on the bench” until the others do their jobs. The sudden intrusion of Billy makes it a moot point, and Steve proceeds to take an even worse pounding than he got from Jonathan last year. Billy is a more disturbing bully than Troy and his sidekick ever were — genuinely psychotic, and laughing, laughing, laughing through all the hits he takes.

The gate

29. The gate. The climax is last year’s times ten. A single Demogorgon has nothing on the mind flayer, which is sentient and all-powerful, and clearly too much for El to go against. She must shut the gate on the thing, sever its ties to our world, and isolate it in the Upside Down. In so doing, she’ll kill everything connected to it, including the army of demo-dogs, but also Will. So Will needs an exorcism, while Steve and the kids decide to launch an attack on the underground hub to draw the demo-dogs away from El and Hopper. When those two missions succeed, El is ready, and the momentum has piled like a juggernaut. Millie does a fantastic job conveying stress and exhaustion and fury all at once, and the flashback to Papa in episode 7  — “You have a wound, Eleven, a terrible wound, and eventually it will kill you” — goes a long way in compounding her rage against the mind flayer.

Snow Ball

30. Snow Ball. If El closing the gate is a spectacular moment, the Snow Ball epilogue is the crowning scene of the entire two seasons. All the boys end up paired with the right girl in the right ways: Lucas gets Max after a clumsy proposal, Will gets a bashful admirer (his “Zombie Boy” status working for him, for a change), and Dustin is rejected by every girl he asks until the elder Nancy comes to his rescue. Finally, Eleven arrives, and she and Mike dance to the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”. Some critics have decried the use of this creepy stalker song, but it’s hard to believe they can be that clueless. The song is a perfect fit, not only because Mike and El’s relationship has always been rather weird, but because El has been stalking Mike for a whole year. Not to mention the stalker theme between Lucas and Max. On top of that, the final shot “underneath” the school in the Upside Down shows the mind flayer looming over the school, which aligns with the song’s theme: “I’ll be watching you, every breath you take, every move you make…” The Snow Ball epilogue is so affecting, so right, and more than I dared pray for this season. The kids earned this closure, and by God so did we.

Will Mike Die in Stranger Things 3?

That’s the theory being floated, and for good reason. Finn Wolfhard has a full plate if he wants to stay involved with Stranger Things 3. He will be starring in the upcoming horror film The Turning, playing a strong supporting role in The Goldfinch, reprising his role in IT: Chapter 2, and on top of that producing an album with his band. The other Stranger Things kids have far less commitments. This points to a drastically reduced role for Mike in season 3, and with hints already in the air that a major character will die, it wouldn’t be surprising if it’s Mike.

He’s my favorite character and I’d miss him, but it would make for excellent tragedy in season 3. Some have criticized Mike’s role in season 2 — that he just pined for Eleven, hated on Max, and didn’t do much until the final episode. But that wasn’t poor script writing; it was the whole point, and necessary to make his character believable. In order for Eleven’s sacrifice to be felt, it had to devastate Mike and cause him to stagnate. Wolfhard has said in interviews that he and the other actors referred to his character as “Emo Mike” throughout shooting season 2. “He basically stops growing as a person”, says Wolfhard. He’s always in trouble with his family, and half the time he can’t stand Dustin and Lucas for their insufferable cheer. (The season-2 Mike thinks that since he’s so miserable, everyone else should be.) The only company he enjoys is Will’s, since Will is suffering in his own way. Will gives Mike someone to look after and protect as he did with Eleven in season 1.

Mike’s character was handled perfectly in season 2, and we should be grateful the Duffer Brothers know how to write sequels, and make fans feel all the appropriate aches and pains and losses. A director like Spielberg would never have written an Emo Mike; he would have facsimiled the season-1 Mike in a pointless sequel. And he certainly wouldn’t kill off Mike (or any of the kids) in season 3. If that’s truly what’s in store, I’m looking forward to it, and to Eleven dishing out some bad-ass revenge.

UPDATE (May 14, 2018): Finn has finished recording his album, and he has also done his scenes for both The Turning and The Goldfinch. So it looks like he will have plenty of time for the full season of Stranger Things 3. The shooting schedule runs from April – October and is well under way.

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.

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.)

Conclusion

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.

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.)

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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 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, but it remains well directed 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 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 more than I dared pray for this season.

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 while this is cliche, it’s no less heartbreaking for it. 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.

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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, though she does pay off in the later episodes.

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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.

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Episode 7: The Lost Sister. 3 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 somewhat of a 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 homicidal revenge. It’s a great idea, but the problem is Kali’s crew: they are hollow uninteresting cliches. I understand what the show writers were trying to do here, by making El experience the lure of vigilantism. That works, and I love her final response to Kali’s “Your friends can’t save you, Jane.” (“No,” she says, “but I can save them.”) But the episode feels as much like a pilot for a lame spinoff series as it does for El’s personal journey. The Lost Sister isn’t as bad as many people claim, but it could have been better.