Halloween Sequel Marathon

Here’s what I have planned for a Halloween marathon. All of these are sequels, so that’s the theme this year. Including my own novella mentioned at the bottom.

Friday-Monday, October 26-29: Stranger Things, Season 2. (2017) It was released last Halloween, and with the huge delay of season 3, it’s a suitable time to rewatch it. Fans continue to debate whether season 1 or 2 is better, and for me it’s clearly the second, as it goes darker and deeper in ways I didn’t expect. With the innocence of Hawkins lost, the previous year’s events have taken a toll on everyone, especially Mike Wheeler. Most directors wouldn’t have scripted an Emo Mike; they would have facsimiled the season-1 Mike in a pointless sequel. In order for Eleven’s sacrifice to be felt, it had to hurt Mike Wheeler and cause him to stagnate. He’s no longer the spirited leader of last year, and that’s as it should be. His sister Nancy is also dispirited, which is another refreshing bit of realism. Barb may have been a minor character in season 1, but she certainly wasn’t minor to Nancy. Noah Schnapp and Millie Bobby Brown practically carry the season in their ferocious performances, and it’s honestly some of the best child acting I’ve ever seen. The biggest challenge of the season was how to reintroduce Eleven, and the Duffers nailed it. If they had reunited Eleven with the other kids too quickly, it would have cheapened her season-1 sacrifice. Saving her re-entry for the finale was the right decision, and few scriptwriters have the balls to make such decisions. Season 1 made us long for the simpler times of youth when kids were more independent. There’s some of that still in season 2, but it’s much more character driven, and focused on the inner turmoils of the kids, Hopper, and Joyce as they confront a much worse threat from the Upside Down. Mix all that with the Halloween theme, and this sequel season should become your #1 marathon priority.

Tuesday, October 30: The Exorcist III: Legion. (1990) Everyone knows The Exorcist II: The Heretic is the worst horror sequel ever made, and it’s also the worst horror film I’ve seen period. The Exorcist III is the true sequel, based on the novel Legion written by William Peter Blatty, who also wrote and directed the film adaptation. I can’t imagine Legion as the product of a film maker, no matter how talented, who isn’t also a novelist. It’s approach is patient. I remember when I first saw it in the theater (in 1990), and there were two scenes in particular that had me panic stricken: the Gemini Killer’s hideous recounting of his sins in the confessional booth before he kills the priest, and Lieutenant Kinderman’s first sight of Patient X in the psychiatric ward, who is revealed to be the wasted figure of Father Karras, who died in the first film. There are some who even think Legion is a scarier and better film than The Exorcist itself, and though I don’t agree with that, I do acknowledge that you can make a case for it. An acquaintance of mine described the film this way: “You can’t imagine anyone making this film who doesn’t 100% believe in manifest evil. It pull no punches and carries a tone which says, ‘This is not entertainment. This is a glimpse into the dark side.’ ” Of course, I would say that statement applies to The Exorcist, and yet in some ways I find Legion more deeply chilling. It’s way underappreciated, and I plan to be terrorized by it on the night before Halloween.

Wednesday, October 31: Halloween II. (2009) I’m not kidding when I say this is the best entry in the Halloween franchise. Carpenter’s classic (1978) and Zombie’s remake (2007) are usually the ones praised, and they are good, but the Carpenter original hasn’t aged well on me (a major reason being the use of actors in their late 20s to play high-school teenagers, which I find insufferable), while Zombie’s remake is a very mixed bag. It gave Halloween more bite for a 21st-century audience, but it tried to be too many things at once — a prequel, a remake, and a Rob Zombie film. In the sequel to his own remake, Zombie finally did everything on his own terms. This is not a remake of the original Halloween II, which was a shitty film in every way, like most of the Halloween franchise. It’s Zombie continuing where his remake left off, but going in a different direction taken by the ’80s sequels. It panders to no one, and Zombie doesn’t care whom he offends with scenes of nasty brutality. He gives serious attention to the trauma suffered by Laurie from events in Halloween, making Halloween II the rare slasher that shows what mindless killing really does to people. The character of Dr. Loomis almost steals the show: Malcolm McDowell is able to go places he could only touch in Halloween given the constraints of the remake. Here he’s a complete asshole, in love with himself as a celebrity, and no longer gives a damn about Laurie Strode or Michael Myers. He attends promotional events for his book, goes on tirades when when audience members don’t fawn over him, and repeatedly insults his assistant for offering him kind but unwanted opinions. I’ve seen Halloween II many times, and I’m going to enjoy it again this Halloween night.

Reading Material

On this front, allow me to shamelessly plug my fan-fiction novella, Stranger Things: The New Generation, which is the sequel to Stranger Things: The College Years. I will start posting the chapters to The New Generation on Sunday, October 28. Like the second season of Stranger Things, it’s set during Halloween, and I tried milking the theme for all its worth.

Advertisements

Four Models of Time Travel

Now that I’ve written a time travel story, I have a deeper appreciation of the genre’s challenges. It’s hard to make time travel work logistically and still have compelling drama. So here are my thoughts on the good and bad ways time travel has been handled on screen. I’ll focus on four models: (a) the single timeline, (b) multiple timelines, (c) the repeated loop, and (d) the universe fights back.

A. Single Timeline (Everything Predestined)

The most elegant model is the single timeline, or time stream, or universe, which amounts to a closed loop. In its simplest terms: the future time traveler was always in the past. Any “changes” made to the past are not changes at all, because they already occurred. It’s impossible to change the past, since the past has already happened. Which came first, chicken or egg?

A famous example of this model is used in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). In the story Harry and his friends are saved from dying by their futures selves, and so Harry later realizes that he has to go back in time to save his past self. Everything plays out exactly as before, and there’s no change on the timeline.

A more obscure example is the romance Somewhere in Time (1980), which uses the trope of self-hypnosis as the means of time travel. A playwright named Richard Collier travels from 1980 back to 1912, after being haunted by an encounter with an old woman who approached him out of the blue and told him to “Come back to me”, then disappeared. He later learned that she was a stage actress named Elise McKenna. Through self-hypnosis he sends himself back to 1912, where he meets Elise and they fall in love; their romance is later interrupted when he unintentionally transports himself back to 1980. Like the Harry Potter story, this forms a closed loop: Richard sends himself back in time because Elise tells him to; but Elise can only tell him to because she has already lived through their love affair when he sent himself back in time.

The following three films are my favorite examples of the single timeline model, in which everything is predestined. When I say “predestined”, I don’t mean that in a philosophical or religious sense. Single timelines have nothing to do with the issue of free will. I mean simply that everything has already happened: the future self was always in the past to begin with. The future self is not changing anything or creating new events by traveling to the past; it’s impossible to change the past.

1. Predestination (2014). The gold standard of the single timeline model is based on a short story written by Robert Heinlein, and portrays what sounds impossible: four characters of different genders and living in different times are the exact same person: Jane from 1945-1963; John from 1963-1970, and then 1985-1992; the Barkeep from 1992+; and a terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber sometime in 21st century. Again, they are literally the same person. (In the above photo, Barkeep John is on the left, speaking to younger John on the right, in 1970.)

This single person interacts with him/herself as follows: The Barkeep is from the late ’90s, but he has a time machine, and he bases himself in the year 1970, to await a meeting with his younger self. After listening to his younger self vent rage against a world that has treated him unfairly, the Barkeep takes him back to 1963, and drops him off for a night, where he impregnates Jane who is himself. She has the baby who is her own self, but there are complications with the birth that require a sex change surgery. After the operation, she takes the name of John. The Barkeep travels from the future to steal the baby after she is born, and he then takes her back in time to the year 1945, and leaves her at an orphanage, so that she can start growing up from the year 1945. The Barkeep takes John to the year 1985, where he becomes a counter-terror agent. In 1992 John encounters the Fizzle Bomber, and his face is maimed in an explosion. John now looks totally different — he has the face of the Barkeep. He acquires a time machine from his employer, and retires, traveling back to the year 1970 where he bases himself, to await the younger John, and fulfill the above cycle of events. Barkeep John returns to his time in the future, and at some point in the 21st century encounters the Fizzle Bomber again, but this time he sees that it is himself, much older, with grey hair and a beard. He vows that he will never become a terrorist and shoots the Fizzle Bomber on the spot. The movie ends with the clear implication that he will eventually become the Fizzle Bomber, as he is being slowly driven crazy by all the jumps he has taken through time.

Here’s how it maps out:

 

I don’t think any writer has ever outdone Heinlein on this concept — that four people of different genders can be the same person in four different time periods, and all from the same (closed) time stream. The filmmakers adapted it superbly.

2. Timecrimes (2007). A rustic Spanish countryside isn’t a typical setting for a time travel story, and the novelty is refreshing. A man named Hector travels back one hour in time, and then does so again, so that there are three versions of himself for the duration of that hour. During that hour, the second and third versions of himself uphold the initial sequence of events, sometimes intentionally, sometimes by accident. The only exception is when the third version of Hector tries to kill the second version (thinking that he’s protecting his wife from himself), but fails in the attempt. Everything plays out as before, and nothing is changed. It’s a fatalist drama of the single time stream, but it delivers plenty of surprises nonetheless.

The key is to understand that throughout the film there are always three Hectors in the hour duration. Hector 3 was always in the background, plotting his shenanigans against Hector 2. He fails to kill Hector 2, but he does injure him (as he himself had been injured in the same way), which causes Hector 2 to bandage his face and enter the forest with a woman whom he assaults. This prompts Hector 1 to investigate, which is what we see towards the start of the film: The first version of Hector sits on his house lawn looking into the forest with a pair of binoculars; he sees a woman being attacked by a “stranger” in a head bandage, and so goes to investigate, gets stabbed by the “stranger” (who is himself), and then flees up the forest path. He comes to an isolated shed where a scientist has created a time travel bath. The bath can only send people back in time for as long as it has been turned on, and Hector 1 hides inside it, not knowing what it is, and gets sent back in time one hour, where he becomes Hector 2. And so forth. The following diagram maps out the hour’s events:

 

What’s interesting is that Hectors 2 and 3 go out of their way to uphold the original events they’ve experienced (with the single exception of Hector 3’s failed attempt to kill Hector 2). On some level, the Hectors understand that changing time, if it were even possible, would wreak havoc by killing his own self. There is brilliant tragedy in the way Hector 2 finally returns home still bandaged and accidentally causes his wife (or who appears to be his wife from a distance) to fall off the roof of their house and die. This is why he goes back in time again, to become Hector 3: to kill Hector 2, even though this would result in his own death. Hector 3 fails, but he manages to save his wife by sacrificing another innocent woman in her place — who of course was really the one killed all along. Timecrimes is an underappreciated effort, and my second favorite of the closed loop model.

3. The Terminator (1984). Forget the lousy sequels — and yes, I’m including Terminator 2 in that indictment — the first is the only good one. Not surprisingly, it’s also the only one that forms a singular timeline in which nothing changes. In the far future, machines have taken over the world and are warring on humankind. A man named John Connor leads the resistance against them, and he stands a good chance of turning the tide. The machines become desperate, and decide to send back a terminator in time, to kill John Connor’s mother in the year 1984, so that she will never give birth to John — a preemptive abortion, in effect, before she even gets pregnant. However, the humans in the future learn what the machines are trying, and so they too send back a man, Kyle Reese, to protect Sarah Connor from being assassinated by the terminator. It turns out that Reese is John Connor’s father, but Reese doesn’t know this. In the past, while protecting Sarah against the terminator, he falls in love with her and gets her pregnant. The terminator eventually kills him, and Sarah succeeds in killing the terminator. Sarah knows she will have to teach her son someday that he is destined to lead the war against the machines, and that he will have to send Kyle Reese back to protect her, so that he (John) can be born. The spare robot parts left behind by the dead terminator ensured that machine technology will evolve in such a way that will allow the machines to take over some day. All of this forms a closed loop: neither past nor future is changed.

Unfortunately, the franchise ruined a good thing (as franchises often do), serving up sequel after sequel in which history changes in cheesy and non-compelling ways. In Terminator 2 we learn that the arm and chip of the first terminator technology was improved dramatically. Most significantly, the protagonists are able stop the apocalypse of Judgment Day — which means that not only will John Connor never lead a war against the machines (in the present timeline), he will never have been born (in any future timelines), since he has no reason to send Kyle Reese back in time. Films 3-5 try salvaging new drama from this, and the result is a mess. Here’s the plotting of all five films:

It’s not that there is anything wrong with the multiple timeline approach — as I explain below, I actually think it’s the superior model — only that the Terminator franchise didn’t use it well; the stories of T2-5 are lame. Let’s look now at the better ways the model has been used.

B. Multiple Timelines (Changing History)

Changing history is fun and offers high-stakes drama, but it’s hard to do right by. Most filmmakers blunder at some point. The idea is simple enough: the act of time travel automatically changes the past and forces the universe on to a different trajectory. It creates a new timeline, or an alternate history, a new causal chain, or a parallel universe — whatever you want to call it (see right diagram). Because it is a new timeline, it operates independently of the original one. That last part is what often gets muddled.

The most celebrated example of this model is Back to the Future (1985). Marty McFly goes back in time, and when he returns to the present, he finds that his parents are much more enjoyable people. For the most part the logistics are handled well, but there are some silly elements, as when for example Marty’s body starts to fade as he intervenes in the past, and starts to prevent his parents from falling in love. This misses the whole point of new time streams. Marty can’t possibly erase himself, because he comes from a time stream in which those threats to his existence never happened. If his parents don’t hook up, all that means is that there won’t be a version of himself born in the new timeline; it has no bearing on any versions of himself in or from other timelines.

Another fan favorite is Looper (2012), a thriller about time-traveling hit men. As a film it’s pretty good, but it gets hopelessly lost up its ass in mixing the two models. On the one hand, sending someone to the past creates a new timeline. On the other hand, that new timeline is treated as singular and closed, as when we see older versions of time travelers effected by what’s happening to their younger counterparts. So for example, when Young Joe carves “Beatrix” into his arm, it instantly appears on Old Joe as a scar. The problem is that Looper is supposed to be about a closed time loop when it’s really about a malleable future. On top of that, Joe’s sacrifice at the end is for nothing, because it won’t necessarily do anything to stop the Rainmaker’s creation. Looper does okay as a dramatic thriller, but it fails as a time travel story.

Here are two films which use the multiple timelines model flawlessly. And they’re excellent drama besides.

1. Deja Vu (2006). Arguably Tony Scott’s best film, Deja Vu is a film I could talk about all day. One critic has called it a digital version of Vertigo, for the way it explores obsession, fractured identity, and time travel. Considering the terrorist theme, Déjà Vu is surprisingly apolitical, and unlike Scott’s other films (like Man on Fire), it finds its solution not in revenge, but in the obsessive desire to go back in time and prevent the whole thing from happening — to save hundreds of lives, especially the one person you can’t stop thinking about, even if you don’t stand much chance of surviving the trip. Who else to play such a hero than Denzel Washington?

Denzel is Doug Carlin, a law official who has been recruited by a team of government agents who use a time machine to look into the past and solve difficult crimes. But Doug’s ambitions exceed theirs, and he persuades them to use the machine for time traveling purposes, so as to change events and prevent a ferry bombing from ever happening. First he sends a note back to himself, and when that fails (doing far more harm than good), he sends himself back, saving Claire and the hundreds of people from being killed.

People have criticized Deja Vu as if it aspires to the single timeline model. They say it’s impossible for Doug to have gone back in time, because he ends up saving the day. Since he prevents the ferry explosion, there is no crime to investigate, and so he will never be recruited by the surveillance team who use the time machine, and will never be sent back in time; the new future isn’t the old one. That’s missing the colossal point. The new future isn’t supposed to be the old one. Doug changed the past in order to save lives. This isn’t the predestination model; it’s the multiverse model, and the film clearly telegraphs that when the team of scientists debate the nature of time, and Shanti starts talking about divergent time streams.

Here’s a map of the time streams in Deja Vu:

It’s an excellent map, though hard to read; you have to click on it twice, then scroll around. I’ll summarize the timelines, and highlight in blue the events we see play out in the film.

There need to be at least four streams to account for all the nuances in Deja Vu, though there could obviously be more; we simply don’t know how many times Doug had to send himself back in time until he finally saved the day. But at a bare minimum:

  • In Timeline 1, the terrorist calls Claire about the availability of her Bronco van on Sunday evening, but because she can’t meet his deadline, he buys a Blazer van from someone else instead. He uses the Blazer to blow up the ferry Tuesday morning at 10:50 AM, and Claire remains safe and alive in this timeline. When Doug comes on the scene, he is recruited by the team with the time machine, and they use the machine to send a note back in time, to warn himself about the ferry bomber who is casing the ferry early Monday morning. Sending back this note in time creates Timeline 2.
  • In Timeline 2, the terrorist calls Claire about the availability of her Bronco on Sunday evening, but because she can’t meet his deadline, he buys a Blazer from someone else instead, just as in Timeline 1. However, the note sent by Doug to himself from the future (in Timeline 1) arrives on his desk early Monday morning around 4:00 AM, and his partner Larry sees it. Larry takes action and goes to the ferry, where the terrorist shoots him, but not before Larry puts enough bullet holes in the Blazer that causes the terrorist to seek out Claire after all. On Tuesday morning he steals Claire’s Bronco, kidnaps her, takes her to his house, and then kills her, burning her alive and dumping her in the river. He then uses the Bronco to blow up the ferry at 10:50 AM. When Doug comes on the scene, he goes to the coroner’s and sees Claire’s body (not in a red dress), and when he investigates her home, there is no message for him on the fridge. As in Timeline 1, he and his team use the time machine to send a note back in time, to warn himself about the ferry bomber casing the ferry early Monday morning. But later, he also demands that he be sent back in time (to Monday evening), so that he can try to save Claire. Sending back the note and himself creates Timeline 3.
  • In Timeline 3, the events start out exactly as in Timeline 2, but now Future Doug (from Timeline 2) arrives in a hospital on Monday night at 7:00 PM, where he is barely resuscitated. He wakes up on Tuesday morning at 8:05 AM, steals an ambulance, and goes to the terrorist’s home; he rescues Claire but gets shot by the terrorist, who gets away in Claire’s Bronco. Future Doug then takes Claire back to her house, where she changes into a red dress, and helps bandage him. In case he fails, he writes a message to himself on the fridge: “u can save her”. He leaves Claire at the house and goes to the ferry alone at 9:45 AM. The terrorist returns to Claire’s house, kills her, and dumps her body in the river. He then proceeds to the ferry, where Future Doug fails to stop him and is killed. The terrorist uses the Bronco to blow up the ferry at 10:50 AM. When Doug — Present Doug, who belongs to this timeline, and the Doug we first see in the film — comes on the scene, he goes to the coroner’s and sees Claire’s body, in a red dress, and when he investigates her home, there is a message left by his future self (from Timeline 2), saying “u can save her”. As before, he and his team use the time machine to send a note back in time, to warn himself about the ferry bomber casing the ferry early Monday morning. Later, he demands that he be sent back in time (to Monday evening), so that he can try to save Claire. Sending back the note and himself creates Timeline 4.
  • In Timeline 4, the events proceed exactly as in Timeline 3, up to the point that Future Doug (from Timeline 3) rescues Claire and takes her back to her house, where she changes into a red dress, helps bandage him, and he leaves the note to himself on the fridge. But this time he does not leave Claire at the house; he takes her with him at 9:45 AM to the ferry, even though he doesn’t want to. He does this because he remembers seeing the blood swabs in Claire’s trash bins in Timeline 3, which look exactly like his own right now from being bandaged; he realizes that if he doesn’t do something different, or against what he wants to do, events will simply repeat as before. The terrorist goes back to Claire’s house to kill her, but she isn’t there. He then proceeds to the ferry, where Future Doug and Claire both stop him and save the day, though Doug is killed in the process. The film ends at this point: The new Present Doug comes on the scene, and he will have no crime to investigate and so will not be recruited by the surveillance team. He won’t see the clues left for him by his future self on Claire’s fridge; and he won’t need them. In saving the day, his future self finally closed the loop. All he will have to account for is a dead body — his own — when it is found. He sees Claire on the ferry and gets an odd feeling of deja vu, as if they’ve met before.

That’s how you write a good time travel story. And it raises interesting questions about the phenomenon of deja vu. When we experience it, is it because we’re “remembering” things that happened or are happening to ourselves in different time streams in different ways?

2. Primer (2004). It’s the most realistic time travel film ever made, and not surprisingly, since it was scripted by a scientist. The plot centers around two young geniuses, Aaron and Abe, who accidentally create a time machine in their garage. They can use the machine to go into the past, but only as far back as when the machine was first turned on. This is actually how a time machine would probably work if we ever succeeded in creating one. A physics professor at the University of Connecticut, Ronald Mallett, has been trying to create a device like this for years now — by using a series of circulating laser beams that swirl into a time tunnel. Walking into this tunnel would allow someone to go back in time, as long as it was to a point after the machine was switched on. So if you turned on the machine on September 1 and left it continually running to December 31, you could go back four months, but no more. That’s how the time machine works in Primer, and also how the time bath works in Timecrimes, which I covered above.

The first time Aaraon and Abe use the machine, they go back six hours (which takes six hours to do, sitting in the box of the machine), and make good money for themselves in stock trades since they know how the market will perform. That’s the easy trip to understand, shown in the first chart below. By the end of the film, things have become so complex that it’s virtually impossible to keep up with all the multiple versions of the characters intersecting multiple timelines. To understand the full picture — which may take four or five viewings — click on the larger chart below the first one.

 

 

The logistics in Primer are handled with an incredible level of precision, and even if you can never keep all the details straight, it’s an amazing viewing experience, one that I keep finding myself drawn back to.

Anything goes?

It’s worth noting that while the multiverse theory is the one increasingly embraced by scientists, for others it seems like an inelegant solution. Steven Lloyd Wilson is one such curmudgeon, expressing his dislike as follows:

“While the multiple timelines model has the appeal of being logically consistent, it has a glaring problem. It’s a brute force hammer of solving the problem, like multiplying by zero to demonstrate both sides of the equation are equal. It’s just plain inelegant. It also has the story flaw of essentially rendering time travel moot. If anything that can happen, has happened in an alternate timeline, then the actions of the characters do not matter one bit. Going back in time and killing Hitler as a baby doesn’t change anything, because there is still an original timeline in which he doesn’t die.”

I fail to see how time travel is rendered moot by the fact that there are other timelines — millions of them, probably — in which events proceed either slightly differently or very differently. This is what scientists talk about all the time, even aside from the question of time travel. And to say that the actions of the characters don’t matter is nonsense. If I can go back and save the life of a friend by creating a new reality, that obviously matters to me. I don’t care how many alternate realities there are in which my friend dies, because I’m able to experience the new reality in which he lives. The actions of the characters matter to themselves, even if they don’t matter to critics like Wilson who want the “elegance” of all time streams producing the same result (which is ridiculous). Or as Doug Carlin says in Deja Vu, “You can be wrong a million times, but you only have to be right once.”

I believe the multiple timelines model is the superior model. It’s the harder one to nail down and make dramatically effective, but when done right, the result is sublime.

C. The Repeated Loop (The Do-Over)

In the do-over, scenarios are repeated until the protagonist triggers a reset, usually by dying, going to sleep, or getting knocked unconscious. The protagonist then wakes up and repeats the scenario again, making different choices, until he or she can finally escape the loop.

For whatever reason, do-overs are often saturated with comedy. Perhaps it’s because repeating yourself over and over again is something you have to roll with and play for laughs in order to keep your wits. In Groundhog Day (1993), the Bill Murray character relives the same day over again, until he finally obtains love and happiness. In The Edge of Tomorrow (2014), Tom Cruise gets dropped on the field of battle after brutal training sessions, continually killed and reset until he destroys a monster alien. In Happy Death Day (2017), the Jessica Rothe character keeps waking up on her birthday and getting murdered later in the day, until she figures out who the killer is (her sorority roommate). In all of these examples, the tone asks us to not take the story too seriously.

My favorite examples of the do-over are one that almost no one has heard of, and another that everyone knows.

1. All the Time in the World (2017). This episode from Dark Matter (season 3, episode 4) runs the gamut with hilarious comedy, emotional poignancy, and dark tragedy. For my money, it’s the best do-over ever scripted. One of the Raza’s crew members starts living the same day over and over again, and half the battle is trying to convince his fellow crew members that they are caught in the same loop, even though he’s the only one who can remember reliving the events. They never believe him, even though he can predict every little thing each one of them is about to say and do. Finally he persuades the ship’s android to teach him French, so that when the crew hear him speak a language he’s never known or studied, they’ll start taking him seriously. There is also a serious side to this episode, as the crew are able to use his foreknowledge of the day’s events to foil an attack on the ship. And once the source of the time loop is discovered (a device confiscated from a scientist), the android tries an experiment, and in the process, she experiences a tragic future where all the crew are dead except the girl Five, who is now aged and offers dire prophecies. Five also tells the android how to break the time loop. I have made a video-clip of Three’s French tutorial and his hilarious breakthrough in persuading Two. And also the end clip — Five’s doomsday prophecy of the far future — for a complete switch in tone.

2. A Christmas Carol (1843). Dickens’ classic is a variation of the do-over. Scrooge gets to visit the future of his current timeline, and even though he can’t affect the timeline directly, he observes things which allow him to change his actions in the present. So instead of the timeline he’s on which results in Tiny Tim’s death, he’s able to make a different choice, and create a new timeline in which Tiny Tim lives. A Christmas Carol is probably the best do-over ever written, though few people think of it as a time-travel story.

D. The Universe Fights Back

This is technically a multiple timelines model, because it is possible to change the past. But doing so results in cosmic disaster. The universe resists any attempts to reorder it, and nasty shit happens when those attempts succeed. That implicitly appeals to the single timeline model: the timeline “must be protected from change” at all costs — or else.

A famous example is Stephen King’s 11/22/63, in which Jake Epping goes back to prevent JFK from being assassinated. He finds it extremely hard to do; the closer he draws to saving Kennedy, things work strangely against him. He manages to save Kennedy, but the world eventually goes to hell as it’s torn apart by world wars. It’s a fatalist view, and a lot like the single time stream model: the past is destined to stay the past; if it doesn’t, then calamity rains down. So Jake undoes his mistake and allows JFK to die after all; this gets the universe back on track.

It’s a silly idea — that the cosmos would “care” about altered events so as to “react” against them — but it produces potent drama if done right. As in this story:

Father’s Day (2005). The plot is simple, and the resolution predictable, but only in way the tragedy often is; the drama is brilliant, and the acting Oscar-worthy. Rose persuades the Doctor to take her back in time to when her father was killed by a motorist, and despite being forbidden to alter the past, she saves him anyway, ushering in Doomsday. Everywhere on earth people are suddenly assaulted by Reapers, winged parasites that act like antibodies, destroying everything in wounded time until the paradox is gone. Rose’s father, realizing he should be dead, sacrifices himself to get the world back on its proper course.

As I said, the premise is silly, and it doesn’t help that script writer Paul Cornell can’t seem to decide whether he wants his story to be a multiple timeline or single. In a scathing review of Father’s Day, Martin Izsak writes:

“People today don’t seem to appreciate how ridiculous it is to try to protect a past timeline as if it’s the only one in existence, and will let the boogeyman out of the closet if it’s messed with. You can experience as many other versions [of a person, or an event] as you can time-travel back to, and it would be nearly impossible to make all the ‘right’ choices to re-live any of them exactly as you remember them. So the Doctor, sadly, makes an ass of himself trying to defend Cornell’s model of time, and rightly gets tripped up when Rose confronts him for being hypocritical about the heroics he proudly displays in almost every other setting he lands in… I officially present Father’s Day with the Wooden Turkey Award for being the stinker of the 2005 Doctor Who season.”

I actually believe that Father’s Day holds up as one of the best Doctor Who episodes of all time, despite the accuracy of Izsak’s criticisms.

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.

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

Click for video

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.

Click for video

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).