The best way to derail any suspense generated by a pair of tension-building slow-burn cliffhangers is to introduce an inane, pointless side quest for a different character for an hour right in the middle. That’s what Stranger Things does with “The Lost Sister.” It’s like a cold shower after hours of foreplay—separately, both have potential to be good things, but in that order it’s high torture typically reserved for the naughtiest of ancient Greek sinners.
So thorough is the deflation that upon the show’s return to its main plotline, in “The Mind Flayer,” it takes the entire episode to get back to the same level of anticipation and satisfaction at which “The Spy” left off. The random X-Men side story with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) isn’t a terrible piece of standalone sci-fi, but its placement in the schedule clogs up a show meant to be binged with a pilot for an entirely different show right before the season’s climax. Eleven’s Big Adventure to Chicago, which has every right to charm the socks off this Bon Jovi-loving local, simply can’t be appreciated on its own merits.
That isn’t to say it’s a perfect episode damned by the poor arc-writing of the Duffer brothers. There’s still silliness to be had here. Sporadic, wacky editing connects memories to reality, leading Eleven along the psychic breadcrumbs to her lab-sister, Kali (Linnea Berthelsen). Kali and a raggedy group of punk hobo teens (that wouldn’t look out of place in the hipper neighborhoods of 2017 Chicago) finally find out what happened to Baby Jane and decide that she might be useful to their cause.
None of the punks are especially memorable or well-written, often stuck with clichéd bad-boy dialogue like, “Well, well, what do we have here,” or with clichéd bad-boy subversion archetypes like the cuddly muscle. They are transportation, they are warm bodies, they are conversation encouragers. Useless. Not Kali, though.
She, thanks to Berthelsen’s intense performance and the fun effects work around Kali’s illusory superpowers, gives at least a small bit of fun to Eleven’s mutant training montage. Kali’s powers, which manipulate people to see things that aren’t there, mimic the show’s obsession with saturated, curated history. A show dripping with nostalgia and references includes a character who blurs the lines between reality and created memory. The only thing left unexplored is the danger of the latter.
Indoctrination, especially through the erasure of facts and replacement with fantasy, is a difficult thematic pill to swallow when the rest of Stranger Things’ second season is full of faith in those facing hard, unbelievable truths. Pushing all this in a trite, leather-and-eyeliner casing doesn’t make it easier to take, just sadder to watch as it crashes and burns. Do I want Eleven to become an ‘80s punk greaser? Yes, of course. Do I want it to come from a gang of characters that exist purely as script detanglers? Never.
The lifeless moral confirmation here is that, even after a brief crime spree culminating in the confrontation with a scientist who administered unnecessary electroconvulsive therapy to Eleven’s mom, Eleven tries to be a good kid who doesn’t kill for fun. Unlike this episode, which kills time like it’s Donald Trump, Jr. on the last day of hunting season. It introduces seeds for next season—Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) is still alive, there are more superpowered kids with number tattoos—and the contrast between the coping mechanism found in the city’s eye-for-an-eye confrontation and the calmer, slower, yet ultimately healthy healing process offered by its rural counterpart. There’s no need for an episode devoted to these.
There’s also no need to kill Bob (Sean Astin), but this pair of episodes commits that sin as well. After a nice, slow-burn thriller adventure for the lovable (and sweaty) dork, allowing him to save the woman and kids he cares about through nothing but average activities and exceptional courage, the show tears him to shreds. We all knew it was coming, and if we didn’t before “The Mind Flayer”, there was enough meaningful, foreshadowing camera movement to choke a film studies freshman.
But the execution is just as lame as the preamble. It’s weirdly written as an accident, rather than a sacrifice, robbing Bob of any final dignity or heroism. The slow motion is fun, finding formal ways to make us more upset, but nothing feels cheaper than killing a character without any compelling case. But hey, that’s a Barb for ya. Sorry, that’s a Bob for ya.
Coupled with one line of “we can’t let him die in vain” lip service, it turns out the show didn’t need to gallivant off to Chicago to disappoint its lab showdown. Which is a crime, because the multi-episode set piece is one of the most fun things the show has constructed. The shot design takes full advantage of the security footage, flickering shadows, endless hallways, and gory props while the menial tasks driving the action operate with the same tense action grammar as sequences in Jurassic Park and The Thing.
Ending all that with Bob’s death seems like it’s just to mess with Joyce (Winona Ryder), who doesn’t get nice things. Everyone meets up (the Scooby Gang, the junkyard warriors—everyone) only for Joyce’s Nice New People in Her Life counter reset to zero. She’s reduced to her default state of grief, though Ryder delivers nuances of shock, hurt and anger in her offbeat reactions that’re built for GIFs. The things she’s able to do with this character are shocking considering the depth (or lack thereof) the show has given her.
She reaches her peak here, giving a killer mom speech as the inevitable purging of Will (Noah Schnapp) begins, blessing the proceedings with pride, pain and exhaustion. A spooky interrogation of the being manipulating Will begins, aided by another Dungeons and Dragons analogy—this time to the mind flayer. These guys are evil, cruel beings that wipe brains for hivemind slaves—a fact that feels even more ominous considering what we just saw Kali do to a whole precinct of cops.
Taking all that into consideration, all the foreboding power politics and wasted time, and there are still redeeming efforts in these episodes, mostly from the show sticking to its well-established guns. The main party separates from the plot long enough to allow their relationships to breathe, which makes for compelling bits and pieces amid the wreckage.
The squabbling between Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo)—two characters that desperately needed fleshing out—resolves in a mature mirroring of Bob and Hopper (David Harbour). The pair find commonality through passion and care, making it about the girl they care about without accepting as base a blame as sexual jealousy. Mike (Finn Wolfhard), meanwhile, allows the walls of his little badass act fall and he finds the same combination of maturing vulnerability as the other kids. These young actors are able to live in between the facades of adulthood and the emotional openness of childhood, growing towards a conclusion failed by much of the episode’s filmmaking.
But if you don’t get riled up by a Morse Code-driven montage of memory—trapped masculinity sussed out by love and support—and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) catching a rifle, I just don’t know what to do with you. This might’ve been a season low, but even it couldn’t snuff out the excitement mounting for the finale.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.