Review: Stranger Things Season 1, Episode 6

Producer(s): Karl Gajdusek, Cindy Holland, Brian Wright, Matt Thunell, Shawn Levy, Dan Cohen, Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Iain Paterson, Shannon Tsang
Director(s): The Duffer Brothers
Writer(s): Jessie Nickson-Lopez
Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Noah Schnapp, Joe Keery, Matthew Modine
Distributor: Netflix
Genre: Science Fiction, Horror, Supernatural
Rating: TV14+

After having pitched their show to most of the major cable networks and being rejected by all of them, the Duffer brothers started to doubt their future in television. It wasn’t until executive producer Shawn Levy came across the pitch script of the first episode in early 2015 that things started moving, and quickly. After purchasing the rights to the show, yet still keeping the Duffer Brothers in charge of writing, the team met with Netflix, who had just come off of a wave of hit original series (House of Cards, Orange is the New Black). It didn’t take long for Netflix to order the first season and production began with a 2016 target. The show is now heading into its third season and has become a cultural phenomenon.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: None.
Violence: A bully threatens other kids with a knife, at one point holding the blade to one’s throat. An arm is broken – not graphic – but the sound is heard.
Language/Crude humor: A**hole. Sh*t, Queer, D*mn, slut (written), and B*tch are all used, some multiple. It’s like they’re trying to hit for the cycle.
Sexual Content: A character is shown in the shower, though nothing is seen.
Drug/alcohol use: Cigarette smoking.
Other negative themes: Some pretty obvious child abuse in flashback scenes. Nothing physical. Mostly manipulation.
Positive Content: Being there for the people you care about, even if they’ve not been there for you.

Recap

The episode begins with the continuation of Nancy’s upside-down exploration, which apparently consists of Nancy and Jonathan screaming at each other across dimensions. Thankfully, the demogorgon is occupied for the time being, because the welcome would only be pleasant for one party. After Jonathan pulls Nancy out of the tree portal and the intro credits roll, we are placed in the car of king Steve and friends. Worried after the soft rejection he received last episode, Steve decides to check in on Nancy. The trip does not go as planned however, as Steve pulls a Jonathan and peeks through the window to see, funnily enough, Jonathan comforting Nancy. Quickly assumptions are made, and teenage angst is brought to the surface as if we’re watching High School Musical. The plot thickens.

The teens aren’t the only ones having fun. Hopper and Joyce, after agreeing the body found at the quarry was not Will’s, and also coming to the conclusion a second child may be in the mix, share what they know and plan their next move. As they do so, Jonathan and Nancy prepare for a sleepover. Traumatized by what she saw in the upside-down, Nancy is understandably uneasy about being alone. Jonathan agrees to stay close by to help ease her, as well as himself, and sets up on the floor. The floor though is not close enough to calm her, so Nancy calls Jonathan up to her bed, setting the gun between them. It is here we learn Jonathan sleeps with his watch on.

Mike Wheeler sulks alone in his basement, staring in frustration at the makeshift bed he had set up for Eleven. It stares back, as if to patronize him, and in a display which definitely does not look like someone is acting, Mike attacks the bed, giving it exactly what it wanted. We are spared the sight of further thrashing as the show cuts away to Hopper and Joyce, who are investigating Dr. Brenner’s past. A woman named Terry Ives, who Hopper learned of in an earlier episode, was connected to experiments Brenner had run some years before. Terry had accused Brenner of taking her child from her, which gave the Sheriff his best lead.

Before we get to follow the building investigation, we are taken back to the only teen in Hawkins who got any sleep that night, Jonathan. Nancy was never going to sleep after her trip to the upside-down, and knowing this, she instead decided to do some research on predator behaviors in animals. A normal thing to do when sleep deprived. Determining their only move now is to find the creature again for Will and Barb’s sakes, they decide the best way to attract it again is through blood, comparing the demogorgon’s hunting to a shark. When the breakfast call comes to the door, the pair decide it’s time to head out before they’re caught.

In a quick scene, the lab sends an agent to pose as an AV club promoter to the boys’ teacher Mr. Clark in order to get closer to Eleven, which smoothly transitions to Dustin arriving at Mike’s house in the hopes of reconciling his friends. Both Mike and Lucas blame each other for various things, with Eleven at the center of most of it. Despite Dustin’s attempts to help both of his friends see their errors, neither are willing to find middle ground, especially where Eleven is concerned. Speaking of Eleven, it is here we get thirty seconds of another flashback from her time at the lab, with the remainder coming during an eggo heist. The flashback scene shows the opening of the portal as El encounters the demogorgon in her largest display of power yet.

Upon locating Terry Ives, Hopper and Joyce discover due to trauma and drugs used in tests, the woman is unable to communicate with them, though they learn this after a rapid-fire line of questioning without pausing for answers, leaving her sister to fill the pair in on what happened during Terry’s time with Brenner. Prospects look grim as the two leave empty-handed.

With the DnD troupe split, two quests are taken up at the same time. Dustin and Mike start a search for Eleven, while Lucas tries a second time to follow the compass to find the portal. The aftermath of the eggo heist lets the duo know El isn’t far away. Another duo is preparing for their own mission in town, purchasing several not at all concerning products. Nancy and Jonathan’s shopping list includes ammo, bear traps, nails, and lighter fluid, among other things. All of these required to play monster hunter as Nancy puts it. It’s here Nancy learns of Steve’s tantrum, writing obscene things about her on the local theater sign in town. This prompts a confrontation between the two, which soon includes Jonathan, and then escalates into a beat down of Steve at the hands of his party photographer. Responding impressively quick, the police arrest Jonathan with Nancy following as a plus one while Steve and his friends flee the scene.

Switching back to Eleven, we catch the shoplifter at the end of a massive eggo binge. Several boxes. Heists make one hungry. As El finishes her months worth of frozen waffles in one sitting, she hears the boys calling, but she’s not the only one. The school bullies have come for revenge, and the lead bully brought a knife because following other kids for revenge isn’t evil enough on its own. It doesn’t take long for the boys to get caught, and the lead bully threatens Dustin with harm if Mike doesn’t jump off the cliff overlooking the lake where the fake body of Will was found. It’s a fall guaranteed to kill. In order to save his friend, Mike steps off the ledge, only to be pulled back up through the air by Eleven, who then promptly breaks the lead bully’s arm causing both to flee.

The use of her power takes the energy out of El, and she falls to the ground. It’s here El admits tearfully it was her who opened the portal, calling herself a monster. Mike rejects this immediately, telling her a monster would not have saved his life, and the three of them embrace. As this happens, Lucas discovers the lab is the source of the magnetic pull. This discovery prompts him to climb into a tree with a view and investigate with binoculars. The young sleuth’s roll continues as he finds the fake electric company vans the lab has been using as cover. One of these vans is parked outside of the Wheelers’ home, which alerts home base when Mike, Eleven, and Dustin arrive, causing the entire lab to rush into action, heading to capture the three kids who are unaware of the coming danger.

Review

How do the portals work? I kept asking myself this as the episode went on, because there are never any rules or explanations given to establish their function. The assumption could be once Eleven opened the first gateway, the Demogorgon was then able to travel between the upside-down and the right-side-up at will, but this doesn’t seem to fit what Mr. Clark explained when he described the amount of energy needed to create these gates. How can the Demogorgon create these doors so easily, and quietly, as well as seemingly whenever it wants? Have the rules changed now that the main gate was opened? Possible answers may come, but I’m starting to notice many questions within the show are left to plot convenience. This one, though slightly annoying, is a bit more forgivable than others.

The episode showcased some of the best and worst performances in the series to this point. There were several awkwardly handled scenes: Mike’s tantrum, Lucas’ stiff pacing, Joyce’s “Jane” line at Terry’s house, as well as Hopper and Joyce’s initial questioning of Terry all stand out as examples, becoming even more noticeable due to the high quality of performances thus far. On the other hand, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, and Joe Keery each gave convincing showings, particularly during their confrontation scene. One moment, though played well, struck me as off. I had trouble believing either Joyce or Jonathan would have been okay with being apart for a night given everything going on. Joyce especially, already having one missing child, seemed pretty cool with not knowing where Jonathan was overnight. Having encountered the demogorgon, I doubt Jonathan would be fine with leaving his mother alone knowing she has had more than one run in with the creature. The whole situation was odd.

With so few episodes left in the season, it is hard to tell a climax is coming. The episode, though not without its moments, does move fairly slow. There is plenty of set up happening, but much of it feels only half explained or rushed. For example, Nancy coming to the conclusion the demogorgon is drawn out by blood was a pretty interesting jump. There are hints, but not enough for Nancy to make such a definitive statement. Eleven’s opening of the gate, though a great moment in the episode, isn’t really clear on how Eleven is even able to connect between dimensions in the first place. Much like Hopper’s survival of his lab visit, many events just seem to conveniently happen as they need to.

Finally, it seems a bit overkill to send basically an entire army to grab Eleven. The lab soldiers are pretty armed for a mission which requires them to bring the girl in alive. Wouldn’t a stealthy approach be best, especially after expending so much effort to keep the lab’s movements hidden? Hopper’s survival being the exception. A giant shootout against El’s powers in the middle of a neighborhood doesn’t sound like the best option. I’m sure a tranquilizer would work well enough. At the very least, an attempt at stealth would be better than having to somehow cover up the disappearances of more kids, because I assume Mike and Dustin would get into trouble. Also, why isn’t the lab watching Hopper, or Joyce for that matter? The two finding Terry Ives should be a massive red flag for them, despite the fact they learned very little. This is the most incompetent secret lab I’ve ever seen, and they deserve to be taken down for that reason alone.

The Bottom Line

Strange choices in the writers' room concerning the Lab's movements, as well as some awkward acting, hold the episode back despite some good moments.

 

6.6

Isaiah Kaufman

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