Tuesday, October 31, 2017

REVIEW: 'Stranger Things' - Dustin Makes a New Discovery While Eleven Bends the Rules in 'Chapter Three: The Pollywog'

Netflix's Stranger Things - Episode 2.03 "Chapter Three: The Pollywog"

Dustin adopts a strange new pet, and Eleven grows increasingly impatient. A well-meaning Bob urges Will to stand up to his fears.

Stranger Things makes some questionable creative decisions throughout "Chapter Three: The Pollywog." Decisions that show that the drama may not be subverting the conventions and expectations of this particular genre as much as the creative team thinks it is. In fact, it highlights how thin and plot driven many of these characters actually are. Every character is basically only defined by how they relate to the plot. None of them really have solid character moments of growth that highlight how they have grown since the first season. It's still a fascinating story. But every character beat feels like it is pretty predictable and only occurs in order to create awkward moments that move the plot forward. That's never a strong way to tell stories in this medium. It highlights how the main characters may not have actually learned anything from the first time around. This hour relies on the main group of friends still being curious about the scientific unknown despite everything that occurred a year ago in the Upside Down. The show wants to say that the trauma of that story is still having a major effect on these characters. But the narrative this season has largely split its characters into two groups. The first are characters like Mike and Will who are so severely traumatized by the events of Season 1 that it's all they can do. The second are characters like Dustin, Lucas and Max who either don't know what happened in Season 1 or haven't been changed because of it and are thus repeating the same mistakes. It's something the show can get away with because of the charisma and strength of the performances. But the repetition and stalling techniques are starting to become incredibly annoying.

And so, the audience just has to accept that Dustin will bring the pollywog - as he first calls it - into his home and has a curiosity to explore what it is. He's keeping it a secret from his mother. He's sharing it with his friends and truly believes that he has discovered an unknown animal. He believes it to be this scientific breakthrough where he should get all of the credit. He sees this creature as reptilian without acting the way biology says it should. Instead, it is traumatized by light and is growing at a rapid rate. He officially calls it D'artagnan - or Dart for shot. But it just miraculously never crosses any of these kids' minds that this creature could come from the Upside Down or Hawkins Laboratories? Max even makes a comment about a scientist conducting an experiment in this small town and his creature escaping. That does nothing. Even Will seems to be repressing his information about the Upside Down for awhile. It's not in the first interaction with Dart that Will speaks up about the creature he spit out at the end of the first season. In the end, he only tells Mike about that. But it still feels like a story where the plot is dictating the actions of the characters instead of the characters themselves. That's an annoying trait that only gets worse over the course of this hour.

Because of course, Dart then goes missing at the school. Mike, Will, Dustin and Lucas are discussing what's the proper way to handle Dart knowing everything that they know. They have to lock Max out of the room because they literally can't tell her what happened last year. That seems to be a significant theme of this season. The characters have a desire to share the supernatural experiences they had but are unable to do so out of fear of further destruction to their family lives. They don't want to hurt anyone else because of their experiences with Eleven and the Upside Down. It's just a little too crippling to the main narrative as well. Right now, the story is presenting Hawkins Labs as this omnipresent agency. They are listening in on every call that is being made so that they can maintain a lid on the secrets they have in the building. Nancy seemingly wants to use that in order to get the truth out there. But it seems very unlikely that her Radio Shack-boosted plan will ultimately work. Meanwhile, Max doesn't know any better. She sees these guys as being weird and purposefully keeping secrets from her for strange reasons. But she is nothing more than a "not your typical girl" stereotype. She can pick locks and set Dart free. That's the action that creates the intensity for the second half of this episode because the guys can't let anyone else see Dart.

All of this is playing parallel to Eleven's own desire to escape her confinement. This hour continues to showcase the life she was living out in the woods before Hopper found her and offered her safety in his cabin. He believes he is doing the noble thing in being the parent she desperately needs right now. He's keeping her safe because he understands the pressure she is under as a fugitive. He knows that the scientists at Hawkins Labs are still on the lookout for her while there is the journalist in town thinking she's connected to a Russian conspiracy. This episode reveals the time spent fixing up that cabin and establishing the rules that Hopper needs Eleven to live by. Except it's a sequence where the show introduces the rules just so Eleven can break them in the present. Of course, these rules aren't all that surprising. He wants her to keep the windows covered at all times, to only unlock the door for him and to never venture outside the cabin during the day. Those aren't surprising given the living arrangement Eleven has been in for the first two episodes of the season. But it's a familiar way to highlight how she is the rebellious teenager who wants to reunite with her friends. It's an act of defiance that she steps out the door and beyond the trip wire to find Mike in real life. She's tired of hiding out in this cabin. She's ready to experience the world once more and views Hopper as someone who only continues to lie to her. He lies that she'll be able to escape and have a normal life soon. But he honestly doesn't know that. Nor does he understand how limiting this cabin really is for Eleven.

This all seems like it is building to the grand reunion between Mike and Eleven. The season has done a strong job in establishing the longing the two of them feel for each other. They met only for a brief time last season. But their lives have been forever changed by the other. Eleven learned so much about the real world through Mike. She still values his lesson of friends never lying. Meanwhile, Mike was amazed by all that Eleven could do and continues to view any newcomer as a threat to that void in his life. But all of this is confirmation that the show presents these main characters as specific archetypes from their favorite movies and board games. Mike sees his group of friends as lining up perfectly with the Ghostbusters or the qualities they embrace in Dungeons and Dragons. It's all very literal for him. As such, he views Eleven as the female badass who came in and changed everything with her magic. He only wants to view Max that way as well despite her being somewhat different. He doesn't want to connect with her because he thinks it's a betrayal to have two friends who happen to be girls. It's lame and weird. The show is propping it up in the end. It highlights how this reunion doesn't happen between Mike and Eleven because she happens to spot him as he's having a conversation with Max in the gym. They are arguing about the place they belong in for this group. He teases that Eleven is magical and Max doesn't understand that. She experiences the effects of Eleven's powers. But just as quickly as Eleven appears, she is gone. Her grand escape has been ruined because she perceives Mike as having moved on. It's a case of miscommunication that is just awkward. It's a familiar plot construct that is just really lame and predictable in order to increase the melodrama moving forward.

Furthermore, this should be the episode that definitively proves that Will really is returning to the Upside Down in brief flashes and isn't just experiencing PTSD. And yet, the show refuses to offer a ton of clarity with that story. It just wants to tease it out so that other characters can still make mistakes in their handling of it. But it's harder for the show to justify that moving forward because of the reveals that happen in this episode. Bob mentions that some kids were bullying Will on Halloween to Joyce. He knows that because there is camera footage. In pausing that footage though, Joyce can see the monster from the Upside Down that has been plaguing Will. It once again makes her little more than the frazzled and concerned mother. That's a characteristic she has yet to escape from even though Bob marvels at how she punches back at the bullies in life. Meanwhile, the episode ends with Will taking Bob's advice to stand up to the monsters tormenting him. It's not wrong for Bob to believe this is just silly childhood trauma that can be forced away. He means well but has a lack of understanding when it comes to what happened to Will. And so, Will standing up to the monster is what leads him to being captured by it. That's an ominous final note for the hour. One that should have consequences. But it still seems inevitable that the show will use this moment to create more uncertainty instead of providing some sane answers to what's really going on this season.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Chapter Three: The Pollywog" was written by Justin Doble and directed by Shawn Levy.
  • Hopper is probably correct in saying that whatever is happening to the fields of crops in this community is coming from whatever is going on in Hawkins Laboratories. He confronts Owens with this information who basically shuts it down in saying that everything is fine. He doesn't even want to be open to the idea that something more dangerous may be happening in this community. But he is still running the experiments for Hopper.
  • Of course, Owens is there when Hopper gets the message that Eleven has escaped the cabin. He knows the seriousness of that. He knows that these scientists would still like to get Eleven back and run experiments on her skills. So, it's a dangerous time for Eleven to be out in this community. But Hopper is racing to save her. He's just not successful by the end of this episode.
  • Nancy and Steve's breakup seems to stick. She doesn't remember it at all. She believes they fought but Steve still drove her home. Instead, he points out it was Jonathan, her other boyfriend. Again, this love triangle has no more nuance now than it did a year ago even though Steve is a significantly better character.
  • So, does Nancy call Barb's mom in order to get on the radar of the scientists from the government? What exactly is her plan here other than giving some false hope to Barb's mother once more? She wants to share the truth. It just seems like there is so much potential for it to backfire on her - with Jonathan being the only one who knows what she's up to.
  • Also, Max and Billy aren't actually related. Billy tells the girl who has fallen into his orbit that Max isn't his sister. So, what is actually going on between them? It's still just something the show is barely teasing at this point. It wants the audience to be intrigued. It's just really lame at this moment in time because Billy is such a one-note bully of a character.

As noted in previous reviews from this show, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.