Monday, November 6, 2017

REVIEW: 'Stranger Things' - Hawkins Needs Heroes to Emerge During Trying Times in 'Chapter Eight: The Mind Flayer'

Netflix's Stranger Things - Episode 2.08 "Chapter Eight: The Mind Flayer"

An unlikely hero steps forward when a deadly development puts the Hawkins Lab on lockdown, trapping Will and several others inside.

There was the fear following "Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister" that the problems of that episode could derail all of the strong momentum happening elsewhere in the narrative. Those fears were unfounded though as that problematic episode was sandwiched between the two strongest episodes of the season so far. "Chapter Six: The Spy" was terrific. And now, "Chapter Eight: The Mind Flayer" may be my favorite episode of the entire series. That's impressive because the show has delivered a number of truly distinctive and imaginative episodes across its two season run. But this hour is so effective because the tension is so high with all of the various storylines finally coming to a head and paying off. One could criticize that this episode needs to force all of the characters together and discuss what they have been up to this season. Steve, Dustin, Lucas and Max just so happen to track the demodogs (as Dustin now wants to call them) to Hawkins Lab while Nancy and Jonathan show up at the same time believing this to be the only place where Joyce, Will and Mike could be based on what they saw at the Byers home. Meanwhile, El arrives just in the nick of time at the end of the episode to finally deliver on the long-awaited reunion with the other characters. And yes, these plot machinations are fairly obvious and blunt. But the emotions that come along with these moments just land so remarkably well. This is an hour that plays into the horror of this world as all of the main characters are fighting for survival. It has weight to it because not everyone makes it out alive. The stakes are real and genuine while still being intimate enough to focus on this collection of characters and how they are the ones best equipped to handle this perilous situation.

"Chapter Eight: The Mind Flayer" is an episode about heroes. Mike, Bob, Joyce, Hopper and El all have their heroic moments. The show doesn't need to highlight how Hopper is a hero. He doesn't need that posturing in order for the audience to understand the gravitas of his actions. He's a police officer protecting his city. This is his job and he's doing an excellent job at it despite all of the changing circumstances. The other characters get their pointed moments of being heroes because the show needs to highlight the grave circumstances they face and their willingness to step up and do something in order to protect the people that they care about in this world. It all starts with Mike immediately knowing that something has gone wrong at the lab and it's Will's fault. Hopper and Owens are the ones witnessing what's going on in the Upside Down. They are the ones that see the demodogs crawling up the mine shaft and breaking through the glass to storm the building. But Mike is the one who understands Will's connection to the shadow monster. He knows that the only way they can escape without the shadow monster finding them is if Will has no idea where they are. The shadow monster sees everything that Will does. And now, Will is no longer the one in charge of his body. He doesn't recognize the people in the room. Will is still in there. But him being conscious puts everyone he loves at risk. So, Mike is the first hero of this hour by convincing everyone it's in their best interest to do this to Will.

And then, Bob becomes the most tragic hero of this episode. The sequence with the lab in lockdown is one of the most tense and thrilling sequences the show has ever producec. The creatures from the Upside Down have hunt down and killed all of the scientists and soldiers it seems. Mike, Will, Joyce, Bob, Hopper and Owens are alive and trapped in a control room. The building is on lockdown. None of the characters just outside the building can get in to help them escape. It's completely up to the people in this room. Bob makes the decision to venture out into the horror in order to reset the system because he's the only one who knows the computer programming. He even tells Hopper that they should leave long before he makes it back to them. He understands immediately that this is a mission that could easily get him killed. But he still takes that risk in order to save the lives of everyone else in the room. That's noble and heroic. He really does live up to his aspirations of being a superhero in this episode. He is successful in this venture. But this sequence also shows the true colors of Owens. He stays behind once Hopper, Joyce and Mike leave. Him being alone could reveal him to be a true villain in using Bob as bait to stage his own escape from the building. But instead, he does the noble thing as well in trying to guide Bob through this building without running into one of the creatures. It's a taunt sequence that effectively plays into the horror and monstrosity of the story. There's the hope that Bob makes it to safety. And then, a demodog comes flying at him and kills him. It's such a tragic moment. But it proves that in death Bob really was one of the most heroic characters of this season. He didn't always know what was going on. But he was willing to make this sacrifice for Joyce and her family. And that makes him a superhero.

Of course, it's then curious why the entire gang decides to seek refuge at the Byer household instead of the police station. It feels like the show wanting to return to a familiar environment that could be made up into something new and unpredictable with horror imagery. It's in this part of the hour where the characters are able to regroup and put their brains together to figure out what's going on with this super-organism that is controlling everything from the Upside Down. Dustin is the one to make the reference of it being just like "The Mind Flayer" from Dungeons and Dragons. The analogy isn't perfect because they don't have access to zombies in order to defeat this foe. All they have is Will. He can still be a spy even though he is losing more and more of himself with each passing moment. And thus, the show creates another brilliant sequence once Joyce has her own heroic moment in wanting to kill the creature that now resides within her son. Winona Ryder often pulls the best out of a character that could be very one-note. But here, she does some of her best acting on the show so far. She's just sitting in front of her child telling stories about his past in order to reveal his humanity once more. It's an emotional sequence where Will's friends and family are desperate for him to return. But it takes on a more playful aspect once "Should I Stay or Should I Go" starts playing and the characters are distracting the shadow monster with tales of Will's past while Will taps out a message in morse code. It's clever. Of course, the only disappointing part of this sequence is the actual message. "Close gate" seems like an over simplification for what these characters need to do to stop the shadow monster. But the show is able to quickly move past that to ensure that this hour ends in the most dramatic and intense way as possible.

The shadow monster has no idea that Will's friends and family simply redesigned the Byers' shed. It was just a makeshift project that was still very effective. But all it takes is one phone call to the house for Will to immediately know where he is and for the demodogs to appear. It's thrilling to watch the characters brace for the worst. It's incredibly badass for Nancy to catch the gun and hold it ready to fire along Hopper. It's a nice callback to see Lucas armed with the slingshot just like he was in Season 1. It's still thrilling to see Steve with that spiked bat. These characters are unprepared for battle. These creatures have ripped apart many people already. Closing the gate won't be easy. They are all standing up as heroes. But in this moment, they need an actual superhero. That's what makes it so rousing to see Eleven just open that door after defeating the demodogs just outside the house. It's this incredibly emotional and rewarding reunion. The smiles that Mike and El share with one another are so powerful and heartwarming. They've yearned for each other. And now, they are finally reunited. El knew that her friends were in trouble. And so, she arrived to safe them just in time. It's this strong and powerful entrance for her in the main story of the season. Her skills will be required in order to close the Upside Down. A new hero has emerged to save this town. Now, everyone just needs to continue to bang together to save this world from the destruction that is just waiting to break through.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Chapter Eight: The Mind Flayer" was written by The Duffer Brothers and directed by The Duffer Brothers.
  • Is Sean Astin getting type-cast as an actor who only does one season of a show where his character is hard to get a good read on until he dies a very noble death near the end of the season to raise the stakes? It happens here. But it also happened on Season 1 of FX's The Strain and Season 5 of FOX's 24. So, it's officially a trend with him.
  • After Bob's death, the action never cuts away to Owens. It's still unknown whether or not he was able to escape the lab. The demodogs do escape the building to chase after the characters trying to hide Will. It's very possible that he survived if he stayed put in that control room for awhile. But it's also a mystery that shouldn't be extended beyond the season finale. The show is already annoyingly doing that with Brenner's fate.
  • Meanwhile, the show cuts away to Billy at a random point in time to perhaps provide some more nuance with him. That seems like a case of too little, too late at this point. Billy has just been a one-note bully who hasn't actually done much. The payoff for that story still hasn't happened. So, he's still this idle threat. And yet, nothing that he does could compare to the threat that's coming from the Upside Down. So again, it all seems like a waste to care about now.
  • In the midst of all of this, Dustin also has to apologize to everyone for keeping Dart as a pet despite claiming that he never found him again. He has to accept that Lucas is the one who has a genuine chance with Max because he was honest about everything with her. Of course, Mike is still mad about that because he still sees Max as trying to replace El. But that probably won't be an ongoing concern for him now that El has returned.
  • Was the whole point of El's trip to Chicago and punk makeover to ensure that once she walked through the Byers' doorway after saving everyone inside that it takes a beat for everyone to recognize her? The makeover is extreme and different. But she is still the friend with powers whose nose bleeds after a huge display of power. She's still the same girl who wants to reunite with Mike and smiles upon seeing him.

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.