Two simple themes dominated Dead of Summer‘s sophomore episode: romance and Russians, proving my just-now-made-up theory that Dead of Summer is actually just R.L. Stine’s version of Anna Karenina.
It’s the day campers arrive at Camp Stillwater, where the ropes course hasn’t yet been set up — but murder, arson, and a ritualistic deer sacrifice have all been checked off the to-do list. No one knows what may befall the unsuspecting attendees shuttling in for the summer — except maybe Deb, whose buried box of antique camp horrors remains as mysterious as which photos of Elizabeth Mitchell will pop up when you do a Google search for “smiling lady with secret.” As the new campers arrive — all of whom look much, much younger than I expected, for some reason — the ghost of the Old-Timey Piano Player looks onward, watching them arrive at his sick nature playground. We now have an “official” name for him: The Tall Man, which is only slightly more helpful than Old-Timey Piano Player. (I mean, honestly, he doesn’t even seem that tall?)
Our main counselor-flashback focus this week is Alex, or Alexei, as he was known back in the old country. We glimpse him as a child, leaving Russia in a hurry after receiving a pocketknife from his scary, milky-eyed grandfather (the pre-Buffy SMG). We learn Alexei was quickly intimidated by society into rejecting his Russian heritage, after seeing what humiliation his father faced as a lowly clerk at a dry cleaner. We see how Alexei — who changed his name to Alex Powell — returned to that same dry cleaner a decade later with a mission to do what his father never did: Take back what’s his. And what’s his is…clothes. Lots and lots of clothes.
Yes, Alex crafts an elaborate decade-in-the-making blackmail scheme against dry-cleaner owner Mr. Delasotta that, ultimately, allows Alex to take free clothes. That’s it. No murder, no family destruction. Just the ability to come and go through this starchy Narnia like every day is fashion week. (To recap the show’s flashback crimes: Amy sort of, accidentally, maybe killed someone, and Alex gets free button-downs.)
The audience now realizes Alex is a man of many missions — when he knows what he wants, he gets it. That’s why he strikes up a bet with dungeon-master-turned-druggie Blotter to see who can claim the heart of their camp crush first. Will Blotter woo Cricket early in the summer, or can Alex beat him to the punch and win Amy’s affections? There’s $50 on the line, along with some very heavy ‘80s-style petting that may or may not be just over-the-pants action anyway.
Enter: Anton. Oh boy, I don’t love Anton. I wish the campers were just slightly older, so I wouldn’t feel as bad judging Anton’s ridiculous antics. But Anton, who speaks limited English and looks a bit like a young Soviet version of Gene Shalit, becomes more of a nuisance to both Alex and audience than any dead ghost has so far.
It’s Anton who immediately forces Deb’s watchful eye toward irresponsible Alex and Blotter, after the boy goes missing during lunchtime and continues to wander off at least three more times by the end of the evening. It’s Anton who reminds Alex of his closeted Russian past and who indirectly spurs Alex to commie-bash as a method of impressing Amy, who isn’t interested in his red scare. (Just like Beyoncé says, “Tell him, boy, good night and good luck.”)
Most troublesome is it’s Anton who begins speaking to an imaginary friend whom he calls “The Tall Man.” Alex assumes he’s referring to the drug dealer he spots Blotter buying from in the woods.
It must be the drug dealer, even when Anton is plagued by a fiery nightmare of The Tall Man grabbing his arm and issuing a stern warning: “Find me.” It must be the drug dealer, even when Anton is hypnotically summoned to the camp’s art studio, where he draws a map to a natural rock formation and a crude portrait of the Tall Man and says that delightfully whimsical thing all kids say, “He said I have to find him or someone will die.” It must be the drug dealer, even when Alex, Blotter, Deb, and literally every other series regular find Anton curled up in a fetal position at midnight in said rock formation, whimpering. It must be the drug dealer!
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(Deputy Sykes follows the hunch and arrests the local drug dealer, Damon — a townie and fellow former Stillwater camper. Sykes finds Damon forging a fire (that’s what they call it these days) with his friends not far from where the camp is located. The deputy takes Damon in for questioning; Damon, in turn, tosses his car keys to his gang.)
Despite everything going on with the Haunted Russian Boy whose first day at camp is only the fifth-worst Russian-related thing to happen in the summer of 1989, Alex still manages to find the wherewithal to focus on another insurmountable task: Winning the heart of his demure lady love, Amy. Unfortunately, there are other entities intent on ending the relationship that have little or nothing to do with murderous ghosts (unless you count Jess’s crush-grudge on-against Townie-Amy, which you definitely should).
NEXT: Love and other liquid acids
After hiring a child to wander out of bed and make him look compassionate in front of Amy, Alex picks up Amy for their date at the most romantic of getaways: An abandoned cabin and ostensible former dwelling of The Tall Man, back in old times. Inside are such fun accoutrements as a scary rocking chair, an uncomfortable collection of candles, and the cobweb-strewn piano we saw The Tall Man playing the night he probably murdered 20 children. Girl, you couldn’t buy a Groupon this aphrodisiacal!
Alex begins playing
the theme song from How to Train Your Dragon the piano to woo Amy, and reveals just a hint of his story: His father died when he was 12 and left behind a memory of weakness which Alex is determined to uproot. Suddenly, he sees a vision of his grandfather’s ghost in the rocking chair and gets flashes of the pocketknife said grandfather gave him before he left Russia, which he now uses to cut the tags off stolen Laundromat clothes. I’m inclined to propose that guilt is what summons the demons of the counselors here at Camp Stillwater, given Amy’s guilt over Margo’s death last week, but again, I’m having a hard time accepting that Alex is being visited by family ghosts because he’s just that plagued by the crippling guilt of his dry-cleaner theft.
Ultimately, Blotter bursts in and stops the date — surprise, Anton’s gone missing again, because why not. Alex and Amy’s hookup is dead in the dust, but really, the rest of the camp’s romantic endeavors aren’t faring much better. Joel’s once-lusty camera encounter with Deb has resulted in a cold shoulder and more of that classic Elizabeth-Mitchell-Knows-Something-You-Don’t aloofness. Blair and Drew have sparked a few amorous connections, though presently nothing more than a few stolen glances and a very heated exchange of music.
And then there’s Blotter, who tries to appeal to Cricket’s nostalgic side by showing her his cherished Dungeons & Dragons figurines (a tried-and-true romantic tactic, bro). He sweetly tells her he doesn’t believe the promiscuous things written about her on the cabin walls. Sadly, Cricket’s more attracted to Alex, and as a result, Jess tries to help nudge things along by maligning Alex’s character. But Alex doesn’t need Jess’s help in proving himself to be a reckless, selfish, pre-ordained douche. After Deb offers a final ultimatum to Alex and Blotter for the Seventeenth Misplacement of Anton, Alex decides he must keep his job and get Blotter fired by sending him on an accidental acid trip. The result is Blotter warping into a disturbing, face-melting, lizard-emerging-from-Alex’s-esophagus high that culminates in Blotter finding himself in the rock formation and, validating The Tall Man’s “find me” directive, literally digging up the skeleton of The Tall Man and his cute bowler hat.
By the time Deb and the rest of the crew arrive, the skeleton is gone and Blotter’s come down off his high, but his eyes —wide like Barney Rubble, as per the episode’s title — betray enough hallucinogenic truth to get him fired by Deb. (FYI, kids, it’s a reference to this throwback gem.) Blotter looks to Alex for backup, but gets none; the next morning, during his goodbyes, he calls out Alex for his shady behavior and tosses a $50 bill on the floor, with a “You got the girl! Congrats, bro” that reveals the vague existence of their bet over Amy. So Amy’s furious, Cricket’s thrilled, and Jess pockets the $50 and sets up next week’s mission: “She’s out of your way. Now maybe you can help her get out of mine.”
Alex’s final move, perhaps out of guilt or recklessness, brings him back to Anton. He reveals his Russian realness and encourages Anton to change his name to Tony before helping him pull a wet-the-bed prank. Why? Because Alex, he of laundry blackmail and popped collars, tends to think his choices are a lot more scandalous than they really are.
Meanwhile, Damon the drug dealer is quickly released from jail by the sheriff, who has no real evidence to charge Damon as a child kidnapper. Deputy Sykes mopes a bit, but here’s where it gets interesting: The following morning, Damon reunites with his gang and opens up a garage door, where we get our first tangible evidence of creepy. The gang unlocks the car trunk, and The Tall Man’s bones, just like in the show Bones, are in the car, just like in the movie Cars.
It means The Tall Man’s skeleton wasn’t just a fever dream of Blotter’s. And could it also suggest that Damon and Deb — both known former campers — may be working together on something sneaky?
Oh, and Blotter sees The Tall Man in the final moments of the episode, shouts “Oh, my God,” and then screams during the darkness. So there’s that, too.