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!
WANT MORE? Keep up with all the latest from last night’s television by subscribing to our newsletter. Head here for more details.
(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