Welcome back to Hawkins, Indiana — but before you find your way within the city limits, we have a brief pit stop to make in Pittsburgh. Or rather, a pitt stop. (Sorry.)
There’s no one we know here in the Pennsylvania city, just a group of teenage punks with mohawks and Chuck Taylors on the bad end of a police chase. This is not Hawkins. This is not Stranger Things…until it is: Soon enough, one of the women in the runaway van closes her eyes and balls up her fists. Seconds later, the bridge collapses, letting them escape from the cops behind them — who then realize the bridge collapse that stopped them in their tracks never actually happened. Then the woman’s nose starts bleeding, and we zoom in on a tattoo on her wrist reading “008.” Okay, now it’s Stranger Things.
And with that, the opening credits roll, and we’re finally in Hawkins. It’s 1984, about a year after the events of last season took place. The boys are heading to the arcade, but not before protective mom Joyce gives Will a loving lecture about staying safe and not staying out too late. The People of the Internet will likely make fun of Joyce, as they did during the first set of episodes, for being what they think is a hysterical parent, though I think those People of the Internet are wrong: Joyce’s kid disappeared! You would be having some extreme emotions and reactions if your kid disappeared! If not, then, I don’t know, get a fish or something. Try caring. It’s nice!
Back in the arcade, Dustin gets all upset because he realizes someone named MADMAX is beating his high scores in all the games. Who is MADMAX? Mel Gibson? (That is where my guesses end. Turns out, there are basically zero famous people named Max.) Will is into figuring this out until he gets sucked into the literal darkness. Everything disappears around him, and suddenly, he’s in the middle of the scariest storm you’ve ever seen. The scary doesn’t last long, though, as the special effects are not as special as you’d hope. But it gets the point across: Things are bad for Will again.
Somehow his mom finds out, whether because he told her or because Mike did, and he’s off to the “doctor” (Paul Reiser) for a check-up. Dr. Owens tries to buddy up to Will in a very try-hard way, and Will tries to resist this guy’s questions about his favorite candy. (For the record, it’s Reese’s Pieces; E.T. would be proud.) Will’s gut instinct is correct, as it turns out Owens is hiding something. In fact, his whole visit with Will is streaming on TVs in a room full of men wearing suits and smoking cigarettes. Related last-minute Halloween costume idea: Wear a suit and smoke some cigarettes on your couch as you watch Will battle the Upside Down on Stranger Things. Bam!
Owens then takes Joyce and Hopper aside to tell them some bad news: It’s going to get worse before it gets better. He explains that Will’s visions have to do with it being the anniversary of his disappearance, which is triggering these bad memories back to the surface. He advises they treat him as they normally would, an idea Joyce thinks is stupid. Owens is starting to get worried; he sees she doesn’t trust him. So he says: “I need you to trust me.” Not buyin’ it, Owens. Later, he takes the elevator to a lab where a man takes a flamethrower to another tear in the Upside Down. So, yeah, time for Will to find a new doctor.
Speaking of the Upside Down, Mike’s still got it bad for El, whom he radios every single night in hopes that she’ll answer, while Dustin and Lucas are crushing on a new girl named… Max (Sadie Sink)! As in MADMAX! They found her, and they have been borderline stalking her. She notices: They see her throw a crumpled-up paper in the trash can and immediately run over to see what it says. “STOP SPYING ON ME YOU CREEPS!” Max has only been here for like two minutes but she’s already a hero.
In other high school news, Steve is applying to college, and he’s not feeling good about it — partly because Nancy proofread his essay and she (very lovingly!) tells him it doesn’t quite make sense. This doesn’t do great things for his teenage-boy pride, and he starts talking about other options: What if he doesn’t go to college, what if he stays and works for his dad, what if he gets to hang out with Nancy during her senior year? This whole scene feels familiar and sweet, a testament to Natalia Dyer and Joe Keery’s easy chemistry.
That chemistry is not to be mistaken for true love, though. Soon, we see Nancy and Jonathan walking the halls together, playfully bantering. He clearly like-likes her; she clearly like-likes him — and then Steve surprises Nancy by grabbing her from behind. The two kiss as Jonathan walks away unnoticed. Dammit, Steve.
Steve really needs to work on that aforementioned college app, but he and Nancy already have dinner plans that he doesn’t want to ditch out on. More specifically, he and Nancy have to go eat KFC with…Barb’s parents. Let. Barb. Die.
The awkward dinner scene’s entire purpose is to reveal that Barb’s parents have hired an investigative journalist to look into their daughter’s disappearance, a development that sufficiently freaks Nancy out. Let’s break this down a bit: First, they hired a journalist — and paid so much money for his services that they’re selling their house. You don’t need to be a J-school graduate to know that journalist is not a synonym for private investigator. So not only are Barb’s parents without Barb, but they’re also getting scammed. And is it really necessary to bring Barb back into this? Let memes be memes, man.
The one good thing about this sequence is that we get to see Steve break the silence after Nancy heads to the bathroom by taking a bite of chicken and saying, “It’s finger-lickin’ good.” If Steve doesn’t go to college, at least he definitely has a future as a Colonel Sanders impersonator. (Recap continues on page 2)
While Steve and Nancy are having the most uncomfortable date night of their young lives, Jonathan is at home getting ready to watch a movie with the family — which now includes Bob (Sean Astin), his mom’s new boyfriend. A few things about Bob: He doesn’t like scary movies. He does like the Michael Keaton classic Mr. Mom. He’s horny enough for Joyce that he visits her at work for a quick, furious make-out session in the back storage closet of the store. Also, he likes Kenny Rogers.
Jonathan, being the good brother he is, goes into Will’s room and asks if he wants to decide on that night’s movie. That’s when he notices Will is drawing a creature he’s titled Zombie Boy. Earlier that day, Will opened his locker and found a newspaper clipping of himself with that very name scrawled on top of the picture. Kids suck. Jonathan does not: Will confronts his big bro for treating him like a ticking time bomb, saying that everyone walking on eggshells around him makes him feel even more like a freak. Jonathan responds by being real. “You’re right,” he tells a shocked Will. “You are a freak.”
Jonathan then says that he, too, is a freak, and that’s great, because freaks are the only ones who do anything good in this world. “Who would you rather be friends with: Bowie or Kenny Rogers?” Jonathan asks. Will doesn’t even have to respond — it’s Bowie, obviously. It’s a wonderful moment of sibling bonding, and, yeah, it feels a little bit 7th Heaven in its cheesy, us-against-the-world sincerity, but it works.
Now that Will’s feeling a little better knowing that he’s a freak and that his brother is on his side, he can rest easy. Just kidding! The episode ends with him going pee in the middle of the night and then noticing a storm — the same kind of storm he saw at the arcade — brewing outside. This time, though, he sees a giant, spider-like creature in the clouds. His mom is battling a type of PTSD, too: During the movie, the phone starts ringing, and she immediately freezes. Bob reassures her that it’s probably a crank call and encourages her to ignore it. She does, but it’s clear she’s struggling to. As the saying goes, even a new boyfriend can’t distract from intense mental distress.
The episode is almost over at this point, and there hasn’t been any glimpse at Eleven. That’s about to change. Hopper gets home — or rather, to a creepy cabin hidden behind trees and cobwebs — to the TV running and two foil-wrapped TV dinners on the table… along with a plate of half-eaten waffles. Ah, there she is.
It gets kind of weird from there. Hopper cracks open a beer and sits down as a little voice cries out, “No signal. You’re late.” He defends himself, saying it’s not that late, and then the person with the little voice sits down across from him. There’s Eleven, with a head full of curly hair, wearing overalls and a pissed expression on her face. She’s in no mood, and it doesn’t help that he reminds her not to eat dessert before dinner. They unwrap their dinners and eat their turkey and peas in silence like an old, grumpy married couple.
So now we know Eleven is officially fine — or, at the very least, alive and in this realm with access to Eggos. Now, who’s gonna tell Mike?
Most ’80s Moment: Max and her brother (Dacre Montgomery) rolling up to their first day of school in a slick two-door as Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane” blasts in the background. Bonus ’80s points for his mullet.
“I only want five minutes!” —Murray
“Yeah, I want a date with Bo Derek. We all want things.” —Hopper
“Class, please welcome, all the way from sunny California, the latest passenger to join us on our curiosity voyage: Maxine!” —Mr. Clarke
“You’re going to be home by 8, listening to the Talking Heads and reading Vonnegut or something.” —Nancy to Jonathan, who says he can’t go to a Halloween party because he’s taking Will trick-or-treating
“That sounds like a nice night.” —Jonathan
“Nobody normal ever accomplished anything meaningful in this world.” —Jonathan