“What’s your emergency?”
When Billy, dirty and panicked from his encounter at the abandoned steel plant, reaches a phone booth, he’s greeted by the 911 dispatcher calmly asking “What’s your emergency?” Billy is speechless. What is his emergency?
It’s not just a question for Billy. What is the emergency this season? We know, as the characters don’t, that the army of rats drawn to the old Brimborn site (an ominous name, that) are a consequence of the experiment seen in the premiere, where Russian scientists probed (as Hawkins Lab did) into the unknown. But we don’t know yet what shape it will take.
Even if Billy were able to speak, even if he weren’t shaken by flashbacks to a nameless horror, even if he weren’t in the grip of a great power, what could he tell the dispatcher, or anyone? What could he say? He doesn’t know that there are people who would believe him, including his own sister.
Joyce Byers would believe him. Perpetually alert to the possibility of otherworldly danger, Joyce (like her son) feels doom looming above the town again. When something peculiar happens—like all the fridge magnets suddenly losing their properties—Joyce looks for answers, and she knows right where to find them.
Mr. Clarke, the beloved science teacher and sponsor of the school’s A.V. club, gets a hero’s entrance, framed by the majestic roll of his automatic garage door, to the unlikely pomp of Weird Al Yankovic’s “My Bologna.” And he deserves it for his endless willingness to learn, to listen, to distinguish between the unlikely and the impossible. He doesn’t scoff when Joyce proposes something outlandish. He shows her what’s possible, tells her what’s likely, then explains what is staggeringly improbable but theoretically feasible.
Mr. Clarke thinks coincidence is the most likely explanation. It’s Joyce who asks him, “but what if it’s not?” She deserves credit for asking those unlikely questions; she’s been doing it since the series premiere, when Hopper assured her that her missing son was safe with his father. Ninety-nine out of a hundred missing kids, he promises, that’s where they’re found. “What about the other one?” Joyce presses him, kick-starting the whole investigation.
Mr. Clarke believes in the impossible, in his way. “Once you open up that curiosity door,” he tells Joyce, eyes gleaming with optimism, “anything is possible!” The examples he’s cited—curing polio, reaching the moon—promise great scientific and humanitarian leaps to come. But Joyce Byers knows how much more is possible, even probable, when we open the curiosity door. Joyce has seen beyond the door, and and it inspires no optimism.
We’ve seen beyond it too, farther than Joyce this time. Between DoppelBilly and the glistening heap of former rat that slithers through its cage bars, rapidly growing and taking shape, it feels (and I do mean feels, like the prickle on the back of Will’s neck) like this season’s strongest film influences will include The Thing (1982) and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978). (That makes Hopper’s words to Joyce—“I’m a puppet, you’re the master”—more ominous than cheerful.) And like The Thing, “The Mall Rats” lets the suspense develop, showing the (uh) thing taking form, not showing us what form it takes. We’ve seen Billy’s double, and we’ve seen the crowd of human-like forms it walks with through that shadowy underworld.
As Will Byers sits, left behind in Mike’s basement rec room, with only a poster from Carpenter’s The Thing looking over his shoulder, he realizes that there are other doors opening, more mundane ones, and that his friends are leaving him behind. All these kids went through a nightmare. But the nightmare lasted longest for El, raised in captivity, and for Will, taken over by a nightmare creature. It makes sense that these two are out of step with their peers, emotionally, developmentally, or otherwise. El still studies remedial English texts and speaks simple sentences; Will is still stuck in that same dim basement where it all began, moving game pieces around on his own, with a monster still looming over his shoulder, while his friends run off to “win back” their girlfriends.
Lucas’ battle metaphor for romance isn’t healthy, but it is in keeping with his established character, as much as Jim Hopper’s inability to parrot back Joyce’s words about boundaries and honesty, or Joyce’s willingness to ask “what if?” It’s admirable, with so much change in the air—boyfriends and girlfriends, the promise of high school looming, and all the surging physical and emotional changes of youth—that the characters remain as grounded in their histories as they do. It’s also a wry comment on the simple challenges of human life: You can slay a Demogorgon or descend into a fiery pit to save the people you love, but speaking simple heartfelt words to them is scarier than any monster.
The only person both willing and able to express herself in words is Karen Wheeler, explaining to Billy why she couldn’t meet him at the Motel 6 on Cornwallis. “I have a family,” she says, “and I can’t do anything that will hurt them. You can understand that, right?” Karen’s honesty is touching, but not to the ammonia-swilling figure in front of her. She’s appealing to Billy’s humanity. But whatever Billy is right now, it’s not fully human.
We don’t know exactly what Billy’s emergency is, but we know what his—what its—goal is. Its goal is to build.
- “I dump your ass!”
- Cary Elwes is always fun to watch (okay, maybe not always), but as Mayor Larry Kline, the twinkle he’s always possessed takes on a newly devilish aspect. Instructing Chief Hopper to clear out the protesters at City Hall, he reels off, “I can’t think, much less plaaaan, with all that racket going on!” with a smirk worthy of Joel Grey or, well, Joel Grey.
- It’s easy to think the episode owes its title to Kevin Smith’s 1995 Mallrats, but I can confirm that in 1985, I called other kids “mall rats” (and no doubt other kids called me a mall rat). Merriam-Webster dates the phrase to 1982.
- “Hello, I can hear you! Actually, I can hear everything. You are both extremely loud.” I like Robin (Maya Hawke), with her dry taunts and her sideways glances. Her ears are little geniuses.
- Emily’s anachronism corner! There are many ways to indicate alternative girl c. 1985 (see the crimped, dip-dyed hair of Violet [Tiffany Helm] from 1985's Friday The 13th offering—though I can’t otherwise recommend the movie), but Robin’s hair is pure 21st century.
- Shout-out to my niece P, who is keeping up with Stranger Things and my reviews: With your parents’ permission, we can make our next movie night a double feature of The Thing and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. The rest of you will have to arrange your own double features.