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In its sixth episode, Stranger Things 3 is awful in the best and worst ways

Maya Hawke, Joe Keery
Screenshot: Netflix
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“Those morons!” “Those total morons!”

“Chapter Six: E Pluribus Unum” opens with action, but it’s not generic action and fight scenes that, if we stop to think about them, are implausible and impractical. (Flourish or no, Steve Harrington, basketball star and ice cream scooper, isn’t going to defeat a trained soldier, no matter how junior, in hand-to-hand combat.) Instead of their implausible, easy triumphs, it’s so much better—and so much worse!—to witness Steve and Robin struggling hold the door against a flood of Russian staffers and soldiers. It’s more plausible, and more frightening, to see them finally thrown against the facility’s paneled wall by the sheer force of their captors shoving at that door.

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It’s so much more distressing, and so much more dramatic, to see Nancy (an ace reporter and a bad-ass, but also a person we met as a hapless teen) thrown once, hard, against the hospital’s half-constructed wall, than to watch Hopper beat up Russian agents or see El face off against Billy in a fight we know is premature. Fights are only suspenseful when we fear the outcome, and prior to the sixth chapter of this season, the outcome was always going to let our heroes triumph, or at least escape to fight again.

Much more suspenseful than Hopper’s fights, even his gleefully unmatched assault on the mayor, is watching him throw Alexei the keys to his handcuffs and their stolen car, bar the door, and wait. “I have dealt with assholes like this my entire life,” Hopper tells Joyce and Bauman, promising that Alexei will be back and eager to cooperate. Hopper reasons that if he didn’t run in the woods, he won’t run now. That’s especially true, he assures them, since returning with no signs of interrogation (torture, Hopper means torture) would make Alexei’s security-conscious colleagues ”think that he spilled his guts.”

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Watching Steve’s interrogation (again, that’s torture, and we know it doesn’t work) is… well, it’s torture to see Steve The Hair Harrington—“Mr. Funny, Mr. Cool”—smacked bloody for telling his captors the truth: He works at Scoops Ahoy. “Look at my outfit, look at my outfit!” he screams in desperation.

Even Robin is terrified by Steve’s injuries. But it’s awful in the best way, because we know and care about Steve. And, though she’s newly introduced, about Robin. Her personality is strong and clear. She swiftly charms her way into the gang of protagonists, not only because she’s so fast to get in on the top-secret action, or even because she, like Steve, puts Erica and Dustin’s safety above her own without hesitation. It’s because, even with her background unexplored, she’s a rounded, complete character, with her own quirks and interests and personality.

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It’s not always necessary to see a character’s entire backstory to understand and identify with them. In Billy’s case, it’s a serious misstep. When El plunges into Billy’s memory in search of “the source,” she first falls unbidden into a replay of his childhood traumas: his father screaming taunts at him, his mother cowering from his father’s blows, his mother leaving his father… and leaving him behind.

Like season two’s “The Lost Sister,” “E Pluribus Unum” relies on clumsy literal flashbacks, muddying the series’ otherwise elegant expression of traumatic flashbacks as a source of pain and conflict. The montage seen in El’s vision gives details to the vague, unhappy shape of Billy’s childhood, details we don’t need, a childhood whose essential shape we’ve already been told. Billy has spent so long as a sleazy enigma, and now—now that he’s in league with the Mind Flayer to build an army of quislings—is no time to dispel his remaining sense mystery. And it’s never the time to do it so clumsily.

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Billy’s trauma is real, and its effects are life-altering. But Stranger Things has always been about trauma, about its immediate crushing impact and its lingering effects. It’s about a single mother, survivor of a turbulent marriage, ferociously guarding her children… too ferociously, sometimes. It’s about a grieving father, afraid to love after the agony of seeing his daughter die. It’s about a boy lost in a hellish underworld, suffering long after he is supposedly safe. It’s about the unfocused sorrow and pain his friends feel while he’s missing, and after he’s reported dead, and after they help save the world, and their need to keep all those gnawing secrets.

Above all, it’s about a girl raised like a lab rat, whose only childhood experience of affection was the stingy facsimile that was her reward for punishing her body and mind with unearthly feats. Most of Stranger Things’ characters are survivors of trauma. But El’s trauma was immersive, formative, total. She has never lived a life the rest of us would call normal; even as Hopper’s daughter, she’s lived in relative isolation, under strict rules—some his, some hers.

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Noah Schnapp, Caleb McLaughlin, Finn Wolfhard, Sadie Sink
Screenshot: Netflix

This is the problem with Max’s logic, and with the entire scene in which Max and Nancy shout down Mike’s concern about El’s limits. The simple reading—that El must be granted agency over her own body and mind, that Mike’s impulse to protect her is paternalistic—sounds true and right. “Who do you think should decide El’s limits? Mike? Or Eleven?” asks Max, and the simple answer to that question is obvious: Eleven’s body, Eleven’s choice.

It should be a stirring testament to a person’s right to choose what risks to take for themselves, and their right to control their own body. But it’s also a shallow argument for ignoring the unspoken pressures around someone making a choice, even an informed one. There are many circumstances where a person—even someone uniquely gifted, like El, and uniquely aware of their own limits—might push themselves farther and harder than is safe for them in the moment. A lifelong test subject, raised without any concept of personal and bodily autonomy, is an extreme example.

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A much more common situation: a child actor joining a series that’s already launched other child actors to fame, being open about her discomfort with an unscripted kiss, and then being told by her bosses that her discomfort is the reason she has to do it, that is was “your fault.”

I don’t want to harp on that kiss. Sadie Sink, who plays Max, has said publicly that she “never objected” to it; Netflix and the Duffer brothers have both denied any undue pressure on-set. But Stranger Things keeps presenting reasons to talk about its showrunners’ decision, to its detriment. At worst, Mike and Max’s argument is self-serving rationalization for behind-the-screens choices. At best, it’s clumsy and artificially simplified.

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There’s too much clumsiness in this episode, including a (perhaps unintentional) invitation for racists and fascists to identify not with the murderous, repressive, unified force plotting to take over Hawkins, but with the band of scrappy individuals defending their home in America’s heartland. “You let us in,” flayed Billy tells El, his eyes unwavering, “and now you are going to have to let us stay.” As he delivers his speech, the innocent populace of Hawkins wave flags and set off fireworks, celebrating Independence Day. They don’t know their freedom is being encroached on, even now, as their neighbors and family members become “activated” and begin to gather with blank, unstoppable purpose. Happy Fourth of July, Hawkins.

Stray observations

  • The longer I look at Will Byers, the more I see Noah Schnapp pulling a Bill Haverchuck, using posture and body language (and his slightly oversized wardrobe, shout-out to the costume department!) to make himself look smaller, younger, and more vulnerable.
  • Does Brett Gelman miss a beat, ever? Murray Bauman and Jim Hopper, such different characters, look like bookends as they stand at Bauman’s sink, drinking big slugs of chilled vodka in frustrated unison.
  • “How big did you say that Demogorgon was?”
  • “Philadelphia Public Library,” answers the dispatcher at the DoE’s secret call center. A second phone is labelled “Kennedy Space Center.”
  • “Hey, Henderson!” Steve calls as his young friends break into the torture chamber, “I was just talkin’ about you!”
  • “Hop, he did ask for cherry.”
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About the author

Emily L. Stephens

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Emily L. Stephens writes about film, television, entertaining, gender, and cake. A lot about cake, really.