“Who here wants to see some fireworks?”
It’s the fourth of July, and Hawkins is all lit up for Independence Day. At the right distance, the carnival (with its inevitable banner boasting “MAYOR KLINE PRESENTS”) looks fun, all bright lights and cheerful tunes. But get too close and you see the grimy details: the rust on the rides, the grease on the corn dogs, the weary faces on the hard-laboring folks staffing the rides. And everywhere, money changing hands: bills and tickets and coins.
It’s “Chapter Seven: The Bite,” the second-to-last episode of Stranger Things 3. Everyone’s back in Hawkins, Indiana, on Independence Day 1985. We’re R-O-C-K-ing in the U.S.A. in an explosion of patriotism that’s both forceful and forced. Under a President who denounced the U.S.S.R. as “an evil Empire,” a 1980s Independence Day could be as much an expression of hostility to outsiders as it was a celebration of unity and freedom. But for fifteen tickets, Alexei, a top-secret Russian scientist and a captive of Hawkins’ Chief of Police, can join in all the fun of a small-town fair. For fifteen tickets, he can ride the teacups or throw darts at balloons or swing the hammer, ring the bell, win a big prize.
And Alexei can’t get enough of it. He’s stopped haggling over Slurpees and gone for the brass ring. He’ll show Joyce and Hopper how to disable the lab’s beam, closing the gate, “and I become an American citizen and join in the fun, yes?”
Murray Bauman has warned Alexei that the games are rigged. “They don’t look rigged,” Alexei replies, but that’s the trick. That’s the bite.
Alexei wins, and Alexei loses. He hit the last green balloon and wins the grand prize, an oversized Woody Woodpecker doll… and he walks past (Gregori) and loses the grand prize, with a quiet, efficient bullet straight through the stuffed doll and into his chest. It’s a credit to Alec Utgoff that Alexei, who speaks not a word of English (okay, maybe two words, if those words are “Looney Toons”), has become such a clear and vibrant character. In stark contrast to Bruce, who could stay gone forever without disrupting the flow of the show, I miss Alexei already.
The tragedy is that Alexei was always going to lose. The game is rigged. None of Alexei’s captors have the clout to promise him citizenship—and you’ll notice Murray doesn’t pretend to. He sidesteps Alexei’s question, distracting him with the promise of carnival rides and fireworks and corn dogs, corn dogs Alexei doesn’t even get to try.
From Hopper’s cabin, the fireworks seen through the forest are downright eerie. They paint the canopies of leaves with lurid light, like the sickly purples and reds and eldritch greens of the clouds that loom overhead when the shadow monster is near.
It makes perfect sense that El and her friends would hole up in Hopper’s cabin. It’s private, it’s familiar, and, because Hopper is a cop with a protective parent’s mentality, it’s protected. The dialogue gets sluggish as these actors try to carry the weight of the exposition and increasingly Dune-like phrases they need to repeat. (The first few times I heard it, “The Mind Flayer” sounded sinister and unspeakable; after the tenth or twentieth time, the name loses impact.) But the action is solid and so is the teamwork.
Now that Nancy is chauffeuring Mike, Will, Lucas, and Max along with El, two of the four or five separate action flicks Stranger Things 3 had split itself into have come together seamlessly. The kids shutter the little house against the thing’s approach, working as smoothly in their strange circumstances as any action unit John Carpenter ever assembled.
El’s battle with the Mind Flayer’s monster is what I’m talking about when I say conflicts need to have consequences, or at least the narrative possibility of consequences. The scene of the massive protean creature smashing its way into El’s home and trying to rip her away into the night is deftly filmed and painstakingly choreographed to keep its action intelligible to the audience. The swift shifts in camera angle accentuate the beast’s speed, power, and unpredictability as well as our heroes’ courage and fast reactions. But that’s not what makes it powerful.
This is a strong stand-alone action scene, but it’s also full of echoes from previous episodes, like Nancy blasting off rounds like an old-school action hero and Lucas, always ready to take the long shot, leaping into the fight with axe in hand. But what makes it powerful is watching them all work, together and separately, to save El… so El can save everything else, yes, but also to save their friend. This battle takes place on El’s home turf. Their foe knows El’s name, it knows her face, it knows her home. And now it knows the taste of her blood. Now it has taken a bite.
Amidst all this peril and valor, there are smaller, more personal consequences, too. At first, it looks like Mike will try again to flatter his way past an apology. Sitting with El as she recovers from battle, he says, “You’re going to have an awesome scar. You’ll look even more bad-ass.”
“Bitchin’,” she agrees.
But Mike has learned about himself and his feelings: his jealousy seeing her make new friends, his anger over sharing her time, and the realization that his “unfair” and “selfish” reactions are the dark side of the most powerful thing he feels for her. “They do say it makes you crazy,” he adds, not saying what it is.
“Girlfriends?” guesses El. “Boyfriends?”
Mike, flailing for any word that isn’t love, blurts out, “Old people say it to each other sometimes!” But at the end, it’s only Dustin’s code red that stops him from saying what he feels.
Dustin and Erica chaperoning their serum-loopy chaperones is a nice reversal on Steve Harrington’s second-season leap into informal youth counselor and monster hunter, and their lingering effects are a tidy excuse for these two dynamic characters to spill their guts and bare their hearts. Steve The Hair Harrington is a gift to any writer looking to explain or extend a moment. No matter how straightforward the situation, there’s always an excuse for Steve to take a beat to absorb it. “But… Tammy Thompson’s a girl?” he half-tells Robin, and then, “… oh.”
“Yeah,” Robin replies. “Oh.” Even in the face of armed enemy agents and a portal to another world, Robin’s barely submerged tension at revealing herself is palpable and plausible. (If you weren’t a queer teenager in 1985, you don’t know how plausible.) It’s a welcome relief when Steve immediately starts ranking on her crush (there’s a piece of slang straight from the ’80s: ranking on) the way he’d razz any of his friends about a girl.
There are flaws to point out; there always are. Will’s neck prickles and hand reach combo is becoming a narrative tic, and Noah Schnapp, who has delivered such sensitive, nuanced performances in the past, deserves better than this. Will, whose absence and peril drove season one, deserves better than this. Murray’s outburst to Hopper and Joyce is both true and long overdue, and it’s a relief to stop their over-the-top bickering. But this too feels like a wink, and Stranger Things does better with loving homages than with winking in-jokes. The funhouse scene is grubby good action, with Hopper using the attraction’s obstacles and distortions to get the drop on his pursuers. But the Scary Russian Henchman (he’s named Grigori in the credits, played by Andrey Ivchenko, but I have not heard his name spoken, have you?) is too blank to be a character and too hampered by human vulnerabilities to have the menace of, say, obviously The Terminator.
But those are quibbles. In “The Bite,” the action is thrilling and the emotional beats land. If the characterizations are sometimes broad, that broadness at least matches the spectacle onscreen as fireworks fill the sky with light and noise, as carnival rides creak and clang, as a gang of kids fends off a monster that’s only growing bigger. As we slide into the credits, eager for the finale—according to Erik Adams, “the series’ most satisfying finale to date”—Karen and Holly are right: These are the best seats in the house. And the fireworks have just started.
- Robin and Steve, zeroing in on a pressing matter: “So, I wasn’t totally focused in there or anything? But I’m pretty sure that mom was trying to bang her son” and “Then why is it called Back To The Future?” These are the great philosophical questions of my youth. I do hope Robin’s explanation of how time travel makes the present into the future doesn’t foreshadow a time-travel element to any potential fourth season. Time travel is really hard to write about!
- Also playing at Starcourt cinema along with the newly released Back To The Future: Fletch, Cocoon, Return To Oz, The Stuff, … and D.A.R.Y.L., about a little boy (Barrett Oliver, also star of 1984's The Neverending Story) who’s actually a Data-Analyzing Robot Youth Lifeform created by a top-secret government agency.
- Robin and Steve tasting the air is the best involuntarily-drugged acting I’ve seen in a while.
- Lucas’ thirsty slurps won’t bait me into the New Coke comparison, not when Erik Adams got there before me.
- “Hold the ride!” “Not on your life, Magnum!”