As “Chapter Six: The Monster” draws to a close (only two chapters left in this season, viewers!), El confesses to Mike through her tears. “The gate—I opened it. I’m the monster.” But Mike knows better, and so do we.
El’s powers opened a portal between universes for a creature to slither through, but she’s not the monster. Even that creature, horrifying as it is, isn’t the worst monster of Stranger Things. The monster didn’t have to cross over from some darker dimension. The monster was here all along.
The monster is Brenner, persuading college kids to trade a couple of hundred bucks for the risks of his mind-bending experiments—in Terry Ives’ case, a lifetime of near-catatonia. The monster is Steve’s jealousy and entitlement, blotting out his affection for Nancy and his vacillating sense of decency. The monster is the vindictive rage of a bully, who forces a classmate to jump from the quarry’s cliff by holding his friend at knifepoint. The monster is the blank resolve of a government bureau eager to exploit a gifted child, pushing her to make solitary contact with something unknown, unknowable. As Stranger Things already hinted in the title of “Chapter Two: The Weirdo On Maple Street,” with its nod to a classic Twilight Zone episode, the monster isn’t the thing from another world. It’s us.
“Chapter Six,” written by Jessie Nickson-Lopez and directed by the Duffer brothers, gives the audience the clearest views yet of the literal and figurative monsters—both the bloodthirsty creature from beyond and the darkness in humanity that unwittingly summoned it here. This episode follows the story lines that fragment in “Chapter Five,” so it packs a lot of exposition and positioning, not a lot of thrills. But it nails its character dynamics and its undertone of humor, and is unified and strengthened by a single underlying theme running through.
One simple image drives home the parallel between the alien thing preying on Will Byers and more mundane evil. As Mike and Dustin search for El, Hawkins Middle School’s bullies loom into sight and (in another similarity to Stephen King’s The Body) Troy (Peyton Wich) flicks open a switchblade. As Dustin and Mike run, their bikes fill the foreground. That recalls Hopper’s words from the premiere, the insight that told him Will’s peril was real: “A bike like this is like a Cadillac to these kids.” Will left his bike behind as he fled a monster. So do Dustin and Mike. None of them quite escape.
The writing (and Joe Keery’s half-charmer, half-jerk performance, equal parts James Spader and Ben Schwartz) make Steve more interesting than the cookie-cutter high-school clique leader he seems at first. He has plenty of lousy impulses, but some caring ones, too. He hesitates to get in trouble for the sake of Nancy’s missing friend, but he relents. In this episode, he heads to Maple Street (at least partly) because Nancy “was acting weird, something’s wrong.” And that’s how he sees the scene that brings out the petty monster in him.
When Steve peeks in on Nancy and Jonathan, we don’t from see his perspective. We see him watching them. The shadow of his head against the window occupies almost half of the screen, emphasizing his position outside the window. The panes bar him from them; in a shot from inside, the curtains shut him out on either side. He’s switched places with Jonathan, “the creep.” Now Steve is the voyeur, the outsider looking in.
Despite Nancy’s quippy response to the cashier (“What’re you kids doing with all this?” he asks; she smiles and chirps, “Monster hunting”), these kids aren’t plot delivery systems. They’re smart and bold and driven, but they’re also inexperienced, impulsive, and under tremendous stress. As they load up their supplies (gas can, lighter fluid, a bear trap, ammo), the script gives a hint of their tenuous command of the situation. Nancy marvels at how quickly her priorities have shifted, making high-school dramas trivial… and immediately, they’re jerked back into those trivialities by Steve and his friends slurring their names in spray paint all over town.
It’s not just Stranger Things’ antagonists who harbor monsters inside. Intending to cut short Nancy’s confrontation with Steve, Jonathan escalates it instead, with appalling violence. It’s viscerally horrible to watch Jonathan beat Steve, and frustrating to watch his assault become another plot obstruction. But after Steve belittles Nancy, laughs at Will’s disappearance, and compares Jonathan to his father, it would almost be stranger if Jonathan didn’t blow up.
Lucas and Mike are stubborn, but they both make good arguments. Lucas is a knee-jerk pessimist, but he’s not unreasonable to want to shut out the stranger with telekinetic powers who endangered his life. When they can’t come to terms, Lucas doesn’t give up. Like a true friend—and a hero in the making—he suits up and strikes out to find Will, even if it means facing a monster on his own. And it does. Lucas sees the monster, loading up white vans full of men and weapons, headed for Maple Street.
Nancy starts this series as a distraction and starts this episode being rescued by Jonathan. By the mid-point of “Chapter Six,” she’s the one analyzing what little they know and making a plan to lure the creature. “At least we’ll know it’s coming.” Joyce shows she’s as sharp a detective as Hopper, even with second-hand information. She wants to believe he tracked down Mike’s location, but she doesn’t let hope obscure the evidence. When he mentions a drawing in the cell, she jumps to ask, “Was it good?” It wasn’t, and she knows the disappointing truth: “It wasn’t Will.”
In the best of us, in the worst of times, something triumphs over the monsters inside—the monsters of fear, anger, panic, selfishness. Held at knifepoint by his longtime tormentor, Dustin urges Mike not to jump. “Don’t do it!” he yells over and over, finally adding, “I don’t need my baby teeth!” He doesn’t doubt Troy will make good on his threat; he’s willing to sacrifice himself to save his friend. So is Mike. And El saves them both.
I can’t get enough of El’s Old West gunslinger’s battle stance. Millie Bobby Brown has managed to portray a host of intangible actions without resorting to the usual stock gestures for psychic abilities. That heroic stance suits her, because El isn’t a monster. She’s a little girl brutally fashioned into a deadly instrument, trying to escape the powers that would use her. At the end of “Chapter Six: The Monster,” the monsters are coming for her in their white vans. They’re coming to Maple Street.
- The wide shot of Mike levitating over the quarry does a spectacular job of establishing the scale of the landscape, showing him as a tiny figure against the cliffside. That effect is echoed when El flashes back to her first contact with the creature, as the camera pulls farther and farther back, reducing her to a tiny bright line in a vast sea of black.
- Stephen King corner: If she’s Terry Ives’ missing daughter, El shares more than extraordinary powers with Firestarter’s Charlie McGee. They share an origin story. Like Andy McGee and Vicky Tomlinson, Terry Ives signed up for a college study that fed her hallucinogens and tested the boundaries of human abilities. Like Charlie, El has powers far outstripping the researchers’ expectations. The director of The Shop pushes Charlie to expand her gift, keeping her prisoner and manipulating her with a combination of scant affection and relentless pressure, just as Dr. Brenner does. The similarities (not just to Firestarter, but to Carrie) are so striking, Terry’s sister even namechecks the author to Hopper and Joyce: “You read any Stephen King?” And, as Andy McGee says of Charlie, El is “no more a monster than a kid in an iron lung.”
- Maybe it’s because I was wearing earbuds, making the scare chord more intense, but Nancy’s Carrie-style grab from the tree trunk made me jump even on second viewing.
- The casual cruelty of Jonathan staying out all night without notifying his mother goes unmentioned.
- Dr. Brenner offers empty reassurances to El as she makes contact with a creature he knows nothing about, in a world he knows nothing about: “Now, remember. Whatever it is, it can’t hurt you. Not from here.” If Nancy were there, she’d repeat what she said to Jonathan, who told her they were safe in her house: “We don’t know that.” But the gravest danger to El is already in the room with her. The gravest danger is Dr. Brenner.
- Don’t miss Molly Eichel’s excellent piece on Joyce Byers as an unlikely portrait of maternal love and her place in the grand tradition of bad-ass sci-fi moms.