“It’s probably for his muscles or something,” Max tells El as the two stand over a now-melted ice bath in the Mayfield-Hargrove bathroom. “He works out like a maniac.” Even before El finds the missing lifeguard’s fanny pack and her bloody whistle, we know Billy’s bags of ice are not “for his muscles or something.”
“He likes it cold,” Will Byers told us back in season two, when the was walking around inside Will’s skin. Now Billy likes it cold. And so does Heather (Francesca Reale).
But like any good Nancy Drew mystery (and this title feels straight out of Nancy Drew), “Chapter Three: The Case Of The Missing Lifeguard” is as close as Stranger Things gets to pure procedural: Nancy and Jonathan return to Doris Driscoll’s (Peggy Miley) to investigate the strange rats, Hopper and Joyce break into the DoE’s abandoned underground lab, El and Max bike off into the lightning to follow Billy and his now-missing co-worker. If “The Case Of The Missing Lifeguard” comes off a little glib, that could be the effect of writer William Bridges’ tight plotting; his Black Mirror episodes, “USS Callister” and “Shut Up And Dance,” are more focused on action than on their (swiftly but clearly drawn) characters. But slick or no, Stranger Things is hitting its stride; when the credits rolled, all I wanted was to mash that next episode button.
And “The Case Of The Missing Lifeguard” pulls its weight in character beats, weaving together practical and personal concerns with a weird, delightful mix of realism and slapstick. When Joyce arrives at Hopper’s, armed with all her demagnetized magnets, to recruit him in her hunt for an answer, he lashes out, but he also makes himself emotionally vulnerable. “I think when I asked you out, you got scared. And now you’re inventing things,” he says. “Because God forbid any of us move on!” Hopper couldn’t know that while he was pouring out his heart behind his bedroom curtain, Joyce was already in the shed, “borrowing” his bolt cutters.
Smashing their way into the site of their last battle, where they believe their enemy waits for them again, seems like a dangerous (and painful) way to confront Joyce’s fears. But everyone seems to be seeking out danger without worrying about the consequences. El and Max pedal straight into the storm, lightning striking in the sky above them. Dustin, Steve, and Robin stake out the mall’s rooftop to spy on “evil Russians” without any backup or even a record of where they’ve gone.
Most chilling is Mike’s casual solution to Will’s impassable D&D campaign: burning their outpost and sacrificing themselves to defeat a powerful enemy. As a last-ditch strategy to end a campaign, it’s sensible, even noble. As foreshadowing, it’s ominous. Who will have to sacrifice themselves at the end? Will it be someone we love? Will it be more than one someone? We know the Russian portal to the Upside-Down has a two-person switch.
“You’re destroying everything!” Will yells, his frustration finally erupting. “And for what? So you can swap spit with some stupid girl?”
“El’s not stupid!” Mike yells back, “and it’s not my fault you don’t like girls!”
Mike and Will both take a breath, hearing what Mike said out loud. In the moment, it’s not clear whether Mike means “you don’t like girls yet” or something else, and in the moment, we don’t need to know the answer. Maybe Will knows the answer, maybe he doesn’t. The issue is the obstacle that his friends romances—and his impatience with those romances—puts between him and his peers, his friends, his campaigning party.
The episode’s flashback to the very first D&D game of the series is bittersweet. However young these characters (and actors) look now, they were children when we met them, and as children do, they look impossibly vulnerable.
They looked vulnerable. “Oh, Jesus!” blurts out young Dustin, “we’re so screwed if it’s the demogorgon!” It was the demogorgon, not just in the game but breaking through to their own world, and they were not screwed. They were triumphant. They were powerful. They were together.
It makes sense that Will, stolen, stalked, and occupied by an otherworldly power, is out of step with his old friends, just as it makes sense that El’s handwriting is crabbed and halting and her speech a little stilted after a childhood in the cells of Hawkins National Lab. While Will’s friends were searching for him, he was mired in a nightmare. He isn’t ready to move on… but in a rage, he forces himself to. Will yells and sobs as he smashed down Castle Byers, reducing his childhood to a pile of sticks and sodden memories.
El, who never had a childhood, is getting a crash course in being a teenager—or, at least, a particular kind of teenage girl in 1985. Millie Bobby Brown walks a delicate line between the disciplined child El was and the sometimes giggling, sometimes self-assured teen she’s turning into under Max’s instruction. That means new clothes and sleepovers and Ralph Macchio posters, and it means dramatic break-ups at the mall and high-fives on the bus afterward. But it also means following Max’s lead by rolling her eyes and saying “Geez!” when Hopper bursts into her room. In Joyce’s words, that’s “setting boundaries.”
Joyce isn’t ready to move on; as they walk into Hawkins Lab, she’s yanked into her memories, watching Bob get torn apart all over again. And this time it’s Hopper who’s willing to talk openly about their past and their future. Still in the shadowy halls of Hawkins Lab, he tells Joyce, “It’s important to me that you feel safe. That you and your family feel safe. I want you to feel that this can still be your home.” Hopper knows about her secret plan to sell her house, and he’d like her to stay in Hawkins—so much that he’d even talk about his feelings if it might help.
Nancy Wheeler’s co-workers, that chortling table of men at The Hawkins Post, don’t mean her nickname as a compliment, but she’s living up to Nancy Drew’s rep: making connections and deductions, following unlikely leads, sticking to her case no matter how silly other people think it might be, and looking stylish doing it. Head editor Tom in particular should feel foolish for mocking her, but it doesn’t look like he’ll have time. By the time “the case of the missing fertilizer, a Nancy Drew mystery” has moved on to “The Case Of The Missing Lifeguard,” that lifeguard—his own daughter—has him knocked out and ready to join her. Ready to become what she and Billy are. Ready to build.
- Dustin’s idea of casual covering banter is the stiff, uninflected “Hello. Yes. I am fine. How are you.”
- I had that paperback Russian-to-English dictionary, down to the dogeared pages and chipped cover. When it’s accurate, this show can feel like time travel.
- “Maybe we should just call them?” “We can do that?” “I think so?”
- “Instead of dating someone because you think it’s going to make you cooler, why not date somebody you actually enjoy being around?” Dustin gives the advice I’ve been giving for years now, but he learned it a lot younger than I did.
- Heather’s home, a big white house with gleaming red door and formidable locks, is a riff on the deadly house on Elm Street, though I can’t guess why Stranger Things changed the street number from 1428 to 1438.
- Stranger Things’ visual references have expanded, eschewing the restrictions of genre, era, and artist. Spielberg, a seminal influence on the Duffer brothers and the show’s first season, is still visible in the show’s DNA. But El’s red rain slicker is more likely to be an allusion to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) or David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1985) than to Spielberg’s own Schindler’s List (1993). (It sure isn’t a reference to his 1985 release, The Color Purple.)