As “Chapter Seven: The Bathtub” begins, Mike welcomes El back. Music swells as the two share a moment of silent communion. They lean in, about to kiss. Then Dustin slams open the door. The music cuts out, the moment passes. Mike and El don’t kiss. They’re not alone anymore.
When they unscramble the frantic message Lucas is yelling into his walkie talkie, garbled by his haste and distance, the kids know they really aren’t alone. “They know about Eleven! The bad men are coming!”
“Chapter Seven” (written by Justin Doble, directed by the Duffer brothers) repeatedly invokes trust: the question of who to trust and why. In childhood, trust can be simple. It is for Mike, Lucas, and Dustin. They’ve known each other for years. Along with Will, they’ve waged campaigns, survived adventures by their wits, and defended each other against monsters and warriors. They’re introduced encouraging Will to protect himself at the cost of the party; instead, he tries to protect all of them, knowing it will likely cost him his life.
They have conflicts so frequent that they’ve formalized a protocol for settling them, but there’s a bedrock of trust between them. In “Chapter Six,” unable to reconcile with his best friends, Lucas strikes out on his own in search of Will. But in crisis, he sets aside their differences. Seeing forces mobilize to recapture El, and knowing they’ll have to go through Dustin and Mike to do it, Lucas throws his fate in with theirs unhesitatingly, and not just for the sake of his friends. When El uses her powers—powers that previously he’s only seen her use against him—to flip one of the white vans fishtailing toward them on their quiet suburban streets, Lucas realizes he can trust her. He apologizes without reserve, letting her know she can trust him.
El apologizes, too, in the limited idiom she’s learned from them: “Friends don’t lie. I’m sorry, too.” Mike and Lucas shake hands to seal the peace. The four kids—three longtime friends and an interloper—join forces, trust restored. It’s like they were never apart. Reunited, the boys seamlessly take turns explaining the inexplicable to Hopper, Joyce, Nancy, and Jonathan: the flea and the acrobat, the massive electromagnetic disruption caused by the gate, the trek with their compasses.
Trust isn’t so easy for everyone, but it’s essential. Jonathan’s sure Hopper won’t believe his reason for a trunk full of weapons, traps, and flammables. Hopper’s answer: “Why don’t you give me a try?” It’s the long beat and the level look between them that says the most. Both of them have seen some incredible things, and they’re ready to trust each other. Nancy’s terrified for her brother and her parents, but Hopper convinces her to trust him, too, at least for a while. And despite Dustin’s misgivings (“Lando Calrissian!”), the four children have to trust him, too.
In his longest speech to date, Dr. Brenner tells Ted and Karen Wheeler that Mike is in grave danger. He cracks an unconvincing smile, trying to maneuver them into trusting him even as he insinuates they have little choice. “We want to help him. We will help him, I give you my word. But in order for me to do that, you have to trust me. Will you trust me?”
Dr. Brenner knows how to leverage trust and isolation. The calculated gestures of affection from the man she calls Papa are the closest thing to love El has ever known. Matthew Modine’s chilly, precise performance underlines the deliberate distance Brenner cultivates. When his subject does his bidding—reading minds, hurting animals, traveling to unknown dimensions—she’s rewarded. Her rewards are meager: a potted plant (sure to die soon in the windowless chamber), a stuffed lion, Papa’s admiring gaze and his hands on her head as he murmurs, “Incredible.” That’s not love. It’s fascination, it’s manipulation, it’s avarice. But it’s the only gesture that breaks El’s solitude. While she’s in his care, she’ll perform terrifying feats to earn it.
Joyce Byers is Dr. Brenner’s opposite in every way. Where he’s impassive, commanding, and organized, she’s passionate, frustrated, and impetuous. I’ve had my doubts about Joyce’s characterization, but by “Chapter Four,” I warmed both to the writers’ choices and the actor’s. Joyce is more than another entry in the grand tradition of bad-ass sci-fi moms. She’s a refutation of type.
Winona Ryder has portrayed a wide range of roles, but her presence in Stranger Things’ period-piece pastiche conjures up her most iconic youthful performances, then plays against them. Joyce doesn’t have the glib, privileged ennui of Lydia Deetz and Veronica Sawyer, the faux-worldly air of Girl, Interrupted’s Susanna, or the aimless entitlement of Reality Bites’ Lelaina. She’s introduced with her nerves already frayed, working too hard and anxious about her children. Her son’s disappearance nearly unravels her. She stumbles over her words, she gestures emptily. She’s scrappy and desperate, her eyes always searching. She’s nakedly fretful and excruciatingly earnest.
Above all, she’s loving, she’s trusting, and she’s trustworthy. When everyone else agrees Will is dead, she refuses to forsake him. Knowing she sounds deranged, she asks Hopper for “a little trust.” Retrieving Jonathan from the police, Joyce drives home the theme of “Chapter Seven: The Bathtub” by tearfully telling him, “You act like you’re all alone out there in the world, but you’re not. You’re not alone.”
When Joyce asks El if she can find Will in his nightmare world, I found myself thinking how unfair it is to this child to ask. Raised in captivity, trained as an instrument, constantly pushed beyond the boundaries of her courage and her small frame, she may not know how to say no. We’ve seen Dr. Brenner ask, “Is that okay?” and seen her blench, then resign herself. We’ve seen her channel her energies until she lapses into unconsciousness. We’ve seen her swallow her terror to do what others ask, all without complaint. El will give until she bleeds, and longer. It’s what she was raised to do. It’s all she knows.
Joyce answers that unspoken concern. Frantic to recover her son from a monster’s clutches, she still reaches out with compassion to this strange, powerful child. Thanking El for everything she’s done and will do, Joyce says, “I am going be there with you the whole time. And if it ever gets too scary in that place, you just let me know, okay?” As El loses herself in the darkness of the other plane, Joyce maintains their connection. Her words and her presence echo through the darkness. “Don’t be afraid. I’m right here with you. I’m right here with you.”
Sickly as Will is, he’s bolstered by El’s visit, by the touch of her hand in that in-between—The Upside Down—and by the promise she relays from his mother. “Your mom, she’s coming for you,” El tells Will. “Just hold on a little longer.” And she holds his hand to let him know he’s not alone. The episode ends with Will, wan and weakened, suddenly springing to attention as the creature blasts away the decrepit, diseased mirror-world Castle Byers. Will’s good at hiding, but not good enough. The creature has tracked him. He’s no longer alone.
- “It was a little girl, Chief. A little one.” Troy’s mom might not like the tone Officer Callahan (John Paul Reynolds) takes with her injured son, but just this once, I’m fine with it, and with him.
- The Wheeler kids agree “no more secrets” right before they lie their heads off to each other. Nancy tells Mike she doesn’t like Jonathan. “It’s… it’s not like that.” Mike tells Nancy he doesn’t like El. “What? No! Ew! Gross!”
- “Why are you keeping this curiosity door locked?!” Dustin continues to be the best. That kid is going places, and I mean both Dustin and Gaten Matarazzo. Try not to think about the mechanics of that makeshift flotation-tank scene, like how quickly the water would cool from the optimal temperature.
- 1980s anachronism question: Would Dustin have had a headset in 1983? I never saw one as a kid, and I knew some pretty tech-savvy geeks, but no ham radio enthusiasts. Let me know in the comments!
- Tiny details make big impressions. Notice that the van plowing toward the kids head-on is already dented, subliminally suggesting it won’t hesitate to run them down.
- “Honey, we have to trust them, okay?” Ted Wheeler says as Brenner’s staff clears out their cellar. “This is our government. They’re on our side.” I think even Karen knows Ted’s useless. Please let us have a season two, and please let Karen leave him. I want to see Cara Buono as a bad-ass single mom, too.