Noah Schnapp, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Sadie Sink, Caleb McLaughlin
Photo: Netflix
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This is a code red!

“You can stop this,” Tom (Michael Park), editor of The Hawkins Post, pleads with his daughter as he waits, bound, next to his sobbing wife.

“There is no stopping it, Daddy,” Heather tells him gently. “You’ll see.”

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Heather’s right. “Chapter Four: The Sauna Test” isn’t Stranger Things at its best, but it’s an unstoppable episode overloaded with action. The kids are back together and investigating the Big Bad! Code red! The Russians are coming to Starcourt Mall! Code red! Mrs. Driscoll is pulling at her restraints and convulsing, her skin livid! Code Red! HOPPER IS NEKKID AND JOYCE SAW HIM! Code red, code red, CODE RED!

In the midst of all this danger and excitement, it’s easy to miss: In a cruel way, “The Sauna Test” gives Will exactly what he wanted from the season’s beginning. He’s back with his friends. No one is splitting off into pairs, no one’s giggling and holding hands. And everyone is listening to Will.

“He’s back,” Will said in “Chapter Three: The Case Of The Missing Lifeguard.” It takes a lot of exposition to explain how the Mind Flayer could be in Hawkins after the harrowing battle that closed last season, and closed the portal to its realm. “The Sauna Test” puts Will back in the role of Dungeon Master, spinning a story for his assembled friends. “The Mind Flayer likes to hide,” he tells them. “He only used me when he needed me.”

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It’s a turning of the tables, in a way. El has long been the authority on the world beyond; she’s a psychic so powerful, she can use her talents for sport. She can spy on her friends wherever they are, or even on her friends’ boring parents, if she chooses. And under Max’s tutelage, she’s feeling freer than ever. “I make my own rules,” she tells Mike as they assemble their plan to capture Billy.

At first, I thought their trap was over the top, with a taunting voice calling for “Billlly.” (Did anyone else flash on Keifer Sutherland calling “Michaelllllll in The Lost Boys?) But maybe it shows Max’s insight into her brother, however much of her brother is left in there. Long before he’s taken over by the Mind Flayer, Billy showed himself to be not just volatile, but violently short-fused. It’s possible that a teenager’s lilting ridicule is just the bait to short-circuit Billy Hargrove’s caution and lure him into the sauna.

So far, Billy has been a posturing tough, a cruel narcissist who occasionally smooths down his rough edges to charm the adults around him. It’s a fun pivot to see Dacre Montgomery play new facets of this volatile character, especially the surprising menace of his blank-eyed boredom as Billy and Heather prepare her parents for sacrifice. But ultimately, the fight between Billy and El feels like many, many introductory bouts we’ve seen before in popular culture: a showy, destructive attack with no meaningful consequences. It’s a big set piece with little payoff.

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Between Will briefing his friends, throwing around words like host and dormant and activated, and the episode’s whip-fast fights, “The Sauna Test” often lapses into a generic sci-fi/action tone. It’s engaging, even thrilling at times, but less emotionally resonant than Stranger Things’ usual glowing nostalgic pastiche. Worse, though Will’s knowledge makes narrative sense, the more often he gets goosebumps and whispers things like “he’s activated” to his friends, the more he seems like a super-secret decoder ring instead of a character.

Even Erica gets in on the action-movie action, with her (very remunerative) vent crawl, reminiscent of everything from Alien to Alias to Die Hard, and her triumphant appearance at the secret room’s door as deserved as Mr. Clarke’s hero’s entrance.

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Priah Ferguson: “FREE ICE CREAM FOR LIFE!”
Screenshot: Netflix

Hopper and Joyce’s visit to City Hall is a different genre of action, and even more confident than the kids’ adventures. Hopper’s back in his Magnum P.I. shirt, and he’s bashing heads like Magnum at his grittiest. “I know, I know, you’re busy. I’m going to make this fast, I promise,” he promises Mayor Kline, and it does happen fast, so fast that the mayor’s receptionist barely has time to reach for the phone. Not that it would help; yanking out the phone cord, Joyce asks rhetorically “Who you calling? The police?” She’s always looking for extra notes in Joyce’s performance, but with a line reading like that, Winona Ryder could have made a living in vaudeville.

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Amid all this action, the episode still makes time for emotional connection—a connection that also forward the larger plot. Cara Buono, so long submerged in this role, gets a chance to shine when Nancy Wheeler confides in her mother at the end of a long day. Karen’s voice starts out comforting, but as she talks about the indignities the world will pile upon us, her gaze turns inward, until she’s clearly talking her own losses, the ambitions and dreams that got knocked out of her at Nancy’s age. “This world, it beats you up again and again until I—most people, they just stop trying. But you’re not like that. You’re a fighter.” Karen doesn’t know how true that is. But she knows her daughter. I hope Karen learns a lesson from Nancy; we’ve been waiting too long to see bad-ass single mom Karen Wheeler.

And I can’t fault the episode’s ending, which exchanges all the episode’s frantic action for eerie, uneasy stillness. It looks like Heather is right, from the beginning of “Chapter Four: The Sauna Test” to the end. Tom and Janet can’t stop their daughter from feeding them to the Mind Flayer. And in this face-off, El couldn’t even stop Billy, much less the legions of his ilk he and Heather are assembling in the old steel plant.

Stray observations

  • Lucas comes to the rescue with his Wrist Rocket once again!
  • It’s impossible to tell whether Larry Kline is a member of the Mind Flayer’s secret army or if he’s just corrupted by capitalism.
  • “Is it just me or did the room move?” I hesitate to ruin an early surprise in this 1997 Canadian horror movie by comparison; click at your own risk.
  • The mayor’s wife is, of course, one of the big-haired, swivel-hipped Jazzercisers from Starcourt Mall.

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