Stranger Things Chapter Seven: “The Bathtub”
The bad men are coming. As stakes reach an existential high — with an active MKULTRA test subject on the loose and a transdimensional horror stalking the town, a government shadow agency is determined to clean up an epic-sized PR crisis using lethal force if necessary. It’s time to start sharing information, it’s time to team up with parents and estranged siblings, it’s time to rob an evidence room, destroy an evil utility van, and make a sense-dep tank out of a kiddie pool and rock salt. “The Bathtub” is the penultimate episode of Stranger Things, and it pulls together all the show’s plot threads into one propulsive rope of suspense.
Susan: Mike and Eleven sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-Goddamn it, Dustin!
But I suppose this is no time for romance with Lucas trying to warn the rest of the pack over his HAM radio that the bad men are heading their way. Karen Wheeler’s trying to figure out where the hell Nancy is, and is a little too preoccupied to stop Mike and his friends before they head out to be hunted by heavily armed individuals. “If anyone asks, I’ve left the country,” Mike hilariously, but very seriously, instructs his mom.
Peter: I know we harp on Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler a lot for being so out of touch, but it’s little scenes like this that help illustrate how hidden the whole transdimensional apocalypse conspiracy vibe actually is. With a government shadow army bearing down on our child protagonists and reality as we know it growing scabs and tearing apart, the stakes could not be higher, but at the same time, the adventure book quality depends on the small town life of Hawkins not being completely thrown into mass hysteria.
Susan: The Hawkins Energy vans are in hot pursuit and Lucas joins his cycling companions. They try to shake their tail, but it looks like the kids are about to be roadkill. That is until El intervenes and flips a van barring the bad men from following them any further — for now that is.
All Dr. Brenner can do is give one of his trademark meaningful stares as the kids peddle away.
Peter: It’s kind of odd, but I really feel like the van flip is Stranger Things’ E.T. flying bike moment. The way it’s framed, the fact that it’s a telekinetic escape tactic, the image of El as an unsafe passenger on Mike’s bike — it’s one of the more Spielbergian images in the show despite its lethality. In a way it’s the perfect image to summarize the kids’ plot.
Susan: Speaking of flipping things, Karen is now officially flipping the fuck out when the Department of Energy “Commie Fighting” government officials show up at her doorstep and search the premises. On the other side of the coin, when government officials present Mr. Wheeler with a case file of a girl his son may or may not have been harbouring in his basement without his knowledge, his first question is, “What happened to her hair?”
Peter: To his credit, I think this is the first time I have detected a smidge of humanity in Mike’s dad. When he asks about the hair I feel an air of parental concern, as if he is already jumping to the correct answer: the girl is a victim of horrific abuse. Still, the Wheelers cooperate and the syndicate seized the kids’ board games.
You Are Not Alone
Susan: While the helicopters search for the boys in the air, we see that there’s been nothing even close to helicopter parenting. Joyce and Hop meet Jonathan at the police station where he and Nancy show them the shot they got of the monster and reveal their plan. In this very special episode, Joyce berates her son for thinking he can do this alone.
Peter: It is so satisfying to see the show’s two dynamic duos finally swap notes. It’s the plot equivalent of taping a ripped up photo back together and finding a picture of the demogorgon. Then, after it looks like this new family born of other worldly trauma-bonding finally has everything they need to move forward, a visit from the mouth breather heralds the final piece to the puzzle.
Susan: At first, Hop tries to get rid of knuckle dragging Troy and his indignant mother, but after he hears the magic words “little girl”, “no hair”, and “freaks” he puts the pieces together.
While Mr. Wheeler comforts his wife, “This is our government. They are on our side,” Hop, Joyce, Jonathan, and Nancy all know better. They use Will’s shortwave radio to contact the kids who’ve taken shelter in an abandoned bus. They’re hesitant to answer, especially Dustin who invokes the traitor Lando so much that Lucas has to tell him to shut up with the Star Wars shit already.
For a hot minute there it looks like the bad men with the black cars and three piece suits are going to get them, but it’s Hop to the rescue! It’s a really funny scene where all we hear is the sounds of Hop beating the men up with a “What the–” in there for good measure. Man, Hopper’s really a dream boat isn’t he?
Peter: He is! And to Dustin’s credit, his roguish qualities feel straight out of a galaxy far far away. As a fan of Lost I keep being reminded of Sawyer but that’s only because they’re both cut from the same archetypal cloth (a set of Star Wars sheets). Hopper is a Han Solo through and through.
Hop takes the kids to the Byers’, where everyone of the good guys is able to swap information. Mike shares his string theory notes, and El finds inspiration in the bathroom after failing to contact the upside down without amplification. Our heroes are going to need to build a sensory deprivation tank.
The Doors of Curiosity
Susan: All Mr. Clark wants to do on a Saturday night is explain the mechanics of a scary movie to his gf, but instead he gets a ring-a-ding from ol’Dusty who implores him for the exact directions of how to make a sensory deprivation tank.
Peter: In his persistence, Dustin utters possibly my favourite line from the series, “Why are you keeping this curiosity door locked?”
With the directions all written down, the gang is all set to create their very own Cold-War-grade DIY telepathy amplification device.
Susan: Apparently, middle schools in the 80’s were stocked with all the resources necessary to build said sensory-D tank– except the kiddie pool that is. You’ll have to set that up yourself like Dustin does– with the rage and impatience of a man in his 50s.
Peter: The montage of applied science was a much needed sequence of excitement and joy. The episode has been really intense, so for the creation of the titular bathtub to be grounded so much in the spirit preteen discovery was a big relief. Dustin testing the buoyancy of the water with an egg, succeeding, and winning pats on the back from his comrades is the stuff of pure childhood nostalgia—the kind of image I associate with that age even though I’ve never actually built a sense-dep tank for a legit psychic in a middle school gymnasium.
Into The Void
Peter: The plan works. Floating in the kiddie pool in Nancy’s dress, wearing duct tape covered safety goggles to turn off her sight, Eleven accesses the great void through which she can project her mind. The effect is still powerful, seeing Millie Bobby Brown standing over top of her reflection in a completely black expanse is one of the more iconic images in Stranger Things, made all the more powerful by the variation of her wardrobe in this particular instance (it’s the first time we see her in the void in a dress and not her MKULTRA onesie).
On her otherworldly mission, she takes us to see Barb’s body, confirming her death. Is that a transdimensional slug sticking out of her mouth or her bloated, corrupted tongue? And if this is her real body and not some psychic representation of death, does it mean the monster isn’t eating its victims?
Susan: My vote is that this monster sucks out its victims insides and then deposits eggs/offspring, using said body as an incubator. But, you know, I’m not a scientist.
Peter: How very Alien of it. In any case, after receiving some super heartwarming surrogate mothering from Joyce, Eleven she goes onward, finding the psychic internet address for Castle Byers, and in it a shivering, singing Will Byers. His call for help relays off of El and into the walkie-talkie in the gym, bridging worlds and soliciting shivers.
Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
Susan: Now that they know that this monster is capable of killing folks and Will is barely alive, all the individuals over the age of 16 leave the children to fend for themselves. Honestly, they should all move as a group instead of leaving the incapacitated El and her three emotionally exhausted friends alone, but you know, Hop and Joyce are dead set on breaking into the Energy Plant where all the evil shit comes from, and Jonathan and Nancy are stealing their monster hunting supplies from the motherfucking police station – so you know, maybe these are the most responsible people to have around? I mean the Hawkins Four do have each other.
One who is truly alone is the gaunt looking Will Byers who sings his favourite The Clash lyrics right before the monster breaks through the walls of this alternative universe’s Castle Byers. Looks like he should have gone, not stayed.
Susan: Dustin’s Castroville Artichoke Festival T-Shirt is outta this world.
Peter: Dusty’s wardrobe is always on point. Did you get a load of the rad tie he wore to Will’s funeral?
Susan: He’s just so cool.
Some Kind of Hypnotist
Susan: Dr. Brenner has a staring problem. Karen Wheeler is totally on point when she says that man gives her the creeps. It’s like he wants to so be like the test subjects he’s manipulated to do things with their minds that he tries to do it himself and it just comes off as weird.
Peter: Dr. Brenner is a very strange man, and he’s made all the more intriguing thanks to the show’s withholding of him. I feel like I know his reputation more than I know him, so whenever he’s in a scene all I keep finding myself being like, “This is the guy who used LSD on kids and is actually a creepy hippie in addition to being a mad scientist.”
A Family That Makes Sense Dep Tanks Together…
Susan: It’s a very cute moment when Nancy and Mike are able to reconnect. It gets harder to stay close with your siblings as you enter the tumultuous time that is puberty, but Nancy just thought Mike was acting weird because of Will and Mike thought Nancy was just acting weird because of Steve.
The two promise to never keep secrets from one another again, that is right before they lie to each other: Mike denies his affection for El, and Nancy hers for Jonathan.
Peter: The immediate contradiction almost feels a little too on the nose, and would be if it weren’t so true to the characters. Of course Nancy and Mike will be closer, but neither is honest to themselves in terms of what their respective hearts want.
The Freckled Face of Evil
Peter: Steve finally ditched Tommy and Carol in this episode, leaving them without a ride home from the convenience store. I was pretty happy to see Steve start on a path to redemption, but man was a creeped out by Tommy. I’m getting very season two-sized problem vibes off of that guy. If this show does come back for another eight episodes, I’m interested to see this conflict come back into play.