Stranger Things Chapter Three, “Holly, Jolly”
There’s a monster in the woods. People are going missing. The government is involved and the walls are starting to talk. But life in Hawkins still has to go on. Football games, teenage love, bullies, and being on time for class. Sure, things seem bad, but surely if the people in the know put in their best efforts, everything will turn out fine. Chapter Three of Stranger Things, “Holly, Jolly,” is all about taking initiative to right wrongs and rescue friends. Sadly, by the end of the hour, we learn the limits of good plans executed with the best intentions.
Susan: Yep, Barb’s dead. Nancy has no idea that while she’s getting down with Steve, her Bestie Barb is being dragged by some terrifying hairless monster man.
Peter: This cold open is the shortest yet, and it’s a super effective way to start the bleakest episode so far. Barb, screaming and clawing her way out of some kind of alternate shadow pool lined with fleshy, vein-like corruption only to be dragged down by a Demogorgon is as overtly horror as this show has gotten. Contrast that with the disenchanting sex happening a whole dimension away and what you get are shivers when the opening titles roll.
Susan: After Nancy and Steve have sex for the first time, Steve passes out face down and gives exactly zero fucks that Nancy’s got to head home, alone. What a Prince Charming. One question: if Barb drove Nancy to Steve’s and Steve’s too caught up in his refractory to give a shit about whether or not she gets home — how does Nancy get back to her place?
I mean, she does eventually get home, and when she does her mother is worried sick. Nancy’s not fooling her mom with her lies about going out to eat. Nancy’s mom, Karen was a young woman once and she knows that a teenaged girl doesn’t wear the sweatshirt of a boy with whom she is just “friends.” Looks like someone might be getting a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves tucked under their pillow.
Peter: Is it possible Nancy walked home? I’m assuming that’s what happened, considering she rambles back to the scene of the nether-crime to look for Barb during the high school football game the next day, Steve’s place must be relatively close. In any case, we spend a lot of time with Nancy this episode, and you know what? She’s great. Dealing with the baggage of sleeping with Steve and the guilt of fifth-wheeling her best friend into trans-dimensional exile, she really rounds out into a compelling character.
Mind For Murder
Peter: Eleven is on her own for the day, with the basement boys giving her instructions to meet at the power lines behind Mike’s house after school for the commencement of Operation: Mirkwood. Mike gives El his digital watch and teaches her to tell time. It’s a cute moment that also serves to show just how alienated she is from real society. She can speak, she knows numbers, but has no concept of time.
On her day off, Eleven experiences two flashbacks, taking us back to her time in the secret lab with her abusive ole Papa. First, triggered by a Coke commercial while channel surfing, we are shown what I think we can assume is the first test of her telekinetic agency, in which she is made to crush a red soda can with her bleeding mind.
Susan: If you’re looking for dramatic flashbacks, Coke Is It!
Peter: I like to think Stranger Things takes place in the Mad Men universe.
Later, after more exploring of the Wheeler house, eleven goes to meet Mike by the power lines and encounters a growling cat. The angry feline’s noises send Eleven’s memories back to a subsequent test that gives credence to Hop’s theory that Hawkins Labs was helping the government stay ahead of the Russians in the Cold War. Hooked up to the brain scanner, eleven is being made to murder a cat with her mind-bullets.
When she refuses to kill the cute kitty, two goons drag El back to her cell, and the test continues, albeit in a less controlled setting. She halts the slamming of her cell door and launches an orderly like a meteorite into the wall, making a crater in the white tile. Before the next guy can take aim with his sidearm, El breaks the man’s spine. Papa, pleased with El’s demonstration of psychic power, embraces her and carries her, bleeding from her ears and nose, from the cell into the white hall.
Susan: It’s obvious Eleven has had nothing close to a normal childhood. There’s an endearing moment when she snoops in Nancy’s room, looking through her things with a wide-eyed curiosity.
Her freakish upbringing is debated amongst Dustin, Lucas, and Mike. Was she born with these powers like The X-Men, or did she acquire them like Green Lantern? Lucas doesn’t care, dismissing her as a “freak.” But like Mike points out, The X-Men were considered freaks too. Will was also considered a freak— mostly because of his perceived sexual orientation. His own father used to call him a “fag.” When the two archetypal bullies come around, one even says his father supposes Will was murdered by another “fairy.” The 80’s might have been cool for it’s music scene and high top sneakers, but let’s not forget the homophobia that, although still pervasive today, caused pain and suffering to millions.
Another person that could be considered a freak is Will’s brother Jonathan who gets caught with his photos of the pool party/teenaged sex fest. Steve breaks his camera in retaliation. Nancy watches in horror as her bf goes all alpha male on poor Jonathan. Before she leaves, she’s able to spot the snap of Barb Jonathan took of her by the pool.
The strangest Byers in this particular episode might actually be Joyce.
Peter: Joyce has to put on a happy face when Karen Wheeler shows up with Baby Holly and a casserole. Having just finished outfitting her home with slightly too early, slightly too interior, slightly too many Christmas lights, Will’s distraught mom has to entertain Karen when she’d rather be alone, praying to the strange electricity in her living room.
The title of the episode is reminiscent of Joyce’s facade. Nothing is okay in Hawkins right now, especially in her home, but dammit that town is going to pretend it’s all okay if it’s the last thing it does. The whole episode feels like the characters are all in denial, facing the trauma of a recent past that they can’t possibly comprehend, then looking in the mirror and saying, “You can do this.”
After kicking Karen and Holly our of her house, Joyce has a rudimentary conversation with the entity in the lights (that she thinks is Will). A two-blinks for no, one for yes system isn’t detailed enough, so the concerned mother opts for a massive upgrade and turns her living room wall (no pun intended) into a festive Ouija Board. The image is fantastically spooky, especially once it starts working, and while Winona Ryder’s not quite nailing her performance, the scene’s creepy execution makes up for any shortcomings.
She asks the entity where he his. It slowly spells, RIGHT HERE. Overwhelmed, she babbles a bit about what she should do. RUN, says the lights. And then comes the Demogorgon, birthing from the adjacent wall, fleshy and faceless.
This show is really nailing the horror.
Behind The Curtain
Susan: If Hawkins Energy really is Emerald City, then Dr. Brenner is the Great and Powerful Oz. Hop and his team of idiots come to the “Space Laser” factory after finding a piece of cloth — a hospital gown — at the end of a large pipeline that leads into the facility. Obviously this is how our young El escaped, but Hop doesn’t know that. He thinks that it’s how Will made his way in the place. Hop charms his way onto the premises and chats to the head of security who obliges his request to see the security tapes from the nights of the 6th and 7th. But Hop is not going to ignore the man behind the curtain. The night of the 7th is when the torrential downpour halted the search party; however, there is no rain on said tape. This is a horse of a different colour.
Hop and Deputy Powell go to the library because the Internet isn’t a thing yet, to research what they can about Hawkins Labs. As they scroll through microfiche, things start to look macro-fishy with the goings on of one Dr. Brenner.
Peter: Hop’s research pays off in a tonne of delicious conspiratorial data. Through his simultaneous visits to Emerald City and the library we learn the name of the mysterious Papa (Dr. Brenner), that said white haired man was tied to CIA sanctioned ESP experiments involving psychedelic drugs, and that a woman named Terry Ives tried to sue him and his lab for performing tests on her abducted daughter. I’m willing to be that child-turned-sest-subject is everyone’s favourite human-Yoda.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Mike
Susan: “Why did they hurt you?” is the very first full sentence we hear from El, when she asks Mike about the gash on his chin after the bullies pushed him down. “Mouth breathers” answers the embarrassed Mike, who doesn’t want to admit he’s bullied at school. “I understand” responds El, and Mike shoots her puppy love eyes that would make the coldest of us tilt our head to the side and say, D’awwww.
But that affection is short-lived when Eleven brings the group to Will’s house, and points, “Hiding” she says. Will Byers can’t be at his house, he’s missing from his house right? There’s no more time for El to explain before a convoy of police and fire trucks rip up the road. They follow the 911 caravan and end up at the water filled quarry. “Please don’t let it be the kid” Hop says aloud, to no one, to himself. But it is the kid, a tiny slightly bloated body of Will Byers.
Mike is furious with El, for making him believe Will could somehow be alive. He berates her in his moment of grief and fear.
Peter: Joyce, still running from the wall monster encounters Jonathan. They hug, making a silhouette in the headlights of his car, and in the distance we see the flashing lights of a police convoy carrying the worst news Hawkins has seen in 60 years. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we can’t be heroes.
Susan: I agree that Hop is a handsome devil, so it’s no surprise that that ladies love him, but he doesn’t quite love them back. The librarian rightly puts him in his place when she calls him out for never calling him back. It’s a really funny scene.
Peter: I have nothing to add except that I have a crush on Hop like I’ve never had a crush on another Han Solo archetype.
Chekhov’s Wrist Rocket
Peter: How much you want to bet that Lucas actually kills the monster with the “monster killer” rock the kids found after getting bullied by the mouth breather? Is that too unrealistic for even this show?
Susan: These are very daring and capable children, so who knows. Also the fact that Lucas has and arsenal “from ‘Nam” shows that he’s ready to fight, while Dustin is ready to eat with his stash of kiddy foods.
It Knows What Scares You
Susan: How much does Baby Holly following the X-Mas lights down the hallway remind you of the little girl in Poltergeist and the whole “They’re heeerreee” scene? And then when Joyce asked her if she saw something and she’s like, “Yeah.” But we don’t get more than that.
Peter: It’s so evocative I’m willing to call it a direct homage to Poltergeist. And it’s done so well. Even if we’re assuming the light-being is Will, there’s something really threatening about the lights luring Holly away. It’s like Joyce is living inside a giant angler fish.
Peter: Speaking of the light-thing, given that Will’s body showed up just after Joyce was warned, it really is starting to look like the poltergeist is not the missing kid at all. That would be really creepy and in line with the emerging themes of the show, if Joyce just mislabeled some intelligent force her son out of desperation.
Susan: Sometimes we see what we want to see.
…It’s The Best Time of The Year
Susan: Honestly, I thought with the title “Holly, Jolly” that our little wordless friend was also going to get taken by this mysterious monster, then Mike would have to find both his best friend and his little sister. But it looks like the title is just referring to the X-Mas lights.
Peter: Yeah. I was maybe expecting the song “Holly, Jolly Christmas” to score a particularly spooky wall monster scene or something. Still, the festive wall ouija is about as cool an image as I’ve ever seen on Netflix.