The Familiar Is Still Fun in 'Stranger Things 3' Episode 4 (RECAP)
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for the Stranger Things Season 3 "Chapter Four: The Sauna Test"]
By the halfway point of a series, I can usually tell if I'm enjoying what I'm watching. But when it comes to Stranger Things, I find it hard to judge. It's one of those shows where you basically know what you're going to get. In this case, lots 80s nostalgia, genre pastiche, supernatural weirdness, and battles between good and evil. It's never truly surprising because we've seen it all before, both within the series itself and the movies that inspired it. But, in a way, that predictability is comforting, and when done right, it can be highly entertaining popcorn TV.
I think Season 3 is doing it right. It's certainly better than the second season which just felt like a rehash of Season 1 but on a bigger scale. The story beats are still familiar here, as demonstrated in this episode, which contains many of the elements which attracted so many to Stranger Things in the first place. But it doesn't feel like a straight-up copycat of previous narratives. There is a lighter touch, helped by the summer setting and shopping mall brightness, but also in the dialogue and music choices. Yes, there are still gruesome monsters and dark corridors, but there is just enough of a tweak to the formula that makes it somehow seem fresh.
"The Sauna Test" is the perfect example of what I'm talking about. Firstly, you have half the party back together and fighting evil. That means Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) gets more urgency in the story. He knows how the Upside Down operates, and so becomes a valuable part of the group dynamic rather than a gooseberry. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) also gets to use her powers for more than just slamming doors, as she's forced into another bloody-nosed showdown with the Mind Flayer (in the form of Billy Hargrove). It's a scene we've seen before, though admittedly not at a sauna, but it's exciting, primarily because the Flayer is now controlling a villainous character, rather than the innocent Will.
Secondly, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is back to his badass self, strutting around town looking like Tom Selleck in Magnum, P.I. and sticking his fist in the face of authority. He has a violent run-in with the sleazy town mayor, Larry Klein (Cary Elwes), and finds out that the Russians not only own the Starcourt mall but are buying up more land and property in Hawkins. Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), who is becoming a cunning detective in her own right, figures out that one of those properties is probably the source of the electromagnetic field causing the magnets to fall off her fridge. The Hopper and Joyce relationship is tried and tested, but it just works, especially as Joyce becomes more assertive.
The Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) and Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) dynamic is still reliably entertaining too, and the addition of Robin (Maya Hawke) gives it that little extra pep. Robin gets her hands on the blueprint plans of the mall and works out that there is an air vent leading to the guarded warehouse. The trouble is, none of them are small enough to fit in the vent, despite their best efforts ("Shove my butt; I don't mind!" Dustin orders Steve). Enter Erica Sinclair (Priah Ferguson), Lucas' sassy little sister, who offers her services in exchange for free ice cream ("for life"), while talking up the pros of capitalism. There's some funny stuff here, even if Erica is veering towards smart-ass kid caricature, and the group winding up trapped in an elevator is sure to provide classic sitcom-style hijinx.
Nancy Wheeler's (Natalia Dyer) story is strong too, mostly because of the undercurrent about women not being respected in the workplace; prevalent in the mid-80s, but still tragically relevant today in some circles. She and Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) get fired from the Hawkins Post for ignoring orders not to pursue the rat story. Jonathan blames Nancy for what happened and calls her out for "living in a bubble." He's massively missing the point, which seems to be a running theme with the men this season (Mike & Lucas and their "women are different species" talk, Hopper's jealousy over Joyce visiting Scott Clarke). "You don't understand what it's like," Nancy tells Jonathan, not just speaking for herself, but for womankind in general.
"The world beats you up again and again, so most people just stop trying," Karen Wheeler (Cara Buono) tells her daughter, sounding like she's speaking from her own life experience. We rarely get to see Nancy and her mother bonding one-on-one like this, so it's a welcome scene in an otherwise flashy, action-packed episode. Karen urges Nancy to keep fighting and following the story; if only to shove it in the faces of those "s**theads" at the Hawkins Post. And so that's exactly what Nancy does. She visits the hospital where she finds Doris Driscoll in full-on, vein-popping monster-mode.
There's a moment early in the episode when Will describes the feeling he gets when the Mind Flayer is nearby. "You know like when you drop on a rollercoaster?" he asks. "Yeah," the group replies (apart from Eleven, who responds with a beautifully deadpan "No."). Well, that's the feeling I get from Stranger Things Season 3. Most of us know that feeling of the drop on a rollercoaster. We know exactly what to expect. There will be loops and twists and turns and probably some motion sickness. But just because we know what's coming doesn't make the rollercoaster any less thrilling. Right now, I'm enjoying the Stranger Things ride.
-The Mind Flayer's army is really coming together. As I said before, very Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
-Steve thinks that he can take out the armed guard. It's funny how even though he's walking around in a sailor's outfit, Steve is still hanging onto his high school jock image "Have you ever actually won a fight?" Dustin asks him. He has a point.
-Larry the mayor straight up calls the Terminator-looking Russian "Arnold Schwarzenegger". A little too on the nose.
Stranger Things, Streaming, Netflix